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Parapsychology: An Insider’s View of ESP

by J. Gaither Pratt
Doubleday, 300 pp., $4.95

Croiset the Clairvoyant

by Jack Harrison Pollack
Doubleday, 318 pp., $4.95

Experimental Psychical Research

by Robert H. Thouless
Penguin, 148 pp., 95c

Lectures on Psychical Research

by C.D. Broad
Humanities Press, 450 pp., $10.00

These books are all about the same subject, for the expression “psychical research” is just an older equivalent, still favored in Britain, for the newer “parapsychology.” They range widely in both level and quality, but, precisely for that reason, they can together give a fairer view of the present state of the subject than could be got from any one separately—even from the most thorough and substantial, which is, by a very wide margin, that by Broad.

Pratt sets his tone from the first sentence: “In 1936 I became a professional revolutionist. This book is about the revolution I joined.” Fortunately, as the author assures us immediately, it is an intellectual revolution only. Yet as such it is supposed to be comparable with, among others, the change “from the Newtonian system of mechanics, to Einsteinian relativity, with its resulting release of atomic energy and the precipitation of the Atomic Age.” This latest intellectual revolution “consists in the scientific demonstration that man is fundamentally mind-centered rather than brain-centered.” The demonstration is supposed to have been achieved by parapsychology, and in particular by the statistical experimentation which has been so much stimulated by Professor J. B. Rhine of Duke University. Since 1936, apart from the interruptions of war service, Pratt has been Rhine’s right-hand man. This book is very much made in the Rhine image, but it is a rather inferior version of the master’s New Frontiers of the Mind (1937) or The Reach of the Mind (1947). About the only possible reason for preferring it to either of these books is that Pratt gives an account of his attempts, by experiments on the homing of pigeons, to answer the question, “Do animals have ESP?” The chapter is called: “Winged Messengers, What Is Your Secret?”

Pollack is a journalist, and his book is a report of perhaps the most outstanding clairvoyant operating today: the Dutchman, Croiset, who claims among other things to have solved many mysteries of crime and disappearance. Pollack’s book consists almost entirely of short and snappy case reports, given such tabloid titles as “was the Father Poisoned?,” “The Brother Rapists,” and “A Cop’s Conscience.” One gets an impression of police work in contemporary Holland similar to that suggested for late Victorian Britain by the Sherlock Holmes stories: the police forever baffled, until at last they have the wit to call in Croiset—although Croiset, unlike Holmes, may be misguided into confirming the erroneous suspicions which he has read in the minds of the wretched professionals. It is quite impossible to do justice to the claims of Croiset from this presentation, and it is not made any easier by the undiscriminating citations of endorsement. There are, for instance, tributes from both members of a husband and wife team who have established their home as an Institute for the Study of Mental Images, and one is quoted from a journal edited, largely written, and published domestically—in a peculiarly literal sense, a house organ.

The most serious thing about the book is what it suggests, obviously quite unwittingly, about Dr. Tenhaeff. Tenhaeff was the first occupant of the world’s first official professorship of parapsychology, at the University of Utrecht. Croiset has been Tenhaeff’s special subject and, according to Pollack, has accepted Tenhaeff as his mentor. Pollack seems never to miss a chance of referring to Tenhaeff’s wisdom, scholarship, and devotion. He even provides a charming picture of the Professor’s frugal and meticulous domestic arrangements. Yet the book gives no hint that all these years of study of Croiset have ever involved anything more than observation and recording. We are irresistibly reminded of Darwin’s remark: “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not to theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colors.” One of the book’s illustrations is of “5 Springweg, Utrecht, Holland, where Professor Tenhaeff conducts most of his experiments.” But of experiments, in the scientific sense, the book says not a word. There is of course a lot about “chair tests” and various other public and private demonstrations, often described, wrongly, as experiments: “The experiment proved beyond doubt Croiset’s honesty and paragnostic [=clairvoyant—AF] abilities, even though some Germans continue to remain skeptical.” But of experiments designed to test hypotheses, or even theories and hypotheses to be tested, nothing. Pollack lists among his qualifications that he is “a former US Senate Committee investigator.”

Thouless is someone who both knows what an experiment is and has chosen to write about experiments only. He has spent his life in experimental psychology. His book is useful as a short, well-informed, albeit—by some standards—optimistic account of the present experimental situation. It will appeal to a different and wider public than Soal and Bateman’s Modern Experiments in Telepathy, which is in fact much more than Thouless’s bibliography suggests: “An account of two of the key experiments to establish the reality of ESP.” It is also narrower in scope than D. J. West’s Psychical Research Today, available in the same series. The special merit of the Thouless book is its sophistication and interest in questions of method and the interpretation of results. The thirty pages on chance and the significance of results could be read with profit by a great many people whose primary interest is not in their parapsychological relevance. There is, for instance, an elegant account of “the crumpled paper fallacy,” which consists in mistaking some given pattern of folds to be significant for no better reason than that it—like every possible pattern—had formerly seemed enormously improbable.

But there are two places where, surely, he lapses. In the chapter on “Experimental Precautions” he runs through various suggestions that ESP successes were due to unconscious whispering, recording errors, and so on, and urges that these are “no longer a live alternative to the hypothesis of ESP.” This is to sell such ideas too short: no doubt it is wrong to put all the positive results down to any one of them singly; but it is not by the same token equally obvious that, given a sufficiently long list, these cannot possibly be attributed to one or another alternatively. In another chapter he entertains the idea that the only way to make sure whether any kind of event is possible is to find out empirically whether or not it happens.” This is strictly true. But it is also misleading. For the best reason for saying that something is impossible is that its occurrence is ruled out by what is on good evidence believed to be a law of nature. All such beliefs are, of course, in principle, open to correction. Yet it is not necessarily and always unreasonable to dismiss some story as impossible on the grounds that the occurrence reported is inconsistent with what we (think we) know. If such procedure were always unreasonable critical history, among other things, could scarcely begin.

Broad is a philosopher of distinction with what, in Britain, is unfortunately unusual in a philosopher, a background in the physical sciences. He has had a lifelong active interest in parapsychology, preceding by many years the introduction of this new label. This book is mainly the product of an energetic retirement, and it has all the qualities—both engaging and forbidding—which his admirers will know to expect.

From the Preface we can feel sure that Broad will give us none of the usual sentimental wishful guff about life after death: “If there should be another life, one can judge of its possibilities only by analogy with the actualities of life on earth. Nothing that I know of the lives and circumstances of most human beings in the present and the past encourages me to wish to risk encountering such possibilities after death.” This quotation gives the feel of the whole treatment of the survival question. It is this which is likely to interest most readers most. But the first of the three sections of the book deals with three of the main sets of experiments in card-guessing. These include those of J. G. Pratt, the author of the first book reviewed here, on Hubert Pearce. The accounts are full, and the discussion is technical and thorough. Typical of Broad’s fastidious, but never merely pedantic, care is his suggestion that to call these experiments quantitative, as is usual, is misleadingly generous: “quotitative,” referring simply to frequency, would be a better word. “Quantitative work, in the usual sense of that phrase, is concerned with measurable variables and their correlation with each other.” This, as anyone can see once Broad has pointed it out, is not the case here.

The second section consists in a similar treatment of what, again aptly, Broad would like to call the sporadic, rather than the spontaneous, cases, This is largely a matter of hallucinations and quasi-hallucinations which seem to give evidence of telepathy. Nowhere in the book does he give consideration to the putative physical phenomena in which things are supposed to be moved in physically unaccountable ways. Unless, that is, you count the reference which occasions this item in the Index: ” ‘Ectoplasm’; see Butter-muslin.” This is delicious. But it will not quite do. For if all the testimony for paranormal physical ongoings is to be thus dismissed, this must surely bear on the question of the reliability of the testimony for mental ones.

The third section is about trance mediums. Like the others it concentrates on a few really thorough investigations. In one chapter Broad’s special interest in all things Swedish produces a comparison between the communications of, or through, Mrs. Leonard and Mrs. Willett with the picture presented by Swedenborg. The latter seems to have had a critical acuteness not vouchsafed to all visionaries. He was apparently capable of rebuking spirits for claiming literally to speak to him. Notoriously they had no vocal machinery. Besides, their communications reached him in Swedish, a language which usually they could not reasonably be expected to know!

To a philosopher the most appealing chapter of all is the Epilogue. Broad’s final remarks on survival are as drily sober as his Preface. We pick two almost at random. First, Broad insists that almost all believers in survival have, like St. Paul, believed in some sort of future body—something which is often curiously overlooked even by those who think themselves to be Christians. Second, he recognizes that, if identity is to be preserved through death and dissolution, we require some variation on a Platonic-Cartesian view of man, in which the soul becomes the bearer of the individuating characteristics. On the substantive issue Broad is agnostic: “One can only wait and see, or alternately (which is no less likely) wait and not see.”

After all this have we any excuse if we still cannot bring ourselves to believe in the revolution Pratt proclaims? To begin with, there is altogether too much fraud, delusion, and incompetence around. This is bound to give the whole subject a bad smell, both to those whose home has the cleaner and austere atmosphere of the natural sciences, and perhaps especially to psychologists and others who cherish similar salutary ambitions for their own studies. It cannot but be rather offputting to learn that three leading members of the Society for Psychical Research (London) were recently able to do a magnificent hatchet job which showed beyond reasonable doubt that the late Mr. Harry Price had been faking the phenomena he was supposed to be investigating. (See E. J. Dingwall, K. M. Goldney, and T. H. Hall, The Haunting of Borley Rectory, London, Duckworth, 1956.) It is discouraging too to learn that such a prominent and exceptionally scrupulous investigator as Dr. S. G. Soal, the person responsible for some of the most impressive of all the positive experimental evidence, should have had to reveal, in 1956, that the original scoring sheets of all the crucial experiments on Basil Shackleton had been lost at Cambridge railway station in 1945. To note this is not mere professional overfastidiousness. For the original sheets, and only the original sheets, might have revealed signs of tampering with the notes of the guesses and targets before, or while, these were being scored up against one another. (Broad should, I think, have given the year as well as the volume and page of the journal where this confession was made.)

Another thing which is perhaps offputting to some is the tendency to surround a few pinches of experimental fact with a caskful of grandiose speculation. Pratt, following Rhine, provides a bad example. He claims that the sort of experiments done at Duke have demonstrated “that man is fundamentally mind-centered rather than brain-centered,” construing mind as some sort of Platonic-Cartesian incorporeal soul. It is this which explains his definition that “parapsychology is the science of the mind,” which would make it the cuckoo in psychology’s nest. But this view seems to be, for both Rhine and Pratt, a presupposition rather than any sort of implication arising from experimentation. For there is in the experimental reports not the slightest reason for attributing the ESP capacities to any such Platonizing entity. There are, after all, human, corporeal performers present in the laboratory.

Yet none of this would matter much if only there was even one reliably repeatable experiment. Unfortunately for the revolution, and despite all efforts in a growing number of centers throughout the world, this remains as much the unattained aspiration as it was ten, twenty, thirty years ago, and way back to 1882 when the S.P.R. (London) was founded. Pratt draws confidence from comparisons with, among others, Benjamin Franklin. The enormous difference is that Franklin’s experiments with clouds and kites and keys could be repeated anywhere by anyone who was prepared to try. Certainly the investigations must go on. There is far too much impressive and perplexing evidence to ignore. But a sure-fire intellectual revolution? Not yet. “One can only wait and see, or alternately (which is no less likely) wait and not see.”

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