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|The Truth About ESP
The Koestler Institute believes it can show that extra-sensory perception does exist...
An article from someone who ventured into the Koestler experimental labs.
Saturday 5 April 1997
The Truth About ESP
After years of derision from the scientific establishment, the Koestler Institute believes it can show that extra-sensory perception does exist - and, says Robert Matthews, our science correspondent, the odds of it being wrong are 14 million to one.
I HAVE been locked in a sound-proof room, I have got ping-pong balls taped over my eyes and hissing noises are being fed into my ears. All I need now is a smack across the head with a pistol, and I could be in Iraqi Police HQ. The illusion is spoiled only by the presence of Dr Caroline Watt checking to see if I feel comfortable and relaxed - which I do, curiously enough. It's odd how expectations alter perceptions.
As it happens, that is one of Dr Watt's current research interests here at the Koestler Institute at Edinburgh University. For she is one of a small team of scientists supported by a £1.6 million fund left by the writer Arthur Koestler and his wife.
Towards the end of his life the Hungarian-born writer, most famous for expressing his disillusionment with Communism in such works as Darkness at Noon, became fascinated by the connections between science, creativity and mysticism. Suffering from leukemia and Parkinson's disease, he killed himself in 1983 (his much younger wife Cynthia committing suicide at the same time); their joint estate was left for research into "parapsychological phenomena": extra-sensory perception, clairvoyance and psychokinesis. In short, all the X-files stuff we find fascinating, but which stuffy conventional scientists won't touch with a barge-pole.
I am trying out the so-called ganzfeld experiment, something of a Koestler Institute speciality. The ping-pong balls and hissing sounds are, I am told, needed to dull down my conscious thoughts so that my unconscious abilities can shine through. The idea is that once I have spent half an hour or so getting myself in a nice, relaxed state, one of Dr Watt's colleagues in the adjoining room could try to contact me telepathically, mentally beaming me an image picked at random by a computer. If I am capable of extra-sensory perception, then I should be able to pick up those thought waves, and correctly identify the picture when it is shown to me at the end of the test.
As ever, I'm in too much of a rush for any of this relaxation stuff and give up after five minutes, my mind as tranquil as Victoria Coach Station. I settle instead for the vicarious excitement of hearing what happened during tests on the dozens of human guinea-pigs who have sat here, ping-pong balls on eyes, hiss in ears. And the results are enough to spook anyone. For, according to Dr Watt and her colleagues, this room has been the scene of many impressive demonstrations of ESP. Some perfectly ordinary people, it seems, have the perfectly extraordinary ability to read the thoughts of others.
Her boss, Professor Robert Morris, the director of the Koestler Institute, sums up the evidence to date thus: "Over the 10 years or so I have been here, I have come to the conclusion that the likelihood that something is going on has gone up, percentage-wise, from the low 80s to the low-to-medium 90s."
It seems that while we have all been sitting slack-jawed in front of television watching agents Mulder and Scully sort out the X-files, real scientists have been doing real experiments, and reaching truly astonishing findings. The latest will emerge at a meeting of the British Psychological Society to be held later this week, when Prof Morris will give preliminary results which may be the best evidence yet for the existence of ESP.
In a trial involving a total of more than 100 people, Morris and his colleagues found that subjects were able to pick out which of four pictures were being "beamed" to them with a success rate of almost 50 per cent - twice the 25 per cent rate expected if they were simply guessing. Which might not sound too impressive until one learns that the chances of doing this by fluke alone are staggeringly small: around 1 in 14 million.
To put that figure in context, scientists typically regard any result whose odds against fluke are less than one in 20 as being "significant". By those standards, Morris's latest evidence for ESP is almost a million times more convincing than much conventional scientific evidence. The results are 35,000 times more "significant" than the level of evidence governments demand of pharmaceutical companies before they will let a new drug on to the market.
In short, by all the normal criteria of scientific evidence, Prof Morris and his team at the Koestler Institute have finally proved that ESP exists. As a cautious research scientist, Prof Morris winces at talk of final proof: good scientists always admit there is room for doubt.
But orthodox scientists have no such qualms about talking in certainties. They are certain that, no matter how impressive the statistics, no matter how much evidence stacks up, there is - must be - something going wrong in that room with the ping-pong balls and headphones.
Their view of the research at the Koestler Institute is succinctly put by Professor Lewis Wolpert of University College, London, chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, and de facto spokesman for orthodox science: "It's illegitimate - it's absolute nonsense."
But what about those tiny statistical odds against a fluke result? Prof Wolpert couldn't care less: "They have statistical evidence - oh, yawn. They've been claiming to have statistical evidence for years."
Exactly the same criticism could be levelled at huge swathes of conventional science, much of which is propped up more by statistical evidence than detailed understanding. What is it about parapsychology in general and the Koestler Institute in particular that causes the red mist to descend in the minds of otherwise reasonable scientists such as Prof Wolpert?
One of the big problems most scientists have with the paranormal is that, almost by definition, no-one has the faintest clue how it can work. There is, for example, nothing in the known laws of physics that even begins to explain how the ESP supposedly demonstrated by the ganzfeld experiments might work.
If anything, the Koestler Institute's research has made explanations harder to find: the room used for the experiments is electromagnetically "screened", ruling out the vague notion that people are somehow picking up feeble electrical or magnetic activity being generated in the brains of others. There's some New Age talk about a quantum web of interactions that binds every living thing in the universe to everything else, but such vague explanations are precisely that: vague.
Lack of an obvious explanation for ESP and the like would not, by itself, be enough to repel most scientists: to this day, no one understands precisely how anaesthetics work, but that doesn't stop doctors using them. The real reason orthodox scientists refuse point-blank to take claims for ESP seriously is more sociological than scientific: a fear of being written off by their peers as a loony or a fraud. And the paranormal has certainly had its fair share of both.
Exhibit A in the case against claims for the paranormal is getting a bit dusty, but has lost none of its power. It dates back to the 1930s, and centres on the work of Dr Samuel Soal, lecturer in mathematics at the University of London. He began as a sceptic, and even set up card-guessing experiments to debunk claims for telepathy. His initial findings seemed to support his scepticism: in over 120,000 trials, his results showed a hit rate no better than chance.
But sifting through the data, he found that one subject named Basil Shakleton scored staggeringly well in guessing not the card that was dealt, but the one that would come up next. In other words, Soal's results may not have been evidence for ESP, but Dr Soal recalled Shakleton, and between 1936 and 1943 carried out a series of tests whose findings were, on paper, at least, utterly convincing. In one "run", Shakleton scored 1,101 hits out of 3,789, a success rate so high that the chances of it being a fluke are almost incalculably small: very roughly, they are equivalent to winning the National Lottery jackpot six times on the trot.
When Dr Soal's results were published in 1954, they were hailed as the long-awaited definitive proof for the reality of paranormal abilities, and all the more impressive for coming from an academic and former sceptic.
But soon rumours began to circulate that Soal's results were not all they seemed. There was talk of collusion, data-massaging and outright fraud, all of which Soal vehemently denied. Then, in 1960, one of Dr Soal's test-subjects claimed that she had seen him secretly alter the records of his experiments to boost the numbers of hits. An examination of Dr Soal's papers would have settled the matter: unfortunately, Dr Soal said he had mislaid the originals on a train journey.
As it happens, the coup de grace was delivered by the Society of Psychical Research in London. A study by SPR researcher Elizabeth Marwick revealed that many of the supposedly independent test runs were in fact just repetitions, and also seemed to have been altered to boost the success rate of subjects. The conclusion seemed inevitable: Dr Soal had fiddled his results.
The debunking of Dr Soal threw the whole field of paranormal research into a scientific abyss out of which it has spent decades trying to clamber. And since his appointment in 1985, Prof Morris has set himself the task of becoming the Edmund Hillary of parapsychology, leading the field back out of that abyss.
For the best part of a decade, he and his small team have driven journalists crackers by seemingly refusing to make any progress at all. What they have been doing instead is something rarely seen in mainstream science: spending years just looking at the myriad ways in which they could fool themselves - or be fooled - into seeing effects that aren't there. One of the earliest recruits to the Koestler Institute was Richard Wiseman, a member of the Inner Magic Circle who went on to write an entire PhD thesis on how to commit psychic fraud.
"Our approach can be described as sceptical - not in the commonly understood sense of disbelieving, but in the proper sense as 'questioning'," says Prof Morris. "We feel that parapsychologists must develop a firm conceptual understanding of deception strategies."
Prof Morris now believes that experiments at the Koestler Institute are not merely upto scientific standards, but far exceed them: "It would be a real joke for us to go to scientists working in other fields and say, okay, let's see how you do your experiments. We can certainly see where a lot of sloppiness can come into what they do, and where fraudsters could work. In our work, we still have to state if we cleaned a test-tube, or threw it away and used a new one. You simply never see that in conventional scientific literature."
Prof Morris point this out out of pique. He says he completely accepts the dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: "If you are making very strong claims then you must tighten things up."
And certainly the claims now emerging from the Koestler Institute are pretty extraordinary. In 1995, the team published results of ganzfeld experiments in which a team of "senders" attempted to telepathically transmit random images to a total of 97 people in the ganzfeld room. The overall results showed a success rate of 33 per cent - just enough to imply a "significant" result by the conventions of mainstream science.
But analysis of the results showed that two-thirds of the hits occurred when the experiments were being overseen by one female member of the Koestler research team. The obvious conclusion was that she was somehow contriving to tip off the people in the room about which picture they should claim to see.
Which would be easy to do - except the experimenters are never allowed to see what pictures are being transmitted. But what about electronic bugging devices? A distinct possibility, were it not for the fact that there is always another experimenter on hand to keep an eye on the other. So they must both have been bent. Maybe - but they would still have to nobble the ordinary people who come into the lab to act as "receivers", none of whom are ever allowed more than one "go" at the ganzfeld experiment.
Prof Morris and his colleagues are the first to admit that none of these arguments against fraud is 100 per cent watertight: ultimately, somebody sufficiently determined can always fiddle the results. But, if the results are part of some huge conspiracy, it's certainly a rum one. Prof Prof Morris and his team don't seem to be in it for money. The income from the Koestler fund amounts to a relatively paltry £100,000 a year, from which Prof Morris takes his own salary, plus that of his four staff. Such financial independence does at least free them from the pressure to "publish or perish", widely thought to encourage much fraudulent practice in mainstream science.
The Koestler team don't seem to be in it for the glory, either. Parapsychology research is hardly the career of choice for anyone wanting the approbation of their scientific peers. Arguably, the more they succeed in finding evidence for ESP, the larger the gulf will become between them and the scientific establishment.
Public fascination with the paranormal would guarantee the Koestler team huge publicity every time they open their mouths. But again, they don't appear to be interested in such easy fame: "We have consciously avoided doing a lot of PR work," says Prof Morris. He and his colleagues certainly seem more anxious to get on with their research than issuing press releases every week. Compare this to the constant stream of announcements by cancer scientists, environmentalists and astronomers with nothing to say and huge public funding to say it with.
So if incompetence, fluke or fraud cannot explain the results now starting to emerge from the Koestler Institute, what are we left with? To many outside the scientific community, the answer is clear: ESP must be real.
But for many of those within it, the ganzfeld results are still far from tipping the balance of probabilities away from known science and towards the paranormal. Says Prof Wolpert: "There's always a chance that the Queen could be a Russian spy, but you'd want to have extraordinary evidence before believing it. I could be wrong about the existence of psychic phenomena, but I think it's very unlikely."
So far, the sceptics of paranormal research have had it easy, falling back on old cases of fraud and incompetence to dismiss the whole enterprise. Prof Morris and his team are determined to make them work much harder. As well as the ganzfeld results, they are planning new experiments which will cast more light on how - and perhaps even why - ESP works. They are setting the stage for a scientific battle that will take place at the very frontiers of knowledge. And the sceptics will need more sophisticated weapons than hand-waving and hot air if they are to see off these new challenges to orthodox science.
After 10 years of scientific fitness training, Prof Morris and his team are now battle-ready: "No matter how it comes out," says Prof Morris, "it's going to give us some interesting insights into the whole social psychology of science."
© Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997
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