unbelievable_coverFor nearly a half-century, Duke University was home to a parapsychology lab run by JB Rhine. Rhine was originally a botanist, but after a lecture by Arthur Conan Doyle, he became entranced with the idea of communication with the dead and other spiritual phenomena. So he studied them. Possibly he found proof that ESP is real (but, spoiler: probably not).

Rhine’s first academic home was the psychology department, and within a few years they gave him his own department. Everyone involved thought this a victory: Rhine assumed it validated his work, his psychologist colleagues were happy to rid the department of his apparent pseudoscience. Continuing his work with a seeming disregard for the haters, Rhine went on to publish two books and dozens of articles purporting to demonstrate telepathic abilities. Though maligned by the academic crowd, he was famous enough to be profiled in national magazines and received a steady stream of requests from people asking for his help to explain the inexplicable. He coined the phrase “extrasensory perception” (ESP) and brought a “new sheen of consummate professionalism” to the parapsychological study, but he’s largely forgotten today.

• • •

Rhine’s focus was telepathy, which is akin to mind-reading (clairvoyance, in contrast, requires divining information without a second person thinking about it and psychokinetic abilities involve affecting matter with only the power of your mind). One of his major contributions to the field was the development of Zener cards. You’ve probably seen them before, and they’re used in all kinds of parapsychology studies, including the seminal “Effects of Negative Reinforcement on ESP Abilities” (Venkman, 1984):

Rhine asked people to guess the identity of Zener cards when they couldn’t see them. Well, amend that slightly: he asked thousands of people to do this, hundreds of times each. The overwhelming majority of those people showed no telepathic ability—meaning they identified the cards at at a rate we’d expect if they were just guessing. But there were some outliers, potentially demonstrating ESP ability. And if you pooled all that data from everyone together, there were hints that just maybe telepathy was real, if ever so subtle.

And so that’s what Rhine argued: telepathy is real. His methods were meticulous, and his analyses almost impeccable, but his conclusions were roundly rejected. “Real” scientists were set to states of confusion, apoplexy, or confusio-plexy, and their responses ranged from measured—“I cannot reject the evidence and I cannot accept the conclusions”—to borderline homicidal. Scientists expected ESP research to be poorly controlled, wrongly analyzed, shot through with bias, and generally slipshod. Rhine’s work often was not. Statisticians generally supported the validity of his math, while steering clear of the the interpretation of his results and the resulting socio-scientific morass his findings produced.

That his results were rejected is one thing, the vitriol directed at him was quite another. Rhine spent a good portion of his career trying to get parapsychology accepted into the American Academy of Sciences. That eventually happened, but he subsequently learned that there’s not a fine line but instead a massive, yawning chasm between acceptance by rule and acceptance in practice. His new title didn’t buy any credibility. The frustrating thing is that, even if you think it’s a pointless topic to study, it is not simply by dint of being parapsychology, wrong or ascientific.*

*Then again, the problematic part for proponents of ESP abilities is that even if the topic can be studied empirically, there are as yet no replicable positive results. Rhine’s dilemma raises something of a metaphysical question: can a science be a science if it produces no positive results?

Rhine with Zener cards


The problem with Rhine was probably not his statistics, but the experimental procedures that generated them. One issue was experimenter bias, in which researchers can cue participants to the desired responses; a classic example is the mind-reading horse Clever Hans. Having apparently never heard of the famed equine, one of Rhine’s first studies was of a similarly “intelligent” horse. He believed the horse was telepathic, until someone pointed out that it was picking up nonverbal cues. Chastised, Rhine then argued the horse only used the nonverbal cues because it had tragically lost its telepathic abilities. It has been awhile since I took any kind of logic class, but I don’t think that’s a valid induction. Experimenter bias needn’t be conscious, for either the participants or the researcher—I doubt, after all, that Hans was in on the ruse— and it’s especially challenging if researching telepathy, since the experimenter must always know the correct answer.

Other questions have been raised about his work. For example, Rhine once dismissed several of his research assistants for inappropriate actions, but tellingly never specified how many he canned, what those actions were, nor whether any experimental data were compromised and/or disregarded. He’s also been accused of using “optimal stopping” to skew his results, by cutting short sessions where people performed poorly and extending sessions where people performed well.

• • •

Rhine’s outlier—his prized subject—was Hubert Pearce. Pearce was a student who routinely guessed Zener cards at levels well above chance performance and became a semi-permanent test subject. In one series of studies, designed to test the distance over which telepathy worked, Pearce was placed more than 100 yards away from the research assistant and in another building, but still was able to accurately guess card names. Unfortunately, his apparent telepathic abilities simply petered out one day, and he gave up. They tried testing him again years later, but he was never able to sustain performance like before. The separate-building study is a tough one for the skeptics—if Hubert cheated, it’s not clear how. He may have been the “Wyatt Earp” of thousands of subjects who stayed lucky long enough to seem telepathic.

A current example might demonstrate how even Rhine’s apparently-solid statistics might have led him astray. In 2011, Darryl Bem published a paper which purported to demonstrate precognition across more than one thousand participants (in eight of nine conducted experiments). In each of those experiments, he took a common psychological effect and reversed the typical order of events in the study. For example, participants might read a list of words, then try to recall them. After they were done, a computer randomly split the list of studied words in half to generate a (faux) “practice” list. Oddly, words participants had recalled were more likely to end up on this randomly-generated list than words they hadn’t recalled. Somehow, people were more likely to recall words that would later be randomly selected. Hence, precognition—or as Bem put it, “feeling the future.”

That’s left the social sciences in a bit of an uproar, not least because it implies that effect precedes cause. Bem’s studies are catalyzing a push away from standard null-hypothesis significance tests, which may turn out to be lax, especially in cases where we have good reason to believe that some effect (like, say, precognition) doesn’t exist. That laxness, in combination with subtle experimenter biases, could explain why Rhine could point to that faint positive evidence of ESP.

Rhine’s largely forgotten now, his findings largely ignored. Though I don’t think ESP exists, I think of Rhine as something of a tragic figure, because he brought or tried to bring a rigorous, academic approach to parapsychology, which had been and often still is the operating theater of crackpots and loons.

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A note on ghosts: A psychologist recently noticed that hauntings and poltergeists tended to occur in areas full of electromagnetic noise. Having made that observation, he did what any good empiricist would: built a helmet that generates EM noise and made people wear it to see what happens. Transient EM fields in the right pattern and intensity can cause people wearing the helmet to see shadows, sense a presence near them, experience strong emotions, smell odd things, feel the intense urge to throw pots with a spectral Patrick Swayze, or periodically summon Gozer the Destructor. That unseen presence near you is either the angry soul of an Indian from the ancient burial ground at the center of the geographic pentagram that your house designed by a 33rd-degree Fremason is aligned on or a low-grade complex partial seizure due to EM noise.


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