Interview: Lamont on Extraordinary Beliefs

As recently announced on AHP, a new book by historian of psychology, and magician, Peter Lamont has just been released. AHP had the pleasure of interviewing Lamont about his new book: Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological ProblemThe full interview follows below.

AHP: How did you become interested in the history of extraordinary beliefs and the role of psychologists in supporting and challenging the existence of extraordinary phenomena?

PL: Well, I used to be a magician (but I’m alright now). As a history student, I funded my studies by working as a close-up magician. Later, I joined the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, based within the Psychology department, to work on the psychology of magic. Since then, I’ve combined my interests in history, magic and the paranormal, and since I now work as a historian in a Psychology department, it seemed only polite to discuss the role of psychologists in all this.

AHP: It seems as though psychologists have been investigating extraordinary phenomena – including mesmeric, spiritualist, psychic, and paranormal phenomena – since the very beginning of scientific psychology. Why did the discipline take such an early interest in the extraordinary?

PL: One reason, as others have long pointed out, is boundary-work. Psychical Research was an ideal Other by which scientific psychologists could construct their own scientific credentials and worth. But the same arguments were going on well before the birth of the academic discipline, and I think it makes more sense to see this as something with wider relevance, as an opportunity for people (including psychologists, because psychologists are people too) to construct their own expertise and worth.

AHP: What’s the link between belief, the production of extraordinary phenomena and the explanation of extraordinary facts?

PL: Well, that’s a big one, but here’s a brief answer: for centuries, mesmerists, mediums and psychics have given demonstrations that were explicitly designed to rule out normal explanations (fraud, chance, etc) . This is one reason why folk have believed, one that is often forgotten – these demonstrations were designed to be convincing. Others, of course, have believed otherwise i.e. that such events were the result of chance, fraud, etc. The latter is usually called disbelief, but it is not an absence of belief, it is a form of belief. So that’s your choice: you can believe that certain events have taken place for which no ordinary explanation is adequate, or else you can believe they are due to ordinary explanations. In order to understand all this, we need to ask a symmetrical question i.e. not ‘why do some people believe?’ but ‘how do people come to the conclusions they do?’

AHP: What role have competing claims of expertise played in disputes over the reality of extraordinary phenomena?

PL: They have been absolutely fundamental. In short, you cannot exclude ordinary explanations unless you believe you are competent to assess the matter. Meanwhile, every debunker of the paranormal has had to claim superior expertise to that of believers (i.e. that one knows better). This is why disputing the paranormal has always been bound up with claims and counter-claims about expertise, and psychological expertise has been a major theme in all this.

AHP: What does an examination of the history of extraordinary phenomena tell us about the way psychology treats the reality of phenomena more generally?

PL: Scientific psychologists have been overwhelmingly skeptical, to the point that their enquiries into belief have often presumed the beliefs to be erroneous. What I have called a ‘psychology of error’ has been rife, through which psychologists have defined such beliefs as erroneous, then attributed them to error while, at the same time, presenting themselves as experts on why others get things wrong. It’s been going on as long as the discipline has existed.

AHP: Belief in the extraordinary is remarkably persistent. One has only to consider the recent investigation of ESP by psychologist Daryl Bem, which attracted considerable attention. Does the history of extraordinary belief that you outline in your book shed any light on the continuing appeal of both the extraordinary and the discipline’s near instinctive denial of such?

PL: I think so. It shows that we’ve been having the same argument for a very long time, and that there are continuities in how this has played out. The continuities are there for a reason, they are intrinsic to the debate, and so they are not going to go away. We will continue to dispute extraordinary phenomena, in much the same ways as we have done for so long, as every new generation of skeptics continues to wonder how people, in this day and age, can believe in such things. Meanwhile, believers will continue to complain about the narrow-mindedness of science, and skeptical psychologists will continue to point out how believers get things wrong.

AHP: Is there anything else you would like to tell AHP’s readers?

PL: Well ok, two trivial things and one important thing.

First, I’ve just noticed that you’ve uploaded the video of the brief interview I did with Peter Hegarty, when I was at the University of Surrey, and in that interview, I mistakenly said (at 1.11) ‘psychologists’ when I meant to say ‘magicians’. It is, perhaps, the least interesting ‘blooper’ in history, but I thought I should mention it, in case anyone thought I was simply an idiot.

Second, I would like to publicly apologize to Michael Petit, for managing to mis-spell his name in the bibliography of the book. I have already privately apologized to him, but it’s in the public arena, so a public apology feels appropriate. Hang on, I did it again … damn these infernal bloopers!

Here’s the more important thing. It’s hardly an original thought, but I think it bears repeating, because it really matters, at least from where I’m sitting: the history of Psychology (and psychology) is an enormous topic, but as historians within Psychology, we need to engage with psychological arguments; we need to see history as a way of doing Psychology. That’s the main purpose of this book, to do that for a particular topic, to provide a way of understanding extraordinary beliefs, one that only history can provide.

Many thanks to Peter Lamont for agreeing to be interviewed for the blog!

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University. Her dissertation explores the early history of questionnaires in American psychology.

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