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Science and Séance: A discussion between a Parapsychologist and a Clairvoyant

Ciarán O'Keeffe and Billy Roberts

Revised edition. Portlaoise: Evertype, 2016. ISBN 978-1-78201-183-5.
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Science and Séance

A fascinating discussion between two experts on different sides of the paranormal debate. Dr Ciarán O’Keeffe, a sceptical expert who has appeared on the British television series Most Haunted and Jane Goldman Investigates, exchanges questions and answers with Billy Roberts, one of the UK’s leading stage psychics. Themes covered by the Parapsychologist and the Clairvoyant are quite varied: Defining the Paranormal, Mediumship and com­municating with Spirit, Ghosts and “Things that go bump in the night”, Perceptions of the Spirit world, the Truth about Mediums, Divination methods like Scrying, the Ouija Board, Astrology, topics like Meditation, Superstition, and Spiritual Healing. First published in 2008, the authors have contributed new essays for this edition. The truth is out there—but finding it is not always so easy!

Preface by Ciarán O'Keeffe

Our first meetings were a little tense. In fact, the very first time we met, any outside observer might have thought it had the same tense atmosphere as a duel. We were literally “throwing down the gauntlet” before anything was said. The Parapsychologist was saying “prove it” whilst the Clairvoyant was saying “prove I can’t”. The seed of a dialogue between two different sides of the paranormal was planted.

When we originally discussed this project we had visions of it being “The Parapsychologist versus The Clairvoyant”, a battle between two opposing viewpoints. After numerous extended lunches at the Neighbourhood Café when our viewpoints became concrete and our openness towards each other became cemented over a glass of wine, we realized this wasn’t a battle. My sceptical view is frequently misinterpreted as cynical. Billy, likewise, has his sceptical moments. The book was ultimately written by us by coming up with topics we wanted to discuss. Sometimes this resulted in a brief discussion over lunch, sometimes it merely entailed one of them providing a topic area or chapter title to the other. We would, for the most part, write our parts independently of each other. We’d then pull together a few chapters and read them, noting down questions and then returning them to the other for a response. So the format became sections where we introduced various paranormal topics and each gave our views on them, intertwined with question sections where we each interrogated the other. This continued until we realized we needed to stop somewhere. There are so many topics to cover in the paranormal that this had the potential of being an encyclopaedia rather than a book. When you take a glance at some of the topics discussed but not included or those still to cover you’ll understand exactly what I mean: spirit possession, UFOS, exorcism, stigmata, reincarnation, astroarchaeology, water-divining, alien abduction, ley lines, SHC, crop circles, lycanthropy, and even chupacabras!

What you’re about to read, therefore, are chapters where we have given our opinions on various paranormal topics. These opinions are based on our experience and knowledge gained over the years. Each section is headed so the reader knows who is saying what, essentially like reading two books in one. Together we present our views on all manner of paranormal phenomena, rarely seeing eye-to-eye, but never causing black eyes by aggressively punching home a point. Listen to what we each have to say, respect each viewpoint then make up your own mind…

Preface by Billy Roberts

As well as respecting his professional standing, over the years I have come to regard Ciarán O’Keeffe as a friend, and so writing this book with him has most probably been one of the most exciting projects, which I have ever undertaken. Although it might be seen as a confrontation of ideas in places, the primary motive for writing it, at least on my part, was to enlighten those interested in the paranormal, as to its realities and misconceptions. Even though in the book we have come to agree about many things, I am quite satisfied that we have achieved exactly what we set out to achieve.

Foreword by Jane Goldman

Ciarán and I met in the course of making the first season of the documentary series Jane Goldman Investigates, where he accompanied us on all-night vigils, helped us to devise experiments and regularly gave us the benefit of his wealth of knowledge and expertise, both on and off camera, swiftly becoming an irreplaceable cornerstone of the programme.

Until Ciarán came along, however, the cardinal rule that my team and I had come to adopt was to do our level best to keep the makers of point and counter-point as far away from one another as possible. The contributors included mediums, psychometrists, dowsers, ghost hunters, etc. Some of the prickliest individuals had even brought with them an innate distrust of anyone from the scientific side of parapsychology.

I came to observe, however, that true dialogue between scientist and paranormal practitioner wasn’t just about tact or “people-skills”, or an affable personality, but a deep understanding of the beliefs and experiences of others, an inspiring sense of curiosity, an infectious love of the subject and an extraordinary ability to parlay all of the above into productive communication. A true dialogue means a genuine exchange of ideas and information.

The significance of this was, to my mind, enormous. The conflicts my production team and I had observed—and frequently been caught up in!—represented in microcosm much that is problematic in the field of paranormal research. On reflection, I can’t think of any other areas of scientific study where the state of relations between the Parapsychologists and their subjects was quite so poor—characterized by failures of communication at best and, at worst, downright hostility and distain from both sides. I often wondered whether it was no coincidence that progress in our understanding of anomalous human experience was so slow—as opposed to, say, our understanding of human behaviour or physical disease.

Little did I know, when I first wandered into the world of paranormal study fourteen years ago that I was, in fact, walking into a battleground. I expected conflicting theories, certainly, and varying beliefs, but where I expected to find lively debate I found something more akin to trench warfare, with pot-shots being taken by either side at anyone who stuck his head over the parapet, and a marked sense that ultimately, there was no hope of victory for either faction.

As a journalist and author of non-fiction who aspired to uphold the “Just the facts, ma’am” school of neutral reporting, I found myself in no man’s land. And, despite meeting a great number of intelligent and fascinating people from both sides of the battlefield, I still had a sense of wandering in isolation until I had the great good fortune to encounter Ciarán. And boy was I pleased to see him. Not just a fellow traveller through the hail of crossfire but—if you’ll excuse me for stretching this already over-extended metaphor to within an inch of its life—one who was unafraid to suggest calling a truce and having a game of intellectual football instead.

I’d also struggled with the constant pressure to categorize my approach to the subject. I had quickly learned that, in the world of paranormal enquiry, neutrality seemed not to be a tenable position, and that one could expect to be called upon with some regularity to declare one’s allegiance in the most simple terms available.

The main choices, it appeared, were to be either “open-minded” or “a sceptic”—soubriquets which themselves made the issue even more confusing. For my part, I certainly considered myself open-minded (although an open-mind, like a sense of humour, is something that everyone thinks they have—even those who seem to show no evidence for it whatsoever.) But “open-minded” had, it seemed, come to mean “a person who believes in paranormal explanations for unusual phenomena”. Which didn’t describe me with any great accuracy. To me, theories that purported to solve life’s mysteries in a way that relied on new and unproven laws of the universe were as unsatisfying as reading a fabulously intriguing whodunnit only to be told at the end that the butler did it in the locked room by magic. Suddenly the mystery is no longer mysterious, the intrigue no longer intriguing, and all we’re left with is an answer that doesn’t fit in with how the world works, and a whole lot more questions.

So was I a sceptic? Well, in the true sense of the word, I certainly was. But in the modern lexicon, the word is all too often used to mean “someone who does not believe in paranormal phenomena and thinks that anyone who claims otherwise is deluded or making it up”. That wasn’t me either. And among many smart, sincere and friendly mediums, paranormal researchers and people I’d met who’d had odd experiences of one kind or another, “sceptic” was pretty much on a par with any of the words you might reach for when addressing someone who had just rear-ended your car.

The ideal sceptic would be one who escapes from this semantic nightmare—a questioner who is both open-minded and (in the classical sense) sceptical, a shining example of one who adopts a genuine neutrality in their approach, whatever it may be. A true sceptic is not out to prove—as so many of the Parapsychologists I met seemed to be—that claims of the anomalous were there merely to be refuted, rather than understood. But neither—like so many on the non-scientific side of the fence—should they accept that some mysteries had already been solved to satisfaction.

My sheer delight at having met Ciarán, then, wasn’t just about things being considerably more pleasant down the pub at the end of a day’s filming (though that was certainly a nice bonus). It was about setting a template for an approach to dialogue and enquiry that I still strive to emulate myself, and would unhesitatingly urge everyone, from amateurs and students to experts alike, to adopt. I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Billy Roberts, but his eloquence and open-mindedness make him the ideal pairing in this journey of enquiry.

In this field what is needed is inspiration for the opposing sides to lay down their weapons and have their no-man’s land match. And to my mind, this book is that game—a rousing yet civilized kick around of ideas and so much more. For it represents a powerfully significant step towards the uniting of those who experience the paranormal and those who study the world by scientific method, that can surely only lead to advancement in the further understanding of anomalous human experience.

Table of Contents

1 The Parapsycnologist and the Clairvoyant
2 Defining the Paranormal
3 Mediumship and Communicating with Spirit
4 Question Time, Part 1
5 Ghosts and “Things that go bump in the night”
6 Perceptions of the Spirit World 7 The Truth about Mediums? 8 Question Time, Part 2
9 Divination methods: Scrying, Ouija Board, Astrology
10 Meditation
11 Superstition
12 Spiritual Healing
13 Final Questions
14 Final Thoughts
15 Our perspectives, some years later…
HTML Michael Everson, Evertype, 73 Woodgrove, Portlaoise, R32 ENP6, Ireland, 2016-09-01

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