An interesting article appears in the January 2011 issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (volume 199, number 1; article available for purchase here). Written by Emily Williams Kelly, one of the principal authors of Irreducible Mind, and Dianne Arcangel, author of Afterlife Encounters, the article is entitled "an investigation of mediums who claim to give information about deceased persons." It was brought to my attention by Vitor Moura.
Kelly and Arcangel tested a total of 13 mediums in two separate studies. The first study, involving four mediums and 12 sitters, did not yield results above chance levels. The second, more extensive study, involving nine and mediums and 40 sitters, and using a different methodology, produced statistically significant results. Since the second study is more interesting, it's the one I'll focus on.
Each medium was sent a photograph of a deceased person but received no other information. The photographs were selected to be as neutral as possible; they "showed the person alone and not engaged in specific activities (such as playing tennis or reading) that might provide significant information about the deceased." The mediums were not told anything about the sitters, nor did the mediums and sitters ever come in contact with each other.
For each reading, either Kelly or Arcangel served as a proxy sitter. Arcangel knew nothing about the sitters or the deceased persons; Kelly did have some information about some of the sitters, but her knowledge of the deceased was limited at best, and, in some cases, nonexistent. As it turned out, Arcangel's sessions were slightly more successful than Kelly's, suggesting that cold reading did not play a role.
The article continues:
The 14 audio-taped readings were transcribed, and E.W.K. edited all of the transcripts to remove any references to the appearance of the person in the photograph or other such clues. She also removed any conversation unrelated to the reading, as well as unnecessary or often-repeated words (such as "um," "you know," and the like), to make the transcript less choppy (as spoken conversation often is) and thus easier to read. Otherwise, none of the medium's own wording was changed ...
Each sitter was sent 6 transcripts -- the real one, as well as 5 intended for other persons, all 6 selected from the same age and gender group. Readings were also distributed in such a way that each one served as a "control" an equal number of times. Sitters were instructed to read carefully through all 6 and then rate each on a scale of 0 to 10. They were also asked to comment on the readings and to explain why they chose the one that they rated the highest.
The scoring of the transcripts was handled in a "global" fashion. In the first study, sitters had been asked to score each item of information individually, but the authors say this proved problematic: "Itemizing statements is not a straightforward process, particularly because many statements are interrelated and not independent of each other." On the other hand, "a global evaluation allows for the likelihood that much of what a medium says in a sitting is in fact what we might call 'filler' material -- that is, general, vague, or interfering imagery and impressions coming from the medium's own mind and having nothing to do with the intended target, the deceased person."
For the second study, the sitter was expected to assess the reading as a whole, though he or she was encouraged to go into detail in explaining why a given choice choice was made.
So what were the results? Although 40 sitters were used, only 38 returned their ratings. "14 of the 38 readings were correctly chosen, and 7 others were ranked second. Altogether, 30 of the 38 were ranked in the top half. Analysis of these results with the sum-of-ranks method ... gives a z score of -3.89 (p < 0.0001)."
One medium in particular enjoyed an unbroken run of success; all six of this medium's readings were correctly chosen by the sitters. (Neither this medium nor any of the others is identified in the article.) The other eight mediums showed more mixed results, but "even when the top-scoring medium's results are removed, analysis of the remaining readings, again using the sum-of-ranks method, gives a z score of -2.69, which is still highly significant (p < 0.0074)."
The article gives a few examples of specific "hits." In one case, the medium said that "there's something funny about black licorice.... Like there's a big joke about it ..." The sitter said that his wife and deceased son had a running joke about licorice. In another case, the medium said the deceased girl's hair, as seen in the photo, had "gone", and that "at some point she's kind of teasing [her hair], she tried many colors. I think she experimented with color a lot before her passing." This was correct; the girl, who lost her hair during chemotherapy, had colored her hair hot pink before her cancer surgery. In the same sitting, the medium made reference to Northampton, Massachusetts, citing its "college town beatnik kind of feel." The girl had intended to go to college in Northampton.
In a third case, the medium made reference to "Mike, Mikey, Michael." The deceased person's son, according to the article, "was known as 'Mikey" when young, 'Michael' as he grew older, and finally 'Mike.'" The same medium referred to a mother or grandmother who "can strangle a chicken." The sitter's grandmother, who was the mother of the deceased, did kill chickens, and as the sitter reported, "It freaked me out the first time I saw her do this. I cried so hard that my parents had to take me home. So the chicken strangling is a big deal.... In fact I often referred to my sweet grandmother as the chicken killer."
One of the most encouraging aspects of the study is the authors' willingness to share their raw data with interested parties. After pointing out that Kelly's utterances during the readings were largely limited to "OK" and similar comments, the authors add: "Of course, readers can only take our word for this, but we would be glad to provide interested readers with unedited transcripts or audiotapes so that they can evaluate this for themselves." Earlier, in the same vein, they wrote: "We welcome comments from other persons about the editing of the transcripts, and will provide copies of unedited and edited transcripts to persons who wish to examine and evaluate them." The transparency of this approach is refreshing.
The authors characterize the study as merely a preliminary effort and do not come to any conclusion about its "broader implications." Perhaps the most significant finding was the discovery of one particular medium whose readings were consistently ranked number 1 by the appropriate sitters. "We hope to follow-up what this person in additional studies. We also hope that we, or other investigators, can identify more such persons. Truly gifted mediums may, like other gifted persons, be rare, and those who can perform under the kinds of conditions necessary for inadequate scientific evaluation rarer still."
Also rare are investigators willing to take the time to conduct this kind of cautious, disciplined examination of what most people would dismiss as a spurious "fringe" phenomenon. I hope they'll continue their work. The heyday of psychical research into the mediumship may be far behind us, but Kelly and Arcangel are keeping that tradition alive.
Richard Hodgson, F.W.H. Myers, and William James must be well pleased.
Reproduced by kind permission of Michael Prescott
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Mediums rare by Michael Prescott
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