Category Archives: Guy Lyon Playfair

Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

Part 1: Birth of a Movement
by Guy Lyon Playfair

CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) [now simply CSI, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation] came into existence at the 1976 convention of the American Humanist Association (AHA) held in Buffalo, NY, from 30 April to 2 May.

Its two principal begetters, Professors Marcello Truzzi (sociology, Eastern Michigan University) and Paul Kurtz (philosophy, State University of New York) were both resolute sceptics with good track records as campaigners against the rapid spread of interest in occult and paranormal subjects that took place in the early 1970s following the publication of Colin Wilson’s best-seller The Occult (1971) and the dramatic appearance on the scene of Uri Geller.

Continue reading Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

The Enfield Poltergeist on “Sky TV” UK

What Hath Sky Wrought?
by Guy Lyon Playfair

Sky Living TV showed the first of three parts of its serial The Enfield Haunting on May 3, 2015 after a well-organised publicity campaign that sold quite a number of my book on the subject even before the screening.

It also generated some good news articles by reporters who had first-hand experience of the original events, notably Michael Hellicar of the Daily Mail, and Douglas Bence, a member of the Daily Mirror team who first covered the story and but for whom we might never have heard of the case.

The programme was seen by about 850,000 people. It was given a surprisingly good reception by both critics and viewers; the general consensus seemed to be that the film was very well made – and very scary.

But was it a fair account of what actually happened?

It got off to a good start with Timothy Spall, looking remarkably like the chief investigator of the incident Maurice Grosse, rolling up in a shiny red E-type Jaguar similar to Maurice’s.

He then met the four children, whose mother, convincingly played by Rosie Cavaliero, had been one of the the first witnesses to the early events:

  • the knocking on the walls
  • the chest of drawers sliding towards her
  • and the marbles and bits of Lego flying about when it seemed impossible that any of her kids could have thrown them.

Near the end of Part One, however, the story veered away from fact toward fiction.

Matthew Macfadyen, playing me, is levitated up to the ceiling – which never happened to me or anybody else as far as I know (except perhaps to D. D. Home 150 years ago).

Oh dear, I thouht, it’s going to be just another ‘horror’ film. Although viewers were assured at the start that the film purported to be ‘Based on Real Events’, that was just one of many incidents that were only very loosely based, if at all, on reality. The Jaguar, at least, was real.

More perplexing was the omission of a number of real events, some of them recorded by photographer Graham Morris on motor-drive sequences, which were as dramatic as anything Sky’s special effects wonks could come up with:

  • the self-twisting curtain
  • the bedclothes pulled off of Janet
  • the flying pillows
  • the gas fire wrenched out of the wall
  • the cushion materialising on the roof
  • Janet seen levitating from across the road
  • and the most dramatic incident of all, a book belonging to Janet apparently going through the wall into the house next door, where it was indeed found, there being no conceivable normal explanation for how it got there.

Also lacking was any mention of our efforts to record proper scientific evidence, which we did successfully for at least two of the phenomena:

  • the extraordinary male voice that spoke through Janet
  • the rappings we heard on many occasions on floors and walls.

The young Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who played Janet, is already an award-winning actress of whom I am sure we will hear more. She had a good go at producing the eerie male voice, but it did not sound in the least like an old man, as had the real Janet’s. Mention might have been made of the recordings we made with the laryngograph, which showed fairly conclusively that Janet was using her ‘false vocal folds’, not at all easy for an untrained person to use, let alone a 12-year old girl.

As for the raps, these have now been analysed by our colleague Barrie Colvin and shown to have acoustic signatures quite unlike the ‘control’ raps made by me at the time, which means they are not at all easy to fake. His lengthy report was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 2010 but was widely ignored.

Poltergeists continue to be treated as light entertainment; it may not occur to the producers of such programming that they cause real distress to ordinary, innocent people. If you were to visit your doctor complaining of a headache, for instance, how would you feel if you were told that there were no such things as headaches, that headaches had long ago been debunked by scientists as medieval superstitions, the imaginations of the childish, or that perennial favourite explanation of debunkers who never bother to investigate, ‘attention-seeking behavior’? This is just the kind of reaction poltergeist victims face regularly.

The Enfield family even faced it from the psychiatrist made responsible for the mental well-being of children, who, as it happened, refused even to see them. I should add that with the exception of this fellow the local council was very supportive and sympathetic, but the welfare officers I met pointed out, correctly, that they were not trained to deal with poltergeists. (Perhaps they should be!)

Throughout the Enfield case Society for Psychical Research members Maurice Grosse and I, along with about thirty other people, constantly witnessed incidents for which no normal explanation seems possible.

Poltergeist incidents have been reported for at least five hundred years. Yet we’ve never heard any serious discussion, violating much of what we think we know about science, about how they happen.

And why did they happen to this particular family when they do not to thousands of families in similar circumstances? It has been easiest for pseudoskeptics to dismiss the evidence en bloc and put it all down to childish ‘pranks’ – or to use it for fantasy entertainment.

So did Sky TV do well by the Enfield Poltergeist story? Well, yes and no. Poltergeist outbreaks are inherently dramatic, often more so in real life than they tend to be in fiction. The Enfield case was definitely one that needs no fictional additions.

How Skepticism Blocks Progress in Science

Lazzaro Spallanzani’s Scientific “Heresy”
by Guy Lyon Playfair

In 1794 the eminent Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-99), one of the founders of experimental biology, published a modest but heretical proposal.

Long intrigued by the ability of bats to fly in total darkness without bumping into things, he set out to discover how they did it. He reasoned that they must be using one of their five senses, and in a series of extremely cruel experiments he maimed bats by destroying their senses one by one, blinding them, blocking their ears or even cutting them off, eliminating their sense of smell and removing their tongues.

It soon became clear to him that it was the sense of hearing that bats needed in order to avoid obstacles. But hearing what? Bats made no audible sounds as they flew, and little if anything was known in the 18th century about ultrasound, the secret of bats’ success as nocturnal navigators. As they fly, they emit beams of up to 50,000 cycles per second – more than twice the upper limit of human hearing – and ‘read’ the returning echoes. It was a striking example, of which there are many, of a man-made invention, in this case echo location or sonar, having existed in nature long before we reinvented it.

Spallanzani was in effect making a claim for the paranormal, much as the pioneers of psychical research were to do in the following century in the case of telepathy. There was no sign in 1794 of a normal explanation for the bat’s navigating skills, so the scientific establishment did what it tends to do on these occasions – it made one up. Its chief spokesman was the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a pioneer in both anatomy and palaeontology. He decreed, in a paper published in 1795, that “to us, the organs of touch seem sufficient to explain all the phenomena which bats exhibit”.

He had it all worked out. Bats’ wings were “richly supplied with nerves of every type”, which could somehow or other receive impressions of heat, cold and resistance. Yet whereas Spallanzani, and several colleagues whom he persuaded to repeat his experiments, reached their unanimous conclusion only after numerous experiments, Cuvier solved the problem without having performed a single one. It was, as the 20th century bat expert Robert Galambos noted, “a triumph of logic over experimentation”.

It was also a triumph of ignorance over knowledge. One of Spallanzani’s colleagues had actually thought of the sensitive-wing theory and tested it, by putting bats in an all-white room and coating their wingtips with some kind of black stuff that would come off on the walls and various white objects if the bats’ wings touched them. They didn’t.

Cuvier’s explanation soon found its way into the textbooks, and stayed there until the start of the 20th century, when independent researchers in France and the USA published yet more experimental evidence in support of Spallanzani’s theory. Then, in 1920, a British researcher named Hartridge who had helped to develop the first naval sonar systems during World War 1, published the first clearly stated theory of bat navigation by ultrasound. This was duly confirmed, using newly developed recording devices, by Galambos and his colleague Donald Griffin, who published their results in 1941 – nearly a century and a half after Spallanzani.

In retrospect, it is hard to see how those original findings took so long to gain acceptance. Spallanzani was no maverick amateur, but a versatile and experienced researcher regarded as one of the leading physiologists of his day who did pioneering work in such areas as fertilisation, artificial insemination and limb regeneration. In his bat research he followed what is now the normal practice of inviting colleagues to replicate one’s findings or claims. His work was widely disseminated – an English translation of the final and fairly conclusive report of his Swiss collaborator Louis Jurine appeared in the first volume (1798) of the Philosophical Magazine. Above all. the acoustic theory was solidly based on the experimental evidence of several independent researchers. Yet it was to remain neglected for more than a century largely thanks to the immense prestige of Cuvier, whom Napoleon put in charge of French educational reform. Lone voices of dissent, such as that of British physician Sir Anthony Carlisle, who concluded, after carrying out his own experiments, that bats avoided obstacles “owing to extreme acuteness of hearing” went largely unheard. A more typical attitude was expressed in 1809 by one George Montagu, who asked sarcastically “Since bats see with their ears, do they hear with their eyes?”

“Had he [Spallanzani] been taken seriously, how much sooner might we have discovered radar?” asked the late Eric Laithwaite, an engineer with a keen interest in natural technology. It would only have to have been invented five or ten years earlier to have possibly saved the more than 1,500 lives lost when the Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912. Bats do not fly into icebergs or anything else, and it should have been possible to work out how long before it finally was. Laithwaite added: “Trying to discover how a biological mechanism works has an advantage over solving problems in non-biological areas since one is sure the problem can be solved.” Since Nature has already solved her problems, the researcher has the sure knowledge that a solution exists.

However, as long as the spirit of the Cuviers of this world lives on, as it still does in such organisations as CSICOP [now CSI], many of them may remain unsolved for another century or so.

Thought for the Day
“In moderate doses, skepticism stimulates the search for truth; in immoderate doses, it inhibits such a search.”
– Mario Bunge, The Skeptical Inquirer, July/Aug. 2000, p. 6


Galambos, R. (1942) The avoidance of obstacles by flying bats. Isis 34, 132-40.

Hartridge, N. (1920) The avoidance of objects by bats in their flight. Journal of Physiology 54, 54-7.

Laithwaite, E. R. (1977) Biological analogues in engineering practice. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 2(2), 100-8.

The Enfield Poltergeist Explained Again – The Deborah Hyde Version

by Guy Lyon Playfair

For more than thirty years since the Enfield events ended, Janet, the (then) twelve-year-old who was the focus for much (but not all) of the activity, has done her best to avoid publicity, taking part in just one TV interview and one with a journalist. So I was quite surprised to learn that she had agreed to appear on ITV’s This Morning (February 23, 2012), but only on condition that I also took part which otherwise I would have refused.

It could have been worse. Janet was clearly not at ease in a TV studio, but interviewer Phillip Schofield treated her very gently and let her have her say, after which I had mine. Then, inevitably, it was time for the ‘sceptic’ of the day to have the last word, as they always do, and assure viewers that there was a rational explanation for everything they had just heard. This is known in TV-speak as ‘balance’.

Today’s duty debunker was Deborah Hyde, editor of the CSI (formerly CSICOP) backed The Skeptic, whose day job is makeup artist for the film industry. Thus she has experience in creating artificial reality, which she put to good use on this occasion.

Rather than commenting on any of the actual evidence or bothering to question Janet or me about anything at all, she embarked on a Platonic monologue on the nature of human fallibility.

Here she goes:

“Human beings are remarkably bad at remembering things, and seeing things accurately. We see things that aren’t there, we don’t see things that are there. It’s very easy to impose top-down processing – ideas that you already have about the world get imposed on what you’re seeing… It’s very difficult to say this happened or that happened…”

…and so on. But how about the evidence?

A skilled make-up artist has no problem covering that up. After running out of vague generalisations, she resorted to outright misformation:

“It’s a fascinating story, but we forget all the people who disagreed – Graham Morris had issues with it, Mary Rose Barrington from the SPR [Society for Psychical Research] had her issues with it. There was a subsequent study by the SPR that concluded that the girls were faking it…”

Eh? Wait a minute. Let’s look at our primary source material, starting with what photographer Graham Morris actually said on the most accurate of the many documentaries about the Enfield case, the Antix programme produced by Tom O’Connor for the Paranormal Channel. Graham’s opinion was based on numerous visits to the house, initially for The Daily Mirror and subsequently in his own free time.

Graham managed to take a number of sequences on his Nikon motor-drive that show such hard-to-explain phenomena as pillows moving on their own, a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral, bedclothes pulling themselves back and Janet rising into the air without her bedclothes being pulled back, in full view of her mother. His overall opinion of the Enfield case, based on his considerable first-hand experience of it:

“To me it was easily the most fascinating thing that’s ever happened in my life, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was fascinating to be a witness of the whole thing.”

So much for his ‘issues’. How about those of Mary Rose Barrington, a solicitor and longtime SPR Council member with considerable experience of both careful examination of evidence and the investigation of spontaneous cases, including poltergeists?

With three colleagues, Peter Hallson, Dr. Hugh Pincott and the late John Stiles she carried out a meticulous follow-up study of the whole case including interviews with almost every witness to the events, including the girls’ mother, whom she found ‘perfectly sane’ and questioned at length, obtaining ‘some very clear testimony’ which she found ‘impressive’.

And did she conclude that the girls were faking it all? No, she didn’t. Here is her actual conclusion, which Deborah Hyde seems to have missed:

“There is every reason to think that there was poltergeist activity in the house.”

To her credit, Deborah Hyde did allow her to elaborate as follows in the Summer 2012 issue of The Skeptic:

“It is fashionable to invoke ‘fallibility of observation’ to repudiate attested facts that are unwelcome. But all knowledge rests on testimony, and it behoves listeners to exercise judgment and make a rational assessment of its reliability, not to dismiss it with empty generalisations. There is in fact nothing clever or scientific about making a blanket decision to reject testimony that does not fit with one’s beliefs as to what is possible.”

Another well informed commentator was Alan Murdie, also both a council member of the SPR and a lawyer with plenty of experience of collecting and evaluating evidence and presenting it in court. As a member of the society’s Spontaneous Case Committee, he regularly investigates reports of ghosts, haunted houses, poltergeists and assorted anomalies.

Writing in Fortean Times (No. 288, 2012), he noted that Deborah Hyde “avoided any detailed challenge to either witness, preferring to speak in general terms about the fallibilities in human testimony… As a result, the chance to test the credibility and reliability of two key witnesses in Britain’s most famous 20th century poltergeist case was lost.” 
And here’s his conclusion:

“This case is not mere folklore or tradition but one with evidence and witnesses, together with recordings and contemporaneous documentation available to be assessed. However, judged by its performance so far, organised ‘skepticism’ … is never going to convincingly explain the Enfield poltergeist, certainly if its critics are not acquainted with the facts, do not question the original witnesses and never make even a cursory examination of the collected evidence.”

It’s the same old story. Don’t bother trying to explain or even mention the evidence, when throwing the baby out with the bathwater is less demanding on your powers of reasoning. All in the cause of ‘scepticism’, which to the Ancient Greeks meant questioning and examining. I’m sure Plato would have had ‘issues’ with this dismal display of vacuous pseudoscepticism.

The Enfield Poltergeist – Joe Nickell Explains All

The Art of Cherry-Picking
by Guy Lyon Playfair

‘As a magician experienced in the dynamics of trickery, I have carefully examined Playfair’s lengthy account of the disturbances at Enfield and have concluded that they are best explained as children’s pranks.’

This weighty pronouncement comes from CSI (formerly CSICOP)’s chief hit-man and serial cherry-picker Joe Nickell, in whose opinion I am a ‘crank author on paranormal subjects’ who ‘ignores any skeptical literature’.

If that were true, I wouldn’t be commenting on his piece in the Skeptical Inquirer (2012, 36 (4)) which I will now do – briefly – as it doesn’t deserve discussing at much length.

The art of cherry-picking involves selecting such evidence as suits your case and either dismissing or just ignoring all the rest. Nickell has collected quite a basket of unripe and rotten cherries from his ‘careful examination’ of This House is Haunted, while leaving all the ripe ones on the tree, waving his magic wand and making them all disappear. Among many items and incidents he makes no attempt to explain away or even mention, here are just ten:

• The photo taken by Graham Morris at the moment he was hit on the forehead by a piece of Lego thrown hard enough to give him a nasty bruise on his forehead, his photo showing clearly that nobody (visible) had thrown it.

• A sequence on Graham’s motor-drive Nikon showing a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral and apparently being blown into the room although the window behind it was closed, and another sequence clearly showing bedclothes moving untouched by any incarnate human hand.

• Several photos showing Janet seemingly levitating with outstretched legs and without her bedclothes having been pulled back, as directly witnessed on one occasion by her mother.

• The built-in gas fireplace (luckily disconnected) which weighed about 20 kilos being wrenched out of the wall, bending the connecting brass pipe.

• The large cushion appearing instantaneously on the roof in full view of the tradesman walking towards the house, an experience from which he had not recovered thirty years later.

• The lollipop lady’s clear account, frequently repeated, of seeing Janet levitating to a height of at least two feet and floating around in circles. Again, this was in her direct line of sight, from her post at the school crossing directly in front of the house.

• The book transported into the house next door, which was locked and unoccupied at the time, there being no conceivable normal explanation as to how it got there.

• The laryngograph evidence that the male bass voice repeatedly heard coming out of Janet’s mouth was produced by her plica ventricularis (false vocal folds), which cannot be kept up for long even by trained actors without getting a very sore throat. This was witnessed by a professional speech therapist who was unable to explain it.

• The evidence produced by the ‘Voice’ that nobody in the family knew, such as the fact that the previous occupant went blind and died in a chair downstairs, as was only confirmed many years after the end of the case.

• The anomalous malfunctions of the Pye Newvicon video camera, the BBC’s Uher reel tape recorder, and Graham Morris’s flashguns, none of which could be explained by the experienced professionals concerned.

I could go on, but I think you get the message. As for ‘experienced magician’ Joe Nickell’s comment on Janet’s frequently repeated admission that she and her sister played a few tricks ‘just to see if Mr Grosse and Mr Playfair would catch us, and they always did’, estimating that they amounted to ‘I’d say two percent’ of the incidents we recorded, Nickell spins this into ‘the evidence suggests that this figure is closer to 100 percent.’

What evidence? Oh, never mind. There’s no need for evidence when a sweeping generalization will do, especially if it is unsourced. I see from Nickell’s entry on the site misleadingly called Rational Wiki that his interests include ‘the investigation of bullshit claims.’

Which does not seem to have stopped him making such claims himself.

Pathology in Organized Skepticism

by Guy Lyon Playfair

L. David Leiter of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, has no problems with what he sees as ordinary or individual skepticism. Writing in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Spring 2002) he describes this as “a useful and important human trait, the ability to recognise that any claim or theory, no matter how well established or authoritatively propounded, may turn out to be wrong.” It is also “an important scientific tool especially when it is liberally applied to one’s own work” and it “acts to refine and improve scientific enquiry”.

Organised skepticism, or what the late Marcello Truzzi called pseudoskepticism, is another matter, as Leiter found when he infiltrated a group in his area called the “Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking” or PhACT. He never became a member “since in no way can I support [its] goals, both formal and de facto” and cheerfully admits to having attended its lectures, subscribed to its newsletter and got to know some of its members personally “for a somewhat covert reason”, which was that “they fascinate me as a subject of study, both as individuals and as an organisation”.

He found some of them not only to be ignorant about the subjects they were claiming to debunk, but to have something of a phobia about even reading anything containing views opposed to theirs, as if afraid of contamination. He had the feeling that they had joined PhACT “much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous” in search of “comfort, consolation and support among their own kind”.

Then, after getting to know some of the members quite well, he made an interesting discovery: “Each one who has disclosed personal details of their formative years … has had an unfortunate experience with a faith-based philosophy, most often a conventional major religion (his emphasis). Often this had been imposed on them by family or community so forcefully that they could not wait to break free and “throw off this philosophy with a vengeance”. Thus, Leiter says, “they gravitate to what appears to them to be the ultimate non-faith-based philosophy, Science.” However, “they do so with the one thing no true scientist can afford to possess – a closed mind”.

Organised skeptics, he concludes, are “scientifically inclined but psychologically scarred”. They have “a strong inclination towards ridicule and ad hominem criticism of those with differing viewpoints”. They have “an obvious and well-known bias towards disbelief” which makes them “far more comfortable on the trailing edge of science than on the leading edge”.

Members of the Society for Scientific Exploration, in contrast, tend to be “determined scientific explorers despite all the well-known risks involved”.

Leiter was courageous enough to give his (then) fellow PhACToids a talk entitled “Skeptical about Skeptics”, the reception of which led him to conclude that “As the old adage states: They can dish it out but they can’t take it”.

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.