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3. Professor Kurtz Investigates

by Guy Lyon Playfair


Evidence of Paranormality

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Evidence for paranormality keeps turning up in the least expected places, for instance in the July/August 2001 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the journal of the so-called Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. (Note that they don't pretend to investigate the actual phenomena, just the claims.) In the course of a lengthy article celebrating the 25th anniversary of this tendentious outfit, top psi-cop Paul Kurtz congratulates himself for saving us all from intellectual ruin and makes an astonishing revelation: he once actually did some psi research himself during a course he taught on parapsychology. His students carried out "nearly 100 independent tests" and "the thing that absolutely stunned me was the fact that we never had positive results in any of the many tests conducted" (his emphasis). He gives no details - we cannot expect a philosopher to bother with such trivia as scores and probability values, or even to tell us what kind of experiments these were except that they were designed "to test psychic and other claims". Nor does he explain why his 250 students only managed to get through 100 experiments in four years.

Now, I am statistically near-illiterate, but to get a 100 percent fail rate on a hundred tests sounds rather highly significant to me. Kurtz notes with pride that 90 percent of his students began the course as believers (in what? God? Fundamentalist secular humanism? Serious skeptical inquiry?) and "by the end 90 percent became extremely skeptical because of their failure to demonstrate the paranormal in their own experiments".
"Was the so-called goat effect suppressing the evidence?" he asks. "I doubt it." (The Sheep-Goat effect, discovered in the 1940s by psychologist Gertrude Schmeidler, is generally thought to be one of the most important findings in parapsychology. It proposes that those who accept the possibility of psychic phenomena (sheep) will score higher on any kind of tests than those who don't (goats). If Kurtz was interested in genuine skeptical enquiry instead of treating the whole area of the unexplained in the way a combine harvester treats a cornfield, he might have had his students look at a paper in the British Medical Journal (May 9th, 1987) entitled "Is there any point in being positive?" This gave the results of an experiment in which patients were given either positive suggestions (such as "This will make you better in a few days") or negative ones ("I don't think there's much I can do for you."). The positvely-motivated group recovered significantly more than the other one after just two weeks, whether they had been given medication or a placebo. So if being positive or negative about what you are doing can produce immediate physical results, we can expect it to affect scores in Kurtz's tests, whatever they were. The best known recent instance of the Sheep-Goat effect was that in which Marilyn Schlitz ( a sheep) and Richard Wiseman (a supergoat) carried out experiments with the same subjects and on two occasions got very different results, hers positive and his negative. In the October 2002 issue of The Paranormal Review, Caroline Watt asked each of them what kind of preparations they make before starting an experiment. Their answers were: Schlitz: "I usually pray, actually. I usually pause and ask the Divine that the highest purpose be revealed through the experiment. When she met her subjects, she added: "I tell people that there is background research that's been done already that suggests this works... I give them a very positive expectation of outcome. Wiseman: "In terms of preparing myself for the session, absolutely nothing."
That says it all, really

Copyright © Guy Lyon Playfair

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