Unbelievable indeed

Author’s judgment clouded about her subject’s paranormal claims

Rick Lax

Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, From the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, NPR contributor Stacy Horn writes with the attitude and tone of an independent-minded skeptic, but none of the actual independent-minded skepticism. I suspect this is because Horn fell head over heels in love with her book’s subject, Duke parapsychologist Dr. J.B. Rhine, and when you’re in love, you tend to overlook the shortcomings of the object of your affection.

Horn describes Rhine as “tall, good-looking and seductive,” and says there are “women whose hearts still flutter at the sound of his voice on tapes and men who are willing to stake their reputations on his integrity.” Gender aside, I’m pretty sure Horn falls into both categories.

Unbelievable chronicles Rhine’s professional career, beginning when he created the Duke Parapsychology Lab in 1930, and ending when he left it in 1980. Rhine spent half his time traveling across the country, debunking psychics and mediums (which earns him credibility points in my book), and the other half in the lab, testing people for telepathy.

The Details

Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory
One star
Stacy Horn
Ecco, $25.
Amazon: Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory

In these experiments, the Duke parapsychologists used ESP cards—playing cards with circles, squares, crosses, wavy lines and stars on their faces. Each deck contained five of each card—twenty-five total. According to Horn, “Their experiments confirmed telepathy.”

Did they now?

“According to probability theory,” writes Horn, “just guessing randomly should turn up five correct answers for every run of 25 cards. If you get more than that, it’s significant and evidence that something else is at work.”

Really? Six correct guesses out of 25 is evidence of “something else at work”? That assertion demonstrates a misunderstanding of mathematics so fundamental that upon reading it, Horn’s editor should have confiscated the author’s literary advance until she audited a high-school statistics class and fixed the manuscript. When you go through a couple of runs of 25 ESP cards, you’ll make six or more correct guesses just under half the time. Come to think of it, we have a term for this in Las Vegas, and it’s not “telepathy”; it’s “luck.”

One of Rhine’s research subjects, Hubert Pearce, correctly guessed 10 ESP cards in a row. “It was highly improbable that anyone would guess 10 in a row just by chance,” writes Horn, in what should be made the textbook example of misinformation by omission. The probability of guessing 10 cards in a row depends on how many guesses you make. If you only make 10 guesses, then sure, the odds of getting all of them right are slim, but if you make a million guesses, the odds of getting 10 in a row correct are incredibly high.

Over the years, Rhine had hundreds of thousands of subjects make tens of millions of guesses, so of course some of them stumbled across a few lucky streaks. And others might have been cheating—that’s what psychologist B.F. Skinner thought.

The Duke parapsychologists countered Skinner’s attacks, logically, with psychic horses. Yes, you read that correctly: psychic horses. “Animals,” Horn explains, “were useful because they couldn’t be accused of trying to defraud the experimenters … The results of the animal studies varied, but nevertheless provided evidence of ESP. Still, whenever someone wants to portray J.B. Rhine in a less than flattering light, they bring up Lady Wonder, a telepathic horse that Rhine had once pronounced authentic.”

Horn says this as if attacking Rhine for calling a horse telepathic is some sort of cheap shot, when in actuality it’s a perfectly legitimate conversation-ender (i.e., “Would you like to participate in my laboratory’s upcoming ESP study?” “Aren’t you the guy with the telepathic horse?”).

Perhaps the reason Horn only spent one paragraph on Lady Wonder is that she’s embarrassed on Rhine’s behalf. That suggests that deep down, some part of Horn knows that Rhine’s life was an exercise in academic futility. After all, Horn is no idiot; she demonstrates intelligence and wit in many instances, but rarely when discussing her beloved Rhine. The things we do when we’re in love!

If you or anyone you know possess telepathic abilities, contact the James Randi Educational Foundation, which offers $1 million for evidence of extra-sensory perception.


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