Since Discover published my update on The End of Science, some readers have informed me that science—far from ending--is on the verge of thrilling breakthroughs in the understanding of paranormal phenomena, or “psi.” Coincidentally (or is it synchronistically?), the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina, just sent me a fundraising letter making the same point.
The center is named after Joseph B. Rhine, a psychologist at
In the fundraising letter, Sally Rhine Feather, Rhine’s daughter and the center’s executive director, contends that the scientific evidence for ESP and other paranormal effects “is substantial and continually growing.” Researchers “are now focusing on how it works” and “can be used in healing and even business [!] applications.” The letter adds that half of all Americans believe in ESP and 65 million have experienced it first-hand.
As Deborah Blum points out in her new book Ghost Hunters, a century ago William James and other leading intellectuals thought psychic phenomena—including ghosts and channeling--worth investigating. Unfortunately, since then no one has produced any credible evidence for psi. That is why vanishingly few prominent scientists evince belief or even interest in psi now.
One notable exception is the physicist Freeman Dyson, who in a fascinating essay in the March 25, 2004, New York Review of Books says he finds psi credible. His family included two “fervent believers in paranormal phenomena,” a grandmother who was a “successful faith healer” and a cousin who edited the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Dyson conjectures that no one has produced empirical proof of psi because it occurs under conditions of “strong emotion and stress,” which are “inherently incompatible with controlled scientific procedures.”
This reminds me of Richard Feyman’s quip about string theorists: they don’t make predictions, they make excuses. Another common excuse of psi advocates is that skepticism kills psi. That, they claim, is why no one has been able to win the million-dollar prize that the magician and debunker James “The Amazing” Randi has offered to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers. The converse of the skepticism excuse is much more likely to be true: the so-called evidence of psi is just a product of wishful thinking (when it's not simply fraudulent).
Psi advocates also whine that their revolutionary results are ignored and suppressed by uptight narrow-minded scientists locked within their boring, materialist paradigm. Bullshit. The vast majority of scientists would love to see clear-cut evidence of psi--just as they would love to see evidence for strings, or parallel universes, or Martians--because it would blow science wide open and make it thrilling again. The evidence just isn’t there.