Psychic Research Versus Spiritualism

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Psychic Research Versus Spiritualism is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in Light on 18 march 1922.

Psychic Research Versus Spiritualism

Light (18 march 1922, p. 171)

Mrs. McKenzies's intimation that some change may be affected in the manner and methods of so-called "Psychic Research" will be very welcome to many of us who have seen how long it has been on wrong lines. I say "so-called" advisedly, because, while no one can deny the conscientious "research," the "psychic" has been far to seek. One looks in vain for any adequate application of the fact that the enquirers are dealing not with ordinary material substances but with soul questions in which such elements as sympathy, tact and kindly charitable understanding are of the first consequence. The methods have been conspicuous for meticulous exactness in small matters and disregard for the large and vital ones.

The true psychic researchers are the actual Spiritualists, for they give those conditions of sympathy and comradeship which the medium needs while they lose, or should lose, none of their determination to resist fraud. I was a psychic researcher before many who call themselves such were born, for I suppose that I am now one of the oldest members of the S.P.R. But I have not ceased to be a psychic researcher because I am convinced of the truth of the spirit doctrine instead of for ever moving in a circle and never attaining a goal. I cannot speak as yet for America, but I can imagine no set of men more capable of real psychic research than those who are representative of the Spiritualists in Great Britain. Yet these are the people who are constantly alluded to by the particular set of critics of whom I talk as if they were credulous dupes who would sit "gaping and marvelling" if any wonder were shown them. I use these verbs because they were actually employed in a letter to me by a prominent "psychic researcher" as describing the mentality of two of the most shrewd and experienced Spiritualists in this country. An attitude of this sort annoys, and it is rather comical afterwards to find the same people complaining of the natural results.

Consider the case of psychic photography. I entirely sympathise with the mediums in their refusal to submit their results to men who have continually shown an unfair and insulting attitude towards them. Take Mr. Whately Smith's pamphlet. What does it all mean in plain words save that psychic photographers are blasphemous cheats? After such an inference now could any self-respecting medium give a sitting to a person who dearly approaches the subject with an unsympathetic mind? Or take the case of Mr. Dingwall who recently applied the term "smudges" to the ordinary psychic photograph, giving the impression that a mere blur on the print was the result. I at once sent him copies of six photographs showing how like they were to the originals and how in some cases they were actually clearer than the sitters. He denied this, though no impartial person in the world could deny it as I am prepared to demonstrate by sending these same photographs to any judge. After that I should never dream of submitting any psychic evidence to Mr. Dingwall, for if he was capable of denying those photographs it would be impossible to get his assent to anything. He was clearly out to disprove and not to prove — so why waste time? And yet Mr. Dingwall is now the official inquirer of the S.P.R. How can he possibly expect co-operation? It is this sort of criticism which nullifies and stultifies the work of the Society, so that many of us have turned to the little S.S.S.P. and to the Psychic College as the true centres of light and progress in this country.

The constant assumption that the medium is a rogue and the Spiritualist a fool has certainly created a feeling which has made it easier for us to turn to the general public than to these professed experts who so often make their own difficulties. Some little time ago I was privileged to attend a sitting of a private circle in a shop in the north of London, where the family had sat twice a week for seven years, strangers being hardly ever admitted. After a remarkable séance the physical phenomena continued after the light was turned on, a round platter of wood twisting and moving with no one near it. I need not say that I took this dise of wood into my hands and made sure there was no attachment. When I mentioned that this would interest psychic researchers the head of the house grew angry. "Such people shall never enter my house. I am not here to be insulted," said he. He was perfectly right. If unsympathetic enquirers had been admitted their attitude would have ruined the conditions; probably no results would have followed and the final report would have been that under "test conditions" the thing did not occur, and that if we said we had seen it with our own eyes it was clear that we were duped by a rascal. Why should people expose themselves to such an annoyance?

The recent report upon Eva C. is an example of what I mean. What can be the feelings of Madame Bisson or of the medium as they read that document? How they must regret their wasted time and energy! Even under conditions of extreme restraint it is admitted in the document and shown by photographs that the Committee did obtain results which so far as they went were very closely analogous to those got by Dr. Geley, who declares that in his case deception was an impossibility. Since the conditions were in their own hands it was the business of the Committee either to prove how there could be fraud, or else to admit these results as valid. In the most illogical fashion they do neither. There seems to be no connection between the body of the report with its long record of abnormalities and the final summing-up which says that they have been unsuccessful in establishing the validity of the phenomena. The Committee seems to have lacked the courage, or the clearness of reasoning which would draw obvious conclusions from their own evidence. We can only sympathise with Madame Bisson and Eva C., who appear to me to have been very badly treated.

Some of the report seems to me really fatuous in its tone of incredulity. Fancy at this time of day alluding to Prof. Crookes' Katie King as materialisations "which were alleged to take place," and that "the data then presented did not permit of any confident judgment being expressed." With no desire to be rude to the Committee, is it not obvious that Crookes' name outweighs them all put together? Is it not insulting to the memory of that great scientist to imply that an enquiry which covered over two years of his lite, which was supported by the fullest and closest observations and measurements and by a series of photographs, with the evidence of Mrs. Crookes and others in support, was really a delusion? It is the more inexcusable since there have been so many instances of ectoplasmic personalities since then, corroborating his general assertion, as was testified to by Professor Charles Richet only a few weeks ago. It is incredulity of this kind which makes these psychical researchers such a drag upon progress. Unless their fiat is issued the opinion of the greatest minds, the Crookes, the Lombrosos, are dismissed as having no solid foundation — a contention which would matter little if it represented only their individual judgments, but is of great importance when it is circulated officially among the members of the S.P.R. and so tinges the thoughts of numbers of important people who have not the leisure to go into into the matter for themselves, and who put full trust in their delegates.

I have written at somewhat greater length than I intended, but I think it of the greatest importance that the whole psychic body should move forward together with some relation between van and rear. It is therefore very necessary to clear the question up, and to make the psychic researchers realise what the general feeling is among Spiritualists, and how necessary it is that these enquirers should assume a humbler and more sympathetic tone if they really do desire any co-operation. I seldom hear any expression of bitterness against the McCabes and Clodds, who are consistent to their mid-Victorian materialism, but the unreasonable and unsympathetic attitude of certain "researchers" with their arrogant air of intellectual superiority when dealing with those who have gone far more deeply than themselves into occult matters, is very properly resented.