The Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research
The Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research, 1 (2021)
The new year has crept slowly out of its hole, only to be greeted with more of the same. A raven has forsaken the Tower of London prompting suspicions that the old prophecy is fulfilling itself: Britain has certainly teetered on the brink – and readers may have noticed that the Paranormal Review is no more. But a ray of hope was shone into this doom and gloom by US billionaire Robert Bigelow. Pledging over a million dollars in prize money for the top three essays and eleven runners up presenting the best evidence on the survival of human consciousness after permanent bodily death, he has sought to energise research in this field – I know, I asked him – and a quick survey of my colleagues suggests that he has done exactly that. Following closely on the heels of the Netflix documentary Surviving Death, Bigelow’s announcement made world headlines and has brought the subject to the top of the agenda in a way that has not been seen in years.
The timing could not have been better. The feedback from Is There Life After Death?, which I am co-editing with Robert McLuhan and started producing last year, prompted me to turn it into a series and I have just publicised the call for chapters for volume 2. It seems, as I argued in my call for chapters last year, as if the global pandemic has re-focused people’s attention on the ultimate questions.
It is fortunate, then, that I am able to lead this issue with a timely article from the well-known author Michael Tymn on the main reasons why apparent evidence for life after death has been ignored or rejected. The SPR’s President, Prof. Chris Roe, adds his own reason with a wider look at the problem of apparently small effect sizes in parapsychological research, generally. Interestingly, it is not so much a problem of small effect sizes per se, but of the representation of these effect sizes by the discipline’s critics.
As someone interested in documentary work, I see that the reporting and representation of paranormal experiences is hugely important in influencing their social acceptance. A great many people have ‘paranormal’ experiences, including those relating to the afterlife, but often feel inhibited by antagonistic social norms to the extent that they do not report these experiences, or even mention them to close friends and relatives. Readers will surely remember Prof. Brian Cox’s dismissal of people who believe in ghosts as ‘nobbers’ – although someone with the surname Cox should be wary of throwing ‘nobbers’ around. Such mainstream ridicule of paranormal experiences is repressive. Unchecked, repression creates the conditions the oppressors demand: fewer will report seeing and believing in ghosts until we reach the point when people like Cox can say that no one sees or believes in ghosts. I am not missionising here. It is not about promoting belief in ghosts, or any other aspect of the ‘paranormal’, but about promoting and defending the freedom to express personal experience without fear, without intimidation. What can we do to ensure that people’s personal experiences are not cancelled by this growing intolerance? If anyone can help us, it is surely the Society for Psychical Research. After all, the stated purpose of the Society is ‘to advance the understanding of events and abilities commonly described as “psychic” or “paranormal”, without prejudice and in a scientific manner’. The SPR-sponsored book project Is There Life After Death? is destined to play its part.
Dr Leo Ruickbie