Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Case for Psi (Part 1)

Here’s a brief overview of my own slant on psi (parapsychology) research, in response to a question by Andy, creator of the brilliantly caustic Magic Circle Jerk (MCJ) blog. (If you're a magician and you've never checked out MCJ, I highly recommend you do so immediately. If you're not a magician, don't bother.)

Magicians have argued back and forth about the existence of ESP and other psychic phenomena for years. Houdini, for instance, famously "debunked" Spiritualism in the early part of the century. But the topic has really heated up since the 70s, when Israeli magician Uri Geller burst on the scene claiming to bend spoons and mend broken watches. Gellar convinced a lot of reputable scientists that he possessed genuine psychic powers, but he didn’t convince many magicians, who generally still regard him as a fraud doing simple magic tricks. I have no idea whether or not Geller used trickery all of the time (likely), some of the time (maybe), or never (unlikely), and I’m not going to try to solve that question here. I will, however, describe some of the thrilling and more scientifically “solid” work that’s been happening under the radar for years.

If you're NOT interested in the state of the art of parapsychology research, please feel free to skip this post (although I will "psychically" feel the insult and use my psi power to make your coffee cold and your pants too tight).


Hey, I read your comment over at P----‘s blog. I'm curious what evidence for psi you're talking about. I've been looking for a long time, but nothing I've read seems to be conclusive in any respect. Let me know what area to look into in regards to this.

Thanks, Andy

Hey Andy,

The first step is to stop reading only CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal)-approved works, since they are extremely prejudiced AGAINST psi, to the point of misrepresenting or ignoring much of the research that's out there.

Notwithstanding the "Skeptics" line, which is essentially that all evidence for psi is either 1. fraud, or 2. self-deception (a line which allows them to preemptively dismiss ALL published and unpublished evidence for psi with extreme prejudice), the best place to start is Dean Radin's superb book, "The Conscious Universe." This is a very accessible and detailed overview of the state of the art. Read about the book and the laboratory research at The Consciousness Research Laboratory.

Read the first chapter of Radin's book here:

And here's what a Nobel Prize winner had to say: "Cutting perceptively through the spurious arguments frequently made by skeptics, Radin shows that the evidence in favor of (paranormal) existence is overwhelming." Brian Josephson, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate and Professor of Physics, Cambridge University. In January, 1998, Prof. Josephson wrote in the (British newspaper), The Guardian: "If asked to nominate the most significant scientific event of 1997, I would cite the publication of this book."

More reviews here.

I'm a recovering "skeptic" myself. I used to idolize Randi, and I even hung out with him for several weeks in the late 70s while working at Al's Magic Shop in Washington, DC. I also read many of the CSICOP-endorsed books put out by Paul Kurtz's Prometheus Books, the major "skeptical" publisher, and used to religiously read "The Skeptical Inquirer,” house organ of CSICOP. So I know the mindset of the committed disbeliever quite well; in my day, I had nothing but contempt for anyone gullible or stupid enough to believe in the reality of psychic phenomena.

I've since discovered that there's a whole huge world out there, way outside the narrow-minded lens of CSICOP eyes. If there's one message I'd like to promote here, it's that professional parapsychologists are far from the naive, gullible morons depicted in pseudo-skeptical literature. I'm friends with three of the top psi researchers in the country and they are some of the wisest, most open-minded, and yes, skeptical people I know. They are rigorous researchers, and their standards of proof are extremely high. But they won't lie to themselves and deny the evidence they have found -- consistently -- for thirty years.

And, just in case you're wondering, all three are knowledgeable about magic and deception. One of the three did magic as a kid, another is, to my discriminating eye, an excellent performing mentalist to this day.

Russell Targ conducted Remote Viewing experiments for the Army and the CIA at SRI International in Menlo Park for decades. He was on CNN recently, and the interviewer asked him, "If you were so successful, why did they stop the program?" Russell's response (I'm paraphrasing), "I can turn that around for you. If we were so UNsuccessful, and didn't give the Army and the Intelligence Services anything of value, why did they keep funding us for twenty-three years?"

Russell is a physicist, and was a pioneer in laser technology before he became a Remote Viewing researcher. He saw evidence for psi almost daily at SRI. For him, "non-locality" is an undeniable fact. You can learn more about him and other ESP research here.

Charlie Tart is another friendly acquaintance. I've taken three classes with him at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Charlie is a very smart academic, a public intellectual (he wrote "Altered States of Consciousness," "Waking Up," and many other books), and a pioneer in altered states research. This includes not only ESP research, but also hypnosis, psychedelic drugs, sleep & dream research, and near-death & out of body experiences. He, too, saw regular evidence of PSI during his years as a researcher at UC Davis.

It was his Parapsychology class that introduced me to Radin's book and turned me around on the issue of psi research. Before the class, I was a general believer but a "specific" skeptic. In other words, I believed that there were extraordinary people (gurus, holy men, gifted psychics) out there, but I was extremely skeptical (basically, a non-believer) when faced with specific evidence (whether from the lab or anecdotal). Now, after more open-minded exploration and discussions with researchers, it seems quite clear that these abilities are common and an essential part of the makeup of consciousness. I'm also convinced that there are many wise, intelligent, and clever people working in this field, even if they keep a low profile to avoid having their careers destroyed.

Arthur Hastings, also at ITP, is one of the world experts on channeling and past life regression. Besides his academic life, Arthur is a very talented magician and mentalist and a guy who knows a thing or two about deception, self-deception, and sorting out real evidence from untestable anecdotes.

I'm also friends with Bernie Haisch, who runs the UFO Skeptic site. He's a respected professional astronomer who invites open-minded inquiry. I recommend a perusal of his site for a crisp overview of the state of UFO research.

You might also want to check out the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton.

I just met a guy who's involved in that research, and he said they are finding all sorts of crazy stuff, much of which they're reluctant to publicize (a huge global effect hours before 9/11, for instance), for fear of scaring everyone and losing their funding. I'm serious; the stakes are that high.

And take a look at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Program (PEAR).

You may also want to check out the controversies over "The Mars Effect," in which CSICOP dismissed some Astrology research, deigned to replicate the experiments, and got the same result as the original researchers. There's also a lot of info out there on the back and forth between CSICOP skeptic Ray Hyman and the late Chuck Honorton, who did "Ganzfeld" Remote Viewing experiments at the University of Edinburgh. Honorton found consistent evidence for the ability, whereupon Ray Hyman published an article critical of the methodology used in the experiments. Honorton worked with Hyman, closed all the perceived weaknesses, tightened the controls beyond anything that would reasonably be expected for any other kind of research, and still found the same effect. Even Hyman (like Carl Sagan before him) admitted that there's something going on worth researching further.

I don't know if you know any of the history of CSICOP, but they are a very strident, closed-minded organization -- the flip side of Jerry Falwell. One of the original co-founders, the late great sociologist Marcello Truzzi, left early on when he discovered that they weren't "skeptical" at all, they were simply closed-minded debunkers. Truzzi went on to found the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research at Eastern Michigan University. Truzzi, also, had an extensive background in magic and performance (his father was a famous Russian juggler). Read magician Phil Wilmarth’s tribute here.

Truzzi is credited with the line, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof," a favorite saw of the pseudo-skeptics (another Truzzi term), but Truzzi later backed off this saying, claiming it was being misused as a club against those who believe in the reality of psi. The SCICOP crowd, as Truzzi well knew, simply dismisses a priori any evidence that points in the direction they don't like. Nothing is "extraordinary proof" enough for a CSICOP skeptic.

It was also Truzzi who said of notorious"skeptic" Martin Gardner, "I wish I knew as much about anything as Martin Gardner thinks he knows about everything."

That should give you a good place to start. It was the late magician/mentalist T.A. Waters who first turned me on to the world of information outside of CSICOP, and I fondly remember attending a lecture at the Magic Castle given by a nitwit named Henry Gordon, a Canadian magician, journalist, and "skeptic." T.A. had already told me about the last time Gordon lectured there, in which he claimed that Geller had admitted to being a fraud (totally untrue). So T.A., Max Maven, and Frances Willard (of Falkenstein and Willard) were all challenging the unsubstantiated crap that Gordon was espousing, and T.A. turned to me and said, "Isn't it amazing? We have in this room three of the top Mentalists in the country and they're all arguing FOR the existence of paranormal anomalies!"

Open your eyes. The clock is ticking. Your world will be turned upside-down within your lifetime

COMING UP: Andy's intelligent response.

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