Samuel Soal

Samuel Soal

Samuel George Soal (1889 – 1975), was a British psychical researcher and parapsychologist.

Samuel Soal is mostly, today, remembered as the most prominent researcher in academic parapsychology to have been charged with fraudulent production of data. This concerns a series of studies in card-guessing that he conducted during the London Blitz.

Soal graduated with first class honours in mathematics from Queen Mary College (then East London College) in 1910. After service in World War I, in which he suffered shelling at the Battle of the Somme, he lectured in mathematics at Oxford in the Army School of Education, before returning as a lecturer to Queen Mary College, University of London.

During this time, Soal demonstrated a personal as well as scientific interest in psychical research. He was partly moved to make his first parapsychological studies following the death of his brother in the war. Like many of the bereaved at the time, he made enquiries of mediums concerning communication with the departed; but Soal differed in offering his observation of the proceedings in a scientific spirit. He meticulously documented the occasions, and his observations surprised conventional understanding even within psychical research. Most especially, he reported a case of apparently precognitive telepathy of a situation yet to occur for a long-forgotten, but still living, friend of his. During this time, he was the chosen author for a survey of Spiritualism, in 55 pages, for the first 1935 publication of the "Encyclpædia of the Occult".

Following popular and academic reports of extra-sensory perception by card-guessing, Soal changed his research processes and commenced a series of card-guessing experiments in telepathy, including trials canvassed over radio and via a literary magazine ("John O'London's Weekly"). From 1936-1941, he performed over 120,000 trials of card-guessing with 160 participants without ever being able to report a significant finding. In review, he scathingly offered the opinion that telepathy was a merely American phenomenon; he was described by the pioneering US researcher, J. B. Rhine, as one of his most harsh and unfair critics.

Next however, upon the hypothesis of Whately Carington, a fellow researcher within the Society for Psychical Research, Soal was able to report a significant displacement effect in his data for two of his earlier participants. Carington and Soal co-authored a paper on the effect, published in "Nature" in 1940. Soal thereupon sought to confirm these observations with new studies with these participants: Basil Shackleton (a celebrated London portrait photographer, later to become associated with the "Grape Cure" for cancer) and Gloria Stewart.

These studies (conducted in collaboration with K. Goldney and F. Bateman) were widely reviewed as among the most challenging proofs of precognition and telepathy. Not only were the significances of the studies - in terms of the correspondence between ESP guesses and random targets - extraordinary, the procedures appeared to allow no alternative hypothesis. There was also the testimony of 21 prominent observers who, individually, monitored Soal's work with Shackleton, that they were satisfied with the conditions, and could conceive of no means by which the results could be obtained by normal means other than ESP. Many leading academics, including C. D. Broad and Sir Cyril Burt, were persuaded, largely or partly on the basis of these reports, to lend academic support to psi-related ideas and research.

Arguments against Soal's data have, however, been raised ever since their publication. These required some startling propositions themselves, including the notion of "unconscious whispering" - from the ‘agent;’ to the ‘percipient’, always unheard by the intervening experimenter, and unmitigated by distance - and the total inapplicability of probability theory to science (as offered by George Spencer-Brown). Outright fraud was also advanced (firstly by George R. Price) and prominently canvassed in the American journal "Science".

While he served as president of the Society for Psychical Research in 1950-1952, Soal spent much of the 30 years following his seemingly evidential studies defending them against fraud-hypotheses, and charges of methodological and statistical error. He appeared to be successful over each attack, considering that totally novel suppositions were offered after each of his counter-arguments were published. He was not, however, able to replicate his earlier work while continuing to conduct telepathy experiments, at the University of London, after his retirement in 1958. During these years, however, he conducted a long series of apparently successful experiments with a pair of young brothers, as participants, in Northern Wales. This work was immediately and severely criticised on methodological grounds; simulations of the study suggesting that the boys, with their family, could have been successfully undetected in using a code in association with an ultrasonic whistle, perhaps blown by a secreted pump. In these studies, it appeared, Soal had himself become the victim of fraud.

It was not until the 1970s - when Soal was already senile and no longer able to respond - that his data were finally deemed insupportable by his fellow parapsychologists. These concerned largely statistical challenges offered by members of the SPR on the basis of several novel analyses they conducted by computer searches of the data from the 1941-1943 study with Shackleton. This seemingly objective approach to discrediting Soal remained open for a few years, until, in 1978, Betty Markwick reported evidence that Soal appeared to reuse some target sequences from an earlier test in a later one, often reversing, omitting or inserting one or more digits into the sequence before reusing them. While admitting that this was not itself evidential of fraud, Markwick considered that it was suspicious that there was a disproportionate number of "hits" on the digits that appeared to break up some of the reused sequences. For two of the 40 experimental sessions with Shackleton, she claimed that it was "virtually conclusive" that this practice amounted to fraud. As to why Soal should cheat in this needlessly complex and seemingly obvious way, Markwick argued that he reused his target sequences while in a dissociated state. With Soal already dead in 1975, his fraud has remained, to this day, at this status of allegation.

elected references

Goldney, K. M. (1975). S. G. Soal - A personal tribute. "Parapsychology Review", (July-August), 21-24.

Hansel, C. E. M. (1966). "ESP: A Scientific Evaluation". New York, US: Scribner's.

Markwick, B. (1978). The Soal-Goldney experiments with Basil Shackleton: New evidence of data manipulation. "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research", "56", 250-281.

Soal, S. G. & Bateman, F. (1954). "Modern Experiments in Telepathy". New Haven, US: Yale University Press.


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