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Parapsychology: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In a recent article,1 J.A. Wheeler has violently attacked parapsychology, calling it a “pathological science” and a “pretentious pseudo science” and he suggests that it “will serve science well to vote ‘parapsychology’ out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.” In addition, he criticizes physicists who are investigating a possible connection between quantum theory and parapsychology,2 stating that “in the quantum theory of observation, my own present field of endeavor, I find honest work almost overwhelmed by the buzz of absolutely crazy ideas put forth with the aim of establishing a link between quantum mechanics and parapsychology—as if there were any such thing as ‘parapsychology,’ ” and “Where there is meat there are flies. No subject more attracts the devotees of the ‘paranormal’ than the quantum theory of measurement.” Wheeler’s attack has been reproduced in an article by Martin Gardner, entitled “Quantum Theory and Quack Theory,” published in The New York Review of Books.

The authors of the present note are all physicists who have for some years been engaged in research on a possible connection between quantum mechanics and parapsychology. We are very much shocked by Wheeler’s remarks, which we feel show no trace of the open-minded, imaginative, rational approach to science for which Wheeler is otherwise so famous. We will now answer Wheeler’s objections in turn.

  1. Wheeler calls parapsychology a “pseudo” or “pathological” science on the grounds that “every science that is a science has hundreds of hard results, but search fails to turn up a single one in parapsychology.”

In our opinion, no new science can be expected to present “hundreds of hard results” in its infancy. There are even older, accepted sciences which cannot meet this criterion, such as, e.g., general relativity, where there are only three or four “hard” confirmations of the theory. What entitles a field of research to be called “science” is not “hard results” but rather the intention and care with which its investigations are carried out, and the competence of its investigators. We feel that there are several pieces of research in parapsychology in which these criteria have been met. For example, there is Dr. C. Crussard and Dr. J. Bouvaist’s investigation of the French medium, Jean Pierre Girard.3 Girard produced large changes in the physical properties of metal bars, without the use of physical agents, under what appear to be rigorously controlled conditions. For instance he increased the hardness of an aluminum bar by ca. 10 percent, without using any known physical means. The experiment was repeated four times in three different laboratories, two in France, one in England.

A second example is the investigation of remote bending produced by English school-children,4 carried out by Professor. J.B. Hasted, chairman of the physics department at Birkbeck College, University of London. Under controlled conditions, the children produced large bending and stretching signals in metal objects equipped with strain gauges, without being in contact with the objects. The signals were of a character such that they could not have been produced by any known physical forces under the given experimental conditions. A third example is Dr. H. Schmidt’s investigation of the influence of selected subjects on the output of a random number generator based on radioactive decay.5 For example in rigorously controlled experiments, Schmidt found two subjects who could, by an effort of the will, cause the generator output to be non-random. The probability that the result was due to pure chance was less than one chance in ten million. A fourth example is Dr. H. Puthoff and R. Targ’s investigation of remote viewing.6 In their experiments, several subjects were able to acquire statistically significant amounts of information about randomly chosen targets blocked from ordinary perception by distance or shielding.

If Wheeler has any concrete criticisms of the above experiments, we would like to hear them. Moreover, we challenge any magician to duplicate these results under the given controlled conditions.

  1. Wheeler talks of “crazy ideas put forth with the aim of establishing a link between quantum mechanics and parapsychology—as if there were any such thing as “parapsychology.’ ” We feel that the above experiments are of sufficiently high quality to warrant the assumption that there is indeed such a thing as parapsychology. However, assuming the existence of, paranormal phenomena, we seem to lack a way of putting these phenomena into our present picture of the physical universe. In fact, this lack is probably one of the main reasons for the irrational attacks on parapsychology. Therefore, we feel that it is imperative to try to extend the framework of modern physics—in particular, quantum mechanics—in order to include the new phenomena in a rational and coherent fashion. We feel that this requires a new approach in physics in which consciousness plays an important role, and we are trying to find such an approach.7 The theories we are working on are completely rational, and lead to results which can be tested in the laboratory, although so far there have been only preliminary attempts in this direction.

  2. Wheeler states his belief that “not consciousness but the distinction between the probe and the probed [is] central to the elemental quantum act of observation.” That is, in contrast to us, consciousness is not a part of Wheeler’s model. In fact he states “I would have felt very uncomfortable if Bohr had used the term ‘consciousness’ in defining the elemental act of observation. I would not have known what he meant,”8 Therefore, we find it indeed regrettable that, as Gardner puts it, “Wheeler’s views on quantum mechanics have been widely cited by parapsychologists as strengthening their own.” This serves only to confuse the issue, and we sympathize fully with Wheeler’s irritation on this point. The issue as we see it is this: Assuming that the phenomena of parapsychology are real, then which model—Wheeler’s, or ours, or some other model—gives the best description of these phenomena? We believe that this question can only be answered by further experiment, not by attempting to legislate parapsychology out of existence as a respectable field of research by removing it from the AAAS.

  3. Wheeler states that Langmuir’s “table of symptoms of pathological science” is appropriate to parapsychology. We do not believe this. For example, one “symptom” is that “the effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability.” As, pointed out in 1. above, Girard produced an easily detectable change in hardness of a metal bar. Hasted’s bending signals were also well above the noise level. Another symptom is “fantastic theories contrary to experience.” Do we have to remind Wheeler that many new theories looked “fantastic” when they were first proposed—for example, relativity and quantum theory? The criterion for accepting or rejecting a theory is not how “common sense” or “fantastic” it appears, but rather, how well it describes the observed data and gives them coherence and meaning.

It would be a good idea for Wheeler to reread p. 38 of his own book Gravitation.9 On that page is a quote from the great physicist Galileo Galilei ridiculing Kepler’s belief that the moon is the cause of the tides:

Everything that has been said before and imagined by other people [about the tides] is in my opinion completely invalid. But among the great men who have philosophised about this marvellous effect of nature the one who surprised me the most is Kepler. More than other people he was a person of independent genius, sharp, and had in his hands the motion of the earth. He later pricked up his ears and became interested in the action of the moon on the water, and in other occult phenomena, and similar childishness.

Galileo Galilei (1632)

So Wheeler is taking quite a risk in ridiculing parapsychology!

  1. Wheeler writes that parapsychology “siphons” between 1 and 20 million dollars per year away from the American taxpayer. We would like to point out that this sum is negligible compared with the amount of money going into other areas of science. Assuming 50,000 scientists in all other fields of science, with an average cost of 100,000 dollars per year per scientist yields $5 billion. Thus, less than half of one percent of research money is going into parapsychology in the United States.

In conclusion, we find that Wheeler’s claim that parapsychology is a “pseudo” or “pathological” science is unsupported. Unless he is able to prove that the experiments described in part 1. of this rebuttal were carried out incompetently, we feel that his argument has no basis in fact. With his immoderate attack on an embryo science, we believe that Wheeler is in grave danger of repeating the mistake of the great French chemist Lavoisier, who declared, after examining a meteorite which others had seen fall on a meadow September 13, 1768: “We must conclude therefore that the stone did not fall from the sky. The opinion which seems to us the most probable and agrees best with the principles accepted in physics is that this stone was struck by lightning.”

Finally, Wheeler concludes with “now is the time for everyone who believes in the rule of reason to speak up against pathological science and its purveyors.” On the contrary, we feel that all those who believe in the “rule of reason” should examine the research on paranormal phenomena in an open-minded fashion, and start thinking of how one might extend the borders of our present theories so as to include these phenomena within them.

Olivier Costa de Beauregard

Institut Henri Poincaré

University of Paris, Paris, France

Richard D. Mattuck

Physics Laboratory I

University of Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Denmark

Brian D. Josephson

Cavendish Laboratory

Cambridge University, Cambridge, England

Evan Harris Walker

Department of Mechanics and Materials

Sciences, Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland, and Ballistics Research

Laboratory, Aberdeen, Maryland

Martin Gardner replies:

One may have the highest respect for the signers of the above letter—one of them, Brian Josephson, is a Nobel Prize winner—at the same time recognizing that knowledge of physics no more qualifies a scientist to evaluate psychic claims than does knowledge of chess or medieval Latin.

The comparison of parapsychology with general relativity is singularly inapt. Special relativity was initially confirmed by hundreds of tests. General relativity, which extended the theory to accelerated motion, had an enormous elegance and unifying power (the equivalence of gravity and inertia alone made it persuasive); soon it, too, was being confirmed by all tests capable of refuting it. More to the point, it was confirmed by skeptics. In contrast, after a century of research parapsychology has only vague suggestions for theories, and has yet to produce a single experiment that can be reliably replicated by unbelievers.

The letter signers cite four investigations they consider outstanding. It is a curious list. First we have the testing of Jean-Pierre Girard by Charles Crussard, a French metallurgist. Like Uri Geller, Girard began his career as a conjuror. Marcel Blanc’s article, “Fading Spoon Bender” (New Scientist, February 16, 1978) reproduces a photo of Girard from a 1975/76 Magicians’ Annual which shows him doing the now-standard bent-key trick. In the accompanying autobiographical remarks Girard says his specialty is “devising tricks based on optical illusions.” Gérard Majax, a French magician, reveals in his recent book on cheating in parapsychology that Girard once told him he planned a gigantic joke to show how easily leading scientists could be fooled.

The American magician James Randi had no difficulty detecting Girard’s simple methods when he saw Crussard’s films, and in 1977, in a series of tests based on controls proposed by Randi, Girard failed to bend a single piece of metal. (See Blanc’s article and Randi’s soon-to-appear Lippincott and Crowell book, Flim-Flam.) Crussard remains convinced of Girard’s power. He has stated that Randi also has it, and secretly used it to inhibit Girard during the 1977 tests! Like Geller, Girard performs a variety of standard magic feats, such as driving a car while “securely blindfolded.” That four distinguished physicists could consider him a “French medium” is almost beyond belief.

It is worth noting that had their letter been written a few years ago Geller would have been heralded as the star demonstrator of the “Geller effect” (psychic metal bending). In Quantum Physics and Parapsychology (Parapsychological Foundation, 1975), the proceedings of a 1974 Swiss conference, Geller’s name is never mentioned without respect. On page 274 Walker, a signer of the letter, praises Uri’s PK ability, and on page 279 he tells of once seeing Geller fail to produce PK effects because the “powerful wills” of unbelievers in the audience were “directed in the opposite direction.”

All four writers contributed articles (two are cited in their notes 4 and 7) to The Iceland Papers, an anthology edited by Andrija Puharich. This is the Puharich whose notorious book, Uri, claims that Uri gets his powers from extraterrestrial spacecraft, and that Uri once teleported himself from down-town Manhattan to the back porch of Puharich’s house in Ossining. Why is Geller, who started the metal-bending flap, so thunderously missing from the letter? Can it be because Geller is now discredited whereas Girard is still almost unknown outside of France?

Next we are told about England’s spoon-bending children as reported in Puharich’s book by John Hasted. I suggest that interested readers look up this hilarious paper to judge for themselves whether Hasted is a competent psychic investigator. Physicist John Taylor, Hasted’s London colleague, was so bamboozled by Uri and by spoon-bending youngsters that he wrote an entire book about it, Superminds. As a result of learning some kindergarten magic, and making a few better-controlled tests, Taylor is now persuaded that the Geller effect does not exist, and that there is no evidence whatever for ESP and PK. See his just published Dutton book, Science and the Supernatural, in which he details his disenchantment. Hasted’s work is demolished by pointing out that Hasted failed to take into account amplification by his sensitive strain gauges of slight static charges produced by body movements.

Next we have Helmut Schmidt’s testing of psychics who seem to influence his random number generators. This work is considered “rigidly controlled” only by himself and by true believers. Schmidt seldom works with another investigator, skeptics have not had access to his raw data, nor have they been able to replicate his experiments. There also have been failed replications by sympathetic parapsychologists. For a probing of the weakness of Schmidt’s experimental designs see C.E.M. Hansel’s ESP and Parapsychology: A Scientific Reevaluation, recently published by Prometheus Books, pages 220-233. Schmidt is best known in psi circles for his research on the PK powers of cats and cockroaches. He, too, was once a Gellerite. In his paper in Edgar Mitchell’s anthology, Psychic Explorations, he speaks of Uri as a “particularly strong” source of PK, whose ability to bend “heavy metal objects ‘mentally,’ just by touching them slightly or even without any touch” has been observed by “critical researchers.”

Finally we have the remote-viewing (clairvoyance) experiments by Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ. No hint is given of the fast-growing literature on the carelessness of this work, especially as detailed in a forthcoming Prometheus book, The Psychology of the Psychic, by psychologists Dick Kammann and Richard Marks. The latest failure to replicate was an extremely rigorous experiment, following all the original protocols, by four researchers at Metropolitan State College, in Denver. They reported their negative results at the 1980 annual convention of the American Institute for the Advancement of Science, in San Francisco last January.

Reminders of Galileo’s ridicule of Kepler, and of scientists unable to believe stones fell from the sky, were tired clichés even in 1952 when I mentioned them in my book Fads and Fallacies. They only prove what everybody knows, that great scientists can be mistaken. But as hard evidence accumulated for the lunar theory of tides and for elliptical planetary orbits (which Galileo also refused to accept), and for the fall of meteorites, no one suggested that beliefs were necessary for confirmations. This Catch 22 is peculiar to parapsychology, making it difficult in principle for skeptics to disconfirm any claim.

Instead of thinking of themselves as having the great insights of a Kepler, the writers should ponder their close resemblances to those eminent physicists who not so long ago were convinced that mediums could photograph the faces of departed spirits and exude luminous ectoplasm from their noses. If the four investigations listed in their letter are the best evidence they can muster for the reality of psi, their letter is a sad reinforcement of what John Wheeler had to say.

  1. 1

    J.A. Wheeler, appendix to lecture delivered at the January 1979 meeting of the AAAS, reproduced in “Quantum Theory and Quack Theory” by Martin Gardner, NYR, May 17, 1979.

  2. 2

    J.A. Wheeler, in letter to Wm. D. Carey, ibid.

  3. 3

    C. Crussard, and J. Bouvaist, “Etude de quelques deformations et transformations apparemment anormales de metaux,” Mémoires Scientifiques Revue Metallurgie, February 1978, p. 117.

  4. 4

    J.B. Hasted, “Physical aspects of paranormal metal bending,” J. Society for Psychical Research, 49, 583 (1977); “Paranormal metal-bending” in The Iceland papers (see under ref. 7).

  5. 5

    H. Schmidt, “Instrumentation in the parapsychology laboratory,” p. 13 in New Directions in Parapsychology, ed. J. Beloff, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen (1975).

  6. 6

    H.E. Puthoff and R. Targ, “A Perceptual Channel for Information Transfer over Kilometer Distances: Historical Perspective and Recent Research,” Proc. IEEE, 64, p. 329 (1976); “Direct Perception of Remote Geographical Locations,” in The Iceland Papers (see under ref. 7).

  7. 7

    See, for example, E.H. Walker, “Foundations of Paraphysical and Parapsychological Phenomena,” P. 1 in Quantum Physics and Parapsychology, Ed. L. Oteri, Parapsychology Foundation, 29 W. 57 St., NY (1975); O.C. de Beauregard, “Time Symmetry and the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics,” Found. Phys., 6 539 (1976), “Smatrix, Feynman Zigzag and Einstein Correlation,” Phys. Lett., 67 A 171 (1978). See also R.D. Mattuck and E.H. Walker, “The Action of Consciousness on Matter: a Quantum Mechanical Theory of Psychokinesis,” in The Iceland Papers; Experimental and Theoretical Research on the Physics of Consciousness, Essentia Research, Amherst, Wisc. Ed. A. Puharich (1979), O.C. de Beauregard, “The Expanding Paradigm of the Einstein Paradox,” ibid., B.D. Josephson, “Conscious Experience and its place in Physics,” paper presented at “Colloque International Science et Conscience,” Cordoba, 1-5. October 1979.

  8. 8

    J.A. Wheeler, “Frontiers of Time,” in Problems in the Foundations of Physics, Ed. N. Toraldo di Franca and Bas van Fraassen, North Holland, Amsterdam, 1979 (International School of Physics “Enrico Fermi,” Varenna, LXXII Course 1977).

  9. 9

    C.W. Misner, K.S. Thorne, and J.A. Wheeler, Gravitation (W.H. Freeman, San Francisco, 1975).

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