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.”