Compare and contrast the following.
The Society for Psychical Research – “the first of its kind to examine allegedly paranormal phenomena in a scientific and unbiased way” - was established in 1882. (Remember that date.) Success was claimed in its first test of “psi” when the psychic powers of the Creery sisters and their servant girl were supposedly proven. Of course, we now know the girls cheated (they were secretly signaling to each other). However, you’ll be pleased to know that 124 years later the society is not defeated in its aims:
Today the Society continues with its aim of understanding events and abilities commonly described as 'psychic' or 'paranormal' by promoting and supporting important research in this area.
Yes, I guess they think that pretty soon they’ll have good evidence that psychic powers exist and will be able to make some use of it – surely it’s only a matter of time, right? Right. That’s what some people believe, anyway.
Around the same time – in the 1890s - Morse code began to be extensively used for radio communications. Shortly after, on Christmas Eve 1906, the world's first radio voice broadcast was made. The early ship bound Morse operators didn’t believe it when they first heard a human voice on their equipment, but it really was there and radio would soon be extensively used whether they believed in it or not.
In the early 20th century, J. B. Rhine coined the term "extrasensory perception" (ESP) to describe the apparent ability of some people to acquire information without the use of the known senses. Using Zener cards, he claimed he had proven the existence of ESP, although it was later discovered that Rhine was leaving out negative results from his results on the basis that persons who disliked him guessed wrong to spite him. To my knowledge, no practical use has ever been made of Rhine’s work, although I’m sure some people think that will change pretty soon.
As a young boy I learned the Russians had put a satellite into space. It was called Sputnik and I remember my friend and I watching it with our naked eyes as it passed over our town at night. You could listen to it on your radio too. Soon after, Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, and my friend and I played at being astronauts. Not all that long afterwards (in the grand scheme of “long”), we all saw pictures of the first Moon landings. It didn’t matter if you believed it or not, space travel was real, and we could see it beamed back to us in real time.
In the 1950s S.G. Soal experimented on 160 psychically gifted people to see if they could determine through psychic means which one of five Zener cards had been turned over by a “sender” in another room. After some data mining, Soal claimed he had proven the existence of psi, although it was later shown he had cheated. Funnily enough, Soal’s work didn’t add any new knowledge or provide any more utility compared with what Rhine had already found (or more accurately, “not found”), and for some reason, forced choice Zener cards are not used in psi experiments any more. Instead, more subjective tests requiring judging (and therefore allowing more wiggle room) are used. Pretty soon, using this less rigorous method, we’ll have the proof that psi is real and is of use. Or so some believe.
Meanwhile scientists had invented color TV. I remember it well – our next door neighbor, who was wealthier than us, got one of the first color TVs and we went to his house to watch a football match. For the first time you could easily tell which team a player was with because each team’s shirts were in different colors. You had no choice about believing it or not – color TV worked and was a vast improvement over black and white.
As a teenager, I read that someone called Nostradamus had managed to predict the future 500 years ago. Surely this was proof of psychic powers? But then I got hold of a book containing the entire Nostradamus Centuries and I realized Nostradamus’ predictions were useless unless the thing being predicted had already taken place. To me, that didn’t seem to be much use. Believers in Nostradamus said I was closed minded, but I had examined the evidence and I just didn’t believe in Nostradamus or see any use in reading his predictions any more.
My (older) brother-in-law who worked “in computers” took me to his workplace. He showed me the big stacks of punch cards that he had to feed into the massive computer (it took up a huge room) to make it work. Apparently he ran the overnight batch jobs. A few years later, someone developed a small computer that can sit on your desk, and even later a way of connecting all these computers in the world in what became known as the Internet. I’m writing this piece on a one of these small computers now, and you’re reading this on one too, over the Internet. It works whether you believe in it or not.
Someone called Rupert Sheldrake claimed he had proven that people can tell when somebody is staring at them. When this was investigated by skeptics it was found that the sequences used in Sheldrake's research were not properly randomized: when random sequences were used people can detect staring at no better than chance. Believers still dispute this, and Sheldrake is on the verge of coming up with a use for this phenomenon pretty soon. If you believe Sheldrake, anyway.
I remember when the first mobile phones appeared. The first person I saw talking on one in the street looked ridiculous with the huge headset and battery back slung over his shoulder. But now my cell phone is so small I don’t even notice it is in my pocket. And I have a tiny headset that fits in my ear and connects wirelessly to the cell phone in my pocket – I don’t even have to hold the phone to my ear with my hand any more. And I can dial just by saying the name of the person I’m calling. And it works whether I believe it or not. (Most of the time, anyway.)
From 1975 through 1995 the US government funded investigations into remote viewing to the tune of $20 million, in what was known as the Stargate Project. Despite all the time and money, nothing useful ever came from Stargate and the US government dropped it. A private remote viewing organization calling itself PsiTech claims it purchased this (useless) “technology” from the government, and claims to this day to be able to perform remote viewing. Their recent successes include divining the location of Elizabeth Smart’s dead body. Unfortunately for PsiTech but fortunately for Elizabeth’s family, Elizabeth appeared some months later, quite alive. This didn’t faze the President of PsiTech who emailed me bleating “This is still a young technology”. Hey, tell that to the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882.
Last year, scientists managed to decode a two-watt signal from a spacecraft on one of Saturn’s Moons, a billion miles away. Although the signal was never meant to be transmitted to Earth, it was received anyway and 100% of the scientific data was extracted successfully. That happened whether you believe it or not.
Meanwhile, I turn on the TV and I see a clown called John Edward asking a caller on Larry King if they know a J or a G-sounding name. (Note – Edward asks the caller – wouldn’t a real psychic tell the caller this information?) The same Larry King also features on primetime worldwide TV a moron called James Van Praagh who actually says “skeptics … use this thing about taking a test and proving it, the emphasis should be on them to prove it to us this is not real”. According to him this stuff, which is of no use at all anyway, is real unless we can prove it isn’t. The next day Sylvia Browne tells listeners on the "Coast to Coast" radio show that the miners trapped in a West Virginia mine would be found alive. That was just after the news broke they had been found alive but just before the revised news they were actually dead. And people still believe this old phony.
Oh sure, Gary Schwartz claims to have validated John Edward and Allison DuBois, but Schwartz hasn’t published his data and no one has been able to replicate it. (The fact that he validated John Edward should be enough to tell you his research stinks.) And even if it were true, no use has come from these bozos other than “acknowledging” and “validating” passed loved ones, whatever that means. In 124 years, psi research has progressed to no more than a carnival guessing game act on TV. But it’s not just that the evidence for psi has not gotten any better over the last 124 years compared with advances in science, although that is notable. The real lesson is that even if psi were real, in 124 years we still haven’t found an actual use for it – no psi communications devices, no accurate predictions of the future, no military use, nothing.
Compare that with the real world of science. We started this post with Morse code, but now I can now access computers anywhere in the world from the color screen of my small cell phone. And it all works whether you believe in it or not. Where are the equivalent unambiguously real and useful psi applications? Oh I get it: they’ll be here pretty soon. My question is – how much longer do we have to wait for some use to be made of psi before we can all agree it doesn’t exist?