A major US research institution has just released details of its lengthy investigation into psychic and telekinetic phenomena, and has concluded that “psi” probably doesn’t exist.
This result, which conflicts with that claimed by many parapsychologists, seems unambiguous. The trial was possibly the most comprehensive, most well regulated and undoubtedly the best funded on psi phenomena to date. The study took place over a period of more than 50 years, and was funded to the tune of 50 billion dollars. Over 5 million people were tested for “psi” abilities, and although some exciting hits were occasionally reported, none of them could ever be reliably replicated.
The first part of the trial was to see if telekinesis could be observed. The experimenters tried to see if people could affect the results of mechanical random number generators (RNGs), to produce particular non-random sequences. According to Professor Alison Lo of the Nevada University:
Our first test method used a machine with spinning metal disks sealed in a glass and metal box. It was hypothesized that numbers were uninspiring to the testers’ psi abilities, so we painted target symbols (bells, cherries, etc.), instead of numbers on the disks. The testers tried to make the disks stop so that 3 identical target symbols were showing through the glass (or predict which of the thousands of machines we have was about to do so).
To motivate the testers to perform at their best, whenever they succeeded at this task, we rewarded them with cash - sometimes very large amounts of cash, up to thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The RNGs were calibrated before and after each experiment, to determine and verify the results expected by pure chance. To make sure people were invested in the test, the experimenters required them to pay a small fee (usually a quarter) for each test. Due to this financial element, the experiment was overseen by government regulators. Here is Prof. Ali Lo again:
We were required by law to return a certain percentage of the test fees. Because of this, our machines are always constructed so as to return 92% of the money they take in.
When the financial data were analyzed, the experimenters found that the RNGs produced data that matched pure chance: they paid out exactly the same mathematical percentage as they were set to pay out. The calibration of the RNGs and the percentages paid out were confirmed by the government inspectors to be correct.
The second part of the trial was to test psychic abilities to predict future results. For this part of the trial, Professor Alberto Sciocco designed a different type of RNG based on a spinning wheel with 38 numbered and colored “slots” on the rim into which a rolling ball would be introduced. A. Sciocco tried to see if the testers could predict which slot the ball would randomly end up in, or sometimes just which color (red or black), would be randomly selected. Again the results were no better than chance. This is despite the potentially even larger cash rewards for correctly predicting the result on this type of RNG. These results were also confirmed by the government inspectors.
The results of this trial have been successfully replicated at similar research institutions in Atlantic City, Europe (mainly Monte Carlo), and the Far East. More recently, Native American researchers around the US have performed the same trials, with the same results as those of the Las Vegas institution. After 50 years, 50 billion dollars, and 5 million people (most of whom were tested continuously for at least a weekend), no one has ever found any individual who could successfully perform these experiments better than chance without cheating. (And the cheaters were “taken care of”, if you know what I mean, so fuggedabowdit.)
The researchers haven’t given up, however. They are ready and willing to test anyone who believes they have “psi” skills. In fact, the experimenters are determined that these experiments will continue for as long as there are
punters testers who still believe they can “win”. Unlike much of academic research, continued funding for these experiments doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Skeptico, April 1, 2005. Thanks to Yahzi for the original idea.