SPR Has A New Website

There’s a new website on the block – the Society for Psychical Research has replaced its old site with something newer and more up to date. It is, in fact, an improvement on the older version and easier to navigate and find articles of interest. The old site was one I seldom visited nowadays because it was fairly static for such a long time, so I didn’t ever really expect to find anything new (apart from some notices about forthcoming events). My interest is renewed, however, since I found out about this new upgrade thanks to Tom Ruffles.

But I’m a sceptic, so why am I (sort of) advertising “the opposition”? The fact is, although I don’t think there is anything in paranormal and supernatural claims, I think it’s important to look at and examine everything relevant to what is going on out there, as it were. Even though I am sceptical of paranormal claims, I don’t have any qualms about the possibility that someone, somewhere, might, actually, prove the reality of life after death, telepathy, poltergeists, astrology, Tarot, dowsing, auras, precognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing, apparitions, ghosts, orbs, UFOs, alien abduction, Bigfoot, mediums and sundry psychics, not to mention the assorted medical quackery out there in the form of homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki, and other types of faith healing and magical thinking, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

To be fair, I regard the SPR as one of the more serious organisations that deal with paranormal claims; it has been around since 1882, after all, and it has had some very eminent people among its luminaries. I don’t think the SPR has proven the existence of anything paranormal in all that time, but I am prepared to defend the organisation as one that takes the matter seriously and at least tries to apply some academic and scientific rigour to what it does.

Personally, I don’t regard my disagreement with what I think of as “woo” as something that has to be (or should be) taken more (or less) seriously than any other academic disagreement. The paranormal exists or it doesn’t. It comes down to a basic inductive logical concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. Promoters of the paranormal (including the SPR) have the obligation to prove the claims they make, so how is the SPR doing so far?

I haven’t had time to delve very deeply into this new site, although in their Psi Encyclopedia I have had a look at a couple of articles so far: one on the Victorian-era medium Eusapia Palladino, and another on the spoon bender Uri Geller.

I’m not sure the SPR are doing themselves any favours here. Palladino, in her time, was tested by some of the biggest names of the day, but she was repeatedly caught out using outright fraud to achieve the alleged paranormal effects that seemed to occur during her various séances. For some reason, the investigators overlooked, ignored or just dismissed these blatant ruses, preferring to believe that when they couldn’t catch her out, then she must have been producing genuine paranormal phenomena. That’s a bit overly optimistic, in my opinion.

The section on Uri Geller is also too flattering. Anecdotal claims of his supposed psychic powers are there in lieu of hard evidence, and some of the claims made (especially regarding Geller’s supposed work finding oil for oil companies, not to mention his paranormal espionage claims) can’t be elaborated on because of secret commercial interests and state security – so we are told, anyway. There is no mention of the famous Johnny Carson TV show where Geller failed to perform at all when he was presented with props he had had no previous access to, nor is there any mention of the numerous YouTube videos that purport to show him using nothing more than sleight of hand rather than real psychic powers. None of that is conclusive proof that Geller is a fraud, but the fact that contradictory evidence is excluded from the article is rather troubling if the SPR’s new site is supposed to be unbiased in its reporting of alleged psi in action. But maybe it isn’t designed to be unbiased, even though there is, for both articles, a list of references; that looks good on the face of it, but actual links would have been useful (and more convenient for the casual reader).

I’m basing what I have written so far on only a couple of articles, of course, so keep that in mind before you rush to make an overall judgement of the website. I will have to read further to find out if there is any actual sceptical or critical thinking being employed by the SPR to analyse any of the people or claims featured. I recommend that you follow the links I have given and judge for yourself.

Overall, I would recommend this new, revamped, website to anyone who has an interest in the paranormal (either pro or sceptical). I think some sceptics will be quick to pounce on logical and factual irregularities such as the ones I have pointed out above; at the same time, I think the believers will accept what is there at face value. In any case, the new site is more accessible than the old site, it is easier to navigate and there is the implied promise of a lot more content to be added in the coming weeks and months.

I applaud the SPR for upgrading their main resource for both their members and a lay audience; time will tell how it will work out. I’m rather ambivalent here: the believers will, I think, love it; the sceptics will probably shrug their shoulders.


6 responses to “SPR Has A New Website

  1. The psi Encyclopedia is a disappointment. They deliberately choose to ignore most of the skeptical literature. For example Stephen E. Braude’s entry for the fraudulent medium Henry Slade ignores séances where Slade was caught in fraud red-handed and concludes the medium had some genuine phenomena. This is ridiculous. Braude is not a magician and hardly cites any of the research written by magicians that have explained Slade’s tricks. Even SPR member Hereward Carrington exposed Slade’s methods of knot tying at length yet he is not referred to.

    Wikipedia is much more reliable because it contains the skeptical literature and debunks all the frauds in psychical research. The entry for Daniel Dunglas Home on this new psi Encyclopedia makes out his phenomena was genuine, but if you read the entry for Daniel Dunglas Home on Wikipedia it is well documented and referenced and you can see he was indeed caught in fraud. Over-all this new project to me is a failure, it is just another attempt for believers to defend long debunked nonsense.

    It is funny how people are still claiming Eusapia Palladino was genuine. Absolutely all of her tricks have been explained.


  2. Oh, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the SPR Encyclopedia… Poor quality, hugely biased opinion pieces which are masquerading as factual Encyclopedia content from the SPR itself.

    Problem is the SPR is not supposed to hold any corporate opinion, yet it appears from comments on Skeptiko, that a group within the SPR are deciding on accuracy and content of articles.

    Recipe for disaster in my opinion, hopefully the committee will realise the damage being done to the SPR’s reputation, in particular it’s impartiality.


    • Thanks for your comment, Max.

      I don’t know anything about the internal politics of the SPR, but it is what they present through their website and their encyclopedia that they will be judged on.

      The encyclopedia might turn out to be an own goal, who knows? As I mentioned earlier re. Palladino and Geller, negative or contradictory evidence has not been taken seriously or even in some cases mentioned at all. An encyclopedia should, by definition, be impartial in its presentation of evidence; what I have seen so far is a one-sided argument in favour of the paranormal interpretation of certain claims made. I’m sure that will not escape the attention of most sceptics.


    • It will be interesting to see how the other Comittee members react to the project over the next few months – as the inevitable complaints and attacks roll in from all sides.

      I’m not at all sure that the other committee members actually realise what is going on, or whether they also feel the SPR can sidestep the criticism levelled at the content of *its* encyclopaedia, by passing the buck to the individual authors, as McLuhan seems to think they can. It doesn’t look likely to me.


  3. Time will tell. Maybe the SPR should brace itself.


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