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Said to be the best evidence yet for the afterlife — but how good is that evidence?
Read podcast transcript below or listen here
Turn out the lights and link your hands, for today we’re going to hold a seance and contact the dead, and have them perform parlor tricks for us in the dark. We’re going to look at the Scole Experiment, a large, well-organized series of seances conducted by members of the Society for Psychical Research in the late 1990’s in Scole, a small village in England. Reported phenomena included ghostly lights flitting about the room, images appearing on film inside secure containers, reports of touches from unseen hands, levitation of the table, and disembodied voices. Due to the large number of investigators and sitters involved, the number and consistency of paranormal episodes observed during the seances, and the lack of any finding of fraud, many believers often point to the Scole Experiment as the best scientific evidence that spirits do survive in the afterlife, and can and do come back and interact with the living, demonstrating an impressive array of conjuring powers.
There were a total of six mediums and fifteen investigators from the SPR. The Society for Psychical Research, or SPR, is based in London and is more than a century old. Its membership consists of enthusiasts of the paranormal. The authoritative source for what happened in the Scole Experiment is a report several hundred pages long, called The Scole Report, originally published in the journal Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and written by three of the lead investigators who were present at the sittings, all current or former senior officers of the SPR: plant scientist Montague Keen, electrical engineer Arthur Ellison, and psychologist David Fontana. I have a copy here on my desk. It goes through the history of how the experiments came together, details each of the many seances, and presents analysis and criticism from a number of the SPR investigators who observed.
Unfortunately, the Scole Experiment was tainted by profound investigative failings. In short, the investigators imposed little or no controls or restrictions upon the mediums, and at the same time, agreed to all of the restrictions imposed by the mediums. The mediums were in control of the seances, not the investigators. What the Scole Report authors describe as a scientific investigation of the phenomena, was in fact (by any reasonable interpretation of the scientific method) hampered by a set of rules which explicitly prevented any scientific investigation of the phenomena.
The primary control offered by the mediums was their use of luminous wristbands, to show the sitters that their hands were not moving about during the seances. I consulted with Mark Edward, a friend in Los Angeles who gives mentalism and seance performances professionally. He knows all the tricks, and luminous wristbands are, apparently, one of the tricks. There are any number of ways that a medium can get into and out of luminous wristbands during a seance. The wristbands used at Scole were made and provided by the mediums themselves, and were never subjected to testing, which is a gross dereliction of control by the investigators. Without having been at the Scole Experiment in person, Mark couldn’t speculate on what those mediums may have done or how they may have done it. Suffice it to say that professional seance performers are not in the least bit impressed by this so-called control. Tricks like this have been part of the game for more than a century. Since hand holding was not employed in the Scole seances, the mediums effectively had every opportunity to be completely hands free and do whatever they wanted to do.
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