Proof at Last?

The following are items from the Waldorf Watch "news" page discussing the claimed discovery of solid evidence for the existence of extrasensory perception.

This could change everything. If ESP is real, and if we equate it with clairvoyance, then...

With a few exceptions, the items run in chronological order, oldest first, newest last. I have done some light editing when moving the items here.

(Because these news items appeared on different days, there is a certain amount of overlap and repetition among them. Please be forbearing — or leap ahead when a repetition tries your patience.)

                                                                          — Roger Rawlings


“Daryl Bem is a Cornell University psychologist who says he's been doing magic as a hobby since he was 17. Now he has managed what some scientists may call his greatest trick: he's written a paper attempting to prove the power of ESP — extrasensory perception — and had it accepted for publication in a major scientific journal ... Did Bem really find evidence of extrasensory perception, or will his paper turn out to be an embarrassment? Already, there are doubts in the scientific world. ‘It's obvious, I think to most of us, that this is going to turn out badly,’ said Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland who is the author of ‘Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science.’"  

• ◊ •

Waldorf Watch Response:

It will be interesting to follow this story. From time to time, one researcher or another has claimed to find firm evidence for the existence of ESP, clairvoyance, or some other psychic power. Great excitement developed, for instance, when a researcher at Duke University insisted — over a sustained period of time, and on the basis of many experiments — that he had proof for the existence of various psychic powers. But in that case and all others, the evidence eventually crumbled — the findings could not be confirmed and, in many instances, they were clearly disproved. [See "Clairvoyance".]

Sometimes erroneous claims about psychic powers result from intentional fraud. In other instances, well-meaning researchers have run poorly designed experiments that were overturned when more rigorous trials were made. Perhaps now, for the first time, verifiable evidence for ESP has been produced. The odds are against it, however.

If Dr. Bem has found anything, it is at most a latent psychic capacity. This may open the possibility that psychic powers could be developed to produce the refined capacity — “exact clairvoyance” — that Rudolf Steiner claimed to possess. But a chasm yawns between Bem’s supposed results and Steiner’s claim. The best the volunteers in Bem’s study could attain was 53% accuracy (that is, out of 100 trials, they got 53 right). Thus, they were wrong nearly as often as they were right — and the results hover close to pure chance (50%). Steiner claimed to achieve virtually 100% accuracy — his clairvoyance was “exact,” he said [see “Exactly”]. But there is no evidence that such accuracy is possible, and indeed Steiner’s own record was demonstrably poor. He made many blatant errors; he was fell far short of his own standard. [See, e.g., “Steiner’s Blunders”, “Steiner’s ‘Science’”, “Millennium”, and “Steiner’s Illogic”.]

All of this is relevant to Waldorf schools because Rudolf Steiner’s teachings depend on his claimed power of clairvoyance, and Waldorf education is built upon Steiner's teachings. If clairvoyance does not exist, there is no basis for Steiner’s teachings. In that case, Anthroposophy goes up in smoke, taking with it the rationale for Waldorf schooling. So stay tuned. This story may take years to play out (examining evidence, analyzing conclusions, and running tests that confirm or disprove Bem's findings will probably be time-consuming), but in the end the truth will be established.


Here is the first of what will probably be a long series of follow-up reports concerning the claim that strong evidence for the existence of ESP (extrasensory perception) has been found.

• ◊ •

“Have scientists really discovered proof of ESP?

“...Although Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell University, claims his tests of over 1,000 college students over 8 years have yielded proof of ESP, his findings have provoked ‘amusement and scorn’ from the scientific community. Should we believe Bem, or do his claims give serious science a bad name?

“...Bem's findings are ‘fascinating,’ says Robert Krulwich at NPR [National Public Radio] ... If his findings can be repeated, ‘this story is going to be big.’

“...If history's any guide, no one will be able to repeat these findings: Bem isn't the first psychologist to claim proof of ESP, says James Alcock at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Time and time again, the studies fail to ‘yield data that are capable of being replicated.’ Bem's work is no different; it's full of ‘flawed research’ and ‘methodological and analytical problems.’ His conclusions reflect ‘not the light of knowledge, but the biases of the researcher.’ The only mystery is how his study got published.

“...But there's some precedent: Although Bem's assertion that memory can work backwards [i.e., we can "remember" the future] throws out 'our entire understanding of time and physics,' says Melissa Burkley at Psychology Today, the idea that time is not linear is a key supposition of quantum physics.”  


“[A] top journal is slated to publish new research supporting the idea that extrasensory perception (ESP) could actually exist.

“...[P]sychology professor emeritus Daryl J. Bem of Cornell University reports the results of nine experiments designed to gauge the ‘retroactive influence of some future event on an individual's current response.’

“Participants were asked, for example, to choose which of two computer screens an image was about to appear on. If the images were erotic, Bem found that that people could pick the right screen 53 per cent of the time (that number dropped to 50 per cent for non-erotic images).

“... [T]he more than 1,000 people who participated in the experiments appear to have predicted, or have been influenced by, the future event [1] slightly more successfully than if they had simply been guessing.” 

• ◊ •

Waldorf Watch Response:

◊ The connection between eroticism and ESP may startle mystics. Bem tried to heighten the motivation of his participants by having his computer display pinups. Eager for this cheesecake, the participants seem to have done better than if they had merely guessed which screen would display a neutral image. But linking psychic powers to sexual excitement is not at all the sort of thing Rudolf Steiner would have endorsed or considered a true use of clairvoyance. Thus, it is certainly questionable whether Bem's work supports Steiner's.

◊ Dr. Bem relied on a computer to randomly decide which screen would display the cheesecake. Having done some computer programming myself (at a very low level, I hasten to add), I think I can confidently say that computers cannot produce truly random results — or, at least, producing such results is extremely difficult and rare. [2] Every computer follows the logic of its circuitry and the logic of the program it runs. A typical “randomizing” program will produce results that are very nearly random — so nearly random that we would be very hard-pressed to correctly deduce its results. [3] But that’s the point. If the results are not truly random, then a highly motivated individual might be able to rapidly, unconsciously, logically deduce the results. If the choice is between just two possibilities (the exciting picture will appear on screen A or screen B), the task is greatly simplified. Thus, I suspect that perfectly ordinary mental processes — making quick logical leaps — could lead to the 53% success rate reported by Bem. ESP would not be required.


The results of experiments Dr. Bem conducted have yet to be confirmed or disproved by other scientists — the necessary step for the scientific method to play out. At least two scientists, Richard Wiseman and Stuart Ritchie, have announced their intention to repeat Bem's experiments. As is necessary, they are on the alert for possible errors in Bem's approach, and they think they may have already found one. (To the probable disappointment of some readers and to the relief of others, the following — written by Richard Wiseman — refers to a different experiment than the one involving pinups.)

• ◊ •

"Stuart Ritchie (Edinburgh University) and I are planning to replicate the study. Yesterday we went over the procedure in detail and I think that the studies contain a potential methodological problem.

"The studies were run by student experimenters, with other students acting as participants.  The study software presented participants with a list of 48 words (e.g., CAT, SOFA, MUG, DESK), and then asked them to type all of the words that they could remember into the computer.  The software then randomly selected half of the words in the original list (e.g., CAT, MUG) and presented them to the participants again.  The participant did not see the non-selected words (e.g., SOFA, DESK).  Let’s refer to the selected words as the ‘target words’ and the non-selected words as the ‘control’ words.  According to Bem’s results, participants were significantly more likely to remember the words in the ‘target’ than ‘control’ list (i.e., they appeared to be better able to remember those words that they would later see a second time.).

"The potential problem is in the scoring.   The experimenters used a second piece of software to score participants’ responses.  Of course, participants may have misspelled remembered words (e.g., typing ‘CTT’ instead of ‘CAT’) or come up with words that were not on the original list (e.g., typing ‘CAR’ instead of ‘CAT’). To deal with this, the scoring software was designed to automatically go through the participant’s responses and to flag up any words that were not absolutely identical to the words that were not in the original list.  The experimenter then had to go through these ‘unknown’ words manually, and either correct the spelling or tell the software to ignore  them because they did not appear on the original list.  To prevent any possibility of unconscious bias, the experimenter should have been doing this blind to the words in the  ‘target’ and ‘control’ lists.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.

"The scoring programme listed the words submitted by the participant in one column. To the right of this were two more columns showing the ‘target’ and ‘control’ lists. Furthermore, when the experimenter made each decision about an ‘unknown’ word they had to change data in the columns containing the ‘target’ and ‘control’ lists.  This procedure presented an opportunity for subjective bias to enter the scoring system.  For example, if one of the words presented in the original list was ‘CAT”, and the participant typed ‘CAR’, does the experimenter re-code this as CAT?  Or what if the participant typed ‘CTT’ – again, how should this be scored?  In making these decisions the experimenter could have been unconsciously biased by whether the word CAT appears in the ‘target’ or ‘control’ lists."  


An article in THE NEW YORK TIMES indicates that several attempts have been made to reproduce Bem's results, and they have failed to do so.

• ◊ •

"Some scientists say [Dr. Bem’s] report deserves to be published, in the name of open inquiry; others insist that its acceptance only accentuates fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer review of research in the social sciences.

“'It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in,' Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon and longtime critic of ESP research, said. 'I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.'

"The editor of the journal [that accepted Bem's paper], Charles Judd, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, said the paper went through the journal’s regular review process ... [T]he paper met the journal’s editorial standards, Dr. Judd added, even though 'there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results.'

"But many experts say that is precisely the problem. Claims that defy almost every law of science are by definition extraordinary and thus require extraordinary evidence. Neglecting to take this into account — as conventional social science analyses do — makes many findings look far more significant than they really are, these experts say.

"...In recent weeks science bloggers, researchers and assorted skeptics have challenged Dr. Bem’s methods and his statistics, with many critiques digging deep into the arcane but important fine points of crunching numbers.

"...Peer review is usually an anonymous process, with authors and reviewers unknown to one another. But all four reviewers of this paper were social psychologists, and all would have known whose work they were checking and would have been responsive to the way it was reasoned.

"Perhaps more important, none were topflight statisticians. 'The problem was that this paper was treated like any other,' said an editor at the journal, Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri. 'And it wasn’t.'

"Many statisticians say that conventional social-science techniques for analyzing data make an assumption that is disingenuous and ultimately self-deceiving: that researchers know nothing about the probability of the so-called null hypothesis. [4] In this case, the null hypothesis would be that ESP does not exist. Refusing to give that hypothesis weight makes no sense, these experts say; if ESP exists, why aren’t people getting rich by reliably predicting the movement of the stock market or the outcome of football games?

"...So far, at least three efforts to replicate [Dr. Bem's] experiments have failed."  

• ◊ •

Waldorf Watch Response:

The skepticism of scientists like Ray Hyman proves nothing. Many scientific breakthroughs have met with initial skepticism and ridicule. Perhaps Dr. Bem will one day be hailed as a great researcher who revolutionized our understanding of human mental capabilities.

On the other hand, the failure to replicate and thus confirm Bem's findings is a serious matter. Unless other scientists are able to confirm the work done by Bem — getting the same or even more dramatic results — Bem's claims will ultimately be dismissed. A scientific hypothesis is accepted only if substantial, reproducible evidence is accumulated to support it. So far, this has not happened in this case.

VI. & VII.

Here are two more reports on the current controversy over claimed evidence for the existence of ESP. (The second is rather dry. Sorry.)

• ◊ •

◊ "No one is accusing the author of the ESP study, Daryl J. Bem, a Cornell University psychologist, of committing a fraud. He is a genuinely respected and prominent researcher. But he has been attacked on the grounds that his statistical analysis was faulty and not sufficiently scientific. In particular, critics complain he did not properly account for the possibility that his hypothesis might not be true.

"At least two rebuttals have already been penned, and one is to appear in the same issue of the JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY [that will publish Bem's paper] later this year. Three attempts at duplicating [Bem's] results have failed."  

◊ "[T]he episode has inflamed one of the longest-running debates in science. For decades, some statisticians have argued that the standard technique used to analyze data in much of social science and medicine overstates many study findings — often by a lot. As a result, these experts say, the literature is littered with positive findings that do not pan out: 'effective' therapies that are no better than a placebo; slight biases that do not affect behavior; brain-imaging correlations that are meaningless.

"...Statistical analysis must find ways to expose and counterbalance all the many factors that can lead to falsely positive results — among them human nature, in its ambitious hope to discover something, and the effects of industry money, which biases researchers to report positive findings for products.

"And, of course, the unwritten rule that failed studies — the ones that find no effects — are far less likely to be published than positive ones. What are the odds, for instance, that the journal would have published Dr. Bem’s study if it had come to the ho-hum conclusion that ESP still does not exist?"  

• ◊ •

Waldorf Watch Response:

Discussions of such things as statistical analysis can be awfully boring. But in a case like this, they may be crucial. Bem's critics are charging that his methods were flawed and thus his results are meaningless. This is a crucial (if highly technical) concern.

The bigger problem for Bem is that various scientists are repeating his experiments and failing to get the same results he reported. This is absolutely central. The results of a scientific experiment are confirmed only if the same results are obtained in later repetitions of the experiment. Galileo dropped objects of different weights from the top of the Tower of Pisa* and noted that they reached the ground at the same time. Subsequent tests by other scientists confirmed Galileo's finding. If they had not, Galileo's work would have been disproved. Dr. Bem's findings are in danger of being disproved.

* The story may be legend, but the findings are correct. If we adjust for air resistance, objects of differing weights fall at the same rate. (One Apollo astronaut famously confirmed this by dropping a feather and a hammer on the airless moon. They reached the lunar surface simultaneously. [])


The following fleshes out some details of Bem's work. This article raises the possibility that Bem may have been measuring something we should label as clairvoyance, and it indicates that one group of volunteers attained greater accuracy than the 53% reported previously. On the other hand, this article removes the results farther from the sphere Rudolf Steiner would have affirmed: The images identified as pinups in some earlier reports are described here as far more sexually explicit. The article also adds to the list of potential flaws in Bem's work.

• ◊ •

“[W]hat, exactly, did [Dr. Bem] find? His experiments involved more than 1,000 subjects who took nine different tests, most of them simple computer trials that asked the participants to guess whether certain images would pop onto the screen. For instance, in the first experiment, 100 Cornell students looked at digital photos that mostly depicted non-sexual scenes but occasionally — and randomly — showed consensual adult sex acts. Across 100 sessions, Bem writes in his paper, participants correctly predicted when the erotic photos would show up 53.1% of the time, which crosses the bar for statistical significance (meaning there is at least a 95% probability that the findings could not be due to chance).

“Similarly, in Bem's fifth experiment, 100 Cornell undergrads were exposed to two side-by-side photos and asked to pick which one they liked more. Then the computer randomly picked one of the two photos and showed it again for a few milliseconds. Before the photo was shown, the subjects were asked to predict which picture they thought the computer would choose. Once again, the students made the correct prediction 53.1% of the time, but only when the computer selected the picture they had already designated as their preferred one. If the computer chose the other one, the subjects' accuracy did not cross the statistically significant barrier.

”...One significant finding in his data: subjects who score high on measures of stimulus-seeking — in other words, people who like to take risks — were far better at precognition than ordinary people. Stimulus seekers could predict the erotic computer images an astonishing 57.6% of the time....

“Bem isn't sure why risk takers are so much better at ESP than others, and he is careful to note that he's not sure what kind of ESP, if any, is occurring. Maybe it is precognition: the participants are predicting the future. Maybe it is clairvoyance....

“Or maybe it is all an accident. Maybe the computer programs he used were flawed (although he used several different gold-standard methods to generate randomness in the images). One flaw I identified in Bem's experiments is that, for the most part, the students were aware of the purpose of the experiments. They were explicitly told that the tests were designed to examine ESP. Generally, psychologists blind study participants to the reason for tests so the subjects won't be influenced by preconceived notions about them. I don't know how that foreknowledge could explain the results, but replication studies should blind participants.”  


“I'm a believer. I grew up in a family with Scottish roots, and the Scots take what they call ‘second sight’ for granted. Everybody has it ... Do you believe that each of us has this ability? Have you experienced it? Have you seen it in others? Why are some people so troubled by it (viz the experts and professional debunkers who instantly howled in protest)? And how do you explain it? Or do we even need to — after all, no one can prove that God exists, or love. Yet we accept both as being central to our lives. Maybe it's time for a thoughtful conversation about ESP.”  

• ◊ •

Waldorf Watch Response:

A columnist at THE HUFFINGTON POST wants to start a discussion of ESP. This is relevant to Waldorf education, because Rudolf Steiner claimed to be clairvoyant, virtually all his teachings are based on this claimed power, and Waldorf teachers such as Eugene Schwartz assert that all Waldorf teachers should use clairvoyance (and indeed they use this “power” in getting to “know” their students).

This discussion may be interesting, but real information about the existence or nonexistence of ESP will come from other quarters — i.e., investigators scrupulously applying the scientific method. Believers in the occult usually dismiss such investigators. They often claim that ESP, etc., can only be discovered when scientists and indeed cool rationality are absent from the room. This in itself tells us a lot. (Note, by the way, that Rudolf Steiner claimed to be a scientist, and he said that ordinary science would validate his "spiritual science," so this sort of objection becomes dicey for his followers. This doesn't stop them from resorting to it, however.)

As always, watch for slippery non-logic used by true-believers. For instance, do we really have no proof for the existence of love? I'd say, using a round number, that we have about umpteen zillion proofs of love each day.


“A paper in press at a top psychology journal argues that the results of nine experiments conducted with more than 1000 college students provide statistically significant evidence of an ability to predict future events. Not surprisingly, the news has provoked outrage from pseudoscience debunkers and counteraccusations of closed-mindedness from those willing to consider the possibility of psychic powers. It has also rekindled a long-running debate about whether the statistical tools commonly used in psychology — and most other areas of science — too often lead researchers astray.”  

• ◊ •

Unfortunately, the full text of this article in SCIENCE is available only to subscribers. The chief conclusions will appear elsewhere sooner or later, however, and I will report such conclusions here.


“Professor Defends ESP Study on Colbert Report — Prof. Emeritus Daryl Bem’s ... support for the existence of extrasensory perception has roiled academic circles ... Bem defended his study, stating that the 53 percent likelihood of ESP derived from his experiment was significant. ‘53 percent sounds small,’ Bem admitted on the television show, but said the significance of the number is not immediately evident. ‘53 percent is what Obama won over McCain … 53 percent is actually quite large.’”  

• ◊ •

Waldorf Watch Response:

Actually, 53% doesn’t just look small, it is small. Consider. You would like to go skydiving, but you are scared. So you consult a clairvoyant who can see the future. He tells you sure, jump out of an airplane. “You can trust me,” he says. “I’m right 53% of the time.”

I imagine you’d prefer a seer whose average is a bit better — 99%, perhaps, or higher still. Steiner claimed to be such a seer. He said he used “exact” clairvoyance, by which he presumably meant he attained something like 100% accuracy. Fortunately for him, much of what he claimed to “see” is unverifiable — we simply have to take his word (or not) on such matters as the existence of invisible bodies or the spiritual beings who knocked about on Old Saturn. But concerning some matters — statements Steiner made about observable conditions in the real universe — we are actually able to check, and Steiner’s record is quite poor. [See, e.g., “Steiner’s Blunders”.]

The moral of this story? Keep your seat belt on.


Here are extended extracts from ‘Back to the Future: Parapsychology and the Bem Affair”, by James E. Alcock, SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, March/April 2011, pp. 31-39. Alcock is a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Alcock’s analysis is detailed and technical, but his conclusions can be quickly summarized: Dr. Bem’s experiments were badly designed and badly conducted. They offer no real evidence for the existence of ESP.

Alcock goes into great detail. To some, his remarks will seem like nitpicking. But in fact he is doing what rational people must do — using his brain and the tools of logic and science to think things through. We must look closely and carefully, and analyze closely, if we are to comprehend the world around us. And the more remarkable any set of phenomena seems, the more we need to focus in, examining and analyzing scrupulously. As Carl Sagan once said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." We might add that when "extraordinary evidence" is offered to us, we must check it out to be sure that it really is what it may initially seem to be. Is it truly extraordinary? And does it prove the extraordinary? Or have serious errors been made?

Mystics will contend that both Bem and Alcock are off track, using laboratory procedures and cold logic in an effort to investigate the transcendent and magical. Surely the soft, hazy atmosphere of a seance, or an occult confab, or a Waldorf classroom, is more suited to such mysteries as ESP. But in fact the greatest magic humanity can employ is the power of our brains to penetrate appearances to discover the truth. With rational thought, we can pierce through illusions and fantasies, freeing ourselves from self-inflicted error. This "magic" is our greatest possession. We must cherish it, respect it, and use it with care.

So please consider the following in as much detail as you can bear. But if you get bogged down, jump to the "Overall Evaluation" of the first experiment, and then leap to Alcock's final conclusions for all of the nine experiments, beginning with the words "Overall then...." (Then use the link I have provided to read Alcock's entire report when time and circumstances permit.)

• ◊ •

"A flurry of media attention is being directed toward the prepublication distribution of Daryl Bem’s forthcoming research paper 'Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.' Bem claims to have found evidence of marvelous psychic abilities that transcend time and allow the future to reach backward to change the past.

"...Bem describes a series of nine experiments that 'test for retroactive influence by "time-reversing" well-established psychological effects so that the individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur.' His stated goal is 'to provide well-controlled demonstrations of psi that can be replicated by independent investigators.'

"...EXPERIMENT 1: Precognitive Detection of Erotic Stimuli

"Each trial in this experiment involved the presentation of an erotic, negative, or neutral picture. The participant sat in front of a computer screen and was tasked to predict which of two curtains had a picture behind it. Only after the participant had chosen a curtain by depressing a key did the computer select a picture at random and present it behind either the left or the right curtain.

"...[W]e learn that 'most' of the pictures used in the experiment were selected from a databank, the International Affective Picture System. Bem then states that each session (a 'session' refers to all the trials of an individual participant) involved thirty-six trials of randomly intermixed erotic and non-erotic pictures (eighteen of each). However, we soon learn that not all sessions were conducted in this way: the first forty of the one hundred sessions (that is, those of the first forty participants) involved twelve trials of erotic pictures, twelve of negative pictures, and twelve of neutral pictures! ... To muddle things even more, Bem then states that the remaining sixty sessions involved '18 trials of erotic pictures and 18 trials of non-erotic positive pictures with both high and low arousal ratings. These included pictures featuring couples in romantic but non-erotic situations. . .' (emphasis added). How many were of high or low arousal weighting, or what those terms even mean, he does not say.

"What is going on here? Setting aside the confusion about the stimulus, no competent researcher dramatically modifies an experiment two-fifths of the way into it! To do so is to seriously compromise any subsequent analysis and interpretation.”

Alcock points out numerous other errors and problems in experiment #1. He then gives the following conclusion concerning this experiment:

“Overall Evaluation: Just about everything that could be done wrong in an experiment occurred here. And even if one chooses to overlook that methodological mess, Bem’s data still do not support the claimed above-chance effect because of the multiple-testing problem.

"EXPERIMENT 2: Precognitive Avoidance of Negative Stimuli

"This study involved 107 female and forty-three male undergraduate students. Using a computer, each participant first responded to Bem’s two-item stimulus-seeking scale and then completed a sequence of thirty-six trials ... The participant depressed a key to indicate which picture he or she liked better. Only after the preference was registered did the computer randomly choose which of the two pictures would be considered the 'target.'

"... [We find] the same problem as before — the procedure has been changed partway through the experiment. Bem states that this was done to evaluate the possibility that 'the psi effect may be stronger if the most successfully avoided negative stimuli were used repeatedly until they were eventually invoked.' It is difficult to get one’s head around this justification, and in any case, this should have been examined in a separate study. Again, given the inherent unreasonableness of changing the procedure in an ongoing experiment, one cannot help but wonder if two separate experiments were run and then combined after neither produced significant results on its own.

"...EXPERIMENT 3: Retroactive Priming I

"This experiment involved a 'priming' paradigm borrowed from contemporary psychological research: participants indicate as quickly as possible whether a picture is pleasant or unpleasant, and their response time is measured. 

"...[Bem] reports a significant [result]. His data analyses are very complex, involving two transformations as well as outlier cutoff criteria; without access to the actual data, it is difficult to evaluate the adequacy of the analysis. However, it is obvious once again that multiple comparisons were carried out without any control for multiple testing.

"EXPERIMENT 4: Retroactive Priming II

"Experiment 4 is described as a replication of Experiment 3 'with one major change and two timing changes.' Similar positive results were reported. Again, one would need access to all the data, including the discarded outliers, before one could properly evaluate the stated conclusions.

"EXPERIMENT 5: Retroactive Habituation I

"...The experiment employed a mere-exposure protocol borrowed from experimental psychology, but Bem 'runs it backwards.' 

"... Bem reports that the hit rate was significantly above chance for women but not for men. Nonetheless, he also states that there was not a significant sex difference! Though this seeming contradiction can arise statistically, it is up to the researcher to make sense of it — which Bem does not.

"EXPERIMENT 6: Retroactive Habituation II

"Experiment 6 is described as a replication and extension of Experiment 5. Trials with erotic picture pairs were added, and it was hypothesized that the outcome for erotic pictures would be the opposite of that for the negative pictures ... Bem does not explain his reasoning.

"...This is purely an ad hoc and unacceptable procedure, again suggesting a cavalier attitude about the rigors of proper experimentation.

"As for the data analysis, once again there were numerous t-tests without any control for multiple testing, thereby rendering erroneous the claimed significance levels.

"EXPERIMENT 7: Retroactive Induction of Boredom

"The hit rate was not reported to be significant in this experiment. The reader is therefore spared my deliberations.

"EXPERIMENT 8: Retroactive Facilitation of Recall I

"This experiment was an attempt to test the hypothesis that the future rehearsal of a set of words can make them easier to recall in the present.  

"...The apparently arbitrary weighting of scores, when the more direct-difference scores would offer less ambiguity, renders these findings extremely difficult to interpret. Making choices about data analysis after the data are collected introduces unacceptable opportunity for bias and allows selection of a method that suits one’s hypothesis.

"EXPERIMENT 9: Retroactive Facilitation of Recall II

"This is described as a replication of Experiment 8, with one procedural change ... My concerns about the data analysis in Experiment 8 similarly apply in this case.

"Overall, then, this is a very unsatisfactory set of experiments that does not provide us with reason to believe that Bem has demonstrated the operation of psi. All that he has produced are claims of some significant departures from chance, and these claims are flimsy given the many methodological and analytical problems that I have touched on in this review."

Alcock points out that normally any real results would become more pronounced and clear when the sample size is increased, but in Bem's experiments just the opposite was found, which suggests that the results were not real but merely chance aberrations or misinterpretations.

"...Larger samples provide a better opportunity to detect such a difference if it is truly there, and thus effect size should increase with increased sample size. However, in Bem’s experiments, the effect size correlates negatively (-.91) with sample size, indicating that the claimed effect is smaller when the sample size is larger.

"...The publication of this set of experiments will serve no one well. Parapsychology is not honored by having this paper accepted by a mainstream psychology journal. Neither does Bem’s paper serve the public well, for it only adds to confusion about the scientific case for the existence of psi. And it does no service to the reputation of the JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY. Although Bem has failed to demonstrate the existence of mysterious intellectual powers that defy the normal constraints of time and space, there seem nonetheless to have been mysterious intellectual powers at play here. I refer to the decision by the editors of an esteemed psychology journal to publish this badly flawed research article.

“'Think of your data set as a jewel,” Bem instructs. However, with these nine experiments, Bem did not end up with a polished jewel. Rather, to extend his metaphor, the jewel cracked under the intense pressure used to try to shape it to fit expectation. One is left with nothing but useless fragments that reflect not the light of knowledge but the biases of the researcher."

[R. R., 2011.]

Psychic powers are supposed to penetrate 

the fog, maya, the veil of material illusion. 

But what if such powers are the very stuff of illusion? 

Dreams. Fantasies. Delusions. 

What if psychic powers are the product of 

our self-deception, feeding back into our self-deception, 

leading us ever deeper into falsehood?

[Paranormal Zone X.]

• ◊ •

"ESP or extrasensory perception is perception occurring independently of sight, hearing, or other sensory processes.

"People who have extrasensory perception are said to be psychic. Some think that everyone has ESP; others think it is a talent that only special folks have. Some think that animals or plants have ESP.

"The term ESP was popularized by J. B. Rhine, who began investigating paranormal phenomena at Duke University in 1927.

"ESP refers to telepathy, clairvoyance (remote viewing), precognition, and, in recent years, clairaudience.

"The existence of ESP and other paranormal powers such as psychokinesis (PK), are disputed, though systematic experimental research on these subjects, known collectively as psi,  has been ongoing for over a century in a field known as parapsychology.

"Most of the evidence for ESP, however, is anecdotal. The anecdotes consist of two parts: the experience itself and the interpretation of it. A story may be true, but the attempt to make sense or give psychic meaning to the story often seems to the skeptic to exceed the bounds of reasonableness." — Robert Todd Carroll, THE SKEPTIC'S DICTIONARY [].

[R. R., 2010.]

Steiner claimed to possess "exact clairvoyance." 
[See "Exactly".]
He described the higher spirit worlds, 
mankind's distant past, mankind's distant future —
he made "clairvoyant" reports about 
any and all matters, reports taken as
virtually unquestionable truth by his followers.
Their faith is remarkable.

Later. More from the "news" page:


“ESP may be useful in defense, health, science, unconventional areas

“Of the many kinds of so-called anomalous or unusual phenomena, the mysteries of the human mind certainly seem to be among the most interesting.

“For example, the extrasensory perception (ESP) techniques and processes generally called ‘remote viewing’ have provided valuable information and insight for U.S. defense and intelligence activities.

“Although many of these remote viewers reportedly had better-than-average natural ESP abilities to begin with, it is also conjectured that all people have these sixth-sense perceptions too. However, many people probably don't recognize their internal hunches and feelings. Further, most of us don't practice using these awareness skills on important defense and intelligence efforts.”  

• ◊ •

Waldorf Watch Response:

Human knowledge is limited. The universe still holds many mysteries. Science is a process of discovery, not a set of final, unquestionable conclusions. As ignorant as the ancients seem to us today, we will appear fully as ignorant to our great-great-great-great grandchildren.

Does ESP exist? No. At least, we have no firm evidence for its existence. Lots of people believe in it. The US government has spent wads of money trying to develop and use it for espionage. Cops call on psychics for help in murder investigations. People check their horoscopes in the newspaper. We kiss rabbits’ feet, look for four-leaf clovers, wear our lucky underpants... But what has come of such efforts? Nothing. Or, if not nothing, then next-to-nothing. (The US government stopped wasting its money on this stuff some time ago. At least, so I’ve read — and I have a hunch that it is true.)

Hunches. We all have hunches. Are these reliable? How many people do you know who have hit the jackpot in a lottery playing hunches?*

Some hunches work, or seem to work. If we accept the stories about hunches that worked, and disregard the zillions of stories about hunches that proved false, we might be impressed.

Is there such a thing as ESP? Is there such a thing as clairvoyance? No one has yet proven it, and in fact the overwhelming weight of evidence is that, no, these things do not exist.

Still, the universe is mysterious. Perhaps, someday...

Why am I wasting our time here at Waldorf Watch on such ponderings? Because the entire Waldorf system is built on the assumption that clairvoyance exists and can be made reliable. Rudolf Steiner claimed to be clairvoyant, and so do many Waldorf teachers working today. Are they correct? Do at least some Waldorf teachers have astonishing psychic powers? If you send your children to a Waldorf school, you are gambling that the answer is yes.

For Rudolf Steiner’s teachings — which form the foundation of Waldorf education — to be borne out, three tests would have to be met. We would have to learn the following, with a high degree of certainty. 1) Clairvoyance is possible. 2) “Exact” clairvoyance (i.e., clairvoyance that is almost 100% reliable — the kind Steiner claimed) is possible. 3) Steiner’s “clairvoyant” visions are true. Bear in mind, even if clairvoyance were possible, and even if such a thing as “exact” clairvoyance were possible, we would still need proof that the things Steiner claimed to see really exist. Other “clairvoyants” have reported seeing very different things.

As of today (May 9, 2011), we have little or no reason to think that clairvoyance exists, that “exact” clairvoyance is possible, or that Steiner’s visions are true. Maybe this will change. But here are two suggestions: 1)  Don’t hold your breath. 2) Don’t send you child to a Waldorf school unless you are firmly convinced that Steiner’s visions are true. [See “Clairvoyance”, “Exactly”, "The Waldorf Teacher's Consciousness", and “ESP”.]

* What do we mean by “hunch”? Is a hunch a mysterious perception gained through psychic powers beyond the reach of science? Or is it a guess, a conclusion we leap to because our brains are wired to do so? We often have to make important decisions without waiting to gather evidence and carefully analyzing our findings. And it helps if we are sure that we have the right answer — i.e., we firmly "feel" or "intuit" it — without being paralyzed by indecision. In the wild, when being eyed by a hungry lion, several courses of action are possible, but you better decide quickly. For instance, you might have this intuition: "I bet I'll improve my life expectancy if I leave the immediate vicinity pretty soon." Being a hunch, this would pass through your brain in a millisecond — and your legs would already be pumping. Waiting to reason things out ("Hm. I see the lion is twitching her tail. What does that mean? Is she a friendly lion? Would she let me pet her?") is not the best policy under such circumstances. Reasoning things out is an important activity, but sometimes unconsidered certainty serves us better. Our brains are capable of reasoning and they are capable of hunches, and often we feel more sure of our hunches than of our logic. None of this proves anything supernatural. It merely proves that the tendency to have hunches has been built into us by our evolutionary history.


A researcher not long ago published findings to gladden the hearts of Rudolf Steiner's followers and all other believers in clairvoyance. [See “The Waldorf Teachers’ Consciousness”.] Laboratory proof of ESP had been found! But, almost immediately, the researcher’s results began to collapse. Here is a follow-up, from the LOS ANGELES TIMES: 

“Psychic ability study debunked: Steer clear of rabbit hole, psychologists say 

“Psychic ability is real, and here's proof, Daryl Bem said in 2011. It was an exciting claim, but excitement fades with time — and, often, with further investigation. 

“The social psychologist at Cornell University [New York, USA] did research that he said supported the existence of extrasensory perception. At the end of his paper, he encouraged other psychologists to try to replicate his findings.... 

“Three psychologists have now tried, and here’s what they found: nothing. 

“...A team of three university psychologists tried to replicate “the retroactive facilitation of recall effect” — in essence, seeing into the future — separately at their three colleges. 

“...'We went to great pains' to follow Bem’s exact procedures, psychologist Stuart Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh [Scotland, UK] said, according to Medical Xpress.

"In their article, published in the journal PLOS ONE, they conclude: ‘Our results failed to provide any evidence for retroactive facilitation of recall.’ 

"The researchers...add: Let’s ‘not to venture too far down the rabbit hole just yet.’” 


Rudolf Steiner claimed to be clairvoyant. All of his occult teachings, summarized as the doctrines of Anthroposophy, derive from his claimed use of clairvoyance. If there is no such thing as real clairvoyance, then Anthroposophy has no validity.

Waldorf education is rooted in Anthroposophy. The purpose of Waldorf education, as explained by Steiner, is to apply to children the fruits of Anthroposophical knowledge of human nature. [See, e.g., "Schools as Churches".] If there is no such thing as real clairvoyance, then there is no valid basis for Waldorf education.

There is no such thing as real clairvoyance. At least, no real  evidence for the existence of clairvoyance has ever been produced. [See "Clairvoyance".] From time to time, one researcher or another has come forward with supposed evidence for the existence of clairvoyance, but the evidence has always proven to be spurious. The real result has always been reconfirmation of the conclusion that there is no basis for belief in clairvoyance. 

This pattern is now repeating itself. In 2011, a respected researcher at Cornell University (New York, USA), Daryl Bem, reported experimental results indicating the existence of clairvoyance or extrasensory perception (ESP). If true, these results would bring joy to the hearts of Anthroposophists and advocates of Waldorf education. "See? Clairvoyance is real! Steiner's clairvoyance is plausible; it is proven! Anthroposophy is true! Waldorf education is valid!"

But Bem's results were almost immediately shown to be extremely doubtful. His experiments seemed flawed and his results seemed false. [See "ESP".] As time has passed, the doubts about Bem's research have deepened and solidified. A consensus has grown that his work is essentially worthless. Now, the journal that published his research has published what amounts to a retraction. Bem did not produce any real evidence for the existence of psychic abilties.

The following is from SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Vol. 37 No. 2, March/April 2013:

Failure to Replicate Results of Bem Parapsychology

Experiments Published by Same Journal

Kendrick Frazier

Two years ago the prepublication release of a research paper by psychologist Daryl Bem claiming experimental evidence for precognition created a worldwide media stir and intense controversy within the scientific and skeptical communities.

Bem, of Cornell University, claimed that through nine experiments he had demonstrated the existence of precognition ... Essentially, he had claimed to have produced evidence that psychic abilities not only exist but can transcend time....

Informed critics of parapsychology were almost uniformly incredulous. Although Bem is a respected psychologist, they found so many flaws in the research protocols and methods that in their view the conclusions had no validity....

Experiments attempting to replicate Bem's research were quickly conducted at various universities, but none were accepted for publication by JPSP [the JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, which had published Bem's results]. In fact, [JPSP] said it would not consider publishing replication failures....

Now the journal has had an apparent change of heart. It has finally published a set of experiments that attempted (and failed) to replicate Bem's results....

[T]he central conclusion is succinctly stated ... 'We conducted seven experiments testing for precognition and found no evidence supporting its existence.'"

• ◊ •

In sum, once again, we have discovered that clairvoyance, or ESP, or precognition, or — more generally — psychic powers are a fantasy, nothing more. The implications for Anthroposophy and Waldorf education are devastating. Rudolf Steiner was not clairvoyant. No one is clairvoyant. Hence, there is no basis for Anthroposophy or for Waldorf education.


As it turns out, Daryl Bem's positive results may have been bogus all along. Dem's use of math to buttress his claims was always sloppy, not to say fraudulent.

To understand the following, you need to know that "p-hacking" is statistical hanky-panky. The term refers to manipulation of data to make results seem far stronger than they really are. "P" is probability; p-hacking is fudging math so that the results of an experiment seem to be probably, statistically speaking, true. 

"[E]veryone [or every scientist, anyway] is on a quest to achieve the vaunted p (for probability) <.05 that indicates the findings [of an experiment] are unlikely to have happened by chance ... [Cheating in pursuit of p] is called 'p-hacking,' a pejorative term that suggests an unethetical manipulation of data in search of statistical significance." — Stuart Vyse, "P-Hacker Confession: Daryl Bem and Me", SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Sept/Oct. 2017, p. 25.

Not all massaging of results is fraudulent. Working through one's math, finding correct interpretations, is basic scientific practice. So where to draw the line between ethical and unethical math interpretation is a tricky business. But Daryl Bem seems to have gone over the line, by his own admission. The results of his ESP work may have been unreliable from the start.

"Traditionally, Bem has been a staunch defender of his work, responding to every criticism, but lately he seems to be softening. In May 2017, Daniel Engber wrote an extensive article on Bem's parapsychological research for SLATE, in which Bem came remarkably close to an outright admission of p-hacking:

"'I'm all for rigor,' he confessed, 'but I prefer other people to do it. I see its importance — it's fun for some people — but I don't have the patience for it.' It's hard for him, he said, to move into a field where the data count for so much. 'If you looked at all my past experiments, they were always rhetorical devices. I gathered data to show how my point would be made. I used data as a point of persuasion, and I never really worried about, "Will this replicate or will this not?"' (Engber 2017)" — Ibid., p. 27.

Thomas Gilovich's book, 


(Free Press, 1993) 

rings true.

Consider the chapter "Belief in ESP".

Here is a summary.

Gilovich gives several examples of the typical pattern that develops in parapsychological research: A researcher or team of researchers announces startling findings that seem to prove the existence of one or more psychic powers ("psi") such as clairvoyance. There is substantial media coverage, many people eager to believe in psi embrace the new findings, while skeptics scratch their heads and begin poring over the trumpeted proof. And gradually, the skeptics begin to find significant flaws in the research. Sometimes outright fraud is detected (e.g., G. S. Soal was found faking test results). More often, honest but significant errors are discovered — errors in methodology. The experiments turn out to have been done poorly, without adequate controls; bias was built into the experiments; the researchers fooled themselves (e.g., Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ unintentionally included tiny but crucial pointers in their experiments). The experiments wind up being debunked, the claimed proof evaporates, and paranormal phenomena retreat again into the realm of pure speculation.

The very claim that parapsychology is a real discipline, a genuine science, is weak. 

"Ultimately, it is the inability to produce a replicable experimental demonstration of psi that is most damaging to the contention that it exists." [p. 168.] 

Parapsychology fails a fundamental scientific requirement, which is that results produced by one researcher must be confirmed by other researchers. This rarely happens in parapsychology. The results of psi experiments tend to be highly unreliable; often only the original researchers can produce them; and even those researchers may have great difficulty reproducing their own results. Parapsychologists often recognize the gravity of this problem for their "discipline": Adrian Parker, for instance, has said 

"The present crisis in parapsychology is that there appear to be few if any findings which are independent of the examiner [i.e., only that researcher can get the claimed results]." [p. 169.] 

And Irving Child has said 

"On the question of the reality of psi phenomena, no demonstration has been devised that is dependably repeatable." [p. 169.]

If psi phenomena are real, then experiments concerning them should be easy to confirm. But they aren't. Why? One defense offered by some self-described psychics is that the mere presence of a skeptic can cause psychic powers to shut down. If skeptical scientists try to confirm psi results, they inevitably fail, because their skepticism undermines their work. A skeptic produces bad vibes, s/he emits a negative spirit that destroys the ambiance needed for psychic phenomena. There is — just barely — a trace of plausibility in this defense, but it creates additional problems. Parapsychology cannot be a genuine science if it rules out skeptical inquiry. And the failure of a psi experiment when a skeptic is present does not prove that the experiment works when all skeptics are barred. Much more likely, such an experiment "works" only when a believer manipulates things just so, either consciously or unconsciously rigging the test. If psi researchers must have an uncritical attitude — perhaps even a reverent attitude, as Steiner prescribed — they may easily fail to exercise adequate intelligence and care, and they may fall victim to autosuggestion, believing what they want to believe, not seeing what actually occurs before their eyes.

Despite the virtually complete lack of reliable evidence supporting the existence of any form of psychic power, large segments of the general population believe in clairvoyance and other forms of psi. "Seers" such as Sylvia Brown sell millions of books and make a very nice living, essentially battening on people's credulity. Gilovich says one reason so many people accept claims of psi is that the news media give extensive coverage to startling claims but then turn their attention elsewhere when the claims are disproved. He tells the story of Lee Fried, who staged an amazing demonstration of precognition. Fried gave the president of Duke University a sealed envelope that he said contained a prediction of a major news event that would occur within one week. A few days later, two 747 airliners collided, killing 583 people — and when the envelope was opened, it was found to contain an accurate description of this calamity. There was widespread press coverage of the amazing prediction, but generally the news media omitted one important fact. 

"During interviews after his prediction was announced, Mr. Fried made it clear that he was a magician and that his apparent act of precognition was the result of a conjuring trick rather than psi." [p. 171.] 

Many newspapers that covered Fried's "prediction" omitted the detail that it was a trick, nothing more. 

"[O]f seventeen newspapers [magician James] Randi could find that covered this event [i.e., the "prediction"], only one bothered to mention Mr. Fried's disclaimer!" [p. 171.]

Gilovich suggests that the media are simply giving people what they want: tales of the strange and miraculous. The real question, he says, is why so many people have such a strong yearning for such things. Gilovich offers several reasons. 

"For many people, the existence of ESP implies several comforting corollaries. Most important, it suggests a greater reality which we have yet to fully understand. This can be an extremely seductive 'transcendental temptation' because it opens up several inviting possibilities, such as the potential for some part of us to survive death ... It is a rare person who does not want a ticket to immortality, or a piece of the transcendental." [pp. 172-173.]

Belief in psi offers the possibility of breaking out of the limitations of our lives. Most people cling to various of superstitions that, consciously or otherwise, they hope may ease their passage through the world. Maybe buying a lottery ticket with your lucky number on it will bring you wealth; maybe you can ward off evil by repeating some special words or making certain gestures; maybe you can assure your health and longevity by swallowing a certain herb... We know that none of these measures is likely to work, but Gilovich argues that simultaneously many of us "know" that they do work or quite possibly may work. Many of us actually "find" evidence in our lives or the lives of our friends that psi is real. We fool ourselves, satisfying our desire to break free.

"Strange" and "miraculous" things happen all the time. 

"A man dials a wrong number in a distant city, and the recipient turns out to be his college roommate. A woman is thinking about an event she has not thought about in years and intends to discuss with her spouse; miraculously, he brings it up first." [p. 175.] 

Such events can have great emotional power — we are powerfully inclined to think that more than simple chance is involved. And yet, Gilovich points out, coincidences are far more common than people normally expect, and our typical overreaction to them may stem mainly from mathematical innocence. 

"Many coincidences that seem extraordinary are really quite common." [p. 175.] 

We generally do not have a good, instinctive feel for statistics or for calculating odds. Most people are amazed to learn, for instance, than in a group as small as 23 people, there is a 50% chance that at least two people will have the same birthday; and if the group is expanded to 35 people, the odds rise to 85%. The "amazing" events in life are often quite ordinary occurrences that we haven't thought about enough. Strangers who discover they have the same birthday have learned nothing karmic; they share no mystic, supernatural bond; they have merely stumbled into a statistical commonplace.

Some events are truly surprising, of course — as when you dial a wrong number and discover that you have reached a long-lost childhood friend whose current phone number is unknown to you. The odds against doing this are astronomical — but the event is not impossible, and its occurrence is not necessarily anything other than a very, very unlikely coincidence. Gilovich extends his analysis to other "miraculous" events that people tend to consider proof of psi. You have a dream about a car crash, and the next day your best friend dies in a car crash. Most people would be strongly inclined to call this a case of precognition. But is it? It may be just another coincidence — dreadful, tragic, terrible, but perhaps not so very mysterious. How many times have you dreamed of a car crash, and then — nothing; no one you know has a subsequent crash? If you take the first dream and the terrible death of your friend as proof of psi, shouldn't you consider all your other dreams as tending to disprove psi? At a minimum, you may be applying very different standards of judgment, being readily persuaded in one case but quite dismissive in a great number of other cases. Gilovich points out, also, that some seemingly amazing events have simple explanations that people tend to overlook. If you and your husband both begin thinking about a past occurrence that you had both forgotten for many years, couldn't there be an easy explanation — some reminder that popped up in a newspaper, or on TV, or in song heard over the radio? Both of you were reminded, perhaps without quite realizing it at the time, and later the memory of the distant, forgotten event surfaced for both of you. No miracle occurred; it was just the ordinary operation of memory, just normal cause and effect.

Gilovich argues that we are inclined to believe in the supernatural, the psychic, the amazing, but this inclination may often lead us badly astray. Not everything that happens in life is easy to explain, but the lack of a clear explanation does not necessarily mean that a supernatural power or being is at work. Our very inclination to believe in the supernatural probably should be a warning to us, a reminder to slow down and think. Many "amazing" events can be explained fairly readily; some cannot; some may be so unlikely that they truly stun us. But such events provide little if any real evidence for the existence of psi phenomena. The jury is still out, and it may always be. The existence of psi phenomena cannot be absolutely ruled out — all that would be needed to prove the existence of at least some psi phenomena would be a single, clear, demonstrably true psychic occurrence. But so far, no parapsychological experiment has produced evidence strong enough to stand up to careful, rational scrutiny.

We like for things to make sense. Our brains automatically try to sort out phenomena, discovering patterns in them — or imposing patterns on them. A world in which strange, random coincidences occur is distasteful to us. It is even frightening to us, violating our sense of what is proper. Large, strange coincidences do not make sense to us. But psi phenomena do not offer us a genuine solution — they, themselves, do not make real sense. Disliking a world of strange coincidences, we create for ourselves world of mystical wonders that, as far as anyone can honestly say, are figments of our imagination, constructs of our wishes. This is the antithesis of making clear-eyed, clear-minded sense.

Acceptance of clairvoyance 
and other psi phenomena requires, 
in the end, faith.
We believe, we do not know.
Here is a message I posted at a discussion site

Steiner stressed the need for faith.

"[T]he forces expressed in the word `faith' are necessary to the soul. For the soul incapable of faith become withered, dried-up as the desert ... If we do not possess forces such as are expressed in the word `faith', something in us goes to waste." — Rudolf Steiner, ESOTERIC CHRISTIANITY AND THE MISSION OF CHRISTIAN ROSENKREUTZ (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2000), p. 162.

Moreover, he stressed the need for gurus.

A seeker "would find himself plunged into the stormy sea of astral [i.e., soul] experiences if he were left to fend for himself. For this reason he needs a guide who can tell him from the start how these things are related and how to find his bearings in the astral world. Hence the need to find a Guru on whom he can strictly rely." — Rudolf Steiner, AT THE GATES OF SPIRITUAL SCIENCE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1986), XII, "Occult Development".

Here's how it works. You find a guru — oh, let's say, Rudolf Steiner. Strictly relying on him, you learn what you are supposed to believe. Then, using faith, you convince yourself to believe it. Then, using your "clairvoyance" (i.e., self-deception), you "perceive" the things that you believe in (thanks to your faith and your strict reliance on your guru).

The above is not precisely the scientific method. But it is the Anthroposophical method.

Anthroposophy is a religion (or, if you prefer, a faith). It is not a science.

- Roger


Many erroneous demonstrations of psychic powers result from innocent mistakes — researchers sincerely believe the results they report, and "seers" truly believe their amazing visions. But in many other cases, fraud is involved. Many "psychics" are impostors or magicians; they trick us for ulterior motives or simply for fun, for entertainment.

Sometimes the line between conscious deceit and unconscious deceit becomes blurred. Some psychics deceive themselves as much as they deceive us.

The Waldorf school I attended was taken over, briefly, by a "clairvoyant" who earned the allegiance of a large portion of the faculty. During one faculty meeting, he "demonstrated" his clairvoyance, evidently to everyone's satisfaction. [See "The Waldorf Scandal".] The obvious problem, however, is that magicians and tricksters demonstrate their amazing powers all the time. Usually, we cannot figure out how they perform their wonders. But this may merely mean that they are very, very good at their fakery. A true demonstration of clairvoyance needs to be far more convincing than an ordinary magic act, but so far none has been confirmed anywhere at anytime.

Some pretenders never come clean, but some confess, sooner or later. The Amazing Kreskin straddled the line, pretending that some of his performances were genuinely occult, but admitting that many others were mere sleight of hand or the use of perfectly ordinary senses sharpened a bit above normal. And the Amazing Randi openly acknowledges that all of his stunts are merely magic tricks, even though they fully replicate the "true" psychic performances of various "real" psychics.

We want to believe; we enjoy being fooled; we fool ourselves. This is the basis on which all magicians work, and it is the basis on which psychics and seers and mediums and clairvoyants work, consciously or not. They know how easily we can be fooled; they know how much, as some level, we even want to be fooled. When the "clairvoyant" demonstrated his powers to the teachers at my old Waldorf school, he was playing to an audience that wanted to believe. So they believed.

Before falling for a "demonstration" of psychic powers, you might want to acquaint yourself with the mental processes that mystics and magicians manipulate to trick us, and the devices they use in their acts. See, for example, such books as 

Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinz-Condo, 
What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals 
about Our Everyday Deceptions
(Henry Holt and Co., 2010).

James Randi, FLIM-FLAM! — 
Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions
(Prometheus Books, 1982).

The Amazing Kreskin, 
HOW TO BE (a fake) KRESKIN —
Mental Marvels, Feats and Stunts that 
You Can Do, 
from the World's Greatest Mentalist
(St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1996).

Marc Lemezma, MIND MAGIC — 
Extraordinary Tricks to Mystify, Baffle and Entertain
(New Holland Publishers, 2003).

(Puzzle Wright Press, 2005).

How Not to Get Sucked into 
an Intellectual Black Hole
(Prometheus Books, 2011).

Dr. Bem presumably would never fall for any of the tricks or deceptions revealed in such volumes. I do not accuse him of anything of the sort. But the rest of us need to rise a level of at least minimal sophistication. We should stop falling for what Steven Law, lecturer at the University of London, so elegantly terms bullshit.

The excitement over Dr. Bem's work came and went during the early months of 2011.
I am now reviewing this page late in the autumn of 2012.
Dr. Bem seems to have fallen out of the news.
If I am able, I will try to stay abreast of the story if it develops further in the future.

Probably no one came closer to establishing the reality of psychic powers — such as ESP, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis — than Joseph Banks Rhine, who for many years ran a parapsychological laboratory at prestigious Duke University. Rhine published numerous books and articles in which he seemed to demonstrate quite clearly that psychic powers truly do exist. Unfortunately, most of Rhine's work was later debunked when critics found numerous errors in the procedures he and his colleagues employed. Indeed, there were charges of intentional deceit, although more generous critics suggested that Rhine was simply an unskilled scientist who allowed his wishes to override good sense. Rhine wanted to believe in psychic powers, so he did. He grasped at any shreds of evidence he could find — he made much of the occasional experiments that seemed to give positive results while ignoring all the experiments that gave clearly negative results. He fooled himself, in other words, while some members of his staff cheated and fudged the results they reported to him. Today, the work of Rhine’s lab is largely discredited, although believers in the occult sometimes still cite it.  

Here are some descriptions and analyses of Rhine and the excitement he briefly created:

“Since ancient times, people have wondered about various so-called psychic experiences that seem to defy scientific explanation. Often these phenomena have been associated with communication with the dead ... In 1930 Joseph Banks Rhine, a psychology professor at Duke University, founded a parapsychology laboratory at the school. The laboratory became a famous center for investigating ESP. Rhine’s investigations focused on what he called psi, or psychic phenomena. He believed that there might be natural, although unknown, causes of mysterious occurrences, and he attempted to establish their existence by use of experimental and mathematical techniques ... Rhine’s investigations led him to believe that ESP underlies clairvoyance, the perception of external things without sensing them; telepathy, the perception of another person’s thoughts; and precognition, the ability to predict events. However, later scientists criticized the methodology of Rhine’s studies, noting some subjects could identify the symbols by physical marks on the cards.

"More recently, computers and other instruments have been used in the study of ESP. However, most scientists do not believe that ESP exists. These scientists note that thousands of controlled studies have failed to show any evidence of psychical phenomena, and that no person has ever successfully demonstrated ESP for independent investigators." — ENCARTA   9/2/09.

"Clairvoyance was the first paranormal phenomena to be seriously considered by scientists, probably because devising tests to prove or disprove its existence was easy. In the late 1920s, many such tests were devised by J.B. Rhine, a psychology professor who had left Harvard University to help found the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University. Rhine's tests often produced positive results for clairvoyance, and at the time his work was seriously regarded. In recent decades, however, much of Rhine's work has been discredited as being biased, careless, and, in some cases, utterly fraudulent.” — JRank, PSYCHOLOGY ENCYCLOPEDIA ,

"Rhine presented neither a physical mechanism nor a psychodynamical model or anything else to make sense of telepathy and clairvoyance ... [I]t remains one of the frustrations of parapsychologists today, forty years later, that they can devise no satisfactory unifying theory for their data." — Michael McVaugh and Seymour H. Mauskopf, “J. B. Rhine’s Extra-Sensory Perception and Its Background in Psychical Research”, ISIS, Vol. 67, No. 2, p. 189.

“One of the most noted American ESP researchers was J. B. Rhine...[who] conducted a number of card-guessing experiments to test clairvoyance, precognition, and telepathy. Some researchers claim that evidence based on the work of Rhine and other investigators has established beyond question the existence of ESP. 

"But other researchers believe that the evidence is questionable. In the early days of ESP research, when fairly crude experiments were used, some people put on rather remarkable telepathic or clairvoyant performances. Today, however, when experiments are more carefully controlled, similar performances are rare. In science, the trend should generally be in the opposite direction. That is, if the phenomena under investigation are real, improved experiments should produce more significant and well-defined results. 

"Another reason for skepticism is that after more than a hundred years of research, no scientist has been able to produce a repeatable demonstration of ESP that can be performed before a group of neutral scientists." — THE WORLD BOOK MULTIMEDIA ENCYCLOPEDIA, Mac OS X Edition, Version 6.0.2.

"Most telling of all was the failure of other experimenters to replicate Rhine's findings. The early trials were condemned by one critic for being 'largely free-wheeling and off the cuff'. Indeed, he added, 'A well designed, rigorously executed test was the exception'. Too often, the subjects had tested themselves without any witness present to verify their findings ... 'The Duke experimenters seem to have fallen into pitfalls that an intelligent schoolboy should have avoided,' sniffed on British critic, and his reaction was echoed by many others in the orthodox scientific community." — John Farley & Simon Welfare, ARTHUR C. CLARKE'S WORLD OF STRANGE POWERS (Collins, 1989), p. 76.

“Rhine is clearly not a pseudo-scientist to a degree even remotely comparable to that of most of the men discussed in this book. He is an intensely sincere man....

“In his books and articles, Rhine puts forth the claim that ESP (‘extra-sensory perception,’ a term including telepathy and clairvoyance) has been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt by means of several million tests with ESP cards. These are cards bearing five easily distinguishable symbols — a square, circle, cross, star, and wavy lines. They are usually used in decks of twenty-five cards each, five cards for each symbol. [Cards are drawn randomly and kept hidden; test subjects must say which sort of card has been drawn.] In more recent years Rhine has turned his attention toward another type of ‘psi’ phenomena (his term for ‘psychic’) which he calls PK, an abbreviation of ‘psychokinesis.’ This is the ability of the mind to control matter, as exemplified in mediumistic levitations, faith healing, haunted house phenomena, and so on....

“Both ESP and PK, Rhine reports, are curiously free of space and time restrictions. For example, ESP works just as well when the subject and cards are separated by a considerable distance. They also work just as well when the subject is calling the order of a deck before it is shuffled. The latter ability is called ‘pre-cognition’....

“The independence of psi phenomena from space and time makes it impossible to explain them by any known physical theory. This leads to the view, Rhine argues, that at least part of the mind is detached from the physical world — a fact which lends support to beliefs in the soul, free will, and survival after death....

“Rhine's work also lends support to common folk beliefs about the psychic powers of animals ... Rhine is convinced that ‘Lady,’ a professional mind-reading horse in Richmond, Virginia, had psychic powers....

“The most damaging fact against Rhine is that, with very few exceptions, the only experimenters who have confirmed his findings are men who share his strong belief in psychic phenomena. Hundreds of tests by doubting psychologists have been made, and yielded negative results ... Critics of Rhine [accuse] him of having performed his own experiments under a loose system of laboratory controls, and of having selected for publication only a small portion of the total number of tests made....

“In addition to selection of data [i.e., suppressing negative results], the possibility of ‘recording errors’ must also be taken into account in evaluating the Duke experiments. A number of tests have been made in recent years at other universities which have demonstrated dramatically the fact that believers in ESP are prone to make mistakes in recording calls, and such mistakes almost always favor ESP....

“The possibility of recording error runs through all of Rhine's work. His tests have been made under hundreds of widely different conditions, the descriptions of which are usually vague. You seldom are told exactly who recorded, how it was recorded, or what the beliefs were of clerks who kept the records. Only in later years did Rhine tighten his controls to prevent such mistakes, and it is significant that the more rigid these controls became, the less ESP was found....

“In short, elaborate precautions disturb the subject's psi ability. ESP and PK can be found only when the experiments are relatively careless, and supervised by experimenters who are firm believers.....

“When proponents of ESP accuse orthodox psychologists of having ignored psi phenomena, the answer is that it isn't true. Many careful experiments have been made, and with negative results....”

From a supplementary note: 

“The most recent attack on Rhine comes from Dr. George R. Price, of the University of Minnesota's department of medicine ... [Price] reaches the conclusion that many of the findings of parapsychology are ‘dependent on clerical and statistical errors and unintentional use of sensory clues, and that all [positive] results not [explainable in this way] are dependent on deliberate fraud or mildly abnormal mental conditions’ ... [I]t is hard to suppose that out of the thousands of individuals tested by Rhine, there would not be a few with the incentive and skill to cheat [thus deceiving Rhine] ... The history of occultism swarms with personalities possessing precisely this combination of sincerity and duplicity.” — Martin Gardner, FADS & FALLACIES (Dover, 1957), pp. 299-350.

◊ "Lady Wonder  A horse in Richmond, Virginia...investigated by Dr. Jospeh Banks Rhine when it was claimed that the animal had extrasensory perception ... The magician Milbourne Christopher...determined that when Lady Wonder's trainer was unaware of the answer required of the horse, results dropped to zero. [The trainer had been unintentionally signaling the answers.]" — James Randi, AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CLAIMS, FRAUDS, AND HOAXES OF THE OCCULT AND SUPERNATURAL (St. Martin's Griffin, 1995), p. 142.

◊ "Levy, Dr. Walter (1948- )  Hired by Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine ... [He] had an avid interest in parapsychology ... Levy, under Rhine's direction, began a series of psi tests ... The results of Levy's tests were sensational ... Rhine was well pleased ... Then suspicious lab workers discovered that Levy was cleverly manipulating the apparatus in order to produce positive results...." — Ibid., p. 143.

◊ "Rhine, Dr. Joseph Banks (1896-1980)  Dr. Rhine originally planned to enter the ministry, but graduated in botany ... In 1922 he attended a lecture on spiritualism by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ... [Rhine] left botany...and began to study paranormal claims ... By 1935, Rhine had established the Duke University Parapsychological Laboratory ... Though there are in the literature many impressive reports of Rhine's successes with 'gifted' subjects, it later developed that he had allowed himself to ignore much of the data he gathered, reporting the positive results and ignoring the failures ... [Today] Rhine's not looked upon as definitive in any way. His understandable errors, given his lack of sophistication in handling and understanding people, give ample reason for rejecting his conclusions. As with all the exciting breakthroughs regularly announced by parapsychologists, flaws developed that put the work beyond serious acceptance." — Ibid., pp. 201-202.


Reports of "real" psychic phenomena 
almost always end in the same way.
The following is from 
December 17, 2015
(Vol. LXII, No. 20):

She Was Houdini’s Greatest Challenge

Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World
by David Jaher
Crown, 436 pp., $28.00

What is the greatest competition in American history? In boxing, you might single out Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier, or perhaps Jack Dempsey against Gene Tunney. In chess, it has to be Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky. In politics, it might be John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon, or perhaps Abraham Lincoln against Stephen Douglas. But for sheer human drama, there is a strong argument that all of these were topped by the pitched battle, both personal and intellectual, between Harry Houdini, the great debunker of self-proclaimed psychics, and Mina Crandon, the most successful psychic of the twentieth century. Featured repeatedly on the front pages of the nation’s leading newspapers, Crandon was Houdini’s hardest case and his greatest nemesis. And as it happens, the two were intensely attracted to each other.

David Jaher’s stunning and brilliantly written account of the battle between the Great Houdini and the blond Witch of Lime Street illuminates a lost period in American history. Improbably, it also offers significant lessons about the formation of people’s beliefs and the sources of social divisions—scientific, political, or otherwise. Jaher helps to explain how and why the most highly educated people can diverge on fundamental matters, even when the evidence is altogether clear.

In the 1920s, some of the world’s greatest thinkers were convinced that people could speak to the dead. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the canonical detective, who could always see through fakery and artifice. Having lost a son to influenza at the very end of the Great War, Doyle was also a “convinced Spiritualist” who thought death “rather an unnecessary thing.” In his popular 1918 book, The New Revelation, he argued vigorously on behalf of spiritualism. His dedication: “To all the brave men and women, humble or learned, who have the moral courage during seventy years to face ridicule or worldly disadvantage in order to testify to an all-important truth.” Between 1919 and 1930, Doyle wrote twelve more books on the same subject.

One of Doyle’s allies was the eminent British physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who did important work on the discharge of electricity, X rays, and radio signals. Lodge contended that he was in touch with Raymond, his dead son; he wrote a book about their communication and the science that explained it. President of the British Society for Psychical Research (originally led by Cambridge’s Henry Sidgwick, probably the greatest philosopher of the time), Lodge sought to make a serious study of the subject. Charles Richet, a professor at the Collège de France who had won the Nobel Prize in physiology, coined the term “ectoplasm” for the matter from which ghostly apparitions formed. Thomas Edison was no spiritualist, but he announced his intention to work on a mechanism to communicate with people who had crossed over.

Harry Houdini, about to be padlocked into a packing car
and lowered into New York Harbor, 1914
[Granger Collection]

The era’s most influential skeptic? Harry Houdini. Born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Houdini is now known as an escape artist, but he began his career as a magician and a medium. To make a living in hard times, he worked as “the celebrated Psychometric Clairvoyant,” with the power to communicate with “the Other Side.” While he proved a pretty convincing psychic, he discovered that he had a unique talent, even a kind of genius: escaping the apparently inescapable. Jaher writes:

They locked him in a dreaded Siberian prison van, bottled him in a milk can, and entombed him in a block of ice in Holland. They shackled him to a spinning windmill, the chassis of an automobile, the muzzle of a loaded cannon. They put him in a padlocked US mailbag, roped him to the twentieth-story girder of an unfinished skyscraper, sealed him in a giant envelope, and boxed him in a crate nailed tight and dropped in New York Harbor. He emerged triumphant and smiling.

Houdini’s talent had a lot to do with his extraordinary physical abilities. He was extremely strong, and he trained himself to use his toes the way most people use their fingers. But he also had a Sherlock Holmes–like capacity to engage in detective work. Caught in a trap, he had an ability to see, almost at a glance, the multiple steps that would enable him to find his way out.

As Houdini’s fame grew, he maintained a skeptical but keen interest in spirit communication, intensified by his devastation at the death of his beloved mother (the love of his life). He and Doyle were good friends, and they had many discussions of the topic, with Houdini acknowledging his desire to be convinced that Doyle was right. But every medium he encountered was a fraud, and he became the world’s leading expert “on the tricks of phony psychics,” debunking some of the hardest cases. Edison, for example, believed that one famous “mentalist,” named Bert Reiss, was in fact clairvoyant. Houdini easily demonstrated that he was a fake.

In the 1920s, as now, Scientific American was a highly respected publication, dedicated to the dissemination of research findings. In 1922, Doyle challenged the magazine and its editor-in-chief, Orson Munn, to undertake a serious investigation of psychic phenomena. James Malcolm Bird, an editor there (and previously a mathematics professor at Columbia University), was intrigued. In November the magazine established a highly publicized contest, with a prize of $5,000 for anyone who could produce “conclusive” evidence of “manifestations” of psychic powers—as, for example, making objects fly around the room. The magazine soberly announced that as of yet, it was “unable to reach a definite conclusion as to the validity of psychic claims.”

Five judges were chosen. The most eminent was William McDougall, chairman of the Harvard Psychology Department and president of the American Society for Psychical Research. (William James had been his predecessor in both positions.) Daniel Frost Comstock, a respected physicist and engineer, had taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and later introduced Technicolor to film). Walter Franklin Prince, a Ph.D. from Yale, had explored a number of purportedly supernatural events; he had always been able to offer natural explanations. Hereward Carrington, a prolific writer and onetime magician, specialized in exposing fakes. Rounding out the committee, the magazine added Houdini, author of a forthcoming book on unmasking psychics. The contest captured the public’s imagination. The New York Times called it “the Acid Test of Spiritualism.”

All of the initial candidates failed that test; the committee saw through them. In the meantime, a woman named Mina Crandon was getting attention in Boston. Her husband—wealthy, handsome, and significantly older—was a prominent Harvard-trained gynecologist, married twice before. In the early 1920s, Dr. Crandon attended one of Sir Oliver Lodge’s lectures on spiritualism, and the two spoke at length that night. Crandon was intrigued: “I couldn’t understand it. It did not fit into any pattern I had previously known about scientists.” He became obsessed. According to a friend, “he had taken to the psychical research movement like a Jew to Marxism.”

His wife was witty, warm, and fun-loving. One friend, speaking for many, described her as a “very very beautiful girl” and “probably the most utterly charming woman I have ever known.” Mrs. Crandon initially disparaged her husband’s interest in spiritualism, joking that as a gynecologist, “naturally he was interested in exploring the netherworld.” Nonetheless, she thought that “a séance sounded like great fun,” and so she decided on a lark to attend one. The medium, a local minister, claimed to contact the spirit of Mina’s brother, Walter, who had died in a tragic railroad accident at the age of twenty-eight. The minister also told her that “she had rare powers and soon all would know it.”

Not long thereafter, the Crandons hosted an unusual party at their home on Lime Street. The purpose of the party? To find a ghost. Mrs. Crandon found it all absurd: “They were all so solemn about it that I couldn’t help laughing.” But as the participants linked hands in a circle on a table, it started to vibrate, eventually crashing to the floor. To see which member of the circle was a medium, each took turns leaving the room. When Mrs. Crandon departed, the vibrations stopped; her friends applauded when she reentered. With the same group and a few others, the Crandons continued their experiments. Everyone who was there attested to some remarkable events, including rapping noises and movements of the table. Six days later, Mrs. Crandon appeared to be possessed by the spirit of her brother Walter, who spoke in “a guttural voice unrecognizable as her own,” and who was funny and immensely lively, even delightful (and engagingly coarse and profane).

As her fame began to spread in Boston, members of the Harvard community tried to debunk her. An acquaintance of Dr. Crandon, a Harvard psychologist named Dr. Roback, suspected “spirit humbug,” but could find no explanation for what he observed. He enlisted McDougall to help solve the mystery. Attending Mina’s séances, both psychologists were baffled. Another visitor at the time said that he “was present many times when Walter’s voice was as clear as that of any person in the circle,” and also “close to my ear, whispering some very personal comment about me or my family.”

In December, Crandon and his wife traveled to Paris and London to demonstrate her abilities. She was a sensation. In London, she performed in front of several investigators, appearing to make a table rise and float. The Crandons became friendly with Doyle, who swore to “the truth and range of her powers.” Lodge told colleagues that when they visited the United States, there were just two things that they must see: Niagara Falls and Mrs. Crandon.

Intrigued by the publicity, Bird, the Scientific American editor, decided to visit the Crandons in Boston. He was immediately struck by her apparent sincerity, her elegance, and her keen sense of humor, which he described as “wicked.” He was also amazed by what he saw in the séances, which included flashes of light, raps, whistles, and cool breezes. He told Orson Munn that “there had been a war between the Crandons and the Harvard scientists.” Munn asked: Who won? The medium won, Bird answered. He invited her to enter the magazine’s contest.

Accepting the challenge, she performed repeatedly in front of Bird and various committee members, moving objects, producing noises in various places, and channeling Walter. In the spring and summer of 1924, Bird himself visited Lime Street nearly sixty times. He was convinced that Mrs. Crandon was genuine. Comstock, who attended fifty-six séances, could find nothing amiss. McDougall tried for months to discover fraud, and he repeatedly accused her of fakery to her face. But he lacked any evidence of tricks, and “she responded to his incredulity with wit.” Carrington initially found the reports far-fetched, but after over forty visits, he could not explain what he saw.

It looked as if McDougall, Comstock, and Carrington would endorse her. Though skeptical by nature, Prince also seemed moved. In the July 1924 issue of Scientific American, Bird wrote about her, protecting her privacy with the name “Margery.” He said that “the initial probability of genuineness [is] much greater than in any previous case which the Committee has handled.” Bird’s article was widely discussed. A headline in The New York Times read, “Margery Passes All Psychic Tests.” The Boston Herald exclaimed, “Four of Five Men Chosen to Bestow Award Sure She Is 100 P.C. Genuine.”

Reading all this, Houdini, who had not had an opportunity to see the famous Margery in action, exploded. Traveling immediately to New York, he asked Bird if she was going to receive the prize. Bird replied, “Most decidedly.” Houdini insisted that it would be unfair to give her the award unless he had had his own opportunity to investigate her claims. Bird agreed, and Dr. Crandon was not pleased. Writing to Doyle before the meeting, he said, “My deep regret is that this low-minded Jew has any claim on the word American”; he described the coming encounter as “war to the finish.”

Mrs. Crandon’s reaction was far more positive. Houdini had been a star since she was a child, and she was proud to receive him. She found him polite, curious, dignified, even enchanting. On the night of his arrival, she put on one of her standard performances, apparently impressing everyone with a table that suddenly fell over, a bell box that seemed to ring of its own accord, a moving cabinet, and a slowed and stopped Victrola. As Bird drove Munn and Houdini back to their hotel, Munn asked Houdini what he thought. He replied immediately: “All fraud—every bit of it.”

Notwithstanding that judgment, he and Mrs. Crandon remained on excellent terms. He appeared to be charmed by her beauty. Jaher singles out a photograph taken the next day, which Mrs. Crandon had asked Houdini to keep private. As Jaher remarks, Houdini was generally formal with women, but in this picture, he is leaning very close; the two look like lovers. “He holds her hand and smiles at her affectionately—while she has turned to him as if expecting a kiss.” In the aftermath of his visit, they enjoyed a warm correspondence. “I am glad to be able to say I know ‘The Great Houdini,’” she wrote him.

Observing her closely on several occasions, Houdini began to figure out, and to specify, exactly how she produced some of her most impressive effects. With evident admiration, he reported, Mrs. Crandon had produced “the ‘slickest’ ruse I have ever detected, and it has converted all skeptics.” He added, “It has taken my thirty years of experience to detect her in her various moves.” In November 1924 he wrote a lengthy pamphlet, complete with highly detailed drawings of the séances, with which he specified exactly how Mrs. Crandon was able, in the dark, to maneuver her legs, head, feet, arms, shoulders, and head to produce the various effects. For example, he showed how she surreptitiously maneuvered her leg to tap the top of the bell box (thus producing a ring), and how she was able to bend her head under the table to push it up and over. “As she is unusually strong and has an athletic body,” he wrote, “she can press her wrists so firmly on the arms of the chair that she can move her body and sway it at will.” Embarking on a kind of no-holds-barred campaign against her, he insisted that Mrs. Crandon is “a shrewd, cunning woman” and “resourceful to the extreme.” In his own public performances, he was able to replicate many (though far from all) of her effects.

Mrs. Crandon’s numerous defenders were unconvinced. They portrayed Houdini as implacably close-minded, himself a cheat. Doyle denounced Houdini as prejudiced and dishonest; the denunciation destroyed their friendship. (Even years later, Doyle proclaimed that the incident “was never an exposure of Margery, but it was a very real exposure of Houdini.”) From Scientific American, the official verdict came on February 12, 1925: Houdini was correct. Prince and McDougall captured the consensus with these words: “We have observed no phenomena of which we can assert that they could not have been produced by normal means.” The sole dissenter, Carrington, stated that he had been “convinced that genuine phenomena have occurred here.”

Mina Stinson Crandon and Harry Houdini
in a Pennsylvania newspaper, 1925

For Margery, however, that was hardly the end. Bird promptly rose to her defense, saying Houdini had made up his mind in advance and characterizing him as a liar and an ignoramus. (Jaher suggests that Houdini was jealous of Margery’s spectacular success.) She continued to hold séances, joking that 150 years before, she would have been executed as a witch, but “now they send committees of professors from Harvard to study me. That represents some progress, doesn’t it?” Even Houdini was unable to explain some of her new feats, conceding that “the lady is subtle.” Life magazine said that she was “almost as hard to bury as the League of Nations.”

But as the months and years went by, her act seemed less and less credible. A new group of Harvard researchers undertook a six-month investigation and found strong evidence of trickery. In 1930, the ever-loyal Bird, who worked very hard to discredit the Harvard study, confessed that to fool Houdini, Margery had solicited his help in producing some of her effects. While continuing to believe that she was genuine, Bird conceded that when put “in a situation where she thought she might have to choose between fraud and a blank séance,” she “was willing to choose fraud.” Most damningly, researchers exposed one of her most bizarre effects, in which “Walter” seemed to make his own fingerprint appear on wax. The print turned out to be identical to that of Mrs. Crandon’s dentist.

As it happens, a lot was going on at 10 Lime Street in the mid-1920s. Late in her life, Mrs. Crandon spoke fondly of her affair with Carrington, her only loyalist on the committee. (Perhaps he enjoyed attesting that “genuine phenomena have occurred here.”) Bird also claimed to have had a romance, though that might have been his imagination; she described him as “disgusting.” Both McDougall and Prince reported that she attempted to seduce them. Houdini said the same, adding, “When I walked into the seance room and saw that beautiful blonde, her applesauce meant nothing to me. I have been through apple orchards.” But all the while, she spoke of him with admiration: “I respect Houdini more than any of the bunch. He has both feet on the ground all the time.” And she expressed genuine sorrow at his death, singling out his virility, his determination, and his courage.

One of Jaher’s great achievements is to build real suspense in a tale whose conclusion is foreordained. But a deep mystery remains: What led Mrs. Crandon to do what she did? Here’s a guess. Jaher suggests that by 1923, her marriage was troubled. Dr. Crandon was depressive, intensely hardworking, and obsessed by spiritualism. Playful, resourceful, and competitive, his wife was initially willing to have some fun with the topic. But as she learned, she was also exceptionally talented, full of charisma, a natural magician—and her talent could be put to use in precisely the matters that most interested her husband. As she became well known, things began to get out of hand. What started as a kind of game, essentially with friends, turned into international news. And when that happened, she enlisted her husband, Carrington, Bird, and undoubtedly others as accomplices. Importantly, her role as Margery also created a kind of marital glue. She was stuck in it.

There is another mystery. How could so many people believe that Margery was genuine? Were they irrational? Not necessarily. At the time, a lot of people thought that it might be possible to contact the dead. True, many people were skeptical—but how likely was it that a young Boston housewife, without any training or financial motives, would have the desire, and the extraordinary skill and strength, to do what Mrs. Crandon did? To equal and in some ways surpass Houdini himself? To find a way to move tables and other objects, to make rapping noises, to ring bells in closed boxes, and to produce an apparently male voice, altogether different from her own, and displaying a wholly distinct personality? As improbable as contact with “the other side” might have seemed, the complexity, sophistication, and evident credibility of the performance might have made fraud appear less probable still.

Jaher’s story is captivating and unforgettable, but it can easily be dismissed as a historical curiosity of an era when highly educated citizens of a barely recognizable United States were willing to believe in crazy things. But any such dismissal would be a big mistake. According to a recent poll, 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, or think that the spirits of dead people can sometimes come back. Throughout the world, people continue to believe in magic, miracles, psychics, and spirits, and a lot of them are highly educated. Many people scoff at science, or at least distrust the scientific consensus. They do not believe the experts and their supposed evidence. They believe the people they trust (the behavioral phenomenon of “social proof”). They think what they like to think (the behavioral phenomenon of “motivated reasoning”). They like to see a little magic, or perhaps a lot. They are moved by their own Margerys, who may have an extraordinary talent, the defining skill of magicians, which is to direct their audience’s attention exactly and only where they want it. (The most effective marketers have the same skill; so do the best politicians.)

Consider a little tale from one of Margery’s investigators, the Princeton psychologist Henry McComas, who described her supernatural feats to Houdini with great wonder, insisting that he saw every one of them with his own eyes. McComas reported that for the rest of his life, he would not forget the scorn with which Houdini greeted those words. “You say, you saw. Why you didn’t see anything. What do you see now?” At that point, Houdini slapped a half-dollar between his palms, and it promptly disappeared.

His great adversary never confessed. In her very last days, a researcher suggested to a failing Mrs. Crandon, widowed for two years, that she would die happier if she finally did so, and let the world know about her methods. To his surprise, her old twinkle of merriment returned to her eyes. She laughed softly and offered her answer: “Why don’t you guess?”

— David Jaher

The formatting at Waldorf Watch aims for visual variety, 
seeking to ease the process of reading lengthy texts on a computer screen. 

To visit other pages in this section of Waldorf Watch, 
use the underlined links, below.


The missing basis of Waldorf thinking

Occult initiation in Anthroposophy

Oh why? Oh why? Oh why?


"Exact" clairvoyance

Delusional or fraudulent?


Being fooled

Getting happy


You may also want to consult the following essay 
posted in the first section of Waldorf Watch:

The use of "clairvoyance" by Waldorf teachers


[1] The computer made its decision only after a participant selected a screen. Thus, the participant was predicting a future event — the decision the computer would make in the next few moments.

[2] Highly sophisticated computer processes may come very near to producing genuinely random results. Learning how sophisticated Dr. Bem’s program is may tell us a lot. Meanwhile, allow me to quote Wikipedia — a source that is often unreliable but that Anthroposophists sometimes like to consult: 

“A random number generator (often abbreviated as RNG) is a computational or physical device designed to generate a sequence of numbers or symbols that lack any pattern, i.e. appear random ... Several computational methods for random number generation exist, but often fall short of the goal of true randomness ... There are two principal methods used to generate random numbers. One measures some physical phenomenon that is expected to be random and then compensates for possible biases in the measurement process. The other uses computational algorithms that produce long sequences of apparently random results, which are in fact completely determined by a shorter initial value, known as a seed or key. The latter type are often called pseudorandom number generators. A ‘random number generator’ based solely on deterministic computation cannot be regarded as a ‘true’ random number generator, since its output is inherently predictable.” [])

[3] Let's say you want to generate random passwords. Many (all?) programming languages include a command that produces pseudo-random results. Using this command, you could have the computer produce a "string" that is X characters long. (A "string" is simply a concatenation of letters, numbers, and symbols, such as "P7$w".) For example, if you want an 8-character password (X=8), the computer would yield a password consisting of 8 "random" letters, numerals, and symbols — something like "Eq7&^5jP". This looks random, even if it really isn't; it would be a fine password for most purposes (if you could remember it).

To take things up a notch, you could have the computer produce each character of the string separately. Thus, you could tell the computer to decide how long your password will be, within limits that you specify — such as 6 to 12 characters long. (To disrupt the replicable logic of the computer, type in different, arbitrary lower and upper limits for each run.) Then you could have the computer choose a number between, say, 1 and 100 (type in different limits for each run). Perhaps the computer "randomly" chooses 78. The next line of your program could tell the computer to select the first character of the string by making 78 successive choices of letters, numbers, and symbols, accepting the 78th choice (e.g., "z" or "8" or "%"). The computer could then repeat this process — selecting a new "random" number, and running through that many choices — for each subsequent character.

Of course, it is possible to be far more sophisticated about all this. The question is how sophisticated Dr. Bem was. Did he use a program that produces results that the human brain could not possibly anticipate, or didn't he? Remember, he had participants choose between just two computer screens, so the matter was far simpler than what I have described. Dr. Bem's program would produce only two possible results, 1 or 2, and the human participant would only have to anticipate which of these two was likely to be correct in order to ogle the next pinup.

[4] The null hypothesis is a central concept in statistics. Essentially, it says that to test your results, you need to consider — and eliminate — the possibility that your results arose entirely by chance and do not provide solid evidence of anything. In other words, you should consider your results meaningless or null unless you can prove that they are not. See, e.g., Null Hypothesis - The Journal of Unlikely Science []