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From Issue Twelve, July 2011 « Previous Article

Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable—and Couldn’t

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“It is human nature to frame conflicting worldviews in extreme terms of right and wrong, good and evil, rational and irrational. This kind of ‘us vs. them’ thinking is perhaps best and most readily seen in debates about the paranormal.”


In 2001, British physicist Brian Josephson was asked by the Royal Mail, Britain’s postal service, to write a short essay commemorating a new series of Nobel Prize–themed stamps. He could have just written the standard thing, extolling the virtues of science and urging kids into the field. But what he delivered, and the Royal Mail published, deviated more than a few degrees from standard. “Quantum theory is now being fruitfully combined with theories of information and computation,” Josephson writes. “These developments may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy, an area where Britain is at the forefront of research.

The mention of telepathy, invoking the paranormal, caused a furor. And in response, some of Josephson’s fellow physicists railed to the press, accusing Josephson of having “hoodwinked” the Royal Mail into printing falsehoods.

Josephson, a Nobel Prize winner, is an avowed believer in telepathy. Claims of psi-ability have been with us for millennia. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that, in 550 BC, the Oracle at Delphi predicted precisely when the king of Lydia would be boiling a lamb and a tortoise in a brass cauldron. Hardly as valuable as predicting, say, the winner of the Super Bowl. Still, the Oracle got gold and silver for her trouble.

Today, in the modern West, psychics can also earn their share of filthy lucre. But the mainstream view of psi is contentious, to say the least, and Josephson’s full-bodied embrace of psi is surprising – not least because he could easily have continued down the less nettlesome path he had forged for himself. As a graduate student, Josephson had correctly predicted that a phenomenon called “quantum tunneling” was more powerful than previously thought. His research led to Josephson Junctions, in which two layers of superconducting material sandwich a (very) thin layer of nonconducting material. This construction allowed electron pairs to “tunnel” from one side to the other, leading to a vast array of practical applications, such as microchips and MRI machines. In short, Josephson’s discovery is among the most important technological leaps of the past half-century. But because of his interest in psi, some now portrayed him as a figure of disrepute. He had gone “off the rails,” they claimed in the wake of his offensive sentence, his intellect somehow damaged by his long-running study of telepathy.

“It is utter rubbish,” David Deutsch, a quantum physics expert at Oxford University, told the Observer newspaper. “Telepathy simply does not exist.”

BBC Radio invited Josephson to defend his position against two skeptics – the key one being American James Randi. A former stage magician, Randi has been debunking all things paranormal for roughly forty years. And given the opportunity to confront Josephson, he attacked. The magician accused the physicist of invoking the “refuge of scoundrels” in referring to quantum mechanics and further claimed there was “no firm evidence” for telepathy a reputable scientist would accept. But there is a problem here. Because the evidence submitted for psi is vast, and so competently assembled, some more fair-minded skeptics have been forced to concede important ground. “I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven,” said psychologist and skeptic Richard Wiseman, in a January 2008 edition of the Daily Mail.

Remote Viewing (RV) is the claim of a real “mind’s eye” – the ability to see things and describe them accurately without being bodily present to see them at all. This seemed a startling admission. And Wiseman was asked to clarify. As expected, he claimed to have been misquoted – but not in the way we might think. He wasn’t referring only to remote viewing, he said. He was describing the entire field of telepathy, or psi research in general. What’s more, fellow UK skeptic Chris French agrees with him. “I think Richard’s right,” he told me. “For an ordinary claim, the evidence we already have would be sufficient.”

The issue, as described by both Wiseman and French, is that telepathy is no ordinary claim. The finding of an as yet undiscovered sensory capacity might force us to question all kinds of scientific truths – in physics and neuroscience, just for starters. So, the thinking goes, the evidence provided for telepathy must be as extraordinary as the claim itself. Which, they maintain, it isn’t.

It seems, then, when the evidence for psi is closely reviewed, the reputation of Brian Josephson can safely be removed from hell (the landing place of scoundrels) and cast into purgatory (the landing place of stuff we’re still debating). What we’ll learn here, in the muddled middle, is that psi proponents and naysayers seem diametrically opposed – like rival families in the Ozarks, pop-eyed with adrenaline that can only come from really, really wanting to shoot someone else in the heart. But truth be told, the skeptics are far more like the believers than they first appear. And in a very real sense, psychic slayers and psychic supporters are, shockingly, both right.

Swimming Upstream

I walked to my first session of the Parapsychological Association’s (PA) summer 2009 meeting through a light Seattle mist. Though I knew that most of the leading researchers in the field of parapsychology would be here, I didn’t know quite what to expect. This was an academic conference, and the talks promised to be incredibly technical. I kept looking in vain for some crowd of people all headed in the same direction, figuring they would lead me to the first conference session. But no crowd ever materialized. The conference organizers at the Parapsychological Association had warned me the gathering would be small. Just how small came as something of a shock. I counted maybe thirty people on hand for the morning’s first presentation, a panel dealing with the role that belief systems play in science. “Dick Shoup continues to work on psi-related issues, undistracted by any significant funding,” read the bio of one of the panel’s participants.

The line got a nice laugh from the audience and set the tone for a real budget-catering affair, all of it held in one college lecture hall, with a table out front at the breaks holding bottles of water, raisins, and the occasional cookie. In my capacity as a journalist, I’ve attended enough professional functions to know where the money is (trial attorneys throw the fanciest parties). And clearly, I found, there is no money in psi research.

The storm of debate in psi research has often revolved around meta-analyses. A meta-analysis is, in essence, a study of studies. Take a stack of related research findings, conduct a rigorous statistical analysis, and read the numbers. Well, meta-analyses of what’s known as the Ganzfeld database tend to show evidence for the unbelievable. In Ganzfeld tests, receivers sit with halved Ping-Pong balls taped over their eyes and plugs in their ears, then try to pick up accurate information. Proponents say that cutting off the normal sensory channels allows other information to come through, like a radio antennae plucking the signal from noise.

Performing a meta-analysis on this research, one of the most well-known scientists working in parapsychology, Dean Radin, found a 32 percent hit rate when 25 percent is expected by chance. He calculated the odds against chance for the positive results at 29 quintillion to 1. But the single most promising area for further research may lie in “brain correlation” experiments. These studies go by different names, which rigorously avoid the dreaded “T” word, because the mere mention of telepathy is likely to draw emotional fire from someone’s amygdala. (Case in point: British parapsychologist Guy Lyon Playfair tells a funny story about attempting to study psychic functioning in twins. Instead of using the word telepathy, he tried to placate the mainstream by declaring he was studying “biological correlates of empathy.”)

In most of these studies, two subjects, usually with some prior personal connection, are separated and rigged up in skullcaps designed to monitor their brain waves. While one subject, the “receiver,” sits in a bland featureless room with nothing much happening, the “sender” is exposed to stimuli. The idea is to see whether the introduction of a stimulus to the “sender” produces a corresponding reaction in the receiver’s brain. Will agitation in the sender, or for that matter pleasure, be mimicked in the brain of the partner? Dean Radin has collected thirty-three of these experiments, the majority conducted since 1994, with strongly positive results for the presence of brain correlation – which we’ll bravely call telepathy.

This is a drop in the scientific bucket, of course. When a field is really accepted, studies might more likely number in the hundreds – another sign of how psi remains ghettoized or how far it still has to go.

There are small signs we might someday see a shift. Earlier, I mentioned that skeptics Wiseman and French had been gracious enough to admit the obvious: psi researchers have lots of good evidence. The question is whether or not they have enough. Perhaps even more incredibly, one of this country’s most vocal atheists, Sam Harris, in the End of Faith, acknowledges the research for psi is so compelling that telepathy may need to be admitted into the canon of accepted knowledge. I spoke to Dr. Michael Persinger, a real gadfly to paranormal believers. Persinger is in most respects a kind of happy naysayer – no to God, no to ghosts – but he also happens to be a strong proponent of psi.

Pursuing the Extraordinary

Both camps – of passionate believers and equally passionate deniers – are surpassingly small. Most of us are likely in the middle. We don’t think much about a subject like psi research from day to day, and whatever opinion we hold is provisional. In other words, we would be interested in hearing out the evidence. The problem we encounter is the same one we see in our politics: when the media investigates a phenomenon like psi, or for that matter privatizing Social Security or forming a public health care system, they reach out to sources with diametrically opposed positions. That makes for higher drama, more colorful quotes, and, so the thinking goes, better radio or television.

What it doesn’t bring us any closer to is the truth.

The phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was first coined by skeptic Marcello Truzzi . . . It was subsequently popularized by Carl Sagan. The slogan is merely a pithy, modernized exaggeration of what the humanist philosopher David Hume declared roughly 250 years earlier about miracles. Hume famously argued that before we believe in a miracle, there should be so much evidence it occurred we’d be more foolish not to believe in it.

In practical terms, this makes good sense. Any claim that might require scientists to double back and reverify earlier findings or assumptions is a potential time waster. Before they begin questioning the foundation on which current research stands, they should see evidence that the ground really has shifted under their feet. The argument put forth by skeptics is that psi is an extraordinary claim; thus, an extraordinary amount of data is required to support it. As skeptic Ray Hyman put it, if psi exists, “the fundamental principles that have so successfully guided the progress of science from the days of Galileo and Newton to the present time must be drastically revised.”

And [the skeptics] have insisted, for decades, that parapsychologists must employ tighter and tighter controls on their studies – to eliminate obvious possibilities like fraud, and more subtle ones like sensory leakage, in which the receiver in a telepathy study becomes aware of the target. In response, parapsychologists have increased the rigor of their methodology. But no matter what lengths they have gone to in order to satisfy the skeptics, the skeptics have yet to be satisfied.

Using the conflict between skeptics and parapsychologists as a lens, sociologists began research into how science is conducted, not in its idealized form but in reality. Sociologist Trevor Pitch subsequently identified a group of “scientific vigilantes,” people who did not always hold scientific degrees but nonetheless appointed themselves to guard the borders of “true” science . . . Initially, he suspected the accusations leveled by skeptics were correct: parapsychologists, as they were known, were somehow self-deceived, employing shoddy controls on their experiments or committing outright fraud.

What he found was the exact opposite: psi researchers took the skeptics seriously, conducting experiments according to methodology that at least kept pace with the most rigorous of the psychological sciences. When they produced positive results, the skeptics claimed the controls needed to be tighter still. Then tighter.

Does telepathy exist? Randi would say there is no valid evidence for it. But the truth is far more complicated. There is in fact good evidence to suggest psi is real. But as yet, no scientific consensus. What the ongoing furor over psi demonstrates, however, is that even rationalists can come to look like believers, motivated less by the data in front of them than by the worldviews closest to their hearts.

From Fringeology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable—And Couldn't. Copyright © 2011 by Steve Volk. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a Division of HarperCollins Publishers.

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  • Anonymous Icon

    EthanT Jul 07, 2011

    Good article. Here's a snippet from a forum post of mine elsewhere:

    Actually, in many ways the mainstream scientifc community can act like a fundamental exoteric stream of a religion, in the following ways

    (1) Appeal to Scripture (If it ain't in The Physical Review Letters and hasn't been under peer review, it's suspect)

    (2) Sole Owner of The Truth (Religion is fantasy, psychology is not a science, empirical evidence subject to critical scientific analysis is the only path to truth)

    (3) Intolerance Of Others Views (don't even bring up something not within the mainstream thought, or you're scoffed at, and it will be claimed the topic is unworthy of scientific investigation)

    (4) Hypocrisy (it's okay to talk about String Theory for the past 40 years, even though NO supporting evidence has yet been found. And, the theory is admired. Reincarnaion, NDEs, psychic ability, etc are considered ridiculous though)

    (5) The In Group (Relates to #3)

    (6) Idol Worship (With modern day idol worship being wrapped around a concept. Humans have a tendency to get wrapped up on concepts of God and not being able to get past them. As Meister Eckhart says, "The ultmiate leavetaking is the leaving of God for God". Scientists get hung up on paradigms - reductionism, materialism - and, often, cannot see past them. But, just as religious folk hold their concepts of God precious, so to do scientists hold their paradigms as precious, and often both do so unconsciously)

    (7) Dogmatic (In religion, follow these rules, or laws. In science, follow the scientific method to the letter, or it's not real science. Think this way, and don't think about other non-sense)

    Anyhow, I could probably go on all day long, but you get the point.

    Man can't help but to act "mythically", or even ritualistically, in thought. When you suppress and ignore- via a materialistic worldview - the deep psychic aspects of your myth, it can have negative manifestations. But, ultimately, the same human, or group, behaviors are still there.

  • Anonymous Icon

    DrBrewerts Jul 08, 2011

    I've always wondered how James Randi is rated as such a renouned skeptic, he has no scientific background at all. He has no credentials to level the skepticisms he so dearly loves. In fact as a stage magician he made his living by misdirection and deception....just saying...Some people will do anything to be on the "stage".

    Dr B

  • Steve Volk Jul 09, 2011


    Thanks, Ethan. It's amazing how much great insight is floating around out there on message boards! Speaking directly to No. 2, the "sole owner of the truth" riff, I wholeheartedly agree. The passage excerpted above, from Fringe-ology, doesn't address it, but so much of the atheist v. religion or materialism v. spirituality debate is simply a turf war. I think we all admire IONS from trying to get past that false choice. We can have both.

    And yes, DrBrewerts, precisely how Randi attained his current perch is fascinating. I think he has proven such a showman that mere celebrity has made him an expert. Remember when Randi put forward a performance artist who posed as a channeller named "Carlos" to prove that where the media was concerned just saying it—"Carlos is a channeller!"—made it so? I think he has used this same technique to pass himself off as a skeptic and "researcher" when really he is a very good performance artist himself.

    —Best, Steve

  • Anonymous Icon

    EthanT Jul 11, 2011

    "I think we all admire IONS from trying to get past that false choice. We can have both."

    Yes, most definitely!

    Boy, I knew Randi was a stage musician at one time, but I always thought he also had a scientific background/education too. I think a lot of these "debunkers" have an agenda, as you guys alluded too. It often doesn't seem to be about going after the truth.

  • Steve Volk Jul 12, 2011

    Hi Ethan,

    Check out this link for a bit of Randi:

    Or, this one, from my own blog:

  • Anonymous Icon

    Explorific Jul 15, 2011

    Skepticism is such a waste of time. We celebrate the fact that the biggest revelations in science have been made when the 'crazy' questions have been asked, and we marvel at how blind earlier generations were when presented with new evidence. You'd think most researchers would be stumbling over themselves to try and ask the craziest questions now!

  • sunshineandhaze Jul 23, 2011

    Thanks so much for the excellent article. "Pop-eyed with adrenaline that can only come from really, really wanting to shoot someone else in the heart" - what a priceless, accurate description!

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