A magician will instantly see the truth behind any colleague’s illusion. But we have a bit of an advantage: We know we are being fooled. Scientists are instinctive doubters who employ a rigorous method to zero in on the truth, but they aren’t necessarily trained to expect deception by subjects and collaborators.
We can’t make magicians out of scientists — we wouldn’t want to — but we can help scientists “think in the groove” — think like a magician. And we should.
For most of my life I’ve pecked away at a certain type of swindler: faith-healers, mystics, mind-readers. Those of a certain age may remember my appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson — a skilled amateur magician himself who introduced my exposure of flummery to a huge television audience.
Mine was a lonely voice back then, but I’m not alone anymore. The immensely talented and popular Penn & Teller long ago joined me as foes of harmful deception, along with other magicians; the president of my foundation, D.J. Grothe, has a background in magic, and many of our associates are professional magicians, as well. They all agree with me that the Society of American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of Magicians should re-establish their once very active investigations of the fakers who claim supernatural powers.
It’s not something that is generally done, or maybe at all – I’d love to see one funding grant that has a line item for the services of a magician, if somebody out there has one. But it is long overdue that my peers in the conjuring profession try to take a more active role in the elimination of nonsense science by joining forces with scientists, and that scientists be open to the proposition.
Please bear with me while I offer you a peek behind the curtain, a cursory glance at what we magicians are — and aren’t. First, we’re entertainers, actors, showbiz people who have as our primary objective the delight of our audiences. We’re deceivers, yes, taking on roles and characters to express our art, just as any actor does.
We are not scientists — with a few rare but important exceptions, like Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. But our highly specific expertise comes from knowledge of the ways in which our audiences can be led to quite false conclusions by calculated means — psychological, physical and especially sensory, visual being rather paramount since it has such a range of variety.
The true history of the experiment that is said to present the strongest evidence yet for telepathic abilities.
Today we’re going to enter a quiet, darkened room, sit comfortably, and prepare to receive psychic imagery, in what’s often claimed to be the most convincing evidence for the reality of psi — psychic abilities. The idea of being able to transmit thoughts from one person to another is so compelling that there’s never been a shortage of researchers hoping to find a way to develop it. We all wish we could have such a superpower, so we all want this to be true. Today’s subject is ganzfeld experiments. Ganzfeld is German for “whole field”, referring to its method of replacing the whole of your field of perception. Let’s take a close look and see what it is, how it works, and — most importantly — whether it does indeed promise to be proof of psi.
A ganzfeld state is a bit different from sensory deprivation, as made famous in the movie Altered States. In sensory deprivation, the idea is to remove all stimuli, audio, visual, thermal, and tactile. Ideally the subject is placed in an isolation tank, a coffin-like device in which you float in a dense saline solution, the temperature is a constant, comfortable ambient temperature, and it’s completely dark and quiet. You see, hear, and feel nothing. Sensory deprivation has often been used recreationally, both with and without hallucinogenic drugs, for its ability to make the imagination seem surprisingly real, given the lack of competing stimuli.
However, in ganzfeld, the idea is to instead provide homogenous stimuli. The subject, called the “receiver”, sits comfortably in a recliner, wearing headphones playing gentle white noise. The room is bathed in red light and the receiver wears translucent cups over the eyes, so all they see is a uniform, featureless red. They are relaxed and cozy. That’s the physical setting of the experiment. Two other people are involved: an experimenter and a “sender”. The sender, in an isolated room where they cannot be seen or heard by the receiver, concentrates for 30 minutes on a “target”, which is some object or video clip or something. Throughout the 30 minutes, the receiver is supposed to verbally recite what they see or imagine. The experimenter, who is also supposed to be isolated from both the sender and the receiver, records what the receiver says, and usually keeps notes about what they describe.
At the end of the 30 minutes, the receiver is shown the actual target upon which the sender was focusing, presented alongside with three other control objects. The receiver guesses which of the four most closely resembles their impressions during the ganzfeld session. Pure chance predicts a 25% hit rate. But ganzfeld experiments became famous within the parapsychology community because experimenters consistently found a significantly higher hit rate; closer to 35%.
The history of ganzfeld experimentation is essentially the history of a particular battle between skeptics and believers; a cordial battle, but a battle nevertheless. Beginning in the 1970s, the leading proponent was American parapsychologist Charles Honorton, a staunch believer in psychic abilities, who was dedicated to finding a reliable scientific method of establishing the reality of psi.
Honorton’s idea was that whatever psi abilities many people may have is lost in the sea of constant stimuli that we’re all receiving all day long. We see, we hear, we touch, we think, to such a degree that if we did receive a psychic impression we’d never recognize it as such. So by placing subjects into a ganzfeld state, it’s thought that the signal-to-noise ratio would be increased, by shutting off all that noise, and subjects might be more likely to recognize a psychic transmission.
Across the line of battle was Ray Hyman, at the time a professor of psychology at Harvard. In the 1980s he came across Honorton’s body of work, said to be the best evidence yet for psi. Hyman studied it carefully, and came away unconvinced. In his assessment, the positive results so flaunted by the parapsychologists was due to methodological error. In 1985, Hyman published an article in the Journal of Parapsychology called “The Ganzfeld Psi Experiment: A Critical Appraisal”.
Unimpressed right back, Honorton published — in that very same issue of the journal — “Meta-Analysis of Psi Ganzfeld Research: A Response to Hyman”. Clearly, there was a difference of opinion.
- Secrets of the Psychics – James Randi (illuminutti.com)
- Do Scientists Fear the Paranormal? (illuminutti.com)
- Extrasensory Perception: A Definition Of The “Sixth Sense” (usahitman.com)