Is science afraid of ghosts?

DEBORAH BLUM is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author of "Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof Search for Life After Death."

A HUNDRED years ago, one of the most ambitious of research projects was launched, a study that linked scholars and mediums on three continents. Its purpose was to discover whether living humans could talk to dead ones.

Newspapers described the work as “remarkable experiments testing the reality of life after death.” The scholars involved included William James, the famed American psychologist and philosopher, and Oliver Lodge, the British physicist and radio pioneer. They saw evidence for the supernatural -- in this world and perhaps the next.

In one instance they made a request to an American medium while she was in a trance. The request was in Latin, a language the medium did not speak. The instructions included a proposal that she “send” a symbol to a British medium. During her next trance session, the American began asking about whether an “arrow” had been received. Later, comparing notes, the researchers discovered that during the American’s first trance, the English psychic had suddenly begun scribbling arrows. It was only after a series of similar, equally unexpected results that the researchers published their findings.

Could any study produce results more provocative, more worth pursuing -- more forgotten -- a century later? For many, the dismissal of such Victorian research represents a triumph of modern science over superstition. But -- and I admit that this is an unusual position for a mainstream science writer -- I believe that it may instead represent a missed opportunity, a lost chance to better understand ourselves and our world.


Curiosity about the supernatural has not diminished over the last century. The last few years have, in fact, seen a surge in occult-themed TV, including such popular dramas as “Medium,” parodies such as “Psych” and reality-themed shows featuring professional mediums or paranormal investigators. On the radio, “Coast to Coast AM with George Noory” focuses on supernatural issues and boasts 2.5 million listeners. Paranormal organizations, schools for mediums and practicing psychics flourish.

What has diminished is the interest of academic researchers on a par with James and his colleagues -- and, correspondingly, the quality of the science. Yes, there are paranormal investigators using modern technology to hunt for the heat signature (in the infrared) of ghosts or the energy of a spectral communication (electronic voice phenomena). There are even a few accomplished university scientists exploring the supernatural, although often on the side and covertly. But there’s nothing as sophisticated, at least in design, as the Victorians’ work.

In addition to the ambitious “cross-correspondence” study cited earlier, the Victorian scholars ran an international survey of reported ghost sightings, particularly those tied to the death of a relative or friend. Tens of thousands of people in multiple countries were interviewed; hundreds of volunteers sifted through the reports, rejecting those that lacked independent witnesses or documentation. They concluded that “death visitants” occurred more than 400 times above chance.

By comparison, a telepathy study, presented this month at an annual meeting of the British Assn. for the Advancement of Science, involved 63 people asked to say in advance which of four friends or relatives was calling on the telephone. The answers were 45% correct, which, the researchers pointed out, was considerably above the 25% expected through chance.

I confess that this a rather silly and unconvincing experiment -- too small and too poorly controlled to prove anything. But I’ve seen plenty of orthodox research studies that made claims based on even sketchier experiments. So it doesn’t convince me, as it did a host of angry British scientists, that telepathy is merely “a charlatan’s fancy.” It convinces me that we need smarter science on all levels.

Why do so many people report visions, voices or sensations of friends or relatives at the moment of the other’s death? Is it wishful thinking, hallucination, undiagnosed mental illness, a human tendency to stamp meaning onto events, a remarkable pattern of liars, genuine telepathy, a visiting ghost? All those possibilities have been raised, and none have been adequately researched.

“Either I or the scientist is a fool with our opposing views of probability,” James wrote. The risk of appearing foolish, he believed, was the least of the dangers. There was also the risk of failing to investigate the world in all its dimensions, or making it appear smaller and less interesting than it really is. He worried about a time when people would become “indifferent to science because science is so callously indifferent to their experiences.” He worried that a close-minded community of science could become a kind of cult itself, devoted to its own beliefs and no more.

And, as should be obvious here, I have come to agree with him.