Today I welcome a post from Ian Stevenson, who contacted me following my recent post about spiritualism and the First World War, a subject I cover in Shell Shocked Britain. Ian is a counsellor and a member of the Scientific and Medical Network with expertise in the history of the period and a long standing interest in the subject. He offers the view that some of those offering support to the bereaved could have had a genuine gift. Is he right? Is it true that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…..’? I would love to hear your views…
I would like to give another side to the idea that people were taken in by frauds which is what links on Wikipedia and other internet sites relating to spiritualism during and after the First World War, suggest.
The Great War of 1914-18 created a number of revolutions; political, technical and social. One of them was the growing interest in non-Christian religions and the decline in church attendance. The huge number of war dead meant many families were in mourning and looking for comfort and answers. Spiritualism attracted a wide range of followers although it is probably true to say that women played a greater part than in most other churches and most members were ‘working class’. The church and the scientific world largely dismissed or ridiculed it. After all, they knew best.
One of its chief supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for Sherlock Holmes, who wrote a book ‘
The Land of Mist’ in which a young reporter (who first appeared in the story “The Lost World” ) and his female friend investigate Spiritualism. Doyle included a number of incidents which had a factual basis. In one chapter he has them going to the laboratory of a French investigator who he admits in the notes at the end, is based on Professor Richet, the Nobel Prize winner (he was a physiologist who worked on allergies among other things) who was involved in psychic research for thirty years.
In his book, Doyle has a character that pretends to be a medium and is portrayed as a ‘bad guy’. His brother in the story, a real medium, is sentenced to a term in prison for fortune telling. This is the other side of the coin. A friend recently told me told me that as a little girl she had to watch out for policemen when her mother was having a séance. Those attending a middle class séance had no such worries.
There is little doubt that many people did-and do- attain comfort from the Spiritualist churches which tend to be informal and welcoming. We need to distinguish between them and the ‘sole trader’ medium or clairvoyant who takes money. The years after 1918 were hard for many people and some may have tried to cash in, the ‘frauds’ referred to. However, I have come across many people who go to a medium and are given facts which are correct and often obscure.
Some skeptics might dispute this, claiming that this is cold reading. Dr. Gary Schwartz, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry in Arizona, arranged a series of experiments where the mediums could not see or hear the sitters (they could hear a yes/no response in some of the early experiments and in a second part could ask for feedback) The amount of accurate information is impressive. Schwartz invited stage magician ‘cold readers’ to try to duplicate the work of the mediums in the same conditions. None even tried.
Harry Houdini claimed to expose frauds but he seems to have been on a bit of a mission. I saw a few of his ‘exposures’ recreated on TV and was not convinced. He did talk about ‘genuine mediums’ which suggests a belief in an afterlife. His wife certainly did and there is a signed and witnessed document which says Houdini communicated a code word to her after his death.
The accusation often made is that grieving people or those who would like it to be true, have low standards of investigation or are gullible, at least in this respect. The Rev. Drayton Thomas investigated Mrs Osborne Leonard (who sat with Sir Oliver Lodge and Coonan Doyle)as did Lady Troubridge. They didn’t just turn up for an evening or two; they sat with her for years and made meticulous notes and she was never accused of fraud. Mrs Piper, in the USA with whom she is often compared, was investigated for some years by William James, the founder of the modern discipline of Psychology in that country, before he assented to her genuine ability. Wikipedia accounts tend to be hostile and sceptics (Skeptics in the US) tend to write the pages. Sir Oliver Lodge was a Fellow of the Royal Society and not just an ivory tower theoretician. He probably sent the first radio transmission a year before Marconi.
The Wiki page says ‘sceptics have analysed the mediumship of Mrs Leonard… and auto suggestion was used.’ Having read Raymond (the book written by Sir Oliver Lodge) I find it an amazing suggestion. Read the third section of the book by Sir Oliver in which he deals with questions of scientific method, theology and philosophy, you will see that a charlatan medium impressing her ideas on him and all his family is hardly worth considering. The assertion ‘Raymond’ could not remember the names of the officers with whom he had served, is refuted by looking in the book.
The astronaut Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic (new) Sciences. The chief Scientist is Dean Radin who got so tired of people saying ‘show me the evidence for the spiritual/ supernatural/paranormal and then maybe I’ll believe it,’ that he complied a list of formal experiments, trials and studies. Google ‘Radin /evidence’ and you will find nine pages of mainly recent peer-reviewed studies. If you want to have an informed debate, this might be a place to start.
If one starts from the view there is no afterlife-like Clodd- then there are only two explanations; one is that the medium is misinterpreting what they see, hear or feel (and may have even good motives) or they out to deceive. As it’s impossible, good results MUST be fraud. In most twentieth century science not only acknowledged matter and energy but quantum physics and dark matter and dark energy have shown the limits of what we thought we knew. There is evidence that consciousness may exist beyond the brain e.g. near death experiences. If we are open-minded it may be that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in some people’s philosophy.
My thanks to Ian, as I am always keen to offer the opportunity to reply to posts I have written. It feels uncomfortable, looking back, to judge whether those drawn to the Spiritualist Church during and after the Great War were duped. After all, for many electricity was still a mystery and radio waves impossible to fathom. Do please comment if you have a view. Ian will be happy to respond.