Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Great interview with Deborah Blum

Michael Tymn begins his interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum by recounting a brief history of the history of psychic research:

A century ago, roughly between 1885 and 1925, some distinguished scholars and scientists conducted some very thorough investigations of mediums. Their objective was to determine if spirits were really communicating through the mediums and, concomitantly, whether consciousness survives bodily death. Almost without exception, they came to the same conclusion: that spirit communication was real and that consciousness does survive physical death. The few exceptions accepted that certain mediums were not charlatans; they simply didn't know what to make of it and sat on the fence to protect themselves from ridicule by their closed-minded colleagues, who felt it was beneath their dignity to consider such foolishness.

When I see modern scholars and scientists aping those “closed-minded colleagues” of yesteryear and their ancient ancestors, I've got to believe that evolution has come full circle. Either that, or there are checks and balances in the evolutionary plan to make sure that we don't progress too rapidly. A recent example of what I am talking about is a comment in TIME Magazine by Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychologists, that “attempts to contact the souls of the dead” by scientists of a century ago “turned up only cheap magic tricks.”

Having thoroughly studied the research done by those psychical researchers of a century ago, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could make such a statement, unless he or she hasn't really dug into the material and is simply suffering from the aping syndrome, the tendency to want to look bright and not foolish by smirking, scoffing, and sneering at things that are beyond the grasp of current science.

After introducing us to Blum's area of research, Tymn goes on to ask some good questions which Blum adroitly answers. Here's the first:

Tymn: What prompted you to write the book?

Blum: Curiosity. I had been researching the early history of psychology for another book and I kept finding references to William James losing his mind, going astray into the world of the weird. And I thought, ‘Well, that's strange because I thought James was considered an intellectual statesman.' So I got a book that Gardner Murphy had put together called ‘William James and Psychical Research.' And as soon as I read it, I saw the possibilities. First, James was far more adventurous and less stuffy than I'd always thought. His personality and that of his correspondents - Fred Myers, Edmund Gurney, Oliver Lodge - just shone in their writing. Second, I found myself agreeing with James perspective on the attitude of science toward psychical studies. More than 100 years ago, he wrote: ‘The rigorously scientific mind may, in truth, easily overshoot the mark. Science means, first of all, a certain dispassionate method. To suppose that it means a certain set of results that one should pink one's faith upon and hug forever is sadly to mistake its genius and degrades the scientific body to the status of a cult.' And that is as true today as it was then. And finally, I realized that there were some wonderful inexplicable supernatural events, uncovered by this group that I wanted to recreate. One of them, I use as the opening of my book - it's called ‘The Woman on the Bridge'.

Now go read Tymn's interview, and check out the rest of his blog while you are at it!

(HT: Michael Prescott)

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