28.1.15

STORM OF WITCHCRAFT

Emerson W. Baker. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, 2015.

The Salem witch trials have long been recognised as a salient point in American history, and over the last 50 years have been the subject of numerous books, several of which have been reviewed in Magonia.
 
Baker’s book takes a broader picture than many, placing the trials firmly in the context of the internal and external conflicts affecting the Massachusetts Colony. They occurred in revolutionary times, in which the governor appointed by King James II had been overthrown in the first American revolution, and the new official governor was still on his way. The Calvinist Congregational Church was under threat from both new generations that wanted a more relaxed religion and demands for greater religious pluralism. To cap it all there was the external war with their French and their Catholic Wabanaki allies, a war in which both sides practiced ethnic cleansing.
 
These grand tensions add to the stresses of local village life, and may well have contributed to the conversion disorders which afflicted the young woman and girls who became the witch accusers.
 
Baker not only looks at the relationships between the accusers and the accused, but, more perhaps uniquely into the often close family relationships between the judges, relationships that he sees as causing them to prejudge the issue. It is the combination of the political, theological and personal which generations the “perfect storm” of witchcraft accusations and, what had been very rare in the colony before that time, guilty verdicts and executions. The witches become scapegoats for all sorts of ills.
 
Baker argues we must see the trials in the context of the times, when witchcraft was regarded as real and threatening as terrorism does to us. They are warnings also of how societies under pressure and fear can turn in on themselves and start to devour their own members. -- Peter Rogerson.


24.1.15

WHEN LIBRARIANS RULED THE WORLD

Alex Wright. Cataloging the World. Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Alex Wright's book is a great introduction to Paul Otlet's life and he provides a thorough overview of its historical context and how it relates to our Internet Age.

Otlet (1868-1944) was an idealistic thinker who devoted his life to organising knowledge for the enhancement of humanity. It was his concept to organise all the world's information from audio recordings, films, photographs, magazines, journals, books to newspapers that would be accessed through a network of 'electric telescopes' and organised by the collective brain of the Mundaneum.

The scale of this introverted librarian’s vision is shown by the fact that his universal bibliography of world knowledge ran to 12 million entries. He aim was to share this knowledge as widely as possible, and by 1912 he had a team of workers and an enormous filing system, which dealt with 1,500 requests for information a year through mail-order.

Beyond indexing and classifying all the world’s information on filing cards using his Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) system, he envisaged workstations (Mondotheques as he called them) that would incorporate the latest technology (radio, TV, telephone, phonograph, film) to link them with the central Mundaneum. Otlet even envisaged the Mundaneum, the pool of all knowledge, being enshrined in a glorious world city. As Wright puts it: ‘He saw these developments as fundamentally connected to a larger utopian project that would bring the world closer to a state of permanent and lasting peace and toward a state of collective spiritual enlightenment.’
PAUL OTLET AT THE CENTRE OF THE 'MUNDANEUM'
The means for creating such a global system in the early half of the 19th century was based on using cumbersome index systems and analog machines but it was a vision of what has now been created by the Internet. However, it is doubtful that he would approve of the fact that this information isn't organised and filtered by his concept of a global brain that would be freely available to everyone, and would inspire a higher collective conscious that would transcend political boundaries and promote a world state.

When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940 they were distinctly unimpressed with what they regarded as his collection of trivial junk, and promptly destroyed 63 tons of journals, posters, pamphlets and books that consisted of the core of his colllection. His dream, so carefully constructed over the decades, now withered and died. Knowledge is power but in this case the jackboot of the Third Reich was able to swiftly stamp out these grand ideas for librarians to control and rule the world of knowledge.

In the context of ufology it is worth noting that more files, books and archives are being made available online but as Otlet knew the problem is being able to classify, search and make sense of this data. Peter Rogerson’s INTCAT project is a bold attempt at making sense of UFO close encounters, which is a shining example of what can be done with this data. Isaac Koi has also worked hard to put freely available searchable collections of UFO journals and related material online. Whether much progress is done with all this data is another matter, especially since ufology has largely degenerated into speculating about the latest images on YouTube or campaigning about disclosure. -- Nigel Watson.


21.1.15

WALKING BESIDE YOU

John Geiger. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. Cannongate, 2010.

Normally we try to review books as they come along, but occasionally we overlook some. This is one such which is well worth noting. The title of the book comes from T S Elliot’s The Waste Land:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
These lines were inspired by the Shackleton party’s trek across South Georgia, where the three explorers felt there was a fourth, invisible person with them. This sort of experience of a mysterious ‘other companion, has been reported by numerous mountaineers, explorers and others, such as shipwrecked mariners in extreme situations, and this book provides many examples.
 
These experiences range from merely a vague sense of presence through voices in the head giving instructions on how to get out of the situation, through to full blown virtual experiences, such as Joshua Slocum’s. Some of the experiencers see this as products of their own mental processes, others as encounters with paranormal or religious figures. In all cases they provide a sense of comfort, comradeship and community.
 
Geiger looks at a variety of ways of regarding this experience, though invoking Julian Jaynes rather racist theory of the bicameral mind is perhaps not the happiest. More interestingly is his linking them to childhood imaginary companions and the hallucinations of the widowed. He also notes briefly the various studies undertaken by Persinger.
 
The unifying factor seems to be that they are products of deep isolation and stress, and here, though Geiger does not mention this, there seems to be an obvious connect with deathbed visions or the presences reported by people in NDE’s (and, of course, many of the experiences related in this book come from people who have been very close to death indeed). The NDE presences, like those recounted here, serve to push the person back into life, and would make sense as last ditch emergency powers of the personality.
 
Geiger suggests that some people may be more prone to such experiences than others, and suggests that abilities connected with absorption and dissociation might be involved. Perhaps one way of looking at them is that in the depth of the wilderness, both physical and psychological, some people are able to import the habitat, with its warmth and companionship.
 
Many of the accounts here are quite old, and I wonder whether such experiences are as needed in the age of the mobile phone. Geiger suggests that perhaps they will manifest the most in the unprecedented isolation, boredom and confinement of the journey to Mars, far beyond the warmth of earth; or indeed on awesome wilderness of Mars. Who knows what experiences might come from a vision quest on Mons Olympus. If Geiger is right and experiences like this are of the foundations of primal theology, then perhaps the next great world religion will be brought back from Mars, particularly if permanent colonies are established there.
 
A brief reference to sleep paralysis should warn us that by no means all presences and visions are as warm and comforting as those discussed here. The wilderness is where we might meet Pan, and much of the paranormal literature concerns experiences wherein the wilderness is imported into the heart of the habitat.
 
Whatever your views on such topics this is both a fascinating look at a previously little discussed “Fortean” topic and an extraordinary catalogue of human fortitude in almost impossible circumstances. -- Peter Rogerson.
 

19.1.15

SEEKING PSI

Damien Broderick and Ben Goertzel (eds) Evidence for Psi: Thirteen Empirical Research Reports. McFarland, 2015

This is a collection of thirteen papers dealing with various aspects of experimental psi:
  • The significance of statistics in in mind-matter research by Jessica Utts.
  • Physiological activity that seems to anticipate future events by Julia A Mossbridge.
  • Anomalous anticipatory skin conductance response to acoustic stimuli: experimental results and speculation about a mechanism by May, Paulinyi and Vassy.
  • Revisiting the Ganzfield ESP debate: a basic review and assessment by Bryan J Williams.
  • Telepathy in connection with telephone calls, text messages and e-mails by Rupert Sheldrake.
  • Empirical examinations of the reported abilities of a psychic claimant: a review of experiments and explorations with Sean Harribance.
  • Assessing psi ability via the ball selection test: a challenge for psychometrics by Suitbert Ertel.
  • Through time and space: the evidence for remote viewing by Stephan A Schawrtz.
  • The PEAR laboratory: explorations and observations by York Dobyns.
  • The Global Consciousness Project: subtle interconnections and correlations in random data by Roger D Nelson.
  • An analysis of the Global Consciousness Project by Peter A Bancel.
  • Psi and the environment : local sidereal time and geomagnetic effects by James Spottiswode.
  • Skeptical responses to psi research by Ted and Ben Goertzel.
  • The future of psi research by the editors.
The first thing I can say, is that this is not the book to present an overview of parapsychological research to the lay audience. Many of the papers require specialist knowledge of statistics and a variety of technical vocabularies, and overall there is considerable opacity. That being said Sheldrake’s paper is something of an exception and is clear enough for high school science clubs to attempt to reproduce, and is close enough to real life to be actually interesting.
 
Ertel’s 'ball selection test' looks as though it could also be used by high school science clubs, though they would perhaps need more knowledge of statistics, and would have to be far more rigorous than using unsupervised experimenters, with the absurdly naïve comment “why would anyone cheat, what could they gain from it”.
 
Of the more technical papers, my gut feeling is that those by Mossbridge and May and colleagues might be offering the most challenging evidence for science.
 
No doubt the bulk of the studies will of greatest interest to the specialist reader, but I doubt if any of them will provide evidence that would change anyone’s mind, and I suspect that the real specialist would find too little information in many of the reports to make a considered judgment.
 
The editor’s introduction contains much of the naiveté that one has come to associate with the field; at least half belief in the stories told by Brian Inglis, the “how could these uneducated kids get one over on me” type arguments and the curious comment “can creativity or love by switched on and off in the lab”, well creativity certainly can, people with extraordinary abilities, such as musicians, dancers, athletes, painters can act more or less to order, and yes, sex, if not love, can be performed in the laboratory, and by certain people, more or less to order.
 
In the end we are left where we were at the beginning. There can be little doubt that some 'psi' experiments produce results far above chance, that unless there are some really serious flaws in the reporting, are very difficult to explain, yet they remain fleeting and never subject to the kind of reproducibility that mainstream science would need to take them on board. They don’t reach the three minute mile test, or anything like it. Furthermore the metaphysical world views held by many workers in this field not only set them far more at odds with mainstream science than the actual data does, but probably inhibits performing certain types of experiments or looking for certain types of evidence. -- Peter Rogerson,
 

14.1.15

FIRST READ: FROM MENZEL TO THE MILITARY

Donald H Menzel and Lyle G Boyd. The World of Flying Saucers: a Scientific Examination of a Major Myth of the Space Age. Doubleday and Co, 1963.

Lt Col. Lawrence J Tacker, USAF. Flying Saucers and the US Air Force: the Official Air Force Story. Van Nostrand, 1960.

Let me be honest, I think I got these two books from Wilshaw’s book shop with my Christmas money in 1964 because they were the only two books on the subject (at least the only two non-contactee books). They were my first sceptical books, and I cannot quite now remember how I viewed them.
 
Tacker’s book was, I imagine, pushed out in response to Donald Keyhoe’s agitation for Congressional Enquiries into UFOs. No need, was Tacker’s answer, your boys in blue have in all under control. Now Tacker was basically just a public relations guy who knew next to nothing about UFO reports, but who could put the notes placed in front of him into reasonable English and make a book out of them. A few UFO reports are examined and explained, though others, including the Loch Raven dam case, are admitted to be unidentified. There is a still-useful chapter on various things which can generate UFO reports, and a chapter on letters to the Air Force which are of sociological interest, though it is clear that Tacker is more than rather selective in such letters, making sure they include several crank letters and missives from contactees, including an rather aggressive early contribution from the Aetherius Society. The whole is rounded off with an ‘official!’ UFO report form and various bumph.
 
Menzel (left) and Boyd’s contribution was a more substantial sceptical work, and is the best of Menzel’s three books on UFOs. Gone were the cumbersome one size fits all mirage explanations of his first book. This one recognises that UFO reports are generated by many different things and gives various case histories to show this. Though excoriated at the time many of Menzel’s views would be somewhat grudgingly accepted by ufologists in later decades. This book also avoids the patronising tone of his third.
 
Looking back at these books, while by no means perfect or indeed wholly persuasive they are certainly fairly good evidence that there were no great hidden secrets, and that the real USAF position was that the whole thing was a waste of time and money that could have been better spent in fighting the Commies and the Reds under the Bed. Concede that there are indeed puzzling UFO reports and some damn politician will want you to spend even more time and money on chasing flying saucers rather than Reds under the Bed. -- Peter Rogerson.


10.1.15

WRONG ABOUT ALMOST EVERYTHING

Alex Tsakiris. Why Science is Wrong About Almost Everything. Anomalist Books, 2014.

Alex Tsakris, who runs a podcast called Skeptiko, is basically the paranormalists’ version of the typical American shock-jock, who only invites people onto his show who disagree with him in order to sandbag them, berate them and grandstand to the audience. Like the other shock-jocks he is markedly less critical with those who espouse his world view, indeed he shows, from this selection of his interviews any rate, no great critical faculty at all, as witness his treatment of psychic detectives, mediums and energy healing.
 
Much of his venom is directed at academic psychologists, and his main agenda seems to be trying to show them up. This may or may not be connected to the fact that Alex never completed his PhD; it certainly suggests that he has had some pretty traumatic experience at college.
 
As I have argued before, the problem with many parapsychologists is that they are really not interested in investigating potentially interesting scientific anomalies for their own sake, but only in using them as battering rams against scientific modernity. Tsakiris takes this to extremes, with the usual prejudices against atheists and Darwin that are redolent of the American cultural right.
 
Thus Tsakiris really wants a world in which meaning and purpose is handed to him on a plate rather than having to be thought out for himself. There are the usual whines that in the absence of belief in an afterlife or “non-physical realities” life is meaningless. Needless to say most people do not think this at all, for many it is the very mortality of human life that gives it meaning. Think of how many people faced with imminent death from cancer and the like go on to do amazing things, not because they want to earn brownie points in the afterlife but because they want to make the greatest impact in this world while they have time.
 
Does belief in the afterlife actually function as a social good? The only such belief that I think could have genuine social utility would be in random reincarnation: help make the world a healthier, safer and more peaceful and prosperous place and you stand a better chance of your next reincarnation being a more pleasant one.
 
Otherwise the answer tends to towards then negative; the people who flew those planes into the twin towers believed in the afterlife, most of the young men who slaughtered each other in the trenches of the Great War did so also. As Julius Caesar remarked of the Gauls, a passionate believe in the afterlife makes for more reckless fighters, it makes it easier to die in battle. It also makes it easier to kill (kill them all, God will know his own), even to destroy the world in a nuclear war.
 
Furthermore belief in transcendental realms often has the effect of despising the joy and beauty of this world. Believers in such realms, especially those who aspire to abandon the mortal fleshy human condition for the purity of “smokeless fire” are the ones who end up condemning, art, music, dance, and joy in general. They are also the ones who inculcate negative views of the body and sex, and, it would appear, end up pretty twisted and abusive.
 
Tsakiris makes much of near-death experiences as evidence for some non-physical reality, but this is a contradiction. One can never get evidence of non-physical realities (if that phrase is not itself self-contradictory). If it leaves evidence, it is physical, it has impacted the environment. What impresses people about NDEs is that people describe events in the operating theatre. This however is a physical process however they acquire that information, and they have to do so with a process that interacts with the external world in order to gain information about it. If this information is acquired by the P factor, using the Q process, then both the P factor and the Q process are part of the physical world and the ordinary quotidian stuff of the physical world must interact with the Q process (or the Z field or whatever)
 
Furthermore if you think about it the hypothetical P factor must be physical because it interacts with the brain (it kicks the brain, the brain kicks it), and also because it is apparently summoned back from its transcendental realm by a series of physical processes associated with resuscitation. So the transcendental realm has to be part of physical reality. Not only that ascribing consciousness to a P factor doesn’t make the notorious “hard problem” of consciousness any easier, it just looks like it.
 
And if you want a ‘materialist’ biologically based theory of ethics that most people (at least those who should not be in madhouses) can agree on, it can start from the proposition that it is good to reduce the number of children who die before their parents to the barest possible minimum. It also makes sense for each generation to live long and prosper and from that we can rationally deduce that a world without war, hunger, poverty, oppression, bigotry and ignorance is better able to achieve those goals that one with them. We will disagree profoundly amongst ourselves as to how that happy state of affairs might be brought about, but only the mad or the malevolent would disagree about the aim.
 
The hated Darwinian evolution shows that all human beings are related to one another and in effect constitute a huge extended family, and that all living things on earth have, to the best of our knowledge, a common ancestor and are part of a great extended kindred. Darwin himself was a great champion of animal welfare and was often accused of unduly anthropomorphising animals. Most of us would think that is an improvement on Descartes view that animals were insensate robots that could be treated with careless brutality.
 
One can add just a few points: Tsakiris seems unaware that the most ferocious of all CSICOP skeptics, Martin Gardener was a devout theist, or that one of the most prominent supporters of dualism in recent years John Beloff was a noted atheist.
 
Ultimately reading this book left me with only one mystery, why do otherwise sensible people allow themselves to be sandbagged by this guy? Do they or their agents not have the nouse to look up Skeptico on the Internet and realise that this is someone at the intellectual level of Rush Limbaugh who is not remotely interested in genuine debate? They should ask him the simple question “Do you want to talk about my book/work etc., or just grandstand to the audience, if the latter I have nothing more to say” and slam the phone down on him. He thinks that Patricia Churchland’s embarrassed attempts to politely get off the phone, as she gradually realises that she is dealing with someone who, if not a crank with more than one chip on his shoulder, is giving a damn good impression of one, is confrontational and shows Churchland in a bad light. It isn’t and doesn’t. Confrontational is what you would get from me in those circumstances, sadly the laws of libel, the Malicious Communications Act and our concern for our readers delicate sensibilities mean that must be left to your imagination, it does however include the word “off”. -- Peter Rogerson.
 

7.1.15

RED-HANDED

Joshua T. Searle. The Scarlet Woman and the Red Hand: Evangelical Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Northern Ireland Troubles. Lutterworth Press, 2014.

Most British people of my generation can remember the long Northern Ireland Troubles, the euphemistic term for the de-facto civil war that raged in that province from 1968-1998 and is not entirely dead. They also remember that religion fused with ethnicity played a major role in that conflict.
 
This book looks at the role that evangelical Christians played in that conflict, especially those associated with Ian Paisley, who is the single most quoted figure here. Searle demonstrates how apocalyptic visions and rhetoric played a major role in the Protestant world view. Essentially this was a world view in which Revelation was the most important book in the Bible (and it seems the Gospels the least important), and in which Ulster Protestants see themselves as the last true Christians, under siege from the forces of darkness, led by the Roman Catholic Church, perceived by them as the whore of Babylon, anti-Christ and etc. For some of these evangelical protestants, the Northern Ireland conflict is more or less the battle of Armageddon itself.
 
Though Searle, who is on the facility of Spurgeon’s college, a Baptist theological college, describes this book as a “sympathetic account”, I have to say that I found little to be sympathetic about the world view of these people, indeed, in particularly the final chapter on Apocalyptic dualism, this is a portrait of people who see the world in sharply dualistic terms, and who see themselves as the one true saving remnant, the one true core of the one true faith, an ideology not that removed from the Moslem jihadis. Of course all the rest of us are just so much trash to be thrown on the rubbish heap. They share, to a lesser extent, the same hostility to joy, art, music and the whole good earth in general.
 
Perhaps the saddest revelation in this book is that Ian Paisley did not really experience any near-death experience conversion to peace and love, and remained the same old Paisley underneath the 'Chuckle Brothers' routine with Martin McGuiness.
 
I should warn any casual reader looking for enlightenment on this subject that this book has all the hallmarks of the regurgitated thesis, in that parts are written in near incomprehensible jargon, and it would appear that even Baptist theology students have to pay homage to St Derrida these days. -- Peter Rogerson.


4.1.15

THE BHAGAVAD GITA

Richard H. Davis. The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton University Press, 2015.

The Bhagavad Gita began as an aside in the Mahabharata, a massive eighteen-volume epic on the wars between two branches of the same family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Before the battle royal commences, Arjuna, one of the Pandava leaders, expresses his concern about it to his charioteer, Krishna, who happily chances to be an incarnation of ‘the Supreme Personality of Godhead’. When he says that he does not want to kill his cousins, Krishna assures him that the dead do not really die. Just as a person might take off an old set of clothes and put on a new set, so at death a person’s soul relinquishes one body and enters a new one. There follows more general spiritual advice, which could apply to anyone. Actions driven by desires lead to bondage in the flesh. But by abandoning desire for the ends of the fruits of an action, one obtains liberation.
 
The Mahabharata was written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India which has continued to be used for sacred texts, long after it ceased to be spoken, in the same way that the Catholic Church has retained the use of Latin. Whether the Gita was part of it from the beginning, or only a later addition, is disputed. But at any rate it circulated separately from an early date.

Arjuna riding onto the battlefield behind
his charioteer Krishna.
One curious result was that stories started to circulate about Krishna’s childhood, and these were eventually assembled to form the Bhagavata Purana, a massive work, particularly in contrast to the Gita itself, which is only 700 verses, taking about an hour and a half to recite. Then, the followers of other Hindu Gods were inspired to write their own Gitas, including the Ishvara Gita of Shiva, the Ganesha Gita, the Rama Gita, the Brahma Gita, and the Devi Gita. From about the ninth century, commentaries began to be produced on the original, 227 so far.

Its appearance in English was almost fortuitous. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s East India Company obtained administrative authority over (of course) eastern India. Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal, recommended that they should seek to rule these territories “not according to British law but rather according to the laws and customs of the local residents.” But the Hindu legal codes, such as the Laws of Manu, were written in Sanskrit. It was therefore necessary for some of the administrators to study that language. There were no grammars or dictionaries, but a clerk named Charles Wilkins studied it with pundit Kashinatha Bhattcharya in Benares. On the latter’s urging he began by translating the Bhagavad Gita. Hastings was so impressed that he had the manuscript sent by ship to London, where it was printed in May 1785. (The Laws of Manu did not appear in English until 1794.)

Though Christian missionaries had long been dispatched to India, the traffic became two-way in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna Order attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and was such a success that he stayed on in the United States as a travelling lecturer. In 1894 he established the Vedanta Society of New York, and a similar society in San Francisco in 1900. These taught the Gita and other scriptures. Vivekananda died suddenly in 1902. His work continued, however, as other swamis of the Ramakrishna Order had come to America, and some of them published their own translations of the Gita with commentaries.

In 1923 Jayadayal Goyandka founded the Gita Press, which started by issuing the Bhagavad Gita in Hindi, and, later, into fourteen other Indian vernaculars. At last count it has sold seventy-one million copies in various languages.

Another successful Hindu missionary was Swami Prabhupada, who arrived in New York in 1965, and founded what has become known as the Hare Krishna movement. He took the view that “The teachings of the Gita are infallible because the original teacher is perfect. This places stern demands on the translator.” He seems to have spent many years on his own edition of the book, which has the original text in nagari script, a transliteration of each verse into the Roman alphabet, a translation of each word, a rendering of the verse into English, and an extended commentary. This is perhaps the best-known version, and is the one in which Davis first read it. This has also been turned into fifty-six other languages, and in these various tongues has sold twenty-three million copies.

In July 1945, the first plutonium bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, was also a student of Sanskrit, and he compared the result to the passage in the Gita where Krishna reveals his divine form: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One . . . I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”

There have now been more than three hundred translations into English alone. This must make it one of the most successful religious books of all time. Its influence turns up in unexpected places: in modern witchcraft, the Goddess, speaking through the mouth of her Priestess, says (among other things) “I am the beauty of the green Earth and the white Moon among the stars, and the mystery of the waters, and the desire of the heart of man”. This surely must derive from the Gita, where Krishna says: “In water I am the taste, I am the light in the sun and the moon, in all the Vedas I am Om, in the ether sound, and in men their virility.” – Gareth J. Medway


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