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James Randi's Project Alpha

Over the past two years, I've become aware that this column has had no effect other than to irritate some people on the Internet. No world-shaking claims have been made or evidence presented, but I'd like to think that maybe a few minds have been changed against blindly believing everything read in the tabloids at the supermarket checkout line. The exact opposite of this column is Project Alpha, a hoax perpetrated by arch-magician, skeptic, and all-around awesome guy James Randi.

In 1979, Jim McDonnell, head of the aircraft company of the same name, decided to award a half-million dollar grant to Washington University in St. Louis to scientifically investigate claims of the paranormal. The head researcher soon decided that he would like to spend the money on looking into what believers in the bizarre refer to as psychokinetic metal bending - people who can bend spoons with their minds.

Washington University began by asking for volunteers. They literally received hundreds of applicants who claimed to have some sort of psychic ability. However, they quickly realized that only two out of all the applicants had any sort of psychic ability. These two young men, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, were the only ones chosen to participate in the study.

Over the course of the study, these two men did things that astounded the researchers. They were able to bend spoons and keys, describe a photograph inside a sealed envelope without looking, change the usefulness of electrical fuses, even make images appear on undeveloped film using only their psychic abilities. The university began writing a report bragging that they had discovered amazing results that would prove that psychic powers existed.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Shaw and Edwards were actually amateur magicians, moles planted by Randi to show the investigators that their experiments were flawed. Randi had sent the young men to apply for the project after training them in magic but ordered them to admit they were frauds if they were ever asked. Strangely, they were never asked; the research staff assumed everything happening was a genuine phenomenon.

When it was revealed that Shaw and Edwards were frauds, the parapsychology community - the group of people that believes in psychic powers - was shaken to its core. The university facility that was running the test was shut down and many researchers who backed the report had their reputations tarnished. A lot of people thought it was unethical of Randi to do such a thing.

This entire affair, however, could have been avoided had the research group listened to Randi's advice. Before the experiment began, he sent them a list of 11 things that should be done, such as making sure that the people being tested were watched constantly, making sure the experiments took place in proper settings, and so on. Interestingly, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal had blown Shaw's cover by exposing him as a fake psychic during the middle of the experiment. Either the researchers didn't read it or more likely, they didn't care.

So how was the duo able to produce all of the extraordinary results? The spoon bending was easy. Contrary to Randi's advice, Shaw and Edwards were allowed to choose a piece of metal to bend from a table littered with objects. With one hand they would take a spoon, and with the other they would take a second, similar spoon. They concentrated their "mental powers" on the initial spoon and, as the scientists focused on that, bent the second spoon against the table with their other hand. They later switched the two to make it seem as though some great psychic power had been used. There's nothing involving psychic abilities in it; it's just a bit of sleight of hand, confidence and agility on the parts of the men. They bent all sorts of things, including spoons and keys, in this manner.

One of the cameramen recording the experiments refused to zoom in on the first spoon, the one that everyone was looking at. Afraid he would catch them bending the spoons with their other hands, Shaw and Edwards stopped the experiment and complained about his "negative psychic energies" until the cameraman was replaced. By Randi's criteria, this experiment would have been a failure.

The experiment in which the men were asked to see what was on a photograph inside a sealed envelope was even worse. The envelope was sealed with four staples, but contrary to Randi's advice, Shaw and Edwards were left alone in rooms with the envelopes. They pried out the staples, looked at the picture, put the staples back into the original holes, and then bent them closed again with their fingers. No psychic powers needed.

The two were asked to affect the abilities of simple electrical fuses and were able to do so, but not with the power of their mind. They had some burned-out fuses in their pockets and switched them when the staff wasn't looking. The effect of creating images on cameras was done simply by fogging the lens with their breath, which would make the picture appear to have a mystic cloud on it. In one experiment, they were also asked to keep electrical clocks from working, which they did easily by microwaving them for a few seconds.

Project Alpha isn't important because it revealed tricks used by psychics to convince people they have mental powers. It is important because it showed that otherwise competent, well-meaning, intelligent people can be tricked into believing in the supernatural with very little effort.

The people most hurt by this were probably Shaw and Edwards. By the time half of the experiment was over, they were well known in the psychic community as powerful telepaths. Had they not been exposed as fakes at the end of the project, they would have had lucrative careers suckering money out of chumps all lined up. They could have made a fortune and a half at it, sadly enough.

Anyway, if you skip to the ends of articles as I do, let it suffice to say that even scientific studies can be easily corrupted if the researchers are not stringent enough in enforcing their controls. No proper scientific test has ever come across a psychic phenomenon that it could not explain as the product of a hoax, a con artist, or simple mistakes and sloppy science.

Be seeing you.

First Published in The Triangle, 17 February 2006