Randi’s Prize: Answering Chapter 2

Chapter Two: Eusapia Palladino and the Phantom Narrative

In this chapter we get an overview of spiritualism at the end of nineteenth/beginning of the twentieth century. Back then séances were all the rage. Mediums like Eusapia Palladino produced ghosts made from ectoplasm and performed real magic.

McLuhan compares these to contemporary charlatans like Uri Geller. They must be conjurers of genius, he concludes from their effect on the audiences. He forgets that not everyone was impressed by Geller, and those who were, were impressed by his psychic abilities rather than his magic skills. What sets people like Geller apart from other conjurers is his cunning ability to manipulate people and the media. Look at how he used naive people like Targ and Puthoff to further his reputation. That may require genius of a sort but it most of all requires ruthlessness.

We are treated to a number of descriptions of miraculous events that took place in the séance room. In many ways it is a repeat of chapter 1. He is incredulous that so many people sober people could be fooled. Same old, same old…

We also learn of skeptical magicians who find themselves stumped and even endorse paranormal explanations. McLuhan doesn’t understand why skeptics ignore such admissions but only retell explanations. The reason is simple, of course. Because explanations are interesting and ignorance is not.
Many people devote themselves to the study of physics where they learn the explanations for a variety of phenomena, such as gravity. No one is interested in a list of people who do not know these explanations.

Eusapia Palladino features big in the chapter as the title implies. We learn that she is caught “cheating” frequently. However, one team of scientists sticks it out with her nonetheless. They figured that she is only using trickery sometimes and at other times not.

Palladino herself seemed aware of this. She explained – and it seemed to be confirmed by observation – that psychokinetic effects occurred during her trance state by a process of will. The initial channel for the will would be physical: if you or I want to lift something we grasp it with our hands and raise it up, and this was a natural impulse in her also. It was by checking this impulse, allegedly, that the psychokinesis could be unlocked. For this reason she is recorded shouting ‘Controllo!’ at moments when she felt the energy building, to ensure that she was properly held and did not release it by reaching out to perform an action manually.

Amazing. And the evidence seems to confirm it even!

Of course, how could it not? They can’t catch her every time. Their very persistence ensures that they must be fooled and yet it is this very persistence that impresses McLuhan. People who caught her cheating and gave up on her were just being shoddy debunkers.

In this chapter McLuhan also develops his concept of “rational gravity” and  the “phantom narrative”.

Rational gravity, people’s tendency to gravitate towards rational explanations, is certainly a real phenomenon. The reason is quite simply that it works, oohing and aahing over mysteries not so much. He also suggests that stories change over time to become more compatible with rational explanations. I’m pretty sure that happens but I cannot understand why McLuhan fails to see that this works in both directions.

Richard Hodgson and Davey staged a fake séance in 1887. That the séance was fake was unknown to the sitters who duly took notes of the proceedings. The descriptions of the happenings were so inaccurate as to prompt this conclusion:

…the account of a trick by a person ignorant of the method used in its
production will involve a misdescription of its fundamental conditions…so
marked that no clue is afforded the student for the actual explanation.

Richard Hodgson, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 9, 360,

Practically this means that some happenings will be literally inexplicable not because they were paranormal but simply because the account is garbled.
McLuhan cites work done by Hodgson and Davey but clearly fails to realize the implication.

The phantom narrative is what McLuhan calls attempts of skeptics to explain what went on in some séances, that is how the tricks were performed. McLuhan does not find these speculations convincing. No problem, after all they are just speculations. We don’t have a time machine, we can’t go back.
The problem is that he takes his doubts about these speculations as evidence for the paranormal. Either, there is a perfectly convincing and satisfying normal explanation or the event is evidence for the paranormal.
Showing how one explanation falls short is meritorious but it does nothing to show that another explanation is right.
What’s worse is that at least since Hodgson and Davey, we have a mechanism that explains the inexplicable. Even if nothing paranormal happened, there can still be accounts of this that are inexplicable!

In the end McLuhan mentions the possibility that modern technologies like infra-red cameras might settle the matter. Yet he has doubts, according to him it is a question of reconciling ourselves with the idea of psychokinesis.
I found this curious because it suggests that McLuhan is unaware that infra-red videos of séances have been made and also that modern physical mediums generally disallow that.

One example would be psychologist Kenneth Batcheldor who filmed himself with some students while they rocked a table in pitch darkness. McLuhan quotes Batcheldor’s claim that during one séance the table levitated for 9 seconds. The filmed séances show nothing of the sort. See for yourself:

There are 3 more parts, go to youtube to watch them
Why would I believe that these people rock the table with their minds, or via some spirit, rather than with their hands? I guess I am just not reconciled with the idea of psychokinesis.

Another example that I want to mention is the scandal that took place at camp chesterfield. There’s a bit of footage of that to be found, too.

I guess McLuhan would say that just because people clearly have their hands on a table, they might still be using their minds to actually move it. He would probably also say that just because infra-red videos of sèances do nothing but uncover trickery, does not mean there aren’t real cases, too.
Both would be true. Of course, the logical impossibility of proving a negative isn’t actually evidence for anything either.


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