Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Addenda and errata

In my post on the alleged haunting of Ballechin House, I made reference to an investigation into the affair by a member of the Society for Psychical Research.  I commented that the members of this organization were "only surpassed in gullibility by people who think that the Syfy channel's Ghost Hunters is a non-fiction documentary."

This elicited a comment from one of my readers, to the effect that I "obviously don't know much about the Society for Psychical Research and its members."

Well, that may be putting it a bit strongly; I'd read quite a bit about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a prominent spiritualist and SPR member, and the Cottingley "fairy photographs," and perhaps unfairly had come to associate the entire society with this hoax.  Nevertheless, I was honestly stung by this criticism, and I thought it only fair to do a bit of research and rectify not only the error in my post, but my own ignorance on the subject.

The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882, and has as its explicit goal the scientific and unbiased exploration of purported psychic phenomena.  Everything that I've been able to read on the subject of the Society - both that written by its members and those outside - indicates that when at all possible, it approaches each new instance of alleged haunting, telepathy, psychokinesis, and so on, with a skeptical eye, and it doesn't have a "dog in the race," so to speak -- its goal is to establish the phenomenon as true if so, and expose it as a hoax if it is one.

The SPR is still very active today, and was instrumental in the investigation of such well-known cases as the Enfield Poltergeist.  This last is an interesting example -- the conclusion by the two SPR members who investigated it, Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse, was that it was an actual haunting, even though two of the children who lived in the alleged haunted house admitted faking some of the events that occurred in it.  (Read one account of the Enfield haunting here.)

As you might expect, I'm still of two minds with regards to the SPR and other organizations like it.  On the one hand, I applaud their apparent skepticism; it's a great pity that all investigators of the paranormal don't approach such phenomena that way.  The credulousness of the likes of Hans Holzer (whose career I'll save for a later post) only serves to muddy the waters and to make it less likely that any real paranormal occurrences, should they exist, will be believed.

On the other hand, I do take issue with the fact that the mere existence of the SPR lends credence to the whole field.  The fact that there are now universities with "Departments of Parapsychology" is, to me, worrisome; to borrow a line from Richard Dawkins, it's a little like a university having a "Department of Fairyology."  The oft-mentioned million-dollar challenge by James Randi, the award to be given to the first person who can demonstrate any sort of paranormal ability under scientifically controlled conditions, certainly gives lie to the contention that there's anything for a Department of Parapsychology to study.

On the SPR's home page (take a look at it here) is the quote from Carl Jung, "I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud."  Well, perhaps.  I'm perfectly willing to accept the idea of there being thousands of phenomena that science has yet to explain; science, at its best, is always pushing the envelope, moving outward into areas we don't yet understand.  At the same time, the leap from "I can't explain this" to "it's the supernatural" is all too easy, and has proven time and again to ignore a more conventional explanation -- that the occurrence under investigation is in fact an altogether natural phenomenon, an optical or auditory illusion, or an example of human gullibility, credulousness, or outright fraud.

In conclusion, I hope this has rectified the regrettable error in my previous post.  As far as my own thoughts, based on my now much-improved knowledge, I would label myself as guardedly in support of the SPR and its goals.  If I still prefer James Randi's approach, I am perhaps to be forgiven; but between the two different ways of attacking the problem of paranormal phenomena, one can only hope that if there are such things out there, they will one day be given support by scientific means, and not just by easily faked or misinterpreted anecdotal "evidence."


  1. I will be honest I usto believe in ghosts, I was a strong believer and have been told that when I was younger (3-5 yrs old) i usto say that I saw a horse in our hallway in new mexico, obviously there was no horse, but I was extremely scared of what I saw and would hesitate to go into the hallway. After I got older I have become much more skiptical about what I see and find other explinations. As for the horse in the hallway that was much to long ago to even remember what exactly I saw.

  2. Thanks for taking the trouble to respond to my earlier comment, and coming to a more balanced opinion. It's important to remember that the SPR does not hold corporate views and its members range widely in attitude, from Spiritualists like Conan Doyle on one side to sceptics on the other - both Richard Wiseman and Susan Blackmore have been Council members. The SPR as an organisation cannot be reduced to an identification with the work and conclusions of particular individuals.