Retaining the psychic mystery

Lives of the Psychics
October 13, 2000

I thought I was going to enjoy this book. Billed as "fresh, original, undogmatic" and promising to "break the stranglehold that a narrowly materialist world view has had upon our society's intellectual, cultural and spiritual life", I expected it to break new ground in the messy world of psychic claims. Perhaps it would illuminate how and why psychics do what they do. Perhaps it would cut through the barriers between science and mysticism. It did not.

The author, Fred Frohock, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, says he is going to take us on a journey guided by two questions. How are claims for supernatural experiences to be regarded? and are the experiences real or are they reducible to factors that can explain them away? The book interweaves two kinds of writing: overviews of various topics in para-psychology and interviews with psychics.

To be positive, the overviews of paranormal topics are clear and sensible. They include out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, experiments on extra-sensory perception and faith healing. Evidence is presented and theories about alternate realities and mystical realms discussed. All these sections provide useful summaries of their areas - but watch for the errors. Although described on the cover as a "carefully researched book", it clearly is not. Karlis Osis is variously called Carlis and Carlos; J. B. Rhine is annoyingly called Banks when he rarely used this name and was always called J. B.; D. D. Home is called Daniel when everyone refers to him as D. D.; and do not go looking for the Spiritualist Association of London because it is really the famous SAGB - the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain.

The interviews are varied, ranging from little-known healers and clairvoyants to the very well-known Alex Tanous and, as sceptic, the indefatigable James Randi. Some make interesting reading, especially when Frohock submits himself as a client to a variety of mediums and psychics. Since most of the interviews took place more than ten years ago, we can theoretically find out whether the predictions have come true or not. Mostly they have not, but the problem is, as always in this frustrating domain, that the psychics' statements tend to be vague and impossible to assess.

So what more do these interviews provide? I would say nothing.

Frohock's second question was: "Are the experiences real?" This question - one that any reader will naturally want answered - is simply not tackled.

Take the fascinating case of Tanous, a well-known psychic who has been an experimental subject in many laboratory studies of the paranormal. Tanous claimed to have predicted the murder of John Lennon and the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan, both "reportedly on tape". He also claims he could occasionally reverse time so as to rerun events more favourably, and on one famous occasion he apparently had an out-of-body experience and was seen by the friend he visited hundreds of miles away. Most important, he claims that he and his friend wrote, and posted, reports of their experiences independently before speaking to each other - just the kind of evidence a psychical researcher needs. So did they really? Did Frohock check? No he did not.

Frohock gives his reasons. First, just listening to the tapes or reading the reports would tell him nothing since fraud and error are possible. Second, the reader is urged to remember that he is concerned with the fact that individuals relate such experiences, not whether they are true or not, and that the "key that unlocks Tanous's out-of-body experience is not a sceptical critique but an understanding of the controlling grammar of the story". Right - so what is the controlling grammar then? We never find out.

I agree that for some purposes the "is it true?" question is not appropriate and that textual analysis can reveal truths that have nothing to do with evidentiality. But Frohock does no such analysis and gives us nothing other than psychic stories.

More infuriating is that the "is it true?" question really matters. Tanous claims to have helped the police, to have found lost children and to have instructed people in psychic skills. If his claims are false (and there is precious little evidence that any psychic has ever helped solve a crime), then he and others like him are wasting police time, raising false hopes in victims and the bereaved, and promoting false beliefs. I want to know the answer to the big question. I would even be thrilled if Frohock had heard the tapes at all, or seen the reports, for after years working in this field I suspect that they do not exist. If they do and Frohock had read them, at least we would have learnt something important. Failing to check, on the excuse that fraud and error are always possible, sounds more like laziness to me.

Susan Blackmore is reader in psychology, University of the West of England, Bristol.

Lives of the Psychics: The Shared Worlds of Science and Mysticism

Author - Fred M. Frohock
ISBN - 0 226 26586 2
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 281

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