Pseudoscience and the Skeptic's Movement Part II



Project Alpha

Chris Lindner

UT Austin

What we’ve covered

• What is science?

• What is a theory?

• What is a valid argument?

• How do we test science?

• What is the impact of pseudoscience?

• Developing your own viewpoints.

Project Alpha

• In 1979, James S. McDonnell awarded a

$500,000 grant for the establishment of the

McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research

• Top researchers from around the world stepped in, hoping to perform highly scientific, well-controlled studies of psychic phenomena

Initial Testing

• One of their first objectives for the project was to study the practice of psychokinetics (spoon bending, etc.)

• First, the would-be psychics were given a number of spoons, and asked to use whatever mental means possible to manipulate them

• Each spoon was measured and labeled with paper tags beforehand

(Spoon Video)

Spoon Bending

• The researchers were amazed to not only see two psychics bend the spoons, but upon later examination, many of the spoons had changed lengths and other physical characteristics!

• These psychics quickly fell into favor of the program, and were asked to continue their work with a series of other psychic feats


• The test subjects then put forth the claim that not only could they bend objects, but they could also move them with their minds!

• These phenomena were even recorded on tape, for additional review / record for the researchers

(Pen video)


• The researchers were shocked to observe the psychics move small objects with their minds, even when said objects were placed behind glass!

Third eye…?

• The psychics were then given stapled envelopes and were locked in a room and asked to identify the image inside the envelopes. The envelopes were completely opaque.

• Again, the psychics performed spectacularly , and identified the contents most of the time.

Occasionally they failed or gave up and just opened the envelopes.

Spooky Pictures

• The researchers soon heard about another psychic who was able to manipulate film images with his mind.

• They gave the psychics cameras, and asked them to focus their psychic powers as they took photographs. They were monitored the whole time, and no focus, motion, or flash trickery was allowed.

“Normal” Photograph

Psychically Manipulated Photograph

Psychically Manipulated Photographs

Fame and Results

• The psychics performed beautifully over and over again, giving the researchers two years worth of studies covering a multitude of psychic tasks

• Word soon spread around the world about these amazing psychic abilities, and many parapsychologists finally agreed that this was the long-awaited scientific proof for psychic powers

And then…

• In 1981, magician James Randi and the two psychics admitted that they were all hoaxsters set on testing the scientific legitimacy of the study

…..What went wrong?

What went wrong?

• Spoons

– Participants were allowed access to many spoons, and the labels were easily removed

– Researchers fell prey to basic sleight-of-hand

– Did not ask for professional help

• Telekinesis

– The power of…. breath!

– Researchers fooled themselves with less-than-airtight containers

What went wrong?

• Envelope pictures

– Subjects removed the staples

– Subjects were allowed to change experiment conditions

• Photographs

– Spat on the lens

Other issues

• Small, self-selected sampling

• No control group, no blinding

• Preconceived goal with no preconceived guidelines

• Refusal to consider skeptical viewpoints

• Psychics had direct access to testing materials

Scientific Take-Aways

• Always look for large, double or triple-blinded studies

• Always consider what the controls were, and what could have been missed – never assume anything

• Look for, and never ignore, outside criticism

• Always consider data corruption

What we’ve covered

• What is science?

• What is a theory?

• What is a valid argument?

• How do we test science?

• What is the impact of pseudoscience?

• Developing your own viewpoints.