People can 

be wrong, but

can be sane, 

intelligent, and

competent at 

the same time.





Psychics and Scientists
Mediums, Messages, and their Meanings
 By Jeanine DeNoma 
With only one or two exceptions, any time a major scientist has tested a psychic, they have ended up endorsing the psychic," said Ray Hyman at the first meeting of Oregonians for Rationality. Exploiting his crowd teasing skill as a stage magician, Hyman demonstrated the kind of performances psychics have used to convince scientists of their extraordinary powers.

     Hyman, using case histories from the 1800's spiritualist movement, examined why scientists have endorsed psychics. The spiritualist movement started in 1848 with the Fox sisters, who claimed to communicate with spirits through rapping noises. From the beginning, spiritualists offered something new - physical manifestations. This physical evidence interested scientists because they made the claims testable. Spiritualists invited scientific testing and many scientists accepted the challenge.

     Michael Faraday was one of the first to conduct such tests and one of the few major scientists who remained unconvinced. At the time, Faraday was studying the new force called electricity. Upon hearing reports that spirits were rapping out messages and causing tables to move, Faraday suggested the table movement might have something to do with electricity. When the Fox sisters came to his laboratory, indeed, the table did move. Faraday believed the sisters when they insisted they were not moving the table themselves. He then conducted a series of tests showing the table's movement had nothing to do with electricity, but was caused by involuntary movements of the people seated around the table.

     Faraday then, incorrectly, attributed all table moving to this single method. But as Hyman pointed out, there is more than one way to move a table, and most spiritualists did so using some rather tricky means which Faraday did not suspect. As a consequence, later investigators conceded tables were being moved by inexplicable means. "It is dangerous for skeptics to dismiss things out of hand, as if a single explanation accounts for everything," said Hyman. People will encounter situations which do not fit the explanation given and will come to believe even more strongly than they might have otherwise. It is important, Hyman stressed, to make it clear when debunking that you have identified only one of several possible explanations.

     Hyman then described the case of Johann Friedrich Zöllner, another prominent scientist who investigated spiritualism. Zöllner was a leading astrophysicist and a professor at the University of Leipzig in the 1870's. He was a recognized expert on comets, had written a book on the planets, and was noted for his work in developing scientific instrumentation.

     Zöllner was also interested in mathematical theories of higher dimensions. In his mind, there were no scientific reasons to preclude the existence of a fourth or fifth dimension. He speculated on how higher dimensions could be perceived by those of us confined to a three dimensional world. Hyman produced a "miraculous" event (a knot which untied without either of the rope's ends passing through the knot's loop) to illustrate how phenomena of the fourth dimension might appear.

     Upon hearing of the phenomena produced by the spiritualists, Zöllner suggested these apparent miracles might actually be natural events occurring in a higher dimension. In December of 1877, while developing his theories on higher dimensions, Zöllner was introduced to the spiritualist Henry Slade. Zöllner persuaded Slade to come to his laboratory to be tested. Considering himself a hardheaded scientist, Zöllner disregarded Slade's claims of communicating with the dead through slate writing and proceeded to test only the physical evidence.

     Slade, who initially had no idea what Zöllner meant by higher dimensions, quickly determined the kind of evidence Zöllner sought, and produced it. Slade's demonstrations convinced Zöllner that Slade was in fact in contact with the fourth dimension. Once convinced, Zöllner also accepted there were intelligent beings in this fourth dimension and Slade had the power to communicate with them.

     Again, Hyman was able to call upon powers of his own to demonstrate how the writing, believed to be done by partially materialized spirits, appeared upon slates.

     In 1878 Zöllner published Transcendental Physics, which not only detailed his physical theories on higher dimensions, but also his experiments with Slade and his beliefs about spiritualism.

     Two events occur when a scientist endorses a psychic's claims, said Hyman. The first is polarization. When a scientist announces he or she has evidence to support the paranormal, that scientist is not allowed to publish the evidence in standard scientific journals. The scientist must, therefore, publish in a spiritualistic or parapsychology journal. The scientist then communicates primarily with individuals far from mainstream science and eventually is pulled that way himself. Secondly, a false dichotomy is formed. The scientist is viewed as a hero by supporters of the phenomena or as deranged by detractors.

     "There is another alternative, which is the most likely alternative," said Hyman.

     "People can be wrong, but can be sane, intelligent and competent at the same time ... Being wrong, especially about the paranormal, is not correlated with intelligence."

     "Zöllner was not crazy; he was a competent scientist," said Hyman, as were the other scientists who conducted such investigations. "How could they be intelligent, good scientists and rational people and still be wrong?" Hyman listed several general themes which account for scientific endorsements of the paranormal:

     1. Being a good scientist in one area does not make one a good scientist in other areas. Expertise does not transfer. Scientists, however, often do not recognize the limits of their expertise.

     2. Zöllner had an explanation for Slade's slate writings even before he met Slade. He didn't need to "look under the table" as would colleagues who did not have such preconceived theories and to whom such happenings would appear incompatible with science. Scientists are as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else, Hyman reminded us. For example, scientists are more likely to devise tests to confirm their theories than tests to disprove them.

     3. In Zöllner's case there was an unconscious, symbiotic relationship between the two men. Slade gave Zöllner confirmation of his theory of higher dimensions, while Zöllner gave Slade the publicity accompanying the endorsement by a major scientist. Zöllner and Slade needed and unconsciously used each other to their mutual benefit.

     4. "Science occurs at the group level," said Hyman. "Most scientists tend to forget this and when they are successful they tend to think it is something about themselves and not about the structure within which science operates." Scientists work within a system of checks and balances which provides a knowledge base from established disciplines, peer review, and a subculture which reduces many mistakes. "When scientists step outside this structure, as when testing a psychic, they don't have the safeguards of this structure," said Hyman.

     What do these cases teach skeptics? First, said Hyman, skeptics should be certain they have the correct diagnosis before going public. As a skeptic, recognize your limits and accept that you can't be an expert in everything.

     When arguing, present your opponent's position in its strongest light; use the principle of charity. Do your homework; study the subject and use available resources such as CSICOP.

     Clarify your goals; bear in mind that while a lot of noise may attract the media, it may also undermine your credibility in the long run.

     And finally, don't try to explain something unless there is something to explain. "In 99% of the cases you'll deal with," said Hyman, "you won't have the kind of evidence needed ... You won't have scientifically verified evidence."

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 2001 Oregonians for Rationality