The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher

By Martin Gardner | Go to book overview

1 Project Alpha

Foreword

This, the first of my columns in the Skeptical Inquirer, requires considerable background to be understood. In 1979, a year before his death, James McDonnell, chairman of the board of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, gave half a million dollars to Washington University, in St. Louis. The grant was for establishing a laboratory to study psychic phenomena. Peter Phillips, a physicist at the university, was put in charge.

As all magicians know, physicists are among the easiest people in the world to be fooled by magic tricks. They are so used to working with Mother Nature, who never cheats, that when confronted with the task of testing a psychic charlatan they have no comprehension of how to set up adequate controls. To prove this, magician James Randi, long a foe of psychic flimflam, prepared an elaborate hoax. He arranged for two teen- age magicians, Steven Shaw and Michael Edwards, to separately visit the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychic Research, or "McLab," as it became known. For almost two years Phillips and his associates were convinced that the boys possessed amazing psi powers.

At an annual convention of parapsychologists at Syracuse University in 1981, Phillips delivered a research report in which he described how the boys had bent metal objects, produced streaks of light on film, caused a clock to slide off a table, turned a motor under a glass dome, made fuses blow, and similar wonders. In 1983 Randi exposed the hoax at a large press conference in Manhattan.

How did Shaw move the clock? He told laboratory scientists that he did it by imagining he had an invisible thread stretched between his hands. What he didn't tell them was that he actually did have an invisible thread stretched between his hands! How did the boys move the motor? They secretly raised an edge of the glass dome by an imperceptible amount, then blew through the opening!

Before the hoax was exposed, the National Enquirer gave the lads

-13-

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The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 7
  • Preface 9
  • Part 1 11
  • 1 - Project Alpha 13
  • 2 - Margaret Mead 19
  • 3 - Magicians in the PSI Lab 25
  • 4 - Shirley MacLaine 32
  • 5 - Freud, Fliess, and Emma's Nose 38
  • 6 - Koestler Money Down the Psi Drain? 44
  • 7 - Targ: From Puthoff to Blue 50
  • 8 - The Relevance of Belief Systems 57
  • 9 - Welcome to the Debunking Club 65
  • 10 - The Great Stone Face 72
  • 11 - From Phillips to Morris 79
  • 12 - George McCready Price 93
  • 13 - Wonders of Science 99
  • 14 - Tommy Gold 103
  • 15 - Rupert Sheldrake 109
  • 16 - The Anomalies of Chip Arp 115
  • 17 - Thoughts on Superstrings 119
  • 18 - The Third Eye 123
  • 19 - Irving Kristol and the Facts of Life 129
  • Part 2 135
  • 20 - The Great SRI Die Mystery 137
  • 21 - Perpetual Motion 145
  • 22 - Psychic Surgery 167
  • 23 - 666 and All That 170
  • 24 - D. D. Home-Sweet-Home 175
  • 25 - PK (Psycho-Krap) 179
  • 26 - Chicanery in Science 182
  • 27 - Fools' Paradigms 184
  • 28 - Look, Shirl, No Hands! 188
  • 29 - The Channeling Mania 202
  • 30 - Who Was Ray Palmer? 209
  • 31 - Prime-Time Preachers 223
  • 32 - L. Ron Hubbard 246
  • 33 - Psychic Astronomy 252
  • Name Index 265
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