23 September 2007

Have some apparatus

Copy of a letter to a philosopher

When I met you I referred to my constant altercations with Rosalind Heywood about the expensiveness of apparatus. People (including journalists before they stopped interviewing us) have always liked to talk about our need for apparatus, as if it was the only thing we were short of, and as if it could be of any use without salaries, a hotel environment and ancillary staff. They apparently liked to think of me being even worse off than I was, actually spending my own impoverished, statusless time taking readings on a piece of experimental equipment! Which is an exceedingly slow way of getting information to process, and I never thought I would be able to do it.

Apparatus was what we were most often offered, either as a gift of other people’s cast-offs or (less often) bought, very cheaply, especially for us, without any offer of even a partial contribution to our running-costs while we used it. I used to call this ‘the treadmill syndrome’.

To go back to the beginning; when I was thrown out at the end of the ruined education, I needed an academic career with professorial status and a hotel environment; I did not want to do experimental work of any kind (i.e. doing work on one piece of equipment myself, in person), although I saw that I might have to do so in working my way back into a university career and, if I had, I would have had to be paid enough (as a minimum) to employ a research assistant.

Being head of a department with several people working with a large number of pieces of apparatus producing several streams of information, in the way Professor Eysenck was, would have been (and still would be) a different matter altogether; that would have been a tolerable possibility, although to make it more than just tolerable, it would need to be on a large enough scale to include residential college (hotel) facilities. That was what I was trying to set up when Rosalind destroyed my hopes of support from Sir George, Salter et al.

Rather than continuing to work as a secretary to Professors nominated by Rosalind, whether in a new organisation under her auspices or at the Society for Psychical Research, I withdrew from the plans for the new organisation, which had now become her organisation with Sir George and Salter dancing to her tune, and resigned from the SPR so that I was clearly dependent on what I could get by appealing for money.

So far as I was concerned, I was not in a position to do anything, but Rosalind put me under pressure to ‘do work’ of a pointless kind, even in such bad circumstances.

I could not point out anything realistic, such as that before I had a hotel environment doing anything would be negative, in no way positive, and my life was bad enough as it was. I knew that whenever I had said anything realistic about what I needed, Rosalind had used it to arouse a storm of hatred and disgust against me. So I confined myself to pointing out that even one of the type of EEG I might use would cost a good deal of money, and that I had nowhere to put it. (I did not say, which was more to the point, that I could not afford a research assistant to work it.) This led to many painful and unrealistic conversations in which Rosalind suggested, for example, that I might put it in my parents’ house in Kidlington (they had moved to Oxford by that time). ‘There is no room large enough’, I said, ‘There is only a box-room’. ‘You could have a smaller model with fewer channels’, she said. ‘It wouldn’t be possible to get it up the stairs’, I said. ‘You could hoist it through a window’, she said. ‘The window isn’t large enough’, I said. ‘You could have an even smaller EEG with fewer channels’, she said. And so on.

I should like to point out that when I was thrown out at the end of the ruined education I had no plans to do research in any field connected with psychical research. I had read Myers’s Human Personality in Somerville Library but at that stage I thought that even if there was anything in any of the supposed phenomena, it was not obvious to me how research on it could be done. I did not feel tempted to repeat the sort of statistical experiment which I had read about, in which some controversial ‘evidence’ for ESP was produced. This did not seem to me to advance matters at all, and doing it would be very labour-intensive.

When I arrived at the SPR I started a plan to set up a research institute of my own, but that was because I needed an institutional and hotel environment. I started doing this before I had any definite views about the likelihood of any of the phenomena being genuine or, if they were, what the best ways of getting to grips with them would be.

My ideas about these things evolved gradually. I was in contact with people who reported various experiences and also had available the past research records of the SPR. Also I had to think how to make the best of the various opportunities which came my way. I would never have thought, myself, of doing a mass ESP experiment, but Cecil King required it and offered access to his publications to do it in. Therefore, to improve the shining hour and make it a bit less futile, I tried to think of a prediction simple enough to be tested in such circumstances and, as it happened, it worked at the level of significance normally required.