Responding to Hayley: The Medium & The Message Revisited

OK, two things. This will be short, because I’m writing it in a break. I will not have time to do the issues justice, but at least it won’t drag on.

Secondly, I have not blogged on events in Norway, because others have said it all better I’m sure. With Lisa planning to emigrate there permanently, and her and Lloyd recently back from Oslo I hear a great deal about Norway, and sometimes read NRK and listen to Norwegian radio  online, and events utterly shocked me. I think everyone in the world must be encouraged by the words of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

“We meet terror and violence with more democracy and will continue to fight against intolerance”

My thoughts are with my Norwegian friends; stoic, calm and sensible, they seem to be getting on with making a better future, from the comments i have seen on Facebook and Twitter. I can not begin to deal with this horror properly, so I simply acknowledged it as best I can here, because to write anything at this time seems trite and banal. So with that caveat, I’ll blog on unrelated matters. However I am sensitive that talking about mediumship and life after death can be insensitive faced with mass grief and bereavement, so you may wish to return to this piece later.

I read a couple of interesting pieces on Hayley Steven’s blog today — the first on a BBC TV show she was originally due to be part of, the second a follow on piece. They are both worth reading. I can’t intelligently comment on the first, because I have not yet had a chance to watch the show. You can see it here, the piece on psychics is maybe half way through I think I may do so in the next day or so if time permits, but I am sadly very busy.  Hayley’s second piece however does raise issues I feel I should respond to.

There has been a lot of stuff written about the “ghostnobbergate” silliness, and Professor Brian Cox’s comments after claims that an episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage comedy show on the radio lacked “balance”, the impartiality required by public broadcasters. If you missed it all, there are a couple of articles on this blog, and  Hayley and Roy Stenmen both covered it in depth too.  I only mention this because in some ways this seems to follow up from that: in the light of global and domestic news, the situation in Greece, the USA, Norway and especially East Africa it all seems so petty, but perhaps these things serve to amuse and distract us from the horrors of the world, so I make no apology for talking about it.

Defining Our Terms

The core of the discussion in Hayley’s second post is a disagreement between herself and a representative of the Spiritualist National Union about whether the BBC was substantially in error in said programme as representing in representing a number of people as “mediums” who the SNU would instead dismiss as “psychics”. This may seem like  a bizarre row, because perhaps in common usage the terms are synonymous; but in fact a medium is almost by definition (at least etymologically) someone who acts as a channel for communications (almost always purportedly from the dead), and in fact when we talk about the medium of television, or the media, we use this term in the same way. So a medium is someone who talks to the dead.

The SNU - click for link

So what is a psychic? Well psychic just refers to the soul or mind, and technically a psychic function is just a mental process: dreams are psychic, perception is psychic, memory is psychic and so forth. In the 19th century the term “psychical” was coined for purportedly paranormal powers, to differentiate them from these normal psychic processes we all know. That is why I once tried to win a bet I could show “psychic powers” on Bad Psychics by offerring to do mental arithmetic – because by definition I am completely correct.  The dictionary gives

1. Of, relating to, affecting, or influenced by the human mind or psyche; mental: psychic trauma; psychic energy.

However, in popular usage the term psychic has never caught on, and really it is only used by me sometimes on this blog, and in the name of the Society for Psychical research, or in papers where the two classes of mental activity are discussed, and by people playing Scrabble...

So I’ll use psychic in the popular sense in this piece; and the SNU argument is that psychics are not mediums, and the two should never be confused. Psychics can include a huge number of claims — seeing the future (precognition), reading minds (telepathy), seeing at a distance (clairvoyance), or even effecting matter (psychokinesis); they come in all shapes and sizes from Astral Travellers, Psychic Detectives, Tarot card readers to the psychics who for only £15 a minute will tell you your ex-boyfriend still really loves you and secretly longs for reconciliation (which may or may not be true.)  But these powers are not “talking to the dead” – and mediums and psychics are distinct categories in theory, and indeed I can think of very few who want to claim to be both — Derek Acorah is the first I can think of who billed himself as a “psychic medium”.

Now I’m running short of time and I can’t recall if I have blogged before on the different Spiritualist groups in the UK here, and there history — suffice to say I am not a Spiritualist, and my personal distaste for mediumship is well known, though my opinions on the evidential issue are hopefully open minded.  Suffice for now to say the SNU represents a large group of UK Spiritualists, who follow a strict code, have formal training, and as befits a religious group licensed ministers (platform mediums).

I may be out of date on the organizational aspects, but the SNU really dislike psychics, who “give mediumship a bad name”, and I doubt the psychics are fond of the SNU. In recent year we seem to have seen an explosion of psychics,  many of whom also feel they can speak with the dead, but a drop in support for traditional Spiritualist churches; I blogged on this here.

But once you are clear on the difference between a psychic and a medium, well then it all gets confused. Because most SNU mediums will accept they have psychic powers, which they attempt to ignore, and many psychics claim to also possess mediumistic abilities, but simply do not see themselves as part of the SNU, and hence never join.

I am aware that to many of my readers this must all seem completely insane, and that none of this may be real, but bear with me…

Psychics and Mediums

So first obvious question — why do mediums not like, or want to be psychic? If you remember Derek Acorah in Most Haunted used t talk about “residual energy”: that was a psychic function, where he picked up the “energies” from the past, a form of retrocognition.  This was a distraction over his “real work”, talking to the spirits. It’s the difference between seeing Professor Brian Cox on the TV recorded last Tuesday,  and meeting him down the pub and chatting with him. If this was the only theoretical issue with psychic powers for mediums, well that would not be too bad. In fact being “sensitive” to atmospheres might even help a medium I guess.

It is not the only problem though. There are two far worse issues. The first revolves around Telepathy, mind to mind ESP.

Imagine Aunt Maggie has departed, and buried the family silver. You go to a medium, he tells you it’s under the apple tree, you dig it up, everyone is happy. To many people this would appear clear proof of the mediumistic hypothesis – the medium spoke to Aunt Maggie.

What if we allow for psychism, that is use of psychic powers though? Well maybe a neighbour saw Aunt Maggie bury it, and in fact the medium is not a medium at all: they got the information from the neighbour (who is still alive) mind, using psychic powers – in this case Telepathy?Then this seemingly watertight case does not actually show any proof for life after death.

It gets far worse. Firstly most examples of supposedly “successful” mediumistic contacts with the dead are not like this. Instead they are more like this

Medium: I’m getting a “Johnny”. He liked to eat chocolate buttons in bed and put them in your belly button, and frequently dressed up in a giant pink rabbit costume for Halloween!

Client: Yes he did!

Now clearly this is not evidentially as strong as proof for life after death, even if every word is true, because the client (traditionally called a “sitter”) knew all the facts the medium told her. The medium could potentially be using ESP — telepathy in this case, to read the clients mind, and then receiving the information as if it was from “Johnny”, who is actually no more than a method for the mediums telepathy to present itself to the conscious mind.

So in fact we have a catalogue of almost contradictory marvels — if you allow for ESP (psi), it becomes almost impossible to prove mediumship. And hence the huge rift between the ESP hypothesis in the main laboratory parapsychologists, and the life after death believing mediums. In an early post on this blog I showed how this works — almost any evidence that seems to allow for life after death can instead be explained away by a suitably unlimited “Super-ESP”.

The psychic could have seen in to the future when the silver was discovered, seen in to the past when Aunt Maggie buried it, read the mind of someone who knew where it was, or someone who knew them who has telepathically transferred the knowledge, etc, etc. In fact I used exactly this scenario in an online corse I once led, and saw huge number of ways in which pyschic powers could explain the scenario without life after death being invoked emerge from the students.

So if you actually believe in ESP, and psychics, mediumship is much harder to prove. The SNU has always known this – the SPR raised the Super-ESP problem as early as the late 1880’s, and so mediums are taught to disregard, and indeed avoid using their ESP powers, as part fo their training, instead focusing on talking to the dead and furnishing evidence for post-mortem survival ( even though if you accept the reality of psychic powers it is horribly difficult if not impossible to prove that is what you are doing, many mediums say they can tell the difference.)

And if that is not bad enough, there is another older controversy hinted at in the discussion on Hayley’s blog, when Sam says “personally I do not believe mediums can see the future”. And predictions of the future is  certainly not a claim the SNU would endorse, but to understand why we have to go back to 1938/1939, as Hitler makes increasingly belligerent moves and war seems inevitable.

The spirits were wrong about Hitler's plans

Even them no one believed that mediums could tell the future (though psychics theoretically might by a process called precognition) – but it was widely believed in many spiritualist circles that Spirit could. And Spirit kept assuring circles that war would not happen, Hitler would back down and negotiate, and the Second World War would never happen. And of course they were right, and peace prevailed. 😉 Er, sorry, no they weren’t. War broke out as pretty much everyone but Spirit and the editors of Two Worlds magazine  (one of the spiritualist papers of the day) expected, in September 1939.

The prophecies had failed: a theological crisis followed. And what happened? Well, basically it was accepted that Spirit could not see the future any more than we can. I think most mediums accept this now, so don’t take your dearly departed’s advice on whether to take that new job, unless you would accept it if they were sitting in the room with you now and knew what you do.  🙂

So again, the SNU are not going to like psychics much, who makes exactly these fortune telling claims all the time.

And finally, there is one rather practical more reason why the SNU don’t like being conflated with “psychics”.  A lot of psychics are utterly disreputable sleazebags, and out to make money, rip off the vulnerable, and generally are slime. (I once famously insulted a commercial “psychic” with the line “I am glad you are so “spiritually evolved”, it rather explains what you were doing for the four billion years of human evolution since pond scum you somehow missed out on.” 🙂 ) I can be rude at times. The SNU are a religious, regulated body, who deeply resent being conflated in the public mind with these people.

Responding to Hayley

Hayley is one of the sharpest and best sceptical commentators out there, and in her piece makes it clear that the issue here is very simple: to complain about the BBC misrepresenting mediums some have is scarcely fair, given that they have merely reflected a popular understanding and popular usage of the terms. After all, many psychics do claim to the talk to the dead, and far from all mediums are members of the SNU – the Christian Spiritualists are another large UK spiritualist denomination, and there are others.  The BBC can not realistically be held to blame for this confusion in the popular mind.  And I agree with Hayley; it is up to the SNU to clarify their position, and educate the public on their beliefs, etc, with the vital caveat I still have not viewed the show.

I’m typing at a tremendous pace and am almost out of time – but I think the issue is wider. Who is a “scientist”? What enables one to use that title? A BSc? A PhD in some science? A job in a scientific career? What makes one a “climate scientist”? There are controversies there; some people we see representing themselves as scientists are actually pundits, or science journalists, or simply science fans?

Hayley Stevens, excellent investigator & sceptical blogger (photo from her linked blog, used without permission so don’t copy it)

Who is a “sceptic”? Am I, a religious believer who accepts some paranormal phenomena is really a sceptic? What about the “global warming sceptics”? the “9/11 sceptics/ Truthers”? “the Birthers?”  They all are sceptical of something, but in the circles Hayley and I move in “sceptic” actually means, as in most Skeptics in the Pub people, supporters  of mainstream scientific/political/medical orthodoxy?  Does Hayley not feel a little sympathy for the SNU when they complain about misrepresentation of psychics and mediums, when I am sure she would not want to be associated with the tinfoil hat brigade who call themselves “skeptics”?” ( I have never forgotten the first time I was asked b some one “so you are a skeptic, you think the government did 9/11 then?” — very close to the endless times that because I am a Christian I have been mistaken for a Creationist, or because I’m a parapsychologist I have been mistaken for an ESP believer.

But am I a Parapsychologist?

Work calls, and I may just have time to format this and add a couple of pictures, but I just said I was a parapsychologist. Am I? What do you all think? I doubt Prof. Ian Baker would think I am: my lab work is very limited. Am I really just a presumptuous ghosthunter, or a “paranormal journalist”, a fortean, or a skeptic? Sure I have done a few methodologically sophisticated studies, and have some publications. But my first degree was in a totally unrelated discipline, and I have no academic credentials in the field. By the generally accepted definition I am not — I am not a full member of the Parapsychological Association, hell not being a student and having no money I’m not even an associate member, and I don’t think I have the publications to be elected yet, but heck I could not afford the fees for the accreditation even if I somehow maned to churn out ten high quality papers this year.

So no, I’m not a parapsychologist, except in my own loosely defined sense of “someone who knows the other people in parapsychology and some of them might know who I am, vaguely, as an irritant”. Ironically, my girlfriend, doing her PhD in the field is well on the way to it. But when I am described on TV as a “parapsychologist” I don’t split hairs on this issue, though maybe i should, given the utter woo that is frequently passed off as by “parapsychologists”, people who I have never heard of and who have not to the best of my knowledge ever published in the peer reviewed journals, and the bizarre belief of many “skeptics” that parapsychologists are somehow synonymous with “paranormal believers”, and that we all believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Out of time, but hope amused

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion, Social commentary desecrated and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Responding to Hayley: The Medium & The Message Revisited

  1. This is my real comment (can you delete the one aboive CJ?)

    I do have sympathy that those who are trying to regulate the field being misrepresented by others who misuse the terms set out. However, with regard to global warming “skeptics” misrepresenting skeptics, I would have to disagree.

    They DO use that term out of place, true, but they’re not skeptics – they’re deniers, which skeptics are not. Skeptics work against global warming deniers and call out their pseudo-science. This is what those who are fed up with the misrepresentation of mediums should look to do. Tackle those misusing the definitions.

    Yes, I’m sure the BBC did use those definitions for the theatre of the words, but the problem lays with those who let that definition exist. Tackle those who misrepresent mediums, not those who use that misrepresentation 🙂

    • @CJR – Definitions and etymology are our friends I believe… although I do appreciate when people I hold in esteem speak up…

      For example, the late Marcello Truzzi said a sceptic is one who doubts, not denies out of hand… it is the pseudo-scepticism movement that hurts those who are looking for the truth and do not accept things in blind faith but do ask questions… as opposed to simple knee-jerk denial or “nobber-name-calling”… “woo-woo” for JREFers. It’s the perversion of the word “sceptic” which was adopted by “non-believers” that made Truzzi leave the group he helped found… CSICOP

      Dr. Charles Lietzau quite rightly said to my bride, a scientist is anyone who practices good scientific methods and controls regardless of education, background, or vocational title. If you’re practicing science to him, you’re a scientist. People may argue, but looking at medical, biological, astronomical, mathematical, etc., etc., findings that people who “weren’t scientists” (as such… not earning their daily bread in science and missing a scientific degree in science,) have made, I think there’s some argument to his words as is…

      …and I completely agree with “medium” and “psychic”… you can chuck the misuse of “shaman” in here as well. For some work we were doing with a local university, we needed help from someone who felt they were a “physical medium” and GENTLY asked for assistance… most of the people did not understand what we were looking for which made the process far more difficult than it needed to be.


      @Hayley -Zero disrespect intended, and I do hope you’ll respond to this… Are you suggesting the CJR and folks like myself not attempt to correct people who we feel misuse words, phrases, titles, etc… in general, that we not “correct” mistakes as we can… and instead, go looking for the sources of where the misinformation started and “work forward”? The reason I ask is this does seem to be a little backwards. As an example…

      A student stands up in front of his class and does a presentation on the North American War of 1812 between America and Britain… and states with confidence it happened in the year 1869 only in the city of Toledo, Ohio.

      If I’m reading you correctly, and I believe I am but please, do correct me if I’m not… we should not correct the student, but instead, find the sources that gave him this bogus information, correct them, and somehow this will “filter up”?

      So, if the student says it was a primary school teacher and the student is in a pre-college level of studies, we ignore and not correct the student, head to the primary school, find the teacher there and make the correction with them… and hope that somehow, the information makes its way back to the older student.

      Strikes me that corrections, when indeed necessary, should happen at all or any level to whomever may have made the transgression. Correct the student, through them find the source, then correct the source if possible.

      If I am reading you wrong, please correct me… I don’t wish to have any miscommunications if possible.

  2. “Are you suggesting the CJR and folks like myself”

    — sip of coffee —

    Are you suggesting THAT CJR and folks like myself

    Long day already. 🙂

    • “We should correct the student, but not blame the student for being misinformed.”

      I agree… but what if the statement is a pronouncement levelled with gravitas in the media? What if someone goes on the radio, television, press, whatever, pronounces themselves with even some minor form of authority and makes a completely incorrect pronouncement?

      Example: The pre-college student is doing a lecture in a fairly large hall to many other younger students, states that he is taking history in school, hopes to continue his studies in history, and has many historian friends… and then blurts out “The War of 1812 occurred in 1869 in Toledo, Ohio.”

      Since the statement was made with some assumed weight (and conviction with the speaker,) is it okay to at least be “concerned” publicly at that point? Can we “correct” and be a bit miffed if a statement was made by someone claiming “expertise” either directly or indirectly and with the knowledge their mistake can affect (adversely) how things are seen outside the lecture hall…

      I know I get miffed when people invoke “science” and don’t understand the difference between and untested hypothesis, a hypothesis, and a theory… and there is a whopping big difference between them… Using the above example of global warming, I loath it when someone (usually a meteorologist as opposed to a climate scientist – again, large difference save to the general “teevee audience”) quotes “facts” and “figures” that they seem to make up based on what they heard in their own group meetings… or were given by coal or oil corporations… without ensuring neutral data is also at least taken into consideration…

      If you really want to see me steamed, tell me that “Science says…”, “Science does…”, or “Science tells us…” because how on Earth can a methodology have an opinion? Scientific data can show us things, but “Science” is not a group, person, or a collective… and without empirical evidence (or peer reviewed course of examples) for anything, science is open to part of it’s method known as “hypothesis”… but in order for that hypothesis to be taken as theory, that hypothesis must be tested and found repeatably true… which many climate “sceptics” do not bother with…

      …and I went WAY off topic there, sorry… I do apologise.

      This said, back to my statement… If the student proclaims knowledge or at least familiarity and then makes a large faux pas, is it not okay to have a wee issue?

  3. ersby says:

    Like cj, I’m typing against the clock. I’m about to go to bed, and my mouse doesn’t really work any more, so I’m crossing my fingers I’ll be able to hit “post comment” before it gives up the ghost. No pun intended.

    I saw the piece on TV quite by chance, and I have to admit, I thought it was unbalanced. When one of the skeptics (Chris French) is catiously on the side of the mediums, you can be sure that something odd is happening. No one really answered the question, which is: if someone pays for a service, and they say the service is no good, then what redress do they have? I would’ve liked to have known if existing consumer laws protect people from mediums, whether they are deliberately fraudulent or not. As it is, I am no wiser.

    The three people in the studio didn’t demonstrate any great knowledge on the matter. The guy who (I think) had a radio show seemed to have something interesting to say about psychic mediums in general, but it did not apply to the question being put at the time.

    It is unreasonable to ask a sunday morning TV programme to show any great depth, but surely they should at least attempt to answer the question.

    Oh, and they also had a bit on the programme about “should we be proud of our politicians” without actually putting forward a reason why we should be. So it’s not just parapsychology that gets superficial treatment.

    I think Hayley was quite lucky in not being on the show, frankly,

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