ESP on Trial

In the 1930s, parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine aimed to use scientific methods to confirm the existence of extrasensory perception, but faced criticisms of dubious analyses and irreproducible results.

By | September 1, 2016

DIVINING AN ANSWER: J.B. Rhine’s early experiments at Duke University employed a set of cards named “the Zener deck” after its inventor, Karl Zener, one of Rhine’s collaborators. The deck consists of 25 cards, with five of each symbol: square, circle, cross, squiggly lines, and star. Here, Rhine is shown testing a woman for ESP using the cards in the presence of an assistant (right). “You shuffle the cards and hopefully randomize them,” explains Terence Hines of Pace University. “In the simplest version, I’m sitting across the table from you and you’re the subject or ‘receiver.’ I lay a card face down, you don’t know what it is, and you guess.” Although Zener cards are now considered “old hat” in parapsychology research, Hines notes, there’s no shortage of the cards online for contemporary ESP enthusiasts to work with.DUKE UNIVERISTY ARCHIVESIn 1926, American medium Mina Crandon held a séance in Boston. Well-known for her claims to channel dead relatives’ thoughts and to move objects with her mind, Crandon had drawn a following that included celebrities such as Arthur Conan Doyle and a mathematics professor and former associate editor of Scientific American, J. Malcom Bird.

However, at least one audience member at this particular séance—a young botanist named Joseph Banks Rhine—was unimpressed. Crandon, he claimed in a review of the performance, had not made a megaphone levitate, as the audience had believed. Instead, he wrote, she’d simply kicked it into the air. Crandon’s supporters were outraged; Doyle reportedly penned a scathing response containing the line, “J. B. Rhine is an ass.”

Yet Rhine, who himself had recently attended a lecture by Doyle on the evidence for extra-sensory perception (ESP), was not an unbeliever in psychic powers. Far from it, says Pace University’s Terence Hines, a psychologist and author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (2003). “There was great interest in showing ESP was real,” and J.B. Rhine, a scientist, believed he had the tools.

Ditching plant science, Rhine moved to Duke University in 1927 to set about demonstrating ESP through experiments. The most famous of these experiments involved guessing the symbol on a card concealed by an experimenter. Thousands of subjects were tested to see if they could “receive” symbols through ESP, and Rhine soon reported astonishing successes. From a deck containing five different symbols, one of Rhine’s assistants, Hubert Pearce, apparently received the correct symbol 40 percent of the time—double what would be expected by chance.

But other researchers, including parapsychologists, found Rhine’s experiments concerning. “He wasn’t a very good experimentalist,” says Hines. “Lab” conditions were loosely controlled: the receiver was allowed to shuffle the cards; some trials were conducted in Rhine’s car. The quality of the cards themselves also left something to be desired. “When the cards were printed,” says Hines, “sometimes a little bit of the design showed through.” Symbols printed on thicker card stock proved to yield less accurate responses, he adds.

An idiosyncratic application of statistics allowed Rhine to detect results where other researchers failed. “He would do a series of studies and some people would score sometimes significantly above chance,” says Hines. “He said that was evidence for ESP. Sometimes, people would score significantly below chance, and that was evidence for ESP missing, which, he said, was much more mysterious.”

Unfazed by growing criticism, Rhine published Extra-Sensory Perception in 1934, declaring ESP “an actual and demonstrable occurrence.” Three decades later, he founded the Institute for Parapsychology as part of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, now the Rhine Research Center, in North Carolina. And despite decades of failure to replicate his findings, the appeal of ESP persists. One likely explanation, suspects Hines, is that humans are “terrible” at processing coincidence. “People have subjective experiences that lead them to believe ‘something’ is happening,” he says. “Plus, it’s a very attractive idea. It’d be nifty it were true.” 

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Avatar of: mlerman


Posts: 71

September 26, 2016

Hue Everet has proven the existance of parallel universes. Dreams reflect visits to parallel universes. ESP may be conected to these experiences.

Avatar of: mightythor


Posts: 83

September 26, 2016

We've come full circle.  Now some botanists think plants exhibit ESP.

Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 113

Replied to a comment from mlerman made on September 26, 2016

September 26, 2016

No-one has "proven" the existence of parallel universes, especially if the "proof" may have involved ESP.  On the other hand, it's possible to "smell" a rat from an unexplainably long distance.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

September 26, 2016

I wouldn't say that people are terrible at processing coincidence, but researchers have difficulty experimentally testing for or processing the occasional...or the weird.  It could be that the rigor by which experiments are set up that real, specific ESP abilities are unable to be uncovered.  Or, it could be that some abilities are too specific to try to uncover in a large population.

Here's are two examples of my own ESP abilities.  I used to take chewable vitamins each night before I went to bed.  They were either orange, raspberry, or grape.  For nine nights in a row, I correctly predicted the color orange, pink, or purple to come out of the translucent bottle.  That's a 1 in 19,683 chance of occurrance.  Was I so tired that my mind was open to the clarvoyance? I don't know.  Could this be replicated in a tense laboratory setting?  I doubt it.  Am I going to try to market my "special" abilities?  No, I don't think anyone is going to want to see me pick out vitamin colors in my pajamas late at night.  Still, however, with 1 in 19,683, I know there's something going on.

Just by coming into their view, I can stop babies from crying.  Even at a distance of several feet or a few yards.  No, I don't have to touch them.  Almost any baby beyond the age of a few months to toddlers, as long as they aren't crying due to uncontrollable hunger or a raging diaper rash.  Is it an "aura"?  I don't know.  Can I make massive quantities of money doing the circuit as being the baby whisperer?  Doubtful.  But, my ability happens in all sorts of locales, so it would be amenable to the laboratory setting easily.  But, how would one design that experiment to the satisfaction of psychologists?  Would it make it to the Ig Nobel prize?  One can only hope.  

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

Replied to a comment from Roy Niles made on September 26, 2016

September 26, 2016

Perhaps not parallel Universes, but other dimensions, like the ones proposed in string theory.  Hence, "information" is coming not from long distance, but right "here".  From where?  How?  In what form?  What's the transduction mechanism?  I don't know, but as scientists, to find the answers, these questions must be asked.

Avatar of: AndrewRobinson


Posts: 2

September 28, 2016

"People have subjective experiences that lead them to believe ‘something’ is happening" is another way of saying that people are by nature delusional, or if you prefer, they are like schizophrenics but with it toned down a hundred notches or so in intensity or quantity. It explains why humans believe in things things like the supernatural or magick or God or that they are the Masters of the Universe. These are all examples of Jedi mind tricks people play on themselves and not reality. ESP is no exception.

Rhine's experiments were doomed from the start for what should be obvious reasons. If ESP exists, it should not occur at random times amongst random individuals but it should be consistently repeatable for any one particular individual. Since it isn't consistently repeatable for any one individual, paranormal researchers had to resort to statistics to prove ESP exists. Why? Aside from the delusion aspect, maybe it was because one of the nice things about using statistics instead of actual evidence is that it is easy to fool yourself or lie with statistics. As Benjamin Disraeli said, There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Trying to prove ESP, by washing down the data by submerging the individual results in a sea of people, is stupid. It proves nothing. Let me illustrate this point with a perfect example: Go to a casino sometime and visit the bingo parlour. Note how many people come forward each hour to claim their winnings -- the number of winning individuals per hour is quite high (i.e. -- Yay! It is proof of ESP), but pick out a lone individual and note how many times that individual comes forward to claim their winnings -- it is very low (Oops! ESP theory doesn't look too good now!). So what these ESP researchers are really doing is reporting the high number of winners each hour but not listing the individual results which is much, much lower. The drawing line is that paranormal phenomenon have to consistently (not randomly or intermittently) display an ability or it isn't called an ability but an inability. No NFL quarterback can be said to have a great throwing ability if it were only random or intermittent and could only be demonstrated while surrounded by hundreds of people, and likewise, no person can be said to have a psychic ability since it can only be displayed randomly or intermittently amongst a group and not for any one particular individual. Ditto for people claiming to have ESP, but their only proof is their story tale, usually about when they were all by themselves when it "happened". And most scientists that lie with statistics as many ESP researchers have apparently done, will often resort to the mystical, magical word significant, i.e. -- the results of every paranormal experiment are always significant, but who's to say what is significant or not? The reality is, significant is another word for interesting. It was statistically interesting that one person guessed all 25 cards one time in Rhine's experiment, but since the subject couldn't repeat his performance, it factually proved nothing. Unless he could repeat his performance (he could not), it is to be expected since it falls within the realm of the law of averages.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

Replied to a comment from AndrewRobinson made on September 28, 2016

September 29, 2016

Lack of reproduction of extraordinary events does not diminish the existance of the extraordinary.  To another sporting example, even the greatest baseball pitchers in history could never reproduce their perfect games, and they are professionals.  No, absolutely no, ESP activity does not have to occur consistently.  How, when, and why those singular extraordinary ESP events occur is often quite puzzling in its often randomness.  For those who truly possess any particular "ability", a real scientist would do better to try to work to accentuate the conditions drawing it out rather than claim its non-existence when it cannot be revealed under any and all circumstances.

And, regarding statistics and significance, when one truly understands their proper use, what the terms mean and why, there are no problems with their declaration.   There are no mystical magical's.

Avatar of: AndrewRobinson


Posts: 2

November 9, 2016

1) Non-existent extraordinary phenomenon require no investigation whatsoever.

In other words, you can't investigate something that has never ever been demonstrated to exist outside of anyone's poorly thought out imaginations.

2) An ability is, by definition, something you can decide to do on a consistent basis, and not intermittently, otherwise it obviuosly couldn't be called an "ability". If you bat a 1.0 in half the games you play, and a 0.0 in the rest, no one would want you on their team. You average would be acceptable (0.5) but your actual performance would be sporadic and uncertain. It would be like sometimes you were lucky and other times you sucked. But if you batted 0.45 in half the games you play, and 0.55 in the rest, that would be called an ability. And abilities comes on a spectrum, so you have peoeple with poor abilities and people with great abilities, but what makes them abilities again? Consistentcy.

In the case of J.B. Rhine, he never could report on anyone who could perform any of the ESP tests over and over again, and get consistent results. It was always very sporadic, which is the opposite of an ability.

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