ESP: Just Have Faith
In the last century, paranormal phenomena have moved into mainstream culture as some of the most popular forms of entertainment. The twentieth century has seen fame come to men who purport to be paranormal experts. Uri Geller and Alastair Crowley are two fine examples. Television programs such as Sightings and The X-files are seen weekly in millions of homes across the world, and never before has scientific interest in the paranormal been higher. But just what is a paranormal phenomenon? The term "paranormal" was first used by a French-born philosopher by the name of C. J. Ducasse and is a very broad modifier which applies to any event or "phenomenon" which does not fit into what is thought of as the "normal" of the universe (Grey 144). Simply put, anything that is weird, strange, or unexplained can be classified as paranormal.
Obviously, the paranormal encompasses vast fields of anomalous phenomena, but one of the most common of those fields is that of Psi. The field of Psi includes any paranormal phenomena which relates to the human mind. This includes such concepts as Telekinesis (the ability to effect the physical world with ones mind), Clairvoyance (the ability to see objects without any obvious sensory stimulation, also known as "remote viewing") and Extrasensory Perception or ESP. The term "Extrasensory Perception" was first used by Joseph Banks Rhine as the title of a book in which he claimed to have evidence for the existence of the phenomenon. He was, of course, later shown to have highly flawed research (Krauss 50). ESP is the ability to sense or communicate with others without any visible signs of normal communication and is commonly referred to as "telepathy". The areas of Psi are all very closely related and some of the terms are often used interchangeably with each other, or grouped together under the term "Psi." Decades of research has been done on the concept of Psi, specifically on ESP in most cases, yet nothing has come out of these tests which may be considered conclusive. Since it is unlikely that the phenomenon will be proven scientifically, it most likely belongs to the category of phenomenon which is the primary alternitive to science--faith. Therefore, ESP should be given over from the subject of scientific research to the realm of faith and personal belief, for, if it exists, it is not likely to be a matter of science.
The most common type of scientific testing in the fields of the paranormal occurs in the field of Psi. The scientific field known as Parapsychology is devoted to the research of Psi, and the most common type of testing to occur is ganzfeld testing. "Ganzfeld" is a German word which roughly translates to "complete field" and describes tests in which subjects are placed in sensory deprivation chambers in hopes that the deprivation will enhance Psi ability. The trademark of ganzfeld tests are the half ping-pong balls that are taped over the eyes of the "receiver", who is also placed in a sound proof room and given headphones which feed white noise (static). The receiver is the subject who it is hoped will perceive an image that is being concentrated on by the "sender" in another room. The sender chooses an image at random from for different pictures or 60 second movie clips which play in a loop. The sender is then told to concentrate on only that image for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the receiver is asked to verbally describe any and all images he or she may see in his or her mind. At the end of the 30 minute period, the receiver is shown 4 to 10 images, one of which is the one the sender was focusing on. The receiver attempts to identify the picture closest to what he or she was perceiving. If it matches the senderís picture, it is called a hit, if not, a miss. This basic format, repeated several times with different subjects, is what defines a ganzfeld test, and they have been nearly the only tests
used to research ESP for nearly twenty years. So far no ganzfeld test has produced results that have both indicated the existence of ESP and been universally accepted by the scientific community. Almost all ganzfelds have been shown to be flawed, either statistically or experimentally, or to have consisted of outright cheating. Thus, in spite of decades of research, the ESP phenomena has not been proven scientifically by any tests, and because these tests have been agreed upon by most scientists as the best type of tests for the subject, it is not likely that ESP will be proven in a scientific manner.
The most recent set of promising ganzfeld test results was actually published in the respectable psychological journal Psychological Bulletin. Twenty sets of ganzfeld tests were summarized by parapsychology researchers Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton, and this paper was a revised version of an article by Charles Honorton and his colleagues that was published in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1990 (Blackmoore 352). The article, which included eleven studies conducted by Honorton, gained immediate praise from enthused colleagues and reluctant skeptics. Says Susan Blackmoore, a psychologist who has been published in Skeptical Inquirer: "I have come to the conclusion that Honorton has done what the skeptics have asked, that he has produced results that cannot be due to any obvious experimental flaw. He has pushed the skeptics like myself into the position of having to say it is either some extraordinary flaw which nobody has thought of, or it is some kind of fraud--or it is ESP." (McCrone 30) The Honorton studies were by far the most impressive of the review. Charles Honorton, who died of heart failure before the paper was published in Psychological Bulletin, had devoted his life to researching ESP. This seven year series of 11 tests was the culmination of that lifeís work, and he was highly meticulous in trying to prevent any form of experimental error. Before setting up his tests, he met with noted skeptic Ray Hyman, a psychologist and member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation into Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Out of this consultation came certain modifications to the standard ganzfeld format which Hyman agreed would significantly reduce the chance for experimental or statistical flaws (McCrone 32). One of the modifications made by Honorton was that the images which were placed before the sender were to be computer selected, thus further eliminating the
chance of fraud by the experimenter and earning the Honorton experiments the name autoganzfeld (McCrone 30).
Daryl Bem combined these studies with nine others in the paper which was published in the Psychological Bulletin. He was very pleased with the results, which, in some cases had hit rates as high as 50% where only 25% was called for by chance alone. Says Bem: "Taken with earlier studies, the probability that the results could have occurred by chance is less than one in one billion" (McCrone 30). While this may sound quite promising, 9 of the studies included in the Bem-Honorton paper had already been shown to be faulty, says Blackmoore: "By failing to mention this, Bem and Honorton imply that these are reliable research." Thus, the "earlier studies" referred to by Bem are not reliable, which makes his probability of one in one billion not reliable. It could be further argued that the Honorton experiments, which have not yet been shown faulty, constituted a repetition of previous successful ganzfelds which were not obviously faulty. If so, it would highly strengthen the case for ESP. Ray Hyman, who, as mentioned, assisted in formatting the Honorton experiments, does not believe this. ". . . the autoganzfeld experiments do not constitute a successful replication of the original ganzfeld experiments" (Ray Hyman). Because of the severe renovations Honorton made to the methods, it is not likely that they can be considered equivalent to earlier ganzfeld experiments.
None of this, however, detracts from the autoganzfelds themselves. Honortonís experiments did produce strong positive results which cannot be easily denied. Nonetheless, many scientists remain unconvinced because of several potential flaws in the research. "Of the eleven ganzfeld studies, smaller samples displayed larger hit rates than larger samples. If the effect is real, this is the opposite of what youíd expect." says Lee D. Ross, psychology professor at Stanford. The fact that larger hit rates existed
among the smaller samples (The 50% hit rate was from a sample of only twenty) does raise doubt as to whether it really was ESP (Bower 68).
Also, some technical errors raised the brows of other scientists. Early on in the experiments, there was found to be some faulty wiring in the receiverís headset. This allowed some of the information from the sender (who was allowed to vocalize the images in order to help concentration) to be heard by the receiver. Although Honorton, after fixing the problem, maintained that the flaw was not perceptible, even subliminally, to the receiver, others assert that the possibility of contamination requires that all data gathered prior to the discovery of the problem be discarded. Without that data, the results of Honortonís experiments are no longer statistically significant (McCrone 31).
Another consideration is that the highest hit rate among the Honorton experiments was with video clips rather than static images, about 41% compared to about 30% (McCrone 30). The latter hit rate is not statistically significant, however the former appears to be so. Yet, what does not seem to be taken into consideration is that a 60 second video clip provides several more images than a still picture. If several more images are involved, the probability that the receiver may identify the film clip coincidentally is raised significantly.
Besides the Honorton autoganzfelds, there has been one other major set of studies which has come to light in the last decade. The CIA disclosed a twenty billion dollar, ten year study into ESP. The study consisted primarily of ganzfeld-type testing and, according to Jessica Utts, produced many anecdotal and statistical results which were very positive towards the existence of ESP (Kluger 38). The study was primarily motivated by the politics of the Cold War, with the CIA in fear of the Soviets gaining any possible advantage, no matter how absurd it may seem, and the Science News article "CIA Studies Debate over ESP" reports "In the past decade, U.S. Military and Intelligence officials have consulted a cadre of psychics . . . on numerous occasions in an effort to obtain information related to national security issues." (Bower) The greatest proponent of the CIAís work in this area is University of California, Davis statistician Jessica Utts. On the results of the CIA tests she asserts, "This is a statistically robust effect that, were it not in such an unusual domain, would no longer be questioned as real phenomena" (Bower 148). Utts also affirms that the studies she presided over were all conducted without the slightest chance of fraud or carelessness (Kluger 37). However, because the experiments were classified by the government, she and the others directly involved in the experiments are the only ones who can attest to that fact.
At the forefront of the argument against the statistical significance of the CIA studies is Ray Hyman, who was consulted by the CIA to evaluate the value of the experiments when their funding was in question (Kruger 38). First of all, Hyman is critical of the interpretation Utts gave of the results because she belongs to the Parapsychological Association, and since her interpretation of the results is the only one made available to him, he had a hard time believing the study was not biased in some way. Beyond this, however, he does not believe that, even if the interpretation is unbiased, the results give adequate evidence for ESP. "I find it amazing that anyone would suggest that these studies prove the existence of ESP. Even if you assume that the findings represent real statistical departure from chance, thatís a long way from saying youíve got proof for a psychic phenomena" (Kluger 37).
The primary questionable aspect of the CIA studies is that they were classified, thus any flaws could not be seen by outside, objective researchers (Kluger 38). This exclusion from peer review raises an enormous question as to the validity of the research. Furthermore, the very nature of scientific testing demands that your research be reviewable and repeatable by other objective scientists. The CIA research was neither reviewable or repeatable and thus, is highly questionable.
After all this, in order to understand the nature of the argument that ESP is a matter of faith alone, it is still important to understand just what is necessarry to have a scientific proof of something and furthermore, the difference between matters of science and matters of faith. In order for any theory to be considered scientific, there must be at least one testable hypothesis concerning the theory, and that theory must make accurate predictions concerning the testing of the hypothesis. For example, the theory that what comes up must come down predicts that a dropped bowling ball will hit the ground. That it will hit the ground is also the hypothesis. Testing the hypothesis by dropping the ball will show that it does, indeed, hit the ground. Although most examples are far more complex than this, this example provides a simple outline of the scientific method. One more important note: Any repeat of the test must produce the same results (i.e. if anyone else drops the bowling ball, it must hit the ground then as well.)
Thus, in order for ESP to be a matter of science, there must be a testable hypothesis concerning the theory. There are several, none of which, however, are as simplistically observed as the bowling ball. The primary hypothesis behind the ganzfeld tests is that ESP abilities are hightened under states of sensory deprivation. As yet, there are no repeatable ganzfeld tests which have produced results which coincide with the predictions made by the theory behind ESP. Yet support for this phenomenon exists, even after decades of scientific research has failed to support it. It seems that, as William Grey says "However we characterize the scientific method, the defenders of Psi claim that the currently accepted methods of inquiry are too limitied." (146) Since ESP was introduced 60 years ago, there has not been a single accepted test which demonstrates its existence (Krauss 52). Says Grey: "Parapsychological . . . experiences are real enough; what is in dispute is how they are best explained" (144). This is an important point to consider. Does a lack of scientific proof disprove somethingís existence? The majority of the earthís population which believes in the existence of God and the logical fallacy of Argumentum ad Ignorantium both say no. Then if six decades of experiments have failed
to accurately demonstrate the existence of ESP, there are two reasons that could have caused that failure. The first is the simplest: ESP does not exist. The second is that any explanation of ESP transcends science. That is, ESP becomes a matter of faith in the same class as God, angels, and other spiritual matters. This may be asserted because of the logical rules of alternatives: if not one thing, then another. That is to say if something can not be asserted by the empirical use of the scientific method, then it must be either non-existent, or a matter of faith. The popularity of the phenomena of ESP seems to make at least some argument for its existence, even if its not a scientifically sound one. Thus, rather than not existing at all, ESP likely belongs in that category of human experience which does not relate to science at all, but to personal faith; its existence a matter of the heart, rather than the labratory.