A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Book Review


The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena

by Dean Radin
(HarperOne 1997)




part nine

Science has led us away from superstition and magical thinking. Parapsychology leads us into a world of mysterious, unpredictable, elusive, hidden forces whose power might be harnessed for unimaginable accomplishments. In other words, parapsychology leads us back to a world governed by superstition and magical thinking. This is the world of "ancient wisdom," dressed in a white lab coat and surrounded by misused electronic equipment.

Radin notes: “the concept that mind is primary over matter is deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy and ancient beliefs about magic.” However, instead of saying that it is now time to move forward, he rebuffs “Western science” for rejecting such beliefs as “mere superstition.” He even claims that “the fundamental issues [of consciousness] remain as mysterious today as they did five thousand years ago.” Hmm. We may not have arrived at the final answer to the questions “What is mind?” and “What is its relationship to matter?” but a lot of the mystery has evaporated with the progress made in the neurosciences over the past century. Perhaps Radin should expand his reading list. 

Like many parapsychologists, Radin is enamored of modern physics, especially anything strange in quantum mechanics. He's not a physicist, but an engineer, which might account for some of his ideas about such things as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Radin says that “the simple act of observation changes the nature of a physical system,” which is true (as far as I understand the principle) only if the act of observation inputs energy into the system being observed. I don’t think any physicist believes that looking through a telescope at the moon changes the moon. (Heisenberg was not talking about the epistemological problems of perception and knowledge that concerned such thinkers as Immanuel Kant.) Nevertheless, Radin and many other parapsychologists think they are making important contributions to consciousness studies. As Charles Tart says: “I do not study anomalies. I study the fundamental nature of the human mind!” (March 2002, Journal of Parapsychology: “Parapsychology and transpersonal psychology: “Anomalies” to be explained away or spirit to manifest?”) I don't think so.

Radin also brings up the possibility that mind may influence matter in quantum effects, even though he claimed (in the Jeffrey Mishlove interview for the series “Thinking Allowed”) that it is unlikely quantum physics would help understand biological phenomena. He expands on this possibility in his follow-up book Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. In the end, though, he admits he and other parapsychologists are just guessing that psi will be explained by quantum physics.

In chapter eight of The Conscious Universe, “Mind-Matter Interaction,” Radin discusses three studies on quantum mechanics and consciousness. He reports that four physicists from MIT tested the hypothesis that a “second person’s experience may differ according to whether the first has or has not looked at the system” (p. 128). It didn’t in one of their experiments, but did in another. He considers the PEAR PK experiments to be the third such study and claims that the experiments “provided persuasive evidence of a relationship between mental intention and the output of these random physical devices.” Entangled Minds offers no further experimental evidence for a connection of psi to quantum mechanics, but it does offer some attempts at conceptual analogs that suggest some possibility of being able to explain psi.

The PK experiments seem to be based on the assumption that mind or consciousness is a separate kind of reality from matter, i.e., dualism. But rather than be concerned with traditional mind/matter interactions, such as how can a thought cause my arm to rise or how can a physical event give rise to a mental event, the parapsychologists ask the equivalent of how can a thought in my mind cause your arm to rise? They have not reduced themselves to such nonsense yet, as far as I know, but they consider attempts to use prayer to heal others as scientific PK experimentation.

As noted earlier, Radin and other parapsychologists think that what appears to be mind-matter interaction may actually be precognition. However, they may as well posit that dice are conscious beings who receive telepathic thoughts from minds or send telepathic thoughts to the minds of those who roll the dice. In parapsychology, no improbable stone is left unturned.

Radin notes that there are "fantastic theoretical implications" of the kind of effect he thinks the PEAR studies found (p. 129). Yes, but one of those implicationsnot mentioned by Radinis that experience as we know it would be impossible. If people’s minds were able to have a noticeable effect on events, there could be no consistent flow of events and no notion of causality as the regular succession of events. But Radin and others doing these experiments (like Helmut Schmidt) assume that since they are testing mental intention, they are measuring mental intention. What they are doing is (a) asking people to make an effort to cause some event with their thoughts and (b) then measuring differences between chance prediction and actual outcome in various machines. They’re assuming that the difference, if any, is due to some sort of mind-matter interaction. The whole enterprise is one grand ludicrous example of begging the question: the PK experimenters assume what they claim to be proving.

Radin himself raises the question: if these experiments were so wonderful, why does the scientific community continue to ignore them and why don’t more people know about them? His answer is two-fold: there is “a general uneasiness about parapsychology” and the scientific disciplines are insular in nature. “The vast majority of psi experiments are unknown to most scientists,” he says. Radin then dismisses those few scientists who have reviewed the parapsychological literature but have concluded that the studies are not as wonderful or as important as Radin makes them out to be. Such folks are “super-skeptics” who’ve conducted “superficial reviews.” They haven’t bothered to examine the entire body of evidence, he says. In other words, they don't take thousands of questionable studies, lump them together, wave the magic wand of meta-analysis over the data, and pull the rabbit out of the hat with odds against change of a billion billion to one.

Before Radin takes us through the evidence, he issues the precognition caveat again. It’s really impossible to tell the difference between mind-matter interaction and precognition. Is the subject influencing the system? Or is the subject using precognition to identify system states before they occur? (As noted above, he seems to consider it too farfetched to consider that maybe physical objects and machines have minds and are using telepathy to influence dice rollers or operators in RNG experiments.) He also wisely dismisses any consideration of “macropsychokinesis,” i.e., spoon bending and moving objects across a table. Even Radin recognizes that trickery and deception have dominated the PK demonstrations by the likes of Eusapia Palladino, Ted Owens, Banachek, or Uri Geller. Even so, what is called macropsychokinesis is what most people think of when they think of psychokinesis. The parapsychologists, unable to find any clear and decisive evidence for psychokinesis, didn’t give up. They now search for micropsychokinesis (mPK)! How is this mPK identified? By microstatistics, of course! Just as any variance from chance in an ESP experiment is taken as evidence of ESP, so any minute deviation from chance in an mPK experiment—as long as it's "statistically significant"— is taken as evidence of PK.

The Dice Experiments

According to Radin, PK experiments began in earnest in 1935 with J. B. Rhine, but Rhine didn’t publish anything on this work until 1943. Perhaps he held off on publication because his studies weren’t well done; perhaps he didn’t get the results he wanted; or perhaps PK wasn’t respectable yet. In any case, like some parapsychologists today, including Radin, Rhine thought that magical healing by faith or folk healers was due to PK. Perhaps studying how rollers influence dice would lead to the healing of the planet. Who knows?

According to Radin, between 1935 and 1987 there were 148 dice experiments by 52 investigators. This resulted in 73 publications involving 2,569 subjects and 2.6 million dice throws. Of the 124 studies, 31 were control studies involving 150,000 dice throws where no mental influence was tried (Radin uses the word “applied” instead of “tried”—indicating his assumption that mental influence occurred.)

In 1986, he and Diane Ferrari did a meta-analysis of the dice experiments and found that the control studies yielded 50.02% (odds against chance of 2 to 1), while the experimental studies yielded 51.2% (odds against chance of a billion to 1.) He says that he and Ferrari took the information from the studies and “for each study we calculated a 50-percent equivalent chance hit rate” (p. 134), but he doesn’t say how this calculation was done (Journal of Scientific Exploration,1991, “Effects of consciousness on the fall of dice.”) [Note: only 7 has a 50% chance of being rolled with two dice; all other combinations are less than 50%, ranging from 1/12 (8.3%) for 2 and 12 to 5/12 (41.6%) for 6 and 8.]

Radin notes that other analyses showed that the results were not due to a few investigators or studies, nor to the file-drawer effect, though the latter remains a problem. He doesn’t say how he calculated that one would need 17.974 studies in the drawer per published study to nullify the data. In any case, Radin found that the results didn’t depend on the quality of the experiment, i.e.,  the results didn’t get worse as the quality got better. He doesn't say how quality was measured.

The most interesting thing Radin did, in my opinion, was to correct for dice bias. He tested and supported the hypothesis that the more dots on a die face the less mass and the less mass the more likely it is to come up on top (p. 137). (Except for 3 dots, which didn’t seem to fit the pattern. This fact could lead to some serious speculation about the mysterious properties of the number "3." Why are there 3 blind mice? 3 bases? 3-pars? the Trinity? three coins in the fountain? And, why does bad luck come in threes to people who don't know how to count?) But, even correcting for dice bias, he had 69 experiments that followed “balanced-protocol” criteria—dice faces were equally distributed among the six targets. He claims that they still got better than chance results, but he doesn’t specify how much better (though he says that the odds of getting his results against chance were more than a trillion to one). Thus, he says, neither chance, nor the quality of the studies, nor selective reporting can explain away the data.

On the other hand, the dice experiments were critically evaluated by Edward Girden of Brooklyn College. Radin makes an oblique reference to Girden in a footnote. He refers to G. Murphy’s report on Girden's paper on psychokinesis (p. 133, footnote 23): “By 1989 dice experiments had been reviewed and criticized numerous times over the years, but in spite of all the experiments and review, no clear consensus had emerged.” This seems to be Radin’s way of admitting that not everybody agreed with his rosy analysis, but he doesn’t go into detail regarding Girden’s concerns. Fortunately, C. E .M. Hansel (1989) did. “Only one of the early experiments [1934-1946] employed a control series” and this experiment “provided no evidence for psychokinesis but clear evidence for bias of the dice, since the dice tended to fall with the 6 face uppermost, whether it was  being wished for or not” (Hansel: 1989: 172). Among the later investigations, out of thirty studies, thirteen were positive and the rest didn’t produce above-chance scores (ibid., p. 174). Girden also applied criteria that Rhine and Pratt (Parapsychology 1954) had said were conditions for a conclusive PK test—having two experimenters, true randomization of targets, and independent recording of targets, hits, and misses—and on these criteria “none of the thirteen tests giving positive evidence for psychokinesis can be regarded as conclusive, whereas several of the remaining seventeen investigations that failed to provide such evidence do satisfy the requirements” (ibid.).

Such omissions are the norm in Radin's book, He ignores or belittles, rather than welcomes or responds to criticisms.

The RNG Experiments

In the 1960s, physicist and parapsychologist Helmut Schmidt started using random event generators (random number generators) to do mPK experiments. Radin says that between 1959 and 1987 there were 832 RNG studies by 68 investigators: 597 experimental studies and 235 control studies. The PEAR folks, he says, did 258 experimental studies and 127 control studies.

In 1987, Radin and Roger Nelson (of the PEAR group), did a meta-analysis of the data. The control studies were “well within chance levels” (odds of 2 to 1). The experimental groups cashed out at “about 51 percent” or “just under 51 percent” (p. 141). For some reason he doesn’t give his usual hurrah “this represents odds of a trillion to one.”

Ray Hyman’s analysis of the data is not as rosy as Radin’s. According to Hyman, “the percentage of hits in the intended direction was only 50.02%" in the PEAR studies (Hyman 1989: 152). And one ‘operator’ (the term used to describe the subjects in these studies) was responsible for 23% of the total data base. Her hit rate was 50.05%. Take out this operator and the hit rate becomes 50.01%. According to John McCrone, Operator 10 "has been involved in 15% of the 14 million trials, yet contributed to a full half of the total excess hits" (McCrone 1994). (I have been informed by a reliable source that "operator 10" is PEAR staff member Brenda Dunne.) According to Radin, the criticism that there "was any one person responsible for the overall results of the experiment...was tested and found to be groundless" (p.  221). His source for this claim is a 1991 article by Jahn et al. in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, "Count population profiles in engineering anomalies experiments." However, Jahn gives the data for his experiments in Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World (Harcourt Brace, 1988, p. 352-353). McCrone has done the calculations and found that 'If  [operator 10's] figures are taken out of the data pool, scoring in the "low intention" condition falls to chance while "high intention" scoring drops close to the .05 boundary considered weakly significant in scientific results."

According to McCrone, the "size of the effect is about .1 percent, meaning that for every thousand electronic tosses, the random event generator is producing about one more head or tail than it should by chance alone" (McCrone 1994). Jahn says that the measured effect of mPK was "not large enough that you're going to notice it over a brief experiment, but over very long periods of study, we see a systematic departure of the behavior of the machine in correlation with what the operator wants it to do" (Park 2000: 198). Most experiments in medicine or psychology use fewer than 100 trials, or perhaps a few hundred at most. Big trials will have 25,000 or more subjects. Massive prospective studies might survey 250,000 people. The most commonly used P-value in the social sciences and medical studies is P<0.05, where there is a one-in-twenty chance that the result is a statistical fluke. The 95% confidence interval, used as a standard in most of these studies, is arbitrary, however. It can be traced back to the 1930s and R. A. Fisher. There is nothing sacred about the standard, but it was not introduced to be used with studies having millions of data points. The RNG studies go into the millions of trials, allowing a very small effect to generate a very large statistic. When we’re dealing with small effects and millions of trials "even the slightest departure from the assumptions might suffice to produce artificially significant outcomes" (Hyman 1989: 151). The main assumption that Jahn and his colleagues made may not be warranted. "It is not clear that any of these machines is truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed that there are no truly random machines. It may be that lack of randomness only begins to show up after many trials" (Park 2000: 199).

As noted earlier, Helmut Schmidt, a quantum physicist by training, was the first to do RNG experiments in PK, beginning in  1969.  His subjects “produced” an average “hit rate” of 50.5% vs. 50% expected by chance. Compare that to Jahn’s PEAR experiments where there were 78 million trials with a reported hit rate of 50.02%.

 “The experiments using RNGs have typically been conducted under rather casual and poorly documented circumstances,” says Hyman (1989: p. 151). Schmidt, for example, did most of his work alone and we must rely on his word that the controls were as he says they were and that the data came out as he says. Even so, the results are statistically impressive: Radin, May, and Thompson reported in 1985 that of 332 experiments published between 1969 and1984, 31% produced significant results vs. 5% expected by chance (21% of the 332 produced significant results at the 0.05 level).

Hyman concludes that successful outcomes “probably cannot be entirely attributed to the reporting of only successful experiments,” i.e., it’s not likely due to the file-drawer effect.

Hyman notes some potential problems with RNG studies: there is a chance for possible bias in the output of the RNGs because they can be affected by temperature, humidity, and “transients.” May et al. claim that all RNG experiments prior to 1979 “are inadequate on one or more key details.” Such as? Controls for transients, tests of randomness, supervision of the operator, and documentation of procedures.

“Presumably, the earlier trials were conducted under conditions that were relatively more informal and less fail-safe than those currently employed. But it is not clear if the data for the various conditions can be separated and analyzed separately. This problem is especially critical because of the extremely small size of the effect being claimed” (Hyman: p. 152).

We don’t have an adequate alternative explanation for the RNG data because if there were any systematic biases we’d see them affecting controls and experimental groups equally. According to Hyman, “We do not have an obvious account of how inadequate randomization could have produced the reported results” (Hyman 1989: p. 153). Of the RNG data, according to Hyman, the most reasonable thing we can say is that “we don’t know what to make of it” (ibid.).

Nelson et al. analyzed the full PEAR database in 1996: 1,262 experiments by 108 people, 30 of whom were “prolific” contributors (providing 10,000 trials or more). He found the results were 4,000 to 1 against chance and that there were no star performers. Jahn calculates the probability of getting the same results by chance at 0.00007.

However, Stanley Jeffers, a physicist at York University, Ontario, has repeated the Jahn experiments with chance results (Alcock 2003: 135-152). (See "Physics and Claims for Anomalous Effects Related to Consciousness" in Alcock et al. 2003. Abstract.) And Jahn et al. failed to replicate the PEAR results in experiments done in collaboration with German researchers. (See New Scientist, March 13, 2004, and  "Mind/Machine Interaction Consortium: PortREG Replication Experiments," Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 499–555, 2000.)

Based on the results of these experiments, Radin claims that “researchers have produced persuasive, consistent, replicated evidence that mental intention is associated with the behavior of…physical systems” (p. 144). In other words, he concludes with his usual hasty conclusion and hyperbolic bombast.

Unlike the ganzfeld, Radin doesn’t elaborate on the protocols and set-up for the RNG experiments. We visualize people sitting in front of a machine that will randomly blink a red light or a green light (Schmidt’s technology) while they concentrate on making the light come up red or green, whichever is their assignment. But some of the operators worked from home—about one-fourth of the database is from remote operators (Radin: p. 144).  It’s not clear exactly how they worked, but we’re told that there was no difference in performance between the remote and the present operators. Radin says that “informed skeptics agree that something interesting is going on” (p. 145). True. Some might find it interesting that grown human beings devote their lives to investigating unobservable phenomena that they try to squeeze out of data with statistical formulae. If anything can serve as a model of pathological science, it is the PK experiments.

Radin concludes with a claim that Helmut Schmidt, the father of RNG studies, did five successful replications of RNG studies with odds against chance of 12,000 to one. These studies are howlers. In “Observations of a psychokinetic effect under highly controlled conditions,” The Journal of Parapsychology (December 1993), he reports on his operators who tried to affect fixed signals on pre-recorded tapes! They were successful only if nobody else saw the data first! Schmidt writes that those of us who think this is crazy are guided by “our naïve intuition.” “One logically consistent viewpoint is that the mental effort of the subject in the test session has a retroactive effect on the moment the random events were generated.” “One might want to say that the random generator “senses” that a subject will later make a PK effort, and behaves accordingly.” Then, of course there is the claim that what they were measuring had nothing to do with PK but was a case of precognition. Why not?

Finally, in case you are wondering what good mPK might do, Radin suggests that we can now move on to investigate the studies on how the mind can will changes in biological systems! Onward to healing prayer and other wonders.


Alcock, James. 2003. "Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance," in Psi Wars - Getting To Grips With the Paranormal. ed. James Alcock, Jean Burns and Anthony Freeman. Imprint Academic, pp. 29-50.

Carroll, Robert Todd. Review of Ghost Hunters - William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum.

Girden, E. 1962. A review of psychokinesis (PK). Psychological Bulletin 59:353-88.

Girden, E. and E. Girden. 1985.  Psychokinesis: fifty years afterward. In A skeptic’s handbook of parapsychology, edited by P. Kurtz, 129-146. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books

Hansel, C.E.M. The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Hyman, Ray. (1989). The Elusive Quarry. Prometheus.

Park, Robert L. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford U. Press, 2000).

end of part nine 

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