Peter Lamont. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
In this interesting book Peter Lamont, historian, psychologist, sceptical psychical researcher and one time professional magician examines the rhetoric used by both promoters and critiques of paranormal phenomena over the last two hundred years. He traces these developments across mesmerism, spiritualism, psychical research and 'scientific' parapsychology. He examines how the same experiences are framed differently by believers and sceptics, how each side manoeuvres for influence and the role of expert. He argues against simplistic sceptical notions that only certain kinds of subaltern people - the foolish, the ill- educated, women, non-whites, the working class - believe in extraordinary experiences, arguing that they are based on people’s actual experiences or the interpretation of the same.
He shows how these arguments remain fairly constant over the period, the same claims for and against ESP today echo those on mesmerism. By providing specific examples, he shows how each side interprets these experiences. Believers will often rely on the power of personal testimony; argue that failure on one occasion does not negate the possibility of “genuine” phenomena on others, that even being found out in fraud on some occasions does not mean it is present in all. Sceptics counter by arguing that human perception is fallible, that ordinary explanations should often be preferred over extra-ordinary ones, that fraud is always possible.
Often the battle over expertise revolves around the rival claims of scientists and magicians, those both sides will use the authority of both if they can. Lamont is particularly interest in the role of magicians, and the extent to which “true” psychic claims mirror the activities of professional “mind-readers”. He is clearly an expert on stage magic and the coverage of this topic is especially thorough.
Though these two are often seen as quite separate, and thanks to people like Houdini and Randi (who for some reason is not mentioned here) often seen as opposed, in reality the boundaries between the two were very porous; Lamont specifies the Piddington’s, Frederick Marion and Joseph Dunninger.
Dunninger is an interesting case; through much of his career his repute was of a psychic busting sceptic in the Houdini tradition, though one who was almost ambiguous as to his own “powers”. In his old age however he was promoted as a “genuine” psychic by Dr Berthold Eric Schwarz and was featured as such in some of the latter’s articles in Flying Saucer Review. Another modern equivalent that comes to mind was Kreskin who maintained a similar ambiguous position.
Another group of ambiguous performers are those like Darren Brown who aver that they neither use psychic powers nor trickery, but who use extraordinary normal abilities or psychological manipulation. Their sometimes rather convoluted explanations are often themselves misdirection. Of course this must be true of most magical tricks; if magicians reveal “how they are done” but can bet that either that explanation is misdirection itself, or the way it used to be done years ago. Magicians’ ethics do not allow for the revealing of trade secrets. For that reason Lamont does not tell us how the mind reading trick in the introduction was accomplished.
This raises an interesting point that Lamont does not cover, it is clearly in the interest of magicians to exaggerate the special skills, techniques training or even equipment in order to perform tricks adequately. Thus it appears even more improbable to psychical researchers that someone untrained (particularly, in their view, children, the working class, country folk, etc.) could fool them. The conditions are not of course the same; the vast majority of people who watch professional magicians know full well that they are watching tricks and are trying to work out how it is done. In the case of psychical phenomena we usually have people who predisposed not to think of trickery, much more confused and chaotic viewing conditions, pressure of group think etc.
Similarly sceptics, particularly magicians can come up with quite implausible and over complicated “normal” explanations. Lamont gives a good example from the early days of Rhine. A man and woman sit in adjacent rooms, she looks at the targets, and he writes down his guesses and shouts out when it is time for next guess. A loud fan is supposed to drown out any unconscious whispering. A magician came up with a complex explanation of how they could have cheated using a code. Lamont points out that this was quite unnecessary, for the woman who made the guesses also marked them, and nobody was supervising them! They could have just made the whole thing up (and for all I know spent the time having wild sex; a couple getting together was not all that easy in a strict religious university and here was manna from heaven courtesy of the naïve Dr Rhine).
In the final portion of the book Lamont looks at the rise of CSICOP and the formal ‘Skeptics’ movement, as an example of the construction of a new social category, one might almost say a new neo-tribe.
Though Lamont early on states that he does not believe in the paranormal, towards the end of the book he argues that the polarised division between believers and sceptics masks much more nuanced shades of opinion. He also notes that both believers and sceptics actually believe in things, it’s just that they believe in different things.
Lamont’s role as a historian of psychology does I think lead to something of an overlooking of social factors in both the promotion and rejection of unconventional beliefs; for example both believers and sceptics often adopt the role of moral crusaders, against materialism on one side and against irrationalism on the other, both have sought to defend various kinds of élite interests.
This should not detract from the value of this book to the historian of psychology, magic or psychical research and the lay enthusiast alike. – Peter Rogerson.