The Elusive Science

Seymour H. Mauskopf and Michael McVaugh. The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimenta1 Psychical Research. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

The authors of this book examine, from the viewpoint of historians of science the transition from 'psychical research' to 'parapsychology' during the quarter-century 1915-40 and, in particular, the work of Dr J B Rhine. The archives of Dr Rhine at Duke University, and those of the Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research have been extensively consulted and much new material has been brought to light.

The result is one of the most interesting, informative and novel works in this field for some time. Unlike so much of the endless rehash presented, we actually learn a great deal, some of it quite surprising. For example, British psychical researchers were far more critical of Rhine's' lax experiments' than American academic psychologists, who saw this as normal in the first stages of an experimental investigation. We also learn that some statisticians came to Rhine's defence because they saw sceptical psychologists' attacks on Rhine's statistics as an attack on the infant science of statistics itself. Most interesting is the extent to which a large proportion of American psychologists were at least 'not unsympathetic' to Rhine, and by 1940 if his results had been replicated by a fair number of the people quietly replicating his experiments, parapsychology would have been on the way to being respectable. The authors leave off just at the point that parapsychology began to get bogged down.

Perhaps a wider historical perspective would show that such a result is too typical of psychical research, which seems to lack persistence. There are repeated patterns of 'good leads' or 'crazes' (depending on how you look at them) being taken up, followed for a while, petering out when the going gets rough, and abandoned for something new.

This book is also welcome because its scholarly, calm tone is such a contrast to those which argue in a hectoring way either that those who are not convinced by the overwhelming evidence are thick-headed SOBs, or that those who don't laugh the whole thing out of court are credulous twits. For agnostics like myself both sides are equally irritating. -- Peter Rogerson. Magonia 11, 1982

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