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Psi Researcher  -  No. 17 - 1995

Beyond Credibility?

Let us not be too harsh. There is a conflict between the demands of scientific thoroughness and the ratings-oriented requirement to entertain. And not merely entertain, but to keep up to a dozen million of us teetering on the edge of our seats and our boggle thresholds as we witness what purports to be the first-ever live one-hour demonstration of the paranormal. On prime-time TV on March 5th, interlarded with appeals to invest in gentler toilet tissues and whiter washes, Sir David Frost introduced ten examples of on-stage mysteries billed as being beyond belief. Were they?
 Well, on the whole, no: certainly not for those schooled in the rigours of fraud-proof methodologies without which it is all but impossible to squeeze through the eye of the SPR"s official Journal or Proceedings. Those disciplines could have been applied, but only in inverse proportion to the entertainment factor. While an entertainment programme should not be judged from the viewpoint of a laboratory, it is fair to evaluate it on the criterion of its claims. And on the whole it did not match them, although I thought it well worth watching.
 Briefly, what we saw were phenomena, if that"s the right word, grouped chiefly around two well-known personalities who many believed had long since despaired of exhibiting their gifts in public: Uri Geller and Matthew Manning. There was an unpromising start, when Uri encouraged four members of the audience to lift a heavily-built man from a chair using, in theory, no more than rigid fingers. For all I know this might be a miraculous demonstration of something or other, but it"s safer to assume that it"s a well-known party trick. [It is -Ed]
 Rather more sophisticated was the mass demonstration of telepathy. Four zener cards were displayed. Uri invited us to concentrate on one. We did. Apparently 70,000 viewers telephoned their verdicts. The results were amazing, incredible and evidential beyond the number of noughts required to complete this line and the next. Only 10% thought he was concentrating on the square; a mere 12% chose the cross, but 32% went for the circle, and a whopping 47% opted for the star. Uri"s envelope was opened by Frost to reveal — guess what? It is pretty certain that the vast proportion of his huge audience assumed chance expectation to be 25%, and doubtful whether more than a fraction of them paused to reflect that the deviation from chance was as phenomenal negatively for the square and the cross as it was positively for the chosen star. Those who know that a high proportion of people resonate sympathetically with stars rather than squares would soon conclude that Uri was betting on a certainty. And he"s been in the business long enough to know it.
 No less impressive to the viewers was the ticking watch demonstration. Uri had a mound of non-functioning watches before him. Members of the audience, presumably fore­warned, came armed with their own defective timepieces, all presumably of the pre-quartz era of old-fashioned ticks. Uri made them work. Or at least that was the impression. But there was no prior independent examination of the watches, no estimate of those which failed to start ticking: just a heap of metal excitedly sampled by Uri, as he grew ever more wide-eyed at the sheer magic of it all. Various members of the audience produced watches whose term of temporal abstinence varied from one to fifteen years. This may all have been due to Uri"s psychic powers, but it probably represented only a minute fraction of the potential candidates for horological resurrection. Nor could we tell how many may have been induced into mobility by warmth, handling, shaking or whatever. Viewers began phoning in to report similar phenomena. It was reminiscent of Uri"s televisual eruption in the early seventies: keys began to bend.
 I found the odd key-bending episode more impressive, although when Uri took a bent key from one participant, held it up to the cameras and declared to general amazement that it was continuing to bend, I couldn"t confirm it — not even after watching a replay on my video tape. That Uri Geller is capable of bending keys in conditions under which no magician could replicate it is (in my view) well-established. A public demonstration of this nature, in which virtually all the elementary controls and checks are lacking, can be counter-productive. It may well impress the general viewer, and thereby help to establish a more fertile seed­bed for the still heretical view that PK is a reality; it may even help thereby to gain a wider potential membership for the SPR. But it simply reinforces the hostility, and strengthens the arguments, of the sceptic, since none of this approaches proof. And when the Right to Reply programme was screened a week later, there was Mike Hutchinson, a vehement sceptic, protesting that where it appeared to be paranormal it could have been faked. One of the other areas of protest related to the piece de resistance, a fire walk. Hutchinson was scornful of its inclusion in the paranormal category. Any notion that a firewalk was a demonstration of PK appeared to be thrown out not so much by Hutchinson's poisonous post­script the following week, but by the cheerful willingness of Dr Kargar, a physicist from the Max Planck Institute, to trot sockless over the burning embers in order to demonstrate that anyone can do it, faith coming in as an optional extra. Rather more impressive, but heavily dependent on the honesty of participants, were Matthew Manning's healing demonstrations. Regrettably, we had no patients with bulging tumours to disperse, so the only visual demonstration of Matthew's powers depended less on the honesty of patients to testify to his curative prowess than on the principle that healing must be a product of a healer's powers rather than the patient's belief system. In what was, by Matthew's normal requirements, an inadequate healing period off-stage, he appeared to effect physically beneficial, and measurable, improvements in arthritic limbs. Similarly, when an scantily-clad amazonian concentrated on negative rather than positive thoughts, her physical resistance to limb pressure seemed to change dramatically. Worth following up, this, but all healing claims are attended by ferocious problems of repeatability, the absence of a standard mechanism for objective evaluation, and the persistence, or absence of it, in the improvement to which a grateful and astonished patient testifies.
 There was another candidate for attention: a Russian emigre to Israel whose psychic powers would enable him to go blindfolded to any person or object. The blindfolding, including a hood, was suitably impressive, but he required the hand of the resident commentator Colin Wilson to help lead him to identify an object, one of several, previously selected by a member of the audience. Wilson may be above suspicion, but the procedure employed does not eliminate conscious or unconscious tactile guidance. The point was cleverly illustrated on an earlier Esther Rantzen programme, where she sought to establish, in a generous half-hour, what the SPR has spent the last 113 years investigating: whether telepathy is or isn't a myth. Suppressing the ethereal wails of Dame Edith Lyttleton who was protesting sixty years ago about the frequency with which the sceptics cited telepathy or clairvoyance in order to avoid the more far-fetched notion of life after death, I viewed the now apparently compulsory formula in which a serious subject must be discussed only by assembling a large number of competitive experts and an even larger number of audience participants to shout each other down. In the process we had a demonstration by a young man who drew a picture of what was in an audience member's mind. He got it dead right. Gasps all round. Our own Dr Richard Wiseman, to general disapproval, said it was all a fake. The young man admitted it: a stage magician, no less. Wiseman steamrollered in with his worthy message: don't underestimate the power of self-delusion or the competence of professional illusionists. There is no substitute for thorough, controlled, scientifically designed tests.
 That did not stop a pair of identical twins from reciting remarkable and constant identical thought processes and images. All coincidence, as Dr Chris French, an obligatory sceptical commentator, insisted? When Dr Keith Hearne, a precognition specialist, declared that there was already ample scientific proof of telepathy, Dr French predictably exhumed the tampered data of Dr S G Soal to demonstrate what little credence one could place in scientific evidence from that source. But he was forced to evade the direct challenge from those, like the twins, who were either lying, in common with most other claimants, or whose manifold examples of apparent telepathic contact pushed the boundaries of Jungian synchronicity uncomfortably beyond the behaviouristic boggle threshold.
 That hardly applied to the show's first witness, Nella Jones, who said she was called in to help find the Yorkshire Ripper — and did; or at least she claims to have got his first name and home town, along with the fact that he was a long-distance lorry driver. But why did she take eight or nine months over it? Why couldn't she give his name and address? Came the decisive, magisterial answer: "I got what I got. I'm not God".

Montague Keen

©The Society for Psychical Research - Reproduced with permission

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