Did the U.S. government fund psychic research?

Link to Staff Report: Did the U.S. government fund psychic research?
To answer the question presented at the end of this article, there are probably a dozen reasons why psychic research provides no reasonable studies at present. Here are just a few possibilities:

a) It doesn’t exist
b) It exists, but it’s extremely difficult to measure objectively
c) It exists, and is possible to measure objectively, but people measuring it are not objective
d) ©, except that people measuring it are not perceived as objective
e) It exists, but with proper measurement only appears as a statistical anomoly (science is a science. You have to be right 90% of the time for people to blink over something, and unless you followed a prescribed method, scientists will thumb their noses at you, even if you show that you’re right 99.9% of the time).

I’m of the opinion that b-e are the most likely answers. Go figure, I believe in religion, as well (although I’ll leave which one out to avoid a possible digression).

I guess to turn the question back on itself, what would constitute a “Real” test? A group of observers who don’t believe in the phenomenon conducting the tests? Wouldn’t that skew the results, as well? And picking people who do believe in them leaves us in the boat we’re in now–conflicting reports of uncertain scientific accuracy.

How hard is it to find a bunch of middle-of-the road scientists who a) won’t mind risking their reputations on what is considered a frivolous undertaking in the scientific community and b) want to spend time on studying something they neither entirely believe in nor feel need to disprove?

Then we look at test subjects. Many of these tests are performed on people who believe they have psychic powers; further, they were willing to admit that not only in public, but to scientists. That in itself might qualify those folks for a stay at the local funny farm…I mean, if someone convicted of murder says he/she has psychic abilities, it’s grounds for a plea of insanity.

So you have a group of people who think they may have something special (like the ability to get cards right 60-65% of the time in Vegas, for example) and don’t tell anyone. They are also smart enough to know that reporting their activity will a) make them seem like loony tunes and b) possibly stop them from making a hobby profitable. These are more likely the people you’d like for your studies because they don’t think their crazy, but do have the presence of mind that other people might think they are.

So if you eliminate people who say they have the power (crazies) and people who think they do but are afraid to tell anyone for fear of repercussion (non-crazy), who do you have left? The people who don’t know they have any power at all.

So I suppose, a psychic study could be done on a group of “normal” people. Of course, now the people in left field think that the study is biased against psychic research since no proveable psychics are included. It doesn’t matter if we manage to hook one or two who don’t know they are. In a proper study, they’ll just be blips on an overall statistical chart.

But, assuming a study were done with middle-of-the-roader scientists, on large groupings of people who didn’t know if they were psychic or not. Now you get into the “challenging the results” portion of the program. Any fact finding will be picked apart either by the psychics or the skeptics.

Now, reality hasn’t modeled my rant here. Crazy people testing crazy people appears to be the model of current psychic study.

I just think that, if you are going to belittle and disbelieve something, there should be fact behind it, and not the hogwash that is currently available. It suits me to believe that something unexplainable exists–for years, people didn’t know about fingerprints or microwaves. I am willing to wait for credible tests to come out to disprove the concept psychic power before I’m willing to completely throw the idea away.

A very interesting first post, randomgirl, and welcome to the Straight Dope Message Boards!

Since your post is long, I have taken the liberty of editing in a link to the Staff Report at the front of your post… that way, readers will be able to see what you are commenting on. Helps keep everyone on the save page, avoid repetition, etc.

Glad to have you here!

Sorry kid, but that don’t cut it.
'Round the old Bar SD Bunkhouse, us cowpunchers don’t take no votes on the facts.
If it don’t show up as better than the statistical deviation in a mathematical study, “believing” in it don’t add up to squat.

If psychic abilities worked, insurance companies would be using crystal balls (“I’ve got crystal balls!”–pickup line for an occult bookstore. :smiley: ) not actuarial tables.
There would be no lotteries.
Intelligence would not have evolved, because the ability to see the future would have been the more effective tool.
No ESP. Sorry.

Well, yes and no, Bosda.

I mean, yes, ultimately, it has to be more than statistical deviation to be acceptable. But it may be that there is not a fine enough test. For example, an occurrence that is one-in-a-million would not show up in any normal experiment, you’d need to run MANY hundreds of millions of cases before it showed up.

So it is possible for an occurrence to be valid but not testable on a practical level. I think that’s what the OP was driving at.

That’s my point, exactly. In order to get a good, respectable body of results, you’d need objective, non-involved scientists to test a very large quantity of normal people, and then look at the variance.

In science, all main streams of logic (that I know, which might not be all) basic concepts of the universe are expressed in theories. In my science class in high school, they explained that a theory was a hypothesis that had been proven; however, it was never called a “fact” because the behavior that seemed to prove a theory may later turn out to be something else. For example, the concept of ether was a prevailing scientific view for a very long time. It was later disproved.

So right now, prevailing theory is that psychic abilities don’t exist. In my opinion (and, like time to die, everyone’s entitled to an opinion), it occurs to me that in science you have to prove that something works, but if you want to say definitively that something doesn’t, you have to prove that, too. Some cases are easier than others–jumping out of airplanes without parachutes doesn’t need a full experimental crew. In the case of psychic ability, the goofballs count against the skeptics as much as they do against the psychics. Due to problematic experimental procedure and subjective standards, their results aren’t good enough to stand up as proof that these things don’t exist.

Take a look at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-01/uow-nsf012202.php .
What the study shows (people sensing other people’s emotions and experiencing them to a small degree) has a perfectly legitimate scientific basis in how the brain and perception systems work. As little as a decade ago, this would have been construed as the psychic power “empathy.” Turns out we all do it to some degree, and there is a logical, rational basis.

How long before these types of studies explain most of what people think of as psychic behavior? It’s studies like that one that make me hopeful.

So if I believe in invisible magic leprechauns, I should be taken seriously because no can definitively prove they don’t exist?

It seems there’s no correlation between intelligence and gullibility.


So if I believe in invisible magic leprechauns, I should be taken seriously because no can definitively prove they don’t exist?

It seems there’s no correlation between intelligence and gullibility.


Now you are just being contradictory. You are welcome to disbelieve me, but don’t use opinion as fact. I don’t believe in flying elephants or lemurs who preach the gospel. I like science; I just feel that it hasn’t conquerered everything yet.

A healthy dose of gullibility goes a long way towards creating the hypotheses which are the basis for our current science. However, darwian as evolution, Science often requires 100 experiments to fail before it gets one that is on target (or proves that the target isn’t there).

I guess my point is that you shouldn’t be considered lunatic to be open-minded on the topic, simply because it hasn’t been fully explored by rational and objective individuals. Skeptics, debunkers, swammis, mediums…they all have in common a strong desire to see the argument go one way.

I’m sure I could go out and grab a bunch of ethical sounding stuff and throw down with you on the research. But the point is, I was trying to answer the question posted in the original article (available for your perusal in the first post): why aren’t there any reasonable studies?

I stand by my first few potential reasons:

a) It doesn’t exist
b) It exists, but it’s extremely difficult to measure objectively
c) It exists, and is possible to measure objectively, but people measuring it are not objective
d) ©, except that people measuring it are not perceived as objective
e) It exists, but with proper measurement only appears as a statistical anomoly

I always concede a is an answer, but based on current reasonable research that intrudes into the realm (quite accidentally) of what was previosuly frivolously psychic stuff, I tend to think b-e are more probably answers.

That said, please feel free to be as skeptical as you like. I like to question things. It makes for interesting conversations.

“**e as skeptical as you like. I like to question things. It makes for interesting conversations.”
Skepticism is questioning things, my dear Randomgirl. Saying that you think psychic powers are real with no evidence isn’t skeptical. You’re entitled to the opinion, of course. It’s open-minded, but it’s not a particularly skeptical one. To me, be open-minded involves considering all the possibilities, and open-mindedness is wonderful. However, you seem to feel that psychic powers exist despite the lack of evidence. That’s not skepticism; skepticism requires you to say “Oh yeah? Prove it.”
Believing that they’re definitely real, which you don’t seem to, is much less skeptical, of course. Why is it you think the existence of ESP and so on is more likely than its non-existence?

Monte, the question is whether your invisible magic leprechauns are detectable. There is an article in the current SKEPTICAL INQUIRER (sorry, I don’t know if there’s a web link) about a hot debate between Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein on this very topic…except it was a belief in an undetectable invisible tiger in Bertrand’s study, not leprechauns.

The question they debated was whether the statement “There is a totally undetectable tiger here in the study” was logically and linguistically valid or flawed. Russell said it wasn’t valid, and Wittgenstein said it was.

The question is the validity of a “logic that says: I believe in something completely incredible, unprovable, irrational, and with no evidence to support it, but never mind all that. Just show me where I’m wrong. Prove that my (fill in favorite belief system) doesn’t exist!”

It is a deeper question than can be dismissed by a wave of the hand.

Thanks. The fact is, there is evidence to support the concept of psychic ability; sadly, the experiments to get it are incredibly flawed according to popular opinion.

Still, Science articles (such as the one I linked to above) that relate that what we once thought of as superstition and psychic powers actually have a fundamental foundation in the workings of the human mind.

The evidence that science has presented on the front in other types of cases (which might have once been considered magic or psychic ability) make be believe that the effects of supposed psychic ability are possible–without the mumbo jumbo.

For example–the study I cited above. But other examples are appropriate: a medium was “tested” by skeptics and could guess every card in a “telepathy measuring” session. Until the medium could no longer see the researcher flipping the cards. Turns out the mediumwas reading the expressions to the finest detail of the person turning the cards. Once the person’s face was no longer visible, the power vanished.

It disproves legitimate telepathy, but puts in a reasonable scientific fact for the effect–visual acuity and previous experience combined to make what seemed like telepathy work.

The most famous case of psychic power-like affect with simple explanation is the placebo effect. Used in a great deal of drug studies, recipients of the placebo often experience the relief of symptoms or the added burden of side effects because they believe what they are given is good or bad for them.

This translates over to people doing “healing.” They are likely doing squat (one study has a skeptical nine-year-old girl testing the power of the healing touch and finding the results not to pretty for practioners). However, the patients themselves often feel that their pain is eased. This is (and forgive me if you believe in psychic abilities) most likely the placebo effect: they are psychologically predisposed to believing it will work and so it does.

So I suppose I should correct myself; I believe that the effects of psychic power are possible. I am just waiting for science to fill in the blanks as to the “how” in the mean time. For now, we’re left with psychic ability as the general term for ‘things people can do that we don’t understand and which don’t fit the normal science paradigm.’

There. That ought to cause quite a bit more trouble.

“The fact is, there is evidence to support the concept of psychic ability.”

I’m gonna say it really quietly this time: what evidence? You seem to think that even if a study is flawed, it provides evidence for psychic powers existing. I’m not sure how that works.
And by the way, this isn’t just crazy people testing crazy people- there have been studies done by sane scientists on people who think they have psychic powers (doesn’t make them crazy) that have shown nothing out of the ordinary.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I don’t even see any regular evidence of psychic abilities out there.

<< The fact is, there is evidence to support the concept of psychic ability. >>

Well, the fact is, there is NO evidence to DISPROVE the concept of psychic ability. Not the same thing at all. We’re back at trying to disprove the existence of invisible, undetectable leprechauns… just because we can’t disprove it, doesn’t mean they exist.

Unless you believe real hard, of course. Clap your hands three times if you believe!

This looks like it is turning into a Great Debate…

Welcome to the SD, randomgirl! Nice post.

No thread on the existance of psychic abilities is complete with a reference to James Randi’s one million dollar challenge.

If a person with extraordinary psychic abilities exists, one might suppose that a) they have discretion and are currently making in excess of 1 million dollars in the financial markets, b) they have never heard of the prize or c) they are not only nonmaterialistic, they are ungenerous, as they have forgone the opportunity to donate the money to the charity of their choice.

I’m not convinced of randomgirl’s b), c) and d) but I would have to know more about the particular (hypothesized) psychic power to judge that.

randomgirl’s a) and e) seem the most plausible to me. I have seen reports of large-sample studies showing evidence of small psychic effects. I’m leaning towards a), however (no effect), but that’s partly a matter of taste.

Man, I have got to preview my posts.

No thread on the existence of psychic abilities is complete without a reference to James Randi’s one million dollar challenge.

What Randi doesn’t realize is that his one million dollars is already gone. I drew a fog over his mind and nicked the money telekinetically. (joking)

I was interested in high school and early college by psychic phenomena, but became progressively more skeptical as I talked with “experts” (including Yuri Gellar).

In the end, I only knew of three situations that couldn’t be explained as trickery, misunderstanding, etc. Their experiences didn’t seem to be part of any larger, general psychic ability. Only in one case had the person discovered they could repeat the effect. (I tested him: he scored 100% in 20 tries, making a blind binary choice.) In all three cases, the person had no other “powers” and didn’t claim to understand the effect themselves.

So I’ll add three other possibilities for why psychic phenomena are difficult to research:

  1. The conditions that allow psychic effects are so rare and generally unrecollectable, even the person involved doesn’t know what they are, so can’t suggest what to test.

  2. Our idea of what a psychic effect is doesn’t even vaguely match what’s happening. So we’ve no idea what to observe. What looks like precognition in one situation appears as telepathy in another, for example.

  3. Psychic effects can’t be measured because something is intentionally stopping the effects from showing experimentally. Read your favorite cosmic philosophy or conspiracy theory, here. However, before completely writing this off, Christians might argue, for example, that since witchcraft (or is it necromancy) is forbidden by God, that only one who is very evil could manage it at all. And then only in rare circumstances suited to the divine plan, etc. (That’s JUST an example, I’m not saying psychics are evil.)

I personally don’t think there’s such a thing, just to be clear.

However, it is certainly possible that psychic powers exist but are very rare (one in a hundred thousand, say) and are affected by some other outside force (the tides, the phase of the moon, the weather, Tuesdays, the oyster harvest) that seems random.

Then, of course, testing would not be consistent. You test the same person on at the full moon and get good results, the second test is the next day and results are crummy. You’d need many many many test of the person before you figured out the powers were only present on teh full moon, or whatever.

Oh if only. The sad fact is that popular opinion leans far too much towards the “psychic powers exist” side of things.

I’d like you to give one example of one experiment where the flaws do not wholly bring into question any conclusions that may have been drawn.

But that’s not how it works, or rather, that’s not how it should work. If the phenomena aren’t there to be measured you’ll wait a long time. Also, exactly what things are there that “people can do that we don’t understand”? Examples would be very welcome.

No trouble at all. May I recommend to you a very good source on the subject of drawing good conclusions from conflicting, ambiguous and self-referencing data:
**How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich. **

Here’s a theoretical reason why I think psychic powers aren’t likely.

How would such powers evolve? We understand how (for instance) sight evolved. Photons carry energy, that energy can change the state of molecules, that state change can cause nerves to discharge, that discharge affects the brain. But what sort of energy is psychic energy?

We have some very good reasons to suppose that we pretty much understand all the types of energy that exist in the universe. Or at least…if there are other forms of energy, we have good reason to believe that they hardly ever affect normal matter. Why? Well, if those other kinds of energy often affected normal matter then we would be able to observe those effects. So tachyons might exist, but if they do then they should affect normal matter at all. And then we have the invisible leprechaun again. What does it mean to say that a tachyon exist but that it never affects normal matter, ever? In some ways, it might be clearer to say that if tachyons can never ever affect normal matter in our universe then tachyons don’t REALLY exist.

So. It seems that for psychic perception to work, there would have to be some sort of energy reception and emission of some kind. But we have reason to believe that we understand the kinds of energies that exist, and it seems that if a human brain could perceive those energies then we would be able to observe those energies in other ways. And then add in that we don’t have any good candidates for organs in the body that might be psychic in nature. Which is why the current theory of accupuncture MUST be incorrect, because there are no structures in the body corresponding to the Chi channels and meridians of acupuncture theory.

And also, we would expect that if a sense exists it must be useful in some way, otherwise it would never evolve. So, if humans have psychic senses, then we would suspect that our pre-human ancestors had similar senses. But we have no evidence that animals have these senses, and if they do what good are they? If the sense has no survival value, we would expect that it would deteriorate into unusability, like a cave fishes eyes.

So…either psychic abilities DO have utility, or they don’t. If they don’t, they probably don’t exist. And if they do, then we would expect many creatures to have them, and we would expect them to use them. Except we can’t seem to find any way that they COULD use them.

Which means that we have some reason to believe that such abilities don’t exist. Now, that doesn’t mean that they don’t or can’t exist…merely that it doesn’t seem likely. So therefore in order for people to accept that such psychic abilities exist, we must demonstrate that they exist, in order to overcome our theoretical reasoning about why they probably don’t exist. But such demonstrations are not forthcoming. Which leads most neutral observers to act as though such powers don’t exist, until such time that they can be demonstrated to exist.

[Warning - this is going to be very very long]

Well, I can’t believe I’m going to go out on this limb, especially in a public forum. However, since everyone in this thread has been nice and civil so far…

I believe that psychic abilities of some sort exist, but I am also very skeptical of the vast majority of people who publicly claim to be able to consciously use these “abilities”. There are a lot of cooks and unscrupulous people just out to make a buck in this world. There are also a great number of phenomena that seem psychic/paranormal that can be explained by more mundane means.

We may eventually devise some type of study or measurement that can definitively prove that abilities normally considered “psychic” exist, but I’m not aware of such a test yet. If such powers exist, and they are anything like some currently accepted “scientific” concepts like quantum physics, where the mere act of observing an experiment can affect the outcome (i.e. Schroedinger’s Cat), I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to prove or disprove psychic powers to the masses. (Like the naked guy in Mystery Men who could only disappear if nobody was looking :eek: )

My personal belief that certain psychic abilities are possible stem from a few first-hand experiences I’ve had. Like most experiences of this sort that people report, they have been vague enough, or questionable enough that skeptics can easily dismiss them or explain them away as coincidence or hallucination (or hey, maybe I’m just nuts! :D). For me, it has been the combination of different things that have happened rarely, but often enough over the years to give me pause more than any one specific event. I don’t really expect anyone to just take my word for it and say, “Oh, well that settles it.”, so I’m just offering this for anyone looking for more opinions. Some of the things I’ve experienced/seen (or think I’ve experienced/seen) I cannot easily explain through commonly accepted scientific principles. To be honest, I can’t explain what the psychic mechanism behind them would be either (but I have a few theories).

So here are brief descriptions of two of the “weird” things I’ve experienced:
#1: Scary dream with too many “coincidences” for me to ignore

Six years ago I was a senior at Purdue University (Go Boilers!). My wife and I were living at an apartment complex off campus. I had a dream one morning that went something like this:

I was walking along the street and passed an alley between two buildings. I looked down the alley and saw a man with a shotgun holding three people at gunpoint. I saw white powder in bags, and “knew” (you know how that happens in dreams) that it was cocaine. I ran into the building on one side of the alley, and found that I was in my old dormitory at Purdue, Tarkington Hall (I stayed there my first two years of college). I ran to a phone on the wall and tried to call the police, but the phone was dead. I then ran up the stairs and tried the phone on the wall on the second floor - it was dead too. I ran up one more flight of stairs into room 3xx (I forget the exact room number now) and tried the phone there. It worked, so I dialed 911. I yelled to the operator that there was a man in the alley holding people at gunpoint, and for whatever reason (I recall thinking that they would be able to ID the location of the phone) left the phone off the hook and ran to a window at the end of the hall that overlooked the alley. The man had already shot and killed the three people, and then turned the gun on himself and blew his own head off. Then I woke up.

This dream was realistic and startling enough to stand out from normal dreams I have. It had enough of an impact on me that I actually woke my wife up and told her about it in the same detail as above. I went to class, and came home later in the afternoon. When I turned on the TV, they were showing live footage of a hostage situation on campus. They had evacuated Wiley Hall. It is important to note here that Wiley is built right next to Tarkington. They are twin buildings built from the same plans. As I watched, police fired tear gas through a window and entered the building. After everything had settled down, here’s what came out: a student had been turned in by his floor counselor for cocaine possession. He apparently left the dorm before being apprehended, and came back with a shotgun. He shot and killed the counselor who had turned him in, and then blew his own head off in his room. It was the exact same room number (3xx) as in my dream.

Now, I realize that the dream and reality did not match up perfectly, but there were enough matches that it freaked me out for a good long time. It happened later in the same day, I recognized the building (or its twin anyway), the weapon used was a shotgun, an innocent was killed because of cocaine, the perpetrator blew his own head off, and it happened in the same room number that appeared in my dream. I might be more inclined to dismiss this as mere chance if I frequently had dreams involving any of the above subjects, but I don’t. Add that to the fact that I awoke uneasy enough to wake my wife up and tell her, and it’s enough to convince me that SOMETHING weird had happened. Of course, like I said, a closed-minded skeptic can easily dismiss this, or simply doubt my honesty, so it’s certainly not proof of anything.
#2: Now I see him, now I don’t… Oh wait, now I do

While at Purdue, I was a member of a martial arts club and trained very regularly. For those unfamiliar with the idea, many martial arts contain beliefs of one type or another that one’s spirit/energy is refined through rigorous training of the body (and sometimes abilities that some might consider psychic are gained as a result). Part of the idea is that one’s spirit/energy should optimally move with one’s intention. Most martial arts don’t spend much time dwelling on those concepts though.

At the point this happened, I was teaching most of the classes (not because I was that skilled or anything – more for lack of anyone better in the area at the time). I was at a class one night that was being taught by my senior student. We were practicing a technique that most people were not getting the hang of. This was mostly due to the fact that people were training in a half-assed manner without much focus or intention (the attacks were poor, and therefore the defenses could be sloppy too). The instructor was getting frustrated with the students’ lack of focus, and decided to demonstrate the technique again at a more realistic speed and power. So to set the scene for you visually, I was supposed to attack him (with a punch to the head), and he was planning to step to one side or the other, and do something dastardly and painful to me.

Since he wanted realistic, I threw the punch with the intention of knocking his head off. If that sounds a bit extreme, try to realize that anything less would have been robbing him of the opportunity (and incentive :)) to respond as realistically as possible. Anyway, I trusted that he’d move in time to keep from getting killed, so I let it rip. Now the whole thing only took a fraction of a second, but about halfway through my punch, I saw him move to the side (his left, my right) out of the way of my punch. As quick as this was happening, I still had time to think to myself that he’d blown it. He had moved WAY too early – as fast as I was going, I’d still have had time to adjust and track him. He should have been moving at the last possible instant so I could not follow him. For the sake of the demonstration, I just kept the punch headed for where his head originally was (remember again that this was all in a split second). Just as my fist was about to get to where his head started out, he was right back in front of me! I literally saw the “him” to the side disappear and blink right back to where he originally was – then the real “him” (who had never really moved at all) stepped neatly out of the way just in time – right back to where I had “seen” him go a fraction of a second earlier. This startled me so much that he couldn’t finish the technique because I had started to fall backwards from the surprise.

To recap in case I wasn’t clear: I threw the punch, “saw” him move way too early, then “saw” him disappear and reappear where he had started just in time to really step out of the way at the right moment. Everyone watching assured me that he had only moved once, and had never disappeared/reappeared anywhere. Within the context of the spirit/energy thinking of the art, I guess one explanation is that he was so intent on what he was planning to do ahead of time (that’s a big no-no), that I “saw” what his intention was before he actually did it. Who knows? Again, while it is easy to dismiss as any number of things, I know what I saw – or at least what I think I saw. I also certainly know how startled I felt – something that has only happened one other time to such a degree in the 10 years I’ve studied the art. It was just one more thing that leads me to believe that there is SOMETHING going on.

Like I said before, these types of things have happened rarely (or I’ve only noticed them rarely), but often enough to be more than statistical anomalies. All the usual discalimers apply – I’m not given to hallucinations, don’t use drugs, wasn’t drinking, etc. I’m perfectly open to the idea that these things and others I haven’t mentioned can be explained through various scientifically acceptable means, but at this point I think I would be stretching just as much to do so. Who knows what really happened? It’s certainly not enough to prove anything to anybody else (even if they believe me), but it’s enough for me to keep an open mind. Sorry to take up so much white space, and thanks for reading. (BTW: if you read this whole thing, you are obviously a masochist and should seek help. ;))

Take care,