Tuesday, 6 March 2018

It seemed like a Good Idea at the Time...

It really did. As noted in the last post, I have been feeling rather demoralised lately. When I saw that my colleague, Serena Roney-Dougal. was giving a talk at the Society for Psychical Research, I naively thought that a day in London would be a fun diversion.

I also twisted the arm of a friend of mine, A, who had also been having a hard time lately.
"I need someone to drive me into Peterborough, anyway," I said on the phone, the weekend the talk was booked.

Then the 'Beast from the East' arrived. A very frightening temperature anomaly in the arctic dumped a large amount of snow in the British Isles. The week before, things had been bright, warm and even springlike. Suddenly, we were in the arctic.

The morning came: snow on the ground, frozen solid and a very chill wind for the UK. However, the roads seemed passable and A was up for the trip if I was. As we set off, it started snowing again. We got to town and the A15 was closed off. There had been a fatality on that road two days previously, but we suspected that the snow ploughs were clearing more snow off the road. We diverted, heading along a treacherous country road in the direction of the A1.

The nadir of the trip was probably when we arrived at a large truck stop close to the junction leading to the motorway, because the windscreen was grimy and the car had run out of wiper fluid. It was still snowing. We parked amongst huge behemoths and I tried, futilely, to clean the windows with my woolly hat (this expedition being woefully under equipped).

We debated turning back. Actually, that was me: A seemed laid back about the whole thing, allowing for nicotine supplies.

The A1, however, was mostly clear and we got to Peterborough without incident. Many of the trains  to King's Cross had been delayed or cancelled, but they're frequent, so we didn't have any real problems getting in.

Everyone in London, however, looked miserable, cold and stooped. I was not surprised because I was feeling pretty much the same.

We got to Kensington, and the V & A. After A had had another fag and I'd finished my latte, we entered the museum. Here are some of the things we saw.

Georgina contemplates her iPhone for eternity. I beleive she is playing Candy Crush Saga.

This Saxon god also sells hand-made wheels on eBay.

This automaton of a tiger mauling an English soldier tells us exactly what Tipu Sultan of South India thought of the East India Company....

The Hindu God Shiva Nataraja demonstrates aquafit moves....

This creepy Victorian Doll probably shouldn't be let near sharp objects....

This Japanese theatrical mask was also used in staring competitions....

Chinese Buddha. Enough said!


These days, the Society for Psychical Research is located at Vernon Mews, so the nearest tube is West Kensington. There is also a wide, main road to cross, and that day it was like a wind tunnel: my hair felt like it was being blow dried in a freezer. The pavements were also treacherous and rather slippery.

Trudging across snow (really), we reached the SPR and were greeted by the secretary. It was interesting to see how much they'd settled in: when I'd last visited in 2016 half the books were still in boxes. The library has one of the biggest collections of books on parapsychology and the paranormal in the UK. It's always very entertaining to look through these, and we found a big volume that was published recently showing Victorian 'spirit photography' and various scenes from physical mediumship.

I'm afraid to say that none of these look very convincing: the 'ectoplasm' is generally cheesecloth, the 'spirit materialisations' are obviously people wrapped in sheets and there are even ghostly images which look like photos from magazines surrounded in cotton wool. There was one especially strange image of the naked chest of a medium with 'ectoplasm' (cheesecloth) spread across her breasts. All in the name of science, you know....

The talk was very enjoyable. Serena discussed the history of magic, shamanism and witchcraft, suggesting links with parapsychological research. Serena has accepted the existence of psychic phenomena since she was a child growing up in Scotland: she cited an incident where a painting fell over, and her mother announced that one of her aunts 'must have died.' Sure enough, a few days later, they received a black-bordered telegram.

She went on to discuss the history of magic and witchcraft in Europe, beginning with the oracles of Greece and the Persian Magi (astrologers) mentioned in the Bible. She then discussed the period of witchcraft trials, when many practicing wise women and witches were driven underground. There's a lot of debate over this period in history and its nature; a useful recent resource is Ronald Hutton's The Witch.

Serena suggested that this fear was eventually replaced after the Enlightenment by ridicule. She pointed out that this process of marginalisation continues today, as globalisation is accompanied by a 'miasma of skepticism.'

Finally, she discussed some of her work with Tibetans in South India, under the auspices of the Dalai Lama. This involved psi testing Tibetan monks, as Tibetan culture accepts the existence of paranormal phenomena, and the claim is that those adept at meditation (we're talking twenty or thirty years training plus) get better at telepathy, etc.

What do I make of all this? The first thing to remember is that secular culture is almost unique in denying and denigrating this side of human experience: pretty much every traditional culture has supernatural beliefs and practises. A cursory read of the anthropological data shows that things like spirit possession, divination, apparitions and apparent 'extraordinary knowing' are widespread social, cultural and psychological realities at the very least.

However, it is very hard to determine how many genuine anomalies exist in this large body of data. Undoubtedly, many strange experiences that people have can been explained in conventional terms: this is the task of anomalistic psychology, to examine what's not psychic but looks like it. As to the genuine reality of psi phenomena....

Last year I mentioned, in the context of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, John Ziman's idea that science operates by sorting reliable knowledge from unreliable. Things like Newtonian physics, the idea that the Earth goes round the sun and muscle sliding filament theory in biology are reliable knowledge. Parapsychological data, by contrast, is generally unreliable and it is difficult to know anything with a high degree of certainty. This suggests that a generally agnostic attitude is possibly healthiest.

There is little doubt, however, that many academics find the topic of psi deeply threatening. For example, during the recent furore over Daryl Bem's presentiment experiment, one commentator suggested that currently conventional statistical techniques in psychology might have to be abandoned to prevent parapsychological claims gaining a foothold. This seems to me quite an extreme response, but it's by no means rare.

One book I've found very helpful in understanding this extreme reaction is George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal. He points out that:

"....the paranormal and supernatural are ambiguous and marginal in virtually all ways: socially, intellectually, academically, religiously, scientifically and conceptually. They don't fit in the rational world." (p. 24).

Hansen uses Max Weber's writings on rationalisation and the marginalising of the supernatural to make sense of this. Weber wrote that a large part of modernisation involved the 'disenchantment of the world.' That is, relegating the numinous and supernatural to the margins of social consciousness and eventually denying its existence: exactly the process of which Serena spoke.

The talk over, we made our way home. This was actually quite straightforward, and there were no serious delays on the train. The A15 was also clear, and almost empty at eleven at night, although the snow ploughs had pushed aside a number of thick drifts.

There followed a general collapse and fairly deep sleep....


  1. Thanks for this account, Matt, and especially the humorous captions to the pictures!

  2. I have attempted to refute Wikipedia criticisms of parapsychology in a project that has been deleted, but is archived here: archive.is/ihAcp, and has been praised in personal correspondence by psychical researchers like Alan Guald and Trevor Hamilton.

    1. Braude's article on eyewitness testimony is also relevant: https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/eyewitness-testimony-analysis

  3. Ancient Sounds: No problem, glad you enjoyed it!
    Ben Stiegmann: Thanks for the links. I'm aware of wikipedia's biases on the parapsychology front, and do not use it for reference. I've read Braude's article, too, which is interesting, thanks!