Leslie Price reports on a final letter from psychical researcher the late Professor David Fontana.
On October 18, Professor David Fontana, perhaps the UK’s leading survival researcher, passed away.
One of his last writings was a commendation of the autobiography of medium Stewart Alexander, featured in the first issue of SPN. But members of the Society for Psychical Research, of which he had served a term as president, have now read a letter from David in their Journal for October 2010. This makes some important general remarks on physical mediumship.
The occasion is a review by another researcher in the same JSPR issue of Robin Foy’s book Witnessing the Impossible. The book tells the story of the Scole group which experienced remarkable phenomena in the 1990s, and triggered the most substantial SPR investigation of physical phenomena for many years.
Fontana re-affirms his belief in the outstanding Scole phenomena, and praises the welcome given to researchers by the circle. He also tries to clear up a possible misunderstanding about infra-red viewers in the group, which had been requested by two of the SPR team, Montague Keen and Arthur Ellison. This was “due to their desire to forestall attacks by sceptics rather than any lack of conviction on their own part.”
Fontana did not seek infra-red viewers, which the spirit communicators did not in any case permit because (they explained) they would be a distraction. It might disturb the harmony and positive focus, resulting in what David called “perhaps total inhibition of the production of the phenomena if the investigators had turned their attention to peering through an infra-red viewer.”
Moreover, the researchers were guests; their duty was to fit in as best as possible, and then in any written report to describe the conditions clearly, so that readers could make up their own minds.
Those involved in psychical research, Fontana suggests, are not there primarily to collect evidence with a view to convincing sceptics, some of whom won’t be convinced. “The task of psychical research is to collect and publish evidence, and leave others to make of it what they will.” Even with infra-red viewers, some sceptics would still not be convinced.
Actually, it is not only those familiar targets, the sceptics, who may be unhappy about such a collection of evidence. It was quite clear from the Noah’s Ark Review, and from more recent comments, that some Spiritualists were far from happy about claims made in the Scole case.
There may even be Spiritualists who have some sympathy for a remark made to me recently by an experienced student of physical mediumship not connected with the Scole case: “The really great mediums (Dunglas Home, the Schneiders, Ossowiecki, Garrett, Piper, Leonard) were never heard whingeing about the ‘dangers’ of light of any kind. They just got on with it and welcomed investigation.”
Arthur Ellison himself, as an engineer, used to point out that central heating radiators produce quite a bit of infra-red radiation without sitters or mediums being harmed.
But is it possible that Professor Fontana is being too pessimistic? There have been some complex problems in science that have resisted solution for many years, but eventually been resolved.
The physiological processes involved in ectoplasm are currently mysterious, but some instrumental record of how they take place is unavoidable if they are to be understood. It is that understanding which is of central scientific significance. If we have come to appreciate how the body works generally, the biochemistry of ectoplasm will surely be made clear one day.
Since the 1990s, of course, unobtrusive monitoring of environments has advanced enormously. Séance room monitoring can now be arranged in which the sitters in the room need pay no attention to any recording arrangements.
The purpose of a scientific programme investigating such mediumship is indeed not to convince the sceptics, but to understand better what is happening, not least what conditions enhance the power. The fluctuations of such power, and the occasional interference with the message, have been major weaknesses in mediumship.
So Spiritualists have an interest in seeing mediumship being better understood, as it can lead to better mediumship. During the 1930s, UK Spiritualists led the world in their employment of the latest technology to study mediumship.
Perhaps the signs of decline in the movement, brought vividly home in 2010, could be reversed by a new marriage of science and mediumship?
Supposing the SAGB, during its prosperous years in Belgrave Square, had devoted just five per cent of its budget to a scientific programme to understand and improve its main product, mediumship?