Chapter Three: Communicators
With this chapter, things get at once more and less interesting. It is less interesting because we no longer deal with movie style magic. No more psychokinetic kids and ectoplasmic ghosts. Instead we get something even more juicy: laboratory experiments.
Alright, that’s not quite as exciting. But if you want to get to the bottom of things it is very, very interesting.
The key to the past
It is said (especially by geologists) that ‘the present is the key to the past’. It is assumed by the historical sciences that the laws of nature that we observe today are the same that operated in the past. This assumption seems to hold up well, judging from what we learn from distant (and thus old) starlight or from the convergence of different radiometric dating methods.
The assumption essentially follows from Occam’s razor but that it works is really the important point.
Much has been written on this issue. Especially in response and in opposition to the efforts of creationists to inject religious dogma into scientific inquiry. I’m not going there now.
There is also another reason for the assumption that is based on the constraints imposed by the scientific method. Science can only study the testable. It is an essential characteristic of science that claims are judged by experiment.
If mediumship (or other psychic powers) are shown to be active in the past, then science will assume it operated in the past. Arguments that explain certain recorded events in terms of these “new” laws of nature will be credited. The reverse will never stand up.
Back to the book
What this chapter deals are mental mediums. Unlike the physical mediums of the previous chapter these don’t produce effects like straight from a Ghostbusters movie but only purport to communicate with the spirit world. They only talk.
The first example we are given, at great length, is Leonora Piper. A so-called trance medium from the second half of the 19th century. McLuhan has succeeded in rousing my curiosity as to Piper’s accomplishments but it a historical case will never be acceptable, scientific proof.
He cites example after example of her amazing feats and then more examples by Osborne Leonard. Then also the Edgar Vandy case.
He frequently points to a piece and transcript and argues that it doesn’t look like cold reading. Yet, all his bibliography offers on cold reading is a single chapter in The Elusive Quarry by Ray Hyman. For the curious it includes this article.
That’s awfully little to speak with authority on the subject.
By the way, my personal recommendation would have been Ian Roland’s The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, for the dry wit. It’s a much more entertaining read than Hyman’s academic prose.
He points out that these mediums were never caught in fraud which seems a rather curious argument. A sleight-of-hand conjurer can easily be caught in his trick. A cold reader only talks. She can only be shown to have made statements that look like cold reading. McLuhan points out that this is true for the mediums he mentions but apparently doesn’t consider it significant.
Of course, it is reasonable to focus on the more interesting instances. A true psychic should still be expected to use some cold reading (maybe unconsciously), just like any hot reader will make use of these techniques.
But how do we know that these tidbits were gained paranormally rather than conventionally?
For one, the mediums were sometimes trailed by detectives to catch them in any information gathering. Without success. Yet, it should be immediately obvious that catching someone gathering information is vastly more difficult than catching someone using a conjuring trick right before one’s eyes.
The possibility that they picked up information just by the way, in chats or such, is discounted on the grounds that the researchers were well-respected and surely would not have made the mistake of enabling this.
As I am quite familiar with the antics of contemporary mediumship researchers I find this appeal to authority more than doubtful. That aside, even if psi exists, it must be rare to encounter it so strongly as in these mediums. Is that a counter argument against Piper and the others having been real?
If improbability is not an argument against paranormality, then why is it an argument against normality?
The Fundamental Error
MyLuhan shows one proposition to be improbable and then concludes that another, also improbable proposition must be true. That has been McLuhan’s fundamental mistake from the start. I have pointed it out from many angles. It is one thing to show an idea to be unlikely and quite another to show that this idea is less likely than another. Besides, who says that the right idea isn’t one that no-one thought of?
The consequential application of his erroneous reasoning leads McLuhan to the only possible conclusion: It is proven that these mediums were real.
By McLuhan’s logic, only travelling back in time to find a satisfying, conclusive explanation for each of the mediums’ apparent paranormal deeds can undo this proof.
Conversely, bringing science, even out-spoken skeptics, round to McLuhan’s opinion would be much easier. Just show mediumship to work today.
Modern Mediumship Research
This modern research consists of the work done by Gary Schwartz. Not mentioned in the book is the quite extensive work by Robertson and Roy, perhaps because it was not available to McLuhan at the time of printing.
I will need to write a few posts on the current state of mediumship research at some point.
For now we are focused on Randi’s Prize. McLuhan gives an outline of Schwartz’ experiments and also of the criticisms. The whole thing is related in a he said/she said style that remains sterile. One does not get the sense that he actually engaged the material on a deeper level.
Eventually he does gives some credence to the critics but still finds that “these experiments give a strong suggestions” of psi. Given how abysmally horrible Schwartz’ research was, I find such a conclusion mind-boggling. What went wrong there? I don’t know.
I will not go into more detail here, dear reader. Please await the up-coming series on modern mediumship research.