Mediumship and science
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!]