Society for Psychical Research
|Legal status||Non-profit organisation|
|Prof John Poynton|
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is a non-profit organisation in the United Kingdom. Its stated purpose is to understand events and abilities commonly described as psychic or paranormal. It claims to be the "first society to conduct organised scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models." It does not however, since its inception in 1882, hold any corporate opinions: SPR members have a variety of beliefs or lack thereof about the reality and nature of the phenomena studied.
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) originated from a discussion between journalist Edmund Rogers and the physicist William F. Barrett in autumn 1881. This led to a conference on the 5 and 6 January 1882 at the headquarters of the British National Association of Spiritualists which the foundation of the Society was proposed. The committee included Barrett, Rogers, Stainton Moses, Charles Massey, Edmund Gurney, Hensleigh Wedgwood and Frederic W. H. Myers. The SPR was formally constituted on the 20 February 1882 with philosopher Henry Sidgwick as its first president.
The SPR was the first organisation of its kind in the world, its stated purpose being "to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated."
Much of the early work involved investigating, exposing and in some cases duplicating fake phenomena. In the late 19th century, SPR investigations into séance phenomena led to the exposure of many fraudulent mediums.
Richard Hodgson distinguished himself in that area. In 1884, Hodgson was sent by the SPR to India to investigate Helena Blavatsky and concluded that her claims of psychic power were fraudulent. Among the phenomena that Hodgson investigated was the alleged miraculous Mahatma letters which were said to magically appear over a four-year period in a cabinet in the Shrine Room at the Theosophical headquarters in Madres. Hodgson in his report wrote that the letters were frauds and had been written by Blavatsky herself who had put them in the cabinet from an opening in her bedroom located behind the Shrine room. Hodgson's report was later examined by Vernon Harrison who outlined flaws in his work. Harrison concluded that the letters were forgeries but were not written by Blavatsky but by ex-employees for revenge.
In 1886 and 1887 a series of publications by S. J. Davey, Hodgson and Sidgwick in the SPR journal exposed the slate writing tricks of the medium William Eglinton. Hodgson with his friend, S. J. Davey had staged fake séances for educating the public (including SPR members). Davey gave sittings under an assumed name, duplicating the phenomena produced by Eglinton, and then proceeded to point out to the sitters the manner in which they had been deceived. Because of this, some spiritualist members such as Stainton Moses resigned from the SPR.
In 1891, Alfred Russel Wallace requested for the Society to properly investigate spirit photography. Eleanor Sidgwick responded with a critical paper in the SPR which cast doubt on the subject and revealed the fraudulent methods that spirit photographers such as Édouard Isidore Buguet, Frederic Hudson and William H. Mumler had utilized.
The SPR investigated many spiritualist mediums such as Eva Carrière and Eusapia Palladino. Due to the exposure of William Hope and other fraudulent mediums, Arthur Conan Doyle led a mass resignation of eighty-four members of the Society for Psychical Research, as they believed the Society was opposed to spiritualism. Science historian William Hodson Brock has noted that "By the 1900s most avowed spiritualists had left the SPR and gone back to the BNAS (the London Spiritualist Alliance since 1884), having become upset by the sceptical tone of most of the SPR's investigations."
During the early twentieth century, the SPR studied a series of automatic scripts and trance utterances from a group of automatic writers, known as the cross-correspondences. The SPR were to introduce a number of neologisms which have entered the English language, such as 'telepathy', which was coined by Frederic Myers.
The Society is run by a President and a Council of twenty members, and is open to interested members of the public to join. The organisation is based at 49 Marloes Road, Kensington, London, with a library and office open to members, and with large book and archival holdings in Cambridge University Library, Cambridgeshire, England. It publishes the peer reviewed quarterly Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR), the irregular Proceedings and the magazine Paranormal Review. It holds an annual conference, regular lectures and two study days per year and supports the LEXSCIEN on-line library project.
Criticism from sceptics
Sceptics have criticized the SPR for essentially having a secret religious motive. After the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), it was difficult for those with a scientific education to retain a belief in tenets of the Judeo-Christian religion. Early SPR members like Henry Sidgwick and Frederic W. H. Myers hoped to cling to something spiritual through psychical research.
The sceptic and physicist Victor J. Stenger has written:
Investigations of mediums continued into the twentieth century, and the SPR and ASPR on occasion exposed blatant cases of fraud even their own credulous memberships could not swallow. But their journals have never succeeded in achieving a high level of credibility in the eyes of the rest of the scientific community. Today the psychical research journals continue as forums for believers to press their ideas, to respond to the attacks of sceptics, and to attack the sceptics in return. Nothing is wrong with that, as long as the editorial bias is admitted. The volumes occasionally contain some respectable studies, but most articles usually begin with the assumption that psychic phenomena are demonstrated realities. Since this is a belief and not an empirical fact, one might be justified in viewing the SPR and ASPR today as religious rather than scientific institutions.
Ivor Lloyd Tuckett an author of an early sceptical work on psychical research wrote that even though the SPR have collected some valuable work, most of its active members have "no training in psychology fitting them for their task, and have been the victims of pronounced bias, as sometimes they themselves have admitted." Trevor H. Hall an ex-member of the Society for Psychical Research criticized SPR members as "credulous and obsessive wish... to believe." Hall also claimed SPR members "lack knowledge of deceptive methods."
Rationalist writer Edward Clodd claimed that the SPR members William F. Barrett and Oliver Lodge were incompetent researchers to detect fraud and suggested that their spiritualist beliefs were based on magical thinking and primitive superstition. Clodd analyzed the SPR and saw nothing more than "barbaric spiritual philosophy", he mocked the language of SPR members "subliminal consciousness" and "telepathic energy" as a disguise for "bastard supernaturalism."
Some sceptical members have resigned from the SPR. Eric Dingwall resigned and wrote "After sixty years' experience and personal acquaintance with most of the leading parapsychologists of that period I do not think I could name half a dozen whom I could call objective students who honestly wished to discover the truth."
A psychological study involving 174 members of the Society for Psychical Research completed a delusional ideation questionnaire and a deductive reasoning task. As predicted, the study showed that "individuals who reported a strong belief in the paranormal made more errors and displayed more delusional ideation than sceptical individuals". There was also a reasoning bias which was limited to people who reported a belief in, rather than experience of, paranormal phenomena. The results suggested that reasoning abnormalities may have a causal role in the formation of paranormal belief.
The following is a list of presidents:
|Society for Psychical Research|
|1882-1884||Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), Professor, Trinity College, Cambridge; Philosopher and Economist|
|1885-1887||Balfour Stewart (1827-1887), Professor, Owenham College, Manchester; Physicist|
|1888-1892||Henry Sidgwick (→ 1882), Professor, Trinity College, Cambridge; Philosopher and Economist|
|1893||Arthur Balfour KG, OM, PC, DL (1848-1930), later Prime Minister, known for the Balfour Declaration|
|1894-1895||William James (1842-1910) Professor, Harvard University; American Psychologist, Philosopher and Physician|
|1896-1899||Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), Physical Chemist, discovered the element Thallium, invented the Crookes tube|
|1900||Frederic W. H. Myers (1843-1901), Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; Classicist and Philosopher|
|1901-1903||Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), Professor, University College, Liverpool; Physicist and Mathematician, developer of wireless telegraphy|
|1904||William F. Barrett FRS (1845-1926), Professor, Royal College of Science, Dublin; Experimental Physicist|
|1905||Charles Richet (1850-1935), Professor, Collège de France, Paris; French Physiologist, Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology 1913|
|1906-1907||Gerald Balfour (1853-1945), Politician, brother of Arthur Balfour; Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge|
|1908-1909||Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936), Principal, Newnham College, Cambridge; Physicist|
|1910||Henry Arthur Smith (1848-1922), Barrister-at-Law, Middle Temple, London; Lawyer and author of legal treatises|
|1911||Andrew Lang (1844-1912), Fellow, Merton College, Oxford; Classicist and writer on folklore, mythology, and religion|
|1912||William Boyd Carpenter KCVO (1841-1918), Pastoral Lecturer, Theology, Cambridge; Bishop of Ripon|
|1913||Henri Bergson (1859-1941) Professor, Collège de France, Paris; Chair of Modern Philosophy; Nobel Prize, Literature 1927|
|1914||F. C. S. Schiller (1864-1937), Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford; Philosopher|
|1915-1916||Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), Regius Professor of Greek, University of Oxford; Classicist|
|1917-1918||Lawrence Pearsall Jacks (1860-1955), Professor, Manchester College, Oxford; Philosopher and Theologian|
|1919||John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh OM, PRS (1842-1919), Cavendish Professor, Trinity College, Cambridge; Physicist, Nobel Prize, Physics 1904|
|1920-1921||William McDougall FRS (1871-1938), Professor, Duke University; Psychologist, founder J B Rhine Parapsychology Lab|
|1922||Thomas Walker Mitchell (1869-1944), Physician and Psychologist, Publisher of the British Journal of Medical Psychology 1920-1935|
|1923||Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), founder and first president of the Société Astronomique de France, author of popular science and science fiction works|
|1924-1925||John George Piddington (1869-1952), Businessman, John George Smith & Co., London|
|1926-1927||Hans Driesch (1867-1941), Professor, Universitaet Leipzig; German Biologist and Natural Philosopher, performed first animal cloning 1885|
|1928-1929||Sir Lawrence Evelyn Jones (1885-1955) Honorary Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford; Author|
|1930-1931||Walter Franklin Prince (1863-1934), Clergyman|
|1932||Eleanor Sidgwick (→ 1908) and Oliver Lodge (→ 1901)|
|1933-1934||Edith Lyttelton (born as Edith Balfour; 1865–1948), Writer|
|1935-1936||C. D. Broad (1887-1971), Philosopher|
|1937-1938||Robert Strutt, 4th Baron Rayleigh (1875-1947), Physician|
|1939-1941||H. H. Price (1899-1984), Philosopher|
|1942-1944||Robert Henry Thouless (1894-1984), Psychologist|
|1945-1946||George Nugent Merle Tyrrell (1879-1952), Mathematician|
|1947-1948||William Henry Salter (1880-1969), Lawyer|
|1949||Gardner Murphy (1895-1979), Director of Research, Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas; Psychologist|
|1950-1951||Samuel Soal (1889-1975), Mathematician|
|1952||Gilbert Murray (→ 1915)|
|1953-1955||F. J. M. Stratton (1881-1960), Astrophysicist, Professor in Cambridge University|
|1956-1958||Guy William Lambert (1889-1984), Diplomat|
|1958-1960||C. D. Broad (→ 1935)|
|1960-1961||H. H. Price (→ 1939)|
|1960-1963||E. R. Dodds (1893-1979), Hellenist, Professor in Birmingham and Oxford|
|1963-1965||Donald J. West (* 1924), Psychiatrist and criminologist|
|1965-1969||Sir Alister Hardy (1896-1985), Zoologist|
|1969-1971||W. A. H. Rushton (1901-1980), Physiologist, Professor in Cambridge|
|1971-1974||Clement Mundle (1916-1989), Philosopher|
|1974-1976||John Beloff (1920-2006), Psychologist at the University of Edinburgh|
|1976-1979||Arthur J. Ellison (1920-2000), Engineer|
|1980||Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980), Biologist and Parapsychologist|
|1980||Louisa Ella Rhine (1891-1983), Parapsychologist, wife of Joseph Rhine|
|1981-1983||Arthur J. Ellison (→ 1976)|
|1984-1988||Donald J. West (→ 1963)|
|1988-1989||Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), Psychiatrist|
|1992-1993||Alan Gauld (*1932), Psychologist|
|1993-1995||Archie Roy (1924-2012), Professor of Astronomy in Glasgow, founded the Scottish SPR in 1987|
|1995-1998||David Fontana (1934-2010), Professor of Psychologist in Cardiff|
|1998-1999||Donald J. West (→ 1963, → 1984)|
|2000-2004||Bernard Carr, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy in London|
|2004-2007||John Poynton, Biologist|
|2007-2011||Deborah Delanoy, Parapsychologist|
|2011-||Richard S. Broughton, senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Northampton, UK|
A number of other psychical research organisations use the term 'Society for Psychical Research' in their name.
- Australia - In 1979 the Australian Society for Psychical Research was founded.
- Austria - Founded in 1927 as the Austrian Society for Psychical Research, today the Austrian Society for Parapsychology.
- Canada - From 1908 to 1916 the Canadian Society for Psychical Research existed in Toronto.
- Denmark - Selskabet for Psykisk Forskning (The Danish Society for Psychical Research) was founded in 1905.
- Finland - Sällskapet för Psykisk Forskning (The Finnish Society for Psychical Research) was formed in 1907 by Arvi Grotenfelt as a first chairman, and the society existed until 2002. A splinter group for Finnish speaking people, Suomen parapsykologinen tutkimusseura (Parapsychological research society of Finland), still exists today.
- France - In 1885, a society called the Société de Psychologie Physiologique (Society for Physiological Psychology) was formed by Charles Richet, Théodule-Armand Ribot and Léon Marillier. It existed until 1890 when it was abandoned due to lack of interest.
- Iceland - Sálarrannsóknarfélag Íslands (Icelandic Society for Psychical Research) was formed in 1918. It has a predecessor called the Experimental Society, which was founded in 1905.
- Netherlands - The Studievereniging voor Psychical Research (Dutch for Society for Psychical Research) was founded in 1917.
- Poland - The Polish Society for Psychical Research was very active before the second world war.
- Scotland - The Scottish Society for Psychical Research is active today.
- Sweden - Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning (the Swedish Society for Parapsychological Research) was founded in 1948.
- USA - An American branch of the Society was formed as the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in 1885, which became independent in 1906. A splinter group, the Boston Society for Psychical Research existed from May 1925 to 1941.
- SPR website
- "Join the SPR!". Society for Psychical Research.
Membership does not imply acceptance of any particular opinion concerning the nature or reality of the phenomena examined, and the Society holds no corporate views.
- Oppenheim, Janet. (1988). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. pp. 136-138. ISBN 978-0521347679
- Luckhurst, Roger. (2002). The Invention of Telepathy, 1870-1901. Oxford University Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0199249626
- Schultz, Bart. (2004). Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge University Press. p. 276. ISBN 978-0521829670
- McCorristine, Shane. (2010). Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750–1920. Cambridge University Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-0521747967
- Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 138.
- Grattan-Guinness, Ivor. (1982). Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History, Principles and Practices: In Celebration of 100 Years of the Society for Psychical Research. Aquarian Press. p. 19. ISBN 0-85030-316-8.
- Christie, Drew. Societies for Psychical Research. In Michael Shermer. (2002). The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. ABC-CLIO. pp. 217-219. ISBN 1-57607-653-9
- Thurschwell, Pamela. (2004). Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920. Cambridge University Press. p. 16. ISBN 0-521-80168-0
- McCorristine, Shane. (2010). Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920. Cambridge University Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-521-76798-9
- Moreman, Christopher M. (2010). Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-7425-6228-8 "SPR investigators quickly found that many mediums were indeed, as skeptics had alleged, operating under cover of darkness in order to perpetrate scams. They used a number of tricks facilitated by darkness: sleight of hand was used to manipulate objects and touch people eager to make contact with deceased loved ones; flour or white lines would give the illusion of spectral white hands or faces; accomplices were even stashed under tables or in secret rooms to lent support in the plot... As the investigations of the SPR, and other skeptics, were made public, many fraudulent mediums saw their careers ruined and many unsuspecting clients were enraged at the deception perpetrated."
- Oppenheim, Janet. (1988). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. pp. 175-176. ISBN 978-0521347679
- Melton, J. Gordon. (2007). The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena. Visible Ink Press. pp. 210-211. ISBN 978-1578592098
- Berger, Arthur. (1988). Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850-1987. McFarland. p. 19. ISBN 978-0899503455
- Oppenheim, Janet. (1988). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. pp. 141-142. ISBN 978-0521347679
- Oppenheim, Janet. (1988). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge University Press. pp. 139-140. ISBN 978-0521347679
- "The Belief in Spirit Photography". Martyn Jolly.
- Edmunds, Simeon. (1966). Spiritualism: A Critical Survey. Aquarian Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0850300130 "The early history of spirit photography was reviewed by Mrs Henry Sidgwick in the Proceedings of the SPR in 1891. She showed clearly not only that Mumler, Hudson, Buguet and their ilk were fraudulent, but the way in which those who believed in them were deceived."
- Williams, William F. (2000). Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy. Routledge. p. 49. ISBN 1-57958-207-9
- Anderson, Rodger. (2006). Psychics, Sensitives and Somnambules: A Biographical Dictionary with Bibliographies. McFarland & Company. pp. 14-132. ISBN 978-0786427703
- Nelson, G. K. (2013). Spiritualism and Society. Routledge. p. 159. ISBN 978-0415714624
- Brock, William Hodson. (2008). William Crookes (1832-1919) and the Commercialization of Science. Ashgate Publishing. p. 206. ISBN 978-0754663225
- Edmunds, Simeon. (1966). Spiritualism: A Critical Survey. Aquarian Press. pp. 178-180. ISBN 978-0850300130
- "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- Cambridge University Library
- Edinburgh University Website
- "LEXSCIEN Library of Exploratory Science". Lexscien.org. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- Dingwall, Eric. (1985). The Need for Responsibility in Parapsychology: My Sixty Years in Psychical Research. In Paul Kurtz. A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. pp. 161-174. ISBN 0-87975-300-5 "When the British SPR was founded, the public was led to believe that at least a scientific survey was to be made, and I have no doubt that even some of those closely associated with the early days thought so too. But Myers, among others, had no such intention and cherished no such illusion. He knew that the primary aim of the Society was not objective experimentation but the establishment of telepathy. To understand why this was so it is necessary to realize the position in which so many educated and intelligent people found themselves during the 1870s and later in Victorian England. With the emergence of new scientific concepts touching the origin of man and his place in the universe, the very foundations of their religious beliefs began to give way."
- Grant, John. (2015). Spooky Science: Debunking the Pseudoscience of the Afterlife. Sterling Publishing. pp. 23-24. ISBN 978-1-4549-1654-3
- Stenger, Victor J. (1990). Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses. Prometheus Books. pp. 161-162. ISBN 978-0-87975-575-1
- Tuckett, Ivor Lloyd. (1911). The Evidence for the Supernatural: A Critical Study Made with "Uncommon Sense". K. Paul, Trench, Trübner. pp. 8-9
- Spangenburg, Ray; Moser, Diane. (2004). The Age of Synthesis: 1800-1895. Facts on File. p. 134. ISBN 978-0816048533
- Clodd, Edward. (1917). The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism. Grant Richards, London. pp. 265-301
- Luckhurst, Roger. (2002). The Invention of Telepathy: 1870-1901. Oxford University Press. p. 163. ISBN 978-0199249626
- Dingwall, Eric. (1985). The Need for Responsibility in Parapsychology: My Sixty Years in Psychical Research. In Paul Kurtz. (1985). A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. pp. 161-174. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-0879753009
- Lawrence, E., & Peters, E. (2004). Reasoning in believers in the paranormal. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 192, 727–733.
- Australian Institute of Parapsychological Resesarch ers.ozemail.com.au/~amilani/ufo.html
- Peter Mulacz. "Austrian Society for Parapsychology". Parapsychologie.ac.at. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- [McMullin, Stan (2004) Anatomy of a Séance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press), p. 87.]
- "La lumière sur " L'ombre des autres "". Metapsychique.org. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- Richet, Charles. Traité de Métapsychique. Bruxelles: Artha Production, 1994, p.63. ISBN 2-930111-00-3
- "Sálarrannsóknarfélag Íslands". Icelandic Society for Psychical Research. Retrieved 5 February 2015.
- Gissurarson, Loftur Reimar; Haralsson, Erlendur. "History of Parapsychology in Iceland" (PDF). International Journal of Parapsychology 12 (1): 29–50.
- "Parapsychologie in Nederland (Dutch website)". Parapsy.nl. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
- [Barrington, Stevenson and Weaver, (2005) A World in a Grain of Sand: The Clairvoyance of Stefan Ossowiecki, Jefferson, NC, and London, McFarland, ISBN 0-7864-2112-6]
- Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.
- Bennett, Edward T. (1903). The Society for Psychical Research: Its Rise & Progress & A Sketch of its Work. London: R. Brimley Johnson.
- Gauld, Alan. (1968). The Founders of Psychical Research. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 978-0710060679
- Haynes, Renee. (1982). The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History. London: MacDonald & Co. ISBN 978-0356078755
- Salter, William Henry. (1948). The Society for Psychical Research: An Outline of its History. Society for Psychical Research.
- Cerullo, John. (1982). Secularization of the Soul: Psychical Research in Modern Britain. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues. ISBN 978-0897270281
- Luckhurst, Roger. (2002). The Invention of Telepathy, 1870-1901. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199249626
- McCorristine, Shane. (2010). Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521747967
- Oppenheim, Janet. (1988). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521347679
- Brandon, Ruth. (1983). The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0394527406
- Hyman, Ray. (1989). The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-0879755041
- McCabe, Joseph. (1920). Scientific Men and Spiritualism: A Skeptic's Analysis. The Living Age. June 12. pp. 652–657. A sceptical look at SPR members who had supported Spiritualism, concludes they were duped by fraudulent mediums.
- Pearsall, Ronald. (2004). The Table-Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult. The History Press. ISBN 978-0750936842