Leslie Price – England
Those who work on the powers latent in man are familiar with sceptics, that well organised community who assail any positive testimony to such powers on principle. They would like to be seen as meticulous and scholarly people in contrast to, well, anyone who does not adhere to orthodox views. Recently I was reminded of a case where this was not so, as I shall explain.
In 2014, I came across a sceptical book in which H.P.B. featured, and I wrote to the author Jason Colavito as below.
Subject: madame blavatsky
Date: Sat, 22 Nov 2014
Dear Mr Colavito,
As associate editor of the journal Theosophical History (www.theohistory.org ) I was naturally interested in your anthology Theosophy on Ancient Astronauts. I was surprised to read on p.x that Blavatsky material was channelled by her spirit guide. Truthfully or not, she always claimed that her Mahatmas, Brothers etc. were living men; though Olcott describes in his Old Diary Leaves what were clearly trances.
My reason for writing however is the footnote on p.xi about the 1986 statement about the Hodgson report. You said something similar in your blog.
What is a Fortean psychic? Who was the Fortean psychic in question? Did the psychic write the SPR press release or the article mentioned in the press release? What is the evidence for the change in the SPR population to which you refer in the footnote. Was there actually a person in charge of 1986 review of the case? I would welcome more information.
The author was kind enough to reply to me.
From: Jason Colavito
Sent: 22 November 2014 To: Leslie Price
Subject: RE: madame blavatsky
Vernon Harrison was a psychical researcher with interests in Forteana. He was responsible for the press release and its article. I regret the phrase "Fortean psychic," which I adapted from an article on Blavatsky that seems to be somewhat incomplete; it should more accurately be "Fortean psychical researcher."
Many histories of the SPR have noted that the number of scientists and sceptics in its ranks declined, and it has taken a less scientific approach in recent decades, sparking controversies.
I then replied to him
From: Leslie Price
Sent: 22 November 2014
To: 'Jason Colavito'
Subject: RE: madame blavatsky
Many thanks for responding to my enquiry. I don’t think the use of the term “Fortean” in relation to Dr Harrison is helpful. I can see of course from the Wikipedia article, that he was consulted about a photo of the Loch Ness monster, but then he was also consulted generally by the SPR and other bodies about puzzling photos. He was almost always able to explain them.
You are using Fortean here as what Renee Haynes (a psychical researcher) used to call a boo-word, signalling that a person should not be taken seriously. I have read quite bit of what Dr Harrison wrote in SPR publications and elsewhere, and I am also a subscriber to Fortean Times, and I do not detect anything Fortean in his approach, whether that is good or bad.
Dr. Vernon Harrison at the 1997 Theosophical History conference in London. Photo by Colyn Boyce.
Surely the significance of Dr Harrison is that he was professionally concerned with detecting forgery. He looked at Hodgson’s procedure in relation to the Mahatma Letters, and he looked at the handwriting of the Letters, and he concluded that Hodgson did not follow correct procedure – and that the Mahatma letters were not in Madame Blavatsky’s handwriting. His subsequent book is on line; perhaps you have read it? He also thought that the K.H. and M letters were consistently written in the same handwriting. I am not aware of any refutation of his professional opinion.
Dr Harrison was not asked by the SPR to look again at the Blavatsky case, but having looked at it, he submitted a paper which was refereed and then published in JSPR. Since the SPR has no collective view, the appearance of this paper does not mean the SPR has a different view of Madame Blavatsky, or that the Hodgson report was withdrawn, but since the 1986 paper was historically significant, a press release was made. Another press release was made at the same time about a paper by Robert Jahn.
Dr Harrison was not responsible for the press release. I wrote that press release and also the one about Professor Jahn, though the drafts were the subject of internal consultation. Is there an inaccuracy in the press release?
When the 1986 Harrison paper appeared, several SPR members disagreed with particular points. The late Dr Michael Coleman would be a good example. There remain differing views among the membership. Have scientists and sceptics in its ranks declined? What is the evidence?
At this point the correspondence ended. You can see of course that Jason Colavito, a New Yorker who normally writes on archaeology, was not well-informed about the British S.P.R. or Dr Vernon Harrison, and showed no signs of having actually read Dr Harrison’s research which freed H.P.B. from the aspersion of having forged the Mahatma Letters.
Recently, I encountered Jason Colavito’s work again. It is well known that H.P.B. was what is known as a catastrophist; she believed that catastrophes had exercised a big impact on human history (the fall of Atlantis for example.) The alternative orthodox theory is Uniformitarianism. So, many geologists for long resisted the reality of continental drift. Some continue to deny that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of much life on earth about 65 million years ago. Any writers who support world catastrophes to explain prehistory can expect a hostile reception.
Among them is Graham Hancock, who is not unknown to Theosophical audiences. His recent book Magicians of the Gods (2015) argues that there was a grave planetary comet impact about 12,000 years ago but that some knowledge survived, in Egypt for example.
Jason Colavito has written a long critique of this book.
Of course, any author would be pleased to have such a long and detailed review, except that of course the review is meant to refute the author’s claims. And the casual reader would assume with such detail that Graham Hancock’s book has indeed been annihilated, just as any reader of Theosophy on Ancient Astronauts (2012) would probably not feel the need to pay any serious attention to Madame Blavatsky.
I would however advise caution. We can learn from the writings of sceptics all the time, but sometimes they are not sceptical enough about their own assertions, and will recklessly damage the standing of their targets.