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The Scole Experiment:

In early 1993, in Scole, Norfolk, members of a small established psychic circle, led by experienced psychic researcher Robin Foy and using the highly-developed mediumistic powers of sensitives 'Alan' and 'Diana', were given the message that conditions were now right for an important and extended experimental project to begin. This project, apparently formulated nearly 50 years earlier; was intended to provide a sophisticated and scientifically literate public with irrefutable proof of human survival, and a significant part of the plan behind the work was to be the holding of special sittings at which respected assessors - scientists and intellectuals -would be present in order to provide validation of the experimental results. The impetus, agenda, and planning for this work all ostensibly came to, and not from, the group.

From February 1995 leading members of the Society for Psychical Research and their associates began to be involved as observers. Sittings begun in Norfolk were extended to carefully screened (experimentally controlled) sites in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and California. Hundreds of meetings took place, all recorded on audio-tape under Robin Foy's direction. 'The SPR was represented at 37 of these meetings, and in November last year their Report, a dense and meticulous account and critical assessment of the Scole Experimental Group's work, jointly authored by Mr. Montague Keen and Professors Arthur Ellison and David Fontana, the three principal SPR investigators, was finally published. Preceding their Scole Report by one month came The Scole Experiment by journalists Grant and Jane Solomon, a book which covers the entire five-year period of the experimental work and was written for a popular audience, (Indeed, readers may have seen excerpts serialised in the Daily Mail of 23 and 25 October.)

The Solomons' book, for all the shortcomings of its popular style, is, in the broadest sense, a very valuable part of the project, targeting as it does a far wider audience than The Scole Report. Nevertheless, the focus behind the work was validation of post-mortem survival by the scientific and philosophical community, and it is for this reason that this article addresses only The Scole Report. Archives of psychical research societies throughout the world, not least the SPR's and the CPS's own, are already brimming over with supportive data of a highly phenomenal kind - the kind that could, or should, make publishers' fortunes - the 'Cross Correspondences' (complex and sophisticated evidential messages received by mediums across the world between 1901 and c.1930) being a notable example. The minds behind the SEG's work, as was made clear to the group and its investigators, did not have it as the focus of their intentions to add to this body of evidence. In this sense this is somewhat of a disappointment for readers of the Scole Report because the phenomena reportedly witnessed over the course of the SPR's 37 sittings (the sittings to which the Report’s authors confine their remarks) are extraordinary in the extreme.'

First, highly intelligent, witty, informed and technically-precise dialogue, the transcripts of which it is impossible to read without feeling one is eavesdropping on conversation among established friends and professional colleagues, firmly twentieth-century in disposition and sufficiently at ease with themselves and one another to inject playful and skilful banter into otherwise serious and careful comment and instruction. Second, a number of established voices with their own highly distinctive characters, accents and mannerisms, for the most part embodied in the group's two sensitives but at times disembodied in specific locations in mid-air. And further; moving lights of a fantastic nature (whose movements responded to investigators' requests) - globes and pin-pricks of light, in some cases dense and tangible, capable of penetration of solid objects and observers' own bodies, and flashes akin to lightning; levitations; displacement of objects; a huge array of apports; materialisations of moving and walking forms and parts of bodies; taps, raps and sustained touches from materialised fingers and hands, full handshakes, light kisses, brushings by materialised clothing and cat and dog forms, trumpet sounds from an instrument which had had its mouthpiece removed and to which no group member could physically gain access, drum beatings....

(Oh, to have been there!) But the design of the SEG's work took us beyond this. The intention was to establish durable material evidence, of a kind that could be independently assessed and was not dependent on first-hand reports, however sincere and serious-minded their authors. For one of the salient features of this five-year experiment is the quantity and quality of recorded personal testimony generated not only from SPR investigators and their associates but from the many other observers invited to take part in sittings over the years. There is no shortage of this testimony from educated professional individuals who have a reputation at stake should the work not be what it claims to be. A 'Study Day' was held in December 1999 in London by the SPR to make room for; among other things, just this aspect of the group's work, and it was very moving, as a member of the invited audience, to hear individuals address the meeting and deliver their testimonies in sober and forthright language. I leave it for you to share my amazement at hearing Professor Fontana recount his experience during one of the sittings. Under typical protocol conditions the sitting took place in complete darkness, in a pre-searched and secure room, all participants wearing luminous wristbands to provide investigators with a continuous record of their movements. Asked to lean forward and put his hand into the Pyrex bowl in the centre of the table, he did so and felt a medium-sized crystal. 'Take your hand out of the bowl and give us a few moments,' he was told, and then: 'All right, now put your hand back into the bowl.' He did so, and there was no crystal - simply no crystal. 'Give us a moment again,' and, after a short pause, 'Put your hand back into the bowl': he found the crystal again there.

This is the testimony, among numbers of such testimonies covered in the Report, of a serious-minded academic with nothing apparently to gain and arguably a great deal to lose by making these things up, or allowing himself to be the object of an elaborate duping, speaking at a gathering of equally serious-minded academics and informed parties ready, as he knew, to seize any opportunity to discredit his recounted experience. For however delighted present readers may be to hear of or access for themselves these first-hand reports (and the Solomon's' book happily contains much such material taken directly from the Report) and to marvel at just how good the reported phenomena were, it was not, with respect, your approval that those behind the Scole work had as their priority. What was first and foremost in their sights was the approval of the orthodox scientific and philosophical community, an audience whose position can be summed up as follows: But why should we believe in these things? They don't fit our model of what is possible, and no amount of pleading for the honesty, sincerity, probity, intellectual rigour, and dispassion of SEG members, SPR investigators and other observers is of itself going to dispose us to take on board a rival model. We would rather say:

But you may have been mistaken; or; if you were not mistaken, you were duped, and we can in each case propose an explanation of how you might have been duped using our preferred materialist model. Little was to be gained, therefore, on the view of this section of the Study Day's panel and audience from the presence of invited speaker Mr. James Webster, member of the Magic Circle and associate of the Inner Magic Circle, and full-time professional magician, who attended three of the Scole sittings as observer and who spoke to represent the views of professional hoaxers to state emphatically that under the prevailing controlled conditions of that group's experiments he "would not be prepared to attempt to duplicate the observed phenomena". For even if Mr. Webster could not produce the lights, voices, materialisations, dematerialisations, nothing, so critics would say, has so far been shown, in rigorous scientific terms, to say that no-one else could not. Let this critical disposition be articulated with perhaps more eloquence and force by a professional in the field, Dr. A.S. Mann. Following his contribution I take up my account again to show to what extent his criticisms have been addressed by Report authors, and in fact anticipated by the project's authors themselves.

Dr. A. Scott Mann has taught Philosophy at the universities of Sussex, Sydney, and Western Sydney. He was lecturer at and director of the Centre for Liberal and General Studies at the University of New South Wales and currently teaches at the University of Western Sydney. His research interests include analogical reasoning in natural science. He has been asked to provide a succinct philosopher of science's response to the Scole experiments. In their book The Scole Experiment G. and J. Solomon refer to "the [Scole] group's willingness to invite stringent scientific scrutiny" (The Scole Experiment p.70). They qualify this by observing that "individuals with credible academic, specialist and scientific knowledge were welcomed to sessions". But the presence of scientists in no way implies "stringent scientific scrutiny". As the Society for Psychical Research investigators acknowledge in their report (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol.58, Part 220), "critics have argued that lawyers [can be] more suitable [observers] than scientists,... investigative journalists would be shrewder in detecting duplicity than psychologists" (PSPR, p.312).

Scientific scrutiny implies effective isolation and control of the systems under investigation. And no matter how critically alert trained scientific specialists might be, they are not functioning as scientists if they are prevented from exercising such control. It is simply not good enough to maintain that no amount of control would "satisfy resolute critics" and that "clever illusionists can outwit any form of surveillance" (PSPR, p.309). There can never be complete control. But a good experiment is distinguished by aiming for the best that is possible under the circumstances. And, as the SPR investigators admit, standards fell very far short of what was possible in this case (see e.g. PSPR, pp.308-13). Broadly speaking, scientific theory testing involves either testing explanatory causal theories or models through observational confirmation or refutation of predictions derived from the theory, or testing statistical hypotheses - of various kinds - through appropriate procedures of sampling, controlled experimentation, and data analysis. Here we are concerned with observational testing of an explanatory theory relating to the existence and causal powers of spirits of the dead.

The most crucial point in this sort of observational test is that the predictions in question be unexpected or improbable except on the assumption that the theory in question is true. It must not, in other words, be possible to derive similar predictions from other theories already known or believed accurately to describe aspects of the world. Observational confirmation of a prediction that is equally derivable from an established theory merely tells us that the new theory has not been refuted, but provides no solid verification of that theory. To take an example: the observed fall of an unsupported object fails to verify my theory that there are such things as invisible spirits which suck all such objects down to earth precisely because we already expect such objects to fall - on the basis of well-established ideas of gravitational attractive forces. If, on the other hand, our theory predicts that spiritual intervention will prevent such a fall in some specific case - without the intervention of any other recognised physical forces - and this prediction is confirmed, then, indeed, we have good grounds for taking the new theory very seriously. As Alan Gauld points out, in his Comments on the Scole Report (PSPR, pp.4C4-24), all of the Scole phenomena can be explained by reference to well-established principles of human motivation and action - without any necessary appeal to spirits of the dead. And, in broad terms, on the basis of previous experience of hoaxing in this area, we can see the sorts of 'physical manifestations' in this case as precisely the sorts of things that might have been expected from contemporary hoaxers.

The importance of improbable predictions is recognised - at least implicitly - by the SPR investigators when they address the questions of why the Scole team could not create some object not possibly available to human hoaxers, nor give information that could not have been known to anyone (PSPR, pp.307-8). The fact is that the team did neither of these things. Nor do the members of the team or the SPR investigators provide any independently testable explanation of why this was the case. On the contrary, there are suggestions that the spirits can somehow manipulate matter at the subatomic level in ways that would presumably allow them to produce truly strange and unexpected artefacts (like the PPOs [permanent paranormal objects] referred to by the SPR investigators). In the absence of proper verification of the spirit hypothesis, scientific method requires a critical sifting of all possible hypotheses capable of explaining the observed phenomena. And the fact that the hypothesis of human hoaxing is very much more plausible than any other we can think of in itself constitutes some degree of confirmation of that hypothesis.

Two important points are highlighted by Dr. Mann: the lack of rigorous controls and the absence of improbable predictions. As he says, the first weakness is properly acknowledged by the Scole Report writers. With few exceptions, all experimental work took place in complete darkness, and investigators had indeed pressed for the introduction of infrared image intensifying equipment to allow for monitoring of an altogether superior kind to that provided by the chosen method of luminous Velcro-fastened wristbands (too noisy and awkward for the hoaxer to remove without detection, it was thought) and fluorescent tags attached to table, tape-recorder buttons, and experimental objects. This repeated request had, however; been flatly turned down by those behind the scenes: infrared light, of however low an intensity, would disturb the experimental work, they were told. No explanation was given, and no movement on the subject was possible, although, as Report authors note (p.3C9): "We have no means of knowing what limitations the Team was under."

To this extent, then, a great part of the phenomena at Scole and elsewhere are rendered scientifically insignificant. You will not think so, perhaps, because you will want to believe that when people of integrity say they did not cheat or; as vigilant observers, did not observe others to cheat, that is the end of the matter. (Note: Report, p.3l4: "In an investigation extending over two years in three countries, and involving varying levels of thoroughness and depth and a dozen senior members of the Society for Psychical Research in their private capacities, no inadvertent, off-guard remark which might be thought to reveal a deception has been noted by any of the principal investigators or reported to them.") But the critical position demands hard, independent proof. So, in short, the monitoring process used let down a great deal of what was produced by the group. However; as for improbable predictions, I think the SEG's work can more than meet Dr. Mann's requirements. For; while it is granted that results included nothing to match the classic, textbook PPO - the pair of unbroken but interlocking rings of wood made of two different types of wood (what the Report writers call the Holy Grail of PPOs(!)), there was in fact plenty to stand as permanent and abnormal to the point of the deeply improbable. And here the significance of the tangible, durable result comes into its own.

After the voices (available as they may still be on audio-tape), after the lights, after the displacements, the handshakes, the materialisations and dematerialisations, and the pile of left-over apports, there remains the collection of camera-film and video-film images which were produced under truly improbable circumstances. Space limiting me to only a sketch of one example here, readers are directed to the appendices of the Report which describe in painstaking detail the procedures adopted for obtaining, on 22 November 1996, the images on the "Wie der Staub in [...] Wind" film. Briefly put, the SPR's associate Dr. Walter Schnittger took complete control of all arrangements for the purchasing, storing, unpacking, making secure (locking up in a specially-made box), unlocking, retrieving, and processing of the film used in that sitting. The film, still in its sealed inner wrapping, was thus placed in a specially-designed, padlocked box (keys stored off-site) and held by Dr. Schnittger throughout the experiment in a fashion that defied all tampering. Just over three years later he came from Germany to the Scole Study Day to give an eloquent and concise (under-five-minute) account of the exact design of the box (he is a leading engineer) and the exact way in which he had held it during the experiment: three fingers pressed against one side; his thumb against another; his index finger on the top face; his palm covering the lock; the base resting firmly on the table.

Only the side facing away from him (the base excepted) was uncovered by any part of his hand, and this side was slotted into the box from above and could not be removed without first dismantling the box from the top. What emerged from the box was conclusively what went into the box, and this was a new, sealed roll of camera film, which when processed was found to carry some lines of poetry in the style of a known Romantic German poet, preceded by various glyphs, designs, and squiggles (see Report plate 6, and The Scole Experiment plates 18 & 19). How had these images got onto the film? There is much such film evidence among the Scole experimental results. All of this evidence is recognised to be vulnerable to a combination of established theory - (1) hoaxing, combined with (2) Super-PSI activity (that is, the unconscious accessing on the part of Foy and/or other group members, via some sort of super-mind, of data used to produce the messages or codes or images on film) - until or unless the protocols used can be established to have been faultless. But this is the distinction of, among others, the "Wie der Staub..." film: the protocol was "perfect", say Report writers. Limitations of space prevent me from mentioning them here, but readers of The Scole Report and The Scole Experiment will find a significant number of other such experimental results that correspond to the most improbable of Dr. Mann's "improbable predictions": voices recorded (e.g. during a 20- minute communication on 21 January 1997) on a microphone-less tape-recorder; via equipment using the semi-conductor material germanium, made to instruction by those behind the scene (see Report Ch. 8 and Appendix I); and images captured on Sony factory- sealed, investigator-marked and monitored Polaroid video-film (see Report Ch. 11 and Appendix J), most spectacularly among them the distinct profile of a middle-aged man wearing gold-rimmed glasses (said by Dr. Mann to look "frighteningly like" himself(!)).

Together the two books give a wealth of detail about the communications, messages, and images produced during these final three years of the SEG's work, and I can only hint at this in these remarks. Throughout, there were allusions direct and indirect to the person of F.W.H. Myers and to previous evidential work. The Scole group's work thus appears to be an extension of work begun earlier; which has now had new life breathed into it by technological advances. The communication equipment built to order was described by its discarnate designers as "an experimental communication system [enabling the production of] work of the utmost importance to mankind". An abrupt and definitive halt to the SEG's work was called in late 1998 to the dismay of experimenters and investigators alike. But the group's work has been 'permitted' to continue in the form of smaller units of original members, and many other (currently some one hundred) amateur groups have now formed, using guidelines produced for this purpose. In the view of the CPS Council what the SEG has succeeded in producing well justifies the call for a new, non-materialist paradigm: the data are quite extraordinary, their production, using a materialist theory of explanation, quite improbable, and they and I wholly endorse the Report's referee Dr. Crawford Knox in his carefully-worded conclusion (Report, p.450): "...It is likely that it [the Report ] will mark an important step in attempts to place on a firm footing evidence for the existence of a spirit world and its impact on our everyday world and for survival of death."

Scole and Science by A. Scott Mann
Concluding Remarks by Rosalind Oliver