Many of you will have heard about ‘Project Alpha’, which was the brainchild of James Randi (pictured). In the late 1970s the aviation pioneer James McDonnell granted $500,000 to the University of Washington to set up a parapsychology laboratory. The physicist Peter Phillips took up directorship of the new lab and, perhaps unwisely as he had no expertise in conjuring, expressed an interest in testing macro-PK claimants (that is, people who claim to be able to influence physical objects through mind alone).
Subsequently two young men contacted Phillips claiming such abilities and proceeded to demonstrate various feats such as bending metal without apparently using physical force, though their skills seemed to become elusive when attempts were made to capture them on film. In reality, the two claimants were magicians called Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards who had been recruited by Randi and planted in the lab. Events came to a head in August 1981, at the Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association. Together with a colleague, Mark Shafer, Phillips submitted a brief report for presentation at the meeting that indicated they were personally convinced that the psychokinetic feats were genuine rather than faked. Other parapsychologists at the meeting were much more skeptical and Randi (who also attended the conference) pointed out possible opportunities for fraud. Shaken, Phillips and Shafer retracted their brief and re-issued it with caveats. (You can read more about this episode in my book Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide.)
As a consequence, parapsychologists became more cautious about testing so-called ‘special claimants’, and in 1987 Edinburgh University’s recently appointed Koestler Professor, Robert Morris, published guidelines for minimizing deception by psychic claimants (a nice subject for a separate blog, watch this space!).
Project Alpha is quite famous in parapsychology. Less well-known is that prior to the arrival of Bob Morris in Edinburgh, his predecessor Dr John Beloff also had an interesting experience with a fraudulent PK subject. John (pictured) was supervising two parapsychology PhD students at that time (1983): Julie Milton and Deborah Delanoy. Delanoy subsequently wrote the whole episode up, for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, and I’ve based this blog on her account (link at the end of this piece).
In 1983 Beloff was contacted by a 17-year old pupil at an Edinburgh school, named ‘Tim’ (pseudonym). Tim claimed to have developed metal-bending abilities as a child, and he went on to produce several bent objects for Beloff, Milton and Delanoy, though never under direct observation. The researchers contacted James Randi for advice on controls against fraud, and over an 18-month period the Edinburgh researchers conducted about 60 hours of tests with Tim. A video camera was used and objects were bent by Tim but never while being filmed. Tim claimed to have paranormally bent a piece of metal within a plexiglass puzzle cube in front of his friends. However he was reluctant to provide the names of these alleged witnesses. The researchers sent the cube to Randi, who observed it had been tampered with. Tim also claimed to have noticed that he could cause objects to spontaneously ignite when he was stressed or angry, and Milton and Delanoy attempted to test and film this. After much palaver, Tim did set some cotton wool balls alight, but again not within view of the camera. The parapsychologist Dr Julian Isaacs visited the research group with his piezoelectric crystal PK machine that could produce musical notes. The machine included various protections against physical influences such as static electricity and mains fluctuations. Tim did produce some notes with this machine, but not under sufficiently well-controlled conditions to persuade the researchers that he was using psychokinetic abilities to affect the machine.
Not surprisingly, despite finding Tim’s demeanor to be apparently quite genuine and convincing (‘one should never underestimate the consummate acting skills which one’s subjects may possess’), Delanoy and colleagues clearly doubted his claimed paranormal abilities. Eventually, through employing a secret camera and leaving Tim believing he was unobserved and with some metal objects to bend, Delanoy (pictured) caught him using obvious physical force to bend the metal. Delanoy then showed the film to Tim, and he claimed this was the first time he had attempted to cheat.
A few months later Delanoy wrote an account of the investigations with Tim, and sent it to him for comment. Finally he ‘fessed up that he had been studying and practising magic since 1977 and was a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. All of his supposedly paranormal feats had been faked. He said he’d wanted to see if a magician could successfully pose as a psychic in a laboratory, and he’d read an article about Julian Isaac’s PK machine and wanted to see whether he could influence it through normal means (creating static charges with the help of his fluffy sweater).
It’s to the Edinburgh researchers’ credit that, rather than burying this episode, they published an open account so that others could learn from it. I’m grateful that, in the same spirit, the Society for Psychical Research gave me permission to provide a link to Delanoy’s full (1987) article on the KPU’s Archive of Research Publications.
Delanoy, D. L. (1987). Work with a fraudulent PK metal-bending subject. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 247-256.
Morris, R.L. (1986). Minimizing subject fraud in parapsychology laboratories. European Journal of Parapsychology, 6, 137-149.