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Ghost Hunters
Ghost Hunters
William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of an Afterlife
Submitted by kittynh
24th August 2007
Ghost Hunters

Deborah Blum claims she went into this book as a "skeptic". Yet at the end of the book she assures the reader she has now become a believer! I was rather shocked, as what she is basing her belief on simply seems to be that learned men believed despite the sad lack of evidence. Ms.Blum hedges her bets with all the old tired excuses. She counts only the "hits" while acknowledging the misses. She pulls out the old claim that psychics eventually lose their powers, that they cheat but only some of the time, that if you are paid then you are a less "pure" psychic than the "ones with real powers". She trots our Leonora Piper as a case of a "real" psychic. William James and others seemed to have real faith in her as being the ONE TRUE psychic. D.D. Home also gets his due as a genuine psychic. The few instances she manages to have found of REAL psychic ability are shamefully few. They are spectacular, as in a spirit telling where a missing will was! But, when I found her research was mostly from the files of old newspapers and the American Society for Psychical Research I remained unconvinced. She also in her Acknowledgments thanks friend that shared their own "ghost stories". William James certainly would have collected such stories and Norah Sidgwick would also have given those stories a good looking at. But, proof? Even they would know that a good story isnt' scientific proof.

And that is what William James was after. I came out with a great respect and appreciation for these researchers. They tried to do real research and exposed many of the worst psychics including Madame Blavatsky. As I said before they came up with 2 possibly 3 psychics that they felt were genuine, and even then it was only "some" of the time. The personalities of the researchers came across clearly in her writings, though there is a decided anti skeptic slant to her writings. Skeptics come across as the bad guys. Often she writes that a skeptic did not even read the research or some other slight, while I am of a critical thinking opinion that perhaps she received her information from the wrong sources.

There is no mention of todays psychics. There is no real mention of the serious harm done by psychics through history, even ones that believe they ARE gifted, by delivering false information.

I kept thinking, "there is more serious infomation and proof that there are UFOs or Bigfoot than genuine psychics" after reading this book. I wonder if Ms.Blum would believe in them?

Even Mark Twain comes across as a "believer" in this book. A little quote here and he becomes a spiritualist supporter.

I had a lot of questions that I think William James also might have had. Leonora Piper is a sweet housewife psychic that it would be easy to believe in as she was so "pure". Sounds to me like the old Cottingly Fairies twist, how can little children cheat they are so "pure". But the simple question is why. Why would God allow such muddled messed up and frankly sappy answers to come down? Belief in an afterlife is a very personal thing. Faith is something requiring strenght. For those that need the support of this very sad proof I can only suggest a trip to church, not a psychic.

This is a very well written interesting book to read. And there lies the danger. You can be seduced by the wonderful writing and story, and forget that the story being presented is the writers attempt to convince you to build a house out of hay.

William James is presented as someone that wanted proof of an afterlife to combate the atheism of science. While a believer myself, I can not help but look at our world today and wonder if the atheism of science would not be a much better thing than the stranglehold of belief at all costs.

Deborah Blum
  #1  
By cj.23 on 24th August 2007, 04:34 PM
I enjoyed the book, and never really felt Blum committed to the reality of the phenomena in any way? As to Twain, he was a believer in psychical phenomena -- a matter of public record, and as I recall an early member fo the American Society for Psychical Research. Twain was agnostic in the modern sense - he despised religion, but kept an open mind on the existence of God, and while he at times stated he did not believe in survival after death, he subsequently was convinced enough to actively suggest to people seances and such forth. In childhood a Presbyterian, in later life he often claimed an affinity to so-called "primitive religions".

I'm a little surprised you were not aware of Twain's rather colourful religious and spiritual beliefs, but you seem to suggest in your review he was an atheist.

What I will say about Blum is that she does not present a case on which anyone can judge the evidence. Hell, I've read the entire Proceedings of the SPR from 1882 to 1950, and I still can't make a reasoned judgment - it makes my head hurt - but I certainly did not read her as endorsing the survival hypothesis?

Anyway thanks for the review, it really is an excellent book and we clearly both enjoyed it. If I may venture my own little review -- I don't know how to post reviews to the site, I will

cj x
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  #2  
By cj.23 on 24th August 2007, 04:37 PM
Actually here are my comment son the book itself --

"Oddly enough, I was given yesterday a copy of Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum. It's familiar territory to me, as I have read the entire PSPR from 1882 until the 1950's, and a great deal of material on the history of the SPR and ASPR, and written on them myself, but the story here is told vividly and engagingly. A superb book, which looks at psychical research emerging as a third way out of the dispute between Darwinists and Theologians, and the development of the field of psychical research largely through the personalities involved - Darwin, Huxley, Wallace, Faraday, Crookes, James, Myers, Gurney, Podmore etc.

It's really beautifully written, and I hesitate to critique it as i have a rather specialist interest, but I would note it tends to exaggerate Darwin's resistance to Spiritualism (it ignores his own passing interest and disgust at a seance attended by his brother and friends) and perhaps render Alfred Russel Wallace more as a shade more credulous than he was. At times she glosses over quite complicated issues, and she fails to really address much about Spiritualism which acts as the backdrop (read Alex Owen's excellent The Darkened Room for this), or Darwinian thought and the response of the Church to evolution. In fact in this she is at her weakest: she seems to be writing from a modern perspective, where we tend to recall the angry exchanges of Soapy Sam Wilberforce and Darwin and Huxley - she greatly exaggerates the strength of the critical response by the clergy to evolution. In fact there was a generally positive reaction to the Origin of the Species, and Christian books praising and adapting to it outnumbered critiques by a great number, but the later Fundamentalist backlash has coloured her vision.

Certainly naturalistic explanations were troubling many Victorian minds - this is the era of Matthew Arnold and Phillip Gosse, but the reows over Essays & Reviews and Lux Mundi, or even the Colenso affair, far overshadoweed the impact of Darwin, or even Lyell and Buckland, on religious belief at the time, judging by contemporary sources.

What is particularly fascinating however was the often vitriolic and depressingly shabby attacks on the psychical researchers at a period when Science was not in a position to make dogmatic claims about the evolution of consciousness or nature thereof. The unwillingness of many scientists to even address the purported evidence, and vilification of those who engaged in this work despite the often negative results, was to set the tone for much of the next century. I could not help wondering time and time again if some people have as fundamentally irrational bias against this subject as the religious may have for their faiths - clearly some deeply primal instincts are aroused by the subject.

I found a number of fascinating quotations from Alfred Russsel Wallace - I may type some out later, but really for anyone interested in the historical context of the debate concerning evolution, religion, psychical research and atheism this is a must read."
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  #3  
By kittynh on 27th August 2007, 09:40 AM
I suggest reading the review in SKEPTIC magazine. There the mistakes are clearly pointed out. And they are mistakes of shoddy research.

Also, if you read the Acknoledgements you see she clearly admits to becoming a believer and what she has based her "change" from being a skeptic on. It's kinda flimsy. Her research comes from very shoddy records and what she chose to leave out is as important as what she included.

Most of my criticism came after reading her added personal comments at the end.

Reading the book I just assumed she knew that newspaper stories of the time were notoriously innacurate, and that she did not talk with many skeptic groups that would give a different angle on many of these psychics. How DD Home cheated, and how he got away with it, is never an issue. It's easy to look up online or to read any number of books that explain cleary what was going on. Instead, he is simply stated as being "genuine".

In fact, when he was pulling his stunts, Home was hardly accepted as genuine by everyone. Home made sure that only those that would be non critical were allowed at this "performances" Robert Browning is one contemporary that was NOT welcome (though his wife was).


The SKEPTIC review points out the research flaws far better than I could with my more limited knowledge of the era.

My own expertise is with the UFO history. I kept thinking how personal and newspaper reports of giant flying ships were far more compelling than the scant spiritualist data. The giant flying airships were seen all over the United States by thousands of witnesses. Newpapers reported them in detail. Reading them today, one would certainly believe there was proof enough and more that they did indeed have occupants that sang, "Nearer My God to Thee" and stole cows to eat.

Now there is proof! But it didn't happen.

And there aren't flying men in Mexico that are alien vampires.

But when it is proof of the afterlife, well, we want to believe quite badly.


Read the SKEPTIC review so you know the mistakes, read the book as it is indeed a pleasure, and please read a few other books on the subject (and not ones written by Sylvia Browne).
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  #4  
By cj.23 on 27th August 2007, 02:56 PM
Ah! I must admit I never read the acknowledgements, and indeed did not even notice them. I certainly did not detect her bias from the body of the book itself.

As I said, I am actually quite familiar with the primary sources. Now DD Home is outside my area of knowledge, but I know the Fielding Report, and the PSPR material on Piper I'm guessing better than more than a handful of other scholars - the Proceedings are to put it bluntly profoundly boring to read, and it was only the chance many years ago that found many boxes of them stacked in my bedroom, and my being bedbound and unwell for an extended period, which caused me to systematically read through them. Nowadays I believe they are however available in electronic format to interested parties via SPR membership.

I noted Blum had also made some concerted efforts to address archival material. Yes she simplifies and condenses - a book this long could easily have focussed on say the split between the American Society for Psychical Research and the Boston Society, or William James and his larger contributions, or just say Palladino. However I think she suceeds in writing an excellent introductory text with the pace and zip of a good novel - and while i note the occasional issues in the text, I'm rather more forgiving.

I'm not familiar with SKEPTIC magazine, but I will seek it out and try to get the relevant issue. I have a rather strong interest in the history of Psychical Research, and would like to read the critique.

Anyway once again thanks for the review Kitty - I can't comment on any lack of judgement in her reading of the alleged paranormal evidence - but I did feel that considering the rather vast areas of intellectual history she attempts to traverse, her book was an admirable attempt. I was unaware of her "conversion", but now you have pointed it out I find that interesting - my own interest in such things was strengthened by critically reading the literature, no matter how unappealing I found that task!


cj x
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  #5  
By craighyatt on 16th September 2007, 10:46 AM
Thumbs up Ghost Hunters, Deborah Blum

I read Blum's book cover to cover and really could not put it down. To me, it was interesting as a study of the development of scientific thought, how personal predjudice and politics influence scientific and the relationship between science/mysticism/organized religion. I give it a solid thumbs up.

As the the question of the scientific validity of reseach in the book, I felt Blum made a pretty balanced and objective report. Blum states in the Acknowledgements that she was "less smug" after writing the book. To my mind, that's not a very strong affirmation, and, anyway, her personal belief one way isn't necessarily reflected in the book--it's a history book, not a book making the case for or against mysticism.

I will look up the Skeptic article with more details on Piper, Home, and Palladino. From what I read in the book, I could not see how some of the supernormal events could be faked--assuming that Blum went back to the original transcripts and assuming that the reporting scientists made factual reports. For several reports on Piper and Palladino, I had no explanation aside from hypnosis/drug-induced hallucination or the collusion of every person in the room.

The one thing in the back of my mind is that scientists are fallible humans--even the most brilliant, accomplished and reliable of them. With competition for fame and research funds, a desire to shore up or tear down one philosopy or another, and money to made from commercial exploitation, there's a strong motive for falsifying research results. Frankly, that seems like the most likely explanation for the supernormal events (it's unfortunate we didn't have digital video recorders while Mrs. Piper was alive).

However, I think James's "white crow" analogy for Mrs. Piper also applies to individual results. Assuming the above constraints (original sources, factual reporting, no hallucinations, etc.) even a single valid event would be enough to make the case. I hope Mrs. Piper wasn't the only *real* medium who ever existed. I hope somebody claims the Randi Prize soon. That would be really cool--but I am not holding my breath.
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