Annie Jacobsen. Phenomena: The Secret History of the US Government’s Investigation Into Extrasensory Perception And Psychokinesis. Little Brown, 2017.

Leslie Kean. Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife. Crown Archetype, 2017.

These two books by award winning journalists take very different approaches to the subjects they discuss. Annie Jacobsen is a cool, detached outsider, not willing to align herself with any of the factions involved. Her book has a long list of notes, and bibliography, the latter including the list of people she interviewed. Leslie Kean on the other has written a far more committed, not to say polemical work, in favour of the possibility of life after death. Unlike Jacobsen, who stands outside the narrative, she is at the heart of it. They reflect very different schools of journalism, the detached and the involved.

Jacobsen’s book traces, or tries to trace, the involvement of the US government defence agencies in the study of remote viewing and other paranormal abilities from the end of the Second World War onwards. It presents a cast of interesting characters, not least the notorious Henry 'Andrija' Puharich, who seems to be at the centre of flow charts which link almost all the weirdness of America from the 1950s to the 1980s. The book mainly concentrates on the various experiments in remote viewing conducted from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Some of this latter is more familiar territory having been covered by others such as Jim Schnabel in his 1997 book Remote Viewers and the autobiographies of the various participants.

The problem with all of this is that everyone involved has their own agenda and it is difficult to know to what extent the various interviewees are exaggerating or downplaying or spinning their own role. The book has been subject to a number of hostile reviews from aggrieved individuals who feel that their own role has been downplayed. Some of these, one suspects, are those who did not want to cooperate with Jacobsen because they were planning their own books.

I also note that despite being given an almost wholly uncritical treatment in this book, Uri Geller has joined in the whiners. Others in the paranormal community automatically reject any treatment of the subject short of gushing devotional literature.

Such people will find no such fault with Leslie Kean’s book as she investigates stories of children with past life memories, near death experiences and mental and physical mediumship showing the same uncritical attitude as was shown in her book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record.

The views of believers are presented unchallenged, and several have their own pieces. Those of skeptics are also unchallenged; they are simply not mentioned at all. There are no references to James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman etc. One could read this book without even being aware that a number of claims in it are contentious to say the least.

In the introduction Kean refers to the notorious Scole case in a completely uncritical manner, despite the fact that even within the promotional accounts there was cumulative evidence suggestive of fakery. Among those critical of Scole was long time SPR stalwart Alan Gauld, who contributes a chapter on mental mediumship to this book and had email correspondence with Kean, so I doubt she is unaware of this fact. 

The section on physical mediumship shows a similar lack of critical thought, the amazing materialisations of Eva Carriere alias Marthe Beraud are presented without any indications of the fact she was accused of fraud on a number of occasions. The photographs in the article I link to speak for themselves.

Kean however has seen ectoplasm herself, which was something of a surprise as that, it is usually thought of having vanished from the scene more or less since the war. Kean has also seen (or rather not seen) a full form materialisation (p337). To me this makes sad reading as to the depths of credulity that the emotionally vulnerable can fall.

Of course, in a sense modern accounts of physical mediumship should be much easier to investigate than those of Home and Palladino due to the development of non-invasive infra-red and night vision photography however as in the case of Scole mediums will almost certainly come up with some excuse as why they should not be used.

In a sense I am being unfair to Kean, but only because she insists that she is writing as an investigative journalist; she isn’t, she is writing as someone deep in grief for the loss of both her brother and her lover Budd Hopkins. A more honest and deeply personal account of such a grief and the interest in the paranormal generated by such is Justine Picardie’s If The Spirit Moves You, (Picador, 2002)

Of course not everything presented here can be dismissed as easily as physical mediumship and perhaps the most puzzling cases are those of children with alleged past life memories. It is a pity then that in one case vital corroborative evidence should go missing. One possible non-paranormal explanation is provided by research which suggests babies and toddlers understand far more language than they are able to articulate. Perhaps if that is the case they pick up information from radio and TV programmes which are simply unremembered background noise to adults.

It would take far more time and efforts than a book reviewer has to check the accuracy of accounts in their books, but there are worrying signs in both. It certainly does not reassure that in Jacobsen’s the pioneer parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine is constantly called, even in the index, James Banks Rhine, surely something an editor at Little Brown should have picked up, or that Martin Gardner’s lifetime religious faith is presented as a sort of death bed conversion. Equally Kean makes one extraordinary looking claim that I could investigate. On page 146 of her book we read:
“Lisa Randall, theoretical physicist from Harvard University, and Raman Sun drum, theoretical particle physicist at the Maryland Centre for Fundamental Physics, uses a five dimensional model to explain the phenomena we find in dying. At death, the four dimensional aspect of reality changes into the fifth dimension”
This is referenced to an alleged article 'Four Dimensional Brain in a Five Dimensional Bulk', Physical Review Letters 83, p4690. It is a piece of theoretical physics with no reference to brains or the afterlife at all. It might be that reference to a three dimensional 'brane' has somehow got transferred into four dimensional 'brain'.

If both of these books contain such easily checkable errors want else might lay hidden.

The fact is that any journalist seeking to explore such topics in depth would be committed to years of research at our friends at Archives for the Unexplained and the libraries of at least a dozen other institutions, even before the long job of interviewing all manner of folks pro and con, and always taking on board not to believe anything that anyone tells and not even trust ones own senses. -- Peter Rogerson

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