INVESTIGATING THE PARANORMAL
This editorial appeared in Nature and is referred to in the Introduction. Not only does it explain why the British journal decided to publish the Stanford Research Institute investigations of Geller, but it articulates the hesitations and doubts, obligations and responsibilities of scientists toward the field of psychical research. The writer of the editorial does not limit his comments to the work of the SRI scientists with Geller; he discusses perceptual experiments with other psychic subjects.
Published in Nature, Vol. 252, No. 5476, Oct. 18, 1974, pp. 602-607.
WE PUBLISH this week a paper by R. Targ and H. Puthoff that is bound to create something of a stir in the scientific community. The claim is made that information can be transferred by some channel whose characteristics appear to fall “outside the range of known perceptual modalities.” Or, more bluntly, some people can read thoughts or see things remotely.
Such a claim is, of course, bound to be greeted with a preconditioned reaction among many scientists. To some it simply confirms what they have always known or believed. To others it is beyond the laws of science and therefore necessarily unacceptable. But to a few – though perhaps to more than is reaised-the questions are still unanswered, and any evidence of high quality is worth a critical examination.
The issue, then, is whether the evidence is of sufficient quality to be taken seriously. In trying to answer this, we have been fortunate in having the help of three independent referees who have done their utmost to see the paper as a potentially important scientific communication and not as a challenge to, or confirmation of prejudices. We thank them for the considerable effort they have put into helping us, and we also thank Dr. Christopher Evans of the National Physical Laboratory, whose continued advice on the subject is reflected in the content of this leading article.
A general indication of the referees’ comments may be helpful to readers in reaching their own assessment of the paper. Of the three, one believed we should not publish, one did not feel strongly either way, and the third was guardedly in favor of publication. We first summarize the arguments against the paper.
1. There was agreement that the paper was weak in design and presentation, to the extent that details given as to the precise way in which the experiment was earned out were disconcertingly vague. The referees felt that insufficient account had been taken of the established methodology of experimental psychology and that in the form originally submitted the paper would be unlikely to he accepted for publication in a psychological journal on these grounds alone. Two referees also felt that the authors had not taken into account the lessons learned in the past by parapsychologists researching this tricky and complicated area.
2. The three referees were particularly critical of the method of target selection used, pointing out that the choice of a target by “opening a dictionary at random” is a naive, vague, and unnecessarily controversial approach to randomization. Parapsychologists have long rejected such methods of target selection and, as one referee put it, weaknesses of this kind reveal “a lack of skill in their experiments, which might have caused them to make some other mistake which is less evident from their writing.”
3. All the referees felt that the details given of various safeguards and precautions introduced against the possibility of conscious or unconscious fraud on the part of one or other of the subjects were “uncomfortably vague” (to use one phrase). This in itself might be sufficient to raise doubt that the experiments have demonstrated the existence of a new channel of communication that does not involve the use of the senses.
4. Two of the referees felt that it was a pity that the paper, instead of concentrating in detail and with meticulous care on one particular approach to extrasensory phenomena, produced a mix- ture of different experiments, using different subjects in unconnected circumstances and with only a tenuous overall theme. At the best these were more “a series of pilot studies . . . than a report of a completed experiment.”
On their own these highly critical comments could be grounds for rejection of the paper, but it was felt that other points needed to be taken into account before a final decision could be made.
1. Despite its shortcomings, the paper is presented as a scientific document by two qualified scientists, writing from a major research establishment apparently with the unqualified backing of the research institute itself.
2. The authors have clearly attempted to investigate under laboratory conditions phenomena that, while highly implausible to many scientists, would nevertheless seem to be worthy of investiga- tion even if, in the final analysis, negative findings are revealed. If scientists dispute and debate the reality of extrasensory perception, then the subject is clearly a matter for scientific study and, reportage.
3. Very considerable advance publicity – it is fair to say not generated by the authors or their institute – has preceded the presentation of this report. As a result many scientists and very large numbers of nonscientists believe, as the result of anecdote and hearsay, that the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was engaged in a major research program into parapsychological matters and had even been the scene of a remarkable break through in this field. The publication of this paper, with its muted claims, suggestions of a limited research program, and modest data, is, we believe, likely to put the whole matter in more reasonable perspective.
4. The claims that have been made by, or on behalf of, one of the subjects, Mr. Uri Geller, have been hailed publicly as indicating total acceptance by the SRI of allegedly sensational powers and may also perhaps now be seen in true perspective. It must be a matter of interest to scientists to note that, contrary to very widespread rumor, the paper does not present any evidence whatsoever for Geller’s alleged abilities to bend metal rods by stroking them, influence magnets at a distance, make watches stop or start by some psychokinetic force, and so on. The publication of the paper would he justified on the grounds of allowing scientists the opportunity to discriminate between the cautious, limited, and still highly debatable experimental data, and extravagant rumor, fed in recent days by inaccurate attempts in some newspapers at precognition of the contents of the paper.
5. Two of the referees also felt that the paper should be published because it would allow parapsychologists, and all other scientists interested in researching this arguable field, to gauge the quality of the Stanford research and assess how much it is contributing to parapsychology.
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