This is part the fourth of “deception week”. This time we don the white coats and head into the lab to show that science is not immune to deception. (well… good science is)
In 1979 half a million dollars was donated to the Washington University (in St. Louis) to create the McDonnal Laboratory for Psychical Research. That’s “psychical” as in the study of psychics. No, not physics. I’m talking palm-reading, crystal-gazing, spoon-bending, I-can-see-the-future psychics.
This new lab had 300 self-claimed psychics apply to be studied, and they whittled that down to just two. For the next three years, these two psychic subjects were given a multitude of tests, and the observing scientists repeatedly had their socks knocked off with amazing displays of paranormal ability. They were really excited about the discoveries they were making but, alas, it was all fake. The scientists had been fooled.
James (the Amazing) Randi, the dedicated skeptic-activist, heard about the grant money and cooked up a plan. Parapsychologists (that’s what psychic-studying people call themselves) had always complained that they’ve never had sufficient funding to find the results they knew existed, so Randi saw this new lab as a way to prove that money was not the issue. The two “psychics” that were picked for the study were both young magicians, trained by Randi himself.
To be fair, Randi warned the lab with a letter to the director of the lab (previously a professor of physics at the university) explaining certain protocols and attention to detail when arranging the experiments to prevent any deception on the part of the test subjects. The advice was dismissed, and the resulting sloppy experiments allowed much abuse by the fake psychics. Here’s just a few of the psychic feats that were performed under so-called strict laboratory conditions:
- spoons and keys were bent
- sealed messages were read
- drawings were duplicated with mind-reading
- causing fuses to blow
- digital watches were “affected”
In 1981, after running experiments for three years, the Psychical Research Lab began to share their results within the parapsychology field, and the more critical observers weren’t too impressed. At that time Randi and the two fake psychics admitted to the scam, which they had dubbed “Project Alpha”.
The test subjects, Michael Edwards and Steve Shaw (aka: Banachek), were both talented magicians and all of the above was well within their knowledge of conjuring tricks. Had a trained magician been a part of the test committee (as Randi had originally suggested) none of their bold techniques would have been accepted. So what should we learn from this?
Smart people can be deceived by simple things. If you believe something first, it’s easy to find supporting evidence. And most importantly, all psychics are fake.