New Internationalist

Future Science Or Science Fiction?

Issue 237

new internationalist
issue 237 - November 1992


Future science
or science fiction?
If your capacity for blind faith is limited, fair enough.
Paranormal phenomena are now being tested in rigorous scientific
conditions, as parapsychologist Richard Broughton explains.

In a quiet room senior scientist Russell Targ got off the phone and handed a slip of paper to Ingo Swann, artist, psychic and subject in a curious research project. On the paper was written '49°20'S, 70°14'E'. Swann looked at the numbers, closed his eyes, and in a few moments began to speak: 'My initial response is that it's an island... Terrain seems rocky... I see some buildings rather mathematically laid out. One of them is orange. There is something like a radar antenna, a round disk. Two white cylindrical tanks, quite large. To the north-west, a small airstrip...' Continuing to talk, Swann began to draw an island, annotating the coastline as he went and describing natural and human-made features.

By the time he had finished, Swann had given a pretty good description of Kerguelen, a small French-administered island in the southern Indian Ocean. The layout of the buildings and the equipment could have been that of a joint French-Soviet meteorological installation on the island. You can see why the US Government was prepared to pick up the tab for the project.11

'Come on,' you say, 'Psychic spying... Give me a break! Even the CIA isn't that silly.'

OK. It wasn't psychic spying, but it was close. The scientists who worked on the project called it remote viewing. The independent intelligence expert called in by the CIA to evaluate the work said that remote viewing was not sufficiently reliable to replace traditional intelligence-gathering methods, but it could serve as a useful adjunct.

Remote viewing remains one of the more flamboyant episodes in the controversial science known as parapsychology. As far as I know, remote viewing has not become part of the CIA's bag of tricks, yet late last year there were reports in the US press that a shadowy business outfit called Psi Tech was attempting to use remote viewing to locate biological and chemical weapon depots in Iraq. One might be inclined to dismiss Psi Tech as just another bunch of crackpots, except that many of the principals are high-ranking ex-military types and everyone that works for the firm is reported to have high-level security clearance.

Image problems
As a parapsychologist, I'm not usually associated with psychic spying. In fact, for many years after the popular 1984 film Ghostbusters the most common question I got from younger audiences was 'Did you ever get slimed?' Much to their disappointment, not only had I never been slimed, but I had never chased a ghost.

Parapsychology has been a laboratory science ever since JB Rhine started his research at the US's Duke University in 1930. Rhine used the term to separate the phenomena that seemed like human abilities - like ESP - from the spirits and séance rooms of its precursor, psychical research.

Rhine began testing for extrasensory perception (ESP) by means of card-guessing experiments. Subjects attempted to guess the order of five symbols in decks of specially designed cards. The results had to be evaluated statistically - not as much fun as a séance, but a great deal more satisfying for scientists. Later Rhine began looking for evidence of psychokinesis - the apparent ability some people have to affect objects by the power of mind alone - by seeing if they could affect tumbling dice.

Of course Rhine and his colleagues came in for a huge amount of criticism. But he weathered all the attacks. The Institute for Mathematical Statistics pronounced his statistics sound. If the experimental methods needed improvement, he improved them. By the time World War Two ended, parapsychology had won a small and somewhat grudging acceptance in academic circles.

The Duke lab set the model for parapsychology research for the next few decades. Experimental design improved, statistics became more sophisticated, and eventually the field become a whole lot more technological. In short, parapsychology simply followed the same path that many other sciences trod.

So why aren't we rich (or at least better accepted)?

If you believe the pronouncements of some claiming to represent mainstream science then parapsychology is not a science at all, but merely a delusional belief system supported by faulty observation and lousy experiments. As elsewhere in the realm of human existence, you would do well to question such facile generalizations.

More than any other branch of science, parapsychology has endured intense critical scrutiny for over half a century. Scientists in this field are no more interested in wasting their time than scientists of any other ilk. They have the same training and credentials as their peers but, like the members of any minority group, they know that their efforts have to be better than the best of the majority.

ESP in the twilight zone
In a small soundproofed room a researcher looks at a TV screen. On it is a 1950s Christmas-season ad for Coca-Cola. A classic Santa Claus figure holds a bottle of Coke in his left hand and behind him an oversize bottle cap displays the Coca-Cola logo.

Meanwhile in a massive acoustic isolation chamber a subject listens to white noise (a sort of electronic hiss) while stretched out comfortably on a reclining chair. Translucent hemispheres cover his eyes and he is bathed in red light, leaving him with a relaxed, warm feeling. In a few moments he begins: 'There's a man with a dark beard and he has a sharp face... I can see his hat and he has a sack over his shoulder... Window ledge is looking down and there's a billboard that says Coca-Cola on it... There's a snowman... There's a white beard again. There's an old man with a white beard...'

This is just one of several hundred ESP trials conducted by Charles Honorton and his research team in Princeton, New Jersey. They employ the ganzfeld - a mild state of sensory isolation which typically induces a hypnogogic or 'almost asleep' condition. In the ESP part of the test the subject freely describes whatever thoughts, images, memories come to mind during the 30-minute session. At the end of the session, the subject chooses which one of four pictures they thought had been their target.

The ESP-ganzfeld research is confounding critics who look for excuses to dismiss parapsychology. By the early 1980s, some 42 ganzfeld studies had been published. An amazingly high number of them showed ESP success and they became the subject of a debate between Honorton and leading critic Ray Hyman, who claimed that potential weaknesses in methodology could reduce the 'true' rate of success to something close to chance.2 At this point an independent expert was commissioned by the US Government's National Research Council to evaluate parapsychology. He concluded that there was unquestionably a real ESP effect shown in the data.

In 1989, Honorton's team published the results of 11 new studies that met criteria they had agreed upon with critic Hyman. The overall scoring rate was 34 per cent, compared to the 25 per cent that chance predicted - very significant statistically. The myth that parapsychology has no repeatable experiments had finally been put to rest.3

On the quantum frontier
As my assistant brought me to the hall I could tell he was concerned that the experiment was getting out of hand. At first we heard only the beeps and clicks of the computer. Suddenly, a full-blown rebel-yell 'Yeehaa!' echoed through the hall. 'Say your prayers, buddy - I'm gonna blow you away!'

Our subject had been playing what appeared to be a slightly dated computerized dice game but was in fact a very sophisticated test of psychokinesis. Built into the computer was a specially designed device producing true random events that could be traced back to quantum mechanical processes and formed the basis for our computerized dice. We were looking for evidence that our subjects could shift the chance distribution of events so as to let them win the game more frequently. The only way this could happen was if they somehow influenced the quantum processes behind it all - psychokinesis at the sub-atomic level.

The yelling? Well, to heighten motivation we told our subjects a small lie. We said our computer was linked by telephone to an identical unit in the rival University of North Carolina and this was basketball season, a time when certain primal competitive urges well up in students in this part of the world.

We have completed three separate experiments with this setup. In each one, the subjects who were comfortable with the competition did better in the simulated contest than those who were ill at ease. Nothing surprising about that, except when you consider that it was not a game of skill. There was no possible way our subjects could influence their scores by normal means.

Our dice game is just one variant in a class of experiments that dominates parapsychological research today. Known as 'micro-PK' experiments, these study the direct influence of consciousness on probabilistic physical systems - in other words the pure chance processes of nature described by quantum mechanics. These experiments tend to be highly automated and secure, and even some of parapsychology's severest critics have acknowledged that the micro-PK research is hard to fault on methodological grounds.

Micro-PK research has put a different twist on our ideas about psychokinesis, one that has begun to interest physicists. The evidence suggests that human consciousness is somehow able to bias the probabilities of events that occur in the atomic world. This has important implications for theorists grappling with what is known as the 'measurement problem' in quantum physics. Some leading physicists believe that consciousness actually helps determine reality at the quantum level, and a few are beginning to wonder if parapsychologists' micro-PK experiments are providing empirical evidence of this.4

Where's the breakthrough?
There has been a breakthrough in parapsychology recently, but it is hard to get people too excited about it. Perhaps that is because it is essentially a statistical breakthrough - meta-analysis, a collection of procedures used to assess whole domains of research in the social sciences and medicine. When meta-analysis was applied to parapsychology the results astounded everyone. In virtually every case it has shown parapsychological effects to be reliable, consistent and massively significant in statistical terms.

The large base of micro-PK studies provides a good example. In 1989, two Princeton University researchers published meta-analysis of every micro-PK study that they could locate. The meta-analysis revealed an overall effect that was small, but extremely significant. In statistical terms, the odds against chance as an explanation were about 100,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (or l035) to 1. The authors showed that there was no relationship between the quality of the study and the results, thereby refuting the frequent claim by critics that poor studies give results while good ones do not.

The crystal ball
The data of parapsychology is looking better than ever but the infrastructure of the field is in sad shape. There are only about a dozen laboratories in the West doing any serious work in parapsychology and most of these are pathetically underfunded.

If parapsychology is to be rescued from the research doldrums the driving forces are likely to be familiar ones: corporate profit and national self-interest. In the US one major telecommunications company has funded a modest research project to see if the very weak effects found in micro-PK can be coupled with the latest in neural-net and other pattern-recognition computer programs. The goal: to produce a psychic switch - a device that responds to mental intention. Reports in the business press indicate that Japan also has a growing interest in 'mental technology'.

The only country in the world which has a nationally supported research program on parapsychology is China. Of primary interest to Chinese scientists are a variety of healing and psychokinesis-like phenomena associated with the practice of gigong, an ancient meditation and breath-control discipline. One of China's leading scientists, Qian Xuesen, has declared this research to be a top priority for the nation's scientists and some of the facilities of China's former space program have been given over to it.

Will parapsychology succumb to corporate greed or national pride? Will mental technology be a boon or a bane to humankind? History might incline us to fear the worst, but at least in the psychic field all nations and all races seem to be equally endowed with natural resources.

For a long time parapsychology could do little more than convince some of us that those curious human abilities that we label psychic are real. Now it is beginning to look like the secrets of psychic abilities and their application will be available to those who commit the necessary resources to unlocking them.

Richard Broughton is Director of Research at the Institute for Parapsychology in North Carolina. He is the author of Parapsychology: The Controversial Science.

1 Russell Targ and Harold E Puthoff, Mind-Reach (Delacourt Press 1977).
2 Journal of Parapsychology (Vol 49, No 1, 1985).
3 'Psi Communication in the Ganzfeld', Journal of Parapsychology, (Vol 54, No 2,1990).
4 'Collapse of the State Vector and Psychokinetic Effects', Foundations of Physics, (Vol 12, 1982).

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