«JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION A Publication of the Society for Scienti¢c Exploration Volume 22, Number 1 2008 Page Editorial 1 Editorial Peter ...»
In an early publication on the reincarnation cases (Stevenson, 1960, Part II of a winning essay in a contest in honor of William James), he opined that the study of alleged memories of a previous lifetime might provide a more plausible means of demonstrating survival than could be had through the study of mediumistic communication. This, he suggested, was because the study of possible reincarnation cases involves trying to find evidence that someone presently living had lived before (and died), whereas in efforts to prove survival via mediumistic communications one must try to find evidence that someone who has died is in some sense still living (see Stevenson, 1960: 117, his concluding statement). In his many years of later work on possible reincarnation cases, he was interested not merely in cognitive content (i.e., possible ‘‘memories’’) related to a putative previous lifetime but also, very importantly, in affective, behavioral, and even presently visible physical influences of the supposed previous lifetime (e.g., birthmarks or deformities). Dispositional psychological/ behavioral evidence, rather than just supposed cognitive-perceptual memories, presumably held special interest for Stevenson because behavioral/affective inclinations, especially those that manifest in everyday life over a long term, may be less likely to be the result of ordinary psi communication.
Nonetheless, he always discussed a wide variety of alternate interpretations of the data and frankly, but humbly, noted that in his view the reincarnation interR. Stanford pretation was more plausible for some cases. This brings me to the discussion of Stevenson’s character, which is, in many respects, the most important aspect of my commentary.
There are many things that Stevenson’s life and work can convey to us that should be take-home messages when we think of and honor him and his work.
Please permit me to mention a few, not in any special order:
1. He was an individual of outstanding intellectual honesty, which he greatly valued in others too. Although he personally favored certain interpretations of his data, he did not, as I just noted, overstate his preferred interpretation by claiming that he had ruled out beyond all reasonable doubt any of the many alternate hypotheses that he discussed. Nor did he state or imply that those who disagreed with him were foolish or intellectually dishonest. I suggest that this fairness of spirit and conservatism of statement went a long way toward his being able to present his findings and preferred hypotheses even in a variety of nonparapsychological outlets. I many times saw him look for—and report when he found it—evidence that went contrary to what seemed to be his personal inclinations. In subsequent discussion of it he did not ‘‘gild the lily.’’
2. I worked at his center for five years, and I can say honestly that in addition to his intellectual honesty, he was very honest personally. He greatly valued truthfulness and was not afraid to tell the truth, even when telling it might not be easy.
3. He was uncommonly bold in the areas he was willing personally to investigate and in the audiences to whom he was willing to present his evidence. For example, it requires outstanding courage to claim, especially in certain nonparapsychological publications or meetings, to have evidence suggesting memories of past lifetimes or other kinds of evidence suggesting reincarnation, and Stevenson had all the courage needed to present his evidence and ideas, usually to a scientific audience, but sometimes to a broader one. He had great curiosity about strange events and did not hesitate to study them. Dramatic incidents or reports that some parapsychologists might hesitate to investigate seemed deeply exciting to him, and not investigating them—or, at least, not encouraging others to do so— would have been unthinkable to him.
4. Stevenson presumably would have scored very high on the personality trait of conscientiousness. He very much desired to do tasks carefully, fully, and properly, and he would recruit others in areas that went beyond his knowledge or skills. Most of my work at the University of Virginia was on my own projects, but I collaborated with him on several projects and heard him report his research on many occasions. Based on these experiences, I never had reason to believe that he would even think of doing less than his best on any task, be it planning, investigating, or reporting. I always was confident in working with him that he would, to A Man from Whom We Should Learn 123 the best of his ability, carefully monitor both himself and anyone else involved with the project.
5. A word that could accurately characterize Stevenson is professionalism.
He exemplified all the qualities of professionalism, including conscientiousness (already noted), high standards of professional ethics, and proper social conduct, including fairness and kindness in his dealings with people. He was at one time much involved with developing ethics guidelines for the Parapsychological Association, but, most importantly, he himself exemplified those high standards of professional conduct. He was always very careful in his thinking, writing, speaking, and acting, and he taught his co-workers the importance of these virtues. He often gave practical advice. For example, he noted the importance of ‘‘always leaving a paper trail’’ to document what one did and did not do or say, not leaving things to the vagaries of memory or bias. He sometimes dispensed sage advice on grant getting. He clearly felt a sense of responsibility to himself, to his colleagues, and to his professional disciplines.
6. He may be deemed a superb role model for persons planning to do work in unorthodox areas such as parapsychology, because before he became deeply involved with parapsychology he had already earned a high regard for himself in psychiatry, his profession of training and practice. He had, for example, published a well-respected textbook on psychiatric interviewing (Stevenson, 1960/1971), and he was at one time Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. It is extremely wise to establish a very solid reputation in a socio-scientifically more acceptable and traditional area before embarking on parapsychological research and publication. There are reasons for this that are beyond the scope of the present discussion, but there have been other examples of this in the field, both historically and today. What is more, the knowledge derived from other scientific fields can enhance one’s later psi research. Stevenson’s ability to present his work in nonparapsychological journals and meetings undoubtedly was enhanced by his solid reputation in psychiatry and his holding a tenured position in that field.
7. Last, but not least, please do not forget that Stevenson also was able to continue with his work in unorthodox domains because (a) he had a home for it at a respected university and medical school and (b) the funding for it was largely raised by him. I believe he was successful in the latter regard at least in part because of being in such a setting, because of his personal character and accomplishments in psychiatry and in parapsychology, and because he cultivated support by being unafraid to address bold, but potentially very important issues. I must say also that he knew much about how to treat people, including potential donors. That included cultivating donors by being respectful, truthful, and honest in his dealings with them.
He also had many traditional grant-getting skills, and that is something 124 R. Stanford that can be fostered by contact with grant-getting colleagues, usually after having established a home in a grant-getting institution.
Stevenson was an individual who stood out in parapsychology on account of his boldness, courage, and—even by that field’s standards—unorthodox hypotheses. He also stood out because of his success in gaining support. He exemplified in his personal and professional life many qualities that are fundamental and important in any field of science. In my view, he exemplified a professional high road that we too seldom see in any field. By his everyday words and deeds he showed that intellectual boldness can successfully be melded with professional ethics, scientific carefulness, and social responsibility in public discourse. In remembering him, we would do very well to emulate his professionalism, conscientiousness, hard work, and honesty.
It is sad to say goodbye to such an individual, but it is gratifying and edifying to contemplate his example.
ReferencesStevenson, I. (1960). The evidence for survival from claimed memories of former incarnations. Part II.
Analysis of the data and suggestions for further investigations. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 54, 95–117.
Stevenson, I. (1968). The combination lock test for survival. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 62, 246–254.
Stevenson, I. (1970). Telepathic impressions: A review and report of thirty-ﬁve new cases.
Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 29, 1–198. (Also published by University Press of Virginia) Stevenson, I. (1971). The Diagnostic Interview (2nd ed.). Harper and Row. (Original work published 1960) Journal of Scientiﬁc Exploration, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 125–127, 2008 0892-3310/08 Ian Stevenson and the Society for Scientific Exploration
The key role that Ian Stevenson played in the Society for Scientific Exploration came about only as a result of events in two faraway cities: Montreal in Canada and Cambridge in England.
The Cambridge connection dates from 1954 to 1955, when I was a research fellow at St. John’s College. There were two or three visiting scholars that year, and one of them was a Professor of Philosophy from the University of Virginia.
His name was David Yalden-Thomson, born in Scotland and a fiercely proud Scotsman all of his life. David returned to Charlottesville in the summer of 1955, and I was scheduled to move to Stanford in the fall, so David invited me to visit him in Charlottesville after I was settled in California.
I do not remember exactly when my first visit occurred, but I do remember going to a horse race (in a party that included the English philosopher John Wisdom, who was a horse-racing fanatic) and climbing a small mountain called Old Rag (in a party that included David’s future wife Barbara). At that time, I was working in plasma physics rather than astrophysics, so my first contact with the University was with the Physics Department. Some years later, in the 1970s, I met Larry Fredrick while he was Secretary of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Charlie Tolbert was also an office holder in the AAS, responsible for organizing the Shapley Lecture Series. So during my fairly frequent visits to Charlottesville to visit David and Barbara, I had the privilege of developing a friendship with Larry and Charlie.
Robert Jahn, then Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Princeton University, came to spend a few months of sabbatical leave at Stanford in the spring of 1978. In view of my interest in the UFO problem and the great difficulty I had experienced in getting my articles on that subject reviewed – let alone published – by a scientific journal, I had begun to meditate the need for a new scientific society, and its journal, that would be open to the discussion and publication of work on topics considered improper – or even heretical – by the scientific establishment. Meeting Bob, and learning that he was facing a similar dilemma, had provided the necessary impetus to proceed with such an initiative.
Plans for what became the Society for Scientific Exploration were therefore
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beginning to take shape around 1980, and I already had the generous support of Larry and Charlie at the University of Virginia. However, it was shaping up to be a society heavily weighted by physicists and astronomers, and that would have been unduly restrictive from both an intellectual and a sociological point of view. This is where Ian Stevenson came upon the scene, but that happened only because of events in Montreal.
Ian and David were both alumni of McGill University, to which they were both very attached and of which they were both very proud. This common background led to a strong social connection between David and Ian that developed over the years into a strong and affectionate bond. As a result of this connection, David and Barbara were very familiar with Ian’s bold but meticulous research into evidence ‘‘suggestive of reincarnation’’ (to use Ian’s cautious terminology). Hence, when during a visit to Earlysville (David and Barbara’s new home near Charlottesville) I discussed with them the evolving plans for a new society, David told me about Ian and his remarkable research. I was of course most anxious to meet him.
In due course, David telephoned Ian to ask if he would be willing to meet an ‘‘astrophysicist from Stanford University,’’ and Ian replied that that would be ‘‘quite agreeable.’’ In preparation for the dinner party at which we were to meet, Barbara studied Ian’s recently published book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, to ensure that we had good discussions during dinner and over brandy (but no cigars!).