ESP & Psychic Powers: Claims Inconclusive

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

The idea of special — apparently paranormal — mental abilities such as psychic powers or extrasensory perception (ESP) has intrigued people for centuries. There are several claimed varieties of psychic powers, including telekinesis (or psychokinesis, the ability to move objects through mind power); precognition (knowing future events before they happen); and telepathy or clairvoyance (French for “clear sight” — describing things at a remote location). It’s the stuff of fiction and movies — but is it real?

Many Americans believe in psychic ability (about 15 percent of the country, according to a 2005 Baylor Religion Survey; and 41 percent in another survey), but scientific evidence for its existence remains elusive. And it’s not for lack of trying; people — and the U.S. government — have spent decades searching for ESP.

Government ESP research

During the Cold War, rumors circulated that the Russians were developing an army of psychic spies; in response, the U.S. military created a program to examine whether psychics could be useful in military applications. The program, called Stargate, tested “remote viewers” to see if their feelings and visions were accurate. The research continued for about two decades, ending in the mid-1990s with little apparent success. Finally the CIA took over the program and asked scientists to review the results. They concluded that the psychics did no better than chance, and that the psychic information was neither validated nor useful. Project Stargate failed and was shut down.

Some suggest that the fact that Stargate program even existed is evidence that there must be some validity to psychic powers (otherwise it would not have been created and funded for years). Yet countless programs have been funded despite never having been proven valid or effective; the U.S. government spending money on fruitless programs is hardly novel. Some believe that top-secret government programs still use psychics today, though high-profile intelligence failures (i.e., if accurate psychics are employed by the government, why did it take a decade to find Osama bin Laden?) cast doubt on such conspiracy claims.

ESP in the laboratory

Though the government concluded that psychic power doesn’t exist (or, if it does, the information it provides is no more accurate than random chance guesses), ESP research has continued. Unfortunately, ESP has not fared well under scientific conditions, whether in the private or public sector.

Early experiments used “Zener cards” with common symbols such as circles, squares, and wavy lines selected at random and which a psychic would try to guess. In the 1930s and 1940s a researcher at Duke University named J.B. Rhine became interested in the idea that people could affect the outcome of random events using their minds. Rhine began with tests of dice rolls, asking subjects to try and influence the outcome through concentration. Though his results were mixed and hardly robust, they were enough to convince …

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