Things To Do When You're Dead

Trevor Hamilton.  Tell My Mother I’m Not Dead: A Case Study in Mediumship Research Imprint Academic, 2012.

After the tragic death of his son in a road accident Trevor Hamilton went to various mediums to if he could obtain evidence of his survival. He makes a heroic effort, under the circumstances to remain as detached as possible. He ranks various statements made by mediums in table format, but crucially does not provide full transcripts of exactly what when one. A good number of the hits he records are actually logical inferences or general statements. There is also a very important omission from these statements (the man’s girlfriend had gone to his house to meet him, found the place in darkness, been told there had been an accident but no details and had spent the weekend making increasingly frantic phone calls to his answerphone). I would expect any “surviving personality” to have this at the forefront of his (?its) mind.

Janice Miner Holden, Bruce Greyson and Debbie James (Eds.) The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation. Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Eleven papers covering all aspects of the NDE mainly by members of the International Association of Near- Death Studies. While its coverage is comprehensive the authors seem to have difficulty in deciding whether they are producing a religious or scientific work and in general voices of those who view the NDE as a primarily physiological or psychological phenomenon are absent. With those caveats, this still contains a mass of information and extensive bibliographies and should be of interest to anyone with an interest in psychical research.

John G. Sabot.  Digging up Ghosts: Unearthing Past Presences at a Haunted Location. Ghost Evacuation Books, 2013.

Not a book about conducting archaeology in allegedly haunted locations, but rather the appropriation of the language of archaeology and other social sciences to ghost hunting, giving it a kind of academic veneer. If the author was not a spiritualist of sorts, who took “ghosts” so literally, there might be useful insights here, but the book has the additional handicap of being very repetitious. -- Peter Rogerson

Most Haunted

William J Hall. The World’s Most Haunted House: The True Story of the Bridgeport Poltergeist on Lindley Street. New Page, 2014.

A revisiting of a 1974 poltergeist case from Connecticut, centering on an 11 year old adopted girl, subjected to a degree of over-protection amounting to emotional abuse from an adoptive mother, who previously lost a son with profound physical and mental handicaps. The typical poltergeist effects are recounted and the situation is made worse by the arrival of the self-proclaimed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren on the scene, along with local flash mobs.

Like many such cases if the events occurred exactly as narrated they would be very difficult to explain in conventional terms, though the child is said by police to have confessed and clearly used normal means to produce some of the effects. Regardless of the issue of paranormality the case illustrates the kind of situations that investigators can get involved with, and why in my view those without some background in psychiatric social work and/or family counselling should not involve themselves. It speaks volumes of the situation in this family that the girl at the centre of this case left the adopted home as soon as she was legally able to do so. -- Peter Rogerson

Escaping the Flames?

Rupert Sheldrake. A New Science of Life, 3rd edition, Icon Books, 2009.

When this book was first published nearly 30 years ago, it received truly excellent publicity, when the then editor of Nature magazine, John Maddox, described it as a heresy and a suitable candidate for burning. Not surprisingly many people bought the book to see what the fuss was about. Looking at it now, I am not sure that many of those who did so would have followed the rather technical nature of many of the arguments within the book.

Like most lay people, I would have assumed that the huge strides in conventional biology over the last generation, the age of the genetic revolution, would have even more sidelined Sheldrake, who remains a voice crying in, if not the wilderness, then a very sparsely inhabited place. Sheldrake will have none of this however, and claims that gaps in biological knowledge make his theory even more credible. This would seem to suggest that the famous morphic and morphogenetic fields are 'fields of the gaps'

Within the main book however, a separate problem arises, for they are seen to explain everything. Of course, I am not in a position to evaluate the numerous technical points, but even as a lay person I can see that if you invent some hypothetical entity for which there is no direct evidence, then ascribe to it just such properties are needed to explain X, Y and Z, then it will indeed easily explain X, Y and Z. But this sort of thing doesn't impress mainstream scientists, because it doesn't actually lead anywhere.
Sheldrake has all along advocated experiments to test his hypothesis, and that rather separates him from a large proportion of the general run of pseudo-scientists, but it is not clear that even if his predications were realised, that they would automatically prove his hypothesis or rule out others.

For, to take an example not used in his book; UK students tend to score higher and higher marks on standard exams such as the GCSE. This is often ascribed to the questions getting easier, though others would argue that is because the pupils are taught better or more thoroughly coached. Sheldrake would explain it by the students interacting with the morphic fields of previous takers. It is not clear how one separates any of these out.

Thus while Sheldrake may (or may not, I wouldn't know) highlight genuine anomalies, for example, changes in the melting point of certain substances, or ease of making crystals, and his suggestion that the "laws" of nature are not fixed and immutable, has a good Fortean ring to it, his general hypothesis looks just all embracing and metaphysical to look like good modern science. It seeking to explain everything, it simply sidelines lots of what we already know.

Despite the introduction's appeal to secular science, and the suggestion that he is discarding ancient metaphysical baggage, it is clear that the actual appeal is quite the opposite. Sheldrake's constant attacks on 'materialism' and 'mechanism' show that what really appals him is the disenchantment of nature in modernity. This is very evident in several of his other books, and it is the content of these which gives rise to the suspicion that for all its experimental and at least quasi scientific veneer, the real purpose of the theory of 'morphic resonance' is to act as the intelligent designers put it, as wedge or perhaps a jemmy to prize open the door of scientific naturalism. -- Peter Rogerson. (Oroginally published on the Magonia Blog, April 2009)

You Couldn't Make It Up.

John Michael Greer. The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation. Llewellyn, 2009.

When you read that the author of this book is "a student of magic and the unexplained ... with training and initiation into several Druid and occult orders" you might think this is going to be one of those strange crank books that exist on the fringes of ufology. You would be wrong, because it is a very sensible book, which critically examines the cases made by proponents and critics of ufology and finds both wanting.

Rather than examining the evidence in an opened minded, scientific fashion, both sides, he argues, use rhetoric to argue for their predetermined conclusions; the ETH on the one hand, the null hypothesis on the other. UFO proponents argue roughly that UFO cases which cannot be given a satisfactory mundane explanation are ipso facto evidence for extraterrestrial spaceships, skeptics on the other hand argue that extraterrestrial visits are unlikely, all UFO reports must be misperceptions and hoaxes. This image of the flying saucer as the extraterrestrial spaceship is founded in popular culture.

He makes many of the same points that I have about the ETH, that in the absence of any information as to the nature or capabilities of ETs just about anything can be explained by the ETH; that what people report are really folk images of spaceships and extraterrestrials (real aliens likely to be much more alien than the humanoid figures of UFO literature), the lack of physical evidence and so forth; and how the ETH is founded upon hidden assumptions about the great chain of being and unlimited technological progress, and that the latter may well be an illusion He notes equally that many null hypothesis supporters also create virtually irrefutable hypotheses.

He looks at various alternatives, many of which have similar problems to the ETH, in that they are based on arguments from ignorance. He comes up with three potential streams to account for unexplained UFO reports: poorly understood physical phenomena of the earthlights variety, ‘apparitional’ experiences generated in altered states of consciousness, (interestingly he claims that one occult training to generate visionary experience is to stare at the sky for long periods of time) and cover-ups of secret military projects.

In support of the last hypothesis, he notes the curious behaviour of the official investigations, which by their often implausible explanations, gave rise to suspicions of cover-ups, and actually helped promote the ETH. He even argues that some UFO reports may have been made up by the military to covertly promote the ETH. This comes close to the territory of the hypothetical ‘Project Far Stranger', the idea that there was a conspiracy launched in the immediate post-war world to promote the idea of extraterrestrial invaders to unite humankind against a common enemy. The problem with these sorts of explanation is that they rapidly descend into the realm of the grandiose conspiracy theories which blame everything on the Jewish, Communist, Jesuit, Freemason, American bankers in the Vatican, and the Reptillian Illuminati.

While I don't agree with everything here, and can see several gaps in Greer's knowledge of the subject, this is a book worth recommending to believers and skeptics alike to challenge their presuppositions. Peter Rogerson. (Originally published on the Magonia Blog 3 April 2009) 

On the UFO Beat

Tony Dodd. Alien Investigator: The Case Files of Britain's Leading UFO Detective, Headline, London, 1999. 

It all began on a night in January 1978, when Sergeant Tony Dodd of the North Yorkshire Police had a close encounter with a UFO when driving across the moors with a colleague. When he eventually retired from the police force, Dodd began to devote himself full time to UFO research. He claims to use his police experience "to tackle the subject in a hard-headed, disciplined manner". Presumably this means not believing everything that one would like to believe and being able to distinguish between facts and fantasies, as well as demanding sound evidence to back up extraordinary claims.

It is all too obvious, though, that if Dodd had conducted his police work in the same way that he pursues his UFO research, his career would have not lasted long. He believes that people who have close encounters are specially chosen and that the aliens communicate with him telepathically. These are the good aliens, of course. There are also the bad aliens who mutilate animals. In fact, there are several different lots of aliens buzzing around the Earth, and Dodd obviously has a hard time trying to sort out which lot is which.

Being so active in ferreting out UFO secrets, Dodd is plagued by the activities of secret agents who tap his telephone, follow him around, and generally hassle him. One would think that an experienced police officer would have ways of dealing with this sort of treatment, but Dodd never takes the obvious actions. For example, he is followed around by a car and uses his knowledge of the local roads to get on its tail. This is where he can get its registration number and have it checked out. But he makes no mention of attempting to identify its owner. At a UFO conference in Tucson, Arizona, he was approached by "two dark-suited men" who told him they were from the US government, and proceeded to warn him about the line of research he was pursuing. Strangely, he makes no mention of asking for evidence of their authority to question him.

Perhaps the most amusing stories concern Dodd's interest in alleged UFO incidents in Iceland. His contacts there gave his phone number to Icelandic trawlermen who took to ringing him up and telling him fantastic stories about UFOs going in and out of the sea. Dodd apparently takes all these reports at face value, apparently blind to the probability that they are pulling his leg. -- John Harney, from Magonia Monthly Supplement, number 13, March 1999.