Major reports of paranormal phenomena always stir up debate between those who believe the reports may be genuine and those who try to debunk them. On one end of the spectrum, some people seem to believe the reports no matter what evidence is brought against them. On the other end, some seem determined that paranormal phenomena do not exist and will find any reason possible to dismiss evidence. Many reasonable and curious people stand somewhere between these two extremes.
We will look at two cases in which prominent debunkers were convinced by personal experience that—while many frauds or cases in which ordinary explanations are to be found may exist—there are awe-inspiring and mysterious phenomena in this world that defy ordinary explanation.
More Than ‘Just a Coincidence’
Dr. Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the executive director of the Skeptics Society, and a monthly columnist for Scientific American.
He wrote in his column on Sept. 16, 2014, about an experience that led him to conclude, “We should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.”
His fiancée’s belongings were shipped to the United States from Germany, and among them was her grandfather’s 1978 transistor radio. She was very close with her grandfather, who died when she was 16. The radio had been silent for decades, and try as he might Shermer could not get it working again. It continued its silence in the back of a desk drawer in the couple’s bedroom.
Three months later (June 2014), they were married. After the ceremony, his wife asked to talk with him alone. She was feeling lonely, missing her family back in Germany and also wishing her grandfather could have been alive to give her away. The couple walked to the back of the house where they heard music playing, a love song.
They searched in vain for the source of the music, then his wife “shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thriller ‘The Exorcist’ startled audiences. ‘That can’t be what I think it is, can it?’ she said.” It was the transistor radio in the drawer. “My grandfather is here with us,” she said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”
Shermer’s daughter had heard music coming from the radio just before the ceremony started, though the couple had been in the room only moments before without hearing any music. The radio continued to work through the wedding night. “Fittingly, it stopped working the next day and has remained silent ever since,” Shermer wrote.
A Convincing Medium
We reach further back in history for another outstanding example, involving the medium Leonora Piper (1857–1950). After all, as former Society for Psychical Research President Dr. David Fontana said in the documentary, “This Life, Next Life”: “The real stars come along quite rarely. Mrs. Piper was probably the best example, because she was investigated by such careful and well-known researchers.”
Dr. Richard Hodgson was a lecturer at Cambridge University and renowned debunker of spiritual mediums during a time when séances were all the rage. Hodgson had said, according to the documentary’s host Keith Parsons, “Nearly all the professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters in league with one another.”
But, after observing hundreds of Piper’s sittings in Boston, he said: “Frankly, I went to Mrs. Piper 12 years ago with the aim of unmasking her. I entered her house profoundly materialistic, not believing in the continuance of life after death. Now, I say, I believe. The truth has been given to me in such a way as to remove the possibility of a doubt.”
Skeptics today still raise doubts about Piper’s abilities, noting that a French spirit she supposedly channeled couldn’t speak French and that sometimes her statements were shown to be blatantly false. The clarity of communication between a medium and spirit, if such a communication exists, may not be what the skeptics expect. For example, Piper’s limited knowledge of French may have inhibited the spirit from speaking in French, the spirit may have been lying about his identity, Piper may have been pulling information out of her subconscious rather than channeling a spirit at times—though that does not mean she was never channeling spirits. Hodgson considered some of the possible arguments against Piper’s ability being genuine, but he was convinced by certain cases that seemed to defy all these arguments.
One series of sittings with Piper, for example, convinced not only Hodgson, but also Dr. James H. Hyslop, a professor of ethics and logic at Columbia University, who was the subject of the sitting. Piper was not told Hyslop’s identity and Hyslop took pains to say very little to her. Piper seemed nonetheless able to provide much information about Hyslop, including his name and the details of personal conversations he’d had, purportedly imparted to her by Hyslop’s dead father and brother.
Hyslop’s father purportedly said, through Piper, “What do you remember, James, of our talks about Swedenborg? Do you remember of our talking one evening in the library about his description of the Bible?” Hyslop did remember such a conversation with his father.
Michael E. Tymn, author of books about the after life, summarized the case on the Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies website: “[His father] asked what happened to his old horse, giving the horse’s name, Tom. He said that his old friend, Steele Perry, had moved west. He referred to another friend, Harper Crawford, being involved in a dispute over putting an organ in their church. The latter two facts were outside the scope of mental telepathy as Hyslop knew nothing about them, although he later checked with relatives and found them to be true.
“As Hyslop concluded, fraud was clearly excluded. Even if Mrs. Piper knew he was coming to sit with her, which she didn’t, she would have had to employ a private investigator to dig up obscure facts in a town nearly a thousand miles from where she lived, this at a time when travel and communications were slow and relatively expensive. And she would have had to assume that none of Hyslop’s relatives would mention that a private investigator was there asking about the names of horses, nicknames, church disputes, et cetera. And the investigator would have had to somehow have found out about private conversations Hyslop had with his father.”
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