Hans Driesch

German embryologist and professor of philosophy who was one of the last advocates of vitalism, the theory that life is directed by a vital principle and cannot be explained solely in terms of chemical and physical processes - a theory which he termed 'entelechy'. President of the Society for Psychical Research from 1926 to 1927.

The Possibility of Deception in Psychical Research

 - Hans Driesch -

          THERE IS no science which is not exposed to the danger of deception and even of conscious fraud. In biology we have more than once had the experience during the course of the past twenty years of seeing seemingly very important experimental results in regard to the so-called inheritance of acquired characteristics become quite worthless because there arose a well-founded suspicion of fraud in regard to certain points. The fraud perhaps affected only those particular points; but for the sake of scientific integrity the whole had to be rejected, perhaps unjustly. It is not suggested that the author of the works in question himself actually cheated; perhaps it was an assistant or a servant. But it sufficed that fraud occurred; and that can happen in every department of science. For man is unfortunately a being liable to unconscious and to conscious deception.

In the field of the natural sciences, however, the possibility of deception is never more than unilateral, even if the one side concerned consists of several persons, the investigator himself and those who assist him. The department of science with which we are here concerned, psychical research, is, on the other hand, in the most unenviable position of being exposed to a two-sided possibility of conscious or unconscious deception. The investigator and his assistant can deceive, as in every sort of scientific work; but here the subject of the investigation, the sensitive, the medium, the metagnome, or whatever one likes to call him, can also deceive. Deception on the part of the author, at least conscious deception, is just as rare as in the more strictly natural sciences; it must always be an ethical obligation to regard every author as honest until he is clearly proved the contrary. On the other hand, deception of both kinds, conscious and unconscious, on the part of the medium, has been frequent; and to protect itself with the utmost strictness against such deception must be one of the chief duties of any psychical research which seeks the right to call itself scientific.

It is naturally unpleasant for an investigator when it is shown that he has been deceived, let alone cheated, by a medium, or even when that possibility is suggested. He feels himself to some extent implicated; but in my opinion he does so unjustly. His good faith is not doubted; it is only shown that he is a man who is liable to be deceived. But what human being, however meticulously conscientious, is not liable to be deceived? Even the greatest men of science have sometimes made mistakes; that is, notwithstanding their conscientiousness they fell victims to deception, in the most general sense of the word. Now in psychical research, in which the subject of the investigation can himself actively contribute to the deception, in which there is not, as in the normal natural sciences, a determined state of affairs itself incapable of active deception, everything is infinitely more difficult. Hence it is really not a very serious matter when an investigator is accused of having been made the victim of deception or even of fraud. I readily agree that it is unpleasant to be so accused, one's amour propre is a little wounded. But is the desire for truth no longer to have any claim?

In certain quarters the suggestion has recently been made that all mediums should unite in order to take vigorous action, even to the length of legal process, against all who venture to express suspicions. That would be the end of scientific psychical research. Investigators of genuinely scientific outlook would simply refuse to concern themselves any further with such mediums, whether they produce genuine phenomena or not. And actions for slander are really beside the mark here, since the expression of a suspicion never in itself implies an accusation of conscious fraud. We know very well what deceptions can occur in the subconscious, half-somnambulistic state into which mediums usually fall during the production of their phenomena; conscientious mediums have often themselves asked that steps should be taken to prevent their having subconscious recourse to extraneous 'helps,' for the use of which their conscious selves are not at all responsible. Nevertheless, if the suspicious incidents are very serious, the investigator must have the right, without incurring the risk of an action, to put forward the possibility of conscious fraud also. A really honest medium would not be in the least hurt by this; he would know how to bear his cross, in the knowledge that the truth would one day come to light.

Of course I also urge very strongly the necessity for moderation in scepticism. Conscious fraud should not be alleged until absolutely no other possibility remains open to the critic after the most careful verification. And if an investigator is involved he should not be made the object of offensive observations. A model for the conduct of such polemics is provided by the English writers. In Germany the methods of both sceptics and believers unfortunately leave much to be desired. The saying 'fortiter in re, suaviter in modo' should apply, if anywhere, in this most difficult of all fields of investigation.

I have been thinking so far of the possibility of deception or even of fraud in the actual investigation of the phenomena. It should hardly be necessary to say that in the field of theory, where pure error is alone in question, the desirability of mutual courtesy is the more evident. It is simply laughable to see animists and spiritualists grossly and offensively attacking each other about a subject which has hardly left its swaddling-clothes!

The Press could contribute much to controversial decency in psychical research. Unfortunately it does not always do so. There are journals that empty whole buckets of sarcasm as soon as psychical research - which they usually confuse with the specific spiritualistic hypothesis - is so much as mentioned, without having made any attempt even to glance at the serious literature of the subject.


Others articles by Hans Driesch

The Forms of Possible Deception in Psychical Research

Possibilities of Deception in Spontaneous Observation

Possibilities of Deception in Anticipatory Observation

Precautions in Experiment

Inadequate Precautions

Exaggerated Suspiciousness

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