Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Control Issues: Why The Scoles Experiment is Not The Convincing Evidence That Believers Often Claim.

Saw this posted on a Facebook page this morning and what can I say. I like a challenge!

Supporters of the paranormal often cite the Scole experiment as the most robust evidence of the paranormal, using its purported conduction under the observation of "scientists" as conformation of its accuracy.  So what was the Scole experiment and was it really convincing scientific evidence of life after death?
Taken from head researcher, Montague Keen's 2001 response to critics of the initial Scoles Report*: 
"A number of experienced psychical researchers investigated the activities of a mediumistic group in Scole (Norfolk, United Kingdom), that claimed to produce under spiritual guidance a wide range of physical phenomena. During a two-year-long study, lights, tape recordings and films bearing images, glyphs, poems, symbols and messages in several languages were produced. The investigators could find no evidence of deception or human interference." - Keen, 2001 
In other words, the Scole experiment was a series of seances held in the early 90's. The researchers in question were fifteen members of the Society for Psychical Research. The seances were conducted by six mediums in the groups normal gathering point: a basement in the home of the lead psychics, Robin and Sandra Foy.

This is the first indication that the Scole experiment was not conducted under the tightest of controls. By allowing the psychics to conduct the seances in an environment they had access to prior to any test being conducted, they opened the door to an unlimited amount of rigging and tampering, including the secretion of objects around the seance table. When further tests were conducted with the same individuals in alternative locations, phenomena reported in the Foy's basement failed to manifest.

This stunning lapse of controls is a repeated theme throughout the Scoles experiment. The investigators were so lapse in this area that they actually allowed the mediums to impose controls upon them rather than the other way around! This included an embargo on any lighting in the seance room itself, no video recording equipment was to be used, and infra-red equipment was prohibited.
"...The sittings were held in a near-underground converted cellar in almost total darkness, save for the illumination cast at unpredictable times and luminosity levels....  It was a source of considerable anxiety and regret that we were unable to get them to accept the introduction of infrared video cameras at this stage..." Keen, 2001 
 Another condition imposed by the mediums was the playing of background music during the seances, this was accompanied by "casual chatter". This things could easily mask the sound of the mediums shifting position and reaching for concealed objects. As the only allowed recordings were audio in nature, this may well prevent future researchers detecting sounds, which may at least indicate some form of trickery is occurring.

The mediums did agree to wear luminous wrist bands, to show were their hands where at all times. Unfortunately these Velcro wristbands were created and supplied by the mediums themselves, and... you may need to read this twice... WERE NEVER EXAMINED BY THE RESEARCHERS! Even if these wristbands hadn't been gimmicked, slipping off a Velcro wristband is hardly an impossible feat, and the provision of music and chatter may well of provided a nice cover for the potential sound of adjusting Velcro.

One of the most repeated claims of paranormal phenomena was the appearance of images on film placed within sealed containers in the session rooms.

"...The production of films, which were the chief but not the only tangible effect created, did not conform to a rigidly determined procedure. The spirit team did not so much acquiesce in the investigators’ bringing and controlling their own film as to positively commend this course. Since the initial expectation was that films could be produced only after a gestation period extending over a week or two, it was necessary to agree on the sort of security container in which to house unopened rolls of virgin film. An initial experiment with an approved treble-thickness plastic security bag produced a few anomalous markings on a roll of 35-mm Polaroid colour film, but nothing intelligible or artistic. Nevertheless, the procedure followed was such that it precluded any form of interference or substitution. The black plastic, we were told, was difficult to penetrate..."- Keen, 2001
So when the film was contained with boxes supplied by the investigative team, no images appeared.  The mediums justify this by stating that "the spirits" had trouble penetrating the plastic. Special pleading if ever I heard it.  Never fear though the mediums are quick to provide a solution:
"...Consequently, we later used a small hinge-lidded padlocked box made by one of members of the Group..."- Keen, 2001
By providing their own boxes! And the investigators, again, are fine with this!

Dr Alan Gauld, a member of the SPR and one of Scoles main critics, examined one of these boxes and found it easily opened in the dark. This, of course, would allow the mediums to replace the "virgin" film rolls, with their own specially prepared roll.
"...when the box was examined at the University of Nottingham ... it was found that, by squeezing the hasp which carries the padlock securing the lid, it was possible to push its right-hand arm further into the right-hand socket, thereby enabling the left arm to be released from its socket by swivelling the hasp (after which the right-hand arm could also be removed). This allowed the box lid to be opened without interfering with the padlock and hence permitted any contents to be removed and/or replaced." - Keen, 1999 
Of course it would be necessary for them to know in advance what film was to be used, but this seems to be likely as Keen tells us himself that "the spirits" were informed of the film to be used, and even asked if they approved... All via the mediums of course!
"...the spirits agreed to try out a wholly new type of film, Kodachrome 200 (x36 exposures); the development of this film took place independently at Kodak’s laboratories in Wimbledon, London. This was equally successful..."- Keen, 2001
As with the change of location, when any other method of securing the film was used, all alleged paranormal effects failed to manifest.

Another reported phenomena was the appearance of darting and dancing points of light. These appeared to respond to command and direction.
"...Of the many forms of physical effects we witnessed and described in our re- port, the light phenomena were the most immediately impressive because of what we considered to be the impossibility of a natural origin or mechanism. Points of light would appear from above, dart at great speeds around the small chamber, describe elaborate aerial patterns, alight on our heads, frequently responding to spoken or silent requests, appear to enter bodies, “dive-bomb” the table top with a sharp “ping” and emerge from below it, irradiate a table tennis ball which ran away from our grasp on the carpeted floor around our feet, and illuminate crystals, bowls and the interior of the glass dome, spreading light slowly through the six Perspex supports on which it stood... " - Keen, 2001
All of the listed effects could easily by replicated with a simple laser pointer/pen. All that would be required would be for one of the mediums to slip their wristband and recover the pointer and for the tip of the laser pointer to be obscured from the view of the investigators. The moving of the tennis ball may well be attributed to a well-known seance trick: the use of a concealed extendible rod to manipulate objects. This has been a common source of fraud in seances since the rise of spiritualism in the 1800's. Again all that would be required for this method to be employed, would be the unnoticed removal of a Velcro luminous wrist band.

These fundamental failures to impose controls and the allowing of the mediums to dictate the protocol and limit controls, mean that the Scole experiments findings simply can't be deemed credible. This is the reason that, as of writing this, no other organisations have even attempted to replicate the experiment.

A common theme with those that defend the Scole experiment is that no hoaxing was ever detected.
"As Professor Arthur Ellison wrote the reply to the critics: 'No serious student of the Scole investigation can reasonably conclude that their four years' work and some 500 sittings, most of them closed to outsiders, warrants the assumptions (of fraud) implicit in such a practice ...' and 'None of our critics has been able to point to a single example of fraud or deception.'"- Victor Zammit
Well I don't have any direct evidence that a magician is using trickery to create the illusion of the paranormal, should I conclude that every magic trick I've not been able to explain was the result of paranormal phenomena unless direct fraud is discovered?

Critics don't have an incident of fraud to point to as all we have of this experiment to examine is the investigators own credulous eye-witness testimony.  Assessment of this leads to no conclusion other than the opportunities to fake phenomena would of been rampant. Do believers really expect to completely shift the paradigm of modern science's position based on an "experiment" with virtually no controls in place?

The Scoles experiment is a clear demonstration of what happens when investigators set to discover an effect with little or no consideration of the null-hypothesis. The investigators here wanted to find evidence of the paranormal so much, they allowed their subjects to relax the controls to the extent that such evidence was virtually guaranteed.

*The Scole Investigation: A Study in Critical Analysis of Paranormal Physical Phenomena1
(MONTAGUE KEEN, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 167–182, 2001 0892-3310/01 © 2001 Society for Scientific Exploration)