May 31, 2000

When Science Goes Bad

Edgar D. Mitchell was the sixth person to walk on the Moon, during the February, 1971, Apollo landing. He holds a Doctor of Science degree, and was a Naval pilot for many years. His qualifications, both physically and mentally, plus his work experience, made him an ideal candidate for the US space program, which he joined in 1966, at that time being chosen as a lunar astronaut. In February of 1970, he served on Apollo 14 as the lunar module pilot.

Mitchell retired from the Navy in 1972 with the rank of captain, and the following year he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Palo Alto, California, "a non-profit tax- exempt public corporation dedicated to research and education in the processes of human consciousness to help achieve a new understanding and expanded awareness among all people." (Noetics is the study of consciousness.)

Following Dr. Mitchell's triumphant return to Earth from the Apollo mission, there developed a rumor that he had conducted an unauthorized experiment during his trip in space. In The New York Times of June 22, 1971, he verified that rumor, and reported that his experiment had produced results "far exceeding anything expected" but in almost the same breath, he described those results as only "moderately significant." This is only the beginning of certain puzzling aspects of the astronauts report, as we shall see.

Mitchell told the Times that he had made arrangements that four persons stationed in different cities would attempt to determine through ESP the order of a home-made deck of standard Zener cards. These are the familiar symbol-cards (circle, plus mark, wavy lines, square, five-pointed star) that are used by parapsychologists. Dr. Mitchell declined to identify the four persons, but one Olaf Johnson of Chicago, a professional psychic, notified the media that he was one of the persons involved. Astronaut Mitchell said that 51 out of 200 of the guesses made by the four subjects, were successful. Chance would call for 40 correct.

Two of the subjects, he reported, performed better than chance, while the other two performed at less-than-chance levels. But this is exactly what would be expected, and is no surprise at all! However, in this same interview Mitchell also rated the accuracy of all four as "very good"! At this point, in order to have a better understanding of these strange matters, we should perhaps refer ahead to his 1974 statement, "This in parapsychology experiments is considered reasonably successful."

This statement, also in The New York Times, was a formal summary of what he had done. It began: "During the Apollo 14 lunar expedition I performed an extrasensory-perception experiment the world's first in space. In it five symbols a star, cross, circle, wavy line and square were oriented randomly in columns of 25. Four persons in the United States attempted to guess the order of the symbols. They were able to do this with success that could be duplicated by chance in one out of 3,000 experiments. This in parapsychology experiments is considered reasonably successful."

On its face, this statement about 3000-to-1 odds is very powerful and seems to establish that extra sensory-perception (ESP) has been shown to be very likely unless, of course, there was something wrong with the protocol, or possibly with the report. My personal experience has been that one has to examine casual statements concerning the import and the validity of any experiment, with great care. Often there are elements omitted from the description that can cast a far different light on the matter.

In among all the enthusiastic statements made by Mitchell to the reporters, we discover that the experimental conditions through no fault of his had turned out to be less than ideal. He had intended to perform these experiments every day during the Apollo mission, but changes in the schedules meant that he could only work on four of those days, two on the way to the Moon, and two on the way back. But and this is very significant the psychics back on Earth, it turned out, since they were not aware of the schedule change, had written down their impressions of what Edgar Mitchell was thinking about, the40 minutes before he had begun! So, any apparent success in the experiments must be attributed to precognition, not to telepathy.

Mitchell proudly related to The New York Times that of 200 guesses (8 runs through the ESP deck) there had been 51 "hits." By chance alone, only about 40 would have been expected. He seemed to believe that this was significant, but it was not. And please remember that Dr. Mitchell is supposed to have an understanding of statistics, an understanding that he seems not to have applied to these results.

What makes this even harder to understand is the fact that Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, considered by many to be the "father of ESP," head of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man associated with Duke University assisted Dr. Mitchell in analyzing his results. It appears that both gentlemen were carried away by the very emotional picture of exercising ESP from 200,000 miles out in space.

But we still have this statement about "3000-to-1 odds" to account for. At this point I will take my reader into the Never-Never Land known as parapsychology, for an example of standards and reasoning that may be well beyond us to accept and/or even to understand. I ask you to consider this scenario: what would you call a man who attends the horse races and loses every single bet he makes, even though he bets on favorites with very low potential pay-offs? I think that you and I would immediately think of the designation, "loser." Ah, but in the wonderful world of psychics this is referred to as "significantly missing," or simply "psi-missing." You see, the results obtained by Dr. Edgar Mitchell in his exciting ESP experiment to and from the Moon, were so incredibly bad that the chances were 3000-to-1 against missing that badly! In other words, ESP appears to work just as well whether the sender and the receiver are three feet apart, or 200,000 miles apart, that is, it doesn't work at all.

It was not until 1974, when Mitchell's book, "Psychic Exploration A Challenge for Science" came out, that we discovered this "negative ESP effect," as he referred to it. This, wrote Mitchell, "is something that has frequently arisen in other psychic research work, and theorists are attempting to explain its significance. In any case, it offers good evidence for psi [paranormal ability], because the laws of chance are bypassed to a significant degree."

Friends, theorists may be cudgeling their brains trying to explain this, but perhaps you share my feeling that the explanation is not really too hard to come up with.

Please understand that my respect for Dr. Edgar Mitchell, one of the brave and resourceful explorers of outer space to whom we all owe so much, is very high indeed. I think that here, however, when he began to deal with matters generally considered to be supernatural if not irrational Dr. Mitchell might have been out of his depth. I am the first to admit that I do not have an academic degree other than a very valued honorary one and it may be felt that I am out of my depth in criticizing or even questioning a man who has a well-earned degree. If so, I apologize. I do not retreat from my expressed position, but I recognize my limitations.

Would that we could all achieve that recognition in ourselves.

This was sent to me by a correspondent, taken from Steve Harvey's "Only in L.A." column in the Los Angeles Times:

FLOATING RIGHT ALONG: When mobster Bugsy Siegel's half-century-old safe was opened the other day at the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood, where Siegel once had an office, it was . . . Empty. Yes, I was shocked too. And so was Carl Belknap, owner of In-A-Floor Safe Co., who tells me that a psychic had "telepathically entered" the safe beforehand and spotted "envelopes of names, a ruby ring and two deeds to properties in Nevada." When I hear something like that I start to question my faith in psychics.

Next week, we'll look at the fantastic claims of one Peter Hurkos, a "psychic" who claimed -- among MANY other things, that he solved the Boston Strangler case. Sure.