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

From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All


“To the present day, no one has come up with a persuasive experimental design that can unambiguously distinguish between telepathy and clairvoyance....Based on the experimental evidence, it is by no means clear that pure telepathy exists per se, nor is it certain that real-time clairvoyance exists." The evidence "can all be accommodated by various forms of precognition."--Dean Radin

Literally, "distance feeling." The term is a shortened version of mental telepathy and refers to mind-reading or mind-to-mind communication through ESP.

Since there is no way to distinguish direct communication with another mind from communication with a future or past perception by that or some other mind, there is no way to distinguish telepathy from precognition or retrocognition. There is no way to distinguish telepathy, clairvoyance, retrocognition, or precognition from a mind perceiving directly the akashic record. There is no way to distinguish telepathy, clairvoyance, retrocognition, precognition, or perceiving the akashic record from perceiving what is directly placed in the mind by God (occasionalism). There is no way to distinguish telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, perceiving the akashic record, or having perceptions directly implanted in our minds by a god from perceiving the hidden record of all perceptions in the eleventh dimension that is vibrating in the intersection between the tenth and twelfth dimensions. I could go on, but it would be too annoying.

The term 'telepathy' was coined by psychical investigator Frederick W. H. Myers (1843-1901) in an 1882 article in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Myers was a classics scholar and one of the founders of modern psychology.

In 1882, Sir William Fletcher Barrett, a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, and a few friends, including the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick, formed the still-existing Society for Psychical Research (SPR). The goal of the society, in part, according to Sidgwick was to

drive the objector into the position of being forced either to admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse the investigators either of lying or cheating or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy.

SPR’s first scientific study would have Sidgwick eating those words.

Barrett led SPR’s first study (1882-1888). It involved a clergyman’s four teenage daughters and a servant girl who claimed they could communicate telepathically. Barrett introduced a method for testing telepathy that was popular for more than a century, though it is rarely used anymore by scientific investigators: card guessing. He did a number of guessing experiments (of cards or names of persons or household objects) with the girls and came away declaring that the odds of their being able to guess correctly in one experiment “were over a million to one.” The odds of their guessing correctly five cards in row were “over 142 million to one” and guessing correctly eight consecutive names in a row were “incalculably greater” (Christopher 1970: 10). More men of integrity with high degrees were brought in to witness the telepathic powers of the Creery girls and Jane Dean, their servant. All the scientists agreed that there was no trickery involved. How did they know? They had looked very carefully for signs of it and couldn’t find any!

A skeptic might ask: What are the odds that children can fool some very intelligent scientists for six years? The answer is: the odds are very good. Almost immediately the scientists were criticized for being taken in by tricks amateurs could perform. It took six years for these rather intelligent men of the SPR to catch the girls cheating—using a verbal code—and discover their trickery. But that’s not all. While one group of scientists was validating the Creery group, another from SPR was validating the amazing telepathic feats of a 19-year-old entertainer named George A. Smith and his partner in deception, Douglas Blackburn. Smith eventually became secretary of the SPR (Christopher 1970).  Had Blackburn not eventually published a series of articles explaining how they fooled the scientists, the world might never have known the details of the trickery (Gardner 1992). The early scientific studies demonstrate the naïveté of the experimenters and the need for experts in non-verbal communication and deception, namely, conjurors or gamblers, to help them set up protocols to prevent cheating.

It took some time to sink in but eventually the experimenters realized that for some reason human beings like to deceive each other. They use all kinds of non-verbal signals to communicate, which can give the appearance of psychic transmission of information. They use glances (up, down, right, left for the four suits of a deck of cards, for example), coughs, sighs, yawns, and noises with their shoes. Other cheaters use Morse code with coins and various other tricks known to conjurers. Sometimes gestures to various parts of the body have a prearranged meaning.

Creery-girl and Smith-Blackburn stories are frequent in the literature on psi research.

telepathy research in the U.S.A.

In 1885, the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research was established at Harvard University in Boston by Dr. Richard Hodgson (1855-1905), professor of legal studies at Cambridge University, and astronomer Simon Newcomb. But the first American to publish a monograph (Experiments in Psychical Research) on his experiments with card guessing was John Coover.

Coover was Stanford University’s first Fellow in Psychical Research. By 1917, he had done four large studies (trials of 10,000 or more) and reported that he had found nothing to support belief in ESP. The main experiment involved 100 pairs of subjects in 100 trials. Roughly half of these were for telepathy (experimental) and half were for clairvoyance (control). That is, in half the trials a sender looked at the card before trying to send a telepathic communication to a receiver. In the other half, the sender looked at the card after the receiver made his or her guess.

Others examined Coover’s data and found more than Coover did. Dean Radin writes that the receivers’ ability to guess the right cards rated 160 to 1 against chance (1997: 65). F. C. S. Schiller found the data showed odds greater than 50,000 to 1 against chance, but he used only the data from the fourteen highest-scoring subjects. Coover replied that he could find all kinds of interesting antichance events if he were selective in his use of the data (Hansel 1989: 28). In 1939, psychologist Robert Thouless found that if the data were lumped together from the main experiment, there were 44 more hits than expected by chance. Thouless suggested that the data supported some slight psychic effect. He calculated the odds of this happening by chance to be about 200 to 1. Coover attributed the excess hits to recording errors on the part of the experimenter (Hansel 1989: 26). Neither Schiller, Richet, nor Thouless, however, attempted to repeat Coover’s experiment. That would have to wait until J. B. Rhine set up shop at Duke University. Radin says that Coover may have been more pessimistic about his data than others because of “disapproving pressure from his peers at Stanford” (1997: 65). However, Radin also notes that several studies have shown that a 1% error rate in recording is typical. Thus, Coover’s suspicion might well have been justified.

Richet was particularly vocal in his criticism of Coover’s work. Coover responded by proclaiming that it can’t be denied that fraud is frequent, general, and well known in psychical research. The witnessing of psychic phenomena by astute and eminent men, he said, has had a negative effect on the studies because it has led them to discount contrary interpretations of the same phenomena, ignore the lack of controls during those psychic experiences, and rely on the corroboratory testimony of others to such an extent that it has weakened the rigor with which the researcher should be expected to guard against fraud. Coover noted that in the other sciences the experimenter controls the conditions; but in testing psychical powers, the medium controls the conditions.

While few remember John Coover, everybody knowledgeable of the history of psi research remembers Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980). In 1925, Rhine and his wife, Louisa, both with doctorates in biology (plant physiology) from the University of Chicago arrived at Harvard to study psychology, philosophy, and what Rhine would come to call “extra-sensory perception.” Both heard Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lecture on spiritualism and were impressed not only with his message but his serene demeanor. The possibility that spirits might be communicating with the living, said Rhine, was “the most exhilarating thought” he’d had in years. The Rhines sat in on a number of séances but were not completely taken in by their experiences. They were quick to claim that famed medium “Margery” (Mina, wife of Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a respected surgeon) was guilty of “brazen trickery.” Yet, when they went to Duke in 1927 to work with William McDougall, their first investigation was of an alleged telepathic horse called Lady Wonder. They declared that they could detect no trickery and that the horse was genuinely telepathic. In a follow-up study, the horse couldn’t perform and the Rhines declared that Lady Wonder had lost her psychic ability. A similarly clever horse had been studied by Oskar Pfungst in 1904 and it was found that the horse was responding to subtle visual cues. Had the Rhines been so inclined, they might have found the same thing with Lady Wonder. It turns out humans are as clever as horses and the phenomenon of unconsciously responding to sensory cues is now known as the clever Hans phenomenon. In any case, the Rhines took over the Duke lab from Dr. McDougall and ran it until Rhine’s retirement in 1966. What did Rhine have after nearly forty years of scientific research on ESP and psychokinesis? He had a lot of data, a number of followers, but there was no Noble Prize on the horizon.

The Lady Wonder fiasco was just one of several blunders made by America’s most preeminent name in parapsychology. His early results were similar to Coover’s. He did a thousand trials of a card guessing experiment without finding any signs of ESP. He and Dr. Karl E. Zener did more experiments with numbers or letters of the alphabet sealed in opaque envelopes with the same non-results. Unlike Coover, however, Rhine did not give up. He and Zener changed the procedure to use what are now known as Zener or ESP cards, which gives the guesser a 1 in 5 chance of guessing a card correctly. They settled on a deck of 25 cards. Rhine believed that when someone was found who could do significantly better that 20% in guessing, that would be evidence for telepathy or clairvoyance. Some were so phenomenal (Adam J. Linzmayer, George Zirkle, Sara Ownbey, Hubert E. Pearce, Jr.), skeptics assume there must have been cheating. Rhine denied it. In any case, he described in detail the protocols and conditions under which his tests were made. Nobody thought Rhine was cheating, but many thought he had been duped by his subjects several times. According to Milbourne Christopher “there are at least a dozen ways a subject who wished to cheat under the conditions Rhine described could deceive the investigator” (Christopher 1970: 24-25). Rhine did use a magician to observe one of his ESP phenoms, Hubert Pearce. When Wallace Lee (a.k.a. “Wallace the Magician”) was observing young Pearce, he performed at chance levels. Otherwise his scores were significantly higher.

Rhine was, and most working parapsychologists are, sensitive to the charge of cheating, since their whole enterprise would go down the tubes if the general perception were that dishonesty reigned in the laboratory. When Rhine was informed that his assistant Walter J. Levy Jr. had manipulated machinery and falsified data in an experiment, he confronted his heir apparent who ended up resigning. Levy said he’d been under tremendous pressure to produce positive results. He swore that this was the only time he'd falsified data.*

Rather than admit that when controls are tightened it becomes more difficult to deceive investigators, Rhine and other psi researchers have often concluded that the controls have interfered with the paranormal realm. Some even claim that tight controls make the exercise of psychic power so difficult that it extinguishes it altogether in cases of severe scrutiny, such as when a trained expert in detecting deception is brought in. Experimenter control destroys trust and trust seems necessary for psychic powers to work, according to many psi researchers.

Rhine was undaunted by the criticism. In fact, he claimed in his first book (Extra-Sensory Perception, 1934) that he’d done over 90,000 trials and could justifiably conclude that ESP is “an actual and demonstrable occurrence.” However, there were attempts to duplicate these trials at Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Colgate, Southern Methodist, and Brown, all without success. Critics could not find evidence in Rhine’s report that he was as systematic and careful as one would expect a scientist to be making such an extraordinary claim. There was no evidence, for example, that Rhine realized how important it was to discuss how the cards were shuffled when doing the tests. He showed no awareness that the 1 in 5 odds that represent pure chance with the Zener deck could change if the cards were not perfect (which they weren’t) and since certain strings of guesses would be ruled out with a universe of only twenty-five entities. For example, no one would guess six or more circles in a row because the deck only contains 5, but in a truly random distribution of circles, 6 or more items of the same kind would be expected to come up occasionally. In fact, given the small size of the deck, the actual odds of guessing any given item might be different from the theoretical odds which are based on the assumption of extremely large numbers of trials where each item always has exactly the same chance of coming up. Even if verbal feedback is not given, which it often was, non-verbal signs might indicate to the subject that a guess was right or wrong and that would affect the next guess.

One indication that Rhine and his colleagues had little understanding of how theoretical statistics should be applied in the real world is revealed by their being puzzled how some subjects would do better than chance when they started off but their successes would taper off the longer they were tested. That is, the longer a successful subject was tested, the more his scores tended toward a chance distribution. Rather than take this as natural regression toward the mean (over time, all subjects should move toward chance if nothing paranormal is happening), Rhine, Radin, and some other parapsychologists explain it away by saying that it is due to the boring nature of the testing. They even have a name for it: the decline effect.

abusing statistics

Radin goes through some of the criticisms made of the card experiments such as using hand shuffling instead of proper randomization procedures and the physical handling of the cards, which might allow the subject to read the card from impressions on the back of the card. He explains how it took some time before researchers realized that letting the subjects handle the cards or envelopes containing the cards opened the door to cheating. They first separated the experimenter and subject by a screen. Later they put them in separate rooms, and even in separate buildings to avoid the possibility of cheating or inadvertent communication by sensory cues.

But there were some things the researchers didn’t seem to consider, such as the relationship of theoretical probabilities with real probabilities. In the 1930s, a magician by the name of John Mulholland asked Walter Pitkin of Columbia University how does one determine the odds against matching pairs with five possible objects. Of course, Mulholland didn’t have a computer to do his dirty work for him, so he printed up 200,000 cards, half red and half blue, with 40,000 of each of the five ESP card symbols. The cards were mechanically shuffled and read by a machine. The result was two lists of 100,000 randomly selected symbols. One list would represent chance distribution of the symbols and the other would represent chance guessing of the symbols. How did they match up? Well, they didn’t. The actual matches and what would be predicted by accepted theoretical odds didn’t match up. The total number was 2% under mathematical expectancy. Runs of 5 matching pairs were 25% under and runs of 7 were 59% greater than mathematical expectancy. The point is not whether these runs are typical in a real world of real randomness or whether they represent some peculiarity of the shuffling machine or some other quirk. The point is that Rhine assumed that statistical probability, which assumes true randomness and a very large number of instances, applies without further consideration to decks of 25 cards shuffled who knows how or how often.

Rhine and all other psi researchers have assumed that any significant departure from the laws of chance is evidence of something paranormal. While cheating should be of concern to paranormal investigators, there should be more concern with this assumption. There are two problems with it, one logical and one methodological. The assumption either begs the question (assumes what needs proving, namely that deviation from chance is evidence of psi) or commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent (If it’s psi, then the data will deviate from chance. The data deviate from chance. So, it’s psi.). The assumption is also questionable on methodological grounds. Studies have shown that even when no subjects are used there is significant departure from what would be expected theoretically by chance (Alcock 1981: 159). For example, Harvie “selected 50,000 digits from various sources of random numbers and used them to represent “target cards” in an ESP experiment. Instead of having subjects make guesses, a series of 50,000 random numbers were produced by a computer.” He found a hit rate that was significantly less than what would be predicted by chance “If such significant variation can be produced by comparing random strings with random strings, then the assumption that any significant variation from chance is due to psi seems untenable (Alcock 1981: 158-159).

In any case, it seems to be a bit of an exaggeration for Radin to claim that statistician Burton Camp “finally settled” the issue of the statistical criticisms when he declared that Rhine’s “statistical analysis is essentially valid” (1997: 95-96).

Another example of Rhine’s lack of sophistication with probabilities comes from the fact that when he found subjects who scored consistently below chance, he did not see that this would be expected by the laws of chance. Instead, he took this to be evidence of psychic phenomena. He claimed that subjects who didn't like him would consciously guess wrong to spite him (Park 2000: 42). Some parapsychologists accept this explanation: the phenomenon is termed psi-missing.

Rhine did not convince the scientific community of the reality of ESP, despite his claims that his subjects had been “carefully witnessed” and that he had put into place “special conditions” that “completely eliminates all chance for deception.” That was about as much detail as he gave the world. It wasn’t enough. His lack of detailed documentation simply added to the perception of many skeptics that ESP researchers are too trusting and careless in setting up their protocols.

Parapsychologists generally consider the ganzfeld experiments to be the best evidence for telepathy ever produced in the laboratory, though even these experiments can't distinguish telepathy from clairvoyance.

The ganzfeld experiments are discussed in part 6 of my review of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe.

See also anomalous cognition, decline effect, mentalist, precognition, psi, psi-conducive state, remote viewing, sixth sense, the Soal-Goldney experiment, and A Short History of Psi Research.

Listen to Bob's short talk on telepathy (mp3).

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Alcock, James E. (1981). Parapsychology: Science or Magic? Pergamon Press.

Alcock, James E. Science and Supernature: a Critical Appraisal of Parapsychology (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Alcock, James E. (1995) "The Belief Engine," Skeptical Inquirer. 19(3): 255-263.

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.

Bem, Daryl J. and Charles Honorton (1994). "Does Psi Exist?" Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 115, No. 1, 4-18.

Blackmore, S. J. (1980). "The extent of selective reporting of ESP ganzfeld studies," European Journal of Parapsychology 3:3 , 213–220.

Blackmore, Susan. (2001.) "What Can the Paranormal Teach Us About Consciousness?" Skeptical Inquirer, March/April.

Blackmore, Susan (2003). Consciousness: An Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Christopher, Milbourne. (1975). Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Cole, Richard. "U.S. didn't foresee faults in psychic spies program," Associated Press, Sacramento Bee, Nov. 29, 1995, A2.

Frazier, Kendrick. editor, Science Confronts the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

Frazier, Kendrick. editor. The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal, (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957).

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981).

Gardner, Martin. How Not To Test a Psychic: Ten Years of Remarkable Experiments With Renowned Clairvoyant Pavel Stepanek (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Gardner, Martin. On the Wild Side (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992).

Gordon, Henry. Extrasensory Deception: ESP, Psychics, Shirley MacLaine, Ghosts, Ufos  (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987).

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

Hansen, George P. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris Corporation.

Hines, Terence. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).

Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry : a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Hyman, Ray. (1995). "Evaluation of Program on Anomalous Mental Phenomena," Journal of Scientific Exploration, Volume 10 Number 1.

Keene, M. Lamar. The Psychic Mafia (Prometheus, 1997).

Luckhurst, Roger. 2002. The Invention of Telepathy: 1870-1901. Oxford University Press.

Marks, David. The Psychology of the Psychic (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000).

Milton, Julie and Richard Wiseman. (1997). Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research. University of Hertfordshire Press.

Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.

Radin, Dean (1997). The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins.

Radin, Dean. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. Paraview Pocket Books.

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), especially chapter 13, "Put Up or Shut Up," where he gives accounts of tests done on several psychics who have tried to collect the $10,000 Randi used to offer to anyone who can demonstrate any psychic power. So far, no one has collected, even though the offer is now $1,000,000!

Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995).

Scott, Christopher. (1988). Remote viewing. Experientia, 44, 322–326.

Steiner, Robert A. (1989). Don't Get Taken! - Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself  Wide-Awake Books.

Steiner, Robert A. "Fortunetelling," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) pp. 281-290.

Stein, Gordon. editor, The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Stenger, Victor J. (2002). "Meta-Analysis and the File-Drawer Effect." Skeptical Briefs.

Vistica, Gregory. "Psychics and Spooks, How spoon-benders fought the cold war," Newsweek, Dec. 11, 1995, p. 50.

Vyse, Stuart A. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (Oxford University Press 2000).

Wiseman, Richard and Matthew Smith, "Can Animals Detect When Their Owners Are Returning Home?" British Journal of Psychology, 89:453, 1998.

Wiseman, Richard  and Ciarán O’Keeffe. 2004. "Testing Alleged Mediumship: Methods and Results," by  (paper presented to the Parapsychological Convention).

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1989).


A History of Psi in the Ganzfeld by Andrew Endersby

The Best Case for ESP? (2000) by Matt Nisbet, Skeptical Inquirer

Science Frontiers on the Ganzfeld experiments (1993)

Security Measures in the Automated Ganzfeld

What's the story on "ganzfeld" experiments? (2000). The Straight Dope

news story

According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 31% believe in telepathy, down from 36% over the past fifteen years.


Penn & Teller. (2004). Bullshit! Season one. The episode on ESP has a hilarious segment featuring Dr. Carr teaching remote viewing in his dining room to a group of students who paid several hundred dollars to draw with crayons.

Randi, James. Video. NOVA. "Secrets of the Psychics."

Last updated 22-Oct-2015

© Copyright 1994-2016 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.