Reading the diaries of John Rae, the renowned controversialist and long-serving headmaster of Westminster School (1970-86), turns up an interesting anecdote that illustrates some of the problems that parapsychologists encounter outside the laboratory, where they are all too often at the mercy of unexpected variables – especially when they are too prone to believe.
Rae had attended a dinner at Blackheath, held by the biographer John Grigg and his wife, and arrived to discover that Arthur Koestler was also a guest. Koestler. an Austro-Hungarian by birth best known for his anti-Communist book Darkness At Noon (1940), was nearing the end of a complicated life; he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease five years earlier and more recently had contracted leukemia. This had boosted an already active interest in parapsychology and historical revisionism, which had led him to write such books as The Case of the Midwife Toad (on Paul Kammerer and coincidence) and the wildly controversial and, historically, deeply flawed The Thirteenth Tribe (which argued that the Ashkenazi Jews, who make up the great majority of modern day Israelis, were not originally German semites, but were descended from the inhabitants of the the 9th century middle Asian Khazar Empire).
By 1980, anyway, Koestler was a convinced believer in psychic phenomena who had already made arrangements, in his will, to leave a substantial legacy to Edinburgh University to fund a parapsychology department there. Hence the piquancy of Rae’s anecdote:
Before dinner the wooden stool on which I am sitting collapses and Koestler insists that he had heard the Griggs’ dog start barking a fraction of a second before the stool collapsed, as though I had communicated some form of early warning to the animal. This enables Koestler to lead an interesting discussion about various forms of extra-sensory perception. But it is cut short by John Grigg, who points out that the dog, whose name is Slippers, barked because it heard the telephone in the hall ring just before the stool collapsed. We are all rather disappointed, especially Koestler.
[Source: John Rae, The Old Boys’ Network: A Headmaster’s Diaries 1972-1986, entry for 17 March 1980. (London: Short Books 2010 pp.200-01)