Psychic Breakthroughs Today
The Failure of Scepticism
…. Now let’s turn to another sceptic and critic of parapsychology. This is a sceptic who is familiar with the field. A Magician’s Crusade Against the Paranormal
One of parapsychology’s more recent attackers is James (‘the Amazing’) Randi, a magician-turned-debunker from Rumson, New Jersey. As a former escape artist and mentalist, Randi has been waging a holy war against psychics and parapsychologists for several years. Randi’s most complete challenge to the field comes by way of his recent book Flim-Flam! It was originally published in 1980 and was subtitled ‘the truth about unicorns, parapsychology and ocher delusions’. Despite this cynical subtitle, very little in the book is concerned with conventional parapsychology at all. Most of it is devoted to such disreputable topics as ‘fairy’ photographs, the ancient astronaut controversy, biorhythms, and other ‘scientific’ borderlands.
So just what areas of parapsychology does Mr Randi cover in his book? Most of the coverage is devoted to what most scientifically-trained psi researchers snidely call ‘pop’ parapsychology or ‘drug store’ parapsychology. This is the world of television psychics, psychic surgery, Kirlian photography, do-it-yourself ESP development courses, and so on. These are areas towards which most orthodox parapsychologists cast a scornful as well as sceptical eye Randi never tells his readers this, of course. But now and again he does talk about and criticize more legitimate parapsychology, and it is here where he is at his glorious worst. Time and time again he flagrantly misrepresents what parapsychologists have said about psychic phenomena. If this weren’t bad enough, he goes on to woefully misquote and misdescribe their research.
This fact can no better be illustrated than by examining what Randi has to say about two well-known bodies of research:
1. The research of Dr Charles Tart of the University of California at Davis, who has been testing to see if certain people can be trained to learn ESP.
2. The highly publicized research of Russell Targ and Dr Harold Puthoff formerly of the Menlo Park, California-based Stanford Research Institute. Their investigations included a series of PK tests with Ingo Swann; some ESP experiments with Uri Geller; and considerable research into the byways of ‘remote viewing’.
By examining what Randi says about this research, one sees him for what he really is – either a hopelessly confused critic who just doesn’t seem capable of understanding the sophisticated way parapsychological research is designed and conducted, or a shrewd antagonist for whom debunking has become a holy war in which deliberate distortion and misrepresentation become a valid means towards a greater end.
Mr Randi’s brief attack on Dr Tart’s research on ESP learning is a good case in point. If you will recall, Dr Tart conducted some of his research at the University of California at Davis in the early 1970s with the use of a ten-choice trainer. The project was designed to determine if a subject’s ESP scores would improve if he was given immediate feedback about his/her successes and failures. The experiments were simply run. Each subject was placed in an experimental room with a console in front of him. This console depicted ten playing cards, which were arranged in a circle. A light was located next to each one. The experimenter remained in another room in front of a similar console, where he was provided with a television monitor so that he could see the subject. The experimenter randomly chose a series of ‘targets’ by relying on a sequence of digits generated randomly by a device hooked to the set up. He signalled the subject after generating each target, and the subject then made his choice. After this choice was recorded, the experimenter then informed the subject of the correct target by illuminating the proper light on the subject’s console. Some of Dr Tart’s best subjects scored phenomenally above chance, with accumulative odds of millions to one against chance. Randi feels confident he can explain Dr Tart’s results, for he writes that:
. . . Sherman Stein, a mathematician at the University of California at Los Angeles where the tests were done, in examining the raw data on which the book was based, came upon an anomaly. It seems that though Tart had checked out his random-number generator and found it gave a good distribution of digits, it did not repeat digits as it should. In 5000 digits produced by the machine, there should have been close to 500 ‘twins’. If, for example, a three comes up, there is exactly one chance in ten that another three will be produced next. There were only 193 twins – 39 per cent of the number expected. Since a subject in such tests had a tendency not to repeat a digit just used, this bias of the machine fits in nicely with the results observed.
It is remarkable how many errors and distortions crop up in just this one paragraph alone. It was, in fact, Dr Tart himself who first noticed the lack of double digits. Being a good and conscientious experimenter, this led him to seek the advice of Dr Stein (who teaches at the University of California at Davis and not at UCLA). But is it true, to quote Randi, that ‘the bias of the machine fits in neatly with the results observed’? Not on your life!
The scoring of some of Tart’s subjects was so astonishingly high that the generator’s slight bias does not appreciably alter the overall significance of the tests. This is true even if we adjusted the statistics to take this flaw into account. Anyone who takes the time to read Dr Tart’s Learning to Use ESP can determine this for himself by recomputing the statistics. Despite this fact, Randi deliberately implies that Tart’s work was not significant when it is re-evaluated. This misrepresentation is all the more serious since Randi surely realizes that his argument is totally ridiculous.
When Dr Tart’s book was first published, it was critically reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Martin Gardner, one of parapsychology’s most caustic critics and a long-time friend of Randi’s. Gardner had learned of the bias in Tart’s work from Dr Stein, so he brought up the issue in his review with seeming relish. But after a lengthy series of exchanges with Dr Tart, even Gardner had to back down on this point! Since Gardner and Randi are fellow members of CSICOP the magician must have been aware when he wrote his book that his lame ‘statistical bias’ theory had been settled long ago.
Of course, Randi’s criticisms of Dr Tart are really rather peripheral to Flim-Flam! The main crux of the book is to make a frontal attack on Russell Targ, Harold Puthoff, and the entire SRI research programme in parapsychology. This would include their remote viewing experiments, as well as their work with such ‘star’ psychics as Ingo Swann and Uri Geller, the famous Israeli telepath and psychic ‘metal-bender’ Being that I was able to personally visit SRI to investigate Randi’s claims and charges, I can only describe his chapter on their work as a shameless bit of prevarication.
Space limitations will not permit me to expose all of Randi’s errors and misrepresentations. So the following pages will cover only a few of his more important criticisms.
To begin with, Randi particularly flays a series of magnetometer ‘demonstrations’ which Dr Puthoff conducted with Ingo Swann at Stanford University in 1972. Since these experiments were not discussed earlier in this volume, the following represents a brief summary of what occurred.
The idea behind these tests was to see if Swann could influence a magnetometer, buried under a physics building around which a decaying magnetic field was set. Since the magnetometer was protected by a super-conducting shield, the output of the decaying field should have been impervious to any random influences. These brief experiments were described by Targ and Puthoff in their book Mind-Reach, in which they report that Swann was asked to interfere with the magnetometer by ‘remote viewing’ it. When Swann began to describe the device, the output of the decay pattern suddenly doubled! (This was easy to determine since a chart recorder was constantly monitoring the decay pattern.) This curious phenomenon was witnessed not only by Dr Puthoff, but also by Dr Arthur Hebard, a young Stanford physicist. The perturbation lasted for thirty seconds and Dr Hebard was surprised by this effect, since the strange output seemed to be physically inexplicable. So he suggested that Swann stop the output of the device completely. Swann tried and succeeded within seconds! He produced this same result later during the test by merely thinking about the machine, and the results did not seem due to some quirk in the magnetometer. The magnetometer chart was examined for two hours after Swann left the building, but no odd perturbations were noted during this control period.
Mr Randi completely disputes this sequence of events. He reports that Dr Hebard was not happy with Swann’s demonstration. The physicist was particularly annoyed that neither Russell Targ nor Dr Puthoff bothered to ask whether or not a normal explanation – such as equipment malfunction – could account for the effects. Randi then goes on to challenge other aspects of the demonstration. Based on his personal conversations with Dr Hebard, Randi next claims that a total of fifteen minutes went by between the time Swann began focusing his attention on the magnetometer when the perturbation really took place. It was only then, claims Randi, that Swann asked the experimenters, ‘Is that what I’m supposed to do?’ The magician further claims that Swann was never asked to stop the output of the magnetometer. The chart suddenly produced a levelling out, and then Swann opportunely asserted that he had produced the effect.
When I spoke to Dr Puthoff about these charges, the SRI physicist grew extremely annoyed. He disputed Randi’s information and explained in no uncertain terms that not more than sixty seconds went by between Swann’s ‘remote viewing’ procedure and the occurrence of the magnetometer’s first perturbation. He also maintained that Dr Hebard – unimpressed by the effect – had off-handedly suggested that it would be more impressive if Swann could cause the magnetometer’s output to cease.
There obviously exist several discrepancies between Dr Puthoff’s views on what happened during this experiment, and what Randi claims Dr Hebard told him. So to clarify the matter, I decided to get in touch with Dr Hebard myself. I finally tracked him down at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He was very willing to discuss the Swann magnetometer demonstration with me, and professed to be very interested in parapsychology.
It become quite clear during our phone conversation that Dr Hebard’s memory of Swann’s performance differed somewhat from Puthoff’s. He disagreed with the physicist primarily about the length of time that passed from when Swann first attempted to remote view the magnetometer and when the subsequent perturbations took place. He recalled that several minutes passed by, as Randi asserts, and not merely several seconds, Dr Hebard denied in no uncertain terms, however, Randi’s claim that Swann was never asked to ‘stop the field charge’ being recorded from the magnetometer. He easily recalled that he had suggested that it would be a fascinating effect if Swann could produce it . . . which, of course, he actually did soon after the suggestion was made Randi also directly quotes Dr Hebard as calling some of Targ and Puthoff’s claims ‘lies’. Dr Hebard was very annoyed by this claim since, as he explained to me, Randi had tried to get him to make this charge and he had refused. Dr Hebard later signed a statement to this effect for me.
So while Randi has indeed shown that there are several unanswered questions about Swann’s Stanford demonstration, he has certainly not provided the definitive scenario of what happened that day. His portrayal of Dr Hebard as a strong critic of both Targ and Puthoff and parapsychology also seems questionable, while his summary of his conversations with the physicist is rather inaccurate as well. (I might add that several weeks after I spoke to Dr Hebard, Dr Puthoff showed me the actual graphed print-outs given by the magnetometer during the Swann demonstrations. The records supported Dr Puthoff’s contention more than they did Dr Hebard’s.)
Randi doesn’t end his attack on SRI with his comments on Ingo Swann, though. His real focus is the research that SRI conducted with Uri Geller, which was designed to study his purported telepathic and clairvoyant powers. This research was first published in Nature in October 1974. Since Nature is a prestigious British science publication, the SRI report caused a stir in scientific circles. Their report claimed that Geller, while sequestered in a sealed isolation booth, successfully and repeatedly reproduced drawings sent to him telepathically. The SRI researchers also explained that Geller was able to ‘call’ the uppermost face of a single die shaken in a closed box.
Naturally, our beloved debunker plays down the importance of the Nature paper and states that ‘as early as 1972, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, its authors, had submitted it to US publications as a project of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). All had rejected it.’ Now this is blatantly untrue, since Targ and Puthoff had made no prior submission. Their goal was always to submit their report to Nature. Randi also snidely comments that the Nature paper was published with an editorial explaining that the report was being issued ‘so that scientists could see the kind of. material that was being turned out in the field of parapsychology, and typified it as ‘weak’ and ‘flawed.’
Randi here engages in a series of half-truths, since he seems to be implying that the paper was published in order to embarrass parapsychology. The truth of the matter was that the editors of Nature found many flaws in the report with which to take issue. But they clearly stated in their editorial that they had decided on publication despite some of their reservations. They simply felt that they had an obligation to bring this type of research to the attention of their readers since the experiments had been conducted by legitimate scientists. The editorial was perfectly respectful and contained none of the innuendos implied by Randi.
So let’s look at the way Randi thinks Geller pulled the wool over Targ and Puthoff’s eyes during the most critical series of experiments they ran together.
The focal point of the SRI’s Nature report concerned a series of experiments designed to explore or expose Geller’s purported telepathic powers. For this carefully conducted series of tests, the psychic was placed in an isolation booth at SRI, while the experimenters remained in an adjoining room and selected the targets from a dictionary. (They opened the dictionary randomly and then sketched the first drawable word listed on the page) This drawing was then hung up for everyone – researchers and on-lookers alike – to see. Geller’s job was to reproduce these drawings from his position inside the sealed chamber by telepathy. While there still remains some unanswered questions concerning the times Geller ‘passed’ on a drawing (i.e., refused to draw it), some of his successes were simply astounding. There is simply no way coincidence can explain some of them. For example, for one trial Geller drew a bunch of twenty-three grapes. The target was not only a similar drawing, but the grapes in that picture were even placed in the same configuration. Either this result was due to telepathy or somehow Geller managed to see the target before reproducing it.
Randi opts for the fraud theory, and he even thinks he knows how Geller carried out the shenanigans. He offers his readers a diagram of the booth and adjoining room where the tests were held. This diagram shows that a four-and-a-half inch hole (used to extend cables in and out of the booth) is situated in the booth three feet above the floor. Randi claims that Geller merely peeked through this hole for at least two of the drawing tests, and either saw the targets or was signalled by a confederate located in the adjoining room. While the magician points out that the hole is usually kept stuffed with gauze, he believes that Geller simply withdrew the material while carrying out his secret observations.
This all sounds reasonable enough until you check out the booth which I was able to do when I visited SRI on 12 June 1981. I found, first, that the hole is not four-and-a-half inches wide at all. It is three-and-a-quarter inches and extends thorough a twelve-and-a-half inch wall. This scopes your vision and severely limits what you can see through it. The hole is not left open either, since it is covered by a plate through which cables are routinely run. Dr Puthoff and his colleague were, however, concerned that their subject might be ingenious enough to insert an optical probe through this hole, so they monitored the opening throughout their telepathy experiments. But the most embarrassing error Randi makes concerns the position of the hole. It isn’t three feet above the floor, but is located only a little above floor level. The only thing you can see through it – even under optimal conditions – is a small bit of exterior floor and opposing wall. (The viewing radius is only about 20°, and the targets for the Geller experiments were hung on a different wall completely.) I also discovered during my trip to SRI that an equipment rack was situated in front of the hole throughout the Geller work, which obstructed any view through it even further. I ended my little investigation by talking with two people who were present during these critical experiments. They both agreed that wires were running through the hole – therefore totally blocking it – during the time of the Geller experiments.
Little more needs to be said concerning Randi’s criticisms of the Geller work, since the important point is not really whether the Israeli psychic proved his psychic powers, but whether Randi can be considered a responsible critic of parapsychology. I think the answer should be obvious by now. This fact, however, doesn’t keep him from making wild accusations against both Targ and Puthoff, even to the point of questioning their scientific honesty.
It is well known that the two SRI physicists issued a film which shows Geller successfully guessing the uppermost face of a die after it had been shaken in a closed box. Their Nature report describes these tests and phenomenal accuracy. The critical film was taken by Zev Pressman (an SRI staff photographer) and it shows Geller correctly making a guess. Randi claims that Targ and Puthoff lied when they stated that this film was taken during the actual tests. He further asserts that the film was a re-enactment. Basing his charges on information he claims came from Pressman himself, Randi maintains that the film was taken after the photographer had gone home and was merely staged. ‘Pressman revealed that he was told Geller’s eight successful throws [my emphasis] were done after he (Pressman) had gone home for the day, writes Randi, ‘and that this film was a re-enactment of that supposed miracle’
Dr Puthoff was thoroughly disgusted when I read this section of Flim-Flam! to him. ‘Not one millimetre of that film was a re-enactment, he told me. He also claimed that he had even procured an affidavit from Pressman certifying that the footage was filmed by him during the actual SRI tests. Dr Puthoff supplied me with this affidavit and urged me to get in touch with Mr Pressman, which is exactly I did.
l spoke directly with Mr Pressman on 5 January 1981 and he was quite interested when I told him about Randi’s book. He denied that he had spoken to the magician. When l read him the section of Randi’s book dealing with his alleged ‘expose’ of the Targ-Puthoff film, he became very vexed. He firmly backed up the authenticity of the film, told me how he had taken it on the spot, and labelled Randi’s allegation as a total fabrication. (His own descriptive language was a little more colourful!)
So just where did Randi come up with this nonsense about the SRI’s Geller film? Randi does not specifically state that he personally spoke to Pressman, although he vaguely implies it. It seems instead that he procured this piece of misinformation from another SRI source, who was perhaps honesty mistaken about the film. Randi then repeated the error, never checked out his source, and used the error to make wild accusations against the SRI experimenters. The truly hilarious thing about this mess is that no film showing Geller making eight hits in a row was ever shot! Pressman only filmed one experiment, in which Geller is seen ‘passing’ – although guessing correctly – on the test. So Randi wasn’t even able to describe the SRI film correctly, and he certainly never saw it.
So much for Randi’s attacks on Geller and those who have studied him.
Finally we and Randi came to Targ and Puthoff’s original ‘remote viewing’ research, which they pioneered at SRI, (as discussed earlier) during some informal tests conducted with Ingo Swann. These tests were refined when the physicists began conducting similar experiments with the late Pat Price, another gifted psychic and a former Burbank, California police commissioner. For these initial experiments, the subject was kept at SRI while an outbound experimenter drove to a location somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area. The subject was simply asked to visualize the outbound experimenter’s location and describe it. After each session was completed, the subject was taken to the target site and a comparison was informally made between the location and the subject’s description. During these early trials, each subject usually co-operated in a series of such sessions. The transcripts for all the sessions were then given to an independent (blind) judge, who then visited the sites or examined photographs of them. He then tried to match the sites with the descriptions. The overall success of these sets of remote viewing experiments was therefore based not only on the quality of the subject’s responses, but by way of statistical tests calculated from the judge’s correct matchings.
The only criticism that Randi can come up with is to complain that the SRI judging procedures were extremely faulty. This criticism is not an original one, for Randi bases his information on some ‘findings’ made by two New Zealand psychologists – the late Richard Kammann and David Marks – who visited SRI when the remote viewing research was first beginning to come to scientific attention. (They report on their visit in their own book The Psychology of the Psychic.) Drs. Marks and Kammann discovered that the SRI researchers often forgot to edit out little ‘clues’ in the transcripts, clues that could have helped the independent judge to determine which target went to which description. For instance, in one test the subject was told that he already had ‘three successes’ behind him. The judge was thus clued to the fact that this transcript corresponded to the fourth session and target site But this wasn’t all that the psychologists claimed. For according to Randi, they also ‘discovered [that] the judges had been given the locations in chronological order, and they knew it. The barest trace of experimental care would have demanded that this list be “scrambled” But it was not.’ Randi then goes on to explain how the two psychologists then re-edited the transcripts for one particularly successful series of SRI tests in order to correct this fatal flaw. They then proceeded to have the entire series rejudged, but their judge couldn’t make the correct matches at all.
‘The Targ and Puthoff miracle is out of the window,’ declares Randi.
These criticisms may seem devastating but they really aren’t. To begin with, there certainly were flaws in the early remote viewing work, and the issue of the faulty editing was crucial. But parapsychologists working at other laboratories were quick to point out these problems to their SRI colleagues, who immediately corrected the flaws. But the story of the SRI remote viewing work doesn’t end here, by any means. Dr Charles Tart eventually came to take a special interest in these early ‘flawed’ experiments, and he re-edited the same remote viewing reports the New Zealand psychologists had worked with. He deleted the possible cues and then sent them to be rejudged. This time the results were still statistically significant.
Nor is it true that the transcripts and/or the sites for the critical series were given to the judge in chronological order. Some time after the publication of The Psychology of the Psychic, I personally spoke to the psychologist in charge of judging this series. He told me that everything was properly randomized when he received the materials from SRI.
Of course, our sceptic totally ignores the fact that the remote viewing effect has been replicated both at SRI and at several other laboratories, using even more stringent controls than went into the original experiments. Successful remote viewing experiments have been reported from Mundelein College in Evanston, Illinois; from the Lawrence-Livermore Laboratories in California; and recently from the Institute for Parapsychology in Durham, North Carolina. So the validity of the remote viewing effect no longer rests on Targ and Puthoff’s experiments alone, but on a large body of experimental findings . . . findings that even Randi, with all his magical knowledge, can’t make disappear.
Some Concluding Notes
So there rests the sceptic’s case. Not every sceptic is this irresponsible, but the cases we’ve been evaluating tend to be embarrassingly typical. The simple fact remains that parapsychology’s detractors have a terrible time explaining away the field’s findings. If psi doesn’t exist, this fact would be self-evident by now. So it is more than revealing that the field’s debunkers so often fall to manufacturing flaws in our experiments – or even, as with the CSICOP/Gauquelin fiasco, cover up their own positive findings.
Where does this leave parapsychology? The field certainly seems to be in healthy shape. There is probably more fruitful research going on within parapsychology today than during any other time in its short history. It is also currency turning in even more exciting directions, and these directions promise to help convert even more scientists. We briefly examined this trend in chapters two and three, where the use of ESP for predicting the results of horse-races and financial investments was discussed.
When parapsychology first became a primarily experimental science, nobody thought that psi would ever be harnessed for any practical purpose. No one really thought that there existed a practical side to the sixth sense. Editorializing back in 1945, in fact, Dr J.B. Rhine eschewed searching for any real uses for extrasensory perception or psychokinesis. ‘No practical use can be made of them with our present state of knowledge,’ he wrote ‘They are not reliable enough.’ Rhine didn’t even think that the practical applications issue was very important to the parapsychology of his day, for he went on to write that ‘ . . practical application has never been the objective of the investigations. This is not because practical application is regarded as of no importance, but because the true goals of research are so incomparably greater in importance that practical application seems downright trivial in contrast.’ The ‘true’ goal of parapsychology, believed the Duke researcher, was to disclose mankind’s place in the universe.
Since Dr Rhine entered the field to resolve his personal religious conflicts, this was a reasonable view for him to take. And if we examine the research projects conducted by parapsychologists fifty years ago, Rhine’s position seems even more logical. The field had been previously preoccupied with the survival enigma and was only beginning to turn to the scientific laboratory. Rhine’s pioneering research at Duke University in the 1930s certainly proved the existence of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis. But his research strategies – which were basically card-calling ESP experiments and dice-rolling explorations of PK – were extremely limited. While they demonstrated that some people possess a sixth sense, the faculty seemed to be weak and capricious. The Duke researchers came to feel that the days of the great psychics were over. These younger parapsychologists, who had been trained specifically in the lab, even began to wonder whether truly great psychics ever really existed – or whether their feats were the result of fraud clever enough to dupe their predecessors. These researchers began to see ESP and PK as incredibly elusive powers, powers that surface only rarely. In fact, they didn’t even become interested in ESP and its role in day-to-day life until the 1940s.
What is so ironic is that primitive cultures, these wellsprings of the sixth sense, have never considered psychic power in this ludicrously limited way. To these peoples, ESP and PK were (and are) powerful forces that should be put to work to help their community.
This point was recently made by Dr Jule Eisenbud, a psychoanalyst from Denver, Colorado who has been studying parapsychology for years. Speaking before a conference of anthropologists in 1978, he pointed to several differences between the Western and the ‘primitive’ belief-systems concerning psychic phenomena. To the world of the primitive ‘ . . behaviours based upon the power of thought to accomplish things are reality oriented. They simply make use of processes considered to be inherent in the social order and the universe.’ It was this world view that gave rise to the Shamanic tradition. The shaman is supposed to employ his powers for the good of his people. It would be a pretty pathetic shaman who constancy excused himself for failing to conjure a rainstorm, couldn’t find someone’s lost ring, or failed to heal a member of his community. We are hardly so demanding when we work with our own psychics!
Luckily, though, we are seeing a real change of attitude within today’s parapsychological community. Practical applications for the sixth sense is becoming the topic of the 1980s. This promising area of study has been christened with its own name Psionics is a term originally coined by Dr Jeffrey Mishlove, who was one of the first parapsychologists to urge his colleagues to explore the world of ‘applied psi’ research. He employs this term to separate it from formal experimental/laboratory research.
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