A while ago, a reader pointed me to a brief entry about yours truly on the anti-paranormal site RationalWiki. I doubt many people actually read this site, so the fact that the entry is largely inaccurate doesn't really bother me. Still, having nothing better to blog about right now, I thought I'd go through it line by line and separate the true statements from those that are, well, not so true.
Prescott grew up in New Jersey where he attended Wesleyan University, majoring in Film Studies. He has had some success as an author of a number of horror and suspense novels which have sold over one million copies in America.
This is all true, except that the number of copies sold has climbed to about 2.5 million. Thanks, ebooks!
Prescott owns a blog where he posts on paranormal, spiritualism and topics related to life after death but has not actually done any experiments or investigations into parapsychology other than read books on the topic.
True, except that I've consulted four mediums over the years. That's the limit of my personal investigation.
Basically true. I do think that genuine physical mediums can levitate tables and other objects, and even themselves. The book Sittings with Eusapia Palladino, by Everard Feilding, gives a good account of Palladino's ability to levitate objects. D.D. Home's ability to levitate himself was not scientifically tested, but was reported by hundreds of eyewitnesses in scores of seances conducted in good light. On the other hand, many levitations and other purported physical phenomena have been faked, and the fraudulent cases seem to outnumber the authentic ones. Great caution is necessary in exploring this area.
I'm definitely against dogmatic debunkers who call themselves skeptics, and I don't think materialism offers a complete explanation of reality, though in a more limited context it is an undeniably powerful approach, as shown by the momentous successes of modern science. Not sure what the bit about parapsychologists refers to.
True, though so vaguely worded that it means little. Hallucinations may explain some phenomena, such as certain UFO sightings, certain Marian apparitions, and some ghosts and hauntings. But I don't think hallucinations can account for the careful observations of experienced investigators, especially when they are working as a group. Again, I'd point to Feilding's Sittings with Eusapia Palladino. (The book is hard to find, but is thoroughly summarized, with many lengthy excerpts, in Stephen E. Braude's The Limits of Influence.) Feilding and his colleagues had debunked over one hundred physical mediums and fully expected to debunk Palladino, an eccentric character who was known to cheat when she could. Nevertheless, they found the phenomena she produced under close observation and tight controls to be inexplicable by normal means. The prominent magician Walter Thurston later seconded their opinion. Palladino's sessions with Feilding and his fellow researchers were recorded in real time by a stenographer, were typically conducted in adequate light, and were sometimes documented with photographs. I don't see how hallucination can explain the results in these and similar cases.
According to Prescott even ectoplasm is genuine though if he had done some real research into experiments carried out by scientists during seances he would see that ectoplasm is universally discredited even amongst other parapsychologists since all investigations into the substance turned out to be butter, muslin and the result of fraud.
My most complete discussion of the messy subject of ectoplasm is probably "Getting a Rise out of Ectoplasm." The article covers evidence for ectoplasm but also skeptical objections. My conclusion is that the objections don't address the very strongest evidence. So I guess the RW piece is correct in inferring that I think ectoplasm is genuine, though I'd hedge my bets and say it may be genuine or there may be something more going on that we don't understand.
The latter part of the quoted statement is inaccurate. I've written extensively on fraud in materialization mediumship, and I even got into a months-long online dispute with Australian researcher Victor Zammit over this very issue. I've often cited sources showing that ectoplasm can be nothing but cheesecloth or muslin - for instance, M. Lamar Keene's The Psychic Mafia and Harry Price's article "The Cheese-Cloth Worshippers," which debunked Helen Duncan. To the dismay of Duncan's admirers, I've also posted photos showing Duncan with supposed "materialized spirits" which are clearly puppets. Here are two such photos, taken from "The Cheese-Cloth Worshippers":
Some of the articles that I've posted in the Essays section of my author website deal with fraud in physical mediumship. These include:
"Of Dinosaurs and Phantoms: Some Dubious Phenomena" (the mediumship of Marthe Beraud, aka "Eva C.")
"Of Dinosaurs and Phantoms, the Sequel" (more about Eva C.)
"The Two Faces of Margery" (the mediumship of Mina Crandon)
I also wrote an article called "The Dark Side of the Paranormal," dealing with the issue of self-deception and delusion.
For other examples, search the archives of this blog (using the Google search box on the left side of the page) for keywords like "cheesecloth" or "David Thompson" (a medium who I felt was not adequately controlled in test seances).
Since turnabout is fair play, I'll say that if the author of the RationalWiki piece "had done some real research" into what I've written, he would have seen that I've covered the waterfront in this area pretty thoroughly - so much so that a frustrated Victor Zammit labeled me a "skeptic."
Prescott also believes all of the victorian seances and mediums were genuine yet ignores any data on the contrary. There are many books published and even papers written in journals written by psychical researchers (eg. Society for Psychical Research) in that era who had exposed many of the victorian mediums as using trickery yet Prescott ignores all of this data.
Untrue. I've talked a lot about fraud in the Victorian era. I even considered the possibility that the whole Spiritualist movement of that era was a "mania." I've written that Florence Cook and Rosina Showers fooled William Crookes; that Arthur Conan Doyle was tricked by many dubious characters, including the Davenport Brothers; that many aspects of physical mediumship were routinely faked with the help of hidden equipment and secret accomplices; that the regurgitation of wadded-up cheesecloth is quite possible, and not far-fetched as some claim; that Spiritualist predictions that there would be no Second World War and that the Spiritualist movement would soon sweep the globe were wildly off-base; that Victorian spiritualist Florence Marryat played fast and loose with the truth in her memoir; that many of the later phenomena produced by the Fox sisters wre fraudulent; etc.
I've also written about more recent instances of dubious phenomena. I've pointed out that infrared photography of materialization mediumship at Camp Chesterfield, a Spiritualist compound, revealed costumed accomplices sneaking in through a hidden door; that Sylvia Browne's annual predictions have been grossly inaccurate, and many of the public statements she has made in psychic readings have been proved wrong, sometimes hilariously so (as when she stated that Madalyn Murray O'Hair's remains would never be found, when in fact they had already been uncovered); that Victor Borgia's "channeled" books about the afterlife read like fiction; that some otherworldly electronic communications described by Mark Macy bear a disturbing resemblance to plot elements of Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" sci-fi series; and that an allegedly paranormal image on Macy's website was obviously Photoshopped (which I proved by superimposing the original image over the altered image).
These are just the topics that occur to me offhand. There are many more.
I don't read that forum, but I'm happy to think this is true!
Critics point out that Prescott does not look at the data objectively and that he is a promoter of pseudoscience.
True, in the sense that critics undoubtedly do say this. Of course one could just as easily write, "Critics point out that skeptical debunkers do not look at the data objectively and that they are promoters of an outdated worldview grounded in classical physics." Sauce for the gander!
I found the article's inaccuracy hard to understand, since even a cursory review of this blog would show that I'm skeptical about many specific cases. A possible explanation is suggested by this postscript to the RW piece:
I certainly don't mind being linked to Mike Tymn, whose books and blog posts I enjoy, and whom I consider a personal friend, even though we've never met in real life. However, he and I don't see eye to eye on everything. In particular, he's much more impressed by materialization mediumship than I am, and he is generally not interested in discussing fraud. He once told me that since he's convinced that the phenomena are real and the debunkers are wrong, he sees no need to present their objections. I understand his point of view, but I don't share it.
The RW entry on Michael Tymn appears to have been written by the same person who wrote my entry, and is even more slipshod. (Tymn's last name is repeatedly misspelled in the body of the piece.) Some of the language is very similar to language used about me:
Tym [sic] is also dishonest in his books for using selective studies and ignoring data contrary to his beliefs. For example, he does not mention ectoplasm (a substance claimed by spiritualists which spirits materialise in) throughout his books as this supposed substance in all scientific investigation has been found to be the result of fraud and made out of butter, cheesecloth, plastic dolls or newspaper clippings.
It appears, in short, that the writer assumed (incorrectly) that Mike Tymn and I are in complete agreement on materializations, Victorian fraud, and so forth. Or perhaps, in his slapdash way, he simply got the two Michaels mixed up!
Overall, the article on me is a slippery and sloppy piece of work, and the one on Michael Tymn is much worse. Surely a site that prides itself on "rationality" can do better than this. Otherwise, one might be tempted to think that "rationality" is merely a catch phrase serving as a cover for shallow, uninformed dogmatism.
And we certainly wouldn't want to believe that!