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.
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.