Cleaning up

Simon Schaffer

  • Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal by Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent
    Weidenfeld, 192 pp, £9.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 297 78068 9
  • Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts by R.C. Finucane
    Junction, 292 pp, £13.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 86245 043 8
  • Hauntings and Apparitions by Andrew Mackenzie
    Heinemann, 240 pp, £8.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 434 44051 5
  • Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the-Body Experiences by Susan Blackmore
    Heinemann, 270 pp, £8.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 434 07470 5

‘Do the spirits teach Socialism?’ asked a working-class spiritualist magazine in 1897. The answer, of course, was yes. In a year which sees the centenary of the establishing of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, it is worth recalling why the Society was founded and who its real enemies were. The last two decades of the 19th century saw a remarkable growth in the general interest in socialism and spiritualism. Keir Hardie’s speeches to the Independent Labour Party were creatively reinterpreted as announcements of ‘unseen forces of the angel world’ working for ‘moral Socialism’ here on Earth. The ‘New Jerusalem’ of the socialist prophets had a spiritual as well as a revolutionary aspect. And into this maelstrom of radical parapsychology stepped the traditional arm of the British intellectual police – the fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Respectable members of that august institution, including Henry Sidgwick (philosophy lecturer), William Barrett (physicist) and Frederic Myers (poet and classicist), founded the Society for Psychical Research as a means of controlling the investigation of phenomena which looked as though they might fall into dangerously subversive hands. The Trinity men soon attracted influential support: from the future Tory prime minister Arthur Balfour, from J.J. Thomson (discoverer of the electron) and from the distinguished physicists Oliver Lodge and Balfour Stewart. Since then the links between scientific heroes and psychical research have always been close. In his foreword to the two books, by Mackenzie and Blackmore, published to celebrate the Society’s centenary, Brian Inglis recalls the roll of honour among scientific converts: it includes Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud. But of course what these two books also recall, and what is made even clearer in Dr Finucane’s masterly history of ghostly appearances, is the aura of fraud rather than luminous ectoplasm which surrounds this whole project. And into this world of spirit and subterfuge, we are astonished to discover, Professor Hans Eysenck of the Institute of Psychiatry is bold enough to enter.

In fact, Eysenck has been interested in the psychic end of things for most of his career. That career, beginning with his departure from Germany in the 1930s and his enrolment under the notorious figure of Cyril Burt at University College, London in 1936, has attracted more than usual attention. Let us not explain this attention in the extraordinary terms used on the cover of Eysenck’s book: ‘Professor Eysenck is Britain’s leading social scientist.’ Let us instead go back to Eysenck’s own words: ‘Many laymen,’ says Eysenck, ‘have a kind of stereotyped view of the scientist as an inhuman, completely objective and rational sort of person, who only takes into account facts, and is not swayed by emotions and feelings in his judgments. Unfortunately,’ Eysenck confides, ‘there is little truth in such a picture.’ What ‘emotions and feelings’, then, hold sway in Eysenck’s pursuit, alongside collaborators such as Carl Sargent and D.K. Nias, of the arcana of parapsychology and astrology? What ‘humanity’ has suggested to Eysenck the virtue of producing a stream of popular books on mind, on smoking, on extrasensory perception, on psychokinesis? The answer to these questions will not involve the application of any of the tools Eysenck would recognise as scientific: his campaign is more fruitfully considered in historical, or even (perish the thought) sociological terms.

We are not allowed – because it is ‘unscientific’ – to assert that Professor Eysenck has an inferiority complex about his work: but we can legitimately point out that Eysenck’s strategy has always been that of a man concerned with the survival chances of the discipline which has made him a hero and a villain: psychology itself. ‘Had I gone into physics,’ he said last year, ‘I suppose I might not have done anything like so well as I have. The competition is much stiffer. I have met some Nobel Prize-winners in physics, and there is no comparison between them and my peers in psychology. Let’s face it, psychology is really at a very low, primitive level, and people succeed as psychologists who really wouldn’t be fit to be office boys in a proper scientific institution.’ The ‘scientific institution’ represented by Eysenck’s Institute of Psychiatry is a classic example of an attempt by a group of scientists, in this case clinical psychologists, to forge a position for themselves in the fiercely competitive world of scientific patronage and power. To succeed in that goal, it has been necessary for Eysenck to break with patrons such as Aubrey Lewis, and to deny and then shrug off the exposure of Cyril Burt’s fraudulent work on IQ scores. More important, it has been necessary for Eysenck to convince his fellow scientists, as well as policy-makers and funding agencies, that the particular methods employed at the Institute and in Eysenck’s research programmes are acceptably ‘scientific’.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. Eysenck may well be right to say that the common image of the scientist is wrong. He and Sargent may also be right to say that parapsychology is not the only area of science which has been convicted of fraud. ‘Is all IQ testing dubious because of the probable fraud of Sir Cyril Burt?’ they ask. ‘To try and explain everything in terms of fraud is disreputable.’ What Eysenck and Sargent are telling us is that ‘the parapsychologist is a true sceptic,’ that he has earned the right to be admitted to the temple of science, that, equipped with Helmut Schmidt’s quantum-mechanical random-number generators (a product from a lab at Boeing), the world of parapsychology has come of age. In other words, Eysenck and Sargent, like the Society for Psychical Research a century ago, are engaged in a policing operation. They claim, as Sidgwick and Myers also claimed, that they understand the rules of the game, and therefore that they have the right to legislate on what is and what is not scientific. Parapsychology yes: fork-bending no.

The question is not this simple, however. In the books by Dr Finucane, by Andrew Mackenzie and by Susan Blackmore, there are countless contemporary experiences of ‘psychic’ phenomena. They are all very carefully classified: out-of-the-body experiences, psychokinesis (the ability to move objects without physical contact or any known force), extra-sensory perception (information gained about some distant point in space or time without obvious means), astrological prediction, ghosts, hauntings. Blackmore suggests a psychological explanation for out-of-the-body experiences based on a theory of altered states of consciousness. Mackenzie writes of the important lessons of recent interpretations of quantum theory for understanding psychic events. Eysenck and Sargent echo these sentiments: they discuss in detail the ideas of the physicist E. H. Walker about an equivalent of quantum theory for the mind. It is heartwarming to see Eysenck return to his old ground of physics itself. What lies behind all these explanations, however, is a social rather than a logical strategy. The social strategy is to raise the status of an activity by associating it ever more closely with incontestably high-status fields. And if parapsychology can be linked with advanced physics, the game is won. So just as the founders and supporters of the Society for Psychical Research attempted to clean up parapsychology by importing discipline and control into its shadowy realm, so some of these authors are linking parapsychological work with ever more complex technology in order to bring it closer to hard science, and to distance it as far as possible from the world of fraud and illusion.

This strategy is not just social: it is also deeply political. There is plenty of evidence for this from the events recorded by Finucane: he describes the important moment in the 16th century when a French court had to adjudicate on whether the presence of ghosts in a house could excuse the payment of rent to its landlord. He describes the power struggles between priests and laymen on jurisdiction over the other world. When the Civil War came, John Aubrey recalled, ‘Liberty of Conscience and Liberty of inquisition’ arrived too, and ‘the phantoms vanished.’ In characteristically utilitarian fashion, the Society for Psychical Research set about classifying apparitions in terms of whether a ghost was ‘purposeful’ or ‘purposeless’: the former greatly outnumbered by the latter. Throughout these chronicles, Finucane displays great sensitivity to the cultural formation of ghosts themselves. In the 1940s a vicar reported that he had been embraced by a ‘naked young woman’: in earlier days this wouldn’t have been admitted to the record of the proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, on moral grounds if on no other. Finucane concludes that the suffering souls of purgatory are more understandable, not as ‘beings of that other world, but of this’. And since that is the case, we may ask what interest is served by the scientisation of parapsychology now.

The use of the word ‘interest’ in this context might seem bizarre. It is in fact crucial. The Society for Psychical Research never managed to succeed in policing aberrant visionaries. Mackenzie, for example, discusses the case of Annie Moberley and Eleanor Jourdain, principal and deputy principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He describes, not merely their vision in Versailles in August 1901, but also the Society’s strenuous efforts to suppress the story, including the withdrawal of permission to republish their account. In fact, however, public interest in An Adventure has never dimmed, and current activity is still centred on the Petit Trianon and its surroundings. In a similar way, Eysenck’s antics with respect to astrology have persistently involved an element of police action. Françoise and Michel Gauquelin, founders of the Paris Laboratory for the study of relations between cosmic and psychophysiological rhythms, recently produced astounding correlations between certain professions and birth-times. Eysenck endorsed their findings, and commented bitterly on the overt discrimination the Gauquelins have suffered at the hands of orthodox science. At the same time, Eysenck and the Gauquelins have been swift to condemn traditional astrology as ‘hopelessly outdated’ and ‘foolish’. Eysenck’s own record here is remarkable. In 1978 Eysenck jointly authored a paper which claimed to show very high correlations between Eysenck’s pet category of ‘extraversion’ and the odd-numbered signs of the zodiac. He also argued for a correlation between the ‘water signs’ of the zodiac and another pet category – ‘neuroticism’. To follow up this success for scientific astrology, Eysenck opened an astrology conference at his Institute. The abstract of the paper he was to present seemed healthily pro-astrological. Yet when Eysenck came to speak he was able to reveal that his most recent research, conducted with Nias, showed that there had been a systematic bias in his earlier paper as a result of the selection of subjects who already knew a great deal about their own ‘astrological’ characteristics. Research conducted on subjects relatively ignorant of astrology failed to replicate the earlier findings. The import for astrology was clear: Eysenck would only license statistical science and never ‘superstition’. What this really meant was that a suitably statistical practice such as that mounted by the Gauquelins under the name ‘cosmobiology’ was acceptable: any alternative was not. Many astrologers apparently felt ‘betrayed’ by Eysenck’s actions.

Thus it seems fair to warn parapsychologists of the dangers of accepting Professor Eysenck too warmly into their world. His record is not a safe one. Eysenck’s initial interest in hypnotism and astrology matches that of his friend Desmond Furneaux, another ex-physicist, who experimented in amateur hypnotism while fire-watching in 1942. Since then, Eysenck’s concerns have changed but his methodology has not. His programme in psychology has been dominated by the use of the same techniques for legitimation as those used by parapsychology. Faced by other scientists’ blank refusal to believe in ESP, by ad hominem arguments against parapsychologists, by accusations of failure to replicate crucial experiments, or (as in the case of Burt) to react to proof of fraud, Eysenck has retreated into an ever more complex realm of high statistics. It is in statistical correlation that his fundamental work resides. In their discussion of the seminal parapsychology of Joseph Rhine and his ESP cards, Eysenck and Sargent take time out to secure the principles of statistics and probability for their work. Steven Rose, criticising Eysenck’s egregious application of techniques of statistical correlation in his work on IQ and race, has said that ‘Eysenck seeks to correlate IQ scores with EEG patterns almost in the manner of a 19th-century phrenologist.’ ‘The “general intelligence factor”,’ Rose continues, ‘is a property which emerges from a multifactorial statistical analysis,’ and such an analysis displays Eysenck’s belief that ‘a statistical phenomenon implies a genetic mechanism.’ If the day arrived when such statistical procedures needed to be abandoned, Eysenck’s programme would have to be abandoned as well. To spell out this point: the statistical rigour, whether apparent or real, which enshrouds Eysenck’s psychology is simultaneously the way in which it has achieved respectability and the way in which it claims any relevance to real social issues – race, sex, intelligence. These ‘factors’ are transmuted in the alchemical still of the Institute of Psychiatry into hard scientific facts, and the goals of academic status and political relevance are attained.

This connection between high statistics and low psychology is no coincidence: on the contrary, it is dictated by the history of the subject itself. The kind of ‘scientific racism’, as it has been called, which Eysenck dispenses can claim a genealogy deriving from the work of Francis Galton at the turn of the century. Galton was simultaneously a proponent of élitist eugenics and one of the protagonists in the formation of statistical genetics and statistical psychology. A complex of modern sciences, including genetics, psychology and mental testing, derives from his work. However, in 1957, G. Spencer Brown attacked the very basis of arguments from correlation in order to attack psychic experiments. The awful day had dawned: an apparent misuse of statistics in an uncontrolled area had begun to damage the key technique in Eysenck’s armoury. This, I believe, is the interest he and his co-workers have in their campaign to clean up parapsychology and astrology. If parapsychology can be cleaned up and then colonised by rigorous psychologists, there will be no more scandals, no more frauds, and no danger to the strategy deployed by Eysenck in his other fields of interest. Caveat emptor: Professor Eysenck has decided to be tolerant towards parapsychology precisely because he wishes to make sure it does no further damage to psychological statistics and thus to the survival of a psychology which depends on those techniques. Astrology, too, must be cleansed: cosmobiology is the acceptably gentle side of a practice which might also have done serious damage.

Two important consequences emerge from a reflection on the career of parapsychology traced in these books. First, the concern of scientists with their status and power is neither surprising nor unusual. It is, however, frequently denied. Eysenck has been singularly honest in his manifesto on behalf of a peculiar form of psychology and a peculiarly cynical view of the state of that science. Around his work on IQ, mental testing, race and sexuality, we can now make out a whole army of allies. Sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris or Richard Dawkins represent the more overtly reductionist end of this force. Eysenck is often ready to associate himself with such work: significantly, he often does so in precisely the publicist and popular contexts that Desmond Morris has recently exploited on television. In 1978 Eysenck wrote an article in Vogue entitled ‘Why can’t a woman be like a man?’ The ‘universality’ of ‘male dominance’ was asserted in that article, on the evidence of Steven Goldberg’s Inevitability of Patriarchy, as a consequence of a ‘powerful biological cause’. Eysenck’s interest in parapsychology stems from the same concerns. The second, and related, point is therefore simply this: in legislating about what can count as a science Eysenck and Sargent are attempting to separate psychical experience from its true proprietors. For Eysenck and his allies, parapsychology poses a threat as long as it stays outside the world of intellectual control which they represent. Inside that world, it is safe: outside lies what Sargent and Eysenck call ‘Gellerland’. In fact, however, this is also a campaign against a particular politics of psychic experience.

Eysenck cites ‘one spin-off’ from Mesmerism which turns out to be ‘useful’: but another ‘spin-off’ from Mesmerism was an extremely radical politics. Just as the socialist spiritualists of the 1890s claimed that ‘spiritualism is democratic because it can be demonstrated to everyone,’ so the Mesmerists in Revolutionary France used animal magnetism to attack the old order – the medical profession and the police included. Mesmerists argued that ‘the corps of doctors is a political body whose destiny is linked with that of the state’ and that physicians of all kinds needed to maintain ‘diseases, drugs and laws’ because ‘the distributors of drugs and diseases influence the habits of a nation perhaps as much as do the guardians of its laws.’ That lesson, taught by radical psychics in the 1780s, may be as relevant today, when once again authorised psychology turns its attention to the world of the spirits.