Magazine and Date:

Psychic World, June 2001

Survival and the SPR

 - Montague Keen -

Dear Sir,

I fail to recognise in Michael Roll's attack on the Society for Psychical Research (May, 2001) anything consistent with reality. Reports and discussions published in abundance during the past century or more in the Society's Journals and Proceedings relate to or parallel Sir William Crookes' examination of physical mediumship back in the 1870s.

Mr. Roll's suggestion that the SPR never publishes anything which is sympathetic to Sir Oliver Lodge's spiritualistic views can be readily shown to be wide of the mark. Take the huge amount of space the SPR has devoted to the cross-correspondences: these were solely concerned with evidence purporting to support not merely survival, but intelligent communication and active influence in our affairs from the other side. This alone provides more than ample material to sink Mr. Roll's thesis.

What makes this controversy, and Mr. Zammit's attacks, all the more regrettable, is their failure to recognise that recent years have seen a new spirit of collaboration growing up between psychical researchers and spiritualists. That is apparent from the existence and work of PRISM, the joint operation designed to promote scientific investigation of mediumship. It is equally evident in the abundance of lectures and publications which support or are sympathetic to the theory that personality survives bodily death. And the last Tate Memorial lecture, given by Professor David Fontana did indeed link the evidence for survival with subatomic physics, contrary to the confident belief which Mr. Roll enjoys.

The Society's recent publication of two of the most important papers strongly favouring survival - the Scole Report and Professor Gary Schwartz's experiment with five gifted mediums - should by themselves dispel any lingering belief that there is some hidden anti-survival agenda operated by a mysterious censorship committee. That is the stuff of conspiracy theorists, many of whom appear to continue to believe that the SPR is run by people like Dr Sue Blackmore (who has now left the scene for good, she says, and whose views, in my experience, are totally unrepresentative of those held by most members of the SPR Council.)

There is no committee of the SPR which officially censors anything. Papers submitted for publication in its Journal are accepted if they are considered by the Editor (by and with the advice of a distinguished team of editorial advisers, where thought necessary), provided they are relevant to the subject and meet the severe standards of accuracy and evidentiality which the Society has long considered it essential to uphold, and which justifies the high esteem in which its Journal and Proceedings are held.

As the principal author of the Scole Report, and the person who has borne the brunt of criticisms from colleagues, perhaps I could comment on Mr. Zammit's attack on Professor Poynton's references, in an extempore radio interview, to magicians' claims. I have no doubt that some magicians, particularly those who have taken the trouble to remain in ignorance of the Report, will say that all claims of physical paranormal phenomena can be explained by clever deception. However, only two persons with professional qualifications and long experience in illusionism have offered public comments. One was Dr. Richard Wiseman, a colleague who is a noted sceptic. He had no opportunity to attend any of the sittings of the Group, but his observations were extremely circumspect. He pronounced the report as a whole to be "very impressive" and, at the Study Day meeting where the newly issues Report was discussed, confined his remarks to explaining how undesirable it was to have anything happen in darkness, that the absence of infra-red cameras made it difficult to assess what really went on, etc. That view is difficult to dispute, but it does not amount to a claim that all we heard, felt, saw, and were able to a greater or less extent to control, could be replicated by skilled conjurors. Any careful reading of our analysis of just what assumptions would have to be made to account normally for the evidence will show why Dr. Wiseman has prudently remained silent.

The only other qualified magician, Mr. Webster, attended three sittings, well before our entry onto the scene. He was and remains quite clear that what he experienced could not have been faked.

Another critic, Mr. Cornell, went to much trouble to show how certain Polaroid pictures produced when I was experimenter in charge could have been faked, and how a so-called apport, in the form of an issue of the Daily Mail for April 1, 1944, carrying a report of Helen Duncan's prison sentence, was nothing but a readily purchasable replica. It is regrettable, but by no means rare, that when evidence was produced, as it has been in our response to critics, showing the faking hypothesis to be inconsistent with the physical conditions prevailing at the time; while the Daily Mail apport was proved to have been printed by letterpress on wartime newsprint, no admission of error has been forthcoming.

There is growing interest in the Scole Report. Professor Gary Schwartz's valuable experiments are continuing. They are being further refined to meet criticisms. The SPR is just about to publish the results of another study, this time by Mrs. Tricia Robertson and Professor Archie Roy. It will add significantly to the weight of existing evidence that mediumistic statements simply cannot be dismissed as a product of cold readings, secret briefings, body language and the other familiar but long-exposed pretexts for ridiculing mediums and mediumship. Current research promises to reveal even more striking evidence pointing to intelligent discarnate communication.

The SPR has a huge task, and responsibility. It is seriously short of funds to enable its work not only to progress but also to become more widely known. It depends more on benefactions from sympathetic supporters than on income from members. The continuation and extension of its work, as the world's oldest scientific body dedicated to exploring the paranormal, is in everyone's interest: of Spiritualists seeking scientific validation and hence respectability; of honest sceptics seeking fresh evidence objectively; of psychical researchers seeking to gain a clearer understanding of the mechanism, nature and limitation of mediumistic transmissions.

Yours sincerely, 

Montague Keen, Pentlow



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