(Investigator 130, 2010 January)

ESP is the apparently inexplicable communication between two minds without verbal or visual clues. The phrase was coined in 1930 by Dr Joseph B. Rhine, a biology professor and parapsychologist in the Department of Sociology at Duke University, North Carolina, USA.

Dr. Rhine and his wife Louisa, became interested in psychical research, as they believed that any demonstration of psychic phenomena supported by scientific evidence, would be a tentative step towards confirming mediumistic communications with the dead, and the possibility of an afterlife. In 1929, he founded the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University and he and his wife devoted the rest of their lives to parapsychological research.

In 1930, cards containing five different symbols, a star, a cross, a circle, a square and one with wavy lines, were designed by a psychologist, K.E. Zener, and a pack consisting of twenty five of these cards was then used in a card guessing experiment. This established the paradigm which endured until the 1970s, when remote viewing, random number generators and other techniques superseded it.

Dr. Rhine was perhaps the foremost researcher in this field and found a number of subjects who demonstrated above average ability during his experiments. Rhine's method of testing for ESP was to use the Zener cards in various types of tests, among them:
There were also two tests designed specifically to confirm the phenomenon of telepathy:
The chance of correctly guessing a card is one in five or a probability of 0.2. Any subject consistently doing better is considered to have some ESP ability. Rhine's most successful subject scored 0.32 over 17,250 trials.

Following Rhine's experiments, consistent successes were reported by Scherdler and Murphy from the parapsychology laboratory at Harvard University, and others who replicated Rhine's tests also obtained results significantly different from those expected by mere chance. In England, Dr. S.G. Soal, a mathematician at London University, also conducted tests over a period of five years with 150 subjects recording 120,000 guesses — with some impressive results. Soal's best was with psychic Gloria Stewart who scored a hit rate of 0.29 — well above chance.

Over the years there have been reports of truly amazing claims made by those allegedly possessing ESP ability and some equally remarkable results reported by researchers into this phenomenon.

A scientific paper entitled Information Transmission Under Conditions of Sensory Shielding by two Stanford Research Institute scientists, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, was published in the British magazine Nature in October 1974, and detailed experiments conducted with a gifted subject, Mr Ingo Swann, who claimed to have made an "astral trip" to Jupiter. (See Astral Travel in Investigator 123) In the experiment described, Targ and Puthoff related how Mr Swann had been able to paranormally affect the magnetic field of a huge magnetometer using only his mind. In another experiment in New York, the American Society for Psychical Research tested Swann for an out-of-body experience. The test was to look into a small box psychically (without physically looking) and describe the contents. He was correct eight times out of eight.

In another experiment known as "remote viewing" performed by Targ and Puthoff, this time with Uri Geller, the subject was required to make a drawing corresponding with a target randomly taken from a dictionary. Geller identified seven of the thirteen targets, a 54% success, with odds of a million to one.

Another psychic, ex-policeman Pat Price, was reported by Targ and Puthoff to be able, in remote viewing tests, to project his mind to far off cities, detail the objects in an office that he had not previously seen, and detect flashing lights in a sealed room.

One of the most air tight cases of ESP ability reported this [20th] century was that of Basil Shackleton, who seemed to prove conclusively after being the subject of over half a million tests, that he had genuine ESP powers. The tests were conducted by a respected scientist, Dr S.G. Soal, receiving accolades from Professor G. E. Hutchinson of Yale who declared the system "the most carefully conducted investigations of the kind ever to have been made." Professor R.A. McConnell of the University of Pittsburg, said of Soal's work, "As a report to scientists, this is the most important book on parapsychology since 1940. If scientists will read it carefully, the ESP controversy will be ended."

Others, equally impressed, were philosopher C.D. Broadbent who said the work was "outstanding...the precautions taken to prevent fraud were watertight", and Sir Cyril Burt, (1959), a British scientist who considered Soal's experiments to be "unrivaled in the whole corpus of psychological research."

By 1934, Rhine was convinced that he had overwhelming evidence of ESP, but although a number of psychology departments repeated his experiments in an attempt to confirm his results, none were successful.

In 1940, Rhine co-authored a book, Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, in which the results of experiments were listed as leaving no doubt that something other than guesswork was involved. Some of them resulted in above-chance scores having odds of a million or more to one. It is now known that these experiments contained serious methodological flaws or were perhaps falsified, thus nullifying the findings.

One example of falsified reports is attributed to Walter J. Levy, the director of the Institute of Parapsychology and Rhine's heir apparent, who was discovered to be producing significant results in experiments through the manipulation of data-recording equipment. Another was Dr S.G. Soal, whose replication of Rhine's experiments was considered above reproach and definitive by both parapsychologists and the scientific community until Mrs Gretl Albert, an agent who had assisted with the experiments, made some serious allegations. Mrs Albert informed Mrs Goldney (a joint initiator with Soal in one of the experiments), that she had observed Soal altering numbers on the record sheets during the check up. Later she specifically indicated that she had seen him changing 1s into 4s and 5s during the Shackleton studies. When Soal was informed he became indignant and discharged Mrs Albert, but the discoveries of how he had faked his results destroyed the credibility of his work. He died in 1975.

Since the 1960s, Zenner cards have played a lesser role in ESP experiments, being replaced with more complex and meaningful targets, such as paintings, locations and photographs.

The results remain the same however — no evidence of extrasensory perception.

What of the findings of Targ and Puthoff and the accolades heaped on Dr Soal by the eminent scientists mentioned above? Targ and Puthoff's controls were badly flawed leaving the experiments wide open to cheating. Failed tests were never reported and their conclusions were biased in the extreme. When one of Geller's remote viewing tests was replicated by Charles Rebert, an EEG expert and psychologist, and Dr Leon Otis, also a psychologist, Geller failed to identify one target in the whole series. Ex-policeman Pat Price had also failed completely in both his tests, the non-results being omitted from the Targ and Puthoff report.

Although there is some recent evidence to suggest that Sir Cyril Burt was framed, he was alleged at the time to have faked extensive data in research on heredity and even to have invented witnesses and authorities for his reports. In an article on the front page of the Sunday Times of October 24, 1976, the newspaper's medical correspondent began: "The most sensational charge of scientific fraud this century is being levelled against the late Sir Cyril Burt, father of British educational psychology", and in Cyril Burt, Psychologist (Hodder, 1979), Professor Leslie Hearnshaw writes, "Gradually, as evidence accumulated…I became convinced that the charges...were, in their essentials, valid…”

Experiments to test the widely held belief in ESP on a nationwide basis, have been conducted on radio in the United States in 1924, and in the United Kingdom in 1927. In May, 1992, a test was conducted on ABC Radio National Science Show with devastating results for believers. Dr Ken White, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland and his graduate student, Rebecca Storey, received over 5,000 written responses to so-called "thought transferences" broadcast on the program. During the program, Ms Storey concentrated hard on numbers, a letter, a playing card, a colour and two geometric shapes. Listeners were invited to write down what they thought she was seeing.

They were also asked to rate the strength of their belief in ESP. The results were remarkable. Only five respondents (or 0.1 per cent), got two answers correct and none scored more than two. Dr White said the information "transmitted" was selected by first avoiding well known stereotypes or those popular with stage magicians such as Uri Geller.

In the first test ("I am looking at a number in the range 1 to 10''), the correct answer (number 1) was obtained by 42 respondents (1.2 per cent of the total). The most common answer was 7, nominated by nearly a quarter of the respondents.

The other number test ("I am looking at a card with a number between 10 and 50 with two odd digits which are not the same'') produced a 5 per cent success rate for the number 13. Nearly one-third nominated 37.

In the alphabet test, only 17 people chose correctly the letter "Y", the letter "L" was the most common choice.

One third of the respondents chose red as the colour of a car, whereas Ms Storey was visualising a purple car.

As an aside, Simon Turnbull, the president of the Australian Psychics' Association who also took part in the test, failed on all four counts.

Dr White concluded that testing such preferences illustrates the serious psychological reasons for the study and that "Nobody has ever managed to replicate an ESP experiment…these results are no exception."

After nearly a century of investigation, replete with trickery, fraud, deception and inept experimentation, the scientific consensus confirms the skeptical view that without the use of normal sensory processes there is no reliable evidence that communication between two minds is possible.


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[From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age, Australian Skeptics]