Magazine and Date:

Psychic World, August 2001

Putting the Record Straight

 - Prof. David Fontana -

Dear Ray,

One of the least enjoyable tasks during my three year term as President of the SPR was answering attacks (almost invariably full of factual errors and misinformation) upon the Society, both in print and in personal correspondence. The task is now very well handled by our current President Professor Bernard Carr, our Honorary Secretary Professor John Poynton, and the Chairman of our Image and Publicity Committee, Montague Keen, and I have no need or wish to re-enter the fray. However, reading John Sampson's letter (Psychic World June 2001) I fear he may give a rather misleading picture of the SPR's work in the field of survival research, though I must stress that I have no personal quarrel with John, whose position on the great importance of this research is very close to my own, and whose active involvement in the SPR over the years has been both welcome and positive and productive.

During my time as President, the Council of the SPR founded the Survival Research Committee, which I have chaired from the outset. The other founder members of the Committee were Montague Keen (who was, and remains our secretary), Ralph Noyes (then Honorary Secretary of the Society), Maurice Grosse (who led the successful investigation into the Enfield poltergeist case), Arthur Oram (a previous Honorary Secretary), and Professors Arthur Ellison twice President of the SPR) and Archie Roy (my immediate predecessor as President). All those interested in survival research will know the work of these gentlemen, whose books and articles on subjects related to survival would fill many volumes, and whose involvement in survival research goes back in some cases for half a century and more.

In its four years of existence the Committee has been one of the most active bodies within the SPR or elsewhere. Three members of the committee (Montague Keen, Professor Arthur Ellison and myself) carried out the Scole investigation, and our report (some 120,000 words in length) was published by the SPR. All three of us also contributed to the Grant and Jane Solomon's best-selling book on the subject of Scole (The Scole Experiment). Currently Montague Keen and myself have just completed a 16,000 word report on another very interesting case supporting the concept of survival, which we hope will be published shortly. Out of its limited budget (all of which goes towards survival research), the Committee has supported the ground breaking work of Trish Robertson and Professor Archie Roy, which does much to demolish the hoary argument that the messages received through mediums are so general that they could apply to anyone (the first lengthy report on this research is published in the current issue of the Society's journal; incidentally the Society is also in the course of publishing Professor Gary Schwarz's findings in the USA which lead to similar conclusions to those of Trish Robertson and Archie Roy). The Committee also gave financial support to our work at Scole, and is currently giving support to the report by Montague Keen and myself that I have just mentioned. In addition, it is providing some financial support for Christopher Moreman, a Ph.D. student researching into survival in Canada, for Annekatrin Puhl's extensive survey of survival research across. Europe, and for Professor Deborah Delanoy's project to establish a psychomanteum at Northampton University College. If we had more money, we would be delighted to support more projects.

Furthermore, the Committee organises the two Gwen Tate Memorial Lectures held each year, which are specifically concerned with the concept of the survival of consciousness, and which have involved many of the leading researchers into survival in the UK and the USA. I hope John Sampson has been able to attend some of these. Finally we are working towards the publication of a catalogue of the voluminous material with a bearing on survival published by the SPR since its foundation in 1882 (an undertaking which is proving so successful that the Society is now cataloguing all its material in other areas of psychical research). This is not a bad track record for four years work, particularly as it is undertaken by members who all have busy professional lives outside psychical research and who give their time voluntarily and unpaid - often even without contributions to their expenses. I must add that the above details do not include the projects which the members of the Committee are currently following up, some of which may lead nowhere, but others of which, involving mental mediumship, physical phenomena, ITC, spontaneous communications and carefully designed experimental work, are of great potential importance to survival. None of this work is a new departure. The committee is simply following in the best traditions of the Society, and in so doing honouring the intentions and the memories of our founders. John Sampson is right of course that some members of the SPR are interested in areas of psychical research other than survival. This is right and proper. Psychical research is an extraordinarily rich and complex field, and demands the attention of people with many different interests. 'Me SPR has a Research Activities Committee with concerns that span the whole of this field, and a Research Grants Committee which supports projects in all areas (including survival, though this is primarily the concern of the Survival Research Committee, with its separate budget). Some people outside the Society may feel that them laboratory-based work which the Research Grants Committee frequently supports is less relevant than survival research, but laboratory work has been of enormous benefit in establishing beyond reasonable doubt, under carefully controlled conditions, that psychic abilities exist. Without such work, the difficult job of convincing the scientific establishment that psychical research should be taken seriously would become impossible.

One last point. I am always surprised that when people interested in psychical matters want to attack any one, they choose the SPR, almost as if it is a formal body supported by government money. The SPR is a private scientific body that has never received such support Except for a business secretary, a part-time membership secretary and a part- time librarian (all three of whom spend much of their time helping people all over the world with queries about psychical research; work for which the Society receives nothing even towards its running costs) the SPR consists of members who, like the Survival Research Committee, give their time voluntarily. It would be far more helpful for psychical research if these critical attacks were aimed not at the SPR but at the fundamentalist sceptics who at each point seek to denigrate and belittle this research. Such attacks should of course be well-informed and identify the weaknesses in specfic sceptics (whether they be scientific or conjurors). The vague charges made from time to time against materialistic scientists en masses are of little value. In the meantime, I can assure readers of the Psychic World of the dedication and commitment of all members of the Survival Research Committee to the issue of survival. John is quite wrong when he says that 'the fund granting committees [of the Society] are dominated by hard-nosed sceptical materialists'. I earlier listed the founder members of the Survival Research Committee, and I would challenge anyone to find a 'hardnosed sceptical materialist' among us. I can say without fear of contradiction that survival research was and is central to our concerns. And as I have said before in these pages and elsewhere, in my view the evidence for survival is, as Sir Oliver Lodge put it, 'thoroughly good'.

A closing comment on a different matter. James Webster's letter (Psychic World, June) emphasises yet again a point which Montague Keen and I have made in the Scole Report and many times elsewhere, and which James himself made as one of our invited platform speakers at the Study Day held on the Scole Investigation by the SPR, namely that he had no less than three full sittings with the Scole Group and was adamant that in his professional judgment as an Associate of the Inner Magic Circle, no trickery was evident, and that furthermore conjuring tricks could not account for the phenomena he observed. Some sceptics have persisted in their claims that no conjurors were present at Scole, and I hope James' letter will finally convince them how wrong they are. 

Professor David Fontana 


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