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.

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