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The Listener - 6th December 1973

Science and the Paranormal

John Taylor




 Over the last hundred years reputable scientists have occasionally dabbled in experiments to try to understand the paranormal. This term covers the vast range of phenomena for which established science has no ready explanation, such as telepathy (the sending of the picture of an object, or other information, to someone else), clairvoyance (being able to sense objects at a distance), psychokinesis (controlling the movement of objects), precognition (foretelling the future), out-of-the-body experiences (information being obtained in the process which could not normally have been obtained), dowsing, mediumship, levitation, communication with the dead. Until very recently, none of these scientific investigations have proved very persuasive, especially since various cases seem to have involved deception on the part of those claiming paranormal powers.
 Recently, however, several people have claimed to have powers, especially of psychokinesis and telepathy, which have proved repeatable enough to allow more careful studies to be made under conditions in which fraud seemed very difficult. Ingo Swann and Uri Geller in the United States (and the latter here in the United Kingdom only last week), and Nelya Kulagina in Russia, have especially aroused the interest of the scientific community by the powers over mind and matter which they seem to possess. Uri Geller has undoubtedly made a strong impact on the community with his display of bending metal objects, especially spoons, knives and forks, by stroking them or even just thinking about them. What with this and his uncanny power of picking up in remarkable detail various pictures over distances of half a mile, he presents a very serious challenge to the standard scientific understanding of the world around us.
 One of the most important reasons why scientists have been loth to be involved in this area is that deceptions may be occurring. The tests done on Geller at the Stanford Research Institute (and by other scientists on various other “sensitives”) would seem to have been stringent enough to avoid such a possibility. But even if it was all done by magic, the trick of bending stainless-steel knives and forks is one of great interest to the metallurgist, especially since there seems to be an increase in the plasticity of the object at certain parts of it where this would not be expected.
 There is also the whole difficulty of reconciling these baffling phenomena, assumed real, with established science. Some scientists have been so disturbed by this that they have become very hostile; others have not been able to watch Geller performing, so as to avoid any chance of their becoming convinced. This “head in the sand” attitude has let into the paranormal area a number of people who are working to destroy established science. These are people who don’t like the present theories of physics or chemistry or astronomy because they don’t agree with their deeply-held belief in the more extreme paranormal phenomena such as communication with spirits of the dead or with intelligent beings from outer space.
  Such attitudes can only produce a split which will separate the scientific community even more widely from those heavily involved in the paranormal. Since the irrational and the mystical are very popular nowadays, it might seem that only science will suffer from this conflict. That would be a disaster: the increasing power of the cult of unreason could well help to lead humanity into another dark age if it is not checked soon enough.
 Those who hope to understand the world as rationally as possible do not need to be completely downhearted at these developments. For, with the appearance of these apparently well-developed powers, not only in the people I have mentioned but in others in the community too, it becomes possible to begin a careful analysis of how these phenomena actually occur. Once a causal explanation can be given, the rational view is saved. That is assuming that such a position can ultimately be arrived at. And it can only be achieved by careful thought and experiment.
 To begin with, we have to work in terms of the known areas of science – the four forces between the particles constituting us, the various forms of radiation transmitting energy from one point of space to another, the particular pieces of equipment that can be used to detect all this – to see if the causal factors are involved with effects which we can comprehend within the present general framework of scientific knowledge. It is quite clear that such an approach can only make sense of a limited range of paranormal phenomena. Communication with the dead would seem a difficult one to fit in, as would precognition or the transportation of material over long distances. That does not mean that they cannot occur, but to begin with it is necessary to investigate those phenomena which are closest to our scientific understanding, especially the metal-bending cases.
 That is now in the process of being done. The results will be of great interest to the scientific community. It is not possible to pre-judge the issue here, but there may be a possible extension of this work to telepathic phenomena, as well as to the area of psychic healing, which is also close to science, but difficult to understand. Many scientists are now seriously interested in these phenomena, and feel that they contribute useful work. We may hope the picture will become much clearer before too long: when the mists clear away, I trust it will still be a rational world that we observe.

 John Taylor, Professor of Applied Mathematics at King’s College, London, was in the studio to witness the metal-bending exploits of Uri Geller in a recent “Dimbleby Talk-In” (BBC 1). He has also conducted an investigation on Radio 3 of various paranormal phenomena.

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