A FRAUD, A DUPE OR AN HONEST MAN?
by Maureen Storey
This article was originally published in the August 2013 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Samuel George Soal was born on 29 April 1889 in Kirby Moorside, Yorkshire, where his father Samuel Philip Soal worked as a watchmaker. The family later moved to Hawkwell, Essex, and Samuel senior had a brief foray into poultry farming and bee keeping but by 1911 they were living in Prittlewell, Essex, with Samuel senior once again earning his living as a watchmaker.
Samuel junior attended Queen Mary College London, where he obtained a first class degree in mathematics in 1910, an MA (mathematics) in 1914 and a D.Sc. in 1944. His academic career was interrupted by the First World War and he enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery in 1915. He served in France until June 1917, which was presumably when he received the gunshot to the head that resulted in him being awarded a war disability pension when he was finally demobilised in 1919; he was also said to have suffered shell-shock after the Battle of the Somme. On his return from France, Samuel taught mathematics at the Army School of Education in Oxford from 1918 to 1919. However, the event that is believed to have triggered his interest in the subject that brought him both fame and notoriety was the death of his younger brother Francis in France in 1918.
After being demobbed Samuel returned to Queen Mary College as a lecturer in the mathematics department. It was at this time that, like many other people who were grieving for those lost during the war, he started to attend séances hoping to make contact with his dead brother. Nowadays we might look askance at anyone claiming to be a medium but in the 1920s there was a huge amount of interest in all aspects of parapsychology. Samuel was initially sceptical of the claims of mediums and he conducted his observations of séances with a scientific approach. His conclusions surprised conventional understanding even within the field of psychical research – he thought that while many mediums were charlatans, others were telepathic and that, rather than getting information from the spirits of the dead, they were unknowingly reading the minds of the people in the audience.
Although Samuel continued to be involved in the teaching of mathematics, both as a lecturer at Queen Mary College and an examiner for the University of London, until his retirement in 1954, he also became increasingly involved in the world of psychical research. He joined The Society for Psychical Research in 1922, where he specialised in research into automatic writing, telepathy and clairvoyance. He applied a statistical approach to his research, for example by conducting an experiment in which hundreds of people participated simultaneously, but he found no evidence of telepathy that stood up to his rigorous statistical tests and he recorded that his experiments were 'entirely negative'. Then there appeared to be a breakthrough in the USA when it was reported some subjects had shown signs of telepathy during card-guessing experiments and Samuel turned his attention to trying to repeat these results. Between 1936 and 1941 he conducted 120,000 card-guessing trials using 160 participants without being able to report a significant finding. In his review of his work, he scathingly offered the opinion that telepathy was a 'merely American phenomenon'. However, he changed his mind when a different analysis of his results was suggested by fellow researcher Whately Carington. This new analysis showed a significant displacement effect in the data for two of his subjects, Basil Shackleton and Gloria Stewart. This new interpretation of the results was published in Nature in 1940 and Samuel, with collaborators K. Goldney and F. Bateman, then attempted to confirm his findings.
The studies with Goldney and Bateman were widely regarded as the most challenging proofs of precognition and telepathy. Not only were the significances of the studies – in terms of the correspondence between extrasensory perception guesses and random targets – extraordinary, the procedures used appeared to allow no other hypothesis. The experiments were monitored by 21 respected observers who each reported that they were satisfied with the conditions under which the tests were carried out.
With this notable success under his belt Samuel became a leading light in the field of psychical research. He published many papers on the subject and co-authored two books, one with F. Bateman entitled Modern Experiments in Telepathy and the other with H. T. Bowden called The Mind Readers. He lectured widely on experimental telepathy in Britain, France and the USA to medical societies, scientific bodies and industrial organisations and in 1951 became a Fulbright Scholar and collaborated with J. G. Pratt at Duke University in the USA. He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at Birkbeck College London and worked there for four years after his retirement from teaching mathematics in 1954.
However, arguments about the validity of Samuel's card-guessing data had begun immediately after their publication, with some suggesting that the results could have been the result of 'unconscious whispering' (where information is inadvertently passed between participants) and others suggesting that Samuel's use of probability theory when analysing the results was not valid. There were even a few allegations of outright fraud. All of these criticisms were rebutted not only by Samuel but also by those who monitored the experiments.
Although Samuel retired from mathematics education in 1954, he continued to conduct psychical experiments. Between1954 and 1958, he used his time at Birkbeck College to try to repeat his success with card-guessing in order to silence his critics but was unable to do so. In 1958 he and his wife moved permanently to Caernarvonshire, their favourite holiday destination. Whilst in Wales Samuel conducted a long series of apparently successful experiments with two young brothers, but this work was immediately criticised on methodological grounds. In his later years Samuel developed dementia and he died in North Wales in 1975.
Although doubts were cast on the validity of Samuel's psychical research as early as 1940, these were generally about the interpretation of the results and whether there could have been collusion between the participants in the experiments, rather than attacks on Samuel's integrity and Samuel's rebuttals generally satisfied most, though not all, of his critics. However, after 1970 when Samuel became too senile to answer the accusations, the attacks on his credibility increased and there were outright allegations of fraud.
Whether Samuel was guilty of deliberate fraud or he so wanted to be successful that he was blinded to poor practice or he did, in fact, find evidence of telepathy is still an open question. At present the majority opinion seems to be that he perpetuated a deliberate fraud but there are still some who believe that at worst he allowed himself to be duped and some (albeit just a few) who accept his results as sound.
Ed: I spoke to my brother, who uses statistics all the time in his research, about the statistics involved in these experiments and he took a look at the original Nature article from 1940. He says:
In the first experiment, the experimenter looked at a drawing in one room, and the test subject drew something in another room. The 'displacement' refers to the fact that successful 'hits' (re-creation of drawings) might not occur at the time that the specific drawing was displayed, but when doing a drawing shortly after. It's a statistically difficult thing to analyse – it depends on judgement as to whether there's a hit. So they analysed a second experiment of card-guessing where they scored success if the guesser guessed the right card either at the time or in response to the previous or next card. This one is also a bit of a problem – essentially it makes the probability of guessing a card right 3/52 rather than 1/52. Statistical analysis has progressed enormously since then, as a consequence of the availability of computers, so it would have been interesting to re-analyse the data now.
Knowing my brother, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s already started on the reanalysis! I’ll let you know if he has.