The Scole Experiment

Said to be the best evidence yet for the afterlife -- but how good is that evidence?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Paranormal

Skeptoid #179
November 10, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Turn out the lights and link your hands, for today we're going to hold a seance and contact the dead, and have them perform parlor tricks for us in the dark. We're going to look at the Scole Experiment, a large, well-organized series of seances conducted by members of the Society for Psychical Research in the late 1990's in Scole, a small village in England. Reported phenomena included ghostly lights flitting about the room, images appearing on film inside secure containers, reports of touches from unseen hands, levitation of the table, and disembodied voices. Due to the large number of investigators and sitters involved, the number and consistency of paranormal episodes observed during the seances, and the lack of any finding of fraud, many believers often point to the Scole Experiment as the best scientific evidence that spirits do survive in the afterlife, and can and do come back and interact with the living, demonstrating an impressive array of conjuring powers.

There were a total of six mediums and fifteen investigators from the SPR. The Society for Psychical Research, or SPR, is based in London and is more than a century old. Its membership consists of enthusiasts of the paranormal. The authoritative source for what happened in the Scole Experiment is a report several hundred pages long, called The Scole Report, originally published in the journal Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and written by three of the lead investigators who were present at the sittings, all current or former senior officers of the SPR: plant scientist Montague Keen, electrical engineer Arthur Ellison, and psychologist David Fontana. I have a copy here on my desk. It goes through the history of how the experiments came together, details each of the many seances, and presents analysis and criticism from a number of the SPR investigators who observed.

Unfortunately, the Scole Experiment was tainted by profound investigative failings. In short, the investigators imposed little or no controls or restrictions upon the mediums, and at the same time, agreed to all of the restrictions imposed by the mediums. The mediums were in control of the seances, not the investigators. What the Scole Report authors describe as a scientific investigation of the phenomena, was in fact (by any reasonable interpretation of the scientific method) hampered by a set of rules which explicitly prevented any scientific investigation of the phenomena.

The primary control offered by the mediums was their use of luminous wristbands, to show the sitters that their hands were not moving about during the seances. I consulted with Mark Edward, a friend in Los Angeles who gives mentalism and seance performances professionally. He knows all the tricks, and luminous wristbands are, apparently, one of the tricks. There are any number of ways that a medium can get into and out of luminous wristbands during a seance. The wristbands used at Scole were made and provided by the mediums themselves, and were never subjected to testing, which is a gross dereliction of control by the investigators. Without having been at the Scole Experiment in person, Mark couldn't speculate on what those mediums may have done or how they may have done it. Suffice it to say that professional seance performers are not in the least bit impressed by this so-called control. Tricks like this have been part of the game for more than a century. Since hand holding was not employed in the Scole seances, the mediums effectively had every opportunity to be completely hands free and do whatever they wanted to do.

Believers in the Scole Experiment are likely to point to specifics in the Scole Report and say something like "But according to the detailed notes, the medium never moved his hands," or something like that. But we have to remember that, assuming the Scole mediums were using trickery, the authors of the Scole Report were merely witnesses who were taken in by the tricks. Of course their report is likely to, and does, state that they could not have been fooled. This is a perfect example of confirmation bias. These Society for Psychical Research fellows firmly believed they were witnessing genuine spirit phenomena, and desired a positive outcome. They followed the mediums' instructions to the T and acted as an audience only and not as investigators. The Scole Report details the authors' perceptions of what happened in the room; no reader has cause to believe it describes what actually happened in the room.

Repeatedly, throughout the Scole Report, the authors state that no evidence of fraud or deception was found. For example:

There is a further complaint: that we made little mention of the views of people like West or Professor Robert Morris, "who expressed reservations on the basis of their experiences." That is partly because no such reservations were expressed to us at the time... We were looking for evidence of deception... We looked in vain.

If I go to Penn & Teller's magic show to look for evidence of deception, but I impose the rule that I have to stay in my seat and watch the show as presented, and I'm not allowed to go onstage and examine the performers or the equipment, or watch from behind, or observe the preparations, I guarantee you that I also will find no evidence of deception. Placing illuminated wrist cuffs on the seance mediums, and allowing no further controls, is perfectly analogous to having Teller show you his arms "Hey, look, nothing up my sleeves," then allowing him total control over everything that follows. It can reasonably be argued that the Scole Experiment investigators (whether deliberately or through near-total investigative incompetence) created the conditions of a stage show designed to fool an audience.

The phenomenon most commonly reported in the Scole Experiments were small points of light that flitted about the room, often striking crystals and illuminating them from within, or causing disconnected light bulbs or a small glass dome to light up. Since the mediums banned video gear, there's no way we can really evaluate these claims, other than by reading the Scole Report, which only tells us the perceptions experienced by a few true believers who were present. Mark Edward said these tricks have been commonly performed in seances with laser pointers since the 1970's when they first became available: Strike a light bulb or rock crystal with a laser pointer and it lights right up. An advantage of laser pointers is that the tip can be easily cloaked, obscuring the orifice from anyone whose eyeball is not the target of the beam. We have no evidence that the Scole mediums used such techniques, but their rules also prevented us from establishing that they didn't.

The next most impressive feat was the spontaneous appearance of images on film. During the seance, factory-sealed film cartridges were placed inside a padlocked box. The spirits were then asked to imprint images upon the film. The locked box was then taken and the film developed in the strict constant supervision of the investigators. This feat was repeated many times. One of the investigators, Alan Gauld, wrote critically of how he discovered this locked box could be quickly and easily opened in the dark, which allowed for easy substitution of film rolls. This box was provided by the mediums. Whenever any other sealed container was used, no images ever appeared on the film. Yet even while acknowledging these facts, the authors of the Scole Report still maintain that the film images are most likely evidence of the supernatural.

Perhaps the biggest red flag in the Scole Experiment is the venue in which the sittings took place: a room in the basement of the house in Scole where two of the mediums lived, Robin and Sandra Foy. Rather than controlling the environment, the investigators ceded total control over the room and conditions to the mediums. The seances were held about once a month, which gave the Foys ample time to make any desired alterations to the room. There's no evidence that they did so, but granting them unrestricted opportunity pretty much torpedoed any hope for credibility. The Scole Report states that the room was available for examination before and after every seance, but there's no reason to believe that any truly thorough examination was ever performed; and in any event it's a poor substitute for what the investigators should have done, which was to provide their own room over which the mediums had no control at all. (A few seances were held at other locations, but the Scole Report describes the results from those as "variable".)

The next biggest red flag was the mediums' insistence that the seances be held in complete darkness and their refusal to allow any night-mode video cameras or light enhancement equipment. The mediums' explanation was that they felt such equipment would distract the investigators! That's like telling a pilot that having instruments might distract him from flying. Astoundingly the investigators agreed to this, though they did express dismay, as if their desire and good intentions alone validate their conclusions. Audio recordings only were permitted, but since the claimed phenomena were primarily visual, the audio tapes are of essentially no value.

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A third red flag is the fact that there's been no followup. If amazing phenomena truly did happen at the Scole Experiment, it would have changed the world. Mainstream psychologists and other academics would have gotten in on it, it would have made worldwide headlines, and it would be repeated in labs everywhere and become mainstream science. They did have the opportunity: experimental psychologist and author Richard Wiseman provided secure envelopes for the film rolls to the experimenters, within which film always failed to be exposed. Rather than coming away impressed and spreading the word, Wiseman summed it up to me in six words: "It was a load of rubbish!"

This same principle explains why we don't see articles from the Proceedings of the SPR, like the Scole Report, republished in scientific journals. A scientific investigation of a strange phenomenon assumes the null hypothesis unless the phenomenon can be proven to exist. But the authors of the Scole Report, with complete credulity, did the exact opposite: Their stated position is that the lack of disproof means their seances were real supernatural events. But a primary feature of good research is the elimination of other possible explanations, at which the Scole investigators made no competent effort. Many of the investigators expressed that they were not very convinced by what they witnessed, and it is to the credit of the Scole Report authors that they fairly reported this. But this raises the question: Why then write such a lengthy and credulous report, making such obvious conclusions that these phenomena were real? The lesson to take away from the Scole Experiment is a simple one. Although we all have preconceived notions, we have to put them aside and follow the evidence when we investigate.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Keen, M., Ellison, A., Fontana, D. "The Scole Report." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. 1 Nov. 1999, Volume 58, Part 220.

Mellenbergh, G.J. Advising on Research Methods: A consultant's companion. Rosmalen: Johannes van Kessel, 2008. 143-180.

The Seybert Commission. Preliminary Report of the Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1887.

Troy Taylor. "How to Have a Seance: Tricks of Fraudulent Mediums." The Haunted Museum. Dark Haven Entertainment, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 5 Nov. 2009. <http://www.prairieghosts.com/seance2.html>

Wiseman, R., Greening, E., Smith, M. "Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room." British Journal of Psychology. 1 Aug. 2003, Volume 94, Issue 3: 285–297.

Wiseman, R., Morris, R. Guidelines for testing psychic claimants. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1995.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Scole Experiment." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 10 Nov 2009. Web. 2 Sep 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4179>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 173 comments

"I think they were dealing more with "Chi" or "Orgone" a life energy."

You are happy to make fun of ghosts but then put something just as silly (orgone energy) in it's place. Wilhelm Reich and his research into "orgone" has been shot down, there's no scientific evidence such an energy exists. It is wishful thinking.

You should read the commentaries by Tony Cornell, Alan Gauld and Donald West they correctly pointed out the conditions in the scole were far from scientific. Fraud is the most likely explanation.

Tom, UK
March 15, 2014 8:32am

To me, the "experiments" were nothing more than the old illusionists' trick such as sawing a lady in half.

Impressive but, even if they did really "saw a lady in half", it doesn't prove anything about spirits or the afterlife.

Martin, Derbys, UK
March 31, 2014 4:00am

The producers continually fell back upon the either/or fallacy. Hoax or the Dead? In the last 20 minutes, they briefly raised the possibility of so-called "paranormal" abilities in living humans: telekinesis and telepathy especially, but dismissed these as "weak." A 4th possibility is that these are examples of the "Gray Aliens" messing with us. After all, none of these phenomena are beyond the capabilities of a civilization perhaps only a few hundred years ahead of ours.

Why do the spirits choose such offbeat and questionable ways to communicate with us? C'mon guys, just show yourselves. Reanimate a decaying corpse and talk to us in broad daylight through it. Or even better, stop the Earth in its orbit without destroying everything on it. Or maybe the spirits are just weak 3% spirits.

The Fairbridge profile could fit any number of persons. His daughter's apparent recognition of her father in the fuzzy photograph can be easily explained by Pattern Recognition. She saw what she wanted to see.

The total darkness assertion assumes total darkness-to humans. No such total darkness exists. These images could be produced by the mediums (or those pesky aliens again) somehow manipulating other parts of the spectrum.

My opinions, in order: A hoax, paranormal human abilities, pesky aliens, the dead.

John, Iowa, USA
April 3, 2014 8:58am

I did find the Scole Experiment quite fascinating when I read into it. But I have to say that I find most of it very unbelievable or totally out of the realm of what I would deem possible per se.

Especially when then they were apparently contacted by a group from the future calling themselves something like 'Group 2109' and saying that there has been a rip in the fabric of space time, and that they were a group from the future who were using a device (Which sounded like it was taken out of an outdated Sci Fi Novel) called something along the lines of 'A Crystalline Time Probe'. This group from the future said that the contact was dangerous and they had to seal this time portal, to avoid potentially hazardous consequences.

There were a lot of other things which would arise scepticism in a rational person, for example a being called 'Manu' who was one of the main communicators with the Scole Group said he had a Human Father and a Bird Mother and he lived millions of years ago. This is where the plausibility radar sinks way below the surface for me. The name 'Manu' is clearly taken out of the ancient character from the Dharmic (Hinduism namely) religions. Another interesting note for me to add is that The Scole Group conducted a session once with the relatively unknown Italian Transcommunicationalist, Marcello Bacci.

'Manu' came through. Answering with very uninformative questions. But the most peculiar thing was that he was speaking English with a heavy Italian Accent.

Mr Parker, United Kingdom
June 2, 2014 8:06pm

Now why would a Human Hybrid being who is Millions of years old and has a Sanskrit Vedic name called 'Manu' have a relatively modern sounding Italian Accented, English speaking voice?

Does this prove Marcello Bacci as a fraud and further induce scepticism regarding the honesty of the Scole Group? Perhaps not. Marcello Bacci has gone through some rigorous tests in the past and to me he seems to with hold some credibility to his name. And I've also heard that he acts as the medium to his radio device, so his conscious is essentially the receiver which could explain the Italian accented English but still this is another occurrence which happened within the Scole Group which arises doubts for me.

More obvious suspicion inducing and questionable flaws in the Scole Group were things such as not allowing Cameras in the room, even infra-red cameras and not giving very good answers for their reasons of doing. There were many other indiscretions that I cannot quite remember unfortunately. Another problem was with the Society of Psychical Research, whom although were very Academic often of the time going by their reports and judgements and their credulousness also very naive.

Someone pointed out that scientists cannot see trickery and more likely a skilled magician would. There was one magician who observed over proceedings and enthusiastically stated how real it was and how there possibly couldn't be any sign of fraud. His name was 'James Webster' the only problem was that

Mr Parker, United Kingdom
June 2, 2014 8:38pm

(Continued) James Webster was a strong believer in the paranormal himself and also a spiritualist. He may have been a magician but was he a skilled magician? James Randi would have been more impressive of course, however considering how someone on that scale couldn't have been expected at least someone along those lines would have fitted enough.

Despite all these flaws which in my opinion accumulated all together constitute for potential major flaws in the Scole Experiment. There are still quite a few things which remain inexplicable. For example a German couple were once called, the man was called 'Walter Schnittger' he acted as a sitter at one of the Scole Experiments. He had brought his own padlocked box with his own roll of film inside, a new unopened roll of film as he had heard of the prospect of discarnate entities imprinting messages on rolls of film. The box was locked with a large metal padlock, and the key was kept in his car. He claimed to have held onto the box at all times during the Scole Session. After the session was over he went to the car with the padlocked box, and sent it to Germany. In Germany they opened the padlocked box and looked at the roll of film. To their astonishment there were scribblings of German writing.

It was a poem in authentic 19th Century German. This particular poem has been sent to several different German literary scholars and none have identified the source of these poems, potentially ruling out fraud.

Mr Parker, United Kingdom
June 2, 2014 8:53pm

(Continued) I am aware that magicians have done things which seem impossible in the past. But for me this really does make it hard to see how there is any conceivable explanation for something like this and how such an occurrence can be put down to trickery. I would find it very interesting if some of the world's greatest magicians explained this 'trick', to rationalize it for me.

Some other interesting things which may add credibility to the scole experiment were some of the images which were imprinted onto the apparently empty film rolls during the sessions. Including one of 'Sir Arthur Conan Doyle', a portrait which apparently has never been found. Someone gave an in depth analysis into this photograph once, claiming it has been fraudulently produced and had marked similarities to another more obscure portrait of 'Arthur Conan Doyle' but I never quite read into it.

I think with something like the 'Scole Experiment', just like the 'Vertical Plane Story' which consists of both questionable and very faulty, to fascinating and venturing into the inexplicable material it's hard to get a clear enough perspective to arrive at a genuinely grounded conclusion.

I often find that sceptics tend to pick quite indolent arguments (Only picking out the flaws which are quite obvious but intentionally or subconsciously intentionally not addressing the full body of material as a whole. For example in the Scole Case a sceptic straight away would begin the dismantlement of the Case as a

Mr Parker, United Kingdom
June 2, 2014 9:11pm

A simple question, has anyone in this Group, ever sat for 5 yrs, in a circle, watching it progress, along the way, too some amazing thought provoking, outcomes, has anyone seen like I have a 17 stone medium, lifted to the ceiling, by unseen forces, no noise, as I sat 2 seats away, from him, solid hands, under red light, electrical ties, coming together, zipping in a loop, within 2 seconds, and floating to me, try doing that, impossible, lay flat, up in the air, circled each other, then zipped, its fine being a sceptic, no issues there, but if your going to talk or be critical, at least attend a few meeting's.

Alan Moss, Manchester
June 22, 2014 1:09am

Alan what you are describing is a levitation trick. There are a number of ways this can be performed but a few things:

1. If spirits or "unseen forces" really can "levitate" people then why not in broad day light? Why are these "spirits" not levitating people at the local shopping mall or when one is driving a car, washing the dishes, playing golf or watching TV? Do you not find it suspicious that such "paranormal" feats only happen in dark conditions?

2. How do you know the medium was 17 stone? Did you personally weigh the medium, or you just take his word for this?

3. Why is red light needed? This is quite unacceptable as a scientific control. It's dark. Why not full lights on? Or the séance conducted in broad daylight?

4. Would this medium repeat this feat in scientifically controlled conditions with a magician or skeptic present? :)

Leon, England
June 24, 2014 10:17am

You haven't presented a very good argument have you? This science fiction is the be-all-and-end-all is nonsense. You talk about standing over mediums at the back filming or checking equipment, any fool can see that is not possible. There were cameras allowed into filming in the nineties and released. There were also sceptic scientists invited on the premise they too would "rubbish" the experiment, but one of whom (at least name escapes me) came away saying ' I cannot disprove' scientists who can't disprove a thing, intelligent, well educated men supposedly come away and say menial sentences like "it was a load of rubbish".

Everything you've said is a stab in the dark (pardon the pun), proves nothing, offers nothing in way of disproving these experiments. Of course the mediums set the conditions. You don't bring a carpenter in to build you a wardrobe and then tell him how to do it. You don't ask a baker to bake a cake and tell him how to bake, you don't invite an expert forensic analyst to a crime scene and then tell them how they should go about it or put your conditions on all of them in doing their profession.

Just calling down something you don't understand doesn't mean you've disproved anything, there is little, if anything, that comes near in this disjointed, uninformed drivel of an article.

Just because science can't prove it, doesn't mean it won't exis. Bit like heaven and yell, just because you don't believe in it won't stop you going to either of them.

C MacDonald, Scotland
July 9, 2014 2:17am

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