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Health, psychology & science stories


Psi, the paranormal and science

30 August 2002

Published in The Age

In 1920 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle voyaged to Australia on a “mission of instruction” in spiritualism. In July 1930, having preached to thousands worldwide, he died.

A week later, he was back. At a gathering held in his honour at the Royal Albert Hall, Sir Arthur delivered a message from the empty chair set aside for him. Or so a renowned medium who was present claimed.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were the heroic age of paranormal exploration. Those were the days when fairies were photographed at bottoms of gardens, and articles moved by themselves across tabletops.

Religion aside, today the paranormal is subsumed under the modern word psi. (Pronounced sigh.) The fields under study still include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance (a.k.a. “remote viewing”), and psychokinesis (mental interaction with objects).

But in our unromantic era, the primary method of analysing these phenomena is statistics. Mostly, scientists experiment with coins, dice, “random number generators” and the like, to see if human subjects can produce non-random results by concentrating their minds on a task at hand.

But Barry Williams, editor of The Skeptic, the magazine of the Australian Skeptics, points out: “It only needs a very, very obscure fault in your study protocols to cause a supposedly positive result.”

Still, many apparently well-conducted studies seem to support some psi claims: cards, dice and random number generators all appear to have been influenced directly by human minds.

The Journal of Scientific Exploration has published several studies attempting (but failing, so far) to disprove Michel Gauquelin’s “Mars Effect” - which suggests that the planet on the horizon at the time of one’s birth often correlates with one’s subsequent career. But Barry Williams says former CSIRO scientist Dr Geoff Dean in Western Australia has undermined Gauquelin’s conclusions by discovering flaws in the original data: basically the parents of subjects in Gauquelin’s famous study registered their babies’ “birth times” to suit prevailing superstitions, not to reflect the actual hour of birth. More generally, Williams draws attention to a “bottom drawer effect”:

“When you get a few studies which don’t accord with your favoured results, you throw them away, or put them in the bottom drawer.” Thus data is slowly, cumulatively skewed.

Even if some paranormal claims are true, by what mechanism might they work?

Veteran psi researcher Dr John Beloff, an honorary fellow of the University of Edinburgh Psychology Department, says there are two classes of theories. “Communication” theories are analogous with radar or radio. “Observational” theories are more rarified, and derive from a special interpretation of quantum theory.

Nobel Physics laureate Professor Brian Josephson is the leading spokesman on this front. Josephson heads the Condensed Matter Group at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. He told The Age:

“If anything the [parapsychology] research...is of higher standard than ordinary research because people are aware of the importance of not doing research in a way that the sceptics can criticise.”

The riddle of how psi works, Josephson speculates, might lie in quantum theory not being the ultimate theory of nature - but a stepping stone to a deeper “subquantum domain”.

“Some accounts of the subquantum level,” he adds, “involve action at a distance, which fits in well with some purported psychic abilities.”

Does he currently have the faintest idea what this “subquantum domain” is?


What would be involved in proving the reality of psi via quantum theory, he says, “would not be an overturning of science, but an expansion to take consciousness into account”.

As for future applications of improved psi understanding, Professor Josepheson said:

“Paranormal phenomena are already being applied in applications such as healing of illness, and group or individual meditations designed to reduce world tension. The first of these has been studied with some success, but the latter is more difficult since one cannot rerun history to see what would have happened if one did not have these meditation groups, etc!”

In 1998 Josephson took on the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, claiming it had suppressed his rebuttal of a review “debunking” a book on paranormal phenomena. Much bad PR later, Nature backed down.

Sceptics claim the psi field is rife with con-artists. Their case was given a shot in the arm by the recent unmasking of India’s most famous guru, Sai Baba. Slo-mo cameras caught the “avatar” using simple sleights of hand to convince the credulous that he could manifest “holy ash” and wristwatches out of thin air.

On the western front, a recent Cochrane Collaboration metastudy on “intercessory prayer” showed that, basically, it didn’t work. Psychics, to say nothing of the world’s astrology columns, visibly failed to predict September 11.

But scientific parapsychologists pride themselves on their objective approach, and do not study astrology, UFOs, paganism - or gurus. Most are empirical scientists who simply generate and analyse data. A few choose to speculate that the data evinces proof of soul, life after death, and the like - but the vast majority don’t touch “occult” ideas with a ten-foot pole.

Some, indeed, deny they’re studying the paranormal at all. This is the case with Princeton University’s Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) project - in whose experiments “human operators attempt to influence the behaviour of a variety of mechanical, electronic, optical, acoustical, and fluid devices...without recourse to any known physical processes”.

“Venues that appear to be particularly conducive to such field anomalies,” says a PEAR paper, “include small intimate groups, group rituals, sacred sites, musical and theatrical performances, and charismatic events. In contrast, data generated during academic conferences or business meetings show no deviations from chance.”

But Princeton’s Dr Arnold Lettieri told The Age: “The PEAR Laboratory is studying human-machine interactions in a school of engineering and applied science. We do not consider ourselves as parapsychologists, or our research as such. We do not study the ‘paranormal’.”

One of the best-known academics in the field - and one who does own up to being a parapsychologist - is Charles Tart, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Davis.

Professor Tart told The Age that “some of the most interesting psi research in the last few years has been done by James Spottiswoode and colleagues” in California’s Cognitive Sciences Laboratory. And indeed Spottiswoode’s exacting studies do point to correlations between ESP performance and magnetic field variations from solar activity - another important step toward a mechanism for psi.

The major objection to psi research has always been that mainstream scientists are unable to reproduce such studies in their own laboratories (which of course has implications of fraud).

“As far as experimental parapsychology is concerned,” Dr Beloff told The Age about the field’s future, “I reckon the main thrust of research will be on developing a reproducible effect”.

Of course it is mainstream science, not parapsychology, which has taken us into the age of quantum - where the claims for psi, by contrast, seem less than shocking. If a neutrino can travel for 25 light years through lead before being deflected, and if experimenters can influence studies by their mere presence, and if you can, in principle, give yourself a wave on your way into a black hole, it is indeed a strange world - as Kyle McLaughlin told Laura Dern in the somewhat occult Blue Velvet.

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