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Physical Mediumship - A Classic Case

by Stephen E. Braude

Richard Wiseman's Critique of the Feilding Report Refuted

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Stephen Braude


The case of Eusapia Palladino is a classic example of psychokinesis by a medium. Eusapia's powers were investigated and found genuine by Sir Oliver Lodge in 1895. Further convincing evidence followed from a series of experiments by distinguished Italian scientists including the criminologist, Professor Lombroso at Turin, Dr. Enrico Morselli, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry (mental therapeutics), in the University of Genoa, and Doctors Herlitzka, C. Foa, and Aggazzotti, with Dr. Pio Foa, Professor of Pathological Anatomy also present, at Turin. These investigations were all carried out under laboratory conditions and yielded positive conclusions. In 1908, three members of the S.P.R., the Hon Everard Feilding, Mr. W. W. Baggally and Mr. Hereward Carrington were commissioned by the Society to carry out another serious investigation with this medium. Again, the conclusions were positive.
In this edited extract from his book, Stephen Braude refutes the criticisms levelled at the Feilding report by the media skeptic, Dr Richard Wiseman.


The Naples Report
I realize that the reader’s response to the 1908 Naples report cannot be as profound as the experiences of the investigators themselves. No report can produce conviction as deep as that engendered by a compelling first-hand confrontation with observable PK. Of course, even the best observers can overlook things in the excitement of the moment. That is why it often helps to distance oneself from the events in question and consider the usual possibilities of malobservation, chicanery, etc. But because humans are fallible, every eyewitness account can be challenged retrospectively. The only interesting question is whether there is good reason actually - not just theoretically-to challenge the account. At some point, in the case of every piece of testimony, we must decide whether the observer is reliable, and we cannot withhold our confidence simply because mistakes are possible. In fact, every observation claim is conditionally (rather than categorically) acceptable, and our decision whether or not to accept a particular claim depends on various factors.

For present purposes, the most important of those factors are: (a) the capabilities of the observer, (b) the nature of the object allegedly observed, and (c) the means of observation and the conditions under which the observation occurred.

In judging the reliability of reports of paranormal phenomena, we weigh these factors differently in different cases. But in general, it matters (a) whether the observers are trained, sober, honest, alert, subject to flights of imagination, and fortunate enough to have good eyesight, (b) whether the objects are too small to see easily, whether they are easily mistaken for other things, or whether they are of a kind whose existence cannot be assumed as a matter of course (e.g., unicorns, UFOs), and (c) whether the objects were observed close at hand, with or without the aid of instruments, whether they were stationary or moving rapidly, etc., whether the observation occurred under decent light, through a dirty window, in the midst of various distractions, etc.

Observers in the Eusapia Case
For the reasons noted above, I consider the best testimony in Eusapia’s case to be reliable. The observers were honest, experienced, well prepared, and alert for (actually, expecting) trickery. In fact, they were as competent as one could hope for. Moreover, the phenomena reported were not difficult to observe, the observations were made under conditions that ranged from adequate to good, and the phenomena observed were not antecedently incredible or without precedent. But it is still all too easy for skeptics to cast doubt retrospectively on these reports, usually by ignoring the reasons for having confidence in the testimony and by raising the mere theoretical possibility of error under the conditions that actually prevailed.

Wiseman's Approach
A recent example of this approach is a paper by Wiseman (1992), which calls attention to various details omitted from the Feilding report of the 1908 Naples sittings, and then suggests (in light of those omissions) that an accomplice might have helped Eusapia produce most of the phenomena reported by the “Fraud Squad.” Wiseman’s paper sparked an extended and often acrimonious exchange (see Barrington, 1992, 1993; Martínez-Taboas and Francia, 1993, 1994; Wiseman, 1993a-d). His reexamination of the Feilding report has the avowed aim of helping parapsychologists learn more about how to conduct and report case investigations. And to his credit, Wiseman does unearth some interesting and previously unnoticed or unheralded details and omissions from the report. But on the whole, Wiseman’s critique strikes me as just another glib exercise in skeptical dialectic, presented in the usual insincere guise of concern for the naive researchers in parapsychology. A few comments should illustrate why.

First of all, Wiseman’s general concern seems transparently disingenuous. He writes, “present-day investigators stand to learn several important methodological lessons from the shortcomings of the [Feilding] Report” (1993d, p. 210). But in fact, there seems to be only one methodological lesson that Wiseman draws from his study (although he offers different formulations of it), and that lesson is so obvious as to be vacuous. In summing up his original paper, he claims that his analysis “has demonstrated the clear need for investigators to be able to design, and report, research in such a way that the opportunity for retrospective accusations of deception is minimised” (1992, p. 150). A few paragraphs later, he says, “the lesson to be learnt is that the reporting of such studies needs to be complete and extremely accurate” (1992, p. 151). And in conclusion he claims that the “central lesson” of his analysis is that “investigations should be...carried out, and reported, in such a way as to minimise retrospective counter-explanations” (1992, p. 151).

Considering how trite this “lesson” is, one is tempted to think that Wiseman must surely have intended to make a more substantive claim. But it is unclear what that might be. The only alternative I can extract from his critique, which at least avoids the banality of the claims quoted above, is preposterous. Wiseman frequently makes a different sort of comment, an apparent variant of his claim above that reports should be “complete and extremely accurate.” The following are representative samples. “In order to be quite sure that an effect is truly paranormal, it is essential that any investigation guards against all possible ‘normal’ explanations” (1992, p. 150). “Before declaring any phenomenon ‘inexplicable’, it is vital to make sure that testimony relating to that phenomenon is both complete and reliable” (1993a, p. 26).

First, I should note that there are, obviously, practical and aesthetic constraints on how complete any report should be. In fact, there is good reason, when reporting on a case investigation, to omit details that (if included) would add considerably to the tedium of reading a report, especially if (a) the report is as long as the Feilding report, (b) the investigators are (like the Naples trio) good at their job and know what to look for, and (c) one assumes (naturally, and as Crookes did) that readers will give the investigators credit for enough common sense to check on obvious matters not mentioned in the report.

But quite apart from that issue, one would think it is too obvious to mention that no record of a séance (or, arguably, any event) can be complete, whether the record be verbal, auditory, or visual. One would like to think that Wiseman recognizes this and accordingly would not want to demand that experimenters attain an impossible degree of completeness in their reports. And in fact, when challenged, Wiseman seems to retreat from that absurdly strong position. When Martínez-Taboas and Francia (1993) question Wiseman’s advice, quoted above, that investigators guard “against all possible ‘normal’ explanations,” Wiseman concedes that “I do not believe...that any investigation will be able to counter all possible normal explanations” (1993c, p. 131). Similarly, he notes that “I do not believe that any investigation has been, or will be, completely fraud-proof” . But in order to explain what position he does hold, Wiseman simply reasserts the trite advice noted above. He writes, “I...believe that investigators have a duty to design their studies to minimize the possibility of subject deception to the best of their knowledge at the time. (1993c, pp. 130-131). And again, “I...believe that parapsychologists should at least try to design research projects that minimize the plausibility of [normal] explanations” (p. 131). It is no wonder Wiseman’s critics did not find his advice especially insightful.

Wiseman again seems disingenuous when he claims that he does not require investigations of psychics to be fraud-proof. For example, he worries that because “Feilding did not describe the appearance of Baggally’s ceiling...it is dangerous to assume...that it could not have housed a trap door” (1993a, p. 21). Similarly, he writes, “the controls described by the investigators would not have prevented the use of an accomplice and so such an accomplice could have been there. This potential for an accomplice is damning to the Feilding Report” (1993d, p. 212). One would think, then, that no amount of prose could dispel the sorts of concerns Wiseman expresses. The mere potential for fraud of one kind or another can never be ruled out by any written account. So if Wiseman regards that as damning to a case report, then he does insist on the absurdly strict criterion of completeness mentioned earlier, despite his protestations to the contrary and subsequent retreat to banalities.

And that retreat to a merely useless position is facilitated by a convenient ambiguity in Wiseman’s prose. The reader cannot be sure whether Wiseman is concerned about possibilities or probabilities. I agree only that it would be foolish (not dangerous) to assume that the ceiling could not house a trap door or that Eusapia could not have employed an accomplice. But those would be foolish assumptions no matter what Feilding or anybody else had written. The issue is not whether the existence of a trap door (or the use of an accomplice) is empirically possible. Rather, it is whether, given what the report states and what we know about the expertise, attitudes, honesty, preparedness, and thoroughness of the investigators, there is any reason to believe that a trap door existed (or that an accomplice aided Eusapia). Hasty and uncritical assumptions about that question might, indeed, lead to trouble. Nevertheless, I suggest that the answer to the question, for reasons already surveyed, is (quite obviously) “no.”

Other Evidence
In the case of the 1908 Naples sittings, if one had nothing to go on but the words in the reports themselves, one might be justified in adopting a more skeptical position. But quite apart from other decent evidence provided by other experienced investigators, one knows enough about the competence and critical attitudes of the Naples trio to be confident that they took obvious precautions not mentioned in the report. Wiseman offers no reason to think that the trap door (or accomplice) hypothesis is anything other than a mere theoretical possibility, and he has given no reason to distrust the informed judgment of the investigators (three experienced debunkers of fraudulent mediums). He has merely drawn attention to the sorts of inevitable lacunae that exist in even the best reports.

Burden of Explanation
Wiseman also seems to adopt the unacceptable strategy of placing the burden of explanation entirely on the shoulders of those who argue for the paranormality of the phenomena. For example, in his exchanges with Barrington (Wiseman, 1993a, 1993d; Barrington, 1992, 1993), Wiseman admits that he offers no explanation for the cold breezes emanating from Eusapia’s forehead. But apparently he thinks he can thereby cast doubt on the phenomenon by noting simply that “seemingly inexplicable phenomena do not falsify the accomplice hypothesis (1993d, p. 211). But it seems to me that the burden of proof in connection with the Feilding report falls on the skeptic, who must show that fraud is likely, not merely (and trivially) empirically possible. Had the investigators been biased in favor of the phenomena, or less experienced, prepared, competent, honest, and familiar with conjuring, and had the phenomena occurred under less favorable conditions of observation, the burden of proof would have shifted, appropriately, away from the skeptic. Most of Wiseman’s critique is a variant of a disreputable type of skeptical attack on formal experiments in parapsychology. The general strategy is to argue that the description and procedures of the experiment do not rule out the possibility of fraud. Hence (so the argument goes), the reported results are suspect.

The Proper Response
Obviously, the proper response to that argument is to note that no experiment in any branch of science precludes all possibility of fraud. So that cannot be a reason to reject an experimental report. The issue is not whether fraud was possible, but whether there are good reasons for thinking it was actual. The same points apply, mutatis mutandis, to Wiseman’s critique. Of course (as we have seen), when pushed, Wiseman backtracks and maintains that he does not require reports to eliminate all possibility of fraud. But for reasons already noted, that claim seems to be both false and insincere. Oddly, in an attempt to justify his concern about the reliability of the Feilding report, Wiseman mentions Carrington’s failure to recall that the control of Eusapia during some table levitations was actually better than he had noted at the time and recalled the next day. Feilding wrote, two weeks later, that the experimenters had tied Eusapia’s feet to the legs of her chair and then forgotten it. Feilding admits, appropriately, that the report “as a complete record of events, is very imperfect” (p. 84; p. 374). But Feilding does not concede that the report as a whole is therefore unreliable and that one should accordingly reject (or at least be more suspicious of) the conclusions of the investigators. That is what Wiseman tries to suggest. But Feilding notes only that the Naples report is, both inevitably and predictably, incomplete. He does not admit or reveal that the investigators failed to take the precautions necessary to rule out fraud.

A Remarkable Body of Evidence
So I think we must concede that the Feilding report is a remarkable body of evidence for the reality of large-scale PK and that it simply cannot be dismissed. The skeptical hypotheses surveyed in the previous chapter are clearly inadequate as alternative explanations. It would be preposterous to propose either that Eusapia cheated throughout or that (because of biased misperception, outright malobservation, or collective hypnosis) the investigators did not observe what they claimed. And for the reasons mentioned earlier, Wiseman’s conjectures about the mere possibility of an accomplice are frivolous and his general skeptical position is either trivial or foolish. I know that acknowledging the weaknesses of skeptical counter-explanations may be a viscerally unsatisfying road to a belief in PK. But it seems to me that to an intellectually honest and open-minded person, no other option remains.

Stephen E. Braude, The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1997
References quoted in the text are from the book.

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