132. Deborah Blum On the Taboo of Paranormal Science Reporting
Pulitzer Prize winning author Deborah Blum discusses the challenges of science reporting and the paranormal taboo.
Skeptiko guest host Steve Volk welcomes Deborah Blum author of, Ghost Hunters – William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. During the interview Ms. Blum discusses her approach to covering the paranormal:
Steve Volk: This is one of the hardest things. Who do we believe? Who do we trust? I want to see somehow people in the middle pick this stuff up and look at it, but that’s a very, very rare occurrence.
Deborah Blum: I agree. Like I said, I’m a mainstream science journalist and daughter of a chemist. But what was fascinating to me when I started working on Ghost Hunters is that I’d go and give talks at different universities. I mean literally, I was at the University of Florida and they said, ‘Oh, let us tell you about our haunted laboratory.’ Or I was at a meeting with a bunch of animal researchers and I was sitting next to a very respected scientist from Stanford who immediately started telling me about the telepathic experiences she’d had with a friend of hers who is a scientist at Southwestern University. I thought to myself, ‘This whole world exists that really those of us in the skeptic/science community never see because people just don’t tell you about it.
Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris.
On this episode, as you just heard, there’s a new voice behind the interview so before we get started I thought we’d take a minute and introduce that voice, that being the voice of journalist and author, Steve Volk, who’s joining me right now.
Steve, hi and welcome to Skeptiko.
Steve Volk: Alex, thanks for having me.
Alex Tsakiris: I love this interview that you have for us today. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and why you wanted to talk to today’s guest, Deborah Blum?
Steve Volk: Well, she had gone down a path before me that I’d wanted to go down myself and ultimately did with my book, Fringe-ology, which doesn’t come out until June. But the issue for me is that I’ve always covered traditional topics in journalism. I’ve started off covering music. I was a music critic and I ultimately veered into writing lots of narrative non-fiction about politics and crime and courts. You know, just traditional journalistic subjects.
But what was always sort of at the back of my mind-it would be raised from time to time when something would bubble up in pop culture that would make me think of it-is this family ghost story that I had grown up with. There was supposedly a ghost that haunted my house when I was a kid. I have some memories of it myself.
I just felt like as a reporter, though, that that subject was taboo-that I couldn’t cover it for the obvious reasons that you always get into on this show. It would undermine my own credibility to even entertain the idea that such things as ghosts exist.
Over time, though, I started realizing that when we talk about paranormal subjects, we’re really talking about the big existential questions that people find themselves asking at 3 a.m., right? What does it mean to be human? Who are we? Is there life after death? Is there a God? All these kinds of issues–are we alone in the universe?-come up through paranormal topics whether it be UFOs or telepathy or ghosts.
So I really admired Deborah Blum because here she is, a Pulitzer Prize winning science reporter where the taboo against covering these sorts of topics would be even stronger, and yet she went for it. She covered William James and the scientific search for the afterlife in her book, Ghost Hunters. So I felt like I really wanted the chance to visit with her and see what her motivations were.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I really, really enjoyed the interview and I think all the Skeptiko listeners will, as well. You are planning on doing a couple more interviews for us, as well, which is terrific. Can you tell us what you have planned coming up?
Steve Volk: Dr. Andrew Newberg, the neurotheologist who studies the neural correlates of religious experience is going to be one of the next couple of interviews. There are a couple of other people that I’m talking to, including Amy Hardy, who has agreed to be interviewed but we haven’t yet been able to schedule it. She is a documentary filmmaker who recently released the film, “The Edge of Dreaming.” Her experience in life is a bit like Blum’s. She made scientific documentaries and then she had what seemed to be a prophetic dream and she went ahead and followed that path and made a documentary about where it led her.
Alex Tsakiris: That sounds great, Steve. I think people are really going to enjoy getting to know you and getting to hear from these folks. It sounds like some great interviews you have lined up for us. But now let’s get to your interview with Deborah Blum:
Steve Volk: Today I’m going to talk to science journalist and author, Deborah Blum. Blum worked as a science write for the Sacramento Bee and has since written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Discoverer, Health, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. After completing a master’s degree in environmental journalism for the University of Wisconsin, she wrote about a broad range of science-related issues, from superconductivity to the physics of weapons systems.
She won her Pulitzer in 1992 for her writing about primate research, which she turned into the book, Monkey Wars. She’s had a great run as an author. Her current book, her fifth, is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She is joining us on Skeptiko to discuss Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, which was first published in 2006 and remains available today. I believe you’ll see the book and Deborah remain very much worth our consideration right now.
In Ghost Hunters, Blum weaves an intricate and compelling narrative out of the formation of the Society for Physical Research in both America and England. She paints the backdrop in artfully, the turn of the century as the 1800s bleed into the 1900s and those who believe in God and the Creator and life after death try to deal with the science of evolution and the philosophy of materialism that has come to dominate academic and intellectual circles.
In Ghost Hunters, Blum details the efforts of the great psychologist and philosopher, William James and his small but influential and accomplished gang of scientists who had the courage to operate outside the mainstream scientific paradigm and investigate mediumship and whether or not there might be life after death. I highly recommend Ghost Hunters and we’ll talk a bit about the content of that book.
But the main reason I wanted to bring Deborah onto Skeptiko is to talk to her about her personal and professional journey as a science writer and why she decided to step outside of the mainstream paradigm herself as a journalist and address a topic like the search for the afterlife. The stigma against any sort of paranormal research isn’t confined only to scientist and philosophers and academics. The taboo, I think, exists for reporters too.
I write a bit in my own book, Fringe-ology, about sticking my head in the lion’s mouth and outing my own experience as the youngest son in a family that told an incredible ghost story. Now as a reporter, Deborah, I’ll be interested to see if you feel the same way about this. I was taught without anyone giving direct advice on the subject, taught by observing how it’s done, that the way to treat any paranormal topic in print, if at all, is with a kind of gentle, learned, skepticism. To cover it with my tongue in my cheek.
Fringe-ology is my attempt to break through all of that, to overcome the taboo, and write a book that takes the paranormal seriously. Of course, Deborah, Ghost Hunters was your attempt, and in my estimation a very successful one.
So I’ll start by asking what were you thinking? What was it that led you with your background to take on this topic of science and mediumship for a book?
Deborah Blum: That’s a great question. Boy, that brought back memories. When I first started or decided to do the book, I was talking to a friend of mine at the National Association of Science Writers, which is a collection of people who cover mainstream science. I had just stepped down as president of the ASW and he said to me, “Oh thank goodness you’re no longer going to the president of the ASW if you’re going to take on a whacko subject like this.”
I laughed at the time but what I finally ended up deciding was there’s no point in building up a whole lot of credibility, as I think I have over the years, without occasionally deciding to cash in those chips on an interesting idea. That really was my decision. I thought someone like me with years of upright, mainstream journalism was a really good person to tackle that issue and I could get away with doing it. And I did.
I’m back on the mainstream side with toxicology and The Poisoner’s Handbook, but I did-I don’t want to say get away with it because that sounds so bad-but successfully made people think about some really interesting ideas. I’m very proud of that.
Steve Volk: Let’s pull that apart for a second. I was hearing that phrase, “get away with it,” the whole time in my head. It does seem that you have. Congratulations, right? But particularly in science journalism it would seem that the taboo even greater than it is for me. I come out of a background of feature writing, right? I can say I’m writing about human experience and I have a little bit of an out there. But as a science journalist, I guess you’re expected to have the same views as mainstream science, right?
Deborah Blum: Even more so. It was interesting to me that quite often when I was talking to scientists, people would say, “What are you working on now?”
I’d say, “Well, I’m doing a book on psychical research.”
And a lot of scientists were, “That’s a really interesting subject. Let me tell you about this A, B, or C.”
My science journalism friends were a little more freaked out, to my surprise. I think that’s partly because science journalism itself struggles for credibility in the science community. We’re one of the favorite targets of scientists. Anyone who’s been a journalist covering science knows there’s an ongoing tension between those of us who cover it who are not necessarily covering it because we’re writing from the fan club perspective but because we’re just trying to illuminate it.
People who work in science don’t always care for what we write. So science journalists in an interesting way to me prove to be even more conservative than scientists. It made for some interesting challenges for my friends. I wouldn’t deny that. I’m a long-time investigative reporter so the flip of that is it doesn’t bother me to tick people off. So I was fine with it.
Steve Volk: Let’s get into that a little bit. What kinds of reactions did you get? Are you still on the advisory board for the World Federation of Science Journalists?
Deborah Blum: I am. So I’m still mainstream. I think people who are afraid-and this is a really interesting balancing act for someone like me-if you step over into what a lot of my friends certainly saw as the “Dark Side,” that I would credulously believe every story told.
There were people who said that after I did the book. The Skeptical Inquirer did a very polite job of saying they didn’t believe that I had been quite skeptical enough. [Laughs] Richard Dawkins did a less polite job of saying exactly the same thing. So there’s a legitimate fear in an interesting way that if you start exploring this subject it’s going to be seductive and you’re going to come out…
Steve Volk: Intoxicated.
Deborah Blum: Yeah. And wearing a tin hat. And all of those odd things. [Laughs]
Steve Volk: That would make a great author photo, a tin hat.
Deborah Blum: That’s right. [Laughs]
Steve Volk: I’m curious. Did you get this sense looking at The Skeptical Inquirer’s review or Dawkins’ review that they had looked into this society to the depth that you had, and looked into what William James had done and said or his colleagues had researched? Did they have your level of knowledge about the subject?
Deborah Blum: No, I don’t think they did, actually. I think that they had taken a look at some of the high profile kind of statements or mediums or issues but not really looked at the cohesive whole. They certainly hadn’t looked the way I had at the layers. I was looking at 19th century very brilliant scientists, not just William James but at the time it was much more socially and culturally permissible for scientists to be involved with this. You had Nobel Laureates. You had some remarkably high-end researchers. So it was kind of…
Steve Volk: Would you go ahead and run down the cast for a second for us, Deborah?
Deborah Blum: Sure.
Steve Volk: Who else was involved?
Deborah Blum: James, of course, was a founding member of the American Psychological Association and eventually became primarily a philosopher but wrote the seminal textbook in this country, Principles of Psychology.
But in addition, he was working with other philosophers, Henry Sidgwick the famous utilitarian philosopher from Great Britain. He worked with Charles Richet from France who won the Nobel Prize for his work with anaphylaxis. He worked with John Stratford Raley who won the Nobel Prize for his work with atmospheric chemistry. He worked with Oliver Lodge who preceded Marconi in establishing radio and wireless communication. I have a long list of very exceptional scientists who were involved.
Steve Volk: Not exactly a bunch of stiffs.
Deborah Blum: That’s exactly right. So I don’t think that the skeptics-they tend to say, “Oh well, they were delusional.” They stepped into the Dark Side the way everyone thought I was doing and they became delusional. William Crooks, who discovered valium-people would actually say about him, “He used to be a brilliant chemist but now he’s delusional.” And so they just had that knee-jerk reaction to it.
I was much more interested in saying, “Whoa, these are really smart people and I want to dig way deep into figuring out what they found.” And you’ll see this in the book. I tried to build their case. How does the idea of telepathy fit with the idea of communication with the dead? Where does one reinforce the other? What is the evidence that interlinks them? So I know that I didn’t see any of that.
Steve Volk: There are a couple of things that I’m struck by. Before we press too far on into the content of the book, I want to set the foundation for this a little bit more. You told me why professionally you felt brave enough, let’s say, to go ahead and take this on. But why on a personal level were you interested in this? What led you to this topic?
Deborah Blum: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I actually came upon the idea when I was researching a previous book called, Love at Goon Park, which is a history of psychology, love, and affection.
I’m a horrible over-researcher so in order to understand my 20th century story I went way back to Descartes and all. As I worked my way through the 19th century psychology, literally in the scientific journals of the late 1800s, you start seeing these real smacks at William James. Boy, he’s fallen into a swamp and he’s going to take us all with him. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, I didn’t know William James was crazy.” I thought he was kind of a stiff, right? Kind of an institution from the history of science. So I was very curious about that.
This is my kind of woo-woo moment, I guess, but one day I was still wondering about it and I went into a used book store on one of the main streets that connects the University of Wisconsin where I work with downtown. There, right about at eye-level in the History of Science stuff, was the book, William James on Psychical Research. It was actually a first edition from the 1930s.
I went, “Whoa! I’m going to read that.” I bought that book and in it was this amazing story which is the start of the actual book of an event William James researched in which a woman is able to solve the death and disappearance of a young girl in her dreams. And it’s a phenomenal story.
I read that story and I thought, ‘But what if that’s real?’ And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be fascinating to just take a serious look at this period where you had great scientists and asked that question?’ That was my first “What if it’s real?” And then “If this is the best ghost hunt in the history of science, what did it find?” My last question was, “Not just what isn’t real but who gets to decide what’s real?” The power of telling you what you can and cannot believe. Once I started thinking about those questions, I thought those were career-worthy questions and ones that I wanted to try to answer.
Steve Volk: I have to say I’ve seen such parallels between the time period you covered and even today, right? You mentioned how it became this sort of “Oh, poor William, he went over to the Dark Side” kind of attitude.
Today, and I cover this in Chapter Two of my book, Brian Joseph, a Nobel Prize winner himself, a quantum physicist, a bright, accomplished guy who does some parapsychological research and is a staunch advocate of psi and telepathy. There are people who claim that he has run off the rails, that he is clearly now no longer worth listening to.
It struck me as I was reading a book, how often there were these parallels between over a century ago and we’re still in the same state today culturally that we were then.
Deborah Blum: I agree. And in some ways I think we are completely in that same kind of knee-jerk reaction. You start to say, “What have we learned here? Haven’t we learned to be a little more open-minded?”
I’m going to sound like I’m completely on the mainstream Dark Side here but haven’t we at least learned to understand that we’re not always right, right? And to be open-minded to possibilities? That was really one of the messages that I think, like you, I wanted to get out. The world’s a lot more interesting than we allow it to be and we need to be open-minded to alternative possibilities. At least open-minded.
Steve Volk: And what I’m fascinated by is this push and pull between the scientific method, the demands of the scientific method, and the materialistic worldview which for the hardcore, dogmatic materialists, they’re one and the same thing. But they’re really not the same thing at all. The scientific method is unchanging but our storehouse of knowledge changes constantly. That’s why it’s so striking to me when people, out of a desire to protect that current storehouse, shoot down anything that they consider threatening to it.
Deborah Blum: You know, one of the issues that I really explore in my book is what was called in the 19th century, “crisis apparitions” and are sometimes called “death incidents” today, which is one of the most common sort of everyday supernatural paranormal experiences in which at the time of an unexpected death in another place, occurring with someone you’re connected to emotionally in some way, you see or hear or smell or feel some kind of apparition giving you a message.
And the guys in my book–there are tens of thousands of these, proving that they happened hundreds of time above chance and they fact-checked them. Is it a creditable story? Is there documentary evidence? Still this is not stuck in mainstream science so I say to people, “How would you prove it using current scientific method?” You can’t predict it which is fundamental to science. You have to be able to predict.
You can’t develop a testable theory. How would you do that? Would you corral 100,000 people and then randomly kill their relatives to see if any of them have this experience? It doesn’t fit into the scientific mainframe so we’re stuck with this sort of disconnect between what people experience and our ability to measure how something is real. Am I making sense?
Steve Volk: You sure are. And you anticipated my next question, actually, before I could ask it.
Deborah Blum: I’m so brilliant. I should say, “I knew you were going to ask that.” Sorry.
Steve Volk: That’s okay-that was the question I was going to ask. Frequent listeners to Skeptiko may have listened to this broadcast but at the point that we’re recording this Alex’s most recent guest was Andy Paquette, who made the observation that part of the problem with quantifying telepathy may be that it emerges most convincingly in this spontaneous sort of fashion, when there aren’t scientists around in lab coats observing it and no one’s filming. It becomes an anecdote now. What do we do with that?
Deborah Blum: You can collect them. Like kind of have an observational statistical mass of them, right? Which is exactly what scientists try to do in the time period I was writing about, thousands and thousands of reports and careful statistical analysis. And we do use this kind of observational method in science but again the sort of catch is we only accept those kinds of observational statistical analyses from people who are in the mainstream of science. So you can gather all of these observations together and still not be able to get them across.
Right after Ghost Hunters came out I wrote a piece in the LA Times saying, “These are really interesting ideas and we’re 100 years smarter in terms of understanding methods of communication. Why can’t we get the same kind of super-smart group to tackle it from a modern day physics perspective?” As you can imagine, this did not turn out to be a call to action.
People wrote and said legitimately, “I don’t have enough money for my research and I can hardly get funded. Even if I wanted to do this, where am I going to get the money? Who’s going to support the research? What’s going to happen to my career?”
The example you gave, you probably also looked at the report that was published by Daryl Bem. Daryl Bem’s a long-time, very accepted scientist in the realm of gender differences and psychology and he got no traction on that whatsoever.
Steve Volk: I’m impressed that he got enough traction to get it published but in particular I thought the New York Times articles was almost comical in the way they introduced it and then the topic is precognition research.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Daryl Bem, a Cornell University psychologist, did a study on precognition and like all these studies, after 1,000 trials he achieves statistical significance. It’s a small but statistically significant effect. It’s not the sort of thing that John Edwards can make his money off of or any of these so-called big name psychics. It’s this much smaller effect which you would think people would find less threatening.
But in the Times article they introduced this and then they just had this murder’s row of people, including Ray Hyman, just tearing apart his research. When I say tearing apart his research, that’s giving them too much credit. They were just responding to the idea of it.
Deborah Blum: I agree. I absolutely agree. I read it and I am not an expert in statistical analysis but I thought, “Boy, would have I picked precognition to study?” To me that one is one of the hardest sells of all the supernatural ideas, that the future is fixed and influences the present and the past-essentially the past. There are those of us who are able to see the future, right? I look at it and I go, “Well, that one just by its nature is unbelievably hard sell.”
Having said that, I love telepathy and still think that there’s got to be some way to figure out how to explain it. But to give Daryl Bem credit, there’s a century’s worth of efforts to persuade mainstream science that there’s something worth investigating in telepathy that have failed. So maybe it makes more sense to take something even more “out there” in some ways and try for that.
Steve Volk: It’s interesting you mention not being an expert in statistics because I think one of the things we struggle with now just as a population is that we have the same relationship with science now that laity has traditionally had with the clergy.
What am I to do as a person who didn’t specialize in statistics when I review a Daryl Bem paper and I see arguments between Jessica Utts–who as far as I’m aware hasn’t weighed in on the paper yet but she’s weighed in on a lot of telepathy research and she’s an expert in the field of statistics. She’ll be claiming on one side that this is all very rigorously done and handled and statistically sound in its analysis and there’s something going on here.
And then you’ve got people on the skeptical side saying, “No, no, no, it’s not true.” We end up being thrown back again. I think this one of the hard things. Who do we believe? Who do we trust? I want to see somehow people in the middle pick this stuff up and look at it but that’s a very, very rare occurrence.
Usually you have people doing the research reviewing each other’s research. Then you have these-I call them dogmatic skeptics on the other side. So it’s very hard to get to the bottom of a field in which these are the conditions.
Deborah Blum: I agree. What’s been interesting to me and I like to tell people this is like I said, I’m a mainstream science journalist and daughter of a chemist. I grew up in the sacred halls of science so I really am an admirer of much of the scientific system.
But what was fascinating to me when I started working on Ghost Hunters is that up until the point that I started working on this book I did not appreciate how many people have experienced these so-called supernatural events. People who would never come up to Deborah the skeptical science writer, where suddenly people in my office, people at stores-people would say, “What are you working on?” Then they’d want to tell you their stories.
I mean literally, I was at the University of Florida talking about another book and they said, “What are you working on?” I said, “Well, this book about ghost hunting.” And they said, “Oh, let us tell you about our haunted laboratory.” Or I was at a meeting with a bunch of animal researchers and I was sitting next to a very respected scientist from Stanford who immediately started telling me about the telepathic experiences she’d had with a friend of hers who is a scientist at Southwestern University.
I thought to myself, ‘This whole world exists that really those of us in the skeptic community never see because people just don’t tell you that.’ So the other side of it is from the mainstream science side, it’s really difficult to measure the frequencies of this event because people don’t share them.
Steve Volk: Yeah, I wanted to ask you because you mentioned this earlier, that if scientists had reacted in an open-minded fashion to the idea that you were going to write a book about this-I’m curious-how many of the people who would qualify as scientists or academics told you their stories or expressed some measure of support for the book would have been willing to be public about that?
Deborah Blum: Oh, none. And you notice I’m careful at protecting their identities. None of them said, “Please quote me.” It was more like, “Well Deborah, between us let me tell you this…”
The two most interesting experiences to that effect that I had, one was at the National Academy of Sciences which has a big series called Distinctive Voices or something out at the California facility. They asked me to give a talk about Ghost Hunters. I went out and they’d sold the place out. There were about 1,000 people. I was talking about this crisis apparition thing and I told a story that I tell in the book about an experience my father-in-law had and compared it to some of the 19th century ones.
One of the women in the audience, an incredibly sharp group, said, “Well, I wonder how many people here have had this experience?” So I stopped the lecture and said, “Everyone put up their hands if they’ve had an experience with a crisis apparition or know someone who has.” You know, close to half the people in the room put up their hands. It was really phenomenal.
On the same line, I talked about the book on Science Friday, the NPR show. Again you can see one of the great advantages for someone like me is I cash in all my credit chips as I am a mainstream science writer so that I do get invitations to talk about this in these very mainstream forums.
When I was on Science Friday, the host was an old and good friend of mine, Joe Palca. Joe called me up the day before and said, “I’m really worried about this show. We have this audience that I think isn’t going to like your topic. Na-na-na-na-na-na.” I felt like thanks a lot. I went on as a nervous wreck, they’re all going to hate what I say. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, people came in and told their ghostly experiences and I was fielding emails from other people who wanted to tell ghostly experiences.
So in an interesting way, when you do a piece of work like this it’s like a permission slip…
Steve Volk: I can’t believe you just used that phrase. That’s exactly how I’ve been thinking of it with my own book is that I think we live in a time right now when people feel they do need a permission slip in order to explore spirituality. I think that’s a shame but I also understand it.
Let’s face it, science is making this conversation possible through Skype right now, right? And it makes sense for us to want to behave in a way that is scientifically responsible but also gives us access to these sorts of spiritual experiences that I think a lot of people naturally have and/or long for. I’ve begun to think of Fringe-ology for me as a 275-page permission slip.
Deborah Blum: I love that description. But yeah, that’s exactly the term that came to my mind. It was like somehow I was giving people permission to tell these stories. I felt on the other side like I had this permission slip to learn about a world I hadn’t considered before that had been closed to me because people wouldn’t have talked to me the way they did.
Steve Volk: Let’s dive into one of the other interesting ideas in the book. I don’t want to give away too much detail because I really admire how artfully you constructed the narrative and I want people to discover it for themselves. And I hope they will.
There’s a really poignant part of the book in which you discuss the fact that if there is life after death, if consciousness does continue in some form-and those are obviously big ifs-that the difficulty of developing evidence isn’t just here on our side potentially but on the other side, as well.
Deborah Blum: Yes. You’re thinking about the cross-correspondence, right?
Steve Volk: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When members of the Society for Psychical Research began to die there’s this sense that for reasons unknown to us, despite their desire with their no-longer-beating hearts to communicate with us that they simply can’t do so clearly and effectively once they’ve crossed to the other side. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Deborah Blum: Yeah. I’m struggling with how to frame this. Toward the end of my book, which spans 30-odd years in its central stories, some of the key members of this group of researchers die. There’s a great hope that these famed psychical researchers, once they get to the other side, will be able to more effectively communicate with the living.
One of the great frustrations that people had felt and I think people who work in this field still feel today, is that while things that appear to be messages in that they contain information that the medium couldn’t know, but they’re also often trivial or vague or why if you could finally get a message across from the other side would you want to talk about a picture on the mantle? Those kinds of things.
So they set up this fantastic experiment in which they had respected, one would say non-professional-these were not performing mediums, these were mediums who worked strictly for research societies on three different continents. What they would do is that they would go to a medium in, let’s say, Britain and they would ask her to talk with spirit and they would communicate in a way that that message would then be relayed to a medium in another country.
They did this is really interesting ways. They did it at one point by having the whole message done in a language, Latin say, which the educated spirit in Britain would understand but which the less educated American medium would not. And so the question was can you get a spirit to translate that to another medium? Some of these messages that came across effectively did that.
But there was a lot of frustration expressed by the spirits the mediums were talking to. Edmond Gurney, Fred Meyers, Richard Hodgson, were the three spirits. Fred Meyers was a philosopher who had been long engaged with psychical research and had written one of the most important books. Edmond Gurney had done some of the primary telepathy experiments and died mysteriously of a chloroform overdose. Richard Hodgson, who had really been the driving force in research with the Americans, had dropped of a heart attack at a very young age. So they were trying to connect all these spirits.
You get these things where the mediums are essentially taking notes on what the spirits are telling them and the spirits are lecturing them. “Why aren’t you understanding what I have to say,” or “Don’t you understand how difficult this is for me,” or “I’m saying this and you are getting it wrong.”
There was a lot of discussion and in some of the research they did-this is a long answer but I find it really fascinating-about when you’re conveying a message telepathically whether it’s living mind to living mind or let’s say a dead mind to living mind, one of the barriers to getting that across–think of it like this-I’m telepathically at this moment, Steve, sending you an image of a vase of flowers. So you get a picture in your mind of a vase of flowers. Now I ask you, right at this moment, what color are those flowers?
Steve Volk: I see red and yellow.
Deborah Blum: Okay. And I was seeing purple and lilac, right? Because that’s my favorite flower here in Wisconsin. So you have this problem where I’m sending you flowers but your brain is going to translate that into your own experience, right?
So why would that be different if you’re communicating as a dead person with a living person? Plus, you’re communicating against layers and layers of barriers. So in that game of telepathic pass-it-on, the odds of-this was certainly the theory they were working with-the odds are of that message being altered mind to mind the way we do it even in conversations with each other, right? You make assumptions about what’s in the other person’s mind. It’s a great way of looking at why this would be so challenging.
One of the questions that I’d love to actually see addressed well is what’s the pattern of things we know that really get pushed through? And what makes them similar? Is there something that tells us? At this point I’m going to sound like this will be me thinking if someone would be interested in researching telepathy, but if you can look at what are the things that consistently people get across…”
Steve Volk: Successfully.
Deborah Blum: Yes. Then you might say, “Well, why would that be?” For instance, to go on one more minute, I actually did a telepathy experiment at The American Society for Psychical Research in which I let myself be part of an experiment which completely unnerved me.
One of the things they said to me is that the color red is one of the hardest colors they’ve found to transmit telepathically. They had had an experiment in which someone was an experienced sender and was trying to send the color red to a receiver. He knew that red was a hard color to transmit. I don’t know why.
So he tried to think of an image of something incredibly red. He had this idea of flaming red fire, right? The person he was sending it to had a box of matches in his pocket and leapt out of his chair screaming that his pants were on fire. It’s a great story, right?
But then you go back to say, “Why would red be hard to send?” I think one of the things I’ve always wanted to see is a really good breakdown of what messages got through and why. Why do people think those are the stronger messages? I really think that’s why if you could integrate-I know I’m saying good science isn’t a complete match but some of that scientific method done well might find some really interesting patterns that we’ve yet to find.
Steve Volk: What’s interesting to me is I’m imagining somebody listening to this conversation who is of that more dogmatic skeptical mindset. I would expect that we might sound like we’re just two believers chatting over the fence, but I get the sense from you in the couple of conversations we’ve had and in reading the book-and I know for myself it’s not that I’m in any way anti-science or looking for less science; I’m calling for more science. Here I sense that you are, too. This is just stuff that we should study more.
Deborah Blum: That’s exactly what I think and I think these are really fascinating questions. Sometimes people will come up to me and say, “Well, do you believe in ghosts?” And I say, “Well, I don’t think that’s the interesting question. I think the interesting question is why do we see them?” Because we do. If we could understand why we see them; then we could understand ourselves and our world much better, instead of just saying, “Oh well, all of the thousands of people who claim to have seen a ghost or believe they’ve seen a ghost or had this experience are loons walking on the tin hat side of the street.” Instead of saying that you would say, “Let’s try to figure that out.”
Whether we just prove that we’re prone to hallucinations on the very skeptical side or whether we prove that there are really some interesting natural laws that we just haven’t figured out yet, we would allow the world to be a more interesting place. That is why I think you and I are exactly on the same page on this. We need more research, not less.
Steve Volk: Now let’s move away from science for a second to a field in a sense we both know better and we’ll push to the end here with this, journalism. The practice of journalism. I find it deeply ironic that paranormal topics-and you have a very narrow focus within your book on this group of people and the information they’re citing.
In mine I get into UFOs and telepathy and ghosts and issues of spirituality like meditation and that sort of thing. What’s intriguing to me is that in journalism these sorts of topics, anything that can be ascribed as paranormal, are considered fluff or color pieces.
But when you think about it, these issues cut straight to the heart of what it means to be human. These are the profound existential questions we get caught up in at births and deaths, at funerals and baptisms. Who are we? Why are we here? What happens if anything when we die? Is there a God? Are we alone in the universe? Isn’t it funny that for some reason we treat these topics as funny?
Deborah Blum: Yes. You know, that is a fascinating question because these are the really big ideas, right? I think this makes me sound like the world’s greatest ego-head but in raising this point we are thinking like a William James because that’s what he said.
He said two things that I think are so relevant still today. One is that the big risk that you run when you dogmatically just deny an area of inquiry is that you close yourself off from the possibility of a much more amazing universe than we know.
And the other thing he said was that if science doesn’t care about the things that really matter to people, people won’t care about science. I think both of those points are true.
Steve Volk: Yeah, I came across this study recently and I’m not going to be able to quote it directly. It’s reference for the book. But there was a study recently in which it was determined that where paranormal claims are concerned, if science rejects them people are more likely to accept them as true, the subjects of the study.
Deborah Blum: Oh, that’s interesting.
Steve Volk: The other part of this that I find funny as a journalist is in terms of the material we work with, our bricks and mortar are scenes and anecdotes and colorful details. So it’s also ironic to me that more journalists don’t write stories about these sorts of events because man, we probably use the phrase a lot, “low-hanging fruit,” like a certain story is just so easy to get it’s just sort of sitting right there for you. It’s low-hanging fruit. Man, where these topics are concerned this stuff is priceless. I had a gas reporting on these colorful, outlandish kinds of stories. I had the same sense reading Ghost Hunters that you were just traipsing through all this and really enjoying the landscape and the scenery. Is that true?
Deborah Blum: I did. I had a wonderful time. Lots of people thought I was going to end up as a wing-nut really liked the book. But I didn’t recruit anyone to it, Steve. None of my friends said, “Wow, that was a fascinating book. Now I think I’ll explore that.” And I think they’ll miss a lot.
Steve Volk: I think it’s so much easier to continue doing what you’re doing if you’re successful in your career. I think that for any journalist it’s just so much easier to just stick with that.
Deborah Blum: Your book’s coming out in June, right?
Steve Volk: Yeah.
Deborah Blum: I’m really looking forward to it. Did you find that your journalism friends were afraid you were going to be a tin hat kind of guy?
Steve Volk: I’d get the hairy eyeball every time I’d bring it up.
Deborah Blum: [Laughs] So you and I are pioneers because like me, you’re going to do a national, fascinating-I think mine’s fascinating-but a national book about a fascinating subject and it’s not going to make your career less. It’s going to make it stronger. There’s a book-why am I blanking on the name of this book? Is it Stacy Horn? Do you know the book I mean? She wrote the book about J. B. Rhine in which she also saying, “But I can’t explain this away.” Right?
Steve Volk: Uh-huh (Yes).
Deborah Blum: So maybe we’re the start of a big trend, which would be good.
Steve Volk: You do wonder if at some point this stuff is going to change because I actually perceive more common ground now. The irony of all this is at this time when the debate is as hot seemingly as it’s ever been between believers and skeptics. You’ve got people like Andy Newberg or Steve LaBerge who’s a lucid dreaming expert, and Newberg is the guy who studies the neural correlative religious experience and he’s been exploring meditation and contemplative prayer.
These are mystic practices carried on for millennia that science has just now caught up to and realized why they’re powerful and why they in fact exist, are real, and they can be beneficial. So right there are some spiritual practices that people can pick up and have that permission slip signed and replicated by science, and yet in a larger cultural sense-look, in our business the way to approach a story about religion and science is going to be with some sensational headline. “Can They Coexist?” Or, “The War Between Religion and Science.” I’m not sure how accurate that really is.
Deborah Blum: I agree. And I do think no one argues that daily journalism is an in-depth prize. So all of us suffer from the overall superficial approach. I would hope that eventually this collected body of work and the continued interest is actually going to move us forward. I really do sincerely hope so.
Steve Volk: Real quick, the book you mentioned by Stacy Horn, the title is Unbelievable for anyone who’s interested in that. It really is a terrific book.
I just want to close by asking you a couple more quick questions. How have you been regarded by colleagues since this book came out? Do you feel like any relationship was strained by this and has remained so? Or you’ve gotten away clean?
Deborah Blum: I would like to think that I got away clean. No, I don’t think it’s hurt me. I think it made me more interesting. It made me a more interesting writer. People have come up to me and say, “Oh, I have to say, I love that book.”
Now that I’m running around doing Poisoner’s Handbook, a lot of times if I do book-signings afterwards at a talk-I just gave one in Canada-they always have the previous book which is Ghost Hunters. People buy it instead of the Poison book. They go, “That’s a fascinating subject. I want to know something about it.” So I think I’m a little smudgy in that I’m still interested in it but I don’t mind them.
Steve Volk: The last question I’m going to ask you is going forward, what advice would you have for the field of science journalism about covering a topic that might have that kind of paranormal taint about it? In terms of when to do it and how to do it. If you were an editor and had a reporter doing a story on the Daryl Bem research for instance, would you have any particular marching orders for them? Are there things you would be alert for?
Deborah Blum: I think it’s a mistake to decide what the story is in advance. If we take the Daryl Bem study, it advances an opportunity for comedy. Whereas I think it’s much more interesting, especially when you’re looking at a scientist like Daryl Bem and he’s different because he does have this long mainstream to frame it into the why did he do it? To me that allows you to really explore the science itself in a more interesting way.
I think one of the things and certainly this is true of all of my work, from Monkey Wars which was on primate research to Poisoner’s Handbook, that it’s really important for people who cover science to remember that science itself, like science journalism, is a really human enterprise. It’s always stories of people trying to explain and figure out the world around us. That’s what science does.
Just because someone is trying to explain and figure out the world around us in a less than traditional way doesn’t mean that their question isn’t an interesting question. I think that we miss a lot of really good stories and information and that science misses the opportunity to ask some really interesting questions when we keep the path too narrow.
Steve Volk: Fantastic. It’s a great place to end. Thank you, Deborah Blum. I’m Steve Volk. Thanks to Alex Tsakiris for letting me contribute this podcast to Skeptiko.
Deborah Blum’s current book is The Poisoner’s Handbook: The Murder and Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. But of course, the one you’re going to go get is Ghost Hunters. Thanks, Deborah.
Deborah Blum: Thanks very much. It was a pleasure.