Interview with Dr. Stephen Braude reveals challenges and opportunities of controversial psi research into mediumship and psychokinesis.
Research into controversial topics like psychic mediums is tough, but some researchers find it’s made even tougher when skeptics favor the weakest cases over the strongest.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for and interview with Professor of Philosophy and psi researcher, Dr. Stephen Braude. During the interview Dr. Braude recounts his entree into psi research, “… there was all this other stuff that had been happening outside the lab from séances and anecdotal reports and I figured if I was an honest intellect I at least needed to become acquainted with it before I rejected it summarily. So I first studied the evidence for large-scale, and physical mediumship in particular. That was a momentous event because the evidence blew me away… I discovered that the evidence was much cleaner than people made it out to be.”
Braude continues, “The usual arguments about the evidence being easily dismissed because of poor observation or poor conditions of observation demonstrated really a lack of command of the evidence. One of the things that struck me was that people were dismissing the non-experimental evidence by appealing to the sleaziest of arguments. They would focus on the weakest pieces of evidence and then generalize from that, which is simply straw man reasoning. The principle on which I operated all along is that the cases that matter from outside the lab have to be the strongest cases, the ones that are the hardest to explain away.”
Adam Curry: So Steve, can you give me a little capsule about who you are?
Dr. Steven Braude: I’m a Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Presumably what you want to know is how I got involved in this grubby psi research. The short story is that I started off in philosophy, doing work in temporal logic and the philosophy of time, but I’d had a remarkable experience in graduate school watching my own table tilt in the air during an informal séance, which I conveniently put on the back burner and put out of mind until I got a job and got tenure. So I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.
And I knew that some well-known philosophers had taken parapsychological research seriously and I knew that if I was an honest academic I needed to come to terms with this and come up with something or other to say about this remarkable experience I’d had. So I read what these philosophers had to say and decided there was, in fact, something worth sinking my teeth into. Then I decided if I was going to do a responsible job of that, I needed to become an insider in the community of academics and scientists who are looking carefully at the evidence. I’ve done that.
And I also decided initially that if I was going to write about this stuff, I needed first to confront the experimental evidence on the assumption that if there was some parapsychological evidence that was going to be clean and capable of convincing the scientific community of the reality of psychic functioning that it could only be the experimental evidence. So I did crank out a book on that topic.
But I also knew at the same time that there was all this other stuff that had been happening outside the lab from séances and anecdotal reports and I figured again, if I was an honest intellect I at least needed to become acquainted with it before I rejected it summarily. So I first studied the evidence for large-scale psychokinesis, and physical mediumship in particular. That was a momentous event because the evidence blew me away.
What I discovered, first of all, was that the evidence was much cleaner than people made it out to be. It was much more compelling and interesting than people had made it out to be. The usual arguments about the evidence being easily dismissed because of poor observation or poor conditions of observation demonstrated really a lack of command of the evidence.
What I was discovering was two things; first I discovered that the people who thought the experimental evidence was the best evidence there was didn’t know the non-experimental evidence, and that the experimental evidence had some outstanding flaws which people weren’t taking seriously. But first let me say something about why the non-experimental evidence was so impressive. One of the things that struck me was that people were dismissing the non-experimental evidence by appealing to the sleaziest of arguments. They would focus on the weakest pieces of evidence and then generalize from that, which is simply straw man reasoning.
The principle on which I operated all along is that the cases that matter from outside the lab have to be the strongest cases, the ones that are the hardest to explain away. We know that there were cases of fraud; there were cases of poor observation or poor conditions of observation. We can grant all that. Those are not the cases that matter. The cases that are interesting are the ones in which the conditions of observation were impeccable, the observers were trained and knew what to look for, magicians if that was relevant, and so on. And those cases are much better than most people realized. So my next goal was to explain what those cases were.
As far as the experimental evidence was concerned, I realized first that most of the researchers doing experiments in parapsychology were working in the shadow of J. B. Rein and they either knowingly or implicitly adopted certain of his assumptions about what the scientific method was, about the importance of conducting controlled experiments. Rhine had assumed, like many others, that if any evidence would be good we need to control and manipulate experimental variables, rule out the relevant stuff and go on from there.
The problem is there’s no such thing as a controlled experiment in parapsychology. If you take parapsychology seriously enough to study the evidence for psi, in principle you’re studying a phenomenon which, if it exists, can circumvent any experimental controls you might want to impose. So, in a psychokinesis or PK experiment, you can’t literally do a controlled PK experiment. It’s not as if you can go around with a PK meter and try to figure out where the force is coming from before the effect happens.
As far as you know, anybody even remotely connected with the experiment could be causally relevant to the final result. It could be the official subject, it could be the experimenter, it could be an onlooker, and it could be somebody living the trunk of an old Studebaker in Gary, Indiana. It could be literally anybody. But researchers working in the standard laboratory tradition are proceeding as thought everybody connected with a psi experiment is going to adhere to an idiotic gentleman’s agreement that only the official subject will use only the psi ability being tested for; that nobody else even remotely connected with the experiment will use whatever psychic abilities they might have to muddy the experimental waters. And that’s completely crazy.
There is no way you can do any literally process-oriented work in a standard laboratory situation. To me, the only reasonable way to proceed, given our massive ignorance about the natural history of psychic functioning, is to find psi superstars-people who can more or less reliably produce good results or be associated with good results under a wide variety of conditions, with a wide variety of investigators. Because only then do you have even a prima facie reason for thinking that these people are causally relevant.
Adam Curry: What are some particular case studies that you find most compelling?
Dr. Steven Braude: What turned me around about all this-well, let me say first of all that I understand that it certainly helps to be initiated personally. It certainly helps if you can see this stuff for yourself. But I think it’s irrational to dismiss historical reports just because you can’t see it for yourself. I mean, there are lots of reasons for taking eyewitness testimonies seriously.
Let me back up before I give you a good case or two. One standard reason for dismissing eyewitness accounts in these cases is a very bad argument. Let’s call it the argument from human bias. What people often say is that witnesses of these events outside strict laboratory conditions are simply biased or predisposed to see the miraculous or to see what they want.
The problem is biases cut two ways-against reports by the credulous and also against reports by the incredulous. So if we’re going to dismiss reports that psychic phenomena occurred because people might be biased in favor of those phenomena, then we have to be equally skeptical of reports that phenomena didn’t occur when they’re being issued by skeptics. We can’t assume that one is inherently more reliable than the other.
And although a lot of attention gets paid to the careless reports of some enthusiasts for psi phenomena, the history of psychical research has plenty of examples of dishonest or unreliable reports by skeptics that phenomena didn’t occur. I can’t go into all of those now. If you’ll permit me a sleazy plug for one of my books, I recommend looking at The Limits of Influence, where I outline what some of those are.
Okay, having said that, I should also mention that just as a matter of fact, in the best cases-and remember, the best cases are the ones that count-in the best cases the witnesses of some of these remarkable large-scale physical phenomena were not only not biased in favor of the phenomena, they were biased against it. That’s one of the reasons these cases are so good. These are cases which converted skeptical investigators who might have been magicians prepared to debunk the medium, or whatever it might have been. And there are plenty of examples of those.
So an example of a really good case: one of my favorite historical cases is of the medium D. D. Home. This was a late 19th century case. Home was apparently a very gifted medium. His mediumship lasted about 25 years. He was never caught cheating. He would conduct séances at the spur of the moment in locations never before visited, so you can’t say that the phenomena that occurred when he walked into a room for the first time were produced by some hidden apparatus or because he concealed a confederate, for instance. There are plenty of these reports. Home would enter a room for the first time and the bookshelf at the other end of the room would walk toward the people who had just entered the room.
Home was investigated by, among others, the chemist and physicist, William Crookes. Crookes conducted some really nifty experiments with Home. One of Home’s standard phenomena was to make an accordion play melodies on request, sometimes untouched, allegedly floating around the room. Sometimes it was held at the end away from the keys. So performance would have been impossible.
Now, I realize that sounds really bizarre, but bear with me. Home also thought that the phenomena were strongest under the séance table. Now granted, that’s something that under certain circumstances could sound suspicious. And Crookes realized that, but he was a clever investigator and he realized that if that’s what Home sincerely believed, then it’s not a wise procedure experimentally to force Home more than necessary out of his comfort zone. So he tried to find some way of testing the phenomena under conditions that Home found congenial.
So here’s what he did. First of all, he bought a new accordion, so there could be no question that this was not one of Home’s props. He went to Home’s apartment and watched him change clothes so he could determine that Home wasn’t concealing some device on his body that would have made the accordion play. And I remind you, this was 1871. It’s not clear what kind of miniaturized device this could possibly have been.
Then he took Home to his house, where he had constructed a cage made out of wire and wood that just fit under his dining room table. There was room for Home to get his hand under the tabletop and into the cage to hold the accordion at the end away from the keys. There wasn’t enough room for Home to get his hand into the cage to manipulate the accordion any further. Too bad you can’t see all the helpful hand gestures I’m making here.
There were nine people present, two seated on each side of Home, and to make sure he wasn’t taking his feet out of his boots, another observer was stationed under the table with a lamp. And under those conditions the accordion was seen to move in and out, the keys were depressed, sound came out of the accordion. At that point, Crookes asked Home to take his hand out of the cage, put both hands on the table and electrical current was run to the cage. The accordion was still seen to flop around inside the cage.
Now, I think that’s one of the most important experiments in the history of parapsychology. No magician has ever tried to duplicate that under conditions even approaching those that Crookes imposed, and I think for good reason. They just can’t.
Adam Curry: How about you tell us a little about the SSE and JSE and what you’ve done? And a little about how your understanding of classical parapsychological phenomena has affected your thinking about other types of unusual phenomena?
Dr. Steven Braude: One of the striking facts for me about the history of science is that human beings have proven themselves to be pretty crappy judges of the empirically possible. Time and again, we’ve been told that certain phenomena simply can’t occur and then we find out that whoops, they can. So I have very little patience with people who tell us that some of the anomalies studied by members of the Society for Scientific Exploration are simply impossible. I think we need something a little more compelling and there is priory assurance of that.
The SSE is an organization devoted to the study of anomalies of all kinds in a number of different areas of science that could have to do with parapsychology. It could do with cryptozoology; it might have to do with UFOs. It could be some other anomalous physical phenomena. It could have to do with some of the strange psychological anomalies, for example, having to do with hypnosis and other altered states. There’s a lot we don’t know and it’s almost unimaginable hubris to think that we’ve exhausted nature’s secrets at this stage in history.
It’s also unimaginable hubris to me to suppose that nature must reveal her secrets in those forms that we prefer at the moment. I think we need to be methodologically diverse. I think we need to remember a lesson from Aristotle and that is that different domains require different modes of investigation. There’s no reason to think that all secrets of nature will reveal themselves according to the methods preferred in a few of the physical sciences.
Adam Curry: And what is The Journal of Scientific Exploration?
Dr. Steven Braude: The Journal of Scientific Exploration is the official scholarly publication of the Society for Scientific Exploration. It comes out quarterly. We try to publish articles in a number of areas of frontier science or anomalistics. It could be about physics or chemistry. We recently did an entire issue on LENR or so-called cold fusion. We often have special issues on other topics. We’ve got one coming up on mediumship. We’re approaching that topic from a variety of angles. Traditionally, the JSE publishes papers on all of the areas of anomalistics that I just mentioned. There have been articles on cryptozoology, on UFOs, on remote viewing, on energy science, for example.
Adam Curry: I assume that the big debate in mediumship for parapsychology is whether or not it’s kind of an acro-PK or if it something from some other dimension, some spirit world.
Dr. Steven Braude: There are basically two kinds of mediumship. There’s mental mediumship in which mediums are channels and relay information of one kind or another ostensibly from the deceased. And there is another kind of mediumship called physical mediumship which originally spiritualists thought provided another kind of evidence of postmortem persistence, but which today more people, I think, would regard as a kind of example of psychokinesis by the living.
But the big question about any form of mediumship is whether what we’re seeing is evidence of postmortem existence of some kind or another or whether we’re just seeing very interesting kinds of psychic productions by the living that may on occasion simulate evidence of postmortem survival. I don’t know about other people, but I write books to figure out what my views are, because only when I’ve started working up these things in detail do I start to really get clear on the issues myself.
So I figured since I was officially chronologically challenged, I was going to write a book on the evidence for postmortem survival and I did. I wrote a book called, Immortal Remains. My goal in writing it was to see if I could figure out how to resolve the question: are we dealing with psychic functioning among the living or are we dealing with survival? And I ended up still being on the fence. I mean, I came away with an enhanced appreciation of just how remarkable living human beings are. I think one of the things I came to appreciate was that we don’t really know just what the limits of living human functioning are.
We need to look at people who do extraordinary things under sometimes usual but sometimes extraordinary circumstances. We need to look at extreme forms of human functioning. We need to look at prodigies. We need to look at savants. Savants are particularly important because they show remarkable abilities which you wouldn’t expect given their rather obvious cognitive deficits. So you’ve got calculating savants, for example, who can factor any number you give to them but can’t add the change in their pocket. There are musical savants who are spastic until they sit down to play the piano.
This is important because sometimes the evidence for survival is evidence of people who ostensibly haven’t learned the appropriate skills but who in a mediumistic context seem to demonstrate those skills. And the fact is we don’t know what people are thoroughly capable of under various kinds of altered or unusual states like associative states.
Some of the most intriguing bits of evidence relevant to the issue of survival I’ve found to be cases that provide no real evidence of survival but seem to show a kind of combination of I’d say disassociation plus latent gifted functioning. Now whether it’s literary functioning or linguistic functioning or whatever it might be, some of those cases are really revealing.
One of the things I came to understand from that is that we don’t even have a firm grasp of what human abilities are. Until we really start trying to get a grip on what human abilities are, what limits human abilities are, what savants and prodigies are and so on, I don’t think we’re in a position to really answer conclusively whether we’ve got good evidence for survival, however nifty the cases may be. Some of them are admittedly very nifty.
Adam Curry: Who’s doing the most interesting work right now and the most promising view in, let’s say, in the field of mediumship or survival of consciousness or PK?
Dr. Steven Braude: I’m not sure how to answer the question who’s doing the best work right now. I mean, in my own case, I’m interested in pursuing certain spiritualist or spiritist sitter groups that are producing large-scale, classic spiritualist séance phenomena, including table movements, floating objects, the production of ectoplasm or various kinds of gooey substances emerging from the medium’s orifice.
As grisly and weird and distasteful as that might sound, I think that’s where the action is and we have ways of studying this now today that we never had during the heyday of the spiritualist movement at the end of the 19th century.
So I’ve been trying to study some of these phenomena with high-definition infrared video camcorders and although my results-I’m not prepared really to talk about the results yet-but I think that’s the way to go. To my knowledge there aren’t a lot of people or anybody besides myself right now who’s doing that.