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.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The thoughtographer

Twice a year, a nearby town has a Friends of the Library used book sale that has become justly famous all over the region.  It features a quarter of a million books, runs for three weeks, and raises tens of thousands of dollars.  On the first day -- when the true rarities and collectibles are available -- the line to enter starts to form four hours before the doors open, and stretches all the way around the block.

I'm not quite such a fanatic, but it is still one of the high points of my year.  I've picked up some real gems there.  This year's take included the "cult bestseller" (says so right on the cover), Ghosts: True Encounters With the World Beyond by Hans Holzer, which is massive both in popularity and in actual weight.

If you're at all familiar with the field of parapsychology, you've probably heard of Holzer.  He was one of the principal investigators into the famous Amityville Horror (alleged) haunting.  He wrote over a hundred books, mostly on the supernatural and the occult, and for years taught courses in parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology.  Throughout his life -- and it was a long one, he died in 2009 at age 89 -- he was a vociferous believer in the paranormal, and equally strident denouncer of skeptics and scoffers.

Still, given my interest in beliefs in the supernatural, picking up a copy of this book for a couple of bucks was irresistible.  I'm glad to say it does not disappoint.  Besides containing hundreds of "true tales of ghosts and hauntings," he's not shy about saying what he thinks about the doubters:
To the materialist and the professional skeptic -- that is to say, people who do not wish their belief that death is the end of life as we know it to be disturbed -- the notion of ghosts is unacceptable.  No matter how much evidence is presented to support the reality of the phenomena, these people will argue against it and ascribe it to any of several "natural" causes.  Delusion or hallucination must be the explanation, or perhaps a mirage, if not outright trickery.  Entire professional groups that deal in the manufacturing of illusions have taken it upon themselves to label anything that defies their ability to reproduce it artificially through trickery or manipulation as false or nonexistent.  Especially among photographers and magicians, the notion that ghosts exist has never been popular.
There's a reason for that last bit, of course.  Photographers and magicians know how easy it is to fool people and create effects that look absolutely real.  It's not a coincidence that perhaps the most famous debunker, James Randi, was a professional stage magician before he dedicated his life to going after people like Sylvia Browne, Peter Popoff, and Uri Geller.

This paragraph (and the many others like it scattered throughout the book) shows that Holzer didn't really understand the definition of the word "skeptic."  Skeptics have the highest regard for evidence; in fact, it's the only thing that really convinces us.  But once it does, that's that.  Skeptics are able to say, "Well, I guess I was wrong, then," and turn on a dime if presented with reliable evidence.  However, that word "reliable" is usually the sticking point.  Holzer's compendium is chock-full of what he considers evidence, but which are either anecdotal accounts by people like "Mary G." and "John S.", or else demonstrations of the supernatural which are clearly explainable from the "natural causes" Holzer scoffs at.

The result is that he uncritically fell for people who were clearly frauds, and afterward staunchly stood by his assessment, a practice that was criticized by an article in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research as "cast(ing) considerable doubt on the objectivity and reliability of his work as a whole."  One of the most egregious examples is his endorsement of the alleged abilities of the man who became known as "The Thoughtographer," Ted Serios.

Serios claimed to be able to use an ordinary camera outfitted with something he called a "gizmo" -- effectively, nothing more than a cardboard tube -- which was then aimed at his forehead.  He then (he said) sent his "thought energy" into the camera, and when the film was developed, it would have an image of what he was thinking about.

Ted Serios in 1967 [Image was released into the Public Domain by photographer Jule Eisenbud]

First, let's see what Holzer has to say about Serios:
A few years ago, Dr. Jules [sic] Eisenbud of the University of Colorado at Denver startled the world with his disclosures of the peculiar talents of a certain Ted Serios, a Chicago bellhop gifted with psychic photography talents.  This man could project images into a camera or television tube, some of which were from the so-called future.  Others were from distant places Mr. Serios had never been to.  The experiments were undertaken under the most rigid test conditions.  They were repeated, which was something the old-line scientists in parapsychology stressed over and over again.  Despite the abundant amount of evidence, produced in the glaring limelight of public attention and under strictest scientific test conditions, some of Dr. Eisenbud's colleagues at the University of Colorado turned away from him whenever he asked them to witness the experiments he was conducting.  So great was the prejudice against anything Eisenbud and his colleagues might find that might oppose existing concepts that men of scientists couldn't bear to find out for themselves.  They were afraid they would have to unlearn a great deal.
What Holzer conveniently fails to mention is that there was a second "gizmo" that Serios required -- a second, smaller tube with a lens at one end.  The other end contained a piece of an old 35-mm film slide, and when the flash went off, the image from the slide was projected right into the camera aperture.  It was small enough to be concealed in the palm of Serios's hand.

A magic trick, in other words.  Sleight-of-hand.

Serios's claims came to the attention of none other than the aforementioned James Randi, who invited Jule Eisenbud, Serios himself, and any other interested parties to come watch him up on stage -- where he replicated Serios's trick flawlessly.  Eisenbud afterward said he was "flabbergasted;" Serios gave a "wan smile" and wouldn't comment.

No mention of that in Holzer's book, either.

Look, I don't really blame Eisenbud for getting suckered; it's not like I wouldn't have been taken in, either.  We've all watched talented stage magicians do their thing and said, in bafflement, "How in the hell...?"  What I do blame Eisenbud for, though, is not pursuing it further -- telling Serios, "Okay, you need a 'gizmo'?  Tell me how it's made, and I'll make one for you -- show me you can do your trick without any props of your own construction."  Now, I also have to admit that working with Serios can't have been easy.  He was clearly mentally ill.  In Nile Root's book Thoughtography, about the Serios case, the author writes
Ted Serios exhibits a behavior pathology with many character disorders.  He does not abide by the laws and customs of our society.  He ignores social amenities and has been arrested many times.  His psychopathic and sociopathic personality manifests itself in many other ways.  He does not exhibit self-control and will blubber, wail and bang his head on the floor when things are not going his way.

He exhibits strong hostility toward figures of authority, such as policemen and scientists.  He is an alcoholic and in psychic experiments he has been encouraged toward the excessive use of alcohol.  He has demonstrated the symptoms of a manic-depressive with manic episodes.  In one hypermaniacal period he acted like a violent madman and could not be restrained.

He often becomes profane and raging, completely reckless.  While depressed he ignores other people, has a far-away look and is disenchanted with everything.  He is always bored with talk unless it is about him. He often imagines himself a hero, and sometimes identifies with a violent known personality.  He also exhibits sadistic behavior, for example by embarrassing Dr. Eisenbud once, giving as his own Dr. Eisenbud's name and his profession (a psychiatrist) when arrested.

In spite of the questionable research methods and the personality quirks of Serios, a number of Denver professional men believed Ted Serios was a psychic, with a unique power to record his thoughts with a Polaroid camera.
So I can see that it wouldn't have been any fun to try and force Serios to conform to adequate scientific control protocols.  Not that this excuses Eisenbud, though; he made the claim, so saying "Serios is impossible to control" doesn't obviate his duty to observe proper experimental procedure prior to publishing any results.

Holzer, though?  He ignored the overwhelming evidence that Serios was a fraud, claiming instead that there was "abundant amount of evidence, produced in the glaring limelight of public attention and under strictest scientific test conditions."  Which is not so much a dodge as it is a flat-out falsehood.  And that, to me, is inexcusable.

And another thing -- Holzer mischaracterizes skeptics and scientists in another way, one that shows that he didn't understand the scientific process at all.  He describes scientists as clinging to their preconceived notions, even in the face of evidence, as if the entire scientific edifice was threatened by new data, and the researchers themselves determined to sit back and keeping the same understanding of the universe they'd had all along.  The truth is, science depends on finding new and puzzling information; that's how science progresses.  Now, scientists are humans, and you can find many examples of people clutching their favorite model with both hands even when the contradictory evidence comes rolling in.  (A good example is how long it took the plate tectonics/continental drift model to be accepted.)  But then it's beholden upon the scientist making the extraordinary claim to produce such incontrovertible evidence that the opposition has no choice but to acquiesce -- which is exactly what happened when Drummond Matthews and Frederick Vine proved seafloor spreading and plate movement beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The truth is that finding new evidence that modifies or overturns a previous model is how careers are made in science.  As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "Journalists are always writing articles with headlines that say, 'Scientists have to go back to the drawing board.'  As if we scientists are sitting in our offices, our feet up on the desk, masters of the universe, then suddenly... oops!  Somebody discovered something!  No, we're always back at the drawing board.  If you're not at the drawing board, you're not making discoveries.  You're not doing science."

In my own case, I'm certainly a skeptic, even if I'm not a scientist but only a humble layperson.  And I can say without any hesitation that I would love it if there was hard evidence for the paranormal, and of life after death in particular.  Can you imagine how that would change our understanding of the world, and of ourselves?  Plus the added benefit of knowing that death wasn't the end of us.  Me, I'm not particularly fond of the idea of nonexistence; an afterlife would be awesome, especially if it involved a tropical climate, hammocks, and drinks with little umbrellas.

But be that as it may.  I still find Holzer's book entertaining, at least the parts with the actual ghost stories.  The diatribes about the evil skeptics and narrow-minded scientists, not so much.  It'd be nice to see more of the collaborative efforts to investigate paranormal claims, such as the ones done by the Society of Psychical Research.

But just saying "science is ignoring the evidence," and then presenting evidence that is clearly spurious, is not helping the parapsychologists' claims at all.


No comments:

Post a Comment