An Expense of Spirit

A recent paper by Dr. Charles T. Tart, a parapsychologist at the University of California at Davis, casts some revealing light both on Tart and on a sensational earlier experiment by him that was the topic of a spirited debate in 1977 in two issues of The New York Review.

The debate began with my note, “ESP at Random” (NYR, July 14), in which I criticized Tart’s book, Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (University of Chicago Press, 1976). In this book Tart reported success in ESP scoring that far exceeded anything obtained before in the history of parapsychology.

My note reproduced a letter from three of Tart’s colleagues at Davis, mathematicians Aaron Goldman, Sherman Stein, and Howard Weiner. Impressed by the results in Tart’s book, they had asked to see the raw data. Going over it they found that the alleged random-number device did not produce random numbers for the target sequence. “Until the experiment is done again,” they wrote in their letter, “we are in the position of a chemist who at the end of an experiment discovers that his test tube was dirty…. The experiment has to be executed with a clean test tube.”

My note also pointed out a glaring flaw in Tart’s experimental design. His “Ten-Choice Trainer” (TCT) was constructed so that a “sender” and “receiver” who wished to cheat could easily do so by signaling with what magicians know as a time-delay code.

To see how such a code could have been used it is necessary to describe again the TCT’s basic working. A sender in one room is in front of a console that displays a circle of playing cards from ace through ten. Next to each card is a pushbutton and a pilot light. When the electronic randomizer selects a card value, the sender pushes the button that turns on the light by the corresponding card. This actuates a “ready light” on a duplicate console in another room where the receiver is stationed. As soon as the receiver sees the ready light he begins an ESP search for the target card, usually by moving a hand around the dial. The sender observes this sweep on a TV monitor above his console. This arrangement is intended to help him telepathically “urge” the receiver to stop at the target. When the receiver has made a choice he pushes a button by the card. The target card’s pilot light immediately goes on and a chime sounds if the guess is correct. This immediate feedback is supposed to keep the receiver’s interest high and to stimulate the training of his psi powers.

In my 1977 note I explained how a sender could transmit the value of each card by varying the time between the receiver’s last choice and the activation of the ready light. It would, however, be foolish to send individual numbers because what is wanted is not a perfect score but only a significant score. This permits …

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Claims for ESP February 19, 1981