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Op Ed Essays
Putting ESP to the Experimental Test

In the past, there have been all kinds of strange ideas—that bumps on the head reveal character traits, that bloodletting is a cure-all, that each sperm cell contains a miniature person. When faced with such claims—or with claims of mind reading or out-of-body travel or communication with the dead—how can we separate bizarre ideas from those that sound bizarre but are true? At the heart of science is a simple answer: Test them to see if they work. If they do, so much the better for the ideas. If they don’t, so much the better for our skepticism.

"At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new."
Carl Sagan (1987)

This scientific attitude has led both believers and skeptics to agree that what parapsychology needs to give it credibility is a reproducible phenomenon and a theory to explain it. Parapsychologist Rhea White (1998) acknowledges that “the image of parapsychology that comes to my mind, based on nearly 44 years in the field, is that of a small airplane [that] has been perpetually taxiing down the runway of the Empirical Science Airport since 1882 . . . its movement punctuated occasionally by lifting a few feet off the ground only to bump back down on the tarmac once again. It has never taken off for any sustained flight.”
"A psychic is an actor playing the role of an psychic."
Psychologist-magician Daryl Bem(1984)

Seeking a reproducible phenomenon, how might we test ESP claims in a controlled experiment? An experiment differs from a staged demonstration. In the laboratory, the experimenter controls what the “psychic” sees and hears. On stage, the psychic controls what the audience sees and hears. Time and again, skeptics note, so-called psychics have exploited unquestioning audiences with mind-blowing performances in which they appeared to communicate with the spirits of the dead, read minds, or levitate objects—only to have it revealed that their acts were nothing more than the illusions of stage magicians.

The search for a valid and reliable test of ESP has resulted in thousands of experiments. One controlled procedure has invited “senders” to telepathically transmit one of four visual images to “receivers” deprived of sensation in a nearby chamber (Bem & Honorton, 1994). The result? A reported 32 percent accurate response rate, surpassing the chance rate of 25 percent. But follow-up studies have (depending on who was summarizing the results) failed to replicate the phenomenon or produced mixed results (Bem & others, 2001; Milton & Wiseman, 2002; Storm, 2000, 2003).

One skeptic, magician James Randi, has a longstanding offer—now U.S. $1 million—“to anyone who proves a genuine psychic power under proper observing conditions” (Randi, 1999). French, Australian, and Indian groups have parallel offers of up to 200,000 euros to anyone with demonstrable paranormal abilities (CFI, 2003). And $50 million was available for information leading to Osama bin Ladin’s capture. Large as these sums are, the scientific seal of approval would be worth far more to anyone whose claims could be authenticated. To refute those who say there is no ESP, one need only produce a single person who can demonstrate a single, reproducible ESP phenomenon. (To refute those who say pigs can’t talk would take but one talking pig.) So far, no such person has emerged. Randi’s offer has been publicized for three decades and dozens of people have been tested, sometimes under the scrutiny of an independent panel of judges. Still, nothing.

"People's desire to believe in the paranormal is stronger than all the evidence that it does not exist."
Susan Blackmore, "Blackmore's first law," 2004

Why, then, are so many people predisposed to believe that ESP exists? In part, such beliefs may stem from understandable misperceptions, misinterpretations, and selective recall. But some people also have an unsatisfied hunger for wonderment, an itch to experience the magical. In Britain and the United States, the founders of parapsychology were mostly people who, having lost their religious faith, began searching for a scientific basis for believing in the meaning of life and in life after death (Alcock, 1985; Beloff, 1985). In the upheaval after the collapse of autocratic rule in Russia, there came an “avalanche of the mystical, occult, and pseudoscientific” (Kapitza, 1991). In Russia as elsewhere, “extrasensorial” healers and seers have fascinated the awestruck public. “Many people,” declared a statement by 32 leading Russian scientists in 1999, “believe in clairvoyance, astrology, and other superstitions to compensate for the psychological discomforts of our time.”

"So, how does the mind work? I don't know. You don't know. Pinker doesn't know. And, I rather suspect, such is the current state of the art, that if God were to tell us, we wouldn't understand."
Jerry Fodor, "Reply to Steven Pinker," 2005

To feel awe and to gain a deep reverence for life, we need look no further than our own perceptual system and its capacity for organizing formless nerve impulses into colorful sights, vivid sounds, and evocative smells. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet recognized, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Within our ordinary perceptual experiences lies much that is truly extraordinary—surely much more than has so far been dreamt of in our psychology. A century of research has revealed many of the secrets of sensation and perception, yet for future generations of researchers there remain profound and genuine mysteries to solve.

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