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Modern Experiments in Telepathy

by Guy Lyon Playfair

Samuel G. Soal (1889-1975) was one of the highest-profile researchers of his day. His book Modern Experiments in Telepathy (1954) earned him a degree from London University – only the second such honour to be awarded in Britain for a parapsychology-related thesis – and the long series of card guessing tests he carried out with ‘star performer’ Basil Shackleton soon became regarded as unequalled, both for their strong positive results and the rigour of the controls involved. To many, Soal had proved telepathy to be real beyond any reasonable doubt, and for good measure it seemed he had proved precognition as well, for Shackleton was found to have a way-above-chance skill at guessing the next card to be viewed. Soal’s reputation as a meticulous researcher was rock-solid.

Until 1960, that is, when the first small crack appeared. It was made by one of Soal’s subjects, Mrs. Gretl Albert, who claimed to have spotted him on more than one occasion altering his score sheets after a test. Soal’s colleagues were horrified, and rushed to his defence in a series of letters to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR) Soal, of all people, cheating? Out of the question!

Yet the crack widened. In a posthumous article in the JSPR for March 1971, George Medhurst announced that his computer search for the source of the random numbers that Soal had claimed to use for deciding which of five picture cards to transmit had been unsuccessful. This was generally seen as a sign of carelessness rather than fakery, but two mathematicians, Christopher Scott and Philip Haskell, widened the crack even further by claiming to have found evidence suggesting that Mrs. Albert had been right.

However, as a young computer expert named Betty Markwick pointed out, their work was impressive but not conclusive, and ‘one longed for a conclusive settlement of the matter – either way’, as she put it, and after some ingenious mathematical detective work she reckoned she had found it. Soal’s random number sequences, she claimed in the JSPR (May 1978) had to have been altered, as is now generally admitted. The rock had come tumbling down.

An Element of ESP?

She also revealed that what had first got her interested in the matter was ‘a dream of a most intense quality’ she had in March 1971 in which George Medhuirst, who had just died and whom she had met only once, was urging her work on some mathematical problem or other. Just five days later, her copy of the JSPR arrived containing Medhurst’s posthumous article mentioned above, and she could see all too clearly what the problem was. ‘While shunning a survivalist interpretation,’ she wrote, ‘it was difficult to resist the feeling that an element of ESP might nevertheless be involved, impelling me to follow up certain ideas suggested by the dream.’

The Levy Affair

The question of cheating by researchers was discussed at length by the doyen of parapsychologists, J.B.Rhine, in the March 1974 issue of the Journal of Parapsychology. He revealed that there had been twelve cases of ‘experimenter unreliability’ in his own lab, nearly all of them apparently detected without much difficulty, and he suggested ways of ensuring that there would not be any more. Then, in the very next issue (June), he had to announce that there had been another one, the guilty party being his own assistant and heir apparent, Walter J. Levy. He had been caught red-handed by his own colleagues fiddling with a piece of automatic recording equipment in order to make the result of a rat experiment look better than it was. Rhine was immediately informed, and within minutes Levy was out of the door and out of the parapsychology community. None of his many published experiments, Rhine said, should be considered reliable unless they had been replicated by somebody else.

Sceptics refer to these two cases whenever possible, implying that if such high-level researchers as Soal and Levy were known to have cheated, then others probably did as well. Yet these are the only cases on record in which published experimental results are known to have been based on fake data. In the other cases mentioned by Rhine, at least eight were detected before the experiment concerned reached publication stage and even if any of the other four contained any unreliable evidence, this would not undermine Rhine’s overall success record. (See my appeal below).

Sargent – Not Guilty

Mention should be made of two other cases often cited in order to discredit parapsychology, in each case without justification. The first, from the early 1980s, involved Carl Sargent of Cambridge University, a pioneer in the use of the Ganzfeld procedure for experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance. A fellow researcher, Susan Blackmore (later to become a prominent sceptic) announced, after a good look at Sargent’s experimental setup, that she had found shortcomings, such as poorly selected target material and not enough of it, which would have made cheating possible. Yet though it is still occasionally alleged that she ‘caught him cheating’, she has assured me that she did not and never said she had, She merely showed, quite plausibly, that his protocol could have been tighter. Those were the early days of Ganzfeld work, and subsequent researchers have used much stricter controls and protocols while still obtaining results as positive as Sargent’s, some of them indeed more so.

Wirth – Guilty

The other case is very different indeed. The researcher concerned, Daniel P. Wirth, is a convicted criminal, sentenced in 2004 to five years in prison for a whole string of fraud and felony charges. He was author or co-author of twenty papers published between 1987 and 2001, chiefly in journals dealing with alternative and complementary medicine. He ran into trouble when serious doubts were cast on the report which he co-authored on the now notorious Columbia University ‘miracle study’ published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Reproductive Medicine (46, 781-7, 2001). This purported to show that distant prayer can help infertile women become pregnant, but it has been suggested, apparently with some justification, (Skeptical Inquirer, Sept./Oct. 2004, p.31) that ‘the study may never have been conducted at all’.

Although having a master’s degree in parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University, Wirth has never been considered to belong to the mainstream parapsychology community, his publications being mainly devoted to marginal areas of healing. One should naturally regard any work by a convicted swindler with suspicion, especially since efforts to locate several of Wirth’s co-authors have failed, suggesting that they may not exist. (Full details of the Wirth saga can be found here).

Betraying the Truth

Scientific fraud has been going on since at least the 2nd century BC when the Greek astronomer Hipparchus tried to pass off a Babylonian star chart as his own. Noted scientists who have resorted to data-fudging, plagiarism or outright invention, or who have been plausibly accused of them, include Ptolemy, Galileo, Bernoulli, Mendel and even Newton. More recently, physicist Robert Millikan is now known to have ‘selected’ the data that helped him win a Nobel prize (1923) although he claimed to have reported all his results.

This and many other scientific malpractices and scandals are recounted in William Broad and Nicholas Wade’s Betrayers of the Truth (1982) which contains dozens of cases from astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and several areas of medical research, notably immunology, yet only one (Levy) from parapsychology. The authors appealed for any cases they had missed (I told them about Soal) and I do the same here.

Broad and Wade make an important point: ‘Because parapsychology is still regarded as a fringe subject not properly part of science, its practitioners have striven to be more than usually rigorous in following correct scientific methodology’. That was written 25 years ago, and they are even more rigorous today. They are also getting much better at catching fakers who try to deceive them. I once attended a lecture by a young magician who had hoped to persuade Edinburgh parapsychologists that he could bend spoons paranormally, but failed. ‘They were very good,’ he admitted ruefully.*

Such would-be impostors, of whom there have been several, may have done psi researchers a favour by forcing them to tighten up their controls against fraud, not only by putative spoon-benders but also by rogue researchers – and even their own colleagues.

*For the details, see the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, October 1987, p. 247-56.

Skeptical “Explanations” for Psi Phenomena

by Guy Lyon Playfair

One of the skeptics’ favourite tricks is to come up with a purely imaginary “explanation” for an apparently paranormal phenomenon.

While doing research for my book Twin Telepathy: The Psychic Connection, I kept coming across remarks like this one, from twin expert Dr. Nancy Segal as reported in Newsweek (November 23, 1987):

“She notes that researchers ‘never hear of cases where one twin is sure the other is lying dead in the gutter, and he isn’t.'”

She is right. I have asked every twin I have met if anything like this ever happened to them, and it hadn’t. So the reason why we never hear of such cases just could be that there aren’t and never have been any.

Another instance of this kind of revisionist spin-doctoring by skeptics turned up in The Lancet for December 15, 2001 in which Chris French, editor of the CSICOP-supported journal The Skeptic was allowed to get his oar into a report from the Netherlands on near-death experiences (NDEs) of hospital patients.

French could not very well deny that people do have such experiences, but he sought to minimise their significance by claiming that some such reports were simply false memories based on accounts they had read of the experiences of others. He didn’t produce any evidence to support this claim, of course.

Dr. Bruce Greyson (unlike skeptic French) has plenty of first-hand experience of his patients’ NDEs and points out in Vital Signs magazine (Vol. 21, no. 1, 2002) that the reality is just the opposite – NDEs are probably under-reported.

Some of his own patients, in follow-up interviews, told him that they had indeed had an NDE but had kept quiet about it at the time because they did not trust him at first and were afraid he would think they were crazy.

So if you’re a skeptic you need a physicalistic “explanation” for a psi phenomenon and you can’t find one, just make it up.

Fuzzy Logic on Stamps and Telepathy

by Guy Lyon Playfair

Telepathy made the headlines at the end of September 2001. A whole page of the Daily Mail, half a page of The Observer and a sizeable chunk of BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme were all devoted to it. What could have attracted so much of the media’s attention to a subject they normally avoid like the Black Death?

It all began when the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps to mark the centenary of the Nobel prizes, together with a presentation set containing a brochure for which six British Nobel laureates were asked to write short pieces about their subjects.

One of these was Professor Brian Josephson, F.R.S., who won a Nobel prize for physics in 1973 for his work in solid-state electronics. His contribution ended:

“Quantum theory is now being fruitfully combined with theories of information and computation. These developments may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science, such as telepathy – an area in which Britain is in the forefront of research.”

Something immediately hit the fan, the first handful being slung by Oxford physicist David Deutsch. “Utter rubbish,” he spluttered to The Observer (30 September). “Telepathy simply does not exist.” This opinion came from somebody alleged to be an expert on time travel, something for which there is no credible evidence at all, in contrast to the whole shelves of evidence for telepathy backed up by some pretty impressive statistics.

The paper’s science editor Robin McKie suggested patronisingly that Josephson had “gone off the rails” as other laureates had in the past when holding forth on subjects other than their own. The transistor pioneer William Shockley, for instance, gained well-deserved notoriety for his extremely offensive views on race. McKie seems not to have noticed that Josephson, (both a Cambridge physics professor and a longtime member of the Society for Psychical Research). was making a well- informed comment about his own field.

True to its tradition of scrupulously fair balance, the BBC confronted Josephson with psychologist Nicholas Humphrey and conjuror James Randi, neither of whom are Nobel laureates, Fellows of the Royal Society, or even physicists. Let’s hear it first from Mr. Randi:

“There is no firm evidence for the existence of telepathy, ESP or whatever we want to call it, and I think it is the refuge of scoundrels in many respects for them to turn to something like quantum physics, which uses a totally different language from the regular English that we are accustomed to using from day to day, to merely say oh, that’s where the answer lies, because that’s all fuzzy anyway.”

Humphrey was slightly more coherent:

“Well, I think the idea that quantum physics explains the paranormal is an unnecessary idea, because there’s nothing to explain. If Brian Josephson could produce the goods by showing that there is evidence for telepathy or psychokinesis, or metal bending, or anything else, then we have a problem, but we haven’t got any evidence.”

This came from a former holder of the Perrott-Warrick research fellowship in psychical research, who pocketed an estimated £75,000 without doing any noticeable research at all, and even managed to get shortlisted for the Koestler chair of parapsychology at Edinburgh.

Josephson, who must have felt he was trying to argue with somebody who insisted that the Earth was flat, explained patiently and in perfectly regular English that the concept of mind being linked to matter was “absolutely standard physics”.

He might have added the words attributed to his Trinity predecessor Isaac Newton when somebody made a silly remark about alchemy:

“Sir, I have studied the subject and you haven’t.”

Gulfs in Science

by Guy Lyon Playfair

There’s nothing like a session devoted to telepathy, near death experiences, and the distant mental influence on living systems (DMILS) at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) to set the usual sceptics buzzing as angrily as hornets whose nest has just been trodden on.

“Theories of telepathy and afterlife cause uproar at top science forum” The Times (6 September 2006) headlined its shamefully tendentious coverage of the event, careful reading of which reveals that such uproar as there was took place offstage, evidently orchestrated by some anonymous press release writer who had persuaded four high-profile paranormal-bashers to provide the tediously familiar soundbites they keep ready for such occasions.

“I know of no serious, properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense,” declared Lord Winston, a former BA president who must have forgotten the serious and properly done studies by the late Professor Robert Morris presented just three years previously, at the 2003 BA meeting chaired by Winston himself.

Geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer conceded that “you’ve got to be careful not to suppress ideas, even if they are beyond the pale,” adding that “it’s quite inappropriate to have a session like that without putting forward a more convincing view.” By convincing, he presumably meant negative.

Veteran debunker Richard Wiseman was upset by the fact that the speakers all had positive attitudes. “This is not a balanced panel,” he grumbled, forgetting all those television programmes in which he has appeared with no sign of an anti-sceptic in sight.

Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins sought the last refuge of a sceptic in a tight corner – ad hominem attack. “There is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy,” he stormed, adding the even more potentially defamatory comment that “neither speaker has a reputation for reliability”.

There were in fact three speakers – neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick, biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake and psychology professor Deborah Delanoy. Atkins did not specify, perhaps wisely, which two he had in mind, and his own reputation for reliability took something of a knock in the discussion broadcast by BBC Radio 5 that followed the session. When asked if he had actually studied the evidence for telepathy, he promptly replied “No.”

“Paranormal studies subverted by the fool and the charlatan” went another Times headline, to a background piece by Lewis Smith and Hannah Devlin which sought to dismiss the 124-year-old Society for Psychical Research on the basis of a single case of fraud from the 1880s (uncovered by SPR members themselves); and to condense the four decades of research by pioneer parapsychologist J.B. Rhine into a single (unnamed) experiment which was ”later discredited when it was shown he had misunderstood the laws of probability.” No, it wasn’t. In fact, in a comment that has been widely quoted for some 70 years, Burton Camp, who was president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in the 1930s when Rhine began to publish, clearly stated that – “If the Rhine investigation is to be fairly attacked it must be on other than mathematical grounds.”

Paranormal studies have indeed been subverted – by mendacious reporting of a kind not normally associated with The Times, once the flagship of the ‘serious’ press but now just another tabloid.

If the BA is looking for a theme for a future meeting, it might bear in mind one of the more sensible comments on the ‘uproar’, from former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams, writing in The Independent (9 September):

“The extraordinary thing about [Atkins’s] outburst is his apparent refusal to recognise a phenomenon that is commonplace. Almost all of us have had the telephone experience [of knowing who is calling before we pick up the receiver as reported by Sheldrake] while countless others have had premonitions of death or disaster.” Scientists’ refusal to take such things seriously was, Ingrams said, a sign of their reluctance to admit that “there are quite a lot of things going on that science cannot explain.” Referring to the BA meeting, he added “You couldn’t have a better proof of the great gulf that separates scientists from the rest of us.”

Why this gulf? A gulf widened on this occasion by the well publicised opinions of scientists on a subject other than their own – at least one of whom admits to not having even examined the evidence for what he sought to condemn. There must be more to it than mere rejection of the unexplained. Scientists are quite happy to discuss such seemingly wild improbabilities as time reversal, multiple reality or wormholes in space, for all of which there is far less experimental evidence , if indeed any, than there is for telepathy. Yet dare to utter such words as telepathy, psychokinesis or near-death experience at a meeting of an association which by definition is dedicated to the advancement of science, not the destruction of its more distant frontiers, and the cats pounce on the pigeons and tear them to pieces.

Science can hardly be expected to advance when certain areas of considerable interest to the general public are declared off limits by those whose knowledge of the areas in question is at best distorted, at worst nonexistent. Parapsychologists are accustomed to having their views challenged by uninformed and prejudiced sceptics. The latter, on the other hand, are often allowed to express their negative views unchallenged. Perhaps the BA could consider a future session at which Bodmer, Atkins and Wiseman are invited to explain their attitude to psi research, and to present the evidence on which their attitudes are based, while three academically qualified members of the Society for Psychical Research , which has six full professors on its council, are invited to do the same?

This should be followed by a discussion based on facts and evidence rather than prejudice and ignorance, If Atkins and co can do no better than they have so far, who knows – The Times might even have a genuine uproar to report?

The same afternoon, BBC Radio 5 Live brought Rupert together with Professor Atkins live on air. You can find here the transcript of the Atkins-Sheldrake discussion, in which Professor Atkins admitted that he had not studied any of the evidence, and felt no need to do so.

Closed Minds in Science

by Guy Lyon Playfair

When Barry Marshall swallowed a mouthful of bacteria back in the 1990s and gave himself severe pains in the tummy, showing that gastric disorders were not due to ‘stress’, too much curry or whatever, but a bug called Helicobacter pylori, he had a job at first getting anybody to believe him.

As Dr. James LeFanu comments on the belated award of a (shared) Nobel prize for medicine to this heroic Australian, who has probably brought more relief to more people than anyone alive:

“‘They’ would not hear of it because it was impossible for any bacteria to survive in so hostile an environment as the stomach.”

Noting that since the introduction of antibiotics to replace previous treatments that did nothing to eradicate the cause of stomach disorders, the relapse rate has plummeted from 100% to less than 1%, Dr. LeFanu observes:

“The main impediment to scientific progress is not lack of funding or new ideas, but incorrigibly closed minds.”

Source: Sunday Telegraph, August 9, 2005

Mental Processes Out of Balance

Welcome to Skeptics Anonymous
by Guy Lyon Playfair

Organised skeptics tend to be pretty ignorant about the subjects they hope to debunk. L. David Leiter of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania was for several years ‘actively’ engaged with the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT) after being introduced to it by an old friend, a sometime CSICOP supporter who had left that organisation ‘in protest over specific non-professional behaviour on their part’. This, Leiter has found, is ‘a seemingly frequent complaint of former CSICOPers’.

Leiter is all for what he calls ordinary skepticism which ‘acts to refine and improve scientific enquiry’, but ‘organised skepticism’ struck him as something very different and rather alarming. Its adherents, he noted, tend to be people ‘whose mental processes are continually and rigidly out of balance, in the direction of disbelief’.

What particularly worried him was that organised skeptics tended to be pretty ignorant about the subjects they were hoping to debunk. Some would even deliberately avoid reading anything that was contrary to their views as if they were afraid of being contaminated. He had the impression that people joined PhACT ‘much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous’ in the hope of finding ‘comfort, consolation and support among their own kind’.

His most interesting finding was that all the hard-line skeptics he came to know personally (getting on quite well with some of them) admitted that they had had ‘an unfortunate experience with a faith-based philosophy, most often a conventional religion’ (His emphasis). They had lurched from one extreme to the other, embracing science as the ultimate non-faith- based philosophy but unfortunately doing so ‘with one thing no true scientists can afford to possess, a closed mind’.

PhACT members must have begun to suspect they had a fifth columnist in their midst when Leiter gave a talk entitled ‘Skeptical About Skeptics’ which received a review in the society’s newsletter that was ‘studded with ridicule’ of the kind he had come to expect. He duly made a formal reply which the editor refused to publish. He concluded that skeptics ‘can dish it out but they can’t take it’.

He eventually blew the whistle by ‘outing’ himself in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol.16 No.1, 2002) with an article entitled “The Pathology of Organised Skepticism” which prompted a lengthy reply in PhACT’s newsletter from a disgruntled member named Amardeo Sarma entitled ‘Misguided Stigmatisation of “Organised Skepticism”‘. Once again, Leiter’s rejoinder was not published which, as he points out in a follow-up JSE essay (Vol. 18 No.4, 2004), it would have been had Sarma published his piece in the JSE where, he adds gleefully, it would have had a much wider readership.

Leiter subsequently found additional hard evidence for his two main conclusions: that extreme skeptics are often rebounding from exposure to a faith-based philosophy in their formative years and that they avoid reading anything that threatens to change their minds or at least broaden them a little.

One PhACT member with whom he remained on good terms admitted that he had been a ‘bible-believing Christian’ in his high school years but had subsequently become an avowed atheist who found much of Christian doctrine ‘preposterous’. Two other members admitted, on their society’s website message board, to having reacted to their strict religious upbringing in a similar way.

Even so, Leiter’s atheist friend was not opposed to free enquiry. He contributed generously to PhACT’s on-line lending library, offering books of his own for loan on a number of subjects other than skepticism including religion, parapsychology, UFOs and even creationism. Leiter asked him how many members had availed themselves of his offer of access to his private library. The answer was – ‘None’. His friend had come to suspect that some of his fellow skeptics ‘may actually have a phobia about reading material that is contrary to their own views’.

It is gratifying to know that skeptics, like reformed alcoholics, can be useful if only for keeping each other happy and protecting them from all those heretical ideas out there.

Teach Yourself Skepspeak

by Guy Lyon Playfair

Extract from a paper by Aristide Esser, et al. (International Journal of Parapsychology, 9 (1) 53-56, 1967), describing an experiment in telepathy between identical twins:

“In a physically isolated subject, we have observed physiological reactions at the precise moment at which another person, the agent, was actively stimulated. We show the complete record of Experiment No. 7 to demonstrate how obvious the plethysmographic reactions are.”

That sounds fairly clear to me, but evidently not to everybody.

Extract from a paper by Susan Blackmore, et al. (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 59 (831) 89-96, 1993):

“Similar studies… (Esser, Etter and Chamberlain, 1967) did not provide evidence of simultaneous responses in twins.”

This is an early example of what has now become a worrying trend, inspired, it seems, by Humpty Dumpty (“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean”) and by Orwell’s Newspeak, the purpose of which was “not so much to express meanings as to destroy them”. Thus if Esser and colleagues announce that they have obtained instrumentally recorded evidence for telepathy, in what Orwell might have called Skepspeak this becomes “[Esser and company] did not provide…”, etc.

The Enfield poltergeist case of 1977-1978 which Maurice Grosse and I investigated for more than a year has come in for some splendid Skepspeak lately. In a book you may have missed called The Ghost That Haunted Itself, author Jan-Andrew Henderson reveals that:

“Both [the Amityville and Enfield poltergeist cases] turned out to be fakes. The witnesses were misrepresented or had something to gain. ‘Evidence’ turned out to be manufactured. It’s hard to argue with that.”

It is indeed, as hard as would have been to argue with Humpty Dumpty, or Big Brother…

And here is the science magazine Focus wasting three pages of its June 2003 issue on “An A-to-Z of World Mysteries”. E is for the Enfield case, for which Caroline Green informs us “there was no concrete evidence and [the children’s mother] was accused of making it up.”

For the record: Yes there was; and no, she wasn’t and didn’t. The magazine did at least print Maurice Grosse’s robust record-straightening letter in its August 2003 issue.

The Times should know better than to sink to this level of Orwellian revisionism, but it seems it doesn’t. In its Public Agenda section for November 2nd, 2004 its readers were told that the girls involved in the Enfield case “now grown up, admitted that it was all a hoax.” They are indeed now grown up but neither of them has ever admitted anything other than Janet H’s statement on ITV’s News At Six (June 12th, 1980) to interviewer Rita Carter, on being asked if she or her sister had ever played any tricks. Her immediate and truthful reply was: Oh, yeah, once or twice, just to see if Mr Grosse and Mr Playfair would catch us. And they always did.

She made an almost identical statement on Radio France-Inter (June 17th, 1982) to interviewer Lynne Plummer, while in a more recent TV interview with presenter Jane Goldman, her first for more than twenty years, (Living TV, October 19th, 2004) she said it all again at greater length as did Janet’s sister in a signed statement written in 1987. Time for that particular coin to drop, I think.

Now for a real gem of Skepspeak deconstruction from David Myers, in his review of a book on intuition in the Daily Telegraph (January 11th, 2003): The book ends with a swift glance at the evidence for the reality of psychic phenomena such as telepathy – necessarily swift, since there isn’t any.

Finally, the latest from the irrepressible Susan Blackmore, writing in New Scientist (November 13th, 2004). Here is the letter I wrote to the editor of that magazine, who did not publish it:

“‘Throughout history many people have believed in a soul or spirit. Yet science has long known that this cannot be so’, Susan Blackmore opines. Really? Who is ‘science’ in this context? Could we have a reference?”

Remember the meteorites, powered flight, continental drift and of course space travel all were once claimed to be impossible or nonexistent.

To learn Skepspeak, all you have to do is forget all that outdated stuff about arguing logically on the basis of evidence, research, and experience. Ignore all that Platonic rubbish about seeking the truth through rational debate. Just state your particular prejudice as if it has already been engraved in stone and is not open to discussion.

Big Brother (and Humpty Dumpty) would be proud of you.

How to Become a Media Skeptic

by Guy Lyon Playfair

Need a second income? Then why not become a Media Skeptic, one of those who pop up on our screens almost daily to assure us that “the paranormal” (or psi, as it is known in the trade) doesn’t exist? You don’t need any qualifications, though it helps if you have a degree in psychology, Just stick to these guidelines:

1.  Make it clear that psi (which includes telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and precognition) doesn’t exist, because it is impossible. It is “bad science” to claim that it does. You can quote such respectable authorities as the following:

– Professor Peter Atkins: “Serious scientists have got real things to think about – we don’t have time to waste on claims which we know both in our hearts and heads must be nonsense.” (“Counterblast”, BBC2, 23 April 1998).

– Dr. Susan Blackmore: “I think we have strange experiences we can’t explain and jump to the conclusion they’re paranormal.” (“Desert Island Discs”, BBC Radio 4, 3 May 1998).

– Professor Richard Dawkins: “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans.” (Sunday Mirror, 8 February 1998).

– Professor David Deutsch: “The evidence for the existence of telepathy is appalling…Telepathy simply does not exist.” (The Observer, 30 September 2001).

– Professor Nicholas Humphrey: “The idea that quantum physics explains the paranormal is an unnecessary idea, because there’s nothing to explain… We haven’t got any evidence.” (“Today”, BBC Radio 4, 2 October 2001).

– James Randi (a conjuror): “There is no firm evidence for the existence of telepathy, ESP or whatever we want to call it.” (ibid.)

2.  Explain, as patronisingly as you can, that although there is a lot of what might be mistaken for evidence for telepathy and other psi phenomena, it isn’t “real” evidence. Point out that “more careful researchers” have challenged it. Never mind who, where, on what grounds, or how convincingly. In skeptic-speak, challenging or questioning the evidence equals disproving it conclusively.

(In fact, as has been shown on numerous occasions, “more careful” psi researchers have questioned the sayings or writings of skeptical debunkers and torn them to pieces. Examples will be given on this website in due course.)

Avoid any actual discussion of the evidence for psi if you possibly can, but if you can’t avoid it, concentrate on the weakest or the craziest you can find, such as the latest alien abduction, crop circle, Californian channeller, pop astrologer or Bigfoot sighting.

3.  There are some researchers, such as J. B. Rhine, whose work is not so easy to dismiss. Neither Rhine’s personal integrity nor the reliability of his statistical methods have ever been seriously challenged, So what should you do? Simple. Explain that he “might have been hoodwinked” by all those clever magicians who were disguised as his laboratory subjects. There’s no evidence that he was, but it sounds good to suggest that he might have been, and of course nobody can disprove this. Read the classic of skeptical revisionist non-explanation, C.E.M. Hansel’s error-riddled book ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Reevaluation (New York: Prometheus, 1980) to see just how bizarre criticisms can be – Hansel even has one of Rhine’s card-guessers clambering up to the attic and peering through a non-existent trap door at the card! You can learn a lot from Hansel, a master of the mud-slinging school. Never mind if there is no evidence at all that such-and-such an individual misbehaved in any way. If you need some damning evidence and there isn’t any, just make some up.

4.  If you’re a magician, as many hard-line skeptics are, state that psi experiments are worthless unless they are supervised by a magician. You should give the impression that magicians are too smart to be fooled, which of course is not true. If it was, why would they pay each other such large sums of money for the secrets of their tricks?

If somebody mentions Uri Geller, claim that magicians can duplicate his entire repertoire. This is not true, but it sounds good. At least twenty professional magicians have stated that they cannot explain what they saw Uri do. One has even issued a public challenge (BBC Radio 5, 14 December 1993) to any of his colleagues who can repeat what he witnessed. No takers as yet.

Keep your fingers crossed and hope that nobody points out that Geller has pulled off one feat that few magicians, if any, have ever duplicated. He has become a millionaire.

5.  If somebody mentions all those distinguished scientists and academics from Crookes, Lodge, Richet, the Curies, Bergson, Jung, McDougall, William James and Lord Rayleigh to contemporaries like Brian Josephson, Bernard Carr and Donald West, point out as patronisingly as you can that an expert in one field is not necessarily an expert in another field, such as psi research.

Skeptics, on the other hand are by implication experts on everything.

6.  Don’t forget that old “desperate will to believe” argument, which applies to anybody who has ever reported positive results of a psi experiment. The implication should be that they have fiddled the data to make the results look positive, whereas “more careful” skeptics (more often than not Dr. Susan Blackmore or Dr. Richard Wiseman) have shown that in fact they are negative.

Avoid any suggestion that skeptics have a desperate will not to believe, as is clearly the case with some. In an exchange of letters with Henry Bauer, editor of the excellent Journal of Scientific Exploration, Kendrick Frazier, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, has candidly admitted that (in Bauer’s words), “the magazine’s purpose is not to consider what the best evidence for anomalous claims might be but to argue against them”. (JSE, vol. 3, no. 1, 1989).

7.  Adopt the combine-harvester approach to reports of any kind of psi phenomenon, or indeed to any kind of inexplicable or anomalous one, and keep it simple, as in this pronouncement by authors Simon Hoggart and Mike Hutchinson, from their book Bizarre Beliefs:

“The terrible truth is that there are no ghosts, no poltergeists, and no hauntings. They are all mistaken, imaginary, or fakes.”

8.  You can get away with the most massive whoppers, especially on TV, if you manage to sound as if you know what you’re talking about when you don’t. A perfect example was provided by the narrator of Channel 4’s “Secrets of the Psychics” (24 August 1997), which included examples of all the guidelines listed here:

“With one exception, all practising mediums were exposed as frauds or confessed.”

The narrator forgot to mention who the one exception was. Among mediums who never confessed to anything and were not exposed as frauds were D. D. Home, Lenora Piper, Mrs Willett, Eileen Garrett, Rudi Schneider, Franek Kluski, the half-dozen members of the Cross Correspondence team, Stefan Ossowiecki, Pamela Curran and Chico Xavier.

9.  It is a good idea to pretend that you are an honest, open-minded seeker after the truth but be careful not to go too far, as Professor Richard Dawkins did in his Richard Dimbleby Lecture (BBC1, 12 November 1996):

“The popularity of the paranormal, oddly enough, might even be grounds for encouragement. I think that the appetite for mystery, the enthusiasm for that which we don’t understand, are healthy and to be fostered. It’s the same appetite which drives the best of true science.”

There could not be a clearer summary of what drives the great majority of parapsychologists.

10.  Finally, you can always win some popular sympathy with the good old “dangers of dabbling in the occult” ploy. Suggest that actually doing any research into psi phenomena or other anomalies can only lead to another Jonestown massacre, Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, or Third Reich.

Put all this sound advice into practice, and you’ll be media superstars, my son and daughter.

Military Remote Viewing – The Story

by Guy Lyon Playfair

With the publication of Paul H. Smith’s Reading the Enemy’s Mind (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2005) we can now read the whole story of the U.S. military intelligence programme of ‘remote viewing’ that began in California in the early seventies and came to an inglorious end in 1995 with the disbanding of the remnants of the last operational unit in Fort Meade, Maryland. It is an excellent book, as compellingly readable as it is authoritative, yet some aspects of the story it tells are very sad.

The saddest is the fact that what should have been a ground-breaking programme – the first of its kind anywhere to be funded with public money – that revolutionised the business of intelligence gathering was allowed to deteriorate as it did. Another is the way in which the skeptical community did its best to scupper it right from the start, or even before the start, with what Smith describes as “an invasion of skeptics” in 1972/3 at the (then) Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International. Chief invader Ray Hyman displayed some rather uncertain powers of observation, referring to the “incredible sloppiness” of the experiments he witnessed there with the ‘blue-eyed’ Uri Geller (black-eyed, actually), but forgetting to mention that the only experiments he and his colleagues were able to see were some that they set up themselves.

Some twenty years later, after what became known as Star Gate had been bounced from one funder to another ending up where it started, with the CIA, that agency commissioned a report from the ostensibly impartial American Institutes of Research (AIR) which sought the opinions of statistician Jessica Utts, a genuine expert who concluded that “psychic functioning has been well established”, and Ray Hyman, who concluded that it hadn’t. One of Paul Smith’s most startling revelations is that out of the three to four thousand remote viewing sessions carried out by some two dozen viewers over the years, the AIR team based its findings on “approximately forty sessions conducted in 1994 and 1995 by three demoralised viewers” (p.449).

It was the third time Hyman had been involved with what appears to be a report guaranteed to come up with negative findings. He was a co-signatory of CSICOP begging letter that included: “Belief in paranormal phenomena is still growing, and the dangers to our society are real… The Defense Department may be spending millions of tax dollars on developing ‘psychic arms’… Please help us in the battle against the irrational.”

Smith notes (p. 372) that a phrase from Paul Kurtz’s The Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology turns up almost verbatim in the National Research Council’s 1988 report which was compiled by, among others, Hyman and George Lawrence, two of the original ‘skeptical invaders’ at SRI. How objective can you get?

Why, you may well be wondering, did the U.S. military and intelligence communities behave in such a paradoxical manner, first setting up a radically new and forward-looking programme several of whose participants received medals, suggesting that they had done something right (one, Joseph McMoneagle, being awarded the prestigious Legion of Merit for “producing crucial and vital intelligence unavailable from any other source”) and then doing its best to destroy it? The answer is simple: it all depended on those involved, whether as recruiters, trainers, supervisors or viewers.

Several of these – in the early days, probably all of them including the original CIA funders – were strong believers in psi, their positive approach clearly affecting the performance of novice viewers. Ingo Swann, for example, who trained most of the best viewers, was already a well tested veteran of psi research when a series of chance encounters got him together in the early 1970s with SRI physicist Harold Puthoff, while McMoneagle’s interest in psi began with an exceptionally powerful near death experience that seems to have unlocked remarkable abilities.

Although only a very small percentage of RV reports has been made public, the rest never having been openly evaluated by Hyman or anybody else, a few major successes have been admitted, such as the location in Africa of a crashed Soviet aeroplane and the capture of runaway U.S. customs official Charles Jordan, the latter being confirmed by a customs official and the former by no less than President Carter. You will find no mention of these successes in any of the skeptics’ reports.

If one was to listen to a bunch of first-grade piano students fumbling through Chopsticks with wrong notes in every bar while upstairs and out of earshot a talented youngster was giving a faultless performance, without the music, of Chopin’s Barcarolle, you would be wrong to conclude that there was no real evidence that anybody could play the piano properly, let alone brillliantly. Which is in effect what the skeptical invaders did, as they always do. What has been lost as a result can only be imagined.

Remote viewing may not have been the intelligence panacea it was hoped to be, but the programme did show that just about anybody can be trained to become clairvoyant to some degree, an important discovery in itself.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that many of the remote viewing veterans are still very much around. To catch up with them, go to Smith’s website RV Viewer and that of the International Remote Viewers Association.

Nature and Telepathy

by Guy Lyon Playfair

“I’d love to publish it. If it’s watertight evidence I’d publish it as fast as I possibly could.”

This surprising statement was made in the first of two parts of the BBC World Service series “Discovery: Who Runs your World?” in which the question was “Who decides which scientific research project gets funding?”

Why was it surprising? Because it was part of an answer to presenter Geoff Watts’s question “would a paper on telepathy stand a chance of getting into the journal Nature?” and the speaker was – yes, the editor in chief of that journal, Philip Campbell.

He did add that “…by God, I’d get it reviewed, and you may say ‘well, there you go, you’re going to suppress it almost by definition'”, but he also pointed out that as editor he felt he had the right to overrule his peer reviewers – a right that could of course be exercised to suppress an article recommended by reviewers. Still, it was an encouraging noise to be heard from the editor of a journal that over the years has not exactly encouraged any form of psi research. Remember John Maddox’s famous editorial in 1981 following the publication of Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life? It was headed “A Book for Burning?”

Mr. Campbell has much lost time to make up for. The number of articles on telepathy or anything like it published since the journal was founded in 1858 can just about be counted on the toes of the three-toed sloth. There was Professor (later Sir William) Barrett’s brief account of his experiences with the notorious Creery sisters (Vol. 24, p.212, 1881) which followed George Henslow’s brief note on “Thought-Reading” (ibid, pp.164-5) in which he put forward the interesting suggestion that the term was misleading and the phenomenon might be renamed “will-imparting”. (The word telepathy was not coined until the following year, but mesmerists had been demonstrating will-imparting ever since the Marquis de Puys Gur’s classic experiments with Victor Race in 1784).

More than half a century later there was the late Arthur Oram’s account of his own experiments in card guessing (Vol. 157, p.556, 1946). The only reference he cites in his brief letter, which was just six half-column inches long, was a book by J.B. Rhine, suggesting that nothing relevant had appeared in Nature.

Both his and Barrett’s pieces would almost certainly have been rejected today as “self-reported and unsupported anecdotes”, although nobody who knew Arthur, a longtime SPR member who died earlier this year would doubt his integrity for a moment. However, there it was, sandwiched between letters on “Planck’s Radiation Formula” and “The Establishment of Beneficial Insects in Trinidad”. Those were the days when telepathy was treated just like any other field of human inquiry.

We had to wait until 1974 for the first full-length peer-reviewed paper on telepathy, Puthoff and Targ’s “Information transfer under conditions of sensory shielding” (Vol. 252, pp.602-7) which presented the highly positive results of their tests with Uri Geller, Pat Price and other unnamed subjects.

And that, as far as I have been able to discover, is it. (I’d be grateful to any reader who can let me know of any articles I missed). A subject of interest to the majority of the population, according to most recent surveys, and fully accepted by an increasing number of scientists has simply been ignored or else rubbished as in David Marks’s lengthy tirade “Investigating the Paranormal” (Vol. 320, pp.119-24, 1986) which was aptly described in a letter from Ian Stevenson (Vol.322, p.680, 1986) as “misleading simplification”.

Where were the reports from the likes of Charles Richet, Sir Oliver Lodge, Ren Warcollier, Gustave Geley, Eugene Osty, J.B. Rhine, J.G. Pratt, Milan Ryzl, Charles Honorton and Adrian Parker, Ian Stevenson and Rupert Sheldrake, to name but twelve?

Telepathy, at least until now, has been taboo to the editors of Nature. Let us hope that Bob Dylan was right and that the times are indeed a-changing. While browsing through the issue of Nature that contained Arthur Oram’s letter I found this line in a review of a book by Henri Bergson: “Most philosophers are right in what they assert and wrong in what they deny.”

And a final Thought for the Day from an unexpected source, U.S. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (quoted in Scientific American, Sept. 2005, p. 19). He was discussing the state of intelligence, but his words would not have been out of place at a meeting of either psi researchers or sceptics:

“There are known unknowns, that is to say, we know that there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know that we don’t know.”