Friday, May 6, 2011

Project: Alpha

With the passing of April, and hence the setting aside of the A-Z challenge - I'll be keenly following Lee's review of what went well, and not so well, with that - it's time for me to find some other structural hook to hang my ramblings upon.

In need of a new Project, it occured to me that I could do a Project on Projects - it may or may not be another alphabetical set, but it gives me the kind of theme I can work with.

Today's subject is, fittingly for a first choice, Project Alpha. This was the brainchild of magician James Randi, a man who freely admits that the various illusions and feats of prestidigitation he performed were the result of sustained and practiced cheating: misdirection, fraud, chicanery, and deception. He offers no apology for it - the essence of Magic, after all, is knowing something the audience does not, and most people who attend a magic show understand that the performer is hoodwinking them somehow. The allure is in trying to work out just how he does it.

As his career progressed through the Twentieth Century, Randi increasingly found himself competing for airtime with supposedly authentic paranormal talents like that of Uri Geller. Not perturbed by the competition, Randi was affronted that people - even apparently intelligent scientists in supposedly rigorous experimental laboratories - took Geller and his ilk at their word and believed they produced their effects through "psychic energy." As an experienced stage magician, Randi was by nature and training much more inclined to believe that Geller and Co. were simply tricking people: they were, he felt, no more paranormal than he was, and he took offence at the superstitious and mystical interpretation of acts like Geller's spoon-bending trick. The following video demonstrates some of the evidence for a more prosaic interpretation: Geller is simply a skilled flim-flam artist with a penchant for cutlery.

Randi set out in the 1970s to investigate and challenge Geller and other purported psychic talents, a stance adopted by other self-confessed tricksters and illusionists like England's Derren Brown and the venerable Harry Houdini. He encountered serious difficulties - not because he was unable to replicate Geller's effects; he was, quite easily - but because people wanted to believe in psi. At one demonstration, Randi was angrily accused of being a fraud. He smilingly admitted this was so - everything he had accomplished had been done by sleight of hand, trickery, and misdirection. No, no, his interlocuter angrily replied: he was a fraud because he actually was using psychic powers, and only claiming to be a charlatan!

(Houdini got the same treatment from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of whose propensity towards belief in such matters we shall speak another time.)

Randi might have expected this sort of thing from the rubes who pay to be entertained by magic shows, but he was deeply dismayed to find similar levels of credulity - and dismal levels of scientific rigor - among those parapsychologists who attempted to 'test' the abilities of psychics like Geller. It was this dismay that led Randi to set up Project Alpha, which, in 1979, infiltrated two Randi stooges into a research project, conducted at Washington University and handsomely funded by the board chairman of McDonnell Douglas - himself a believer in the paranormal. Randi also wrote to the researchers warning them to be on the lookout for fakes, and suggesting methodological refinements that might catch such tricksters in the act. He even volunteered his services as an observer; these were declined. The researchers were employing a two-stage approach: in the informal stage, they wanted everything to be as cosy as possible for the putative psychics.

Randi's stooges, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, sailed through the first stage despite resorting to grossly obvious manipulations of the tests - for example, they 'read' messages in sealed envelopes by simply unsealing and resealing them, and moved objects in 'sealed' containers by blowing through holes in the containers. In one test, they altered the dimensions of spoons by the simple method of swapping the labels attached to spoons of different sizes. Incredibly, these clumsy frauds went unnoticed by the researchers, who proved so obliging in their efforts to facilitate trickery that even Shaw and Edwards were surprised. Although Randi had instructed them to confess their deception if they were ever asked about it directly, they never were during a period of almost 2 years. During the second stage of the process, under more rigorous laboratory conditions, their psi abilities faded dramatically; still, the researchers were unwilling to conclude that they were deliberate frauds, speculating instead that such conditions might inhibit psychic abilities.

Meanwhile, Shaw and Edwards had become minor celebrities in their own right, dazzling other paranormal researchers with their abilities even as the Washington University team cooled on them. Eventually, after two years, Randi pulled the plug, revealing the whole deception in an article in Discover magazine. Many parapsychologists were outraged, much as the fawning courtiers of the Emperor with No Clothes were furious at the little boy who remarked upon the Imperial nakedness; some, however, thanked Randi for his service to their cause.

Does the success of charlatans like Randi, and the suspicions over successful entertainers like Geller, mean there are no genuine paranormal talents out there? The James Randi Educational Foundation promoted a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge to anybody who enjoys a measure of celebrity and the support of a reputable academic for their claimed paranormal abilities; to date, nobody has won the prize.


Laurie Peel said...

Unfortunately, humans have a long history of experimenting to a preconceived outcome and turning a blind eye to that which contradicts, regardless of how blatantly obvious that contradiction may be. And anyone brave enough to point these out has paid dearly. (Think Copernicus and Galileo.)

There is no such thing as the supernatural. What often gets defined as the supernatural are only gaps in our understanding of the natural.

Heather Henry said...

Very interesting. I have always enjoyed a good magic show. I am not entirely gullible, but I'm not trying to figure out how they did the trick either. It's purely entertaining and I'm forever impressed by the sleight of hand. It takes a good amount of skill to pull it off.
I'm curious to see where the rest of your new project will go. As always, I've learned something new by visiting you. Thanks!! :)