The Scole Experiment

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The Scole Experiment

Post by zerdini on Sun Dec 26, 2010 7:54 pm

The Scole Experiment by Brian Dunning

Said to be the best evidence yet for the afterlife -- but how good is that evidence?

November 10, 2009

By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 179, November 10, 2009
http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4179


Turn out the lights and link your hands, for today we're going to hold a seance and contact the dead, and have them perform parlor tricks for us in the dark. We're going to look at the Scole Experiment, a large, well-organized series of seances conducted by members of the Society for Psychical Research in the late 1990's in Scole, a small village in England. Reported phenomena included ghostly lights flitting about the room, images appearing on film inside secure containers, reports of touches from unseen hands, levitation of the table, and disembodied voices. Due to the large number of investigators and sitters involved, the number and consistency of paranormal episodes observed during the seances, and the lack of any finding of fraud, many believers often point to the Scole Experiment as the best scientific evidence that spirits do survive in the afterlife, and can and do come back and interact with the living, demonstrating an impressive array of conjuring powers.

There were a total of six mediums and fifteen investigators from the SPR. The Society for Psychical Research, or SPR, is based in London and is more than a century old. Its membership consists of enthusiasts of the paranormal. The authoritative source for what happened in the Scole Experiment is a report several hundred pages long, called The Scole Report, originally published in the journal Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and written by three of the lead investigators who were present at the sittings, all current or former senior officers of the SPR: plant scientist Montague Keen, electrical engineer Arthur Ellison, and psychologist David Fontana. I have a copy here on my desk. It goes through the history of how the experiments came together, details each of the many seances, and presents analysis and criticism from a number of the SPR investigators who observed.

Unfortunately, the Scole Experiment was tainted by profound investigative failings. In short, the investigators imposed little or no controls or restrictions upon the mediums, and at the same time, agreed to all of the restrictions imposed by the mediums. The mediums were in control of the seances, not the investigators. What the Scole Report authors describe as a scientific investigation of the phenomena, was in fact (by any reasonable interpretation of the scientific method) hampered by a set of rules which explicitly prevented any scientific investigation of the phenomena.

The primary control offered by the mediums was their use of luminous wristbands, to show the sitters that their hands were not moving about during the seances. I consulted with Mark Edward, a friend in Los Angeles who gives mentalism and seance performances professionally. He knows all the tricks, and luminous wristbands are, apparently, one of the tricks. There are any number of ways that a medium can get into and out of luminous wristbands during a seance. The wristbands used at Scole were made and provided by the mediums themselves, and were never subjected to testing, which is a gross dereliction of control by the investigators. Without having been at the Scole Experiment in person, Mark couldn't speculate on what those mediums may have done or how they may have done it. Suffice it to say that professional seance performers are not in the least bit impressed by this so-called control. Tricks like this have been part of the game for more than a century. Since hand holding was not employed in the Scole seances, the mediums effectively had every opportunity to be completely hands free and do whatever they wanted to do.

Believers in the Scole Experiment are likely to point to specifics in the Scole Report and say something like "But according to the detailed notes, the medium never moved his hands," or something like that. But we have to remember that, assuming the Scole mediums were using trickery, the authors of the Scole Report were merely witnesses who were taken in by the tricks. Of course their report is likely to, and does, state that they could not have been fooled. This is a perfect example of confirmation bias. These Society for Psychical Research fellows firmly believed they were witnessing genuine spirit phenomena, and desired a positive outcome. They followed the mediums' instructions to the T and acted as an audience only and not as investigators. The Scole Report details the authors' perceptions of what happened in the room; no reader has cause to believe it describes what actually happened in the room.

Repeatedly, throughout the Scole Report, the authors state that no evidence of fraud or deception was found. For example:

There is a further complaint: that we made little mention of the views of people like West or Professor Robert Morris, "who expressed reservations on the basis of their experiences." That is partly because no such reservations were expressed to us at the time... We were looking for evidence of deception... We looked in vain.

If I go to Penn & Teller's magic show to look for evidence of deception, but I impose the rule that I have to stay in my seat and watch the show as presented, and I'm not allowed to go onstage and examine the performers or the equipment, or watch from behind, or observe the preparations, I guarantee you that I also will find no evidence of deception. Placing illuminated wrist cuffs on the seance mediums, and allowing no further controls, is perfectly analogous to having Teller show you his arms "Hey, look, nothing up my sleeves," then allowing him total control over everything that follows. It can reasonably be argued that the Scole Experiment investigators (whether deliberately or through near-total investigative incompetence) created the conditions of a stage show designed to fool an audience.

The phenomenon most commonly reported in the Scole Experiments were small points of light that flitted about the room, often striking crystals and illuminating them from within, or causing disconnected light bulbs or a small glass dome to light up. Since the mediums banned video gear, there's no way we can really evaluate these claims, other than by reading the Scole Report, which only tells us the perceptions experienced by a few true believers who were present. Mark Edward said these tricks have been commonly performed in seances with laser pointers since the 1970's when they first became available: Strike a light bulb or rock crystal with a laser pointer and it lights right up. An advantage of laser pointers is that the tip can be easily cloaked, obscuring the orifice from anyone whose eyeball is not the target of the beam. We have no evidence that the Scole mediums used such techniques, but their rules also prevented us from establishing that they didn't.

The next most impressive feat was the spontaneous appearance of images on film. During the seance, factory-sealed film cartridges were placed inside a padlocked box. The spirits were then asked to imprint images upon the film. The locked box was then taken and the film developed in the strict constant supervision of the investigators. This feat was repeated many times. One of the investigators, Alan Gauld, wrote critically of how he discovered this locked box could be quickly and easily opened in the dark, which allowed for easy substitution of film rolls. This box was provided by the mediums. Whenever any other sealed container was used, no images ever appeared on the film. Yet even while acknowledging these facts, the authors of the Scole Report still maintain that the film images are most likely evidence of the supernatural.

Perhaps the biggest red flag in the Scole Experiment is the venue in which the sittings took place: a room in the basement of the house in Scole where two of the mediums lived, Robin and Sandra Foy. Rather than controlling the environment, the investigators ceded total control over the room and conditions to the mediums. The seances were held about once a month, which gave the Foys ample time to make any desired alterations to the room. There's no evidence that they did so, but granting them unrestricted opportunity pretty much torpedoed any hope for credibility. The Scole Report states that the room was available for examination before and after every seance, but there's no reason to believe that any truly thorough examination was ever performed; and in any event it's a poor substitute for what the investigators should have done, which was to provide their own room over which the mediums had no control at all. (A few seances were held at other locations, but the Scole Report describes the results from those as "variable".)

The next biggest red flag was the mediums' insistence that the seances be held in complete darkness and their refusal to allow any night-mode video cameras or light enhancement equipment. The mediums' explanation was that they felt such equipment would distract the investigators! That's like telling a pilot that having instruments might distract him from flying. Astoundingly the investigators agreed to this, though they did express dismay, as if their desire and good intentions alone validate their conclusions. Audio recordings only were permitted, but since the claimed phenomena were primarily visual, the audio tapes are of essentially no value.

A third red flag is the fact that there's been no followup. If amazing phenomena truly did happen at the Scole Experiment, it would have changed the world. Mainstream psychologists and other academics would have gotten in on it, it would have made worldwide headlines, and it would be repeated in labs everywhere and become mainstream science. They did have the opportunity: skeptical psychologist and author Richard Wiseman sat in on one seance, taking charge of some photographic film, which failed to be imprinted while in his control. But rather than coming away impressed and spreading the word, he summed it up to me in six words: "It was a load of rubbish!"

This same principle explains why we don't see articles from the Proceedings of the SPR, like the Scole Report, republished in scientific journals. A scientific investigation of a strange phenomenon assumes the null hypothesis unless the phenomenon can be proven to exist. But the authors of the Scole Report, with complete credulity, did the exact opposite: Their stated position is that the lack of disproof means their seances were real supernatural events. But a primary feature of good research is the elimination of other possible explanations, at which the Scole investigators made no competent effort. Many of the investigators expressed that they were not very convinced by what they witnessed, and it is to the credit of the Scole Report authors that they fairly reported this. But this raises the question: Why then write such a lengthy and credulous report, making such obvious conclusions that these phenomena were real? The lesson to take away from the Scole Experiment is a simple one. Although we all have preconceived notions, we have to put them aside and follow the evidence when we investigate.

Science journalist Brian Dunning is the host and producer of the podcast Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena (skeptoid.com), applying critical thinking to urban legends and popular pseudoscientific subjects promoted by the mass media. Skeptoid has a weekly audience of 129,200 listeners. Brian is also the author of two books based on the podcast, Skeptoid and Skeptoid II. A computer scientist by trade, Brian uses new media to showcase the rewards of science and critical thinking. He has appeared on numerous radio shows and television documentaries, and also hosts the science video series inFact with Brian Dunning (infactvideo.com).

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Admin on Wed Jun 13, 2012 3:15 am

Interesting a complete video including a chunk on Scole

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by hiorta on Wed Jun 13, 2012 6:43 am

"" If amazing phenomena truly did happen at the Scole Experiment, it would have changed the world. Mainstream psychologists and other academics would have gotten in on it, it would have made worldwide headlines, and it would be repeated in labs everywhere and become mainstream science""

Gaining evidence of 'survival of physical death' would seem to be confined to a one-to-one basis.
There seems to be a sheep and goat sort of division just ahead - not judgemental at all, just one of 'readiness'.
My apologies for lack of clarity, this seems to be an evolutionary matter quite separate from knowledge.
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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by mac on Wed Jun 13, 2012 8:19 am

I've often expressed my views (as a 'member' of the NSSF from its outset to its untimely end) about the so-called Scole Experiment.

Despite claims about its successes, it failed in its primary objective of eventually being able to provide predictable and reliable evidence of survival (as best I remember the aim) which would stand up to scientific scrutiny.

What I found most disturbing was that the communications which needed to be unfailingly robust were eventually compromised so comprehensively.

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Juniper on Wed Jun 13, 2012 9:52 am

I find it difficult to believe that the Scole Experiment was for real.

I also feel that physical mediumship in general does not do much to help it's case.

Like the article points out, there was no evidence that the mediums involved were trying to trick people, but because they placed so many demands and controls on the scientists, and were not subject to any themselves, there is now no evidence they were not tricking people.

So if they where for real they had kind of shot themselves in the foot by their own actions. All they had worked for within this area can never be of any real use, and I feel this is an attitude found through physical in general.

Don't get me wrong, I do understand the importance of controls which aim to keep people safe but, I just don't think the movement always helps itself.

Juniper

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by mac on Wed Jun 13, 2012 12:28 pm

Juniper wrote:I find it difficult to believe that the Scole Experiment was for real.

I also feel that physical mediumship in general does not do much to help it's case.

Like the article points out, there was no evidence that the mediums involved were trying to trick people, but because they placed so many demands and controls on the scientists, and were not subject to any themselves, there is now no evidence they were not tricking people.

So if they where for real they had kind of shot themselves in the foot by their own actions. All they had worked for within this area can never be of any real use, and I feel this is an attitude found through physical in general.

Don't get me wrong, I do understand the importance of controls which aim to keep people safe but, I just don't think the movement always helps itself.

Juniper


quote: "I find it difficult to believe that the Scole Experiment was for real." From your time-distant perspective, and hence not a subscriber, you'll have only a very vague idea about the aims of to the Foundation I suspect.

Whatever you personally feel/believe, anyone who was part of this 'organisation' (it was never truly an organisation) is likely to have an altogether better, more involved, understanding about what was intended and hoped for the Foundation. I feel totally confident that the original motives and intentions were completely laudable and even realistic in the early days but along the way something went very wrong.

quote: "....there is now no evidence they were not tricking people." Just how could you prove such a negative?

Despite my criticisms I feel sure there were genuine intentions to do what I indicated earlier. The Scole Experimental Group wasn't just any other physical mediumship group. And in my saying what I do, I hope you'll keep in mind that I have no special regard for physical mediumship and hence no axe to grind.


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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by petal34 on Wed Jun 13, 2012 4:21 pm

I watched the Scole Experiment quite a long time ago on video.
As a newcomer at that time to Spiritualism,I thought it was fantastic proof of life after death.
Now I am not so sure.
I have read so many reports (always others experiences), watched so many videos (again always others experiences) just what is the proof of after death?
I really do not think that we will prove that fact until we actually reach that stage ourselves.
Joan
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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by mac on Wed Jun 13, 2012 4:31 pm

Results are not invalid simply because they haven't been repeated. Neither does peer review prove or disprove anything.

Matters of the spirit - governed by laws outwith of, and unknown within, this physical dimension - ought be expected to be more difficult to replicate than those of this physical dimension. Physical mediumship is just one issue where repeatability is very difficult but genuine results don't become invalid simply because others can't yet repeat that mediumship.

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Juniper on Wed Jun 13, 2012 4:55 pm

quote: "I find it difficult to believe that the Scole Experiment was for real." From your time-distant perspective, and hence not a subscriber, you'll have only a very vague idea about the aims of to the Foundation I suspect.

Yes, this is very true.

Whatever you personally feel/believe, anyone who was part of this 'organisation' (it was never truly an organisation) is likely to have an altogether better, more involved, understanding about what was intended and hoped for the Foundation. I feel totally confident that the original motives and intentions were completely laudable and even realistic in the early days but along the way something went very wrong.

quote: "....there is now no evidence they were not tricking people." Just how could you prove such a negative?

I can not. However, I was not trying to sound negative about the project. Maybe my words have come across different. I only meant that I believe that such groups should work in partnership with scientists. Now, this may well have happened in this case, not having been there I can not know. But reports like the one above suggests the partnership was not quite equal. But then I guess one has to consider the motives of those writing such reports.

Juniper
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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by mac on Wed Jun 13, 2012 6:40 pm

Juniper wrote:
quote: "I find it difficult to believe that the Scole Experiment was for real." From your time-distant perspective, and hence not a subscriber, you'll have only a very vague idea about the aims of to the Foundation I suspect.

Yes, this is very true.

Whatever you personally feel/believe, anyone who was part of this 'organisation' (it was never truly an organisation) is likely to have an altogether better, more involved, understanding about what was intended and hoped for the Foundation. I feel totally confident that the original motives and intentions were completely laudable and even realistic in the early days but along the way something went very wrong.

quote: "....there is now no evidence they were not tricking people." Just how could you prove such a negative?

I can not. However, I was not trying to sound negative about the project. Maybe my words have come across different. I only meant that I believe that such groups should work in partnership with scientists. Now, this may well have happened in this case, not having been there I can not know. But reports like the one above suggests the partnership was not quite equal. But then I guess one has to consider the motives of those writing such reports.

Juniper

Please don't be concerned about sounding negative - I'm a constant critic of the failure of the NSSF which I once supported without reservation.

I'd have to look back at the details but from what I recall there was every intention of getting close scientific scrutiny once the mediumship and outcomes were predictable and reliable. Without succeeding in this, the value of the many phenomena produced was diminished. (From what was reported and from what I observed the Scole group (the Foys and the Bennetts) had worked hard to set up experiments to minimise opportunities to make accusations of fraud. I was much impressed by that.)

But for me the purpose of mediumship is to transmit the message of survival. That can be done with mediums through whom teachers and guides work and/or through evidential mediumship. In those two fields the NSSF did not succeed.

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by mac on Wed Jun 13, 2012 10:33 pm

It's interesting as you suggest but I don't rate physical mediumship any more highly than any other form - when they do the biz properly each can be equally persuasive.

And I have long suspected that many of those who attend demonstrations may be more interested in the phenomena than they are in the message of survival that mediumship should bring....

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Left Behind on Wed Jun 13, 2012 11:06 pm

petal34 wrote:I watched the Scole Experiment quite a long time ago on video.
As a newcomer at that time to Spiritualism,I thought it was fantastic proof of life after death.
Now I am not so sure.
I have read so many reports (always others experiences), watched so many videos (again always others experiences) just what is the proof of after death?
I really do not think that we will prove that fact until we actually reach that stage ourselves.
Joan

It sure makes you WANT to believe in it, doesn't it? Very Happy

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by bravo321uk on Wed Jun 13, 2012 11:15 pm

I do watch these types of conversations with interest,, and Tbh I do somewhat
wonder,, why there sometime seems to be an us and them tone. mediumship is mediumship is mediumship. No matter what form it takes place in.. Now of course we should talk about the quality of mediumship.. but that again is in both mental and physical. and shouldnt we realise that the every things that get said about physical are the same very things sceptics are saying about mental and have done for years. and if i were a sceptic I would read posts like these and almost laugh along.
You see Mediumship to me is wonderfull in all Forms.... and exploring our link with the spirit world should be a natural beautifull process that we should nuture and explore.. not set limitations on with our thoughts of whats possible. as dont spirit prove time and time again... that our ideas of impossible are in fact possible?

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Left Behind on Wed Jun 13, 2012 11:24 pm

That's very true, Bravo.

But physical mediumship is both harder to believe, and, because by it's very nature it's more of a "show" than mental mediumship, it requires closer scrutiny.

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by bravo321uk on Wed Jun 13, 2012 11:38 pm

Again more of a show to who? as far as i am aware there are at least 10 mental mediums on the stages of theaters to every 1 demonstrating physical medium, demonstrating in small sanctuarys and such... so to some mental mediumship could be seen as far more of a show.,, buy a ticket to the theatre,,, watch an act,,, but some merchandise,,, get a autograph and such.
Now I am not saying that some points raised are wrong.. because i would be wrong to say that... but sometimes i think that looking at things from a different angle helps a little

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by bravo321uk on Thu Jun 14, 2012 10:52 pm

Wait a second here please Katy, Thats simply not fair and just not nice at all..
As a developing physical medium am I one of the "show me signs and wonders brigade"?

If so I take Insult at being called Selfish, especially as I have just this minute got back from Taking platform for a charity at their event.

I only make that statement cos what you are saying simply is not Right and not fair

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Admin on Fri Jun 15, 2012 1:06 am

Hmm I agree with Bravo Katy, we will never know and those who are prepared to develp PM on the right basis should be encouraged. I have discovered sponsorship to charities is not a requirement of mty improvement as a medium, more the attempt to adopt the correct approach to others.

Good point lets put up the big name mediums who make money doing demonstrations and promotion. Lets throw in Sylvia Browne, Accorah and some others I think Bravo may have a point.

The real problem we have on teh forum is a general feeling few are convinced that any of the big names earning good money doing PM (and lets get real here look at the charges and work schedules of 3 of the better known PM outfits and they do very well).

However, below that level PM is a very private affair and unsuited to demonstrate so I admire their efforts even if sitting in the pitch black is not my thing and will never convince me of out unless some startling direct voice appeared. i am totally uniniterested in trumpets unless they speak, flying toys, celebrities and mediums dumped in the center of the room. I do think that many who are quietly trying to develop do so to get survival proof so good on them.
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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Wes on Fri Jun 15, 2012 4:44 am

I don't see how anyone in the service of spirit could be considered to be selfish. If any kind of medium is delivering the goods with convincing proof of survival, does it matter how much they charge or what they do with their money or their spare time?
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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Admin on Fri Jun 15, 2012 4:45 am

Great answer Wes
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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by KatyKing on Fri Jun 15, 2012 4:19 pm

'Not saying that some PM don't engage with the the wider world'.
That some do so is laudale.
Most don't and the fact that much of it does take place in hole and corner private 'sanctuaries' and the like beyond the public gaze, often with howls of 'Cheat' following close behind some PM shows; could be seen to lend my point validity.
It's not a case of us and them. Church based platform mediums fulfil a role. PM mediums fulfil a role too.
By their fruits.....
Where reasonable doubt is held to be anathema is one of the sure signs of a cultic mindset.
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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by LeroyC on Sat Jun 16, 2012 11:57 am

Problem with Brian Dunning is that everything is fake. Ardent skeptics are like ardent believers..a pain in the butt.

Now to Scole. well, I knew two of the main investigators personally and they all had great credentials. I have read the book by now and got the teashirt. In my own mind I am sure that sustained and interresting physical phenomena took place at Scole, but two things concern me a great deal.

1. the sudden cesation of the group; and the communication of so called extra dimensional beings. I always balk at this; as ( and I have seen it within Spiritualism on a number of occasions. In fact one medium I knew insited he had an 'extraterestial' as a guide !!) its difficult enough to establish survival with relatives and loved ones never mind take this on board.

I don't feel we can say such beings are communicating, or indeed have the knowledge of such dimensional beings. At least in MY mind its a step too far. Its easy to spout this, but where is the EVIDENCE. If these entities are so advanced, then establishing proof and clear identity should not be a problem. I take that all with a pinch of salt.

2 Phenomena...GREAT.. but what about PERSONAL survival evidence ?. As far as I am aware ( and I am sure I will be put right on this ) there was none, or at least very little. So, was it such a breakthrough. No, I think not; but perhaps it could have been. Time and time again we lack PERSONAL survival evidence, the very focus of what we should be about. Until we start to produce this again then we are on a hiding to nowhere.

LeroyC

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Re: The Scole Experiment

Post by Admin on Sat Jun 16, 2012 12:36 pm

Great stuff Leroy Katy and Bravo. This is a really important point to discuss.
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