Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Scole Experiments - Fact or Faked?


Throughout the 1990s, a small group of people sat in a cellar in the English countryside village of Scole, England. These sitters and the two mediums who faciliated the phenomena they witnessed, may have ushered in a new form of physical mediumship.

Ever since the middle of the 19th century, believers and skeptics sat in groups called "circles" to witness mediumship. Early mediumship produced not only information apparently unknowable to the medium involved, but also fantastic and seemingly impossible physical phenomena. These included the production of physical historical artifacts from far away and the appearance of a mysterious substance that came to be known as "ectoplasm". According to believers this ectoplasm, which issued from the mediums themselves, could form into rods to manipulate the surrounding seance room environment and even manifest as materializations of the deceased who would walk amongst the sitters, touching them and conversing with them. Many sitters came away from these seances absolutely convinced they had made contact with their deceased relatives. They believed this because they saw a resemblance to their loved ones and the deceased speaking to them seemed to know things and exhibit behaviors that were unknown outside their immediate family and friends.

Many believe these physical seances stopped sometime in the early 20th century and that the belief in Spiritualism likewise died out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spiritualism as a belief system has reformed and is very much in existence. Today many believers attend home circles, which are generally not-for-profit. Modern physical mediums develop in these circles and they are today strictly social affairs, much as they began in the 19th century. But there are professional physical mediums still working. Some modern Spiritualists attend these commercial seances. The work of the professionals is simply not as well known today to the general public.

The Scole Experiments

The aforementioned modern Scole sessions stood out as a new type of physical mediumship in two significant ways. First, they employed an "energy" based production of phenomena instead of the ectoplasm-based phenomena of old. Robin Foy led the Scole group and is a veteran of decades of physical mediumship research. According to Foy, the energy-based physical phenomena production is far less taxing to the medium, more efficient and more productive than the older ectoplasm-based approach. Nevertheless, one can still find ectoplasm-based work in physical mediumship today. One modern example is the Fritz Experimental Group in Germany.

Skeptics Disagree

But skeptics have their doubts as they did in the 19th century. Drawing on a rich history of debunking claims of the psychic general and of physical mediumship in particular, most skeptics deride and denounce all such claims and their practitioners.

In an August 2012 "Coast to Coast" program, host George Noury interviewed professional mentalist and skeptic Mark Edward who was promoting his new book. Edward claimed he had reproduced the Scole phenomena purely by trickery. And he said he was troubled by the lack of apparent controls in the Scole sessions. It is unclear to what degree Edward actually produced the Scole phenomena. It is unlikely, for example, that Edward was able to reproduce detailed knowledgable discourses that took place between respected living scientists and purported "spirit scientists" during some of the Scole sessions.

The so-called "lack of controls" that troubled Edward is a very questionable criticism in the context of the events. Any professional entertainer who works as a seance medium knows it is incredibly difficult to perform these sorts of effects in a wide variety of venues. The Scole phenomena was produced on three continents over a period of a decade. Trickery is not a given in these cases in my professional opinion. This is not analogous to taking a magic show on the road. Nor is it a mentalism act. There are some significant props, equipment, and potentially people that would have to be employed in the production of these effects. There would have to be a way to secret these things.

But there are some holes in the Scole story. For example there was a second cellar room in the Foy home at Scole that was apparently checked only once at the outset of the phenomena and never again. If this room were where the props were stored and where assistants that might have been part of the "act" hidden, the Foys would almost had to have been implicated.

What most lay people don't know is that to fake the reported phenomena would have probably required a cast of characters. This was done back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And similar things are going on today in some entertainment venues. Mediums of the period have openly admitted to having done these things. This is not a "might have happened" scenario - this is a "did happen" scenario, at least in those specific cases.

Mark Edward and his fellow skeptics seem to have forgotten that English ultra-skeptic Prof. Richard Wiseman built oen of the test boxes that was used at Scole to contain film artifacts. Unexplained writings and drawings appeared on these rolls of controlled and undeveloped film. Wiseman was convinced this box was a satisfactory control. He never attended a Scole seance, but that didn't prevent him from making derogatory comments about Scole with no personal experience to draw upon.

Even if these devices had been compromised, the sophistication needed to fabricate the messages in toto would have required scholarly knowlege which none of the four regular sitters possessed. So other scholars would had to have been involved. Difficulties keeping secrets grow exponentially with the number of people who know those secrets. The explanations must fit the facts. In contrast, the skeptics routinely reduce the data to what they can explain and reject everything else. This tactic is often employed when skeptics "review" psi research, for example.

Of course, it makes great headlines to say "Scole Debunked Says Professional Medium" - film at eleven. And it is very true that skeptics do understand the value of sound bites to the media, ever-hungry for stories that appeal to the lowest common audience denominator and play to ratings. In fact, the key criticism of professionals working in psi research is their relative inability, until recently, to package their results for the lay audience. Psi researchers still don't market to that audience as skeptics do. So it is no surprise skeptics can freely say anything to the media that advances their agenda, almost without hindrance.

Scientist meets Spirit

With regards to improving the quality of dialogs with mediums and their apparent controls, I have been working on protocols to engage mental mediums in the same sort of "knowledgable discourses" that apparently occurred at Scole.

The idea is to connect a so-called "spirit expert" with a living scientist through a medium. The discourse would be at the scientific level on a current problem with which the living scientist is struggling. The goal would be for a discourse or discussion between the two, through the medium, to yield a solution to the problem. This would of course have to be a solution that was demonstrably beyond the medium's skill and knowledge. The discussion would be in the language of the specialized area of knowledge as opposed to common everyday language. These factors taken together - the language used, the subject matter discussed and the formulation of a practical and workable solution for the living scientist - would conclusively demonstrate an intelligence behind the communications. There would be no guesswork to the scoring. Either the discussion was fruitful and led to a discovery or it did not. No cold reading would be possible. No fishing would be possible. No pre-work would be possible.

The greatest obstacle to success is the same as with most astounding phenomena demonstrations: finding suitable subjects. In this case the problem is exacerbated because one has to find not only a suitable medium but one who also has access to a qualified "spirit expert" and a willing living scientist who will risk his or her reputation in this endeavour.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable - they are simply difficult. Nothing is impossible; the improbable miracle just takes a bit longer.

It is possible that the events at Scole as well may have been indeed, one of those improbable miracles.