The Natural History of a Prejudice

In 1934 the famous medium Eileen Garrett came to the Parapsychology Laboratory and allowed the scientists there to conduct experiments with her while she was in a trance. When she went into her trances another personality who called himself Uvani took over and spoke to the people in the room. Uvani said he was there to manage the communication between the living and the dead, and to protect Eileen, who was vulnerable while in a trance.

Lots of people participated in these sittings, including the lab scientists themselves, the wife of the president of Duke University, and one of Rhine’s colleagues in the psychology department—fellow professor Don Adams. A secretary recorded everything that was said.

Uvani started each session by describing the sitters first, and it was clear he liked everyone except Donald Adams. He said he felt a lot of negativity when Adams sat down. It was interesting because unknown to anyone in that room at the time, a week earlier, Adams had sent a letter to William McDougall, the head of the Psychology Department, who was in England at the time. In that letter, Adams and two of Rhine’s other colleagues, Helge Lundholm and Karl Zener, did everything they could to undermine the very experiments Adams was participating in that day.

The letter began, “Those of us in the department who have signed this letter are profoundly interested in the continuous work of our group,” and they were writing, “because, as things have developed since you left, it seems to us that grave dangers have arisen possibly threatening the integrity of our group.” The danger was J. B. Rhine. (More below.)


The men said they had evidence that their graduate students believed that in order to progress in the department they had to have an interest in psychical research. Psychical research has a place, they said, but “we do not like to have such research attain a dominance which would exclude the investigation of psychological problems in general.”

The evidence they offered was three students who had expressed concerns. One said he felt his position there might be shaky if he didn’t demonstrate not only an open mind on the subject, but unquestioning faith in their findings. Another said that a number of the other students were aggressively trying to convert them on the subject, to the point where they couldn’t talk to them about anything. They were like a cult. Last, a visiting graduate told them that one of the current graduate students was highly emotional about the subject.

Perhaps getting to the real heart of the matter they said that the whole situation, “is of vital concern to ourselves, and is developing into an increasingly distressing situation; for we depend in our own research work, to a degree, upon the cooperation of our graduate students, and if the latter turn more and more away from the problems of psychology in which we are interested we feel that our work will be greatly handicapped.”

The students “hero-worshipped” Rhine, they wrote. And “he had much closer personal relations with them than professors usually had with students.”

Certainly they, too, made every effort to get students interested in their own work, so the problem seems to be that Rhine was more successful. They went on to say that, “If this reaction gave the appearance of a personal choice, instead of an emotional response to intensive propaganda and persuasion we would feel that we have no right to protest.” In other words, if the students were genuinely interested in parapsychology and weren’t being bullied into it, they wouldn’t be bothering him about the matter. But then they gave an odd example to prove their point. They wrote about a graduate student who they said was pressured into switching to psychical research. But then they quote him as saying, “I regard Dr. Rhine as the most intelligent, most widely read, and greatest psychologist in the world, a Galileo of our age.” Overwrought perhaps, but not unusual for a young person, and in any case, it doesn’t sound like he was coerced.

The three men asked McDougall for advice and hoped that no one would get hurt, but “we are confident that mere admonition will not suffice. We write to you because the future success and happiness of our individual work and the continuance of the present department as a center of psychological research … is severely endangered by the present situation.”

McDougall wrote back suggesting they send a copy of their letter to Rhine. They beg off, saying the students spoke in confidence and while not named, are recognizable. The reason they didn’t approach Rhine directly, they wrote, “was our feeling that adjustment of the specific difficulties could not be reached without consideration of broader departmental policies than could be settled without your guidance.”

McDougall wrote an extremely delicately worded letter to Rhine. He said their colleagues were alarmed, but he doesn’t mention their letter. “It would be a great pity,” he wrote, “that if our endeavor to introduce P. R. [psychical research] into the circle of university studies should go awry through excessive zeal leading students to neglect all the more orthodox parts of psychology in favor of P. R.” We need to proceed more slowly, and perhaps more diplomatically.

Adams, at least, felt pangs of conscience about his actions. Two years later he wrote an essay called “The Natural History of a Prejudice.” It’s an amazing document and he makes some pretty astonishing admissions. While allowing that Rhine’s statistics, “… seemed impeccable and his gradually more rigorous conditions adequate,” Adams admits that nonetheless he longed for Rhine to fail. “I wanted not the truth, but to prove his positive conclusions wrong.” Whenever paranormal investigations had negative results, Adams wrote that he felt relief. “I would have been disappointed instead of delighted at discovering a new phenomenon …” He described how his colleagues would come up to him at meetings and conferences and “ask immediately—and hopefully—whether Rhine was crazy, duped, or crooked.” When Adams replied that Rhine was none of these his colleagues treated him with contempt. “Science, with a capital S, has no prejudice, but individual scientists have,” he confessed. (More below.)


When looking back at his behavior towards Rhine, Don Adams wrote with incredible and admirable honesty. “Have you ever had the experience of seeing a belief, that you have considered fundamental to everything you value, gradually but inexorably undermined? … I have never had much sympathy for the embattled Fundamentalists, but since facing a situation comparable in many ways to theirs and finding that I behaved just as badly, their conduct no longer seems so strange.”

Adams showed his essay to Rhine, which was again, admirable, considering how snarky it gets in places. In one section he wrote, “My colleague, J. B. Rhine, who had been a competent plant physiologist, but was still not much of a psychologist …” Adams crossed out the part which read “but was still not much of a psychologist” but it was still clearly legible. By the way, I would read things like this over and over, this attitude that Rhine wasn’t a real scientist because his PhD was in botany. It was like a prejudice within a prejudice.

Three times in the essay Adams called Rhine a schemer. “Rhine himself, though neither a liar nor a fool, was a scheming fellow. To be sure, any intelligent person who has been poor is likely to be …” And later, “I really believe he schemes in his sleep.” (I have to admit I cracked up when I read that.)

I thought Rhine showed enormous self-possession and insight when he read those sections and instead of clocking the guy, he asked, “if a schemer is not simply one whose constructive planning is not favorably regarded?”

Adams sums it all up best when near the end of his essay he wrote, “there is a sort of inexorability about scientific method before which prejudice is silly, small-minded and futile. Nature does not seem to care in the least what we think of her.”

The first picture is Eileen Garrett, the second is William McDougall and J. B. Rhine, and the third is J. B. and his colleagues in the Psychology Department. From left to right: J.B., Don Adams, Karl Zener, William Sterne, I don’t know who the next guy is, Helge Lundholm.

[The source for the essay quotes: Donald K. Adams, “The Natural History of a Prejudice,” Archives for the History of American Psychology, University of Akron.]

Psychics and Criminal Profilers

As usual, once I’m on the radio I forget what I wanted to say. I had intended to talk about the similarities between psychics and criminal profiling.

I wrote a chapter in my book about two psychics who had gotten involved in a case of a missing boy in California. It’s largely a negative chapter because of one particular psychic, Peter Hurkos, who I believe acted irresponsibly. However the other psychic in the chapter, Harold Sherman, went out of his way to respond honestly and compassionately. And, as it turned out, he supplied genuinely useful information, although no one knew this at the time, which is the problem J. B. Rhine tried to point out to the father of the missing California boy, who had asked him for the names of psychics:

“We do not know enough about the abilities we are studying to be able to apply them reliably … The worst part of it is that there is no adequate assurance that the impressions that come to the mind are due to ESP and are reliable even when they actually are.” (Italics mine.)

Marcello Truzzi and Arthur Lyons, the authors of The Blue Sense, a study of psychics and their work solving crime, concluded that the existing evidence of a “blue sense” did not yet meet the burden of proof, but they added that a lack of proof does not equal disproof, and that more study was required. While stories of psychic’s abilities were exaggerated, they weren’t as insubstantial as debunkers insisted, and Truzzi and Lyons compared them in usefulness to FBI profilers.

It’s an interesting point. In essence, what psychics do is help with investigations. At best, they supply information which may lead to find a missing child, a body or a suspect. That is similar to what profilers do, the difference is the information gathering process.

Some people don’t think the process is different, however. For instance, a Sgt. Stinnett of the Maryland State Police credited Dallas psychic John Catchings with helping them find the body of murder victim Mary Cook Spence in the 80’s. But Stinnett didn’t think Catchings had supernatural powers. He thought Catchings was just highly observant and would have made a good police detective.

In a 2007 New Yorker piece about criminal profiling, famed FBI profiler John Douglas is quoted as saying, “If there’s a psychic component to this, I won’t run from it.” This was a skeptical piece about profilers, and the author Malcolm Gladwell intended this quote as further evidence that the work of profilers is suspect.

In fact, explanations that are made to explain away psychics could also be applied to profilers. A forensics science professor I emailed called Hurkos’s technique “a pastiche of common sense, stereotypes, and popular mythology.” If you throw enough out there that might fit the given situation you’re bound to get something right.

“Psychics often speak in a stream-of-consciousness style, piling on impressions,” Jill Neimark wrote in Psychology Today. She pointed to the results of a 1982 study that compared the responses from psychic sleuths, college students and homicide detectives. “… none of the three groups scored better than they would have if left to chance, but the psychics produced 10 times as much information, increasing their likelihood of a chance hit.”

Gladwell compared what FBI profilers do to “cold readings,” the technique some psychics use to gather information from the people around them in a way that makes it look like they pulled the data out of thin air.


I have to point out that in addition to providing profiles that may help law enforcement find suspects, the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit also maintains a database on violent criminals and crimes. This helps reveal patterns in a more systematic, scientific way. The Blue Sense authors, for instance, described policing as more clinical art than forensic science. But even if it only confirms what intuition led them to in the first place, the FBI is gathering data which will hopefully allow them to not only examine their theories and see if there is any truth to them, but to look back and assess their own effectiveness.

It would be useful to have a similar database to assess the work of psychics, and Truzzi and Lyons referred to ongoing efforts to gather data of this sort, but I didn’t find out yet if this is still ongoing. I know that Truzzi has since died. It would interesting to compare how effective they are in aiding investigations.

In 1993, the Skeptical Inquirer published a survey which polled police departments about using psychics. “Of the 48 respondents, 31 answered no, and 17 answered yes. As stated before, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., declined to answer. Therefore, approximately 65 percent do not use and have never used psychics.” Most don’t, they emphasize, and those that do say the information psychics provide is not useful.

Truzzi looked at the same results and marveled that as many as 35 percent of the respondents used psychics! The true total is most certainly higher. For instance, when I was researching one case from the 1950’s in Miami for my book, law enforcement in Miami repeatedly denied having worked with Peter Hurkos. But when I tracked down the lead detective, now in his late 80’s, he said that they did consult with Hurkos, who didn’t supply them with anything useful.

In his book, Memiors of a Psychic Spy, Joseph McMoneagle makes a good point about their ability to be effective.

“You can produce a near-perfect description of a location where a person is bring held, is living, or within which a body has been hidden. But, if there are no local landmarks that are readily identifiable to a specific area or township, where in the world the location actually is, is quite difficult to pinpoint.”

I know the first objection to that is going to be that this is exactly how psychics are able to defraud people, by giving general descriptions that will fit a lot of places, so they can later claim success. “I see a body of water,” etc. That is the kind of thing Hurkos did for the most part and objections to it are vaild. (Truzzi and Lyons referred to Hurkos as a “psychic scoundrel” and called his claims, “pure bunk.”) But that is not the instances that McMoneagle is describing here. Some psychics, or remote viewers, provide descriptions that are more detailed and exact.

It goes back to Rhine’s point. “The worst part of it is that there is no adequate assurance that the impressions that come to the mind are due to ESP and are reliable even when they actually are.”

[The first picture is Bruce Kremen, the missing boy referred to at the beginning of this post.  The second picture is Mack Ray Edwards, the person suspected of having killed him.  The third picture is Judith Ann Roberts, the 1954 murder victim from Miami.]

Radio Interview about Psychic Detectives

I’m going to be on the Ed Norris Show this morning at 9:05, 105.7 in Baltimore, talking about psychics and crime solving. You can listen to it here, just click on Listen Live at the top right. I met Ed Norris when I was researching my previous book, The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad. Norris was the first commanding officer of the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad.

This is a picture of Norris on the job.


A Poetic Mystery via the Ouija Board

Last week I wrote about the dark side of Ouija Boards — today I want to tell a love story.  On April 18, 1949, J. B. Rhine wrote the following in a letter to Mrs. Goodrich C. White, the wife of the president of Emory University:

“I was up in New York last week, talking to the staff of the Veterans Administration Hospital at Lyons, N. J.  I drove back down with Florence Anspacher, wife of the author of The Challenge of the Unknown.  She is a delightful person, and as I may have told you, she has become very deeply interested in the survival problem.  I think it will be better to say that she is especially interested in what she believes to be communications with Dr. Anspacher [her late husband].  She has accumulated quite a collection of very beautiful poetry, that has come by way of the Ouija Board, manipulated by two poets, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Auslander.  She is now planning to publish a book presenting this poetry with some of the dialogue.”

Dr. Anspacher was Louis K. Anspacher, a playwright and a poet who died on May 10, 1947.  Rhine had only recently met Dr. Anspacher when he came to the lab in December, 1946.  Anspacher’s book, Challenge of the Unknown: Exploring the Psychic World, would actually come out a month after he died.  Waldemar Kaempffert, a New York Times science writer and friend of Rhine’s, supplied the introduction.

The Times said it was “an admirably clear-headed book on a very difficult subject …”  Rhine said it was, “interesting but not very profound … however it is done in good taste and I think it will help the cause rather than hurt it.”

A couple of months after her husband died, Mrs. Anspacher wrote Rhine.  “I rather hesitate to write you … However, as you knew Louis and know me, I thought you might be interested in the following.  I have been using a Ouija board, and have been receiving messages purporting to come from Louis and my parents and other people.”

She and her husband had tried the Ouija board before she said, and had always been “rather skeptical and very much puzzled … by these manifestations,” although some of the suggestions that came from Dr. Hyslop (a Columbia University professor who was interested in psychical research) were incorporated in Anspacher’s book.  She was writing because she wanted to know if Rhine knew anyone who doing research into Ouija Board communications.

Rhine, as usual, was friendly and very diplomatic, although skeptical.  The fact that she was aided by two poets, Joseph Auslander (taught at Columbia) and Audrey Wurdemann (won a Pulitzer and was the great-great-granddaughter of Percy Bysshe Shelley), did not escape him.

Rhine suggested covering the face of the person working the Ouija Board with a black cloth (very clever). But Florence wrote back that her friend did not like to do that, “as she seems to feel that she cannot breathe and seems to be very uncomfortable.  Perhaps that is the reason we do not get messages that way.”  Ah.  Clearly they tried it and the results were not what they would have hoped.  Rhine also suggested “cutting out the alphabet and scattering the letters under a glass,” and Florence wrote that messages still came through when they did this, although more slowly.

Rhine did not accuse the couple of fraud and instead wrote, “I find myself toying mentally with the alternative of a synthetic creative mind made up of the Auslanders, yourself, and something of Louis, and goodness knows what more, all functioning in a transcendent order of composition that constitutes genius [that’s laying it on a little thick].  Central to the organization is the Louis-personality.  How much of a separate and continued existence this personality maintains is another question.”

He then proposed a new control which addressed the complaint about being uncomfortable with wearing a black cloth. Why don’t they trying hanging “up a heavy black cloth between the subject and the table.” (I don’t have a record of whether or not they tried this.)

Not surprisingly, Florence held on to the hope that the poems might be coming from her husband and Rhine diplomatically started calling them a “literary mystery.”  When she published the poems in 1953, it was clear that she had adopted his position somewhat when she titled the book, Enigma,: A poetic mystery presented by Mrs. Louis K. Anspacher.

Rhine maintained a friendly relationship with all of them, and Florence made several contributions to the lab over the years.  She established a Louis K. Anspacher Fellowship, and Bill Roll (who I’ve written about here) was a Louis K. Anspacher Fellow.  Florence was also a regular and generous contributor to the New York City theatre scene, and made a key contribution to Joseph Papp and the Public Theatre, allowing them to provide Shakespeare in the Park, a program which continues today.  Papp named a theatre after her, The Florence Sutro Anspacher Theater, and Hair was their first production!  (I just saw the play and had a marvelous time, I posted all about it on my other blog.)

Like many others, Florence expressed frustration that the Rhines weren’t doing more work on the survival question, and Rhine was honest when he responded.  The case for survival was getting weaker and weaker he wrote, and the communications she received via the Ouija Board were suggestive but not evidence.

However in 1954 he wrote to let her know that, “Tomorrow we will have a day devoted to mediumship.  This is somewhat unusual as you know.  Mr. Thorogood, Director of the Franklin Institute in Boston [Brackett K. Thorogood], who was Margery’s last scientific investigator, is coming down to try to convince us that Margery had something.  We are going to be open-mined and try to learn anything we can.”

Florence Anspacher died on July 21, 1971.

[The first picture is Louis Anspacher, the second is Joseph Auslander, and the third is Florence. ]

Mirror Neurons

I’m probably revealing my science-ignorance, but a paper was published in the Journal of Neuroscience this month about an experiment that may have found evidence of something called mirror neurons in the human brain.  I don’t have access to the Journal of Neuroscience paper, but I read about it in ScienceNews here.  The article by Tina Hesman Saey begins:

“Macaque monkeys have specialized brain cells — called mirror neurons — that activate when a monkey performs an action involving an object, such as picking up a grape, or when watching someone else do the same task. The discovery of these neurons in 1996 led to speculation that they could be involved in everything from simulating others’ actions to language development to autism. There was only one problem: no one had definite proof that such cells exist in humans.”

The revealing my science-ignorance part of my post is this:  if more definitive evidence is found, could mirror neurons explain the effects found in the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory ESP experiments?

The picture below is of an early ESP machine from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory.


New Book from ICRL Press

The Rhines always felt that the answer to telepathy would be found in a better understanding of consciousness. When I talked to Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne of Princeton’s PEAR laboratory, now the International Consciousness Research Laboratories, they talked about information filters and the need for science to incorporate an information field theory. Their ideas felt like a natural progression of the Rhine’s thinking.

From the email about Filters and Reflections: Perspectives on Reality: “This new book is a series of essays related and responding to the PEAR laboratory publication, Sensors, Filters, and the Source of Reality. This anthology presents an assortment of perspectives on how consciousness creates its experiential reality through an array of subjective “filters” by which “we endeavor to infer, either intuitively or analytically, composite functional models of our world and of ourselves.” Taken together, the individual contributions serve as an array of lenses that amplify the seminal essay.”

Ouija Boards

“The State Supreme Court of Connecticut, on August 12, agreed with a lower court that it had been right in ruling against a will that would have awarded a $150,000 estate to a ‘ghost.'”

That is from the beginning of a 1958 Parapsychology Foundation newsletter article titled: No $150,000 for “Ghost”. A woman named Mrs. Helen Dow Peck of Bethel, CT, had left most of her estate to John Gale Forbes, a name of a dead person that she had gotten from a Ouija Board. Her will stated that a thorough search must be made for Forbes and if he couldn’t be found the money was to be used to research telepathy instead.

What I haven’t found out yet is, after Forbes couldn’t be found did the money go to telepathy research? Oh wait, the article said that six nieces and three nephews contested the will on the grounds that Forbes was “the product of mental delusion,” and this was confirmed by the Supreme Court. I’m guessing that if the decision was made that the will written by someone who was incapacitated they weren’t bound to any of it? I have to say I agree with the court’s decision. I mean, even if she believed John Gale Forbes once lived, what was the point of leaving money to someone who was dead? It doesn’t make sense.

Ouija Boards kept coming up while I was doing my research and I was just fascinated by them. Mostly because so often the messages were malicious and the personalities coming through malignant and never mind the implications of that, people continued to consult them even when the whole experience was frightening and not at all helpful. Although I guess it’s not so surprising that people are drawn to what frightens them.

John Palmer published a very interesting survey he did of them: “A Mail Survey of Ouija Board Users in North America,” International Journal of Parapsychology, Volume 12, Number 2, 2001.

And, I just found a great 1983 article about them written by James P. Johnson for American Heritage Magazine.

The picture is of an early desk of ESP cards that I scanned while I was down in Durham.