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Scientists vs. Illusionists

How and Why Parapsychology Tricks Scientists, But Not Illusionists

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Psychics vs. Magicians

Psychics vs. Magicians

Photo: Iconica / Getty

Much research into the existence of psychic phenomena utilizes a false dilemma as a fundamental premise. Stated simply, it is alleged that those who have researched these phenomena and have ended up believing the events to be examples of genuine psychic phenomena, unexplainable by normal scientific methods and laws, must either be correct or must be declared cheats, lunatics, or worse.

According to Henry Sidgwick, the first president of the Society for Psychical Research:

    “We must drive the objector into the position of being forced either to admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse the investigators either of lying or cheating or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy.”

These words were spoken at his first presidential address to the SPR in 1882, so this attitude has played a role in psychic research since the very beginning. It is assumed that eminent scientists can reliably carry out sound observations and arrive at trustworthy conclusions.

What is wrong with such an attitude? A number of things, actually. The first is that it excludes the possibility of someone being honestly mistaken in their understanding of what they have experienced. Errors do not require an intellectual condition of “absolute idiocy.” Science is not dependent upon the honesty of wisdom or individual scientists. Science is dependent upon collective work or many scientists seeking to arrive at a broad consensus regarding theory and repeatable results regarding experiments.

The above attitude expressed by Sidgwick can be rephrased into the following argument: “I am intelligent; I am well-educated; I am a good observer. Therefore, anything that I witness and do not understand and cannot scientifically explain must necessarily be supernatural in nature. So, if anyone denies the conclusion, it must follow that one of the premises is also being denied.” This argument is not valid.

It is possible to deny the conclusion without denying the premises because it is possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false (in a valid argument, if the premises are true then it is impossible for the conclusion to be false). Quite often, we find intelligent and well-educated scientists who make good observations about what appears to be strange phenomena — and they wrongly conclude that they have witnessed something supernatural. But how could they be mistaken?

A major problem exists in these experiments which can be traced back to the difference between the study of psychic phenomena and other phenomena in nature: nature does not cheat, while alleged psychics have been caught cheating on a regular basis. Because nature does not cheat, a scientist can generally trust that what she thinks she sees is in fact what has been happening — and further observations by others should confirm this.

When a psychic cheats, however, such trust cannot exist — and further observations by others also cannot necessarily be trusted because they can fall for the scam as well. Therefore, a researcher can honestly believe that an experiment reveals the reality of some psychic phenomenon, even though that experiment reveals nothing at all because the subject cheated. In 1908, Douglas Blackburn, editor of the newspaper The Brightonian, revealed that he had deliberately tricked researchers in telepathy experiments and wrote:

    “...if two youths, with a week’s preparation, could deceive trained and careful observers like Messrs. Myers, Gurney, Podmore, Sidgwick, and Romanes under the most stringent conditions their ingenuity could devise, what are the chances of succeeding inquirers being more successful against “sensitives” who have had the advantage of more years of experience than Smith and I had weeks?”

Because scientists are accustomed to studying nature, which does not cheat, even eminent scientists have been easily duped into accepting the reality of psychic phenomena, right from the beginning of the spiritualist craze in the 19th century. The list of duped scientists includes people like Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir William Crookes (eminent chemist and one-time president of the Royal Society, discoverer of thallium, inventor of the radiometer, and more). In the 20th century there was John Taylor, John Hasted, Russell Targ and Harld Puthoff, duped by the feats of Uri Geller.

The lack of strict controls and standards in experiments on psychic phenomena is notorious. The requirement for such standards is not just necessary for experiments to be considered scientific, but also because of the long history of confirmed and admitted trickery committed by various people who have claimed to possess psychic powers. Such a history should compel researchers to enact the strictest and most reliable controls possible. The least laxity in experimental conditions or the presence of even the weakest or inadvertent sensory cues can invalidate the results.

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