Parapsychology field tests limits of academic freedom

At the end of last semester, a Chronicle feature on parapsychology stimulated a lively debate on the editorial pages. Professors Klopfer and Evans, two of the University's most respected scientists, expressed skepticism regarding the statistical rigor of parapsychology experiments and the difficulty in their replication.

Associate Professor Vernon Pratt, the son of J. B. Rhine's closest research associate, Gaither Pratt, was quick to point out that when the Parapsychology Laboratory moved off campus in 1968, his father left to become a full professor at the University of Virginia and taught statistics to the medical students there. Richard Broughton, the current director of the Rhine Research Center, then offered an open invitation to come and observe their research methodology.

I took him up on such an offer in 1993 when I joined the faculty here, and I was impressed that the degree of scientific rigor equaled or exceeded that accorded to experiments at the Medical Center. The skeptics of this century are to be congratulated for forcing the parapsychologists to adopt even more stringent standards for research than required elsewhere in science. These efforts were rewarded in 1969 by the admission of the Parapsychology Association into the prestigious American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

As a radiologist who works with sometimes finicky MRI machines, I was intrigued to discover that one of the most robust lines of investigation involves mind-machine interactions. In these micro-PK (psychokinesis) experiments, subjects sit in front of a video terminal that is connected to an electronic random number generator (earlier work was based on the random decay of a radioactive isotope). The machine output is displayed as a continuous horizontal line on the screen, and the goal is for the subject to cause the output to shift from the baseline by a statistically significant amount.

Positive results have been obtained here in Durham and replicated at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory. Nobel Laureate physicists come to the Rhine Research Center to observe what physician/ author Larry Dossey would describe as the quantum effects of non-local consciousness at a subatomic level.

The other research area that yields impressive data is the Ganzfeld experiment, involving the extrasensory transmission of information from a subject watching one of four possible videotape selections to a receiver in an isolated room. A few minutes later the receiver is asked to identify which of the four videotapes the sender had been watching.

Based on the results of hundreds of trials, the average volunteer subject will get about 33 percent correct, which is a statistically significant result that has been replicated in several other labs. Interestingly, one of the hypotheses that has been tested is that naturally creative people may have more innate intuitive ability to perform well on such tests. When replicated with Juilliard students, the average score was 50 percent, and among the musicians alone it was 75 percent.

Why have these rather remarkable and statistically rigorous findings had so little impact on the scientific community? Psychoanalyst Jule Eisenbud notes "it has been repeatedly shown that scientists pay far less attention to facts in the development of their theoretical paradigms, than to their emotional, religious, metaphysical and even political convenience, however disguised these influences are."

In a 1978 address to J. B. Rhine's Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, Terry Sanford observed that Duke's first president, William Preston Few, recruited Rhine's mentor, Psychology Chairman William McDougall from Harvard, due to his "dedication to the world of the intellect and to scientific inquiry." He shared with his mentor, William James, a passion for psychical research that he passed on to J. B. Rhine.

As examples of academic freedom at Duke, President Sanford compared the support of Rhine's unorthodox research to the famous 1903 Bassett case that he later would describe in detail during his 1993 Founder's Day Address. In a concluding reference to the wall between East Campus and the Parapsychology Institute, he stated "there is no wall between Dr. Rhine's dedication to truth and Duke's dedication to free intellectual inquiry."

In a 1955 issue of Science, G. R. Price, wrote, "not 1,000 experiments with 10 million trials and by 100 separate investigators giving total odds against chance of 10 to the one-thousandth to one" would convince him of the validity of parapsychology. That same year in "The Christic," scientist/priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated "that Truth has to appear only once, in one single mind, for it to be impossible for anything ever to prevent it from spreading universally and setting everything ablaze."

Larry Burk is an associate professor of radiology.


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