We pick up with some biographical sketches:

  • Daniel Home, the only psychic whose abilities have come close to standing up to scientific scrutiny.

  • Eileen Garrett (article needs work) tragic life – basically, she lost everybody she loved, poor health. An inquisitive and restless intellect,” thought her powers came from her own unconscious mind – which would still require “important revisions in understandings of reality.”

  • Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet”: He believed (first) in herbal medicine as practiced in the place he grew up, then in mainstream medicine of the day; it was his prescriptions, not the resulting cures, that were psychic.

    (In Occult America, the following story: A young gay man, circa 1935, wrote Cayce desperate for a “cure.” Cayce wrote back that as long as he cultivated his highest self, a cure was unnecessary, and he might even find love. 0_O :D)

  • J. B. & Louisa Rhine founded parapsychology in attempt to resolve the problem of anecdotal evidence. Career began by exposing winner of Scientific American prize for “psychic manifestation” as fraud.

  • William McDougall, Rhine’s colleague who helped him establish his Parapsychological Laboratory at Duke University; behaviorism boo, vitalism yay!

    Rhine and McDougall concentrated on controlled experiments (or as parapsychologists call them, “precise” events). It’s all about Zener cards, not dreaming true.

Major critics:

B.F. Skinner pointed out that the Zener cards could be read from the back in the right light (Rhine redesigned them when this was pointed out. At one point the Zener cards had a picture of the campus on the back, which made them a “one-way” deck; this made Jordan, an amateur stage magician, cackle.)

Critics like James Randi and Martin Gardner have always maintained that the experiments permitted the subjects to cheat. … At times the possibilities raised for cheating were remote. … But some (very few) critics still reminded the public that the possibility of such Herculean efforts makes cheating a possible explanation for the outcomes of the experiments.” But eventually you reach the point where Occam’s razor cuts the other way; where some form of paranormal ability is the simplest explanation that fits all the data.

Consistently scoring negative on psi tests: mostly (according to Gertrude Schmeidler’s review of Rhine’s data) by skeptics. Does personality influence psi ability – do skeptics not have it, suppress it, or simply not recognize it when it manifests? “Oh, I would have gotten that job even if you hadn’t lit that candle.” [Jordan’s father is a skeptic – but he’s also the psychic in the family. So Jordan thinks skepticism does have a role in whether or not you recognize it, that’s about all.]

And what is actually being tested, anyway?

Unfortunately, the distinctions among types of psi occasionally fold into each other in both theory and practice. Precognition, for example, may simply be telepathy extended to the future (reading the thoughts of future persons – a common explanation among psychics for pre-seeing), and clairvoyance may be a reading of the thoughts of those with access to the objective state that is the target of ESP. Any remote viewing may be an out-of-body experience, with the astral body of the subject traveling to the viewing area. A subject identifying Zener cards successfully could either be demonstrating ESP or exercising PK over the random process governing the choice of the cards. The individual in charge of the experiment could inadvertently be influencing the distribution through the unconscious effects of psychokinesis.

These curious overlaps undermine controlled experiments by chronically obscuring causal variables, for example, the indeterminacy of cause-and-effect resulting from simply not knowing whether the subject of an experiment is engaged in remote viewing or telepathy. Even the basic concepts are contaminated. Rhine regarded ESP as entirely mental, but any definition of ESP and PK can easily and completely absorb ESP into PK, leaving mental control over the physical world as the dominant psychic power.”

And isn’t that magic, pure and simple? [Jordan: Categorizing is a really thorny, complicated issue. The definitions are “wiggly.” Even on AIRR, well, how do you know you’re not using clairvoyance to read that crystal ball?]

Yet meta-analyses of data by Edwin May and Julie Miltoni showed odds of at least 10,000,000:1 against chance producing these results. And using hypnosis “resulted in psi effects greater than chance with odds of 2700 to one.” (Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe).

Today, parapsychology researchers “consider ESP & PK as unconscious faculties that may have evolved as survival traits, … which implies that … psychic abilities may be (a) distributed unevenly through the general population, and (b) found at more pronounced levels in individuals who are successful in one way or another in life, or seem to be just plain lucky. This is also the traditional view of spiritual gifts, that they are inherited, though they can be developed. [Jordan believes anyone can be possessed by a spirit, but not everyone can see things in a deck of Tarot cards. Not sure either end of the spectrum is right, but the “survival trait” idea makes sense.]

It is the researchers who have the strongest incentives for these experiments to prove that psychic powers exist. And if these powers are real – How do we know they are not unconsciously influencing the results, and how can they be prevented from doing so? In other words, is it the subject or the experimenter who is nudging the random number generator?

Richard Broughton is a strong advocate of nonexperimental research” because, as he puts it, “A great poet … cannot always summon her creative powers in writing poems. For these and other reasons he sees the legacy of Rhine as moving naturally and effortlessly away from the lab to test ESP in real-world situations,” which might at least lead to figuring out what the hell these powers actually consist of, and maybe even which one is operating at any given time.

Psychic claims and beliefs seem always to be more comfortable outside the laboratory, in part because larger and more dramatic events are often spontaneous and not containable by experimental controls. Many claims for psychic experiences cannot be tested easily in controlled conditions,” because how do you schedule a disaster, an out-of-body experience, the appearance of a saint? (Or – if you were doing a laboratory study of “falling in love” – a love affair?)

Is all of reality apprehensible by human senses assisted by human machinery?

[Philosophical] orientations that accept a larger, and to some degree, invisible world, rely on the limiting condition that reality cannot be fully explained even in principle. It is a simple and thoughtful proposition: Psychic powers may originate in alternative realities. This would mean that the full range of psychic experiences is outside the dimensions of human experience, even when they are exhibited as abilities in ordinary life …” It is possible that magic evaporates in the laboratory not because it is not real, but because it is real, and because it is magic.

Eyewitness testimony is known to be unreliable, but “skeptics dismiss it too quickly.” There is, for instance, very little theoretical support for the existence of “mass hypnotism.” Sometimes Occam’s razor cuts away materialistic assumptions.

However, fraud has a long, rich history in parapsychology. One example not cited by Frohock: Katie King.ii [Jordan remembers reading about Houdini chasing Florence Cookout of town. Also, Sylvia Brown is “a horrible person”. Always wrong, a cold reader, and “was mean to my grandma.”]

Psychic surgery is dismissed by Frohock as a fraud, but I see it as a ritual. Sure, the “tumors” that are removed are chicken guts, and the blood is from other animals, but – the disease doesn’t know that. Other traditions use stones and other inanimate objects as disease decoy/traps. This is, or was originally, magical ritual not intended as fraud.

Most claims for paranormal activity or experience fail two tests:

  • Conform to what we know about the universe

  • Provide “superior evidence and theory” to revise what we know; prove some other way that psychokinesis or precognition or whatever might be possible.

Most “paranormal” experiences are explainable by known scientific, even psychological, principles: “”The somatic nervous system (brain, sense organs, skeletal musculature) is now understood as capable of subtle and complex patterns of disassociation that may explain many psychic experiences. Mainly, we know now that there can be functional distinctions within the self, as in hypnosis and glossolalia, where one self does not know what the other selves are doing. Such disassociation may account for a wide range of psychic phenomena, including out-of-body experiences, spiritualism, witches, access to “past” lives, lycanthropy, and much of what passes for faith healing.”

Some claims cannot be tested under controlled conditions even if they are valid. We need to establish a better framework for doing scientific research outside controlled experiments.

Next week’s topic: Chapter 4, “Intuitive Science.”

iAuthor of Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research, with Richard Wiseman. An article by her can be found here.

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