by Guy Lyon Playfair
For more than thirty years since the Enfield events ended, Janet, the (then) twelve-year-old who was the focus for much (but not all) of the activity, has done her best to avoid publicity, taking part in just one TV interview and one with a journalist. So I was quite surprised to learn that she had agreed to appear on ITV’s This Morning (February 23, 2012), but only on condition that I also took part which otherwise I would have refused.
It could have been worse. Janet was clearly not at ease in a TV studio, but interviewer Phillip Schofield treated her very gently and let her have her say, after which I had mine. Then, inevitably, it was time for the ‘sceptic’ of the day to have the last word, as they always do, and assure viewers that there was a rational explanation for everything they had just heard. This is known in TV-speak as ‘balance’.
Today’s duty debunker was Deborah Hyde, editor of the CSI (formerly CSICOP) backed The Skeptic, whose day job is makeup artist for the film industry. Thus she has experience in creating artificial reality, which she put to good use on this occasion.
Rather than commenting on any of the actual evidence or bothering to question Janet or me about anything at all, she embarked on a Platonic monologue on the nature of human fallibility.
Here she goes:
“Human beings are remarkably bad at remembering things, and seeing things accurately. We see things that aren’t there, we don’t see things that are there. It’s very easy to impose top-down processing – ideas that you already have about the world get imposed on what you’re seeing… It’s very difficult to say this happened or that happened…”
…and so on. But how about the evidence?
A skilled make-up artist has no problem covering that up. After running out of vague generalisations, she resorted to outright misformation:
“It’s a fascinating story, but we forget all the people who disagreed – Graham Morris had issues with it, Mary Rose Barrington from the SPR [Society for Psychical Research] had her issues with it. There was a subsequent study by the SPR that concluded that the girls were faking it…”
Eh? Wait a minute. Let’s look at our primary source material, starting with what photographer Graham Morris actually said on the most accurate of the many documentaries about the Enfield case, the Antix programme produced by Tom O’Connor for the Paranormal Channel. Graham’s opinion was based on numerous visits to the house, initially for The Daily Mirror and subsequently in his own free time.
Graham managed to take a number of sequences on his Nikon motor-drive that show such hard-to-explain phenomena as pillows moving on their own, a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral, bedclothes pulling themselves back and Janet rising into the air without her bedclothes being pulled back, in full view of her mother. His overall opinion of the Enfield case, based on his considerable first-hand experience of it:
“To me it was easily the most fascinating thing that’s ever happened in my life, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was fascinating to be a witness of the whole thing.”
So much for his ‘issues’. How about those of Mary Rose Barrington, a solicitor and longtime SPR Council member with considerable experience of both careful examination of evidence and the investigation of spontaneous cases, including poltergeists?
With three colleagues, Peter Hallson, Dr. Hugh Pincott and the late John Stiles she carried out a meticulous follow-up study of the whole case including interviews with almost every witness to the events, including the girls’ mother, whom she found ‘perfectly sane’ and questioned at length, obtaining ‘some very clear testimony’ which she found ‘impressive’.
And did she conclude that the girls were faking it all? No, she didn’t. Here is her actual conclusion, which Deborah Hyde seems to have missed:
“There is every reason to think that there was poltergeist activity in the house.”
To her credit, Deborah Hyde did allow her to elaborate as follows in the Summer 2012 issue of The Skeptic:
“It is fashionable to invoke ‘fallibility of observation’ to repudiate attested facts that are unwelcome. But all knowledge rests on testimony, and it behoves listeners to exercise judgment and make a rational assessment of its reliability, not to dismiss it with empty generalisations. There is in fact nothing clever or scientific about making a blanket decision to reject testimony that does not fit with one’s beliefs as to what is possible.”
Another well informed commentator was Alan Murdie, also both a council member of the SPR and a lawyer with plenty of experience of collecting and evaluating evidence and presenting it in court. As a member of the society’s Spontaneous Case Committee, he regularly investigates reports of ghosts, haunted houses, poltergeists and assorted anomalies.
Writing in Fortean Times (No. 288, 2012), he noted that Deborah Hyde “avoided any detailed challenge to either witness, preferring to speak in general terms about the fallibilities in human testimony… As a result, the chance to test the credibility and reliability of two key witnesses in Britain’s most famous 20th century poltergeist case was lost.” And here’s his conclusion:
“This case is not mere folklore or tradition but one with evidence and witnesses, together with recordings and contemporaneous documentation available to be assessed. However, judged by its performance so far, organised ‘skepticism’ … is never going to convincingly explain the Enfield poltergeist, certainly if its critics are not acquainted with the facts, do not question the original witnesses and never make even a cursory examination of the collected evidence.”
It’s the same old story. Don’t bother trying to explain or even mention the evidence, when throwing the baby out with the bathwater is less demanding on your powers of reasoning. All in the cause of ‘scepticism’, which to the Ancient Greeks meant questioning and examining. I’m sure Plato would have had ‘issues’ with this dismal display of vacuous pseudoscepticism.