mercredi 2 mai 2018

Musings about "mystic" Stefan Ossowiecki

Since I was a kid I was fascinated with the idea that humans could have some “special” powers which would enable them to see thing what are impossible to see. Arthur C. Clarke's “World of Strange Powers” was one of my favourite books. It contained some interesting cases that seemed to indicate possibility of ESP and Clarke later in the book evaluated if those “powers” are indeed possible. From time to time I stumble upon interesting cases which I try to evaluate critically. Recently a friend of mine pointed to me the case of the Polish “mystic” and bon-vivan Stefan Ossowiecki, source:
ESP proponents Ian Stevenson, Zofia Weaver and Mary R. Barrington wrote a book “A World in A Grain of Sand: The Clairvoyance of Stefan Ossowiecki” in which they claim that he was the real deal. Book contains some experiments conducted during 1920.-30. period. At first, Ossowiecki was tested by French parapsychologists Charles Richet, Gustav Geley and Eugene Osty. It seems that guys involved were believers in ESP and were trying to prove their “black swan”. Some of the experiments conducted are described on page 34-42 of the book (you can google it and read them). Experiments described look interesting and Ossowiecki succeeded in guessing content of sealed letters ext. However, it seems that in the majority experiments controls were not good enough. Some of the readings lasted for two or three days or several hours with pauses, so there was a possibility of sensory leakage, fishing, cold reading and, maybe, hot readings. Some of the hits could be attributed to the fact that Ossowiecki was a warm person and made a friendly contact with investigators, as authors claim. In some cases, the clairvoyant was present when the drawing was made so he could probably guess by the moves of the hand what was written. Sometimes he just probably got a hit by chance. Also, we must point out to the fact that some of the some of the drawings could be seen through envelopes as Ossowiecki held them and squeeze them in their hands. It also appears that some hits are attributed to subjective validation. I don’t know if the investigators mentioned here were careful enough. Some of them were tricked in previous experiments by mediums which showed to be frauds, and some apparently covered up negative evidence in some of earlier investigations, source: But I don’t want to go ad hominem here.
Although the authors of the book speak positively about the reports, witness’s credibility and tests, I am not so sure about it. I will give couple of examples. Case described on the page 120 seem to indicate that Ossowiecki made a correct predicament in case of the famous Russian tenor Dmitri Smirnov. It is written that in 1927. Ossowiecki said to the tenor that he will visit USA, where he will meet his future wife, divorce and marry again. Smirnov allegedly went back to Poland two years later and said to the clairvoyant that he was wright. However, a simple Google research showed that Smirnov entered his second marriage in 1925. and visited the States together with his new wife, not before. Someone was obviously very wrong or the story was deliberately fabricated.
The second experiment is mentioned on the page 82 and that experiment lasted for six years. One of the investigators got the case from one Hungarian who said that Ossowiecki tries to “read it”. The investigator shook the case and heard something like small stones inside. Ossowiecki wasn’t interested in the reading. However, five years later the Hungarian died and the clairvoyant decided that he will try to read it. First reading was held in April 1934. There were no results. Second reading was in January 1935, no result, and in the same month there was the third reading which was successful. First two reading were witnessed just by couple of persons, while the third one had more participants. So, was it more likely that in six years’ time and pauses between the experiments there was a leakage about the possible content of the case which somehow got to Ossowiecki or the clairvoyant has the powers? The case was also sent to dozen other clairvoyants in France but investigator doesn’t mention their successes or failures. Were they “fake” and Ossowiecki was the real thing? If all those clairvoyants were fake, what about their hits (I am sure that they had some)? Or Ossowiecki had a help from some people? Reading described in the book itself seems to me like a game of cold reading, fishing, creativity, guessing and associations. Also, the way investigators explain misses and hits is “remarkable”. In one instance the clairvoyant says that the owner of the case died in an accident (false). Investigators explain that miss with the fact that one of the stones was put in a piece of a newspapers which had a story about plain accident. However, there were other headlines there and the clairvoyant didn’t mention them. If he saw that one, how did he miss the other? This points to the fact that investigators wanted him to be real and were ESP believers at first place. Also, Ossowiecki claimed that he could “read” letters only in Polish and French and this case was from Hungary so the headline mentioned was probably written on that language. It seems that investigators missed that fact or the headline was on Polish what would make this story very suspicious. But the fact that Ossowiecki was wright about information that one of stones was a meteorite was impressive. If we exclude sensory leakage and cheating, this seems to indicate that Ossowiecki indeed was a creative genius.
Later investigators from Society for Psychical Research joined in the party. One of the experiments is described on the page 62 of the book. Eric Dingwall made a drawing in London, put it in three envelopes, pierced small holes in the four corners of envelopes as controls, and in Warsaw gave the letter to a colleague Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (also involved in a cover up mentioned earlier) who gave it to Ossowiecki so he could “read” it. The reading lasted long and finally he got it wright. It is claimed that Schrenck-Notzing didn’t know what was written inside. At first Dingwall claimed that no one tried to open the letter as control holes seemed to match. However, some time later Dingwall changed his opinion and said that he didn’t know what happened to the letter while it got to Schrenck-Notzing. This experiment would have been impressive if Dingwall conducted it himself. Theodore Besterman conducted the second experiment, the details can be found here: He made a drawing and mailed it to Poland. However, the first letter didn’t make it to the destination because it was opened and read so he mailed another one (it isn’t stated was it the same drawing, if it was ti points to possible information leakage). The reading in Poland lasted for two days and there were some Besterman’s colleagues from London present (author of the drawing stayed in London). Ossowiecki described correctly the drawing. However, there was a possibility of leakage – Besterman was not present during the reading, and maybe someone else opened the letter. However, Besterman argued against that possibility. It is interesting to note that both investigators drew a bottle like image.
Also, there are clear cases of failed readings of Ossowiecki. One of them is described on the page 62 (at the top of the page), and one is described here: The clairvoyant was involved in some archaeological experiments and it seems that he was not so successful, source: “Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology”, page 203.
ESP proponents say this guy was the real deal. I am not so sure as there are many problems with the experiments and people who conducted them. Most of evidence presented reminds me on conjuring tricks. Also, some of the stories aren’t quite factual. I think that all the reports must have to be taken with a grain of salt. I am not sure that they represent 100% accurately of what really happened during the experiments. Even the “good” experiments conducted by guys from London have problems and weaknesses. It seems that abilities Ossowiecki had didn’t help him in his life – he was surprised when his first wife left him. Ossowiecki had some registered failed tests and was not subject to thorough systematic research. We do not have a complete record of his readings and tests so we don’t know about other negative examples. I am sure that Ossowiecki had some remarkable hits, but I am not convinced that cases described are proof of ESP. I would love to see Ossowiecki perform today in more striker conditions with multiple envelopes and repetitions and in conditions where sensory leakage is very unlikely. At the end we also must consider other similar experiments which so far failed to scientifically validate some form of ESP.

via International Skeptics Forum

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