Friday, August 24, 2007

Great interview with Deborah Blum

The Daily Grail has an extremely informative interview with Ghost Hunters author and Pulitzer prize-winning author Deborah Blum. Here are a few extracts:

TDG: . . .I'm interested to know why you concentrated on the 'William James era' of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Were you lead into the topic accidentally when originally researching James, or is there something about this period of psychical research which made it stand out to you as a writer?

DB: First by accident, then by plan. I was researching the history of psychology for an earlier book (on the science of affection) and I stumbled across some references to William James losing his mind and getting caught up in spiritualism. Other psychologists were just furious with him, angry enough, that I began to wonder why.

As it turned out, they were angry because he was such a leader in the field, they were afraid he would lead the field astray. And was what led me to concentrate on the Victorian period. Because it turned out to be the one time when some of the best scientists in the world - James, Charles Richet and John Strutt (both Nobel Prize winners), Oliver Lodge, a pioneer in wireless communication - were willing to risk their careers to explore supernatural science.

They were so smart, such good researchers, I wanted to know what they found. . .

DB: Here's the blessing and curse of mainstream science. It's the most powerful investigative tool ever invented. It has succeeded by following a very strict set of rules for "proof" of a phenomenon. That phenomenon, for instance, must be predictable, testable, replicable, confirmable. An example of this is the freezing temperature of water (phase change from liquid to solid at 32 degrees fahrenheit.) I can predict this and I (and you and the entire population of the world) can repeat and confirm it ad infinitum.

So far, paranormal phenomena don't follow those rules. They're not predictable in any consistent sense, and rarely perfectly replicable. So - and this William James complained about bitterly - mainstream science has responded by declaring them nonsense and the scientists who pursue them as pseudo-scientists. The problem with that is that our scientific rules may prevent us from trying new approaches, considering alternative ways to measure reality - in other words, box us into a very limited world.

Bottom line, science plays it safe and ruthlessly defends its limits. Totally human and - here's the scandalous part - punishes those who try to make the universe a little more open. . .

TDG: A number of those 'skeptical' reviews of Ghost Hunters have suggested that your 'balanced position' shows that you did not read up on the techniques of fraudulent mediumship, and hence your account was overly credulous (James Randi himself made this point in his newsletter). Can you clarify as to whether you researched things like cold reading, and the other methods used by conjurors and charlatans?

DB: Yes, I knew I was going to get that reaction and, candidly, I thought I could live with it. I'm an obsessive over-researcher so I looked at cold readings, muscle readings, the wonderful fraudulent devices used by mediums, the works. But what made the story interesting, worthwhile, wasn't the fraud. Do we need another book debunking dead mediums?

The whole point of my book - the one I knew would get me in trouble with the Randis of the world - was that possibility exists, that some things remain genuinely fascinatingly explicable, and that there are still questions that deserve to be answered in the realms of the supernatural. Even if we only learn that "supernatural" is the wrong word, that the real answer is that we simply haven't found the limits of the natural world yet.
. . .

TDG: To finish, the tough question - but you can keep your answer extremely short, no need for an explanation. In light of your experience in writing Ghost Hunters, if you (personally) had to answer the question with only a yes or a no: is there something beyond death?

DB: I don't know. But I will tell you that before I researched the book, my answer would have been No. So I'm glad I took the time and trouble - it's made the world a more interesting place for me. . .

This interview is very much worth reading in full.


Greg said...

Thanks for mentioning the interview Matthew, appreciate it.

M.C. said...

My pleasure. Great job as always!