Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Atlantic University
My last published article is “Distortions of the Past,” which just appeared in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (2012, 26, 611-633). This was an invited address I presented at the 2011 Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, held in Brazil in 2011. The address, in turn, was part of an award I received at the convention held in Paris in 2010 (http://www.parapsych.org/articles/29/29/2010_outstanding_contribution.aspx).
History of science is written by different types of scholars, mainly practitioners and professional historians (although there are others). As I wrote in the paper: “By practitioners I mean those individuals who are active members of the discipline in question, be they teachers, researchers, or something else, while professional historians are those who have been formally trained in history.” In the paper I focus on the first group. I discuss a variety of problems that may distort parapsychologist’s writings about the history of their field.
A main source of distortion is the neglect of particular groups. A common issue, particularly among Anglo-American parapsychologists, is the writing of history focusing only on the contributions of English-speaking workers. “Not knowing what has been published in other languages reduces our knowledge of the history of parapsychology, and produces incomplete, if not provincial, views of history. It also condemns us to follow particularly American, British, or other perspectives of the past, forgetting that, while there are international commonalities, there are also differences coming from different cultures, and that those collective differences, together with the similarities, are what form our history.” The same may be said about historical accounts focusing solely on the work of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), or that tend to ignore other groups (e.g., women).
Even the emphasis on SPR developments may be criticized in terms of its focus on the work of particular individuals, men such as Frederic W.H. Myers and Edmund Gurney. There are many other figures important to SPR history who are neglected by modern parapsychologists. A case in point is William Stainton Moses, generally remembered as a medium. But Moses “was also an early SPR vice-president and an active member who participated in such tasks as the collection of cases for the Society . . . His writings show that he was also a serious student of psychic phenomena with a considerable knowledge of the literature on the subject . . . as does his editorship of the spiritualist journal Light for several years.” Moses’ knowledge of spiritualist literature is evident in publications about direct writing (Moses, 1878) and materializations (Moses, 1884)
Another problem is when parapsychologists discuss the past as a function of the present. This includes “the practice of presenting past developments basically as they relate to present needs, concerns, and ideas, and not on their own terms, as well as the interpretation of the past from the perspective of the present.” Sometimes such a perspective leads writers to use the past to justify the present, to defend particular research programs. But one must not forget to be fair to the past. Our past can be heavily distorted when we write about it while ignoring ideas that were popular in previous times but are not so today. For example, the past literature has much about ideas of biophysical forces to account for physical phenomena (Alvarado, 2006), but such ideas are rarely discussed by current writers when they focus on past developments.
A similar issue is the concept of evidentiality. Many current parapsychologists do not consider in their writings phenomena that are thought of today as weak evidentially, such as materialization phenomena. When writings about the past get defined by present beliefs and concerns we may end up presenting artificial views of the past, views distorted by what we believe today, views that obscure what was believed on at the time (the situation can be complex of course and there is no such thing as “pure” historical perspective).
Closely related to the above-mentioned topics: “We could also learn much from historians of science and medicine who study concepts believed today to be erroneous. This is important not only to get a more complete account of past developments, but to understand the work and assumptions of past workers. Examples of this include studies of cosmology . . . , of the humors of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine . . . , and other concepts such as the ether. . .”
Another issue is one found in many textbooks, the depiction of the past as one of progression and positive development. Some of these accounts unfortunately want to show such a positive view of the field that they do not include negative events such as important examples of rejection.
An interesting study of this topic is Bertrand Meheust’s (1999) discussion of the rejection of the paranormal from mesmerism in France. He has argued that many of the representatives of the nineteenth-century hypnosis movement in the 1878-1895 period adopted a variety of strategies to eliminate from the newer movement of hypnotism phenomena such as the healing action of a magnetic agent and clairvoyance. This was accomplished by denying the existence of the phenomena and by reinterpreting the observed effects via physiological and psychological arguments. Meheust argues that the “magnetic menace was appropriated, filtered, recalibrated, metabolized . . . by institutional medicine.”
Then there is the topic of critics. “The work of critics is also neglected in historical accounts authored by many parapsychologists (for an exception, see Zingrone, 2010) . . . But . . . we need to keep in mind that the history of the discipline is not formed solely by those who have produced positive evidence for the existence of psi. Instead it is formed from the interplay of a variety of factors and forces, among them the writings and arguments of critics. A history that explores only the achievements of those defending the existence of psychic phenomena is only half of a discipline. To understand the development of parapsychology research, we also need to study the writings of critics because they were part of the intellectual milieu in which concepts and methods developed.”
In addition, we need to remember that sometimes we cannot simply classify figures from the past as either critics or skeptics or as proponents and believers. Such classifications depend on issues such as particular phenomena and theories, or particular mediums or psychics. Many individuals can play and have played both roles.
“In criticizing the writings of parapsychologists about the past of their discipline, we must remember that their goals are different from those of the trained historian. Theirs is not an attempt to do formal history or to document the above-mentioned wider aspects of the field. Their approach in writing about the past exists because it fulfills disciplinary needs and interests. But still, and regardless of their right to pursue their own agenda, we need to be aware that the end result also produces distorted views of the past of the discipline.”
The paper, unfortunately, has too many complaints. “But my main purpose has not been to vent. Instead I want to caution fellow parapsychologists about selected problems limiting our views of the history of the field. These issues are not only related to parapsychology, but also to the way other professionals discuss the past of their disciplines, as seen in some of the histories of science written by scientists . . . However . . . no overview of past developments is free of problems, and this applies as well to the work of professional historians. The enterprise is always a subjective one involving selection of sources and events, not to mention interpretations of those materials . . . something which determines our views of the past.”
Perhaps a “discussion of the strategies and practices that distort our views of the past will help parapsychologists to obtain a better understanding of the dynamics of their field, including a view of the range of factors involved and of the subjective nature of writing about the past. Such range is a constant reminder that the meaning and construction of the past is anything but simple.”
Alvarado, C. S. (2006). Human radiations: Concepts of force in mesmerism, spiritualism and psychical research. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 70, 138-162.
Meheust, B. (1999). Somnambulisme et Mediumnite (1784-1930): Volume 1: Le Defi du Magnetisme Animal. Le Plessis-Robinson: Institut Synthelabo pour de Progres de la Connaissance.
Moses, W. S. [under the pseudonym M. A. Oxon] (1878). Psychography: A Treatise on One of the Objective Forms of Psychic or Spiritual Phenomena. London: W. H. Harrison.
Moses, W. S. [under the pseudonym M. A. Oxon] (1884). Phases of materialization: A chapter of research in the objective phenomena of spiritualism. Light, 4, 9-10, 19-20, 31-32, 41-42, 51-52, 61-62, 71-72, 81-82, 91-92, 101-102, 111, 121-122, 131-132, 141-142, 151-152, 161-162, 289-290, 299-300, 309-310, 319-320, 329-330.
Zingrone, N. L. (2010). From Text to Self: The Interplay of Criticism and Response in the History of Parapsychology. Saarbrucken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.
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