INTRODUCTION

In 1772 the prestigious French Academy of Science appointed a committee to investigate reports of what are now called meteorites. After long deliberations and examination of much evidence, the conclusion reached by the committee was that with which they started: there are no such things as hot stones that have fallen from the sky because there are no stones in the sky to fall. Reports of the phenomena must have other explanations – delusionary “visions,” stones heated after being struck by lightning, stones borne aloft by whirlwinds or volcanic eruptions, and so forth. So great was the prestige of the committee and so convincing its arguments that museums all over Western Europe threw away their meteorite specimens. As a result, today there are very few meteorite specimens that date prior to 1790 (Paneth, 1949).  1

Meteorites were dismissed as superstitions lingering from a time when Jove was thought to punish errant mortals by hurtling his thunderbolts at them. But when evidence of their reality was eventually conceded – in 1803, following another report from the Academy – scientists did not learn humility. They merely congratulated themselves for correcting the errors of their predecessors.  2

In 1831 the French Academy appointed another committee, this one to investigate reports of what is now called clairvoyance – correct perception of objects or events not accessible to one’s sense organs at the time of apprehension. Much to the surprise of many Academy members, the committee reported that clairvoyance had in fact been satisfactorily demonstrated.  3 But unlike meteorites, the Academy did not finally concede that clairvoyance was more than just silly superstition. The mechanistic science of Galileo and Newton simply could not accommodate such phenomena. So the report was set aside and ignored.


The Strange Trials of Henry Slade
Forty-five years later, a bizarre trial divided London, and attracted international attention. It all started in the summer of 1876 when the American psychic Henry Slade visited some friends in London and held séances with several prominent townspeople. At these séances Slade would demonstrate his apparent psychic powers, which would include the movement of untouched objects, the disappearance and reappearance of objects, and the tying of knots in untouched endless cords.

But what got Slade into trouble was his most popular skill: that of seemingly producing automatic writing on a slate. Slade would take a child’s slate, put a crumb of pencil lead on it, and hold it face upwards under the flap of a table, with his fingers under the back of the slate, and his thumb on top of the table flap. After a few seconds scraping noises would be heard, and a scrawled message would be found on the slate. Slade had been tested in America by Robert Collyer, and although Collyer found the messages often trivial and sometimes ridiculous, he was satisfied that they could not have been produced by any trick.

Shortly after arriving in England, Slade was tested by August Cox on behalf of the Psychological Society he had founded. Although anxious to expose cheats, Cox was also unable to find any fault with Slade. The room, he reported, was sunlit; in addition to slate writing, the inexplicable movement of large and small objects was said to have occurred. A few days later Slade was tested by Dr. Carter Blake, the former Secretary of the Anthropological Society, who also pronounced that he considered Slade genuine.

All of this was too much for Edwin Ray Lankester, the young laboratory assistant to the famous zoologist and skeptic Thomas Henry Huxley. Apparently eager to impress his heroes Darwin and Huxley, Lankester and his fellow medical student Horatio Donkin visited Slade, pretending to be believers. During a séance, Lankester claimed that he had suddenly snatched a slate out of Slade’s hands before the “spirit” could begin to write, and had found a message on it. Slade claimed in a letter to The Times that the writing had in fact been heard before the slate was snatched away. But Donkin denied this, and Slade was charged with violating the Vagrancy Act, an old law designed to protect the public from traveling palm readers and sleight-of-hand artists.

Throughout the fall of 1876, London buzzed with talk of the Slade trial. The courtroom was packed with Slade’s supporters and detractors, and The Times carried trial transcripts day after day. The trial also divided the scientific community: Charles Darwin contributed 10 pounds to the prosecution (a substantial sum in those days), while his co-founder of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russell Wallace, was set to testify as star witness for the defense.

By common consent, the legal evidence against Slade was weak. Even a historian favorably disposed toward Lankester and Donkin wrote that:

  Both scientists turned out to be terrible witnesses; their observational skills, developed in anatomy and physiology labs, were useless in detecting fraud by professional cheats. …Indeed, Lankester and Donkin apparently could not agree on anything much beyond their charge that Slade was an imposter.  4
 

They two had to admit they could not explain how Slade’s tricks were accomplished. All they were prepared to assert with confidence was that they must have been tricks, because the conjuror John Maskelyne had shown them how the table had been designed for that purpose. It had specially constructed flaps, movable bars, and wedges, specially designed to hold the slate, leaving Slade’s fingers free to write on it, and to produce raps during the séances.

The table itself was then produced as an exhibit, and Maskelyne was called as a witness. He then proceeded to demonstrate how he thought the trick must have been done: with the aid of a pencil shaped like a thimble. The prosecution pointed out that the table had been constructed according to the specifications of Slade’s assistant, who had been prosecuted with him, and so conspiracy was added to the charge of vagrancy.

This was a blow to the defense, but soon there was a new twist in the trial. The prosecution subpoenaed R.H. Hutton as a witness. Hutton was the shrewd, skeptical editor of the Spectator, a man with an unblemished reputation, who could be counted upon to testify accurately to whatever he had seen. He had attended séances, he told the court, and although he had doubts about some of the things he had seen, there were many that he could not account for by sleight-of-hand. The testimony of the foreman carpenter, on whose premises the table had been made, also turned out to be an embarrassment for the prosecution. He confirmed that the table had indeed been constructed to a particular specification – for instance, to have one support for each flap instead of two – but it was difficult to see how this could help a conjuror. What about the wedges, which Maskelyne alleged had been used to make the raps? The carpenter had to admit that these had not been in the specification, but had to be inserted after the table had been made, to compensate for some faulty workmanship.

The high point of the trial was the testimony of Wallace for the defense. His integrity and candor were well-known. Wallace testified that the effects which he had observed could not have been produced by sleight-of-hand, although he refused to speculate on whether the slate-writings were caused by spirits.

In his summation, Slade’s attorney argued that there was no convincing evidence against his client. The prosecution had not proved that the table was rigged, and Maskelyne’s demonstrations of how the trick could have been done were irrelevant. The timing of the answer’s appearance proved nothing about its origin, and Lankester and Donkin could not even agree on exactly what they had seen during the séance. Finally, the testimony of such an eminent scientist as Wallace should be considered at least as credible as that of young Lankester.

But nothing could save the accused. The judge ruled that Slade must be guilty, since “according to the well-known course of nature” there could be no other explanation. Three months hard labor was the sentence.

Two months later, the Court of Appeal rejected the verdict, because the words “by palmistry or otherwise” had inadvertently been omitted from the indictment. Lankester announced he would initiate a fresh prosecution, putting Slade in a difficult situation. If he left for Germany, accepting an invitation to visit, enemies would allege that he was a fugitive from justice. Before his trial, Slade had been urged by his friends to leave England, on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial. Slade had refused; but now he had been shown that an English court could not give him a fair trial, as a judge had ruled that regardless of the evidence, he must be guilty since the alleged phenomena were contrary to the laws of nature. Seeing no hope of escaping conviction, Slade left for Germany. He wrote to Lankester offering to come back to England to be tested, but only if Lankester would end his legal crusade. Lankester did not reply, and Slade did not return.

The physicists test Slade
This was not the end of Slade’s story. He had been invited to Germany by Johann Zollner, professor of Physics and Astronomy. Zollner had heard of Slade’s predicament, and of Slade’s insistence that he could prove his innocence by duplicating his feats before a scientific body. Intrigued, Zollner decided to take up the challenge.

Although only in his early forties, Zollner had already acquired an international reputation for his work, some of which centered on the possibility of a fourth spatial dimension. Nothing in mathematics or theoretical physics excluded the possibility – but what Zollner needed was empirical evidence. The most convincing evidence, he thought, would be “the transport of material bodies from a space enclosed on every side.”

To understand why, consider the analogy of beings existing on a flat plane, limited to a world of only two spatial dimensions. In such a world, a square or a circle would appear to be a sealed container. Once inside, it would seem impossible to the two-dimensional beings that an object would be able to escape, unless the square or circular-shaped container was opened. But if the enclosed object could move in the third spatial dimension, it could be raised perpendicularly to the plane, passed over and let down on the other side of the container. To the inhabitants of this flat land, it would appear as though the object suddenly vanished, and then reappeared outside of the container. The existence of a third spatial dimension would be, for such beings, as incomprehensible as a fourth spatial dimension seems to us.

Since Zollner wanted to find empirical evidence to support his theories, it could be argued that he was predisposed in Slade’s favor, and therefore susceptible to his guile. But some of Zollner’s best work had been done in research into sensory illusions, so he was no innocent. He shrewdly realized that he would need independent testimony, and so asked some of his colleagues to collaborate with him. These included Gustav Fechner, professor of physics and psychology, and Wilhelm Weber, who along with Gauss, had been one of the leading innovators in electro-magnetism. (Today, the official unit of magnetism is named the “weber” after him).

The tests began with slate writing, and then moved on to tests with a compass needle, which after some difficulty, Slade apparently caused to oscillate. Other phenomena reported included a string tying itself in knots, objects moving out of sealed containers, and a seashell passing through a table, after which it was found to be hot to the touch, almost too hot to hold.

But, critics pointed out that:

  Scientists, because they are trained to trust their senses, are the worst possible people to evaluate a magician. A magician is trained specifically to distract, deceive, and confuse those very senses. A scientist may carefully observe the magician’s right hand, but it is the left hand that secretly performs the trick. …only another magician is clever enough to detect the sleight-of-hand tricks of a fellow magician. Only a thief can catch a thief.  5
 

Accordingly, Slade was also tested by several professional magicians, the most famous being Samuel Bellachini. After testing Slade in a series of sittings, Bellachini provided Slade with a witnessed affidavit, claiming that the phenomena were “impossible” to produce with sleight-of-hand.  6

An astonishing number of the most prominent physicists of the day expressed interest in Zollner’s work with Slade, including: William Crookes, inventor of the cathode ray tube, which until recently was used in television and computer monitors; J.J. Thomson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for the discovery of the electron; and Lord Rayleigh, considered one of the greatest physicists of the late nineteenth century, and winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1904.

For their efforts in investigating these and other unusual phenomena, these men were criticized and ridiculed mercilessly by their colleagues.  7 One particularly savage piece of criticism, which appeared in the science quarterly Bedrock, was leveled at prominent physicists William Barrett and Oliver Lodge, for their work in telepathy. In part, it read,

It is not necessary either to regard the phenomena of so-called telepathy as inexplicable or to regard the mental condition of Sir W.F. Barrett and Sir Oliver Lodge as indistinguishable from idiocy. There is a third possibility. The will to believe has made them ready to accept evidence obtained under conditions which they would recognize to be unsound if they had been trained in experimental psychology.  8
 

Of course, Barrett and Lodge could easily have retorted that the will to disbelieve has made the critics ready to reject evidence obtained under conditions which they would recognize to be sound if they had been trained in experimental physics or psychology.

The New Quantum Controversy
One hundred twenty five years after Slade’s trial, another storm was brewing. In the intervening period physics had undergone two major revolutions. First, Einstein introduced his theory of relativity; then, shortly afterward, came the even more fundamental revision known as quantum mechanics. Newtonian physics had been overthrown by two new upstarts, yet the subject matter of parapsychology was just as controversial as ever. And a few daring physicists were still stirring up that controversy.

In September 2001 Britain’s Royal Mail decided to honor the 100 th anniversary of the Nobel Prize by asking a British winner of each of the six different Nobel Prize categories – physics, chemistry, medicine, peace, literature, and economics – to write a small article about the implications of research in their field. Brian Josephson, who won the prize in 1973 for his work in quantum physics, contributed the following short article:

Physicists attempt to reduce the complexity of nature to a single unifying theory, of which the most successful and universal, the quantum theory, has been associated with several Nobel prizes, for example those to Dirac and Heisenberg. Max Planck's original attempts a hundred years ago to explain the precise amount of energy radiated by hot bodies began a process of capturing in mathematical form a mysterious, elusive world containing 'spooky interactions at a distance', real enough however to lead to inventions such as the laser and transistor.

Quantum theory is now being fruitfully combined with theories of information and computation. These developments may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy, an area where Britain is at the forefront of research.  9

The last sentence of this article ignited a firestorm of controversy. It had been over a century since Zollner worked with Slade, but it was clear that even in the 21 st century a prominent scientist still could not endorse research into telepathy – the direct communication between minds that is said to occur independently of the sense organs – without arousing strong emotions in many of his colleagues. The first to denounce Josephson in print was David Deutsch, quantum physics expert at Oxford University. “It is utter rubbish,” Deutsch spluttered to the London newspaper The Observer. “Telepathy simply does not exist. The Royal Mail has let itself be hoodwinked into supporting ideas that are complete nonsense. The evidence for the existence of telepathy is appalling.”  10

The science editor of The Observer even suggested patronizingly that Josephson had "gone off the rails".  11

The controversy was not confined to Britain. Professor Herbert Kroemer of Santa Barbara University, California, was quoted as saying:

 
  I am highly skeptical. Few of us believe telepathy exists, nor do we think physics can explain it. It also seems wrong for your Royal Mail to get involved. Certainly, if the US postal services did something like this, a lot of us would be very angry.  12
 

But in the controversy that followed, other prominent scientists were quoted as expressing opinions supporting Josephson’s position. Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at the University of London, argued that even if one regards the probability of extrasensory perception being real as small, “its significance if established would be so immense that it is surely worth investing some effort into studying it.”  13

In an article in Physics World, Carr defended Josephson and other physicists interested in telepathy, explaining that the interaction between mind and matter is one of the main reasons why some physicists are interested in the paranormal.

 
  Quantum mechanics, after all, is the first theory in physics in which the role of the observer has to be taken into account. You cannot separate the observer from the system being observed, although the precise role of consciousness in this process remains controversial.  14
 
A few weeks later Josephson defended himself in a letter to The Observer, in which he pointed out that complete skeptical denial regarding the existence of telepathy is by no means the rule among working scientists, contrary to what some skeptics would have us believe. In part, he wrote that:
 
 

Surveys show that a large proportion of scientists accept the possibility that telepathy exists; if it appears that the contrary is the case, this is because such scientists wisely keep quiet about their opinions when in scientific company.

The problem is that scientists critical of this research do not give their normal careful attention to the scientific literature on the paranormal: it is much easier instead to accept official views or views of biased sceptics.

The CIA's Stargate Project provided clear evidence that people can intermittently pick up with their minds images of distant objects such as military installations, some times with striking accuracy. The research arm of the project found that under controlled conditions the extent to which this ability exceeded chance guessing was statistically highly significant.

There is much other supporting research: the views you present are uninformed ones.

Recently Henry Stapp of the University of California has given strong arguments for it being necessary to take mind into account in physics, which opens up a whole field of possibilities; ironically, he also gives strong arguments against Deutsch's many-worlds philosophy, which has no experimental support whatever. My speculations in the brochure are by no means incompatible with current science. My contacts at Royal Mail do not consider they made an error in allowing the statement to stand.

Brian Josephson

Department of Physics
University of Cambridge

In the same issue Phillip Parker of the Royal Mail defended the Post Office’s decision.
 

 

Royal Mail was fully aware that Professor Josephson's views in the Nobel Stamps presentation pack could cause a debate among physicists. This is why telepathy was referred to as an area 'not understood by conventional science'. Six Nobel laureates were invited to write a personal reflection. Professor Josephson ended his piece on Quantum Theory with a few words speculating on the possible future direction of this particular subject.

The Nobel Stamps issued on 2 October celebrate 100 years of Nobel prizes. We are delighted that six laureates made unique contributions to our pack.

Philip Parker
Royal Mail  15

The controversy also played out over the airwaves. BBC radio confronted Josephson with psychologist Nicholas Humphrey and conjuror James Randi, neither of whom, it should be remembered, are Nobel laureates, Fellows of the Royal Society, or even physicists.

Randi was first quoted, in part, as saying, “There is no firm evidence for the existence of telepathy, ESP, or whatever we want to call it, and I think it is the refuge of scoundrels in many respects for them to turn to something like quantum mechanics, which uses a totally different language from the regular English that we are accustomed to using from day to day.”

Humphrey was more coherent: “Well, I think the idea that quantum physics explains the paranormal is an unnecessary idea, because there's nothing to explain. We haven't got any evidence.”  16

Since reports of telepathy, clairvoyance, and so forth date back over at least two thousand years, and since these phenomena have been studied experimentally for over one hundred years, the remark that “We haven’t got any evidence” may seem somewhat surprising.

It may be even more surprising to learn that this remark came from a former holder of the Cambridge University Perrott-Warrick Fellowship for Psychical Research.  17

Nothing of course was resolved in the brief exchange that followed. Humphrey patronizingly implied that Josephson “and other well-meaning physicists” are being fooled by conjuring tricksters if they believe in telepathy. In response, Josephson taunted Humphrey: “Now a few years ago he wrote a book ... I looked at the book very carefully and I believe I disposed of all the arguments. I haven't heard any comeback from him.”

“This isn't the time to review my book!” Humphrey squealed. The psychologist then proceeded to make some rather inaccurate remarks about the controversial role of consciousness in quantum physics, and time ran out on the talk show before Josephson was allowed to respond.

The issue was no more settled at the end of the radio talk show than it had been 125 years earlier, at the end of Slade’s trial. Despite the fact that the controversy has now spanned three centuries, and has been carried on in scientific academies, courtrooms, academic journals, newspapers and radio stations, the opponents and proponents of parapsychology seem just as implacably opposed in the twenty-first century as they were in the nineteenth. Today, in the world of science, nothing seems more controversial than parapsychology.

Indeed, the story of parapsychology’s struggle for legitimacy is an epic tale spanning centuries and continents, containing victories, sudden reversals, intrigue, scandals, heated arguments, wild accusations, ruined reputations and some of the most bizarre characters that have ever walked the earth. But why is parapsychology so controversial? Why has the controversy lasted centuries? And are we capable, at long last, of rationally resolving the issue?

In order to discover why parapsychology is so controversial, and why the controversy has lasted centuries, it is necessary to first understand the nature of the dispute. This is the key to a final rational resolution of the matter, a resolution that, by wide agreement, is long overdue.

 
 

ENDNOTES

1.
Paneth, E., 1949. "Science and Miracle", Durham University Journal, 10 (1948-9): 49.
2.
However, as late as 1807 Thomas Jefferson, as president of the American Philosophical Society, reacted to the theory propounded by two New England astronomers that a meteorite found in Weston, Connecticut, was of extraterrestrial origin, by remarking: “I could more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than stones would fall from heaven.”
3.
It is stated in the Report of the Experiments on Animal Magnetism, made by a Committee of the Medical Section of the French Royal Academy of Sciences, 1831: "We have seen two somnambulists who distinguished, with their eyes closed, the objects which were placed before them; they mentioned the color and the value of cards, without touching them; they read words traced with the hand, as also some lines of books opened at random. This phenomenon took place even when the eyelids were kept exactly closed with the fingers."
4.
Milner, 1998, p. 99.
5.
Kaku, Michio, 1994, p. 53.

6.
Bellachini’s statement read:

“After I had, at the wish of several highly-esteemed gentlemen of rank and position, and also for my own interest, tested the physical mediumship of Mr Slade in a series of sittings by full daylight, as well as in the evening, in his bedroom, I must, for the sake of truth, hereby certify that the phenomenal occurrences with Mr Slade have been thoroughly examined by me with the minutest observation and investigation of his surroundings, including the table, and that I have not in the smallest degree found anything to be produced by means of prestidigitative manifestations, or by mechanical appartatus; and that any explanation of the experiments which took place under the circumstances then obtaining by any reference to prestidigitation, to be absolutely impossible.

I must rest with such men of science as Crookes and Wallace, in London; Perty, in Berne; Butlerof, in St Petersburg; to search for the explanation of this phenomenal power, and to prove its reality. I declare, moreover, the published opinions of laymen, as to the ‘How’ of this subject to be premature, and according to my view and experience, false and one-sided. This, my declaration, is signed and executed before a notary and witnesses.”

(signed) SAMUEL BELLACHINI

Berlin, 6 December, 1877.

7.
Slade’s and Zollner’s story after this is not a happy one. Zollner died in 1882 from a brain hemorrhage. Three years later Slade arrived in Philadelphia to be examined by the Seybert Commission, created under the terms of the will of Henry Seybert to make an impartial assessment of the evidence for spiritualism. Most of its members, though, were anything but impartial. Slade was able to produce some phenomena for the Commission, and considered the enquiry a personal success, even writing a thank you note for the Commission, offering to return to give further demonstrations. However, the Commission’s report described Slade’s phenomena as “fraudulent throughout.” No one had caught Slade red-handed, but various members of the Commission claimed to have seen suspicious movements of his hands or feet, and this was all they needed. The report, published in 1877, completely demolished Slade’s reputation. A broken man, Slade became increasingly addicted to alcohol and morphine, dying in a Michigan sanatorium in 1905.

The Seybert Commission then set out to discredit Zollner and his colleagues. The Commission’s secretary, Professor Fullerton, traveled to Leipzig and subsequently issued a statement declaring that Zollner had been mentally unbalanced at the time of the Slade experiments. The other scientists were dismissed on the grounds of age or physical infirmity, portraying them as a group of infirm old men led by a lunatic. Zollner’s friends were infuriated at the suggestion that he was unbalanced, and offered to swear oaths that he had been perfectly sane until the day of his death.

But the campaign to discredit Zollner was highly successful, and today his name is rarely mentioned in science text books.
8.
As quoted in Michio, 1994, p. 53.
9.
Included in a booklet accompanying the Royal Mail Stamps issued on October 2, 2001 to commemorate the centenary of the Nobel prizes.
10.
The Observer, Sept 30, 2001. Deutsch embodies a curious double standard about the need for scientific evidence. He is a proponent of a theory that there are billions of parallel universes to our own, expounded in his book The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes. He also speculates freely on time travel, although there is not the slightest evidence for either of these phenomena.
11.
Robin McKie, The Observer, September 30 2001
12.
“Royal Mail’s Nobel Guru in Telepathy Row”, by Robin McKie, The Observer , Sunday September 30, 2001.
13.
“Pioneer of the Paranormal”, by Edwin Cartlidge, Physics World, May 2002, pp.10-11.
14.
“Physicists probe the paranormal”, by Martin Durrani, Physics World, May 2000.
15.
The Observer, October 7, 2001.
16.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4's Today program, October 2nd. 2001.
17.
However, it has been said that Humphrey “pocketed an estimated £75,000 without doing any noticeable research at all.” (“Telepathy, Stamps, and Fuzzy Logic”, by Guy Lyon Playfair, in The Skeptical Observer, published on-line). During the three years Humphrey held the Research Fellowship he did no psychical research, but instead wrote a book, Soul Searching, in which he claimed to have proved on theoretical grounds that phenomena like telepathy were impossible. Few were impressed with his proofs. Even his fellow skeptic, Susan Blackmore, in a review of his book in New Scientist, described his dismissal of the experimental evidence for telepathy as misleading and unfair.

 

 
 
 
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