Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1

Are Men of Science Impersonal About Facts?

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          ANYONE PREVIOUSLY unacquainted with psychical research, who suddenly acquired a true idea of the strength of the evidence, would surely have one question uppermost in mind. Why has this subject been universally ignored? Why has it been sneered at and ridiculed and regarded as a pastime for the credulous? Why has not the scientific world recognised its importance, resolutely swept aside the rubbish, and established the true facts? Why, if there are none, has this not been demonstrated? As Henry Sidgwick pointed out in 1882 if only a tenth part of these occurrences are true, they are of the utmost importance. Anyone who thinks clearly must surely agree with him.

There are probably several reasons why the scientific and educated public, for the most part, ignores psychical research. 1) The subject has from time immemorial been surrounded by charlatanry and fraud, and the practice of magic in the past gave paranormal phenomena a bad reputation. 2) Anyone who confesses to an interest in these matters today risks his professional reputation 3) The quantity of sound evidence is not large, compared with that amassed by other sciences, and people persuaded themselves that it is too small to be worth taking in account. 4) There is no commercial profit to be by working in the subject. 5) People say they are busy and have no time for such things.

The lack of substance in these objections is fairly obvious. 1) It is quite possible to distinguish sound from unsound evidence and to establish sound conditions for research. 2) The risk to professional reputation is the result of the general attitude and not its cause. 3) The amount of sound evidence is far too great to be ignored. Also, no admittedly sound evidence, however small, can be conscientiously ignored by the scientific mind. 4) The fact that there is no money to be made is again a result of the general lack of interest in the subjects; not its cause. Pure research, once its value is recognised, finds its endowments. 5) People cannot be too busy to attend to a subject throughout half a century if it is of any importance. Besides, the phenomena of psychical research are of direct professional concern to psychologists, philosophers, clergymen and others.

It is clear that all these, even if genuinely acting, are symptoms rather than causes. The fundamental cause must lie deeper. What is it?

It was mentioned just now that the little committee appointed to investigate the case of Eusapia Palladino stated that, on the rare occasions when they encountered phenomena which they were forced to regard as genuine, their minds automatically tried to reject them. In the committee's report we find these words: "The incidents seemed to roll off our minds, and we lapsed back into scepticism on each occasion." Mr. Everard Feilding, when investigating another case, used words to the same effect: "The effect of all this on my mind," he said, "was singular. I appeared to lose touch with actualities. Once admit the possibility of such things - and the mere fact of investigating them implied such an admission - where could one stop? I wrote at the time that I gradually began to feel that if a man seriously told me that the statue of the Albert Memorial had called in to tea I should have to admit that the question to be solved would not be the sanity of the narrator but the evidence for the fact." There is undoubtedly an instinct which urges us to reject the unusual and the inexplicable whatever the evidence in its favour may be. It tends to make evidence fall away from our minds like water off a duck's back. Lord Chesterfield pointed out this tendency when he said that if a man indubitably rose from the dead, in three days, the Archbishop of Canterbury would disbelieve it.

There is, of course, the opposite tendency to exaggerate marvels and cause rumours to grow; but the cause of this seems to be different. It is due more to an intellectual tendency - a love of marvels and sensations coupled with a lack of critical faculty. The reaction against the unaccustomed is more psychological than intellectual. It is the hand of nature keeping us adjusted to our normal environment and screening us from disturbing intrusions.

Demetrius, as he walks with Helena and looks back on their adventures of the Midsummer Night, says:

"These things seem small and indistinguishable
Like far-off mountains turned into clouds."

Shakespeare expresses here the psychological tendency to 'recover' after some new and unprecedented experience. In the light of the normal, such experiences tend to fade away. We are impressed at the time; but as soon as familiar conditions reassert themselves, the rationalising faculty rises up and, in obedience to a psychological urge, begins to explain them away. Our whole conception of the probable is based on what we are accustomed to, so that we reckon antecedent probability or improbability far more by feeling than by reason. Suppose that, before the duck-billed platypus was known, some lone traveller claimed to have seen one in Australia, nearly everyone would have laughed at his description of the animal and declared it absurd to suppose that such a creature could exist. There would have been nothing rational about this attitude. No one could possibly know, apart from direct evidence, whether a platypus was likely to exist or not. But the story, would have been laughed to scorn simply because a platypus is so unlike anything that people in this country are accustomed to.

This habit of judging probability in the light of custom is universally human. Conservatism, insularity, provincialism are phases of it. We know how people used to laugh at the customs of foreigners because they were strange. Some still do. A Dutchman, it is said, once told a native of Java that in his own country the water became so hard in winter that men could walk on it. The Javanese was convulsed with laughter at the absurdity of the idea. His scheme of the familiar was outraged. But we must be careful, how we laugh at him; for, grave and wise philosophers, scientists and intellectuals of all kinds (and ordinary people too) do precisely the same thing at the mention of telepathy and precognition. The highly intellectual are just as liable to be overwhelmed by a psychological impulse as is the man in the street.

Let us examine the attitude adopted by men of science towards psychical research. In the early days, hypnotism (then called mesmerism) called forth bitter opposition and was regarded, as being on a par with paranormal phenomena. The committee appointed by the Society for Psychical Research to report on hypnotism quoted the Lancet as saying: "We regard the abettors of mesmerism as quacks and impostors, they ought to be hooted out of professional society." The medical profession in those days refused to admit the genuineness of hypnosis. "When the most painful surgical operations were successfully performed in the hypnotic state, they said that the patients were bribed to sham insensibility, and that it was because they were hardened impostors that they let their legs be cut off and large tumours be cut out without showing any sign even of discomfort. At length this belief, in all but the most bigoted partisans, gave way before the triumphant success of Mr. Esdaile's surgical operations under mesmerism in the Calcutta Hospital..."(1)

(1) Proceedings S.P.R., Vol.ii, p. 154.

One notices that the suggestion that hypnotism was genuine aroused intense emotional hostility because it was then considered to be what we now call "paranormal." When people came to regard it as "normal," the emotional hostility ceased. Hypnotism is no more fundamentally understood today than it was in Esdaile's time; but the resentment has passed away.

The same attitude prevailed with regard to telepathy, at one time called "thought-transference." The present state of scientific opinion throughout the world is not only hostile to any belief in the possibility of transmitting a single mental concept, except through the ordinary channels of sensation, but, generally speaking, it is hostile even to any inquiry on the matter. Every leading physiologist and psychologist down to the present time has, relegated what, for want of a better term, has been called 'thought-reading" to the limbo of exploded fallacies." These are the words of the committee appointed by the Society for Psychical Research to investigate thought-transference, or telepathy, in 1882. Again, they say: "In the July number of the Nineteenth Century the senior assistant physician at the Westminster Hospital expresses his amazement at the hardihood of anyone having the slightest pretense to scientific knowledge daring to put forth evidence in favour of thought-reading: and a recent writer in the Saturday Review gives utterance to the general scientific attitude of the present day on this subject, when he remarks that 'We thought we had heard the last of thought-reading'." This same committee reported that: "Collusion, hallucination, unconscious interpretation of unconsciously imparted signs, furnish, according to the physiologists of to-day, abundant explanation of the phenomena under investigation." A year earlier, a committee of distinguished men had been called together to investigate the performances of Mr. Irving Bishop, a professing thought-reader. After a few hastily-conducted experiments, it drew up a report in which it is indicated that one member of the committee, Professor Ray Lankester, "absolutely refused to, countenance the idea of thought-reading, and objected to 'the other members... giving even a fair trial to so puerile a hypothesis'."(2)

(2) Proceedings S.P.R., Vol. i, pp; 13-4.

Again, it is significant that so distinguished and able a scientist as Lord Kelvin said: "One half of hypnotism and clairvoyance is imposture and the rest bad observation." Haeckel said: "So-called telepathy only exists in the imagination; everything is explained by excitement and active imagination, coupled with a lack of critical faculty and physiological knowledge."(3)

(3) "The Riddle of the Universe".

There was, however, a minority who held a moderate opinion in the nineteenth century, just as there is today. For example, in an obituary notice of the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, written in 1898, F. W. H. Myers says: "Mr. Gladstone's broad intellectual purview - aided, perhaps, in this instance by something of the practical foresight of the statesman - placed him in quite a different attitude towards our quest [psychical research]. 'It is the most important work which is being done in the world,' he said in a conversation in 1885. 'By far the most important,' he repeated with a grave emphasis which suggested previous trains of thought... He ended by saying: 'If you will accept sympathy without service, I shall be glad to join your ranks.' He became an Honorary Member and followed with attention the successive issues of our Proceedings.(4)

(4) Journal S.P.R., Vol. viii, p. 260.

Here it may be mentioned that other prominent Victorians, honorary members of the Society for Psychical Research and greatly interested in the subject, were John Ruskin, G. F. Watts and A. R. Wallace.

To go back to an earlier epoch, here is an interesting passage about the attitude of Dr. Johnson on these matters. Boswell wrote: "He has been ignorantly misrepresented as weakly credulous upon that subject; and therefore, though I feel an inclination to disdain and treat with silent contempt so foolish a notion concerning my illustrious friend, yet as I find it has gained ground, it is necessary to refute it. The real fact, then, is that Johnson had a very philosophical mind and such a rational respect for testimony as to make him submit his understanding to what was authentically proved, though he could not comprehend why it was so. Being thus disposed, he was willing to inquire into the truth of any relation of supernatural agency, a general belief which has prevailed in all nations and ages. But so far was he from being the dupe of implicit faith, that he examined the matter with a jealous attention, and no man was more ready to refute its falsehood when he had discovered it."(5) His was the true scientific attitude.

(5) Boswell's" Life of Samuel Johnson", Everyman Edition, Vol. i, pp. 251-2

But these balanced minds were the exception. The majority made up their minds in advance. Buchner, is quoted as saying: "Science has not the least doubt that all alleged cages of clairvoyance are the result of charlatanry and illusion. Lucidity, for material reasons, is an impossibility." Similarly, Wundt is quoted as saying: "If telepathy existed, it would be necessary to postulate the existence of an irrational world, at the expense of the rational one."(6) These quotations show that those who spoke thus thought that, by prejudging the issue without referring to the facts, they were acting in the spirit of science. This prejudgment on the part of scientists and others appears to be the chief characteristic of the general attitude. Some illuminating examples of this are to be found in the book of a reliable American author, Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, entitled The Enchanted Boundary.

(6) Revue Metapsychique, 1935.

Professor L. T. Troland, a psychologist of Harvard University, wrote in 1926: "The modern psychologist tends to regard alleged psychical phenomena much as the modem physicist regards perpetual-motion machines."(7)

(7) "The Mystery of Mind", p. 3.

Professor Joseph Jastrow, a psychologist of Wisconsin University, wrote of telepathy in 1901: "There is no burden of disproof resting on the scientist." Yet by 1901 a great deal of carefully collected evidence for telepathy existed, which no one had shown to be unsound. He goes on to ask: "What is the logical conclusion to be drawn from the data offerable in evidence of some super-sensory form of thought-transference and whence the disposition to believe in the existence of such a procedure? ... I can say no more in discussing the topic than that to me the phenomena, represent a complex conglomerate in which imperfectly recognised modes of action, hyperaesthesia and hysteria, fraud, conscious and unconscious, chance, collusion, similarity of mental process, an expectant interest in presentiments and a belief in their significance, nervousness and ill-health, illusions of memory, hallucinations, suggestions, contagion and other elements enter into the composition; while defective observation, falsification of memory, forgetfulness of details, bias and prepossession, suggestion from others, lack of training and of a proper investigative temperament further invalidate and confuse the records of what is supposed to have been observed. Many of the reported facts are not facts at all; others are too distortedly and too deficiently reported to be either intelligible or suggestive; some are accurately observed and properly recorded, and these sometimes contain a probable suggestion of their natural explanation, sometimes must be put down as chance, and more often must be left unexplained. To call this absence of explanation telepathy is surely no advantage; to pose this hypothetic process as the modus operandi of any result which can be even remotely and contingently otherwise accounted for seems superfluous; to actually use this hypothesis to account for still more obscure and more indefinite and less clearly established phenomena is an egregious logical sin."(8)

(8) Fact and Fable in Psychology, pp. 103-4.

This is a good example of a verbal smoke-screen. Nowhere is any concrete piece of evidence dealt with: nowhere is the slightest attempt made to show that a single one of the suggested explanations applies to the facts. Everything is vague innuendo, while the emotional character of the outburst is obvious. It is all very instructive and interesting; and the professor obligingly goes on to tell us why the smoke-screen has been emitted. "Obviously," he writes, "if the alleged facts of psychical research were genuine and real the labours of science would be futile and blind.'' And, again: "What the revival of the belief in occultism proves is the weak hold which principle and logic have gained upon minds otherwise of fine quality and more than ordinary calibre."(9)

(9) Weekly Review, July 14 and 18, 1920.

Note the insistence on logic. Whitehead might have quoted him as a modern protagonist of rationalism against the empirical principle of science. He is afraid that if certain apparent facts were to prove true, the rational order of things would be upset.

Professor H. C. Warren wrote in 1919, in his book, Human Psychology, of "societies for psychical research." He says that reports "collected by sincere and unimpeachable scientists fill volumes of the Proceedings of these Societies; but," he continues, "contemporary American psychologists for the most part reject the telepathic interpretation." For this he gives the following curious collection of reasons: 1) On account of the faulty memory of the witnesses. 2) On account of chance-coincidence. 3) On account of collusion and fraud. 4) On account of unobserved sensory impulses. 5) On account of the "trend of evolution"; 6) Because if a simpler mode of communication, such as telepathy, had been possible, nature would not have taken the trouble to evolve complex sense-organs. Here, again, with regard to the first four reasons, we have the same vague generalising. No acknowledgment is made of the fact that the investigators of the Society for Psychical Research made full allowance for these possible sources of error. There is nothing concrete. There is no citation of any case in which these precautions were omitted. The last two reasons are hard to follow. The learned professor seems to claim inside information about the methods and processes of nature.

Professor H. A. Carr, of the University of Chicago, in his book, Psychology (1925), says: "The doctrine of telepathy assumes that one mind can influence another mind in the absence of any known sensory communication between them... Orthodox psychology regards the evidence for such assumptions as unconvincing." Here, again, all detailed evidence is swept away in one comprehensive gesture.

August Forel, in his book, Hypnotism and Psycho-Therapy, says: "The experiments of Charles Richet are also interesting. He attempts to prove the influence of the thinking of one individual on the thinking of another in a certain direction without appearances which can be sensorily perceived. It appears, however, that the proofs are extremely imperfect, and the probability calculation very unconvincing. The later investigations of von Schrenck-Notzing, Flournoy and others have also failed to arrive at definite conclusions... Since the third edition of this book there has been nothing new of importance relative to the subject of telepathy to report." The third edition was published in 1906. By that time sound evidence for telepathy had been accumulated by the Society for Psychical Research for twenty-four years. Then comes a revealing sentence: "All the stories of spiritualists and superficial individuals have not been able to alter anything belonging to these facts." The emotional bias peeps out again. Note also that Richet, who was making perfectly impersonal experiments in order to find out whether telepathy occurred or not, is represented as "trying to prove" it. It is true, however, that Richet made mistakes in his probability calculations. But the main point is that, all the way through, the critics are not arguing that paranormal phenomena are untrue as a matter of fact but that they must be untrue as a matter of principle.

In the Psychological Bulletin for May 1931, Mr. Paul Campbell Young of Louisiana State University is commented on as reviewing a number of books on hypnotism and suggestion. The commentator on this review says: "Under the title 'Occult Hold-Over,' Mr. Young deplores the fact that in spite of time and derision, the old notions that hypnosis brings with it mysterious powers, such as clairvoyance, telepathy and other manifestations linked up with the old theory of animal magnetism, still persists." The idea is that the paranormal is a relic of dying superstition.

In 1925, Professor Titchener, referred to by another prominent psychologist as "the leading experimental psychologist of our time," said: "No scientifically-minded psychologist believes in telepathy."(10)

(10) Journal S.P.R., Vol. xxii. P. 52.

Professor Simon Newcomb, who was head of the Department of Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University and Director of the United States Naval Observatory, said, in the course of an article in the Nineteenth Century for January, 1909: "The volumes of Phantasms of the Living might be continued annually without end, could all the cases be discovered. The few hundred cases are actually fewer than we should expect as the result of known conditions. There is, therefore, no proof of telepathy in any of the wonders narrated in these volumes, and in the publications of the Psychical Society." It may be explained that Phantasms of the Living was a collection of carefully sifted cases of telepathic apparitions compiled by Edmund Gurney and others, who were early investigators in psychical research. The statement is so muddled as to be meaningless; yet Professor Newcomb must have been an able man to have held the posts he did. Something resembling a psychological complex seems to have displaced his normal reasoning powers. He apparently wants to think that there is no such thing as telepathy and tries to justify the wish; but his justification becomes a mist of words. Even then he cannot leave it alone. "I even venture to say," he continues, "that if thought-transference is real, we shall establish the reality more speedily by leaving it out of consideration, and collecting facts for study than by directing our attention directly to it.'' Yet this man must have been able to think lucidly in the course of his ordinary occupation!

Miss Amy Tanner published a book in 1910 entitled Studies in Spiritism, though in reality it deals more with psychical research than with spiritualism. In one way Miss Tanner is a more interesting critic than most, for she actually read the subject before criticising it. But she too wanders in a maze of irrationality. For three years she had been the "research co-adjutator" of Professor G. Stanley Ball, the President of Clark University. The extraordinary perversities of her analyses are pointed out by Mrs. Sidgwick.(11) Dr. Waiter F. Prince compared a number of Miss Tanner's summarised incidents with the accounts in the original records and "found them almost without exception atrocious to the point of becoming comic. It seemed to me," he said, "'that she was incapable of grasping the salient points in any paragraph more than two inches in length." Dr. Hyslop found in 27 incidents 148 mis-statements and a host of omissions of important particulars, while, he says, she was silent on 38 incidents more significant than any she treated in her fashion. Yet Dr. Stanley Hall, blind to all this, wrote an introduction to her book and called it a "searching, impartial, critical estimate." Be says: "It is significant that the chief works of the English Psychic Society have never before had a searching, impartial, critical estimate, often as they have been worked over by believers. Those with scepticism enough to have been impartial have never been able to arouse interest enough to treat these studies thoroughly. Thus, I cannot but hope that this book will mark a turn of the tide."

(11) See Proceedings S.P.R., Vol. xxv., pp. 102-8.

The significant thing about all this criticism is that not only are these critics unconvinced by evidence but they are so carried away by emotion that they lose all sense of accuracy. They employ arguments which a child could refute. Sometimes they become practically incoherent, like Professor Newcomb. Scarcely ever does one find a critic of psychical research who deals with concrete facts in a sane and rational manner. The criticism of this subject is "an unbroken fluency of indefinite half-truths," where it does not degenerate into something worse.

In 1920, Mr. Joseph McCabe wrote a book entitled Spiritualism: a Popular History from 1847. The book where it deals with psychical research and not with spiritualism, is described by Dr. W. F. Prince as being "replete with blunder and innuendo." An account given of a single incident connected with the Society for Psychical Research contains five mis-statements of fact and even locates the incident in the wrong country!

Miss Margaret Washburn, a psychologist of excellent standing and co-editor of the American Journal of Psychology, published, in 1920, an article entitled, Psychology and Spiritism, in a periodical called the Chronicle. In it she said, referring to sittings with mediums, that for a sitting to be of value, every word spoken by the sitter or by any person present should be recorded. She then added: "This precaution has been almost uniformly neglected." Yet, had she read the Proceedings and Journal of either the English or American Society for Psychical Research, she would have discovered that the method she advocated and stated to have been neglected had been the standard practice for years.

Dr. Ivor L. Tuckett, in a book entitled The Evidence for the Supernatural, says: "We know that the Society for Psychical Research was founded in order to establish the existence of telepathy. Therefore it is fair to consider that those early members of the Society for Psychical Research were biased in favour of telepathy." Had Dr. Tuckett known anything about the Society for Psychical Research he would have been aware that it was not founded to establish telepathy or anything else. He might have read the articles of association of the society or their reflection in the words of its first President, Professor Henry Sidgwick. "Some of those whom I address feel, no doubt, that this attempt [psychical research] can only lead to the proof of most of the alleged phenomena; some again think it most probable that most, if not all, will be disproved. But, regarded as a society, we are quite unpledged, and as individuals we are all agreed that any particular investigation that we may make should be carried on with a single-minded desire to ascertain the facts and without any fore-gone conclusion as to their nature."

Perhaps some may be inclined to think that if only quantitative types of experiment were used, such as those described in Chapters 12, 13 and 14, in which the results are expressed mathematically, all differences of opinion would vanish and all discussion be at an end.(12) Unfortunately, prejudice is not so easily overcome. Dr. J. E. Coover, of Stanford University, and Professor L. T. Troland of Harvard University both carried out quantitative experiments in extra-sensory perception and both stated that their results showed nothing more than chance could account for. Re-examination of their figures by others showed that the results of both were significant. A reviewer of Coover's case writes: "He evidently suffered from a singularly strong resistance to admitting evidence in favour of extra-sensory perception, and declared in the strongest terms that his results showed no trace of anything beyond chance. Actually the odds were some thousands to one against chance alone being responsible for them..." With regard to Professor Troland, we are told: "But Coover did at least collect some 12,000 odd relevant observations and wrote 641 pages of mingled text and tables, while Troland seemed to think that honour would be satisfied with no more than 605 trials - say ten hours work and 26 pages of print."'(13) We have seen that Troland thought paranormal phenomena were logical impossibilities; it is therefore surprising that he made any experiments at all.

(12) Proceedings S.P.R., Vol. i. p. 8.

(13) Journal S.P.R., Vol. xxx., p. 296.

What is the matter with all these people, one wonders? Are they wandering in some enchanted wood? Why has judgment, balance and poise deserted them? If anyone is disposed to think that a man who professes the principles of science is bound to welcome any novel facts, on evidence, let him read the following passage from an article by Professor Chester Kellogg, of McGill University, entitled New Evidence (?) for Extra-Sensory Perception.(14) "Since Dr. Rhine's reports have led to investigations in many other institutions it might seem unnecessary to prick the bubble as the truth eventually will out and the craze subside. But meanwhile the public is being misled, the energies of young men and women in their most vital years of professional training are being diverted into a side issue and funds expended that might instead support research into problems of real importance for human welfare. This has gone so far that a new Journal of Parapsychology has been founded..." Could any clearer evidence be wanted of a refusal to decide the question of telepathy by reference to facts? Professor Kellogg had, in 1937, not only the general evidence for telepathy which we have dealt with above, but a great deal of statistical evidence as well. He sweeps the whole of it aside in favour of an a priori judgment.

(14) The Scientific Monthly, October, 1937, Vol. xlv, pp. 331-41.

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

• Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
• What is Psychical Research?
• What is Science?
• The Significance of the Whole
• The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious
• Psychical Research and Religion
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Sιance Room?
• The Case of Patience Worth: An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing
• Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
• What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
• Discarnate Agency: More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem
• Trance Personalities
• Sense-Imagery
• Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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