Modern Mediumship Research: The Afterlife Experiments

The Afterlife Experiments is a book by Gary Schwartz, Ph.D. It is a chronicle of his mediumship experiments and his personal journey. These experiments were also published in various disreputable journals devoted to such ideas. This article deals primarily with these experiments.
Schwartz’ work has been extensively torn to bits. I recommend the review by Ray Hyman and if you have time this one is also nice but more limited.

The true challenge lies not in refuting Schwartz but in bringing home just how horrible his work was. Ahh, but how to explain the vastness of the ocean to one who has never seen it. I know I must fail and yet I will try.

Schwartzian Theory

Let’s begin as he begins his book, let’s look at his “theory”. He invokes systems theory and quantum physics as foundations for it. In truth, his theory contains as much science as the technobabble in a TV show like Stargate.
Light travels forever between the stars, we are still receiving photons from the Big Bang , he observes, and that much is true. Some photons coming from our bodies will also travel through space forever, assuming they don’t bump into anything on their way out. To him this somehow means that we live forever.
By that kind of logic, taking a picture is stealing someone’s soul.
He says that according to quantum mechanics matter is mostly empty space. Yes, matter is mostly empty space, in a sense but no, that was established by the gold foil experiment with no quantum physics as such involved. Schwartz somehow concludes that you can take away the matter and still go on. Kind of like you still have power when you take the batteries out, I guess. The analogy is fitting because it’s the electric force that keeps together electrons and protons in an atom and that gives solidity to what is otherwise ’empty space’.
It was pretty painful getting through all that nonsense. It’s not just wrong or mistaken, it betrays a deeply irrational mind. I will be honest with you. When I read that-, I thought myself reminded of the ravings of a schizophrenic but not at all of the ruminations of a scientist.

But nevermind that. Eventually it’s all about the data. Right?

The Data Speaks
But which data should we let speak first? How about some data from the late 40ies.
A psychologists called Forer gave a personality test to his students. Then he played a little prank of them, by giving everyone the same text as a phony result. Asked to rate the accuracy of the personality assessment on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being best), they gave it an average of 4.26.
What this data tells us, or rather shouts in our faces, is that we need to be real careful when relying on human judgement.
This effect has become known as the Forer or Barnum Effect. It is very easy to elicit. So easy, in fact, that not eliciting it is usually the challenge for researchers.
Since then, more has been learned. For example, such Barnum statements (at least some of them) are viewed as more applicable to oneself then to others. Some statements are rated more accurate than others, with people typically preferring favorable statements. Also it makes a difference for the accuracy ratings if the receivers believe in the credibility of the method. Statements presented as resulting from astrology, for example, will go over well with believers, not so well with skeptics.

Psychology knows a number of similar effects. I will only mention one more to emphasize the point. It is called Illusory Correlation and was described around 1970. The experimental subjects were shown drawings and were told that the drawers had certain psychological problems. In reality the psychological problems had been assigned randomly to the pictures.
Still, the subjects found ample signs of these non-existent problems in the drawings.
This was connected to the uncovering of serious problems with diagnostic methods in psychiatry but since then the effect has been demonstrated in a variety of different guises. It is also thought responsible for the persistence of racial and gender stereotypes.


So now that we have listened to what some data tells us, we can think about what that means for mediumship.
For one, we cannot simply ask someone to rate the accuracy of a reading. A human being simply is unable to give an objective measure of that.
This isn’t just a problem for proving mediumship that need only concern skeptics.
Say, you want to find an especially good medium. You have clients rate the accuracy of the reading. Mediums that consistently get higher ratings are surely better at something. But are they better at generating readings that are accurate or just at generating readings that are perceived as accurate?
With that method you might end up selecting fakes over real mediums!
Even worse. Think about how budding mediums usually learn their trade. They practice and refine their skill based on feedbacks from their sitters. Are they really practicing a paranormal skill there? And if not, maybe they ruin any such talent they might have?

Schwartz’ folly

Let’s get back to The Afterlife Experiments
Schwartz holds a PhD in psychology, it is virtually unthinkable that he was not aware of these pitfalls. Even if he was that incompetent, he sought out the advice of experts like Ray Hyman who told him.
The closest Schwartz comes to acknowledging such problems is hand-waving dismissal. He finds it ‘implausible’ that sitters might misrate their reading, without a word about all the evidence to the contrary.

Schwartz inadvertently offers an example of how these psychological effects work in practice.
First what the medium said according to the transcript in the book.

[The medium just said that the dead grandmother was at the client’s wedding.]
And she’s talking about … some kind of flower connection. And what’s weird is she’s showing me flowers that I wouldn’t think about being at a wedding, and these are daisies. Um. they’re showing me daisies.
So I don’t know what the reference is to daisies, but they’re showing me daisies.

The medium could have equally well said:
Come up with a connection between your wedding and daisies!
The connection was eventually made between the wedding of the sitter’s mother and daisies. The grandmother had brought daisies for that wedding.
What Schwartz says is that the medium knew this, even though the medium states quite clearly otherwise.

Pretend Science

But while Schwartz completely fails to deal with this problem he still pretends to. One way is by letting other people besides the recipient rate the reading. Of course, when people know that a reading is not meant for them, this lowers the perceived accuracy.

Schwartz also made a stupid and amateurish attempt at using a control group. He wanted to know if anyone could guess information like a medium. So he had psychology undergraduates answer some questions.
Now you might think:  But psychology graduates are not anyone but a select group! Or you might think: So what if mediums can guess better than these guys? They are pros and should be expected to know the statistics better. That doesn’t tell us about afterlife communication.

Both true but neither captures the depth of Schwartz’ incompetence. Here’s an example.
Medium says:

I think that this is her mother, she is definitely a pistol, she must have had false teeth because she is taking them in and out, in and out. And she’s not supposed to do that in front of everybody.

The control group was asked:

Who had false teeth?
What did she do with her teeth?

A significant proportion of people have false teeth. And they do a lot more with them than just taking them in and out. The actual task of the “control group” was to guess not facts, but what the medium said and how it was interpreted.

Finally, I should say something about Schwartz’ attempts to calculate probabilities. In short, Schwartz clearly has no understanding of probability theory. A detailed explanation of where the errors lie would require again as much place as I have spent on his ignorance of known psychological effects and moreover be quite “mathy” which to most people reads “boring”.
The necessary math should have been learned at school. If it has been forgotten or was never properly understood then there is probably no interest in catching up now.

Experiments deserving special attention

There are two experiments, the first and the last in the book, that deserve a closer look. They avoid the problems that make most of Schwartz’ work scientifically worthless.

In the first, there were two mediums. Medium one was given four deceased persons to contact. She then made one drawing for each, based on information supposedly from that person.
Medium two then had the task of matching the names to the drawings.
This is not ideal as one might speculate that the drawings might contain hints about the names, put there either consciously or unconsciously. Still, it’s hard to imagine a high degree of accuracy unless the mediums are in collusion and have an agreed upon code.
In some ways, this is one of the best conceived experiments that Schwartz ever reported. But there’s a catch.

You’d think that medium two would simply match the drawings and the pictures in the absence of medium one to avoid being influenced. Indeed, there was a session with the 3 experimenters and medium two. Some vague impressions of colors and shapes were recorded but we are not told of any matching of pictures to person. The medium was unable to receive any clear descriptions of the pictures.
We are not told of any attempt at matching the pictures at that point, which seems incredible!
Then things proceeded in the presence of medium one. The three experimenters attempted to match pictures and persons but without success. We are also told that medium two had no success. She was unable to make good contact, we are told, and she couldn’t recall much of the information that came through in the previous session.
But never fear. When they went back to the impressions recorded without medium one, suddenly everyone was able to guess correctly.

We can reasonably infer that after the first round of guessing, medium one must have revealed at least part of the answer. If she had not told them that they had no success then they would not have kept guessing, right?
I think, the most plausible scenario is that medium one revealed the full answer upon which everyone attempted to fit medium two’s vague utterings to the drawings in an exercise of illusory correlation.
Of course, that is just a possibility but I’m thinking, if it had been possible, even easy, to match correctly with the information first received, why didn’t they do it?

Basically, it looks like the experiment failed and Schwartz just couldn’t face it.

The Last Experiment

The last experiment in the book was apparently added last minute. It is described on only 1 and a half pages, without any additional information in the appendix.
In the experiment, the medium made the reading without having any information on the sitter. That means she could not tailor her readings to specific clients based on appearance or feedback.
Also every sitter received two readings to rate, his or her own and one other. Sitters had to choose which of the two was meant for them personally.
In most previous experiments the expected outcome was the same regardless of whether the mediums were real or not. As such they did not provide any evidence for the reality of mediumship.
In this experiment there was finally a difference. Conventionally, one would expect every sitter to have a 50/50 chance of chosing their own reading. If mediumship is real, the chance should be much higher.

The outcome was that 4 of 6 sitters chose their own reading. Assuming that everyone had a 50/50 chance, getting that many (ie 4 or more) has a probability of 34%. By normal scientific standards that means that there is no reason to assume that anything noteworthy happened.
For comparison, if one assumes a 95% chance of picking the right reading then the chance of getting that few (ie 4 or less) is only 3%.

In Schwartz’ mind this somehow morphs into a ‘breathtaking’ finding.
He points out that one of those sitters rated the intended reading as very accurate and the non-intended reading as 0% accurate. That sitter is supposedly an especially talented sitter.
The whole argument would be more convincing, or rather the least bit convincing at all, if it had been tested in a specially designed experiment rather than being based on some quirk noticed after the fact.

He also says that if the experiment had been much larger, with 25 sitters, with again 2/3rds picking the right reading then that would have been ‘statistically significant’ (ie fairly unlikely according to the conventional 50/50 expectation). If wishes were horses
It’s now almost ten years and Schwartz hasn’t done any experiment of that size, so don’t hold your breath.

Triple Blind!

In science, some participant in an experiment is ‘blind’ if he doesn’t know relevant facts which might bias him.
Single-blind means that the experimental subjects don’t know the relevant facts, double-blind means that the experimenters in contact with the subjects don’t know them either. Terms such as triple-blind or quadruple-blind are sometimes encountered but don’t have a truly standardized meaning.
This is doubly true for mediumship research, which doesn’t have any standard experimental designs. Still, Schwartz and his troupe employ them most haphazardly. It seems to be more of a marketing term rather than anything with scientific sense. As a consequence, they have begun touting it much like razor makers the number of blades. They are now at quintuple-blind, something that in mainstream science is only encountered in the punchline of jokes.

A few years after the book came out, Schwartz, together with Julie Beischel, published a paper with a triple blind medium test. After what Schwartz produced during The Afterlife Experiments era, this experiment completely blew me away with its good design. I think Julie Beischel is a good influence on the project. Objectively, that shows just how low my expectations have become.

There were 8 sitters and 8 mediums. Each medium gave 2 readings and each sitter rated 2 for a total of 16.
The sitters were paired up. One sitter who had lost a parent together with a sitter who had lost a peer. Moreover, the pairings were done so that the deceased each one hoped to contact would be maximally different. Both sitters in a pair received both readings and had to pick theirs, again while being ‘blind’.
The pairing with maximization of differences was to ensure that picking the right reading would be especially easy. That’s a neat idea but that it was found necessary has some interesting implications.
Years earlier, Schwartz entertained us with ‘breathtaking’ findings and ‘breakthrough evidence’. Now things appear to have become a little more difficult. Could it be that mediumship is harder to demonstrate when known psychological effects are taken into account rather than merely being dismissed?

Now things get a little tricky.
You could look at the medium. Each medium is faced with a pair of sitters and needs to “guess” who has the deceased parent and who the peer. That would mean that each medium has a 50/50 chance of getting her readings right. In total that’s eight 50/50 chances
Or you could look at the sitters. Each sitter is faced with the task of picking the right reading out of a pair, which is a 50/50 chance. But each sitter has to do that twice which makes a total of sixteen 50/50 chances.
Which of these views is correct? I don’t know. That depends on what the mediums did. The choice was up to them.

The reason why this matters is in the probabilities. For example, if there are 6 of 8 pairs that are correct then the likelihood for that is 14%, fairly high. If you say that there are 12 out of 16 readings correctly picked then there is only a 4% chance. It is like either getting 6 heads in 8 coin tosses or 12 in 16.

Unfortunately, Schwartz and Beischel fail to realize this problem and adopt the second view. In fact, the sitters picked 13 out of 16 readings correctly which has a likelihood of only 1%. Given that the number of correct picks is uneven, the first view cannot be entirely correct but different mediums may have made different choices. So we shouldn’t assume that it is entirely incorrect either. The likelihood of getting that many readings correct may well exceed 10%.
That’s the difference between interesting and boring.

Of course, even if it’s a 1 in a 100 chance it can still have been chance, or if it’s a 1 in 10 chance it may still have been mediumship.

Related to that problem is the problem of the small size. In comparison to Schwartz’ previous experiments, 16 readings is a lot. But compared to the huge amount of work that appears to be going on at Beischel’s “Windbridge institute” this is only a drop in the bucket.
So if you say that the results could arise by chance only once in so many experiments, well, in this case it is distinctly possible that there are so many experiments out there.

The biggest problem however lies in the interpretation. Each medium received the first name of the “discarnate” they were to contact. But names contain information about a person.
Think of Gertrude vs. Britney. Who is the dead parent, who the dead peer? Think of Tyrone vs. Cletus, who has the higher skin cancer risk?

So if anything was going on in the experiment what was it? A display of mediumship or of statistical knowledge?
We know that one of those is possible. We don’t know that the other is.

On the whole, I find the flimsy results coming from a research program spannig well over a decade quite telling.


1 Comment

  1. May 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    […] Modern Mediumship Research: The Afterlife Experiments […]

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