IS IT A GHOST
YOUR GHOST STORIES
Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer has been a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1997. She is president of the National Association of Science Writers and a member of the Committee on Public Understanding of Science and Technology of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Her most recent book, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Perseus), which was reviewed in the March–April 2003 issue, was a finalist for the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Science and Technology category and was named a 2002 best book of the year by Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, Discover magazine and NPR's Science Friday. Blum is also the author of Sex on the Brain (Penguin), which was a 1997 New York Times Notable Book, and The Monkey Wars (Oxford University Press), which was named Best Sci-Tech Book in 1994 by Library Journal. She is coeditor of a Field Guide for Science Writers (Oxford University Press, 1997).
Blum worked for a series of newspapers before becoming a science reporter for the Sacramento Bee, where she won the Pulitzer in 1992 for a series of articles on ethical issues in primate research; these also won the 1992 AAAS science writing award and led to Blum's being named an honorary member of Sigma Xi for her service to science. She continued with the Bee until moving to the University of Wisconsin. She has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Discover, Psychology Today, Life, Health, the Utne Reader, Mother Jones and discovery.com.
It is great in a time of "how to" books and general ghost stories to
read a book that is more biographical in nature. Did you intend this
book for people in the field of paranormal research or as more of a
historical work for the general public?
Well, I always aim for a wide audience. But in this case, I suppose, I wrote the book as a narrative, historical story because I wanted to reach people already interested in the paranormal but also beyond. I wanted to frame the book in a way that people who tend to reject the subject out of hand, might read about it and thinking about it.
With the topic of your previous books having a true scientific nature,
why did you choose this subject?
You’re absolutely right that I’m a mainstream science writer, former president of the National Association of Science Writers, the works. But I’ve tended, as a journalist, to be fascinated by the intersection of science and society. I don’t see research as separate from popular culture: I think they influence each other. And this subject fascinated me – it raises some wonderful questions: what is reality? How do we define it? Is science the only way to set limits on what’s real?
With all of the people involved in the beginnings of "Ghost Hunting"
why did you select William James?
Partly because he was just so smart; his letters are so much fun to read. But partly because I liked going against his established reputation as a stuffy, orthodox Harvard faculty member. I think his academic biographer have tended to downplay his interest in psychical research and I think they make him less interesting than he really was. In part, I wanted to do him justice.
You mention in the book that you "participated in a slightly unnerving
ESP experiment". What was your experience and why did you find it
When I was doing research in the archives of the American Society for Psychical Research, they asked me to participate in an ongoing ESP experiment. I really said yes out of politeness and a wish to get along. But when I did the experiment – which involved being shut into a soundproofed booth and then trying to receive images sent by someone looking at artwork – I shocked myself by actually seeing the image in question. It was, in retrospect, a great experience, if unnerving, because it made me question some long-held but dogmatic beliefs.
In the book it is mentioned that you have read reports by psychical
researchers that you could not explain away. With your scientific
background do you feel that we will ever be able to understand what the
actual cause of "Ghostly phenomena" is?
I don’t know. Sometimes, to paraphrase William James, it makes sense to me that we live in a universe designed for mystery. My own thought is that what we call the “supernatural” may turn out to be merely the natural realms that we don’t yet understand. Or at least some of it will. So since I’ve done the book, I’ve attempted to encourage the idea that this may be worth the time of smart scientists, that they should take another look.
With the work of people like William James and others, do you feel that
there is a future in the field of "Ghost Hunting"?
Sure. There’s always going to be someone who won’t like the answers we eventually find, but the questions are so interesting, I’d hate to see us give up on them.
Do you feel that the strong connection with the spiritual community has
any positive or negative effects in the continuing study of ghostly
Both. It keeps people determined to hunt for answers. And it allows critics to say that the spiritually-connected research is biased. It’s going take a pretty overwhelming result to swamp all of them in the big picture sense.
After the research that you did for this book, have your views changed
towards the field of Ghost hunting or science in general.
I’ve been a science writer for a long time, so I’ve long appreciated that science doesn’t answer all my questions. Doing the book has made me more open-minded though. I’ve realized that some of the answers may lie outside the reach of science, at least as the research community now defines itself. I’ve been reminded that science itself can be awfully close-minded. And I’ve learned to value in greater measure what we do not know.
With all of the years of psychical research, do you feel that there is
more or less acceptance in the "real" scientific community?
I think the “real” science community – the people that William James used to call “the orthodoxers” – decided to dismiss psychical research a long time ago and hasn’t given it any real attention since. And I suspect that’s a missed opportunity.
Because of all of the new media attention on the field of Ghost Hunting
( Ghost Hunters - Most Haunted - John Edwards - etc..) do you think that
there is more or less of an acceptance in the general publics’ viewpoint?
I don’t think it required media attention, although that certain amplified it. I think people have always had inexplicable experiences and wondered about them. The new attention has, perhaps, made them more comfortable in sharing those experiences.
What was the most "credible" piece of evidence that you came across during your research for the book?
There were some wonderful telepathy experiments and some rather mind-boggling results from the best 19th century mediums, such as Leonora Piper. But I was most intrigued by crisis apparitions (often called death visitants today). They’re so amazingly alike, repetitive. They just make a compelling pattern. And the statistical analyses done in the Victorian times with tens of thousands of people – and not repeated to that extent since – found that such experiences occur at over 400 times chance. That’s a pretty amazing statistic.
In the book you state that you do not aspire to having a sixth sense and
are still grounded in science. After researching this book do you have
any interest in following up with study of your own because of things
that you have learned?
My real interest is in trying to write about this subject in the popular media, reaching an audience beyond those who already know the subject. So I wrote for a fair number of national publications this fall, and I’m now writing about the supernatural for some European publications. It’s what I think of as subversive education.
What are your other books that have been published?
Ghost Hunters was my fourth. My first was “The Monkey Wars” (Oxford, 1994), which was about ethical issues in primate research. Then “Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women” (Viking, 1997) and then “Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Perseus, 2002). I’m also a co-editor of “A Field Guide for Science Writers” (Oxford, 2005).
Do you have any new books coming out in the near future?
I’m currently under contract to Penguin Press to do a book on the early history of forensics – of poison and murder, in particular. Who knows, that may yet include some good ghost stories! It’s due to the publisher in 2008.