Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 56, December 1992
THE RESEARCH WITH B.D. AND THE
LEGACY OF MAGICAL IGNORANCE
BY GEORGE P. HANSEN
When an intelligence service believes it is invulnerable
to enemy deception, it is most vulnerable.
James Jesus Angleton (Epstein, 1989, p.
ABSTRACT: Kanthamani and Kelly’s research with special subject Bill Delmore
(B.D.) produced extremely high scores and has received wide acclaim in
the parapsychology literature. A number of leaders in the field have since
lauded the procedures and controls. But B.D.’s behavior should have made
the investigators more cautious. In fact, the formal tests were vulnerable
to cheating in many ways. This and other problems have not been previously
recognized. The technical shortcomings of the research are symptomatic
of deeper difficulties. A few prominent parapsychologists are vocally promoting
research involving known tricksters. These advocates have been aggressive
in publishing their articles in professional forums, but they have no knowledge
of conjuring. Several have trained many students and have thereby bequeathed
a legacy of ignorance about magic. Priorities set by editors, educators,
and managers of research facilities need to be reevaluated, and parapsychologists
will need to become more familiar with conjuring. This article includes
comments about researchers’ resistance to learning magic and magicians’
reluctance to explain their methods.
In the early 1970s a substantial research effort
was undertaken to study the reputed psychic abilities of Bill Delmore (B.D.),
then a law student at Yale University. This effort yielded “perhaps the
most dramatic psi results to be produced by a single subject in the last
twenty years” according to Palmer (1985, p. 125). Palmer is not alone in
his assessment of the significance of this research; John Beloff (1980b)
declared that “taken on their own I would regard this series of experiments
as, perhaps, the most evidential in the entire parapsychological literature!”
(p. 94). A quick glance through the published papers shows a number of
values above 10. Carpenter (1977, p. 222) reported that he had calculated
a result giving z = 51 for some of the data.1 Such numbers
An earlier version of this paper was
printed in the Proceedings of Presented Papers of the 1991 Parapsychological
Association's annual convention.
I wish to thank Marcello Truzzi and
Keith Harary for comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I also wish
to thank Martin Gardner for providing material.
1 A z score of 51
is associated with p = 1.3 x 10-567, one-tailed. For
the case considered by Carpenter, the more appropriate exact binomial gives
= 1.6 x 10-86.
The Journal of Parapsychology
Statements from these experts, as well as the magnitude
of the results, demand that the work with Delmore be carefully considered.
I submit that these studies have major implications, not only for the general
conduct of research, but also for education, management, and leadership
in the field. As such, I will address not only the technical aspects of
the reports but also the wider implications of their uncritical acceptance.
The primary technical issue in the research with
B.D. is the adequacy of controls against cheating. In a previous paper,
I outlined conditions under which one should be especially concerned about
trickery in parapsychological research (Hansen, 1990). Several aspects
of the Delmore studies make procedural controls especially important. First,
the studies involved a single subject who gave many hints that he was adept
at card tricks. Second, modifications were made to experimental procedures,
and these were done at the request of B.D. Third, a substantial amount
of the research used “subject-based control,” that is, the prevention and
detection of deceit depended on careful, continuous monitoring of the subject
(as distinguished from monitoring of the target).
There have been critiques in the past that raised
the issue of trickery. The most notable was by Persi Diaconis (1978), a
highly respected professor of statistics who “within magic he is considered
one of the half-dozen top sleight-of-hand performers with cards, a level
he had reached in his late teens” (Waters, 1988, p. 103). Diaconis’s critique
led to subsequent debate (e.g., Diaconis, 1979, 1980; Kelly, 1979, 1980).
Diaconis had observed B.D. during a demonstration and concluded that he
used trickery. Kelly vigorously objected, saying that Diaconis had only
witnessed informal tests, but Kelly apparently never provided the opportunity
for Diaconis or any other qualified magician to monitor the formal studies.
Later, Diaconis was criticized by Palmer (1985) for offering no specific
counterexplanations. Rao (1978, 1979) also took issue with Diaconis. Stanford
too objected that skeptics had not discussed “specific weaknesses in the
published experimental work with Delmore” (1982, p. 258). In my previous
writing, I briefly alluded to some of the problems with this work (Hansen,
1990), but several people privately told me that I was not sufficiently
Some have claimed that deception is a minor issue
in parapsychology. I grant that the problem is limited; however, studies
in which trickery is alleged or proven typically obtain high visibility
both within and outside the field. The reputation of parapsychology is
thus directly affected. Others have told me that trickery is a di-
The Research with B.D.
PAPERS APPEARING IN PROFESSIONAL PARAPSYCHOLGY FORUMS
BETWEEN JANUARY AND AUGUST 1990 REPORTING POSITIVE RESULTS WITH SUBJECTS
FOR WHOM SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR HAD BEEN REPORTED AT SOME POINT DURING THEIR
||Source of allegation
|McDonough, Warren, & Don (1989)a
||Eisendrath (1967) Reynolds (1967)c
|Don, McDonough, & Warren (1990)
aAlthough the date
of publication is 1989, the study did not appear until 1990 because the
of Parapsychology was approximately 6 months behind schedule.
bIn the cited, translated
version that appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research,
it was stated that "numerous well controlled experiments have been carried
out but as yet no tricks have been discovered" (Walti, 1990, p. 67). This
is very misleading because Bauer did describe trickery found in an earlier
investigation. For a more recent comment on a possible method of trickery,
see Gardner (1991).
cSee Eisenbud (1967; 1989,
pp. 222-228) for a response.
minishing problem. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be
the case. As can be seen in Table 1, four papers, each involving a suspected
trickster, appeared in professional forums between January and August,
1990, and all reported positive psi results. The problem is not going away.
During the summer of 1990, I was asked to take part
in a research project with a stage performer who claimed psychic abilities.
It was apparent to me that he engaged in considerable trickery. The project
was to be headed by a prominent parapsychologist. I was surprised when
that person argued very strongly against consulting a magician.
I then realized that more published, professional-level dialogue was needed
on deception in psi research. The Delmore studies illustrate problems of
control against trickery and thus can provide a valuable object lesson.
In this paper, I will focus on the adequacy of safeguards
rather than seeking to prove that cheating occurred. The published reports
are sufficiently detailed to allow an assessment of the security precautions.
On the other hand, it is not now possible to go back to the time of the
experiments and set a trap to try to detect trickery.
The Journal of Parapsychology
Factors Resulting in Wider Implications
The B.D. experiments are of special interest for
a variety of reasons, and the implications go far beyond the work itself.
There are two aspects that merit particular attention. The first is that
the social circumstances of the experiments would give one confidence in
the findings. The second factor is that the work has received evaluation
and endorsement by a number of leaders in the field. Outsiders and newcomers
to parapsychology are rarely able to judge the technical merits of a study,
and they must look to experts for professional evaluation. The assessments
of parapsychological experts serve as guideposts to those learning about
Social Circumstances of Experiments
The research effort was headed by H. Kanthamani,
an experienced investigator who had published a number of psi studies before
undertaking work with B.D. More recently, she has served as an Associate
Editor of the Journal of Parapsychology. More importantly, the studies
were conducted at the Institute for Parapsychology, which was the preeminent
psi research laboratory at the time. There were a number of other investigators
who were on the staff and who were familiar with the Delmore studies. The
researchers certainly would have consulted with their colleagues about
procedures and findings in order to avoid mistakes. Furthermore, the methods
involved card-guessing, which had been regularly used for more than 40
years prior to this work. With that length of time, the procedures should
have been well understood and debugged; weaknesses should have long been
recognized. Another fact of substance was that the results were not presented
in just one or two short reports, but rather, in five long, refereed journal
articles as well as at many conventions (conference presentations include:
Kanthamani, 1974; Kanthamani & Rao, 1974; Kelly, Child, &: Kanthamani,
1974; Kelly & Kanthamani, 1973; Kelly, Kanthamani, & Child, 1973,
1974). Peer review and feedback after such presentations often assist researchers
in avoiding oversights. To a reader new to parapsychology, these circumstances
indicate that the results should be reliable.
A second reason the work merits detailed attention
is that a number of leading researchers praised the methods of the investi-
The Research with B.D.
1. Gertrude Schmeidler (1977) claimed that the tests
had been conducted with “excellent control of conditions” (p. 93). She
has reaffirmed that assessment (Schmeidler, 1988, p. 179).
gation. The following list briefly summarizes some major endorsements.
2. John Beloff (1980a), in defending the Delmore
research, declared: “An experiment in which it is possible for the subject
to cheat in any way at all is, quite simply, an invalid experiment and
no editor or referee who knew his business would allow such an experiment
to be published” (p. 119).
3. Robert McConnell (1983) stated that the work had “unusual
evidential interest regarding the reality of psi phenomena” (p. 311).
4. K. Ramakrishna Rao (1984) reprinted one of the papers
in his book The Basic Experiments in Parapsychology and said: “The
experiments ... are good examples of successful experimental strategies
that may be employed with special subjects” (p. 171).
5. John Palmer (1985) was more cautious but still concluded
that the results “remain a genuine anomaly” (p. 137).
6. Robert Morris recently claimed that the research provided
evidence for a subject’s ability to differentiate psi-hitting from chance
guessing (Morgan & Morris, 1991, p. 1).2
Additionally, in a survey conducted by Wickland (1984), Martin Johnson
and J. G. Pratt (along with Beloff and Rao) indicated that the studies
were methodologically sound and provided good evidence for psi. Except
for Wickland, all of the above have served as president of the Parapsychological
Association (PA). Rao has held that position three times; Beloff, Morris,
Palmer, and Schmeidler have all held it twice. Beloff and Rao serve as
editors of major journals in the field. Beloff, Johnson, Morris, Rao, and
Schmeidler have all supervised doctoral students doing work in parapsychology;
in fact, Kanthamani was a student of Rao. All have written books that have
been used as texts for courses on parapsychology. Also, these people frequently
serve as referees for papers submitted to journals and conventions. In
short, these are leaders, and they set standards, not only for research
quality, but for education as well. I know of no one of similar stature
within the field who has publicly raised any serious, detailed questions
about the work with B.D.
2 I wrote to Morris asking
questions about his endorsement, but I did not receive a reply.
Journal of Parapsychology
Initial Grounds for Caution
Delmore’s Practice with Cards
For a reader unfamiliar with magic, the published
reports of Kanthamani and Kelly might give no hint that Delmore was adept
at card tricks. In fact, in my own conversations with them, Kelly and Kanthamani
indicated that they did not know for sure whether B.D. performed magic
tricks. However, anyone familiar with the conjuring subculture would have
recognized from B.D.’s behavior that he probably practiced card manipulation.
The indications were not subtle.
In their first published paper on B.D., Kelly and
Kanthamani (1972, p. 187) reported that B.D. “performs with cards almost
every day, both for practice and for relaxation and entertainment.” Such
behavior should have raised immediate doubts and deserved comment in their
report. Drills like these are typical of magicians, especially young males
in their midteens to early twenties. Some of these persons will practice
a “sleight” literally thousands of times a day for months. I have encountered
nothing similar in the psychic subculture, although I have been involved
with it for years. On the other hand, I have known many magicians to perform
Kelly and Kanthamani (1972, pp. 187-188) gave a
few descriptions of Delmore’s informal performances with cards. Those appear
to be nothing more than laypersons’ accounts of card tricks. Kelly (1979)
later described the spontaneous performances as “quite spectacular events”
(p. 23). The authors seemingly took them to be genuine paranormal occurrences
and devoted no discussion whatever to the possibility of trickery. For
anyone familiar with conjuring, this fact alone could be enough to discredit
the paper. A magician might read no further and conclude that the research
is without merit.
Fortunately, there is no longer any question as
to whether Delmore was adept at card manipulation, for Martin Gardner reports:
In a long telephone conversation I had with Delmore
in 1988, he freely admitted he used trickery to increase the probability
of hits during his card demonstrations. He spoke with pride of being able
to cut a deck precisely in the center. As card magicians know, this is
a valuable ability because it provides the performer with knowledge of
the twenty-sixth card. The “center card,” as magicians call it, serves
as a valuable key card in endless tricks of the ESP type. (Gardner, 1989,
Further, in a newspaper article, Herron (1986) reported
that Delmore had “done a few shows combining both ESP and magic” (p. 11A).
Presumably, Delmore admitted to the reporter that he was a performing magician.
The Research with B.D.
Other Suspicious Aspects
Delmore’s practice with playing cards is not the
only reason for concern. Kelly and Kanthamani (1972, p. 188) noted:
Despite his ability, B.D. presented formidable
difficulties as a subject. He is quite temperamental and not particularly
sympathetic with the aims and methods of experimental research, which remind
him of the unpleasant world of law school. He is also highly articulate,
intelligent, and accustomed to doing things in his own way. Accordingly,
productive sessions in the laboratory were typically coupled with varied
amounts of argument, sometimes heated, regarding the utility of experiments,
the present and future organization of parapsychology, and related subjects.
It was also said, “In fact, he prefers performing for groups” (p. 188).
These statements have clear implications for the
conduct of the experiments. The heated arguments might well provide brief
distractions that would allow a trickster to make a “move.” Argumentation
may put the experimenters in a defensive, nonchallenging mode and thus
reduce their vigilance.
In several passages in their reports, Kanthamani
and Kelly implied that an audience could help to detect trickery during
an experiment. The contrary is more likely to be true. Having extraneous
people present increases the likelihood of small disturbances. Even a distraction
as short as a second or two may be enough to accomplish the “dirty work”
of a card sleight. The presence of an audience could permit a confederate
to deliberately create commotion. It is not usual practice in parapsychology
to have outsiders in attendance during testing, especially in experiments
with selected individual subjects.
Palmer (1985) noted that one “ground for suspicion
is that in all the card experiments procedural modifications were instituted
at B.D.’s request” (p. 136). Comments made by James Randi (1983) regarding
another research project are appropriate here: “I warned him not to allow
the subjects to run the experiment by changing the protocol. Similarly,
I suggested that capricious demands by subjects might well be the means
of introducing conditions that would per-
Journal of Parapsychology
mit subterfuge” (p. 26). I know of no other published experiments that
used the same methods employed in the research with B.D. As I will explain,
the procedures were especially vulnerable to cheating.
There were two classes of procedures in the card
experiments. One was referred to as “single-card clairvoyance” (SCC); the
other was the “shuffle method.” Both of these methods have serious problems.
I will spend most of the discussion on the SCC procedure because the strongest
claims have been made with reference to that work.
Single-Card Clairvoyance (SCC)
The SCC procedure (Kanthamani &: Kelly, 1974b,
pp. 17-18) used 10 decks of playing cards, which were shuffled together
by hand and placed in a cardboard box. The box was put in the bottom drawer
of a large office desk on the experimenter’s side. For each trial, the
experimenter would draw out one card without looking at it and place it
inside an opaque black folder (3 3/4" x 2 3/4"). This completely covered
the card. The folder was held with the back of the card toward the subject
about 6 to 8 ft. from him so that he could see the folder. After the guess
was made, it was recorded, and then the card was removed from the folder.
These tests generated extreme scores. In a table
displaying the outcome, the pooled series’ results gave CR = 10.73
and chi square = 268 (8 df) (Kathamani & Kelly, 1974b, p. 20)3
These are truly exceptional figures, and with them there is no need to
worry about minor artifacts such as optional stopping or multiple analyses.
The controls were more lax than those usually found
in parapsychology experiments. The recording of targets and calls was not
done on a blind basis, and apparently there was no dual recording of results.
This is especially surprising given the commotion reported in these experiments
(e.g., visitors, general arguments with B.D.). However, with the magnitude
of the effects, I doubt whether recording mistakes by themselves can account
for the results. Nevertheless, they are cause for concern. Why weren’t
tighter methods used? It was stated that: “Folders were strongly preferred
by the subject, who attached great significance to the manner in which
feedback was provided. The folders allowed a quick and clean ex-
3 A CR value of
10.73 is associated with p = 3.7 x 10-27, one-tailed.
The Research with B.D.
posure of the target. B.D. claimed that this was vital” (Kanthamani &:
Kelly, 1974b, p. 24). The authors go on to say that the targets were manually
selected at the time of each trial and that “this was also done at the
request of the subject” [italics added] (p. 25). There may have been
other reasons why B.D. insisted on use of the folders and manual selection.
Because of the very short time between the call and the revealing of the
target card, Akers (1986) questioned whether the guess and feedback may
have overlapped, thus allowing Delmore to change his guess in midstream.
Nota bene B.D. was frequently arguing with experimenters and might have
created significant distractions. Akers’s comments are especially noteworthy
because he conducted informal trials with B.D. using some of the procedures
of the formal experiments (personal communication, January 7, 1992).
Regarding the SCC tests, Kanthamani and Kelly (1974a,
p. 374) claim that “the exclusion of sensory cues was total. Therefore
(ignoring the possibility of experimenter fraud) the only alternatives
to the psi hypothesis would require some severe form of nonrandomness in
the target sequence.” In a response to Diaconis, Kelly (1980) asserted
that “it is perfectly possible—indeed not all that difficult— to design
experimental conditions which are impervious to cheating by any subject
including a magician” (p. 123). We may conclude that they had high confidence
in their controls and that they believed themselves to be invulnerable
Kanthamani and Kelly appear unaware of methods that
mentalists or magicians might use to cheat in such a situation. There are
several available approaches. A plausible method would be for the subject
to make use of a reflective surface behind, or to the side of, the experimenter.
As the experimenter withdrew a card from the box, its image might reflect
in such a manner as to be visible to the subject. The glass in a picture
frame to the side might have been sufficient; even a window behind the
experimenter could have served that function. Many rooms of the Institute
for Parapsychology have large windows.
Such possibilities would be immediately considered
by an adept mentalist. Bob Couttie’s (1988, p. 7) account of his visit
to the apartment of Uri Geller is a good illustration. In his description,
one of the first things Couttie noted was the presence of several reflective
surfaces, and he specifically commented on their potential use in cheating.
Morris (1986, p. 88) and Nicol (1976) also mentioned the use of reflective
surfaces in their discussions of trickery. Kanthamani and Kelly appear
not to have considered the idea.
There is additional evidence suggesting that B.D.
had access to sensory cues. Kelly, Kanthamani, Child, and Young (1975)
The Journal of Parapsychology
Delmore using tachistoscopically presented images of playing cards.
B.D.’s task was to try to name the card presented. A pattern of “confusion
structures” was found that produced “consistent missing.” For example,
B.D. might confuse a king with a queen, or a 2 of spades with a 3 of spades.
Similar errors were discovered in the SCC tests. They also mentioned that
they had looked for consistent-missing patterns in an experimental series
not using the SCC procedure; the use of reflective surfaces seems less
likely in that work, and the consistent-missing effect was not found (Kanthamani
&: Kelly, 1975, p. 217). These results are consistent with the idea
that Delmore made use of sensory cues in the SCC tests.
It was reported that “interested visitors were also
allowed to watch during some sessions, since their presence seemed to motivate
the subject toward better performance” (Kanthamani &: Kelly, 1974b,
p. 19). Perhaps a visitor served as a confederate, glimpsed a card, and
signalled it to B.D. The authors did not discuss this possibility.
The SCC method has been declared to be the most
tightly controlled procedure with Delmore; the flaws are glaringly obvious
to someone with a background in magic.
The testing procedure with the shuffle method involved
two decks of cards (Kanthamani &: Kelly, 1975, p. 207). The experimenter
first shuffled each of the decks and then gave one to B.D. She then took
her deck and shuffled it 10 more times, with the deck out of the sight
of the subject. The subject shuffled his deck as many times as he wished;
his deck was designated the call deck. After he finished, the experimenter
recorded the order of her deck (referred to as the target deck), and then
the call deck was recorded.
It is stated that “during the recording of the call
deck the subject was generally allowed to turn the cards one by one because
he enjoyed doing so, and the presence of additional experimenters and other
observers in many sessions rendered it extremely unlikely that he could
at this point change the order of the cards” [italics added] (Kanthamani
& Kelly, 1975, pp. 207-208). This is not a single isolated description
of a preliminary experiment; another virtually identical statement was
made by Kanthamani and Kelly (1974a, p. 361). These statements demonstrate
an extraordinary naivete regarding what can be achieved by trickery. There
are numerous methods that could accomplish the feat, and these are some
of the most common
sleights practiced by magicians. For a useful description of what can be
accomplished by a skilled performer, see Ortiz (1984); a good tutorial
on card manipulation is that by Hugard and Braue (1949).
The Research with B.D.
For some series with the shuffle method, a cardboard
box covered the hands of B.D. This modification “was introduced at the
request of the subject” [italics added] (Kanthamani & Kelly, 1974a,
p. 370). The bottom of the box was removed; two holes were cut along the
bottom edge, and Delmore placed his hands and lower arms into the box in
order to shuffle his deck. This set-up appears to enhance the possibilities
for cheating. Under cover of the box, the subject may have easily marked
a few cards tactilely for use in later runs. Perhaps he was able to surreptitiously
slide a corner of a card out from underneath the box and steal a glance
at it. Such possibilities were not discussed by Kanthamani and Kelly.
Random Number Generator Tests
The random number generator (RNG) results have been
pointed to by some as evidence of Delmore’s psi ability (Kelly &: Kanthamani,
1972, pp. 190-192). However, there is reason to view these data cautiously
as well. It is clear that the RNG testing was only meant to be preliminary.
The entire report of the apparatus, procedure, and results filled a mere
21/2 pages. For most of the tests, one cannot even tell how the recording
was done. Was it by hand? In addition, the authors presented no control
runs to check the randomness of the RNG. In a meta-analysis of RNG research,
Radin and Nelson (1987) assigned these studies some of the poorest possible
In November of 1987, I sent Kanthamani and Kelly
an early draft of my paper “Deception by Subjects in Psi Research.” That
version had a number of comments on their work, and in December of that
year I sent them a detailed outline of problems afflicting their research.
I received no written response to either of those or to any of the subsequent
drafts I sent. Neither have they replied to the published version of my
paper (i.e., Hansen, 1990). Kanthamani was also sent an early draft of
this paper; I was given an acknowledgment that it had been received but
nothing more. Also I received no response to the subsequent version printed
in the Proceedings of Presented Papers of the 1991 PA convention
The Journal of Parapsychology
Responsibility of Experimenters
Many people have pointed out that no one has yet
provided conclusive proof that B.D. cheated in the experiments. That is
true. However, it is not and cannot be the obligation of
the critical reader to provide such evidence. It is the responsibility
of the experimenters to impose and document sufficient security precautions
to reasonably exclude cheating.
Experimenters also have a responsibility to their
subjects. Those few psychics who participate in research give their time,
energy, and talent, often with little compensation. They reasonably expect
to contribute to sound scientific research. If serious flaws are found
in the studies in which they have participated, they may feel that they
have wasted their time, or even feel abused. Furthermore, positive results
under inadequate controls may provoke hostile debunkers to impugn the integrity
of the subjects. This has happened many times in the past. If Delmore actually
possessed psychic abilities, he was badly served by the experimenters.
All researchers make mistakes during their careers.
If the Delmore research is considered only by itself, one would say that
a couple of scientists were unaware of necessary controls. As such, the
consequences would be trivial. However, in this case, the problems are
symptomatic of deeper trouble. As outlined previously, the research was
praised by a number of leaders in the field. Apparently they were not aware
of the flaws. As far as I can tell, the mistakes were not caught by colleagues,
editors, convention and/or journal referees, or others. This raises serious
questions about the capability of the field to address problems of deception.
The issue is one of leadership and management.
To be fair, the criticism must be most strongly
levelled at those who endorsed this research in professional forums. However,
most of the above-mentioned leaders are quite careful in their work, and
frankly, their endorsements are not typical of them. Normally they conduct
and evaluate research only within their own areas of competence, which
they accomplish superbly.
Nevertheless, two of these endorsers, John Beloff
and Gertrude Schmeidler, deserve special comment. In professional forums,
they frequently comment on studies in which potential trickery is a major
consideration, but apparently neither has any training in conjuring.
Schmeidler and Beloff have made major contributions to parapsychology,
and the criticisms here should not detract from those achievements. Both
have given selflessly to the field for many years, and both have corresponded
most cordially, and at length, regarding issues I have raised in this paper.
Recently Beloff (1990a) wrote of J. G. Pratt: “I have known few people
in my life who were so determined to get at the facts. Admittedly, if Gaither
had a weakness, it was that deceit was so alien to his own character that
it may have made him less suspicious than he should have been about others”
(p. 174). That statement might be equally applied to a number of others
The Research with B.D.
Gertrude R. Schmeidler
Schmeidler should have been especially cautious in
evaluating research with Delmore because she had personally witnessed him
in action. Schmeidler (1987b) described her encounter when responding to
a question as to what were some of her most mind-boggling personal experiences.
Her account appears to be nothing more than a layperson’s report of a card
effect. She gave no discussion at all to the possibility of trickery but
went on to speculate that “a psychic bridge can be created when a psychic
makes a warp in psychic space” (p. 85)! Like Kanthamani and Kelly, Schmeidler
seems to have been unaware of the implications of Delmore’s behavior.
Schmeidler was program chair for the 1990 PA convention
and accepted two papers describing positive results from subjects who had
previously engaged in highly suspicious behavior. One of the papers (Don,
McDonough, &: Warren, 1990) involved the subject Olof Jonsson, whom
I have briefly covered elsewhere (Hansen, 1990, pp. 27, 35; see also Cox,
1974, p. 13). The other paper involved the psychic photography of Ted Serios
(Lomax, 1990). The paper made no mention of the potential problems of trickery
with Serios. This deserves special comment because Schmeidler had previously
published a favorable evaluation of research with Serios.
The Serios studies involved a “subject-based control”
methodology. That is, the procedures prohibiting deception depended on
experimenters’ continuous observation of the subject. As I have described
elsewhere, this is exceedingly difficult to assure (Hansen, 1990). It also
requires high expertise by the experimenters. Evidence from subject-based
control procedures is typically very weak.
The support for Serios’s psi abilities depends heavily
on the competence of Eisenbud because he supervised and certified nearly
The Journal of Parapsychology
the published work with him. Randi (1981) demonstrated that Eisenbud
had essentially no knowledge of conjuring. The devastating implications
of Randrs analysis have been widely overlooked. In 1979, Eisenbud undertook
some card-guessing tests with Susie Cottrell (Eisenbud, 1981). One may
infer that Eisenbud was supremely confident in his controls because he
published the study in The Skeptical Inquirer. In a few short paragraphs,
Randi (1981) described how the precautions could have been easily overcome
with standard magic tricks. It proved that Eisenbud was not aware of how
simply magicians might evade his security measures. One can only conclude
that his witnessing of the Serios phenomena provides little evidence for
a psi effect. It is surprising that a paper on the Serios photos was accepted
for a PA convention. Rick Berger, one of the referees, strongly objected
to the paper, but he was overruled (personal communication, July 1990).
Schmeidler (1977, 1982, 1984, 1987a) has prepared
extensive reviews of research on psychokinesis. In many of the cases she
has examined, the primary alternative explanation for the results was trickery.
Although she regularly contributes to the professional parapsychology literature
on such topics, she seems to have no background in conjuring. In 1984 she
wrote: “Serios, under conditions which sometimes appeared to preclude trickery,
repeatedly produced changes in camera film or TV pictures” (p. 21). The
conditions appeared to Schmeidler to preclude trickery; however, her complete
ignorance of conjuring renders her evaluation of little scientific worth.
Further, magicians Eisendrath (1967), Reynolds (1967), and Diaconis have
observed suspicious behavior on the part of Serios, a fact that Schmeidler
failed to mention.
Schmeidler also served as one of the three-person
program committee for the 1983 PA convention. She accepted a paper from
W. E. Cox (1984), who claimed findings of matter-through-matter under “exceptional
conditions of security.” There was strong, published evidence that the
group Cox tested had previously engaged in trickery (Hansen &: Broughton,
1983). Cox’s controls had many loopholes (Hansen, 1985b). One can only
conclude that Schmeidler was unable to perceive the defects of Cox’s work,
and presumably she did not consult a competent magician when making her
evaluation. The deficiencies in Cox’s work were even more severe than those
in the work with Delmore.
Schmeidler has given a favorable assessment of Uri
Geller’s PK ability, saying “on the few occasions when he permitted himself
to be tested under tighter ones [conditions], there sometimes was evi-
dence of PK (e.g., a metallurgic examination of a bar he had stroked and
broken indicated that the break was caused by heat rather than muscle pressure)”
(1984, p. 21). She gave no citation. Puthoff and Targ (1977) stated that
in their work on metal bending they were unable “to obtain data sufficient
to support the paranormal hypothesis” (p. 173). Given the many questions
raised about Geller and problems with other metallurgical tests (e.g.,
Franklin, 1977; Franklin & Cornie, 1979), Schmeidler’s assessment is
The Research with B.D.
A number of Beloff’s professional writings deserve
scrutiny. Regarding the Delmore experiments, he declared: “The set-up was
so simple that one can say without fear of contradiction that there was
just no conceivable way in which the subject could have cheated
however skillful he may be at card-tricks” (1980a, p. 119). Beloff’s endorsement
is simply another in a long line of similar pronouncements.
Bert Reese is one of the performers about whom Beloff
has expressed a favorable opinion. Reading Beloff (1977, p. 15), one might
get the impression that Reese was another star psychic who had been unfortunately
overlooked. To support the claim for Reese’s psi ability, Beloff cited
no scientific journal papers, but mentioned two popular books, authored
well after Reese’s death, and a celebrity testimonial. Perhaps Beloff was
not aware that magicians had written much about Reese and his methods (e.g.,
Annemann, 1936; Frikell, 1930; Mann, n.d.; Mulholland, 1938; Rinn, 1950).
Beloff (1984) has advocated that research be undertaken
with Glenn Falkenstein. Presumably Beloff was impressed with some feat
of his. Falkenstein is a well-known mentalist who does a blindfold act
and performs a spectacular spirit cabinet act with his wife (Booth, 1984;
Dawes & Setterington, 1986; “The Falkensteins,” 1990). Was Beloff unaware
of that fact?
Recently, Beloff (1988, 1989, 1990b) has been touting
the Margery mediumship as evidence for psi. In fact, he has claimed that
“no credible counter-explanation has ever been offered” for some of her
phenomena (Beloff, 1990b, p. 175). Beloff cited no papers from scientific
journals to support his contention.4 There is massive
4 To support his position,
Beloff (1989, p. 337) quoted a portion of one sentence from an “outside
specialist” who was cited in a Fate magazine article regarding wooden
rings supposedly linked by Margery (the Fate article was apparently
written more than 50 years after the fact). That article did not identify
who made the statement or the qualifications of the so-called “specialist.”
The Journal of Parapsychology
evidence for trickery in that case (Tietze, 1973); I know of no convincing
scientific evidence for genuine psychic phenomena with Margery.
Beloff’s naivete has been detrimental not only to
himself but also to his students. Michael Thalbourne completed a doctoral
degree under his direction. After Thalbourne finished, he went to work
at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research and became a victim
of Project Alpha (Randi, 1983; Truzzi, 1987). Prior to the disclosure of
Project Alpha, Thalbourne’s professional writings demonstrated that he
did not understand how to detect trickery in his experiments. For instance,
Thalbourne and Shafer (1983) discussed the use of a radio transmitter to
circumvent security measures in a GESP experiment that gave real-time feedback
to the sender. They claimed that there should be semantic correspondences
between the target and response if a transmitter was used. However, even
a brief glance at some of the advertisements for these devices in magic
periodicals would reveal that such correspondences would not necessarily
Deborah Delanoy was another graduate student poorly
served by Beloff’s supervision. During her studies, she investigated “Tim,”
who claimed macro-PK abilities (Delanoy, 1987). For one of the experiments,
magician James Randi was given control of procedures and evaluation of
results.5 This was an abdication of scientific responsibility.
Earlier, Collins (1983) had warned that magicians’ values are not those
of science and that magicians “are a group whose values include secretiveness
and financial self-interest above the quest for truth” (p. 931). Collins
went on to explain why magicians should not be given control of scientific
procedures. Furthermore, Beloff received a strong private warning about
this from a knowledgable scientist-magician specifically in relation to
the Tim case, but he chose to ignore it. Despite their limitations, conjurors
can and should play an important role as consultants and commentators,
but they must not be given control of scientific procedures.
Consequences for Students
Some of the most serious implications of these matters
pertain to students. Newcomers to parapsychology must recognize that most
leaders and institutions will not be able to provide much guidance
5 There are many reasons
to question Randi’s reliability. For a list of citations documenting his
errors and misrepresentations, see Hansen (1992a, p. 47).
regarding deception. The problem is particularly severe in the U.S. The
Institute for Parapsychology, which is under the direction of K. R. Rao,
has offered a summer program for students. The library of the Institute
subscribes to no periodicals on conjuring. Nor, apparently, has Rao provided
any resources for staff members so that they can educate themselves on
magic. Rao has also directed the Department of Psychology and Parapsychology
at Andhra University. That department, too, subscribes to no magic periodicals.
A similar situation can be found at the Division of Personality Studies
(formerly named Division of Parapsychology) at the University of Virginia,
which is under the direction of lan Stevenson. That research facility has
undertaken studies of tricksters in the past. More recently, Stevenson
has advocated studying “psychic surgeons” (Azuma & Stevenson, 1987).
There have been a few bright spots. When John Palmer was in charge of the
parapsychology program at JFK University, he helped establish a course
on magic. His students have benefited. Also, two students are undertaking
research in deception in the parapsychology program at Edinburgh University
(Wiseman, 1991; Roe, 1991). While James Matlock was librarian at the American
Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), that library instituted a more active
acquisitions program and began subscribing to several magic periodicals.
After Matlock’s departure, the ASPR, under the direction of Patrice Keane,
reverted to its previous policies.
The Research with B.D.
Magic and Magicians
Resistances to Learning Magic and Confronting Deception
Issues of deception are often unpleasant to confront,
and there are a variety of pressures to avoid doing so. At times there
is social pressure to avoid the matter entirely, and some researchers take
great offense when the topic is introduced. It was illuminating to observe
the audience’s reaction to Jerome Frank’s 1990 PA convention banquet address
when Frank discussed deception. The expressions on the listeners’ faces
revealed clear discomfort. In another instance, my own personal integrity
was publicly questioned by Dobyns, Dunne, Jahn, and Nelson (1991, p. 6)
because my colleagues and I simply raised the issue of potential cheating
(Hansen, Utts, &: Markwick, 1991)!6 Delanoy (1987) pointed
out that investigators
6 The research in question
involved a very high-scoring subject (“Operator 10”),
The Journal of Parapsychology
often wish to think well of their subjects, and this may even be helpful
in eliciting genuine phenomena, but such a wish can potentially lead one
to neglect the consideration of possibilities for cheating.
For many years, psychical researchers with a background
in conjuring have been urging others to become familiar with magic. Hereward
Carrington and Eric Dingwall are notable historical examples. Martin Johnson
(1976) graphically demonstrated the need for knowledge of conjuring, and
Nicol (1976) discussed some specific examples. Marcello Truzzi (1984) and
Loyd Auerbach (1987) both organized panel discussions on magic for PA conventions.
Morris (1982, 1986) has discussed methods of trickery. I myself have been
discussing the issues for some time (Hansen, 1984, 1985a, 1987, 1988, 1989,
1990, 1991a, 1992b). However, recent articles primarily have been of a
general or abstract nature. Few commentators have explained how trickery
might circumvent specific safeguards used in practice, perhaps to avoid
giving offense. This may have contributed to the complacency of other investigators.
Unfortunately, the task of assessing studies’ vulnerability to cheating
has been left largely to outsiders who typically do not publish in refereed
journals (e.g., Gardner, 1989; Hansel, 1959; Randi, 1981).
Several people in the field have suggested to me
that I write an article explaining the things parapsychologists need to
know about magic. Such a request is like asking a mathematician to give
an hour-long lecture on differential equations to physics students and
then expecting them to be completely prepared for their careers. The topic
of conjuring is vast, and the needed information cannot be given in just
a few lessons. Not only are the technical portions of magic important,
but social aspects of the conjuring subculture need to be understood as
Frequently, people have given me the excuse: “Of
course parapsyehologists should know more about magic, but also they should
become more educated in statistics, psychotherapy, electronics, etc.” This
excuse is inappropriate because the relationship of magic to psi research
is not comparable to the other areas. In most domains of expertise, the
field of parapsychology has considerable depth to draw on within its membership.
There are a number of authorities on various topics, and they are well
recognized within the field. Editors, researchers, and program chairpersons
regularly consult such experts, and they recognize when such outside consultation
about whom no details were given. The procedures had
no controls against cheating, and Operator 10 was involved in more than
70% of the formal trials.
essary. With magic, the situation is far different; many do not even realize
when they need help. Further, magic is not a scientific discipline, and
its norms and values are not those of science. Few seem to understand the
consequences of this. One referee of this paper commented,
“I agree in principle [that parapsychologists should be well educated in
conjuring methods], but in practice I do not think it is likely a habit.”
That same referee said, “I know magicians are always worried about giving
away the secrets of their tricks. But I think this needs to change.” This
person seems to believe that he can dictate norms to a group of which he
is not a member and of which he has no knowledge. Nevertheless, these candid
statements undoubtedly reflect the opinions of many leaders of parapsychology,
despite lip service to the contrary. Such attitudes are entrenched in psi
research and typify the resistance to learning magic.
The Research with B.D.
As the reader may recognize, the methods of trickery
can seem very simple, once they are known. The methods described above
will likely now seem obvious, but I remind you that they probably were
not obvious to you before. Indeed, many powerful magic effects are based
on very simple principles. Learning a few techniques can lead to overconfidence.
I must admit that in preparation of this paper, I had reservations about
explaining the approaches magicians might use to circumvent controls. I
myself have had the experience of privately describing how trickery might
overcome security measures in an experiment. On the basis of my comments,
the experimenter made changes but did not realize that his modifications
still left him vulnerable. He did not seek to gain a broader background
in conjuring. It is precisely for this reason that some magicians have
been reluctant to reveal methods to researchers.
Some readers may have wondered why the preceding
points were not previously presented by conjurors. There are many reasons.
In preparing my critiques of psi research, I have had the opportunity to
discuss many issues with other magicians. Two general types of opinions
Some magicians thought that I was wasting my time in preparing such
papers. They pointed out that if researchers really wanted to
7 The methods are also
subtle. In fact, a number of people reading earlier drafts of this paper
thought that I had described only one method!
The Journal of Parapsychology
know the truth, they would have studied magic many, many years ago.
These conjurors view parapsychologists’ “findings” as articles of a religious
“faith” much like the faith some spiritualists place in phony mediums.
Some of these magicians are very sympathetic to parapsychology but argue
that it would be traumatic for the dupes to have the deception revealed;
it is not necessary, and besides, the parapsychologists really are not
hurting anyone. In a similar vein, Morris (1986, pp. 73-74) questioned
whether one should expose a fraudulent medium in front of believers who
receive emotional support from the medium’s performance.
Another group of magicians also concluded that such
papers written for parapsychologists are a waste of time, but for a different
reason. They observed that psychical researchers are intelligent people,
and in some cases the “obvious trickery” had gone on for a long time. These
conjurors reasoned that the parapsychologists must have caught on to the
methods, but nevertheless some are still promoting the fake psychics. Their
conclusion was that some researchers are now part of the scam, perhaps
to fleece wealthy donors. In fact, I even know of one case in which a parapsychologist
made a similar suggestion about another researcher. In the specific instances
I am aware of, I believe the suggestions to be unfounded; the deceived
researchers seem only to be victims, not perpetrators.
I do not think that either of the two positions
is correct, but they both may contain grains of truth. In fact, the deceived
person often does have a direct interest in promoting the reputation of
the deceiver. As more and more is published about a “psychic,” the experimenter
obtains greater and greater recognition. The researcher is eventually motivated
to provide “explanations” or excuses for suspicious behavior. An almost
identical situation occurs in spying with spy managers and double agents.
The dynamic is described in some detail by Epstein (1989) in his book Deception
(chapter 14, “The Confidence Game”). Occasionally the agent is able to
con the manager into going over to the other side because the manager had
contributed unwittingly (at first) to the deceit by promoting the reputation
of the double agent.
The research with Delmore had many problems with
controls against cheating. Unfortunately these long went unrecognized,
and many leaders of parapsychology praised the rigor of the work. This
fact alone demonstrates serious problems, but the Delmore research is not
an isolated example. Published papers continue to describe psi effects
of known tricksters. Prominent PA members have aggressively promoted such
work to the wider scientific community. Those most vocal in touting research
with cheaters have typically been the most ignorant about conjuring.
If progress is to be made, the leaders of the field will need to reassess
programs with attention to issues of potential deceit. This must occur,
not only in research, but also in refereeing, preparation of reviews, and
in education. Staff members of laboratories need to receive support for
studying magic. Libraries need to reevaluate acquisition policies. Journal
editors and convention chairpersons need to consult more extensively with
appropriate experts in conjuring. If such changes are not made, we
will see the continuation of the legacy of magical ignorance.
The Research with B.D.
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