Magazine and Date:

Psychic News, April 2001

Dr. Zammit and the SPR

 - John Poynton -

Dear Sir,

In your February Postbag, John Samson asks why some members of the Society for Psychical Research belong to it at all. He appears to arrive at this question on account of a perception of biased 'official SPR policy'. The SPR was rounded as a scientific society 'To seek, collect, and obtain information respecting, and generally to investigate, the phenomena commonly known as psychical or as spiritualistic ... and all matters of a kindred nature.' Implicit in this statement from the Memorandum of Association of 1895 is the intention not to harbour any 'official policy' beyond diligently pursuing such investigations. Investigators have the responsibility to question deeply whether work in this field is scientifically flawed, or scientifically acceptable. Every scientific society with which I am familiar has currents of strong disagreement on such questions, and the SPR would be suspect as a scientific society if such currents are not evident. A common difficulty is that members as well as outsiders of the society may hear only one side of a case being argued, and conclude that there exists a biased 'official policy'. Fully engaged membership of the SPR gives the opportunity to hear all available sides of a case, and to make one's own reasoned contribution. Every scientific society is disadvantaged by incorporating the human frailty of partiality, but, like the pursuit of science itself, this tends to be self-correcting. Self-correcting mechanisms in the running of the SPR are in place, in the frequent study and lecture meetings, in conferences, annual general meetings, correspondence columns of its publications, and the scientific papers themselves.

The nature of scientific investigation and the functions of a society fostering such work tend to be misunderstood. Writing as a lawyer about 'SPR critics' of the Scole Report in the March Psychic World, Victor Zammit maintains that they 'refuse to acknowledge that science has once more proved the existence of the afterlife.' He advises putting statements on affidavit to make their weight 'enormously increased.' It could be pointed out that science, properly understood, does not claim to ,prove' anything, only assess probabilities of occurrence. Further, legalistic devices such as affidavits normally count for nothing in the scientific community. What is taken to count is the way data have been collected, how this collection has been assessed by the researchers and others in the field, and whether the data lead fairly to conclusions that the researchers may draw. In the case of the Scole Report, the researchers themselves acknowledge that the data sets would have been increased by use of more recording apparatus, particularly infrared cameras. Until results from such standard recording apparatus are obtainable, the existing data are not likely to be reckoned in the world of science to lead necessarily to the extravagant conclusions drawn by Mr. Zammit. It is more usual for conclusions to be placed on general hold, or alternatives to the researchers own conclusions put forward. This does not necessarily imply accusations of fraud or incompetence; simply that such defects cannot be discounted on the available evidence. This evaluation is very common in professional scientific reporting.

Whatever the standing of the researchers, whatever affidavits may be presented, the history of science cautions against acceptance of conclusions that can be seen to be short on crucial lines of evidence. The life of a scientific society depends on airing such reasoned caution, reservations, and counter-interpretations. Mr. Zammit accuses 'SPR sceptics' of applying 'impossible' tests to psychical research which 'they do not apply to their own scepticism and their profession.' Considering Mr. Zammit's professed concern about evidence and damaging accusations, one may reasonably ask him for evidence that justifies this assessment. When he asks why would 'the SPR place these closed minded sceptics in senior positions?', one may in response ask for clear evidence that such 'sceptics' are not people who in fact show high concern for scientific standards, and back their assessments with careful study and research.

It would be useful if critics of the SPR showed a clearer understanding of how a scientific society like the SPR functions. To return to Mr. Samson's question about why people may belong to the SPR, I would say that an important reason is to be comprehendingly involved in one of the potentially most momentous enterprises of the times.


John Poynton, Hon. Secretary to the SPR. London.


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