Recently, at a talk delivered for the wonderful Glasgow Skeptics, an audience member asked my thoughts on the Scole experiment. I wasn’t able to recall offhand what the experiment involved and so was not able to offer a decent answer. This has bugged me since and, having had time to reflect and research, here is my response…
It turns out that I was familiar with the Scole experiment but in the spur of the moment wasn’t able to connect the name to the research. These experiments took place in the 1990s and involved a series of seances with four mediums. The seances resulted in various types of alleged evidence being produced which included (but isn’t limited to):
-people being touched and seeing disembodied hands
-objects seemingly materialising in the room (known as apports)
-anomalous lights moving around the room
-apparitions and voices around the room
-detailed messages being delivered
-images developing on photographic film which was sealed in canisters
When members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) became involved in the experiments they attempted to introduce some controls such as searching people prior to them entering the basement in which in the seances were held, insisting everyone empty their pockets and leave their belongings outside, and keeping the one entrance to the basement locked.
The four mediums requested that the seances be observed by investigators from the SPR in pitch darkness and, to avoid accusations of trickery, they would wear luminous wristbands fastened with velcro to show where their hands were at all times. Though, it is possible and well established that some mediums and psychic performers are able to slip from their restraints while making it seem as though they’re still present in their seat – one of the most infamous cases of this being discovered is the Colin Fry seance during which he was caught levitating a trumpet. There isn’t proof that this happened in the Scole seances, but it is a possibility we should consider. Especially considering the (often overlooked) fact that Robin Foy- who led the Scole experiments -also led the infamous Fry seance, and that the Fry seance and Scole experiment seances took place in the same venue – Foy’s home! (Psychic News, 1992.)
The SPR investigators also wished to use infra-red camcorders to record the events but the mediums refused this as they claimed this would interfere with the spirit energy. Robin Foy- one of the mediums who led the research -also stated that the spirits told them “this phenomena could be developed in the light but if it were it could take an awfully long time to produce – years and years rather than the few months it actually took us.” (The Afterlife Investigations: The Scole Experiment, 2012.)
One of today’s most cited critics of the Scole experiments – US skeptic podcaster, Brian Dunning, has gone on record to say that the results of the Scole experiments were likely fraudulent and that by catering to the conditions set out by the so-called psychic mediums, the experimenters became part of the experiment rather than objective observers. By turning the lights off and remaining in their seats they limited their ability to properly assess what was really happening in the room with them. As noble as their intentions to rule out misdirection may be, they shot themselves in the foot by making it extremely difficult to be able to do so. (Dunning, 2009)
I found it particularly interesting that Foy would explain away the lack of lighting in the seances as relating to time constraints when it is also claimed that the experimental seances produced thousands of hours of spirit communication, (The Afterlife Investigations: The Scole Experiment, 2012). There are 8,760 hours in a year so I would personally suggest that the time spent sitting around in the dark could have actually been spent trying to manifest the same results in the light. You know… in the name of science.
US magician, Mark Edward, along with Brian Dunning and other US skeptics were invited to attempt a recreation of the Scole experiments for the Discovery Channel. They did so through the use of a stooge in the room who would move objects, touch people and speak through a tube, (Weird or What: Life After Death, 2013.) The seance participants were a mix of believers and non-belivers and were seemingly convinced and even frightened by these tricks, (Gerbic, 2011.)
Although I am not convinced that trickery can be ruled out in the Scole experiments I don’t think that the Edwards recreation offers any insight into the experiment. Although it offers an insight into how a seance could be faked, there is no evidence that these particular methods were used during the Scole experiments. However, that isn’t evidence that the seances in question were authentic or that they provide evidence of anything in particular.
The claims that come from the Scole experiment are fantasitcal and numerous, but the supporting evidence that the occurrences are genuine is lacking. We are expected to take at face value the eye-witness testimony of the participants and this isn’t necessarily reliable. For example, we have to consider that although the sitters might have the best intentions to be objective observers, they are still susceptible to suggestion and biases. Research has shown that it’s possible for sitters in a seance to be told that the table is levitating when it isn’t, and for others present to agree post-seance that the table did in fact levitate, (Wiseman, Greening, Smith, 2003.)
There is also a part of me that cannot shake off my suspicion about Foy’s involvement in the Colin Fry trumpet incident. Following the discovery of the trickery, there was no condemnation from Foy and his fellow researchers who all claimed to be as perturbed as Colin Fry was about what had happened, suggesting that it was spirit involvement and not outright fraud that led to Colin Fry to escape from his restraints and wave a trumpet around the room in a spooky manner.
I hope this answers the question posed to me in Glasgow.
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Dunning, B (2009) The Scole Experiement, The Skeptoid Podcast [online] Available at https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4179 (accessed 22.08.2017)
Gerbic, S (2011) Weird or What? The Scole Experiments, Monterey County Skeptics [Online] Available at http://montereycountyskeptics.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/weird-or-what-scole-experiments.html (accessed 22.08.2017)
The Afterlife Investigations: The Scole Experiment (2012) Youtube video, added by UFO TV [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qSEi_sfaSU (accessed 22.08.2017)
Psychic News (1992) Medium Caught Holding Trumpet, Psychic News, 7 November p.1 and p.4
Weird or What? Life After Death (2013) Youtube video, added by Brittany Meads [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nnipRqWJoA (accessed 22.08.2017)
Wiseman, R., Greening, E., and Smith, M. (2003). Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room. British Journal of Psychology,[Online] Available here http://www.richardwiseman.com/resources/seanceBJP.pdf (accessed 22.08.2017)