WHAT IS PROOF?
THE ASSESSMENT OF PAST EVENTS
Mary Rose BARRINGTON
What is proof? And what indeed is the past. I am reminded of the unfortunate foreigner with an imperfect grasp of English use of the definite article who inquired of a stranger "Vat is time?" Unfortunately for him he happened upon a philosopher rather that a policeman, and the philosopher, stroking his beard, said "Sir, you have asked a very profound question." That is rather the way I have come to feel about proof. I have been feeling rather sorry I asked.
I started by taking down a book called Philosophy made Simple, which is how it has to be if I am going to understand it. To my great dismay PROOF was not indexed. But if you regard something as proved, or proven, if you prefer, you are (I think) making a statement about your state of knowledge, and "Philosophy made Simple" reminded me that Hume - David, not Daniel - brought philosophy to a lurching halt by proving that you cannot know anything. This is called the problem of knowledge. After that scientists took over from the philosophers, and scientists do not have that problem. (Nor, come to that, do lawyers). But scientists have their own problem, a variety of the Jowett syndrome:
What scientists tend to assert is that nothing can be regarded as known unless it is susceptible to scientific modes of proof, and has been shown to be established by those methods. "Known" is equated with scientifically proved. That is surely a great mistake, because most things that actually happen in the world, or are supposed to happen, are not open to scientific investigation, and yet they are real events. To-morrow no one will be able to prove scientifically that today's events took place, but would you consider yourself to be lacking in scientific rigour if you were here and now convinced that you woke up, had breakfast, etc. etc. There must be ways of knowing, and being sure, other than by scientific proof.
At this point please imagine that up there on the wall is a visual aid, a diamond shaped diagram. Sitting there aloft, nearest to heaven and furthest from the ground, you see the words Mathematical proof, that is to say, proof by incontestable logic. Once you have learned the lesson of Pythagoras and his theorem you can sit back and be one hundred percent sure that the square on the hypotenuse really does equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides. You have an absolute proof, and therefore absolute certainty.
It used to be quite otherwise with Fermat's last theorem, that though a2+b2=c2 can work, just as Pythagoras showed with his theorem, the general form (using the power x) does not work if the power is greater than two . Tests with powers of three or more will soon show that Fermat appears to be correct in his assertion, and no doubt a computer could have printed out umpteen negative examples, but trial and error is not the same thing as proof in the first degree. Because that tells you exactly why, even if it takes a few hundred pages of argument.
Sometimes the proof seems to arrive before anyone knows that there is anything to prove. Among anecdotes I pick up on Open University TV is the feat performed by the 19th century Irish mathematician William Hamilton. He proved that if you had a prism with bi-axial symmetry, which he did not have, then light focused on the surface would pass through as a single ray but emerge the other side in conical form, whereas light striking at another angle would break up to form a hollow cone and emerge the other side as a hollow cylinder. He was later proved to be right when the requisite prism came to hand.
But which was the proof? If two groups working with different prisms
came up with conflicting results then surely the mathematics would prove that one lot had
the right method and the right prism while the other lot did not. Proof in the first
degree stands supreme, but does it ever stand outside mathematics? Like many other things,
it is easier to recognise proof in the first degree than to define it. Though not a
totally satisfying definition, proof seems to be closely identifiable with a total
explanation. Outside mathematics - and most of life does seem to carry on without any
mathematical counterpart - there are explanations and partial explanations that look
rather like equations. My chemistry book tells me that if you put an iron nail into copper
sulphate solution the result will be a nail coated with copper and a green liquid where
before you had a blue liquid. I suppose this must have been a fairly reliable sequence of
events long before anyone had the slightest idea why this might be so.
Comes the day when someone can write on the board Fe + CuSO4 = FeSO4 + Cu, and that looks very similar to some simple equation like (a+b)2 = a2+2ab+b2, but despite the similarity these two explanations are not quite in pari materia . The chemical equation is a description of what is happening, that the iron is pushing the copper out of the solution, and in terms of chemistry it is a very partial explanation, one that would be amplified in the course of time by further explanations in terms of atomic structure and core charge and I know not what (and had better not try to say). The point is that before any of the explanations people who put nails into copper sulphate would have been in no doubt as to what was going to happen and what did happen. They were convinced because it happened and they would have considered it a demonstrable fact of science though there was no theory to back it up.
An explanation is a lovely thing, and one can see why scientists find it so satisfying. My brief acquaintance with chemistry was very short on explanation. I knew that salt dissolved in water and even understood that the components separated into ions. I was thrilled years later to see a new school textbook with marvellous illustrations showing the break up of sodium chloride, two water molecules heading towards the positive sodium, negative oxygen leading the way like two red-nosed policemen, green negative chlorine surrounded by pale but positive hydrogen prongs protruding from an asymmetrical water molecule; here I felt was something entirely convincing.
No one, of course has yet seen any of this happen, but when an explanation hangs together so perfectly you feel it has to be right. On hearing me express rapture at atomic explanations of chemical reactions an informant far too clever by half told me that the theory of electron shells is almost certainly faulty and probably entirely wrong, but I did not want to know. I liked it too much. Scientific explanations are so satisfying I partly understand the delusion that this is only road to certainty. But it is not.
John Stuart Mill thought that the then emergent atomic theories might transform chemistry from an inductive science reliant on observation and experiment into a deductive science where the scientist just thinks and reasons. I think he was saying or implying that this would raise it to a status close to the mathematically exact. But it can ever get there. In two dimensional geometry there would seem to be no way in which Pythagoras could be unseated, but scientific theories can indeed prove to be wrong or faulty, however well they seem to fit the facts.
For example, the great Lavoisier had heat listed as one of the elements, so that a body was hot because it contained heat. But regardless of why, things got hot when they were heated. The demonstrable proof that salt dissolves in water is surely to show that it happens. The supporting explanation adds weight. There is always room for weight, because outside mathematics there is no such thing as 100% proof. Strictly speaking the word should be eliminated from popular speech, but that means losing a short and useful word; it should however be understood to have quotation marks around it.
The weight added to a demonstration is rather like the weight added by motive to a sequence of objective clues. The detective finds that the supposed murderer has been identified as leaving the scene, his fingerprints are there, the victim's blood is on his clothes, but there is no shred of motive. This leaves a big hole in the detective=s case and in his sense of certainty. Now he finds the motive and it all hangs together. Motive is a very probative factor, but standing alone it proves nothing.
You can put salt into water any day of the week, but there are many established facts of nature that you cannot demonstrate except by waiting for them to happen. Some of them happen with frequency and regularity. In pre-scientific times as now the sun (presumably) rose on one side of the horizon and sank on the other. The tides came and went. People may have theorised that the regularity of the heavens were arranged by the gods to assist astrologers and sundials, and they may have thought that Thor was gathering up the waters to take a bath, but however wrong they were about the explanations could they have doubted that sunrise and high tide were proven facts of nature?
Certainty that high tide would happen about six hours after low tide rested entirely on past performance and the ability to predict on the basis of regular observation. Proof, in the sense of being able to show that your prediction was correct, would have to wait upon the event, and is really better described as validation of a prediction. But as you stood on a dry beach looking out on a barely visible strip of sea at midday you would surely be entitled to tell a sceptical visitor from a Mediterranean country that within six hours the Atlantic waters would be raging over your heads if you stayed where you were.
Would or should your certainty about this cycle of events be any more securely based because you know, or more probably have a very vague idea, that tides are something to do with the gravitational pull of sun and moon? If regular natural events are reliable to the point of invariability, an explanation adds very little weight to the certainty you are entitled to feel about a frequently verifiable event. Whether or not you understand what is meant by gravitation - and it seems that those who do are in acrimonious disagreement with one another - you do not doubt the reality of alternating tides or falling apples.
So far all the events considered here have been predictable, either because they happen with ordered regularity or can be made to do so. The mode of proof has not been to ascertain that the particular observations took place, but to enunciate a principle to the effect that they can, do and will take place. Demonstration and Prediction can now be placed to left and right of the diamond, so that they form a triangular pediment with mathematical proof sitting aloft on its own. So far, for reasons that everyone will appreciate, it has not been relevant to refer to any phenomena known to psychical research.
But there are also more or less random events, though some of them may in time move into the predictable class when more is known about them. Eclipses have moved up a class, so to speak, but earthquakes still take people by surprise, and meteors may come as an even bigger surprise. An earthquake was reported in Delhi a few years ago, but speaking for myself I have never seen an earthquake, and have never seen Delhi, come to that. Earthquakes do not seem to happen in the English home counties, so how do I know that they happen at all? This is where earthquakes differ from dissolving salt and falling apples. The only way we can know that they can happen is to become convinced by evidence that earthquakes have happened, and to be sure of that you must be sure that a particular earthquake here and there did happen. So the answer to the original question depends on information gained from identifiable past events.
We do not get much backing here from explanation; if explanation were all that good then earthquakes would follow eclipses into the class of predictable events. We are not much better off than if we believed that God was angry with the wicked, but we still did not know what would set him off.
So why should I accept that earthquakes happen? And if I do, on what basis? On the basis, I have to say, of the rankest hearsay; but then hearsay can be entirely veracious. Earthquakes, I tell myself, are talked about in serious books as if an earthquake were a recognised class of event. Several have been reported recently in quality newspapers. I can think of no plausible reason for these stories being invented, and I should think there would be an enormous international row if news media reporters faked shocking tragedies and got people to subscribe to imaginary funds. What is more, I knew Mollie Goldney pretty well, a very reliable and accurate fellow researcher, and she told me that she was present on the night of the earthquake at Agadir and (incidentally) escaped by what was probably ESP.
This is the sort of evidence we have to rely on to be sure that earthquakes happen, and until the arrival of TV, evidence for the existence of earthquakes was rather less copious than evidence for the existence of poltergeists. Can we speak here of proof? It is more a case of Verification, being satisfied or convinced by the testimony. I do not actually find myself significantly less sure about the reality of earthquakes, which I have not witnessed, than I am about the tides, which I have. So I reckon that when you're sure, you're sure - anything above 99% sure will do, and the fact that you might add a few .999s onto your sureness about the sunrise, tides or earthquakes does not make all that difference.
But beyond the sunrise, tides and earthquakes are those singular events that fall into no familiar framework or context, because they are unexpected, unlikely, and sometimes one-off events. Selecting one at random, what about thousands of huge jellyfish that arrived a few years ago in the North Sea and blocked the water intake of a power station, a startlingly improbable event that with any luck may never happen again. How would you satisfy yourself that it ever happened at all?
It is clear enough that you cannot prove it by laying on a
demonstration, and unless you have the sort of gifts we are always looking for you cannot
make a prediction to say when it will happen again, though you might say in a general way
that if the climate gets warmer we may expect to find some very obnoxious marine life in
northern waters. You also have to say against its veridical status that jellyfish blocking
cooling inlets is not something that you commonly read about in serious books. It was just
a specific thing that happened, or is claimed to have happened, and you want to be
satisfied that it was a real event, as real as the salt in the sea, and not just a
sensational story made up by the media.
Psychical researchers will surely recognise this problem and know how to go about it. First I refer to my source of information, which is The Times itself. But if you did not read about it you are hearing about it from me, so you have more questions to ask about it than I have; you have to consider how likely it is that I have invented the whole story. An explanation was forthcoming at the time, though I do not remember the details, but it sounded convincing. I argue that The Times is usually reliable as a source of information, and though you shouldn't believe everything you read in the newspapers they are not likely to have published a report about a named power station if the story had been substantially untrue; perhaps the size of the jellyfish might have been exaggerated by a small margin, but jellyfish there must surely have been. If it had been a complete invention there would have been an indignant rebuttal from the director of the power station, leading to retraction and even apology from The Times.
That is good enough for my purposes, but if my whole view of life depended on it I should make further inquiries - look up the back numbers of The Times, find the name of the power station, write to the director, question employees, examine the site, seek out expert opinion, ask around in the neighbourhood, speak to the reporter, and (crucially) assess all the witnesses as purveyors of truth. I might finally be satisfied.
And when I am satisfied, how satisfied am I entitled to be? Am I sure that this unusual event happened? If my expressing or holding a false view of its ontological status would result in my being sent to serve a term of life imprisonment in Saudi Arabia, or spend ten years in the salt mines of Siberia, or even in our own salubrious open prison, I should certainly say "Yes, it happened". The Siberia test, as I term it, is a wonderful way focussing the mind on how reasonable it is, and how likely to be right, for one to adopt a Humean scepticism in the assessment of evidence. The Siberia test forces a decision on a balance of probabilities, which might be a mere 51:49, not a very high standard. I am in fact more certain than that. I am sure beyond reasonable doubt, a standard closer to 99:1. However, it is clear enough that my certainty has nothing whatever to do with scientific proof. There may once have been jellied remains to be seen at the site, but I should have to take someone else's word for it that they were there.
Most facts in life are "proven" by the methods I have outlined, which are the methods of the historian, the lawyer, the policeman and any other rational person who wants to know what has actually happened - not what can happen under certain circumstances, not what will happen on defined occasions, but what did happen. This is how you "prove" that the Thames used to freeze over so that horses and carriages could cross it. This is how you prove that the Queen's Hall was hit by a bomb in the 1940s.
This is, of course, how you prove that chandeliers and pictures rotated at Rosenheim when no one was touching them. There is no other way. This is also the way you prove that Eddington and his team took some not very convincing photographs that proved the bending of light in the gravitational field of the sun.
But science, which tells you what can happen, and seeks to tell you why, is not concerned with the historical fact. Its business is to re-enact the event using improved technology and verify the principle by experiment. Rutherford's demonstration of particles passing through atoms does not have to be verified by reference to his personal experiments, because the effect can be demonstrated by other scientists - though we, be it noted, have to rely on their testimony.
So the verification of past events is by inquisition, a method that is nothing to do with science. It is vastly more trouble than scientific proof by demonstration or validation. You never quite come to the end of your inquiries, though you do reach a vanishing point, the point of satisfaction. Can you ever be as satisfied as you are about Pythagoras? In theory, no, but then remember that there are very convincing ways of showing that 1=2, and if you cannot spot the fallacy in the argument you might do better to feel sure that there really was a hurricane here in England in 1988, or that you did indeed listen to the radio news this morning, though that event has now passed into history, beyond the reach of science.
Back to earthquakes and other things that never happen to most of us. Some readers may be bursting to point out that earthquakes do in fact leave objective traces behind so that archaeologists can bring scientific certainty to the hearsay of history. That is true, and it leads me to point out that the sort of past events I have mentioned so far belong to the world of things. But non-geographical events also belong in the web of history and have reality. When you bring in behaviour, problems of proof proliferate, and the paranormal does appear to be a behavioural phenomenon. Even the most physical paranormalities are not ordinary anomalies such as belong in the realms of unsolved science; psychical anomalies appear to be related to will, mood and personality.
So I am on the way to bringing in the paranormal, but first I think a short recapitulation is in order, and I shall return to the invisible visual aid, which has mathematical proof, which we can now forget, sitting at the top with Demonstration on the left and Validation on the right. Inquisition may now be placed at the lower extremity of the diamond, and the visual aid is now complete. However, these terse descriptions can do with some amplification. I shall now amplify these rather terse descriptions by adding some amplifying words. Ignoring mathematical proof, the three classes stand as follows:
1. Demonstration. The ascertainment of a replicable and reliable effect; and demonstrating the effect necessarily entails sufficient understanding of its cause.
2. Validation. The ascertainment of a recurrent and predictable effect; and predicting the effect may or may not entail understanding of its cause.
3. Inquisition. The verification of an occasional or singular event, regardless of any causal context that may be attributed to it. This is the historical mode of fact finding. It includes personal observation, the testimony of personal observers, the testimony of more remote informants and any objective exhibits from which deductions can be made.
It will be seen that Class 3 covers a range of incidents, from occasional to singular. An occasional event is an activity of a recognised type known to occur from time to time, while a singular event is sui generis, a one-off surprise. But just as an unpredictable event can move up a class and become a predictable effect with a recognisable cause, so may a singular event turn out to be occasional rather than singular.
One thing should be clear: when scientists are seeking certainty about the happening of an event, they also have to depend on historical modes, in other words they have to make the best of observation, evidence and testimony. Personal observation necessarily plays a very limited role, since the observer cannot be everywhere observing everything, nor is an observer equipped to make reliable observations in specialities outside his own.
Unpalatable though it may be to the scientific spirit, the status of all events not personally and efficiently observed rely ultimately on testimony. The very laws of science, such as they are believed to be at any time, rest on the testimony of other people, and so long as they report events that fit in with the current paradigms those witnesses are believed, and believed in just the same way and for the same reasons as providers of historical source material.
Most people know next to nothing about the laws of science, but feel that there is great strength in the ability of scientists to check up on one another by replicating any effect as to which they feel some doubt. Well, a team of scientists are reported to have descended into the bowels of the earth, somewhere in Europe, to try to register a blip that just might happen this year or next year, their purpose being to prove that most of the matter in the universe is invisible. Try replicating that.
I should now like to go through the routes to certainty using events that do not just happen but are brought about by volition or at least by behaviour. We are now well out of the mainly mineral-vegetable world and into the mainly animal world, so much more complicated.
Demonstration. Can anything be demonstrated about people? Biology is not all that different from chemistry, so that clearly you can seize anyone in the street and show that his heart is beating. But can you say with scientific certainty that because he is wearing a cloth cap he will definitely vote left? Obviously not. You may have picked on a titled country gentleman on a day out in town. Once mind and will enters the picture you can forget about geography, chemistry and biology. We are into psychology.
The DMT test can, it is claimed, be applied with a high degree of confidence that the result will be a reliable indicator of the behavioural tendency known as defence mechanism. This is apparently something about people that can be demonstrated, but still no one claims that it will yield a correct result every time without fail. Perhaps it will work out with 70%, 80% even 90% reliability. That is not certainty, but psychology is recognised as a science, so it seems that statistical degrees of certainty are acceptable as proof of an objective effect. But your demonstration is reliable only on a probabilistic basis.
Validation. This concerns effects that can be predicted because they have a degree of recurrence in their character. Predictions are certainly made about behaviour, but again only in terms of statistical certainty. Insurance companies remain in business because they know roughly how many people will set their houses on fire, crash their cars or die just when they are about to draw their pension. Students of the Poisson distribution were able to calculate, presumably in pre-war days, how many years were due to go by before it was time for a horse to kick a Prussian army officer to death - and the horse seemed to know, too. It is all scientific methodology, just like the theory that tells you how long it will take for half the radiation in a radioactive substance to break free, though no one can say which particle will go and which will stay.
The moment has come to say a few words about the paranormal. It does seem that demonstration based on the supposed talents of the average person, or the average student, could lead to statistical certainty. It may well be that in the normal way, if one can put it like that, powers of ESP and PK are so thinly distributed that we have to be treated as amounting to a swarm of particles, insubstantial as individuals but sturdy taken en masse. It seems surprising that with so much quasi-sub-molecular activity reported there has been no programme aimed at universal standards of recognition. But as nearly all the successful activity goes on in America it would be idle for me to speculate on how the scientific and statistical establishment should be approached in an effort to secure agreed validation procedures.
Great efforts have made by meta-analysis to bring these numerous experiments into a framework demonstrating an acceptable degree of reliability. This is an exciting development. If the availability of computers makes it possible to establish by means of millions of responses that a scintilla of psi lurks somewhere in human consciousness that is certainly the beginning of quasi-scientific proof. Whether the scientific establishment will ever accept probabilistic proof of psi remains to be seen, and in view of the establishment's resistance to the implications of the paranormal the prospects are not very hopeful. Logic has little to do with the matter when belief systems are at stake, and scientific fundamentalism dies hard.
Clearly the aim of parapsychologists is indeed to have their
experiments accepted as items in a chain of probative results. But pending that
acceptance, and for what comfort it may bring, it should be pointed out that experiments
yielding significant results also take an honourable place as Class 3 occasional events,
where a recognised type of activity takes place at irregular intervals. Alongside
earthquakes and statistically significant experiments would be a myriad historically
verifiable events of the sort that happen from time to time - births, deaths, marriages,
divorces, murders, trials, lectures, concerts, levitating tables, poltergeists and
highly significant experimental results - the whole pageant of life, things we prove, if
we need to, by looking at the evidence.
It is not only the parapsychologists with their statistically based methodologies who suffer disappointment in having their experiments dismissed or ignored as proof by demonstration and end up in what they feel to be the inferior class that has to be assessed by verification. When Crookes found that Daniel Home could make the end of a wooden board dip down and pull on a spring balance while Home placed his finger tips on the other end he thought he would be able to deliver scientific proof of psychic force. He invited the Secretaries of the Royal Society to witness the demonstration. One refused, and the other seized on a small detail in the set-up that certainly could not have accounted for the magnitude of the effect, and refused to take any further interest. Crookes went on to try various methods in which Home altered the weight of the board without touching it at all.
As a class 1 demonstration it was possibly one of the clearest ever devised, and Home was fairly reliable in his ability to perform, but as class 3 reporting it leaves something to be desired in that Crookes asks the reader to credit him with some common sense. He expected his competence and his word as a scientist to be accepted; but no psychical researcher can afford to make these assumptions. For class 3 reporting nothing must be assumed, and every precaution taken must be noted, not by asserting that all necessary steps were taken, but by painfully and tediously enumerating those steps, so that they can be scrutinised and assessed by the historical methodologies of verification. If he had succeeded in getting the Royal Society representatives to observe and then to replicate his experiments he would have had, for the time being, a class 1 scientific demonstration. But with the passing of Home, the whole package would pass with him into class 3 - things that once happened.
We come now to the singular, the paranormal events that equate with the invading jellyfish, unusual events belonging to no established class of recurrent incidents, things that just happen now and then, here and there.
These are in in the same class as the less routine facts of history, taking history to be the unfolding of events from moment to moment. Here above all it is ludicrous to think in terms of scientific proof. As in all other departments of verification, technology plays a part in dating documents, authenticating signatures and so on. But of course you do not look to science to prove that James VI of Scotland was the same person as James I of England, or that Charles I was beheaded, a highly improbable event generally accepted without question as real on purely historical evidence. Nor can science establish the abdication of Edward VIII, another unlikely happening.
Whatever means we use to establish the reality of these events is the same means that we apply to the Goligher's table, Kluski's hands, the Cheltenham Ghost, the first encounter between Hodgson and Mrs. Piper, the Rosenheim Poltergeist and the Talking Mongoose, i.e. inquisition, examination of records, all the complex procedures of verification. If we can be sure about normal events that are improbable and prone to the evils of falsehood, error, exaggeration, embellishment and other distortions, then it ought to be possible to arrive at the certainty of satisfaction or conviction when it comes to paranormal events.
It may be useful at this stage to look at some examples to see how one might go about establishing the reality of some of the past events that constitute the case for the paranormal. And it is in the past that our case lies. If we wipe it out as we go, we eliminate the subject matter of psychical research. So let us take a look at some of the jewels in the crown.
One can draw up some sort of ideal specification for a Class 1 demonstration of the paranormal - I should certainly say quasi-Class 1, because in the course of time it will inevitably become a class 3 event. I suppose I have to call the person demonstrating the medium, though this covers a multitude of sinners. The medium would be able to perform a replicated task with a high degree of reliability. He should also be able to vary his repertoire to minimise the possibility that he has a limited routine worked out to deceive. He would be able to demonstrate his powers to several experienced and reputable researchers, and also to other responsible citizens brought in to test him. He should preferably earn a living by some normal means take no payment for his demonstrations of the paranormal.
On the few occasions when he failed he would be no worse than an actor who very occasionally forgets his lines or gives a wrong cue; no doubt there would be a reason, though no one would be able to say for sure what it was. One must say that even demonstrations of chemistry are far from being exact copies of one another, but in the aggregate they confirm whatever principle they are supposed to be demonstrating.
Has there ever been such a paragon?
In the field of mental mediumship the supreme psychic was Stefan Ossowiecki, who meets all these desiderata. As there has apparently never been any other to match up to him for variety and reliability it is of considerable importance to establish that what is reported of him really happened. It would of course be even nicer if there were another Ossowiecki alive today, but then he too would be dead and gone 50 years from now. We are all historical characters.
So we have to do here very briefly what needs doing at enormous length, look at the man himself, at what he did, and at the people who say that he did the amazing things he is said to have done. Ossowiecki was a Polish engineer of high social standing, who performed acts of mediumship to oblige researchers, friends and other people he liked. Most of his work was done in Poland, much of it with well known and respected researchers, such as Szmurlo, the President of the Polish SPR.
Born in 1877, he was already approaching or into middle age in the 1920s and 1930s, when he worked in Paris with researchers whose names are, or ought to be, familiar to us. In his younger days he is reputed to have been an astounding physical medium, but when he practised one aspect of his mediumship the other went into remission.
As a mental medium his repertoire was extensive, expanding to meet the imaginative demands of the inquirer. His most typical performance was to take a sealed envelope from the researcher and proceed to give a very good description of the writing or drawing on folded paper inside the envelope. Under the strictest conditions of control the researcher would not know the contents of the target paper nor would he know the identity of the donor.
When I say that he would give a good description of the target writing or drawing I mean he would in nearly every case be about 80% to 90% right, so that you did not need to consult statistical tables to know that he had hit the target. Here is an example of a test organised by Charles Richet, prof. of physiology and leading member of the Institut Metapsychique International (IMI), where most of this research took place.
Richet sometimes used target papers supplied by other members of the IMI, or from his family or from outsiders, some of them well known, among them the French writer Anna de Noailles. She supplied three target papers, each sealed by her into identical envelopes. Richet put each one into outer identical envelopes and handed one chosen at random to Ossowiecki, who said immediately that the writing was taken from a great French poet, and he correctly named Rostand. Then he said - and though I do not reproduce every word here he did not say anything that was irrelevant - he said: " ...something of Chantecler...the cockerel... there is an idea about light during the night." He also said that below the name of Rostand there were two further lines written. In English translation the lines were:
So he had light, night, Rostand, Chantecler, the cockerel and two lines below the name of Rostand. (Actually there were 3 lines, the words "by the cock" being on the third line). He seldom fell below that standard and sometimes surpassed it. It was almost as if he were reading from a faded photocopy and getting it nearly word for word.
In case anyone thinks he was (heaven knows how) peeking into the envelope or looking through it I must point out that on some occasions he deciphered scrawl more clearly than capital letters, and he could never give a reading for typewritten words. He could also give a reading if the target was screwed up into a ball, he could describe objects enclosed in a box, he was able, in a most fascinating experiment to describe a sentence written in invisible ink, and most telling of all he would usually launch into a preliminary description of the person who provided the target, not only their appearance but their life history and the actions they made when preparing the target material. So how could we account for this performance on a non-paranormal basis, this being the question you have to ask before concluding that it had to be paranormal.
Could he have been in league with Anna de Noailles? This is like asking if Geraldine Cummins might have been in league with Edith Sitwell; apart from that, the identity of absent persons donating material was never disclosed to Ossowiecki. Further, he had no way of knowing which of the three letters would be picked at random by Richet. If Ossowiecki operated by obtaining secret information we should surely hear that one day he gave a full description of a letter or drawing that happened to be in a non-target envelope, but no such incident was ever reported.
So if we eliminate simple, or even complicated, trickery and also eliminate confederacy that leaves Richet as the only source or error or fraud or delusion. In the simple protocol of this test I can see no room for error, so that leaves fraud or delusion. Now if Richet had been the only one to report such marvellous results with Ossowiecki it might be reasonable for some people - especially those who have not read his publications to think that he might be fraudulent or deluded.
This is where the inquisitorial method is so convoluted. You must first of all appraise Richet, and though he was inclined to make the sort of error that comes from relying on memory rather than checking the records (bearing in mind the vast scientific and literary output of this industrious Nobel prize winner it is an understandable failing) I appraise him as a researcher of the greatest integrity.
That is not the end of the matter, for now you must go on to consider and assess the other researchers who tell the same story. One will be kept quite busy. There were the Russian and Polish academics, there was Gustave Geley, author of one of the most significant works in psychical research, "From the Unconscious to the Conscious", there were sundry respectable citizens, doctor, civil servant, League of Nations Delegate, the President of Poland and, my favourite, of course, Prof. Barrington-Emerson. There was the Besterman experiment, a test carried out at the Warsaw Congress (1923) where the target was prepared by Eric Dingwall and held by the German Professor Schrenck-Notzing. There were many others. Unless all these people were fraudulent or deluded then why should Richet be fraudulent or deluded? That is the network of logic applied by people who try to determine the truth about a past event.
Let me say again that a past event includes one that happened very recently and may be part of an ongoing story. There is, or is alleged to be, here and now in the 1990s, a boy called Stephen Wiltshire, who at aged 11 was mentally limited to the point that he could not solve the sort of problem that a normal child of 3 or 4 might find simple; but he has an extraordinary talent for drawing buildings, and can reproduce a mass of architectural detail with strict accuracy from memory after seeing the building for a relatively short time, and all in beautiful style. There have been quite a lot of idiots savants reported from time to time with various talents - extracting cube roots or making other monstrous calculations - but this is probably a unique case of a fairly retarded boy being a master draughtsman.
So we have here a singular event, perhaps the only one of its sort that most of us will ever encounter. Nevertheless I expect most people who have seen this case described in books and on television quite reasonably accept its authenticity; one would seriously doubt the judgment (and the plain common sense) of those who did not. But the published evidence supporting the reality of Ossowiecki's clairvoyance is much more copious and robust in every way.
The creators of these past events often used scientific methodology in framing their inquiries, just as scientists investigating atomic and subatomic phenomena have to use the evidential methodology of lawyers to establish a case. Let me quote from a popular science book by Heinz Haber:
"And so, more than 100 years ago, scientists were already hot on the trail of the atom. Hardly a single reputable scientist remained who was not convinced that the atom exists; all believed in the atom, though nobody had ever seen one. Yet the belief in its existence was based entirely on what a lawyer would call circumstantial evidence. It was as though the atom was the defendant in a trial. The judge, the jury, and the witnesses were all scientists. The witnesses brought to court a tremendous number of observations from the scene of the crime, and these facts could only be explained if there was such a thing as an atom. The jury weighed the facts. The circumstances were such that it could only conclude: the atom exists."
If the scientific jury weighed the facts of the paranormal in an equally rational way they would conclude that Ossowiecki had actually demonstrated paranormal cognition. They would draw similar conclusions if they gave due weight to documents signed by dozens of scientists together with dozens of other reputable observers, stating their certainty that telekinesis had been demonstrated to them by Willi Schneider in decisive tests carried out by Schrenck-Notzing. Similar attestations to physical phenomena were obtained at the IMI. One must ask how many attesting signatures would carry conviction with someone who was not disposed to accept the reality of the paranormal? If 100 signatures carry no weight would 1000 persuade anyone to accept this powerful testimony against his inclinations? The answer is plainly, sadly, "No".
John Beloff has pointed out what a fine thing it would be if we had a permanent paranormal object that could prove itself in that it could not be faked by any known process, so that testimony as to its provenance would not have to be involved in the verification process. There may be objects approaching the status of PPO already in the world, no further away than Paris. I refer to the "hands" of Kluski. Kluski is not a household name, though he should be. He is probably the most amazing and the best tested physical medium of all time, perhaps outstripping even D D Home.
Like Ossowiecki, he was a successful professional man who demonstrated mediumship to oblige his friends, though it impaired his health. When he came to Paris in the 1920s he was already well known for materialisations, and one of ways he delivered tangible evidence of this was to get the "spirit" hands, or feet, or bits of face, to plunge into molten wax, then into water, then to dematerialise leaving an unbroken wax mould from which a plaster cast could be taken showing lines, wrinkles and other skin surface markings indicating that the hand, foot, chin or whatever had been inside the wax mould.
He is said to have produced scores of wax moulds, mostly of hands, and we have some of the casts made from the moulds in the SPR, but the specimens in Paris are of greater interest having been produced there under known conditions. The casts are distinguished by a highly surprising feature, viz. they consist largely of adult hands scaled down to various child sizes. This extraordinary property, so inexplicable in normal (i.e. fraudulent) terms, was attributed during the Polish sittings to undersized phantoms that could sometimes be increased to full size by sitters breathing in unison with the medium. Fortunately they mostly remained undersized, and the casts of scaled-down hands with adult shape and markings remain a challenge to the psi-denialist.
Suppose it proved to be that there was no such thing known in nature as a child size hand with adult markings? The hands of dwarves are certainly not like that, and though I have never seen midget hands at close range they also appear to be rather chubby, whereas the Kluski hands are delicate and shapely. This is a matter for expert evidence, and I have not succeeded in obtaining any clear statement either way. If in the end the expert opinion were to be that midget hands are never as shapely as the Kluski hands, then you would have to go on to the next question, and ask how possible it would be to fashion some plaster and impose on it hand and finger markings that would convince an expert that it could be a cast taken from a wax mould of a genuine hand.
When all questions had been asked and answered, let us suppose that as a result these casts could constitute samples of PPO, what then? Could we sit back and congratulate ourselves on having produced a scientific demonstration of the paranormal, a sure route to proof? We could not. The weight of expert opinion may have favoured our proposition, viz. that midgets do not have Kluski-like hands. But there was, and always is, expert opinion on the other side. That is good enough for those who want to reject the proposition. So the PPO would fare no better, and be no more conclusive, than a well attested event. Its status ultimately rests on testimony, and on our judgment of the testimony.
Therefore we must return to the position where the truth about the hands of Kluski has to be established by reference to the conditions under which they were produced, which means we have to assess the testimony of Geley, Richet and the Polish researchers. We have to consider how likely it is that Kluski, or a collaborator, chose to make up wax moulds using a group of midgets (rather than more easily available adults or children), that Kluski was able to introduce them into the sitting and manipulate them while his hands were held by the IMI researchers, and so on and on. When all circumstances are taken into account then the reasonable conclusion may be drawn that the wax moulds must have been of paranormal origin. Ultimately we have to rely on verification by inquisition, and though a person who accepts the testimony as compelling cannot claim to have an incontestable proof on hand he can echo the views of Sir William Crookes, who said that the occurrence of paranormal was as well established as any other fact in life.
It is very understandable that many researchers, especially those engaged in parapsychological experimentation, yearn for the apparent certainties of scientific modes of proof. Verification relies on judgment, a fuzzy concept compared with the clarity of the eye-witness experience that validates demonstration and prediction. The endpoint of scientific proof presents itself as knowledge and certainty, whereas the endpoint of verification is varying degrees of satisfaction or conviction. The unease engendered by assessment-based conclusions reminds me of my early car driving experience, and the shock of realising that when one vehicle passes another the driver cannot actually see the edges of the two vehicles, but must make an assessment of their position and judge the distance between them.
But as we have shown, the seemingly solid rock of certainty based on scientific proof is extremely limited in scope. Apart from common and daily effects that are manifest to all of us, scientific certainty is available only to those investigators who personally observe the outcome of their experiments. That has to be a mere sliver of experience. All other quasi-certainties rely on the testimony of other people, so that scientific knowledge for the overwhelmingly greater part also depends on those soft-centred concepts of satisfaction and conviction based on the arts of assessment and judgment.
So if in our appraisal of the paranormal we cannot offer "proof" on demand, let us make it clear to those who do the demanding that the methods of verification applied to paranormal effects and events precisely mirror the methods applied to effects and events in the normal world. If we can feel sure that, as reported recently, passengers in a transatlantic flight were informed, due to an inadvertently broadcast recorded message, that an emergency landing was to be made in the sea and they should put on their life-jackets (surely a most unusual and possibly singular error) then are entitled on the same principles of testimony assessment to be equally sure that on repeated occasions Ossowiecki demonstrated clairvoyance to numerous witnesses. We can be sure that these things happened on the same reasonable grounds, namely, that the evidence compels acceptance.
1991, revised 1999
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