Friday, January 28, 2005

Mediumship and science

UPDATE: After extensive discussion in our forum, I've conceded that eight of the nine items of information listed below are too ambiguous or too pedestrian to qualify as solid hits. The other item (no. 7; the blinds/curtains) still strikes me as evidential if no one involved in the experiment knew about it by any normal means. Hopefully this post gives you an idea of how hard it is to evaluate psychics and mediums objectively. An example of how not to evaluate this research is found in a very hostile and factually challenged article by "Luke T." at http://www.skepticreport.com/psychics/schwartzkeen.htm- MP

Some folks might be interested in the kind of debate that surrounds the subject of mediumship and the scientific investigation of same. (Yes, there is serious study of this phenomenon, though you might not know it from the tabloid-style coverage the topic receives in the media.)

In an online forum in which I participate, a session conducted by medium Allison DuBois has been the focus of some debate. Allison has recently become quite well known as the person whose life is dramatized in the NBC series Medium (Monday nights, 10:00 Eastern Time). A transcript of one part of this session is printed in a paper by Gary E. Schwartz and Julie Beischel - a paper that can be found at http://veritas.arizona.edu/survivaldetails.htm .

Essentially, Allison was asked to read (by proxy) a lady named Veronica. What she produced was detailed information about Veronica's late husband. Allison was not told Veronica's last name, but in fact she was Veronica Keen, wife of the British parapsychology researcher Montague Keen.

Objections to the procedure have centered on the possibility that Allison, upon hearing the name Veronica, jumped to the conclusion that it must be Mrs. Keen. Allegedly she could then have drawn on knowledge of Montague Keen's life and work in order to produce various seemingly evidential details.

Allison had never met either of the Keens, but their names were known to many who are interested in paranormal phenomena.

So is the session an example of legitimate mediumship or clever duplicity on Allison's part?

What follows is my own modest contribution to the discussion, which may give you a feel for the issues and concerns raised in this field of study. Naturally, these remarks make a lot more sense if you read the transcript first!

[Update, March 26, '05: Comments in square brackets have been added to indicate why I am no longer persuaded that eight of the nine items are evidential.]

****

Peter's comments [i.e., a skeptical rejoinder by Dr. Peter Hayes] at the end of the paper are a good digest of objections that a skeptical reader might lodge. Most of them occurred to me, too, as I read the transcript. In particular, Allison's mention of the name Levine seemed like a spectacular hit - until the commentary revealed that the name Levin figured in both the dedication and the acknowledgments of Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek's book The Living Energy Universe. For the hit to be significant, we have to assume that Allison did not read this book. Similarly, her "white crow" reference is significant only if she is really unfamiliar with this term. Most people who are seriously interested in this field know the William James quote in question.

Above all, hearing the name Veronica could have tipped her off to the identity of the deceased. I never met Montague Keen or his wife, but I knew that her name was Veronica, because this fact was mentioned more than once in Internet articles reporting on Keen's research. Not too long before his death, Keen got into an Internet dust-up with James Randi over an insult Randi allegedly delivered to Mrs. Keen (although Randi has a different, and to my mind rather unconvincing, version of the affair). The two conflicting accounts of this altercation were widely available on the Web.

Nevertheless, there are some details in the transcript that are hard to explain even if we assume (for the sake of argument) that the medium was being deceptive.

1. Allison implies that Montague Keen (hereafter MK) recalled lying on the grass and watching the clouds as a boy. MK did grow up on a farm. This fact was probably mentioned in some of his obituaries, but I don't think it was widely reported.

[It turns out that this information was incorrect. According to Veronica Keen, Montague did not, in fact, grow up on a farm. He grew up in the city and did not purchase a farm until he was nearly fifty years old. In any case, Allison did not say MK grew up on a farm, only that he watched the clouds go by. Most children have done this.]

2. She suggests that MK used to be worried about deadlines and about what other people thought of him. Apparently this was true, but it would not have been apparent from publicly available information. (I would have assumed he didn't care at all what other people thought of him, given his combative stance on controversial matters.)

[The obvious objection is that almost everybody cares about deadlines and other people's opinions, at least some of the time.]

3. She says MK has appeared to his wife since his death. This fact was eventually reported in a British newspaper, but was the British article printed before or after this session?

[Many grieving widows or widowers feel that their spouse has appeared to them after death in some form, perhaps in a dream or as a "sign." Statement #3 could, therefore, apply to many people.]

4. She mentions airplanes in a military formation. This detail came up in Laurie Campbell's reading of MK years earlier. Was Allison present at this meeting, or did she read a transcript or talk to Laurie about it? If not, it's hard to explain this as "hot reading."

[The airplanes were said to be in a V formation, which of course could have been suggested by the name Veronica.]

5. She mentions Veronica Keen's phone ringing and nobody on the line. This apparently happened. Again, unless reported in the press or on the Web before this session, could Allison have known it?

[An interesting detail, but "phantom phone calls" are fairly common, and usually are attributable to telemarketers whose computers dial several numbers simultaneously.]

6. She says MK made Laurie Campbell mad. He did, in the public reading.

[If Allison knew that she was speaking to MK's widow, she might have known about the public reading.]

7. She says that Veronica Keen just got new curtains for her house. Actually, she had just bought new blinds, but the association between curtains and blinds is very close. This information was certainly not publicly broadcast.

8. She implies that Veronica Keen was more of a believer in the afterlife than was MK. Apparently this is true, but I would not have guessed it. I would have assumed they both held similiar views on the subject.

[A matter of interpretation. MK did believe in the afterlife but adopted a somewhat skeptical approach in order to weed out frauds and fakery.]

9. She says there was a banner at the meeting where MK collapsed. This turns out to be true, but I don't recall it being mentioned in any accounts of the event, and I have seen no photos of the incident.

[If Allison knew that she was talking to Veronica Keen, she could easily have known the circumstances of MK's death, which took place at a public debate. Banners or signs are usually displayed at such gatherings.]

There are possible explanations for all of these things. Allison could have read that MK was raised on a farm (1). [As noted above, this information was false anyway.] She could have talked to people who knew MK and learned something of his personality (2). She might have been aware of reports or rumors that MK was "appearing" to his wife or that the phone had been behaving strangely (3, 5). She might have been in contact with a friend or neighbor of Mrs. Keen who knew about the curtains and about Mrs. Keen's views on the afterlife versus her husband's views(7, 8). She might have gained access to the Laurie Campbell reading and learned about the airplanes and Laurie's frustration with MK (4, 6). She might have spoken to someone who was present at the meeting and saw the banner (9).

These explanations would require a great deal of work on Allison's part. She (or an assistant) would have to

- read MK's obituaries and news accounts of his death
- talk to people who knew MK without raising their suspicions
- keep abreast of reports or rumors of odd goings-on after MK's passing
- learn details of the Keen household from someone with inside information
- review the Laurie Campbell reading or talk to Laurie herself or bring in Laurie as a conspirator
- find someone who had attended the meeting and talk to him about it.

If she had known in advance that she would be reading Veronica Keen, she might have had a motive to do these things. But if she had no idea that Veronica Keen was to be the sitter, why would she invest the time and effort in learning so much about MK and his wife?

One other point (hold on while I don my skeptic's hat): There is one place in the transcript's commentary where I think we see the danger of over-interpreting. This is when Allison mentions bagels and lox in connection with MK. The commentary offers four possible explanations: a) it was a reference to Levin, who called himself "the hole in the bagel"; b) it was a reference to Mrs. Keen's custom of buying bagels for MK; c) it was a reference to bagels served at MK's wake; d) it was a reference to MK's brother-in-law, who sold lox, which MK used to eat whenever he visited.

Four explanations (or three if you count b and c as one concept). When this many interpretations are possible, I think it is safe to say that the reference is not sufficiently clear to warrant any conclusions. (I note that the "lox" item was scored as a miss, though the "bagels" were not.)

Overall, though, I think the onus of proof is on the skeptics to explain the more obscure items of information listed as 1 - 9 above.

[Now I would say that while the reading is certainly of interest, most of the statements are too general to prove much. See how frustrating it is to do this sort of work? It's like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall!]

4 Comments:

Blogger MzTenderheart said...

Dearest Mr. Prescott-
I feel a little embarassed by trying to contact a bestselling author through the internet, but I thought I'd give it a try. I had tried to send an email to the email address provided at http://www.michaelprescott.freeservers.com, but it wouldn't let me... I figured the blog comments might work just as well. Here's the email I had tried to send:

Dearest Mr. Prescott-

I know it's a very unlikely chance that you will receive my email, but I thought I'd give it a try anyhow. I just wanted to say that I absolutely LOVE your books. I own every one so far, and I've loved the ones that I've read. I've got one or two left to read, but I absolutely love your style. The characters pull me in. I especially liked "Comes the dark" and "In Dark Places". I've had an interest in serial killers, mass murderers, etc. for quite some time now, and my goals for the future is to become a cop and maybe even work my way up to detective... I love your books because, for me, it's somewhat educational as well.
I also enjoy writing. I've always wanted to write a book of my own, whether it gets published or not, but I could never find my motivation enough to write anything more than a chapter or two. Anywho... I just wanted to let you know that you have a HUGE fan here. You have got to be my favorite author of all time and I just wanted to thank you for sharing your imagination!

Sincerely,

Danielle Tumlinson aka MzTenderheart

January 29, 2005 11:28 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Danielle,

Thanks very much for your comments! I don't know why my email address didn't work for you. I haven't heard of any other people having problems with it - although I suppose if they can't get through to me, I wouldn't hear about it, would I?

You wrote,
>I know it's a very unlikely chance that you will receive my email, but I thought I'd give it a try anyhow.

And it worked! (If your email had gone through, I certainly would have received it. I maintain my Web site myself and read all the mail, except junk mail.)

>I've had an interest in serial killers, mass murderers, etc. for quite some time now,

This sounds ominous ...

>and my goals for the future is to become a cop and maybe even work my way up to detective...

Whew! That's a lot better than having the goal of becoming a serial killer. : )

>I love your books because, for me, it's somewhat educational as well.

I appreciate that - but let's put the emphasis on *somewhat* in "somewhat educational." While I do research into police procedure, my books don't pretend to be an accurate depiction of a cop's (or FBI agent's) life. They're a romanticized or streamlined version of what really happens in law enforcement.

Cops I've known have generally enjoyed their work. If you can deal with the pressure and the occasional risk, it's a good career to pursue. If, like me, you get stressed out very easily and like a quiet life, then law enforcement isn't the way to go.

Again, Danielle, thank you very much for your comments. I'm glad you were able to get through!

January 30, 2005 1:59 PM  
Blogger MzTenderheart said...

I didn't mean to scare you with my "interest in serial killers" thing... maybe not the killers themselves, but criminal profiling and psychology is probably more of what I'm interested in. It did sound a bit ominous, now that I've read it over. hehe You don't have to worry about being stalked or anything like that, if that's what you were worried about. :)
I have an idea for a book, and was wondering if you'd be interested in hearing about it? I know you're probably very busy, but I'm way too excited to have heard back from you to not share my ideas with you... only if you're interested, of course. Anywho... I haven't a clue of what to say next, so I'll just end it here. Thank you SO much for posting me back. I can't begin to tell you how incredibly ecstatic I was/am. I hope to hear from you again!

~Danielle

January 30, 2005 7:36 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Danielle,

You wrote,
>maybe not the killers themselves, but criminal profiling and psychology is probably more of what I'm interested in.

It's a fascinating field, and unfortunately there will continue to be a demand for it.

>I have an idea for a book, and was wondering if you'd be interested in hearing about it?

Sure, I'd be happy to hear it, although I have to say that I've never been able to use an idea that someone has suggested to me. I seem to have to come up with things on my own.

It might be better to try reaching me by email, so you don't broadcast your idea to the world. (Not that "the world" is reading this blog - actually, hardly anybody is.)

My email address is prescottmichael@hotmail.com . Please note that my last name comes first in this address. If you can't get through, then feel free to post your comment here. Thanks.

January 30, 2005 10:40 PM  

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