The New Internationalist Review, a magazine not normally known for gullibility beyond the political, decided not all that long ago to examine the paranormal. Our intrepid reporter Peter Lange decided to have a look.
Last year the New Internationalist gave over an entire issue (November) to the subject of the paranormal in what seemed to be an effort to keep readers’ interest over 12 months of fairly heavy political going — a bit like the cream buns halfway through bible class. It seems to be a good-hearted publication, and in this case under the editorship of Chris Brazier it has attempted to research several popular aspects of the paranormal and tried to sum up without favour. The result is disappointing.
The journalistic approach goes like this… set the scene with a cloyingly cute question-and-answer dialogue with an imaginary reader, add one solitary article by a skeptic (the excellent Susan Blackmore), then a series of ten articles supporting the paranormal, and end with a statement by the researching journalist Brazier: “Something happened, I just don’t know what. And I’m afraid that could serve as an adequate summary of human understanding of the paranormal”.
The photographs include: a levitating mystic (India, 1936), two of Einstein (one before and one after discovering relativity, and you can see the difference), Uri Geller looking aghast at a bent spoon, two African women studying bones they have just dropped (maybe the spoon carrying them had bent), and a woman in Algeria grimacing with pain while the head of the Virgin Mary materialises out of the side of her neck. And I don’t blame her for feeling out of sorts. Why do such undignified phenomena always involve the Virgin Mary and never Groucho Marx? He could carry it off so much better.
Susan Blackmore’s article is strong — it offers (unfortunately) mundane explanations for a variety of strange experiences — out-of-body travel, coincidence, memory tricks, near-death-experiences — all the areas that create so much interest and confusion.
The next article is by the editor and is a slightly humorous account of trying to induce an out-of-body experience by following a set of commercial instructions. He fails, and of course blames himself rather than the nonsense put out in the best-selling book.
Next, a European woman describes sleepwalking in darkest Africa: “My friend Femina was found running through the village one night naked, with teeth marks on her cheeck and neck — she wouldn’t tell me what happened to her”. I’m not surprised. Her car’s headlights mysteriously go out while driving between two haunted rocks, she finds a dead chicken in a closed hut with its feet inexplicably removed, and so on. All serious evidence of forces outside her comprehension.
Next, an article on shamanism (written by a shaman) ingenuously explaining the taking of the hallucinogenc “yakoana” (“which produces effects like the spirits coming with huge machetes, cutting out your tongue, and putting your head upside down inside your body”) and then declaring the whole business an inexplicable mystery. Most Sixties children would find it fairly easy to explain.
Then follows an article on CIA remote viewing or “psychic spying” by a director of an American Institute of Parapsychology. It seems to work well as long as the enemy uses only a house, boat or tree for military purposes. A series of small text blocks is next, on everything from astrology to levitation to dowsing to incombustibility among the Maori people of New Zealand. All of them without exception support the paranormal claims, and there is evidence to show that if Winston Peters is sentenced to burning at the stake for heresy, it will be a waste of good firewood.
The most hilarious one is by Nina Silver, a New York channeller, who channels not through the normal dead characters like Winston Churchill or Egyptian kings, but through “a particle of gold light” — a female light, incidentally, and a committed feminist particle. She found herself on the outer with other channellers, who felt threatened by her liberated, often raunchy, luminous girlfriend who obviously didn’t fit into the staid and patriarchal Association of Channellees.
Chris Brazier then completes his investigation by attempting to meet his “spirit sister Marie” whom Nina has located, and then spends three hours working on it, culminating in a surge of energy coming down through the top of his head as the spirit enters his body and possibly his wallet. Having got in, the spirit fails to perform. Still in New York (could this be relevant?) he repeats the incoming spirit experience, but back in England the effect fails to recur.
Brazier is entirely convinced by the research of J.B. Rhine and his followers purporting to show that ESP and psychokinesis are possible, but admits that the evidence for the paranormal is anecdotal. “One thing is clear”, he says, “science can offer no explanation … except … when science itself becomes almost mystical”. Ahem.
The magazine is worthy, full of good political and environmental intentions, but in this case journalistically suspect and unbalanced, and inclined to put the sensational case before the rational. It sinks to the level of the National Enquirer for one of two reasons — an almost endearing ingenuousness or a cynical need to titillate and retain readers.