Modern Mediumship Research: Negative

In this post I am going to deal with results that speak against the reality of mediumship. We begin with mediumship tests where a negative outcome was admitted.
For starters there’s a study by Jensen and Cardena. It involved only one medium, however. So there’s not really much we can conclude about mediumship in general.

A larger study was published by O’Keefe and Wiseman. It involved five mediums and 5 sitters (a jargon term for client). It discusses methodological issues in great detail and can be downloaded from Wiseman’s website. It is recommended reading for anyone thinking about putting together their own medium test. In fact, similar methods could be used to test someone who claims telepathy or just merely being a good judge of character.

One argument against such negative studies is that they simply didn’t have a genuine medium on their hands. This, however, is not a very common argument in my experience. Perhaps because it is uncomfortably close to accusing the tested mediums of fraud, or perhaps because it leaves the implication that there is

The other more common argument is that the conditions didn’t permit mediumship. Usually, some factor is said to have blocked the ability, such as the presence of skeptics. This has by now turned into a muchly ridiculed cliché.
Others say it was simply that the unfamiliar surroundings of the lab and strict limitations of the protocol made the mediums uncomfortable. This has been compared (by males, of course) to the inability of people to have sex under such conditions. I find it amazing that in this day and age there are still men who are unaware of the existence of porn.
As a remedy, Julie Beischel of the Windbridge Institute argued that O’Keefe and Wiseman should have tested their mediums before testing them to ensure that they can pass the test. It sounds better if you call the pretest a “screening”.
Some more cerebral believers argue that the conditions for paranormal just so happen to be the same as for error or fraud (though they will, of course, not put it so bluntly). Such an argument is implicit in Kelly and Arcangel’s paper when they talk about “priming the pump”.


Perhaps one might include skeptic challenges as another negative piece of evidence. These challenges are meant to call out people who claim abilities they don’t have. The most famous of these, and the blue-print for most others, is James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge.
The rules are both simple and scrupulously fair. Whoever wishes to take up the challenge needs not only claim some ability but design himself a task, impossible to ordinary people. So rather than just claim mediumship, one would need to say, for example, ‘I can tell if someone’s parents are alive or dead.’ Of course, the conditions would have to be so as to preclude ordinary means of inference, however unlikely. And it would have to be stipulated how many tries there would be and how many would have to be successful.
Basically, one has to convince James Randi and his advisors that there is no way to do the promised feat with ordinary means. Once they accept this, the claimant has a legal contract that stipulates payout on success.

So far, the money has been quite safe.

The arguments against the challenge are numerous but ill-informed. Some think that whether or not someone wins is a judgement call by James Randi. In fact, the rules explicitly forbid any judgement calls. Success or failure must be obvious to anyone.
Others accuse Randi of dishonesty. They say he only allows weak claimants or even that he manipulates the result. This is some rather outrageous slander but even so, there are other challenges. In any case, one can also contact parapsychologists. Yet by all appearances, they don’t have any potential winners either
Naively, one would expect something like Randi’s challenge to be treated as the X-Prize of parapsychology. But what if there are no humans with super-powers? Then those who claim them would be frauds or lunatics. The reaction to the offer of a million dollars certainly does nothing to dissuade one from considering that possibility.

Still, it is true that just because no one has risen to the challenge, this does not disprove mediumship. One might claim, for example, that a true medumistic gift always comes with extreme shyness.


Finally, there is also the fact that what science has revealed over the last centuries about the world, about us and about our place in the world is rather inconsistent with mediumship. Not so long ago science believed that there was a life-force that distinguished living from non-living matter. Today this is considered refuted.
Something similar is true for the human mind, which today is considered to be the workings of the brain.

Not only has science not uncovered support for mediumship, it has refuted some of its core tenets.

In regards to this some will point out that science has been wrong before. This is quite true and, indeed, science is nothing if not a quest to be ever less wrong. But here we have a case where this quest simply leads away from the proffered answer.
There are even many examples where scientists held onto ideas that should have been recognized as discredited by the evidence. Who is the dogmatic hold-out in this story?

Still, the fact remains that while science as a whole offers strong arguments against the possibility of mediumship, it cannot be ruled out. Science could be wrong and that is a simple, unalterable fact.
If the evidence indicated that it was real then one would have to find a way to reconcile it with other seemingly contradictory evidence.
However, I have never so far come across a serious attempt at this. There are plenty of demands that mainstream science should take parapsychology seriously. Demands that parapsychology take mainstream science seriously are usually met with the charge of close-mindedness.

The Universal Negative

Eventually, what all this boils down to is quite simply that you can’t prove a universal negative. You can’t test everyone and even when you test someone it only shows that they failed in this specific test on this one occasion.


1 Comment

  1. June 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

    […] Modern Mediumship Research: Negative […]

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