ESP, A Scientific Evaluation
Ever since Joseph Banks Rhine, a botanist-turned-parapsychologist, began his systematic study of psi (his term for “psychic”) phenomena, he has enjoyed an unusually favorable popular press and an unusually unfavorable academic one. Long, laudatory articles about him have been appearing for decades in mass circulation magazines (e.g., “A Case for ESP” by Aldous Huxley, Life, January 11, 1954). Arthur Koestler has compared Rhine’s discoveries to the Copernican Revolution. Today’s skeptical scientists. Koestler says in The Sleepwalkers, resemble those Italian philosophers who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope at Jupiter’s moons because they knew in advance that such moons did not exist. Many otherwise sophisticated people, I would guess, take it for granted that ESP and other psi powers have been conclusively demonstrated by workers in the field, and that only a few pigheaded professors refuse to look through Rhine’s telescope at the towering mountain of scientific evidence.
For thirty years professional psychologists, using sophisticated modern techniques, have been trying to duplicate the experiments of the parapsychologists, and they remain unconvinced. Unfortunately, their monotonously negative results are too dull to interest Time or Newsweek; to learn about them one must subscribe to the academic journals. Last year, for instance, the Journal of Psychology (Vol. 60, pp.313-18), reported on a carefully designed series of ESP tests by Richard C. Sprinthall and Barry S.Lubetkin. Fifty subjects were divided into two equal groups and each group was given a standard ESP test. One group took the test without “motivation”; the other was told that anyone who guessed twenty out of twenty-five ESP test cards correctly would immediately be given a hundred dollars. No one won any money. There was no significant difference in the results obtained from the two groups, and neither showed any evidence of ESP.
THIS TEST had been prompted by Rhine’s repeated assertions that financial reward provides strong motivation for ESP, and that “subject motivation to score high has long stood out as the mental variable that seems most closely related to the amount of psi effect shown in test results.” Indeed, the most sensational result ever obtained by Rhine occurred during the Depression when he kept offering Hubert Pearce, one of his star subjects, a hundred dollars for each top card he could call correctly in a pack of ESP cards. They halted the test by mutual consent after Pearce had correctly named twenty-five cards in a row. No one else was present on this occasion, and Rhine’s published accounts of exactly what happened are vague. (I once tried to get a few easily remembered details out of Pearce by correspondence—he is now a Methodist minister in Arkansas—but he flatly refused to discuss the incident.) Nevertheless, Rhine always cites this in his lectures as the most remarkable demonstration of clairvoyance he has ever witnessed, giving the odds of 298,023, 223,876,953,125 to 1 that it could have happened by chance. (I always felt sorry for …