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Interview With
Professor Deborah Blum
Deborah Blum, Ph.D.Interviewed by Michael E. Tymn via e-mail

In Ghost Hunters, published last year by The Penguin Press, author Deborah Blum examines the pioneering research of the early members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), including Professor William James, Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, Dr. Richard Hodgson and numerous others. The book is subtitled William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death.

As Blum points out, the research was prompted by advances in science – advances that seemed to relegate religious dogma and doctrine to mere superstition. “Could any God – Christian or otherwise – survive in an age where religion feared science and science denied faith?” Blum expresses the sentiments of Frederic W. H. Myers, another of the pioneers. “It was into that divide that Myers saw psychical research bravely marching. The goal was to bridge research and religion, to show that they were not incompatible, that one could even explain the other.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Blum spent some three years researching the subject. Since journalists generally tend to ape mainstream scientists in superciliously smirking, snickering, sneering, and scoffing at the paranormal, one might assume that Blum would find much caustic humor in the pursuits of educated and reputable men (and one woman) who dared stray outside the bounds of scientific fundamentalism. However, she treats the subject with unusual respect, objectivity, and understanding.

The research was primarily with mediums. “Mediums were peculiar creatures; there was no denying it about even the best of them,” Blum explains. “How could they not be? They spent hours of their time surrounded by people desperate to talk with the dead. They fell into trances reputedly inhabited by ghosts. They agreed to be hogtied by investigating scientists. Skeptics mocked them; journalists parodied them; former friends feared them. One had to wonder why anyone would choose to become a medium.”

The most credible and intriguing of all mediums was Leonora Piper, a Boston housewife, who was discovered by James and studied for some 18 years by Hodgson, an Australian who was recruited to head up the American SPR. Hodgson had a reputation as a debunker of fraudulent “mediums,” but became convinced that Mrs. Piper was the real thing, what James called the “white crow,” the one that proved all crows weren’t black.

The researchers were often frustrated by charlatans as well as by their scientific colleagues who assumed the subject was too absurd for educated men. One such haughty professor was James Cattell of Columbia University. He sneered at his fellow professor, James H. Hyslop, when Hyslop became interested in psychical research, and when Hyslop published articles that strongly supported non-mechanistic theories, Cattell tried to have him fired. In his defense, Hyslop, noting scientific efforts to find a species of useless fish to support Darwin’s theory, asked “why it is so noble and respectable to find whence man came, and so suspicious and dishonorable to ask and ascertain whither he goes?”

What prompted you to write the book?

“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’.”

Prior to beginning your research for the book, what was your general impression of mediums?

“I’m a mainstream science writer by training, so I’d pretty much considered them so much wishful thinking and con artistry.

Did your views concerning mediumship change as a result of your research?

“I still believe in the wishful thinking and con artist factor. I just don’t think those factors account for everything people see, hear, and experience. Researching and writing the book – and talking to people about their comparable experiences today – made me much more open-minded. More than that, I read enough accounts, talked to enough people, to be able to filter out the silly stuff and focus on what was more compelling. The repeating pattern of experiences like crisis apparitions (death visitants) is fascinating to me. And the bigger questions: “What is the nature of reality? How do we define it? Who has the power to set such limits?” are not only fascinating but also important.”

Who among the mediums mentioned in your book most impressed you?

“Leonora Piper, the Boston medium, who gained fame for working with psychical researchers in the late 19th century. It’s impossible to read accounts of her work and not find yourself occasionally boggled. I had a graduate researcher who I assigned to survey magazine coverage of psychical research during that time period. He started out by telling me that he thought it was all a crock. I told him that didn’t matter to me. I just wanted him to do a thorough job – which he did. But at the end, he said to me, “This Mrs. Piper. Either this is one of the most elaborate conspiracies in the world – or there’s something really strange here.” She just shook him; not that she nailed every fact – no medium does – but when she was on, she really could appear to pull answers out of thin air.”

If you could go back in time and meet one of the distinguished scholars and scientists mentioned in the book, who would it be?

“Everyone assumes it would be William James, since he’s prominent in my book and the most famous of the group. But James is so well known and so well documented, that I’d much rather talk to someone harder to illuminate. My choice would be Richard Hodgson, the Australian scholar who ran the American Society for Psychical Research, from 1887 until his unexpected death in 1905. He sounds like he would be fun to know – smart, funny, tough-minded, energetic, unexpectedly kind. But what makes him so fascinating to me is that he changed so much in the course of studying the supernatural. He went from complete skeptic – he was famous for exposing Madame Blavatsky as a fraud, even hunting her down to India – to complete believer. A lot of that had to do with Leonora Piper, but there were other influences. I’d just like to have a conversation with him about why he changed his mind.”

The psychical research carried out by James, Lodge, Myers, Hyslop, Hodgson, et al, does not seem to have had much of an impact on the world. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is?

“That’s a great question and the answer is complicated. You’re right that they didn’t accomplish what they’d hoped for – irrefutable scientific proof, acceptance in orthodox science and, as a corollary, widespread acceptance of the supernatural. “Why is it so hard?” James once wrote to Oliver Lodge. And James even speculated that it’s just meant to be hard – that we live by destiny in a universe built to be mysterious, that what makes it so amazing is that we don’t understand it. It’s not surprising that was considered unsatisfactory. We tend to hate uncertainty – the assurance, the verifiable fact-based nature of research, is much more comfortable a framework. So the psychical researchers of Victorian times had two challenges: they were competing with a newly ascendant and powerful scientific culture, one that was challenging traditional religion as well as other kinds of faith. And their kind of studies and research didn’t fit into that scientific viewpoint. Telepathy, for instance, isn’t predictable or replicable in all cases. It has no identified mechanism. To deal with that, you need to either find the mechanism or to make the laws of science a little more elastic. And I’m afraid that science was not interested in becoming more elastic so psychical research simply was set to the side.”

Currently, research with mediums is being carried out by Dr. Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona and by Dr. David Fontana in England, as well as others. Do you think they can add much to what the "ghost hunters" of yesteryear have already contributed? Do you see any point to doing additional research?

“Yes, I think the objectives are still valid and the questions still worth answering. So, dogged patience remains a virtue here. I like the idea – inherent in telepathy – that we’re more talented and connected than we appreciate. I like the idea that the supernatural is merely a realm of the natural that we haven’t figured out yet. And if that’s right, if we’re determined enough, we’ll get some better answers. They may surprise us – for instance, physicists haven’t identified all forms of energy yet. Perhaps we haven’t found the mechanism because we haven’t found the wavelength it uses. It’s that kind of possibility that I tend to find encouraging.”

How have your scientific and academic colleagues reacted to the book?

“My university has been very supportive; even held a campus-wide talk for me to discuss the book and gave me funding for the research. But, this is my fourth book and it is the only one that wasn’t reviewed by Science, Nature, or Scientific American. That doesn’t really bother me – it’s gotten plenty of attention. But it’s definitely an indicator of attitude, don’t you think?”

What do you think your book has accomplished?

“Well, despite the lack of reviews in scientific journals, I was able to write opinion pieces on the subject in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. And I was interviewed on Science Friday, another venue that doesn’t spend much time on supernatural subjects. I was able to reach an unusually diverse audience and, I hope, to raise questions about how we define reality, how we define science, in a thoughtful way. I’ve actually heard from a surprising number of very supportive scientists as well as from people already engaged with the issue. Even on Science Friday, half the callers wanted to talk about their occult encounters. I hope the book helped make some people less dogmatic. It did that for me - opened up the edges of the world in some truly fascinating ways.”

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