Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Paranormal Experience

There are concerns a show in Jersey featuring spiritual mediums could upset those who have been bereaved. The claim is being challenged by the medium Derek Acorah who is appearing in the forthcoming 'Paranormal Show' at the publicly-owned Fort Regent. Deputy Kevin Lewis is questioning whether it is suitable entertainment for a publicly-owned building. One of the acts, Alan Bates, questioned how much Deputy Lewis actually knows about "high calibre" medium shows. Deputy Lewis said he was ok if it was put forward as entertainment. He said: "If this performance is an entertainment then I don't have a problem with it. "If there are people who are bereaved and they get messages from the other side, then I do have a problem with it." Alan Bates said that modern medium shows are more than just cold reading. He told BBC Jersey: "When was the last time he came to see our show or a medium show of high calibre. "This cold reading of saying does anybody have a J in the audience or a John, they may have done that many years ago. The accuracy of Derek Acorah is beyond any reasonable doubt." (1)

It is difficult to know what Deputy Kevin Lewis is objecting to. According to the BBC Report, he is objecting to people "getting messages from the other side" and not a pretense, a fun act, where there is cold reading - as for example Derren Brown's act on the subject of mediums. What the Deputy is reported as saying doesn't really make any logical sense, unless he has some way of proving scientifically true or false that people are "getting messages from the other side" (wherever that is); otherwise, there is no way to tell whether Derek Acorah is a fraud or genuine. And on public stage, evenings of clairvoyance have been advertised as such and held at the Arts Centre and the Opera House without grumbles from politicians (and licensed by the Bailiff). Don't politicians do their homework any more before speaking out?

In fact, when Alan Bates said, "The accuracy of Derek Acorah is beyond any reasonable doubt", I would agree, although I suspect he does not mean that to be as ironic as me. One has only to read various reports of Derek Acorah to see how he has been caught out on various occasions to see this, for example:

I found Derek Acorah hilarious on occasions. The night they investigated the Witchfinder General, Derek was taken over by a spirit who called Yvette "wench" in a deep gruff voice. When Yvette asked for the spirit's name, Derek said "Francis" in the same deep gruff voice. Back in the studio, they confirmed the Witchfinder indeed had an assistant called Frances...but it was a woman! Another time, they were exploring an old castle. My daughter watched Derek suddenly say he was picking up that this room was used for torture. The camera changed angles and in the background was a visitors' information sign that said the room was used for torture. Oh dear! (2)

My article written, I just had to wait for the show to air. And when it did, 30 seconds after Derek was shown to be possessed by the fictional Kreed Kafer (Which was an anagram of Derek Faker), I published my article. Conspiracy theories were thrown about by fans of Most Haunted. Some claimed it was pure coincidence, others claimed I simple lied and made it all up. Many more set-ups were revealed in the following weeks, more anagram names and so on. (2)

TV Medium Derek Acorah, famous for his appearances on UK TV show "Most Haunted" exposed himself as a fraud whilst filming at Bodmin Gaol. He overheard members of the crew talking about an inmate called "Kreed Kafer", and, minutes later, became possessed by the ghost. However, "Kreed Kafer" never existed and his name is an anagram of - "Derek Faker"(3)

I suspect that Deputy Kevin Lewis, in attacking the "Paranormal Experience" at the Fort Regent, may well have an implicit religious agenda. I know that fake mediums can prey on the gullible, but surely the sceptic is more likely to find that at a Spiritualist Church, where people seem sincere, and hence draw in the gullible, than the showy bogus performance that Derek Acorah seems to put on.

If Deputy Lewis is really concerned about preying on vulnerable people, why does he just target Derek Acorah, and not the Greater World Spiritualist Church? I think I detect a whiff of hypocrisy, and the real reason behind his criticism is a Christian agenda, probably fundamentalist, which wants to prevent anyone from going to Acorah and then going on to places where local mediums are present; however, he would not dare attack the Spiritualists directly, as that would be seen as too intolerant for our times.

I think Acorah is probably a complete fake (the evidence where he is caught out points that way!), but there are genuine mediums out there, by which I mean people who experience voices or visions which they understand as being the spirits of the dead. That doesn't mean it is necessarily real in an objective sense; these experiences could be a form of clinical schizophrenia, which as anyone who has seen "A Beautiful Mind" will know can be very real to the observer. Not all schizophrenic experiences are paranoid (as in that film), some can be benign - I had a friend who was schizophrenic, and the "voices" were just there, they didn't tell her to do anything in particular. Barbara O'Brien's autobiographical account - "Operators and Things" of being schizophrenic for a time is another example.

Equally, there may well be no scientific way of telling whether a particular subjective experience (as that of a medium) has an objective correlate or not - a classic thought experiment on this is the partially sighted person trying to explain the experience of seeing to a blind person. How could you prove that you could see something that someone else could not, and which came and went (because of course a partially sighted person cannot see in the dark, but they would not necessarily know that)? People who could not see would not be able to understand.

H.G. Wells said this strikingly in his story "The Country of the Blind". With all the craft and intelligence that he brought, for Wells, blindness is not just lack of sight, but a metaphor for a society that cannot see beyond its blinkered views of the world:

The old became groping, the young saw but dimly, and the children that were born to them never saw at all. But life was very easy in that snow-rimmed basin, lost to all the world, with neither thorns nor briers, with no evil insects nor any beasts save the gentle breed of llamas they had lugged and thrust and followed up the beds of the shrunken rivers in the gorges up which they had come. The seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noticed their loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they knew the whole valley marvelously, and when at last sight died out among them the race lived on. They had even time to adapt themselves to the blind control of fire, which they made carefully in stoves of stone. They were a simple strain of people at the first, unlettered, only slightly touched with the Spanish civilisation, but with something of a tradition of the arts of old Peru and of its lost philosophy. Generation followed generation. They forgot many things; they devised many things. Their tradition of the greater world they came from became mythical in colour and uncertain. (H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind) (4)

There, the sighted traveller thinks he has the advantage over the others, because he can see.

"Why did you not come when I called you?" said the blind man. "Must you be led like a child? Cannot you hear the path as you walk?"
Nunez laughed. "I can see it," he said.
"There is no such word as see," said the blind man, after a pause. "Cease this folly and follow the sound of my feet."
Nunez followed, a little annoyed.
"My time will come," he said.
"You'll learn," the blind man answered. "There is much to learn in the world."
"Has no one told you, 'In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King?'"
"What is blind?" asked the blind man, carelessly, over his shoulder.

But, of course, that is false. He is but one person, they are many and know their terrain, and he has to pretend to be blind, or to be starved out of existence. He is accepted into their society, but when he falls in love, and wants to be a full member of their society, with a grim twist, Wells brings in the idea of science - not as a means of objectivity, but as a means of ensuring social control - that which does not fit into a worldview is to be not just ignored but actively attacked as an illusion:

"His brain is affected," said the blind doctor.
The elders murmured assent.
"Now, what affects it?"
"Ah!" said old Yacob.
This," said the doctor, answering his own question. "Those queer things that are called the eyes, and which exist to make an agreeable depression in the face, are diseased, in the case of Nunez, in such a way as to affect his brain. They are greatly distended, he has eyelashes, and his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant irritation and distraction."
"Yes?" said old Yacob. "Yes?"
"And I think I may say with reasonable certainty that, in order to cure him complete, all that we need to do is a simple and easy surgical operation--namely, to remove these irritant bodies."
"And then he will be sane?"
"Then he will be perfectly sane, and a quite admirable citizen."
"Thank Heaven for science!" said old Yacob, and went forth at once to tell Nunez of his happy hopes.

There is a great arrogance with a new kind of scientific fundamentalism that believes it has all the answers and that any strange phenomena, such as that of mediums, if it can't be accepted on its own terms (which perhaps it should not be), must simply be an illusion. I'd advise them to read Well's short story, as it is a master class in dealing with the arrogance of those who think they have all the answers.

Part of this stems from the lack of knowledge of the history of science. It is perhaps significant that one of the scientists who I have learnt from most, the late Stephen Jay Gould, was both an agnostic, and very attuned to history (and finding primary sources) in the history of science, while some of the modern scientific reductionists (dogmatic atheists) do not seem to have the same degree of historical understanding.

If we look back to the period from 1890 to 1920, as the new century broke, the optimism of a start spread into science. As C.P. Snow tells in his book "The Physicists", many scientists believed that all that was needed was to "tidy up loose ends and refine measurements"(5). This confidence was shattered by the discovery of radioactivity, the publication of Einstein's relativity and the First World War in Europe (which also had the effect of accelerating change and discovery in science, as elsewhere). Let's hope we can avoid a new wave of scientific hubris.

(1) BBC Jersey News
(4) H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind
(5) C.P. Snow, The Physicists

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