Science and the Supernatural



The Gates of Unreason
Will the gates of unreason then be allowed
to open and drown us in a world inhabited by
spirits of the dead and the like?
Science and the Supernatural

One day in the summer of 1975, a number of distinguished scientists and their colleagues crowded expectantly into a 15 foot by 15 foot laboratory at Birkbeck College, University of London. Those packed into the room included Dr John Hasted, professor of experimental physics, Dr David Bohm, Birkbeck’s professor of physics, and writer Arthur Koestler. A further seven people, mainly scientific colleagues of Hasted’s were also present.
Hasted and his colleagues had been avoiding the press all day and eventually they disconnected the telephone to prevent any interruption of the crucial test they had assembled to witness.(1)
When the test subject arrived, Hasted used a commercial Geiger counter to ensure that he had no radioactive materials on him. The extent of background radiation was checked, too, and those present also confirmed that it was impossible to manufacture a reading from the Geiger counter by roughly handling it or the cable that connected it to a chart recorder.
When the equipment was ready, Hasted handed the Geiger counter to the subject and asked him to produce a reading by paranormal means. After two minutes, the chart recorder registered two large pulses, one of around twenty five counts per second. At the same time, the subject (who could not see the chart recorder) reported feeling a ‘shock’. After a further sixteen minutes of concentration there was another pulse registered on the recorder and again after another five minutes, when the subject said he felt a prickly sensation. During the experiment, a second chart recorder, connected to a gaussmeter (an instrument for measuring magnetism), registered two large pulses which happened at the same time as the later pulses on the Geiger counter.
This experiment was repeated again the next day under similar conditions. During a twenty-five-minute session, another four abnormal pulses of around ten counts per second were produced by the subject, on demand. Finally, at the end of this second session, all observers were asked to leave the laboratory except for Hasted and Arthur Koestler, in order that the subject might concentrate fully, and he was asked to make an extraordinary effort to produce an abnormal reading by paranormal means. Within three minutes, the subject produced a reading that was off the scale of the Geiger counter but which, according to Professor Hasted, may have been as high as 200 counts per second.
Many readers will already have guessed that the test subject was Uri Geller. Equally, whether aware of the identity of the subject or not, many people will find this experiment simply impossible to believe, even though it was conducted by a physicist of the highest reputation under carefully controlled conditions at one of Britain’s leading centres of research in physics and witnessed by many others of impeccable reputation. What on earth are we – whether scientists or nonscientists – to make of it?
The difficulty for all of us in accepting reports like this, despite their pedigree, is that they raise questions of such fundamental importance as to be frankly frightening in their implications. If it is possible to cause physical phenomena to occur simply by thinking about them or in some way willing them, isn’t the entire structure of science invalidated? Would it not inevitably mean that we do not understand the first thing about the true nature of the world in which we live?
And yet, at the same time, few people would disagree that if the phenomena described by Professor Hasted and others are indeed real, then we are dealing with one of the most important scientific discoveries ever made. You might expect the world’s scientists to be impatient to put such claims to the test experimentally and to find out empirically whether paranormal phenomena actually occur. Yet the number of institutional scientists accepting this challenge can be counted on the fingers of one hand and the publicly-funded experimental resources at their disposal can be counted on the fingers of the other.
Despite the potential importance of reports of psychokinesis and related paranormal phenomena, institutional science devotes virtually no resources to their research. In the main this is because there is a widespread (and not unhealthy) skepticism which is summed up in the idea ‘if there were anything in it, we would have stumbled across major replicable phenomena years ago. If there were money to be made from the paranormal then our supermarket shelves would already be stacked high with telepathic toothpaste and psychic cornflakes.’
This same healthy skepticism makes science feel confident that there are few – if any – big surprises left in a field like inorganic chemistry, where the chemical behaviour of the elements has been minutely studied and is believed to be understood to a very high degree. It seems simply not worth spending large sums on big projects to discover if sodium chloride has any more rewarding property than flavouring our fish and chips. And again, if there were commercial prizes to be gained from such encyclopaedic searches, they would already have been exploited by profit-hungry corporations with huge research and development budgets.
But although this skepticism acts as a valuable restraint on wasted effort and sloppy thinking, it can be – and sometimes has been – badly misplaced in the past and is an unreliable guide to our expectations of future scientific discovery, especially in those areas where our self-confidence is high but our knowledge is actually rather thin.
Giorgio Piccardi, director of the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Florence, became dissatisfied with conventional explanations of common chemical reactions taking place in water. He noticed that the rate at which reactions took place seemed to vary, and sometimes they did not take place at all. His curiosity was further aroused by his discovery that if he enclosed his experiments in copper sheeting, they always worked as theoretically predicted. Wishing to get to the bottom of this mystery, Piccardi and his colleagues in Florence conducted a heroically long series of chemical experiments simply to see how they fluctuated. They chose a very simple chemical reaction – the rate at which bismuth oxychloride formed a cloudy precipitate when poured into distilled water. Over a ten-year period, Piccardi and his assistants conducted this simple reaction more than 200,000 times, recording the time of day and the time for the reaction to take place.
The results, published in 1960, show that variation in the rate at which the reaction took place was related to solar eruptions and changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. Over the longer term, the reaction time varied regularly with the eleven-year cycle of sunspot activity. Control experiments, conducted under copper sheeting, remained unaffected by external influences throughout the experiment,(2)
Piccardi’s experiments, which strongly suggest that water is susceptible to influence by electromagnetic radiation, have been repeated and confirmed by a team at Brussels University.(3) Further confirmation comes from research carried out by a US team at the Atmospheric Research Center in Colorado, who showed that it is the water, not the other chemicals involved in the reactions, that is sensitive to electromagnetic fields.(4)
One very obvious conclusion to be drawn from such a fundamental discovery is that there is a strong likelihood that all living organisms – whose bodies consist of chemical reactions taking place in water – are in some currently unknown ways capable of being affected by electromagnetism. Until Piccardi’s results were published (and, sadly, still today) most physicists and chemists would simply reject any such ideas as superstitious nonsense.
Fundamental discoveries also remain to be made in a field as basic as electromagnetism itself. As recently as 1975, a sixth-form schoolgirl in England wondered in her science class what would happen if she wound an electrical coil with more turns in the centre than at the ends. The result was the chance discovery of the constant-pull solenoid – a basic electro-mechanical device that had somehow eluded scientists and engineers from Faraday onwards but which today is a staple invention incorporated into literally hundreds of domestic and industrial devices (and earning very substantial commercial rewards).
Examples such as these show that there are scientific discoveries of major importance still to be made. They are not hidden deep in the atomic nucleus or in the remote galactic centre: they are here in our everyday lives. They are not so cunningly concealed that they require billion-dollar particle accelerators or teams of radio astronomers to unravel them. They happen every day in plain view and they can be grasped by a sixth-form schoolgirl or a single chemist with an enquiring mind.
In the case of paranormal phenomena such as psychokinesis, or PK – the movement of remote objects without contact – and extra sensory perception, or ESP, the most surprising thing is not the scarcity of hard evidence obtained under strictly controlled conditions but the abundance of such evidence. Although institutional science ignores such research, there have been literally hundreds of experiments conducted in scores of liberal-minded universities and private research laboratories around the world over the past sixty years and the amount of hard data that has been accumulated is staggering – so much data has been obtained, in fact, that paranormal scientists are now conducting studies of studies – more of which later.
Dr John Taylor, professor of mathematics at King’s College, London conducted a series of experiments with Uri Geller and other individuals apparently capable of paranormal effects in 1974. His series of experiments, some of which are described below, also showed that inexplicable physical events are taking place, under controlled conditions, and repeatably on demand.
Although he was to undergo a significant change of mind (described later) Taylor’s original conclusion in his 1976 book Superminds was that:
Uri Geller appears to have posed a serious challenge for modern scientists. Either a satisfactory explanation must be given for his phenomenon within the framework of accepted scientific knowledge, or science will be found seriously wanting. Since such an explanation appears to some to be impossible, either now or in the future, they argue that the Geller phenomenon is incompatible with scientific truth, and that the value of reason and the scientific point of view is therefore an illusion. Will the gates of unreason then be allowed to open and drown us in a world inhabited by aetheric bodies, extra-terrestrial visitors, spirits of the dead and the like?
Will reason then wholly give way to superstition?
One of the very few physicists to speak out publicly and confront this problem head-on, Taylor then concluded that, concept-shattering though it may be, there could be much to gain from a scientific explanation of the powers of Uri Geller. ‘Above all,’ said Taylor, ‘scientists should not shirk this challenge to the way they view the world. Ways must therefore be found of applying the scientific method to discovering the cause of the phenomenon.’
Most of the friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed Uri Geller were united in their reaction to my questions: that Geller is some kind of stage conjuror or magician; that he has been examined only in uncontrolled environments such as television studios; that his effects are not repeatable on demand; that inexperienced scientists are easily fooled by conjuring tricks; that Geller himself has been caught cheating and ‘exposed’ as a fraud; that there is sparse and unreliable hard evidence for any serious kind of paranormal phenomenon. Strangely, the facts are pretty nearly the exact opposite of these widely held beliefs.
Geller has been recorded on videotape, in controlled laboratory conditions, observed by professional conjurors and physicists, using no materials he has provided or had access to, and has been filmed producing objects out of thin air, affecting scientific instruments remotely, and locating various concealed materials without any error at all.(5)
Geller has been the subject of at least half a dozen different sets of controlled experiments in recognised scientific institutions. The first was at the Stanford Research Institute in California in 1972, by physicists Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, and again at Stanford in 1973 with the same researchers; with Professor John Taylor and colleagues at King’s College in 1974; with Professor John Hasted and colleagues at Birkbeck College in 1975. There have also been experiments conducted in laboratories in France, Japan and elsewhere in the United States. Some of the results that have been obtained with Geller under controlled laboratory conditions are far more convincing than the spoon bending that many people remember from his television appearances.
In November 1972, at Stanford Research Institute, Geller was filmed and videotaped, continuously scrutinised for sleight of hand or conjuring tricks, and the experiments were performed wherever possible on a double-blind basis – neither Geller himself nor the experimenters, Puthoff and Targ, knew the correct answers to the problems they set him to solve paranormally.(6)
In the first experiment, a verified dice was placed inside a sealed box, shaken by one of the experimenters and placed on a table. It was impossible for anyone to see how the dice had fallen, and Geller’s task was to guess paranormally. The test was performed ten times. On two occasions, Geller refused to guess, saying he was unable to perceive the result. But on the eight occasions he did guess he was correct in every instance – a 100 per cent success record in a task the odds against which are about one in a million.
In the next test a research assistant placed an object inside one of ten identical aluminium film containers, which were then stood at random on a table. The objects used included water, steel ball-bearings, magnets and a sugar cube. Geller was asked to guess which container the object was in. He performed this test twelve times and was correct twelve times. As before, he refused to guess on two occasions saying that he could not get a clear perception (of the sugar cube and a ball-bearing wrapped in paper). But once again, the odds on the test were a million to one against.
To test his powers of psychokinesis, the physicists used an electronic precision balance, placing a 1 gram weight on its pan, inside an aluminium film can, and then covering the balance with a glass jar. The output voltage from the scale was recorded on a chart recorder. Geller was then asked to alter the reading on the balance paranormally, while under continuous observation to ensure that he did not touch or in any other way interfere with it. He was able to deflect the chart recorder twice, on each occasion for about one-fifth of a second. On the first occasion, the deflection was equivalent to a decrease in weight of the balance pan by about 1.5 grams, and on the second to an increase of about 1 gram. In other words, he first negated the weight entirely, and then doubled it.
It is impossible to tell from the experiment whether Geller actually affected the weight on the balance or whether he affected the electrical circuits of the apparatus or the pen of the chart recorder directly.
Puthoff and Targ’s final experiment in the first series was particularly interesting. While the usual precautions against fraud were taken, Geller was filmed, causing the needle of a gaussmeter to deflect a number of times by passing his hands near the instrument, but not touching it. Several times he caused a full-scale deflection of the instrument, which indicates that he had a magnetic field at least half as strong as the Earth’s.
Puthoff and Targ say they saw Geller move iron filings on a sheet of paper by passing his hands near them, which also suggests some kind of magnetic effect (although this event was not video recorded).
John Taylor and his colleagues at King’s College had an opportunity to study Geller at first hand in early 1974. Like Stanford, they devised tightly controlled laboratory experiments in which they asked Geller to produce paranormal effects such as metal bending, repeatably on demand. But, Taylor later recalled, it was not easy embarking on such research:
Besides expecting no thanks from either the believers or skeptics, I realized that I should not expect much help from my academic colleagues. Numbers of them had already expressed displeasure at my appearance on the {Television} ‘Talk In’ programme with Geller and others soon expressed hostility towards my attempts to start an investigation into the phenomena. I also knew that very little financial support would be available from the usual funding bodies. Nor was the necessary apparatus or laboratory space easily available. However, I did find some staunch allies in my own college.(7)
The tests themselves were every bit as remarkable as those conducted earlier. Taylor asked Geller to demonstrate his spoon-bending ability on demand using a teaspoon that he (Taylor) had brought along for the purpose while Taylor continued to hold one end of the spoon. Taylor says that he held the bowl while Geller gently stroked it with one hand. After around twenty seconds, the thinnest part of the stem suddenly became soft and broke in two, the ends rapidly hardening again in less than a second. Of the result, Taylor said:
Here, under laboratory conditions, we had been able to repeat this quite remarkable experiment. Geller could simply not have surreptitiously applied enough pressure to have brought this about, not to mention the pre-breakage softening of the metal. Nor could the teaspoon have been tampered with – it had been in my own possession for the past year.
Taylor also reports a number of instances of samples of metal that had been prepared by the King’s College metallurgical laboratory and sealed into glass tubes having been bent paranormally in the presence of Geller and two witnesses who observed him continuously to ensure that he could not touch them directly.
Finally, Geller was asked to produce a paranormal reading on a Geiger counter. It is worth quoting the result in full because Taylor’s narrative conveys perfectly the atmosphere at such an event.
The final test was to determine if Geller could produce a deflection on the Geiger counter; this should indicate whether he could produce radioactive radiation. When it was held near him, Geller registered a zero count on the instrument, taking into account the average background rate of about two counts per second produced by cosmic rays coming from outer space. Geller then took the monitor in his own hands and tried to influence the counting rate. We all stood round looking at the dial and listening for the tell-tale tone.
At first nothing happened, but by extreme concentration and an increase in muscular tension associated with a rising pulse rate, the needle deflected to 50 counts per second for a full two seconds, the sound effects heightening the drama of the occasion. By means of a small loudspeaker each count produced a ‘pip’, and before Geller affected the machine the sound was of a steady ‘pip … pip … pip’… In his hands the sound suddenly rose to become a wail, one which usually indicates dangerous radioactive material nearby. When Geller stopped concentrating the wail stopped and the apparent danger with it. This wail was repeated twice more, and then when a deflection of one hundred counts per second was achieved, the wail rose almost to a scream. Between each of these attempts there was an interval of about a minute. A final attempt made the needle deflect to a reading of one thousand counts per second, again lasting for about twelve seconds. This was five hundred times the background rate – the machine was emitting a scream in the process.
Some five years after these words were written, Dr Taylor had undergone a substantial change of view. In his 1980 book Science and the Supernatural he says:
I started my investigations into ESP because I thought there could be something in it. There seemed to be too much evidence brought forward by too many reliable people for it all to disappear. Yet as my investigation proceeded, that is exactly what happened. Every supernatural phenomenon I investigated crumbled to nothing before my gaze . . .
My present attitude seems to be a complete about-face. My public persona over the last five years has been that of the scientist-manque who has dared to investigate the supernatural; an area into which scientists hardly ever dare to tread. I even began by espousing the supernatural, believing abnormal radio-wave emissions by what has become known as ‘sensitives’ might be the cause of paranormal phenomena. To disarm the obvious criticism let me say quite bluntly that I am not trying to regain any lost scientific ‘respectability’ by my new position. Only through constant investigations of many sensitives over a number of years have my earlier positive views on the paranormal been required to be so radically revised.(8)
Of course, it is this radical change of view by Dr Taylor that is so interesting. What exactly brought it about? Taylor tells us in the words already quoted that it is no mere career move brought about by pressure from colleagues. Instead, he gives his reasons in some detail. When science faces up to the supernatural, he says, ‘it is a case of “electromagnetism or bust”. Thus we have to look in detail at the various paranormal phenomena to see if electromagnetism can be used to explain them.’ Taylor concludes that there is no evidence for such electromagnetism in conjunction with paranormal phenomena and that therefore they must be illusory.
What of the test subjects themselves – the ‘sensitives’? Although certainly the best-known subject, Uri Geller is far from alone in having repeatably performed such paranormal feats in controlled conditions. In England there are Nicholas Williams, Stephen North, Julie Knowles and a number of juveniles who remain anonymous such as Andrew G. In France there is Jean-Pierre Girard. In Japan there is Masuaki Kiyota and in Russia there are numerous individuals, the best known of which is Nina Kulagina.
Working with English metal benders, John Hasted has devised extensive methods of guarding against conscious or unconscious fraud. He has, for example, implanted microscopic strain gauges in metal specimens linked electrically to a chart recorder to provide a record of the forces imposed on the specimen. He has recorded many instances of stresses being registered simultaneously from three or more gauges, and extensive deformation of the specimen, under circumstances that rule out fraud. In one famous case, a large piece of aluminium was twisted out of shape by Andrew G., a 12-year-old boy, from a distance of thirty feet.
Doctors Charles Crussard and Jean Bouvaist in France have recorded metal bending by Jean-Pierre Girard when the metal was in glass tubes that had been completely sealed under conditions examined by Hasted and others. Working under the auspices of a French commercial metals company, the investigators went to enormous lengths to ensure that the effects they were examining were produced paranormally and not by normal methods. For example, each metal sample was hallmarked so it could not be substituted, and all its dimensions measured accurately before and after bending. The hardness of the metal was tested before and after and the crystalline structure of the metal was examined by taking ‘residual strain profiles’. The structure was also examined under the electron microscope and microphotography taken. In addition, the chemical composition of the metal was examined before and after. These observations revealed a number of structural anomalies such as a local hardening of the kind produced by compression forces of many tons, but apparently originating internally.(9)
Hasted has adopted similar rigorous precautions to rule out fraud. For example, he and the French researchers have been able to get subjects to bend metal rods that it is beyond the strength of any normal person to bend. Crussard has videotaped Jean-Pierre Girard bending a metal rod by gently stroking it, yet producing a bend that requires some three times the strength of a normal person.
Hasted has also reported the phenomenon of a metal bender turning part of a spoon ‘as soft as chewing gum’ merely by stroking it but under closely controlled conditions that enabled the plastic deformation to be verified by Hasted himself, and where the chemical composition and weight of the spoon was examined before and after. It is possible to soften a metal spoon chemically but only by causing a corrosion that would leave a number of other alterations such as weight loss, and no such changes were detected.
As well as being repeatable and well attested, scientifically observed psychokinetic phenomena are nothing new. Rudi Schneider was an Austrian who, in the 1930s, was subjected to several long series of experiments under controlled conditions, both in this country and in France. For fifteen months in 1930 and 1931, Schneider was investigated by Dr Eugene Osty of Paris in more than ninety sessions. In the latter part of 1932, Schneider was investigated by members of the Society for Psychical Research in twenty-seven sessions in London.
Schneider, and some of those investigating him, used the terminology of the 1930s, which sounds faintly ridiculous to a modern ear (Schneider was described as a ‘trance medium’ who had a ‘control’ called ‘Olga’). But the important part of the investigations is not Schneider’s personal interpretations for the phenomena he produced but the phenomena themselves and the fact that he produced such a large number of paranormal events while under almost ludicrously restrictive controls.
In London, the experiments were carried out by Lord Charles Hope partly at the home of Lady Rayleigh and partly in a private room. An idea of the thoroughness of the preparation can be gained from the fact that Hope kept the only key to the room being used, and that he hired a firm of builders to inspect it for hidden trapdoors and the like.
At the beginning of each session, Schneider would ‘go into a trance’ and while in this state would manifest a number of phenomena. The following is a description of one session that took place on 11 November 1932. It was given by C.V.C. Herbert, a professional astronomer and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who was present.
On one occasion . . . an excellent telekinesis took place when I was one of the sitters. I was seated directly opposite the red lamp, which illuminated a small table on which were placed the objects to be moved. The order of the sitters was as follows: Professor Fraser-Harris and Mrs Fraser-Harris (both holding Schneider), Miss Reutiner, Mr C.C.L. Gregory, Lady Crosfield, Mr Herbert, The Hon. A.C. Strutt, Mrs P. Quilter, Lord Charles Hope; Captain the Hon. Victor Cochrane-Baillie was taking the notes. The table was heard to move slightly, and eventually fell over, coming to rest on its side, with one edge on my right toe. The legs were pointing towards {two curtains in the corner of the room referred to as ‘the cabinet’}. At this stage the red lamp was turned up, so that the table was clearly visible. While I was watching it intently, it rose off my toes and then descended onto them again. The total movement was of the order of two inches. A little later this movement was repeated. During both these movements, I could see all four legs clearly, and I am positive that nothing touched the table on the ‘cabinet’ side. It might have been possible to raise the table by an arrangement of fine black threads placed round the legs; but as the movement was a vertical one, this would have involved the existence of some sort of pulley fixed above the table. Such machinery was out of the question, as it would have been impossible to fix it up and remove it again during the sitting. There can have been nothing in the nature of an extending rod, held by Schneider, such as is sometimes used by fraudulent mediums, as, apart from the fact that Schneider was held by Professor and Mrs Fraser-Harris such a structure must have been visible to me…. Granting the integrity of the sitters on my left and right hand, it seems to me impossible that the table could have been moved by normal means.(10)
On reading a description of this sort, one’s suspicions of some kind of conjuring trick are aroused at once. But consider this description of the precautions that had been taken in advance. Schneider’s chair is sited 35 inches from the nearest part of the small table. The table is 15 inches square, 20 inches tall and weighs 6.5 pounds. The initial position of the table was marked with chalk. There are strips of wood nailed to the floor to prevent Schneider’s chair from moving and Schneider is physically held by Dr Fraser-Harris, who is sitting opposite him and holding him by the wrists. Fraser-Harris also keeps his feet outside Schneider’s feet. Mrs Fraser-Harris sits immediately beside her husband and also has her right hand on Schneider’s right hand or between his hands. At the end of the session, Schneider was searched by both Lord Charles Hope and Fraser-Harris.
During the same session a number of other psychokinetic phenomena were reported by Herbert and by the official note-taker. They included the ringing of small bells attached to the curtains, on demand, and the playing and movement of a small harp.
When Schneider was in Paris being investigated by Dr Eugene Osty, the precautions were even stricter because Dr Osty made extensive use of infra-red detectors coupled to automatic cameras. The precautions were described as follows:
A projector of infra-red radiation directed a large beam of invisible light, reflected as often as required by a series of plane mirrors, at a photo-electric cell. The latter, by means of a relay, controlled the opening of a big shutter inserted in the ceiling of the seance-room. As soon as any object entered into the infra-red beam this shutter opened rapidly and flooded the laboratory with ultra-violet for 1/10th of a second. Moreover the opening of the shutter simultaneously produced the exposure of a camera provided with a quartz lens and taking a photograph at 1/50th or 1/100th of a second. In this way any gesture towards the object, as well as any supernormal displacement of it, itself caused the taking of a photograph, thus registering any attempt at fraud.(11)
During his fourteenth session with Schneider, Osty recorded that on two occasions, two of the four cameras in use were tripped by interruption of the infra-red beam and photographs were taken automatically. But all the negatives showed nothing abnormal. ‘In other words,’ said Osty, ‘the cause of the photographs was nonphotographable.’
Osty brought in a great deal more electronic and mechanical instrumentation to study Schneider and made one further discovery that is of great interest – that though Schneider could repeatedly cause the occlusion of the infra-red beam, he could not cause a complete absorption of it: the most he achieved was about 75 per cent. To achieve a partial absorption of an infra-red beam in this way requires a great deal more than conjuring skill; it requires extensive scientific knowledge and suitable apparatus that would have been impossible to conceal.
Despite the existence of a substantial body of physical evidence such as this, serious scientific research into the paranormal remains practically non-existent today. Indeed, one current academic trend is towards the active stifling of such research.
The clearest recent example of this trend is the appointment in 1992 to a senior research fellowship in parapsychology, at Darwin College Cambridge, of an open opponent of such research – theoretical psychologist Dr Nicholas Humphrey. The research fellowship is known as the Perrot-Warrick fund and is worth £25,000 a year for four years. It was set up in 1931 and was endowed by two members of the Society for Psychical Research to be granted to people ‘interested in investigating the existence of supernormal powers of cognition or action in human beings and the persistence of the human mind after bodily death’.
Originally, it was set up at Trinity College because Trinity’s professor of philosophy, C.D. Broad, was himself actively involved in paranormal research in the 1930s. However, the bequest has become something of a hot potato in more recent years. Previous recipients of the grant include D.J. Ellis who wrote a controversial book The Mediumship of the Tape Recorder which looked at how the voices of the dead might be caught on tape, and Carl Sargent, who conducted research into the subject of telepathy, and who became the first person to write a doctoral thesis on parapsychology at Cambridge since the Second World War. Sargent’s studies of extra-sensory perception also aroused much controversy.
The committee who administer the Perrot-Warrick fund decided to pass the bequest on to Darwin College because they foresaw trouble with future appointments in so contentious a field. Darwin was not exactly sanguine about the prospect and one fellow, philosophy professor Hugh Mellor, told The Guardian that the college looked with horror on becoming associated with ‘spooks, ectoplasm and card games.’ The secretary of the Perrot-Warrick committee, forensic scientist Professor Donald West, explained in a letter to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research that the opponents at Darwin believed ‘The subject matter was just myth and superstition. . . . The only possible interest was to discover why some people could be induced to believe impossible things.'(12) This opposing view is shared by the scientist appointed by Darwin, Dr Humphrey.
It may seem very surprising that a scientist who professes to be a rationalist should adopt a stance that is the very opposite of rational: that Dr Humphrey should prefer to subscribe to the belief that the subject is merely myth and superstition rather than employing scientific methods to discover whether his belief is true or false. But such a position puts Dr Humphrey very much in the mainstream of contemporary scientific thought.
What parapsychology research there is in Britain today is largely privately funded and is confined to a few individuals working in isolation on virtually non-existent budgets and to the few universities that do not feel intellectually sullied by the subject.
Probably the best-known centre of serious university-based research is the Parapsychology Unit of Edinburgh’s Psychology Department. The unit was set up in 1985 and is funded by a bequest of £500,000 from writer Arthur Koestler, who had a life-long interest in science and in parascience.
Robert Morris, professor of parapsychology at Edinburgh has spent several years investigating extra-sensory perception: the supposed ability of some individuals to perceive information remotely by means currently unknown. The idea that Professor Morris has focused on is the possibility that many of those who appear to be able to perceive extraordinary phenomena are in fact better observers than the rest of the population.
To test this idea, Morris first selected test subjects for their ‘perceptual vigilance’ in seeing images by perfectly normal means that most people would fail to perceive consciously at all. To do so, he exposed test subjects to images projected on to a screen for very short periods, below the normal threshold of perception. Some of the pictures were of emotionally charged subjects (spiders, skulls and snakes for instance) among otherwise neutral images. Morris and his team say that their sample of ‘perceptually vigilant’ individuals were able to identify the emotionally charged images shown subliminally from amongst the neutral ones. But Morris says that these individuals can also identify such images projected on to a wall in another room, out of sight, thus demonstrating an extra-sensory or paranormal ability as well as an unusual acuity when observing by normal means.
In recent decades the trend has been very much towards carefully controlled statistical trials of this sort rather than the more exciting but less easily controlled levitating of tables or bending of cutlery. Thirty-five years ago, Professor Hans Eysenck of London University’s Institute of Psychiatry wrote:
Unless there is a gigantic conspiracy involving some thirty University departments all over the world, and several hundred highly respected scientists in various fields, many of them originally skeptical to the claims of the psychical researchers, the only conclusion that the unbiased observer can come to is that there does exist a small number of people who obtain knowledge existing in other people’s minds, or in the outer world, by means as yet unknown to science.
Writing again on the subject of the paranormal in 1982 and referring to his original statement, Professor Eysenck observed that: ‘the only revision necessary now would be that the number of people involved is larger than it was then!'(13)
Much else has changed in those thirty-five years. Hundreds of parapsychology experiments have been carried out in scores of laboratories around the world. During the 1970s and 1980s as results from these studies accumulated, it became fashionable for skeptics to dismiss them by pointing out that their results, though positive, were only a little above chance expectation.
The often heated debate between those scientists who think paranormal experiments disclose real phenomena and their critics who believe there is no such thing as the paranormal, might have carried on indefinitely were it not for an innovative breakthrough that radically shifted the experimental perspective and that throws an entirely new light on the data obtained. In the mid-1970s a new approach to the problem was suggested by psychologist Gene Glass of Colorado University. Glass coined the term meta-analysis to describe a new way of combining the results of many different parapsychology studies to make the aggregate results statistically significant. So effective has meta-analysis been that Dr Richard Broughton, director of research at the Institute for Parapsychology in North Carolina, has called it the ‘controversy killer’, and it has been instrumental in converting prominent entrenched critics of the paranormal to acceptance that the experimental results are real.(14)
In his 1991 book, Parapsychology. The controversial science, Richard Broughton explains why meta-analysis is so effective. The scientist’s task in experiments such as card guessing, he says, is to extract the significant information from the long run of random events – the signal from the noise – and it is the statistician who provides the necessary tools.
Most basic statistical tests tell the experimenter only if there really is a signal – the experimental effect – among the noise. But these statistical tests do not provide the experimenter with a definitive answer; they only provide an estimate of whether there really is something in all the noise. Like all estimates, the more data that go into a statistical estimate the better it will be. The more data that the experimenter can collect, the more likely it is that the statistical tests will detect a signal in it (if there is one to detect).
When signals are strong, says Broughton, very little data is needed. You need only a second or two at the dial of your radio to know that you are tuned in to your local rock-‘n’-roll station. When signals are weak, however, the amount of data collected becomes critical: you may need to spend quite a time at the dial just to identify the language of a foreign station.
Much the same is true in parapsychology testing. If you have a subject who can reliably use ESP to tell which way a tossed coin will fall 5 per cent of the time then you will need to conduct many trials to expose this ability. If you did only twenty coin tosses, the person would guess right roughly ten times and of these only one would be due to ESP – the rest would be chance. Even if you did 100 tosses, you would still be in the position of someone trying to identify a radio station having heard only a tiny fraction of a second of broadcast – it would be indistinguishable from the background noise.
If you did many more – say, 1,000 trials – with the hypothetical subject, more than one-third of your tests will provide significant evidence of your subject’s ESP ability (so long as he or she can keep up the 5 per cent rate). And if you did as many as 10,000 trials, you would virtually never fail to detect the subject’s ESP.
The problem in the past has been that psychokinesis and ESP have rarely been exposed repeatably because they are very weak effects
ranging from less than 1 per cent to only 2 or 3 per cent above what we would expect due to chance. Note that the important point here is not the strength of the effect, it is the number of trials compared with that strength. And what has happened on many occasions over the past fifty years or so is that parapsychology researchers have carried out experiments with a number of trials that is either inadequate or marginal in exposing such weak effects.
Once you get a number of trials that will show up even a very weak effect, then you can get very clear-cut experimental results – in any field, not just in parapsychology. For example, in 1986 a large-scale trial was begun in the United States to see if aspirin can help combat heart disease. What statisticians call the ‘effect size’ of aspirin is extremely small (only 0.03). Because its effects are so minimal, if the researchers had studied only 3,000 subjects they would have found that aspirin is no better than a placebo. But because they had 22,000 subjects, the effect became very obvious – the experimenters found that there were 45 per cent fewer heart attacks in the experimental group and they felt the effect so pronounced that they could no longer morally withhold aspirin from the control group, and so discontinued the study.
The relevance of all this to the paranormal is that meta-analysis has enabled scientists to take hundreds of small-scale experiments that, on their own, are incapable of exposing weak paranormal abilities, and assemble them into a super-experiment that gives the sort of numbers of test subjects available with the aspirin trials. And when this aggregation of results is done systematically it shows that the ‘effect size’ of some paranormal abilities is very substantially bigger than that of the effect size for aspirin and heart disease – as much as 0.55 (against 0.03).
The basic methods of meta-analysis are designed to make different experiments that address the same question statistically equivalent, even though they may have involved different experimental techniques, had different numbers of subjects and produced different results. Once the studies have been made equivalent, they can be combined and an overall assessment of the strength of the effect can be made.
There are, naturally, many problems in harmonising so many different experiments carried out over many years and evaluating the results. Not the least is the dilemma dubbed the ‘file-drawer problem’ by Dr Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University – one of the best known exponents of meta-analysis. The file drawer referred to is the hypothetical graveyard for parapsychology studies that produced a nil result. It is reasonable to suppose that such studies have been conducted and that the scientists who performed them did not bother to publish them but merely consigned them in disappointment to the ‘file drawer’. Critics of the statistical studies of the paranormal have always appealed to the concealment of these hypothetical studies as being the hidden mechanism providing the statistically positive results of paranormal studies that do get published.
But one of the major advantages of meta-analysis is that it provides a sound basis for calculating exactly how many ‘file-drawer’ studies there would have to be in order to explain the positive results that have been published. And the results of this analysis have completely routed even the sternest critics.
In the case of experiments to see if people can influence the fall of dice by psychokinetic means, meta-analysis has shown that there would have to be nearly 18,000 hidden ‘file-drawer’ studies in order to reduce the results obtained to chance expectation – that is, there would have to be 121 unpublished failed studies for every study that has been published.
Some of the most outstanding results so far have come from meta analysis of experiments like those carried out by Roger Nelson of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) programme at Princeton University. The research was originated by Robert Jahn, former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. At Princeton, researchers have accumulated years of statistical trials on microscopically small psychokinetic effects – known in the jargon of the paranormal business as micro-PK.
Test subjects are asked to try to influence electronic devices whose output should be random, rather like an electronic version of coin tossing. In one test, for instance, the subject sits and watches an electronic counter which accumulates random numbers very quickly and displays a number. The chance result should be 100 and the subjects try to get consistently either higher or lower numbers on the display. In another test they try to push a cascade of polystyrene balls either more to the left or more to the right as they fall into bins.
To rule out any bias in the equipment, each test subject has to try to get psychokinetic effects in three different ways, first in one direction (for example getting high numbers to light on the display) then in the opposite direction (getting low numbers to light) and a ‘baseline’ test where he or she tries to have no effect at all. All the results are automatically recorded by computer and Princeton has a virtually unbroken record of every test subject and every experiment.
In December 1989 Dean Radin of Princeton’s Psychology Department and Roger Nelson of the PEAR lab published a paper on the meta-analysis of micro-PK experiments not, as might be expected, in a parapsychology journal but in the respected physics journal Foundations of Physics. Their paper was entitled ‘Consciousness-related effects in random physical systems’. In their analysis, Radin and Nelson tracked down 152 reports describing 597 experimental studies and 235 control studies by 68 different investigators involving the influence of consciousness on microelectronic systems.(15)
Radin and Nelson’s article was a bombshell for critics who had for years poured scorn on the statistics of parapsychology experiments. They showed that the meta-analysis of all these trials dramatically provided incontestable evidence for micro-PK. For they found that the odds that the overall result arose due to chance was 1 in 1035. This is as close as anyone in the scientific world ever comes to a ‘racing certainty’.
Radin and Nelson also calculated the size of the ‘file drawer’ of unsuccessful and unpublished micro-PK studies that would have to exist to reduce their result to chance expectation. They found the drawer would have to contain 54,000 such studies.
Summarising their achievement, Dr Richard Broughton says:
Radin and Nelson’s meta-analysis demonstrates that the micro-PK results are robust and repeatable. Unless critics want to allege wholesale collusion among more than sixty experimenters or suggest a methodological artifact common to nearly six hundred experiments conducted over three decades, there is no escaping the conclusion that micro-PK effects are indeed possible. Yet Radin and Nelson, in common with most parapsychologists, stop short of claiming that all is proven. All they ask is that physicists (and psychologists) start taking these data seriously.
Even with evidence for psychokinesis of this kind, physicists and psychologists are understandably still reluctant to start taking the data seriously. For the fundamental question still remains: if Rudi Schneider, Uri Geller and many other people – perhaps even most people – really can bend spoons, read minds and all the rest, how on earth do they do it? Is there even the slightest evidence for a source of biological energy that could possibly accomplish such astounding feats? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is that there is a mountain of such evidence. And like that examined so far, it is firmly buried in the files labelled ‘taboo subjects – not to be researched’.


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