Good Skeptics / Bad Skeptics

Part 5: Bad Skeptics Attempt to Deconstruct J. B. Rhine
by Guy Lyon Playfair

‘Deconstruction’, says my dictionary (American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition), is ‘a philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity and truth.’

Its close cousin, ‘revisionism’, is ‘advocacy of the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view, theory or doctrine, especially a revision of historical events and movements’. This can be beneficial, as in the case of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers, long alleged by the former Soviet Union to have been the work of the Nazis but now known to have been a Soviet operation, so in this instance a myth has been deconstructed and history has been justifiably revised. At the other extreme, attempts such as that of David Irving to revise the Holocaust to the point of non-existence not only failed, but landed him in jail in Austria, where such a claim is a criminal offence.

Parapsychologists have not escaped the attention of revisionists and deconstructers. In her book The Age of Entanglement (2008) Louisa Gilder tells the story of quantum theory from its beginnings at the start of the twentieth century to the present, based on an impressive amount of original research including interviews with just about everybody who is anybody in this bewildering field – her list of references runs to no less than 58 pages.

The book makes lively and informative reading until we run over a bone-shaking pothole on page 156, where Jung, Pauli and Rhine come into the story and Gilder’s prejudices come out of hiding. ‘Jung,’ she patronises, ‘was seduced by a series of experiments at Duke University performed by a botanist named J.B. Rhine’ who had ‘displayed the extent of his scientific rigor quite early, in 1927… by earnestly declaring a horse named Lady Wonder to be telepathic’ although ‘a magician who investigated her the same year discovered that in fact she was reading subtle cues from her trainer’s stance and expression.’ Gilder adds a sneering reference to ‘the increasing awareness that Rhine, though sincere, had only a tenuous grasp on the details of scientific method.’

We turn to the list of page references in search of the source of these comments, and fail to find it because it is not there. Perhaps the author was reluctant to admit to having temporarily abandoned her reliance on primary sources by lifting the comments, one assumes, from one of the more unreliable and tendentious sceptical websites that clutter up the internet with biased misinformation?

Let’s set the record straight. For a start, it is true that Rhine originally graduated in botany, but he switched to psychology early on and by the time Jung and Pauli wrote The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (1952), Rhine had more than twenty years’ experience of research in parapsychology, a field in which he was recognised around the world as a leading authority. Gilder’s readers are led to believe that Rhine based his findings on just seventy-four runs through the deck of Zener cards whereas by 1940 there had been more than a million of them, overall results being statistically significant.

Proper research into the Lady Wonder episode would have told her that Rhine was well aware of the possibility that the horse might have been picking up clues from her trainer’s gestures. He saw her in action on at least four occasions, and in one test, at which her owner was not present, he took pains to make no gestures at all as he asked a silent question, which the horse answered correctly by the appropriate number of hoof-taps. He wrote up his findings in two papers in the peer-reviewed Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (p. 23 and 449-66 in 1928-9, 24 and 287-92 in 1929-30), and as Louisa Rhine noted in her memoir Something Hidden (1983, p. 120-1) Rhine reckoned he could tell when Lady Wonder was reading his mind and when she wasn’t.

As Rhine expert Stacy Horn, author of Unbelievable (2009) notes politely in her discussion of this episode, ‘It is perhaps a common human foible to sometimes accept without question data which confirms your beliefs and to reject data which doesn’t.’ (See Unbelievable.)

As for Gilder’s allegation (unsourced, of course) that Rhine’s grasp of scientific method was ‘tenuous’, let’s hear from an expert – Burton H. Camp, president in the 1930s of the Institute for Mathematical Statistics:

“Assuming that the experiments have been properly performed, the statistical analysis is essentially valid. If the Rhine investigation is to be fairly attacked, it must be on other than mathematical grounds.”

Even confirmed sceptics paid tribute to Rhine’s grasp of scientific method. Martin Gardner, one of the most extreme of all, had this to say in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957):

“Rhine is clearly not a pseudoscientist… He is an intensely sincere man, whose work has been undertaken with a care and competence that cannot be dismissed easily.”

One cannot always say the same about Louisa Gilder.

Another writer who has a go at Rhine is William Little, author of The Psychic Tourist (2009), misleadingly subtitled ‘A Voyage into the Curious World of Predicting the Future’. He has nothing to contribute to our knowledge of prediction, being more interested in rubbishing the field of psi research en bloc. Thus the entire output of Rhine’s thirty-five years of research vanishes from the record at a touch of the delete button because ‘none of Rhine’s experiments has ever been repeated successfully’. Had Little done a bit more of what he claims to have been ‘some serious research’ he could easily have discovered that within just five years of first publication of the Duke experiments, there had been thirty-three independent replications, nearly two thirds of which were statistically significant.

Little deserves a special booby prize for revisionist deconstruction on a truly impressive scale. For example, Dean Radin’s meta-analyses of a vast amount of published research material on telepathy, clairvoyance and PK vanish down the plughole because they include ‘an experiment that psychologist Susan Blackmore exposed as clear fraud’. (Which she didn’t. As she told me herself at the time of her splat with Carl Sargent, she discovered evidence in his lab that could be seen as consistent with a fraud scenario, though she never proved anything or exposed anybody). Gary Schwartz’s testing of mediums such as Sally Morgan meets the same fate, since his research methods have been alleged by Professor Wiseman to be ‘flawed’ (as have Wiseman’s own on more than one occasion).

Stumbling further along the tourist trail, Little comes across the ‘psychic detection’ case that the late Montague Keen and I investigated and wrote up in the January 2004 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Faced with the undeniable fact that medium Christine Holohan gave detectives an accurate account of a murder that had taken place a few days previously, made some 130 statements of which only one was wrong and even correctly named the murderer, Little produces one of his inspired instant solutions:

A self-appointed sceptic named Tony Youens provides him with a ludicrous scenario according to which somebody or other knew all about the murder and wanted to turn the murderer in, but instead of just making an anonymous phone call to the police, went to the trouble of briefing Holohan and persuading her to pretend she had obtained the information from the spirit of the victim, as she describes in her book A Voice from the Grave (2006). Little manages to swallow this nonsense whole without choking on it, apparently unconcerned by the absence of any supporting evidence for it.

Whereas Gilder, to her credit, gets back on the rails after her two-page wobble, Little never gets on them in the first place, being one of those tourists who come home with some nice postcards and a souvenir or two, but not much of a clue about the life and culture of the country they have just briefly visited.