Rhine And Reason

The following blog entry is something of a history lesson. It briefly highlights the work of Joseph Banks Rhine, formerly of Duke University in the United States, who is often cited as the father of modern parapsychological research. It should be of special interest to those who look to the psionic paradigm as potential validation of their existing skill set, though remains worth a read regardless of personal beliefs and dogma. That the results of his research have implications for the information model of magick, a powerful and yet illusive subsystem of modern occultism which is more focused on individual ability than ceremonial trappings, goes without saying as well.

Initially coining the term parapsychology to describe this new area of study, Rhine and his associates sought to move their core body of research away from the more spiritualistic concepts that had typified the field around the turn of the century. Paranormal investigations before this point had mostly been concerned with visiting mediums in darkened seance rooms, and tended to display only fraudulent results when the lights were switched back on. Sloppy methodology was rife, and academia had little respect for those within their ranks who openly professed such beliefs. Joseph understood that unless the existence of extrasensory abilities could be statistically proven under scientific conditions no real progress would be made.

Approaching the field with three main aims in mind, Rhine first sought to introduce standardised experimental procedures when dealing with research into the paranormal. Second, he fought tirelessly to promote parapsychology as a purely academic and scientifically valid area of study. Finally, both Joseph and his team wanted nothing more than to prove the existence of psi abilities in the general population. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts they were unable to achieve any of these goals within his lifetime. This legacy should not be understated, however, as the entire occult community is forever indebted to the body of research he created.

In an effort to explore unknown abilities within the general population, Rhine and his associates turned to Zener Cards as their primary tool. Cheap to manufacture and simple to use, each individual deck consisted of five images: a circle, a square, a cross, three wavy horizontal lines and a five pointed star. These studies consistently produced statistically significant results, with the number of correct guesses in some trials requiring odds of almost a million to one against chance. Such wildly unexpected successes eventually led to the foundation of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory and the Journal of Parapsychology, a scholarly publication which has remained in regular circulation to the present day.

In time the group would feel confident enough in the accumulated research to go public with their findings, laying out the case for the existence of psi in the book Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years. Sceptics and critics of Rhine’s work such as the statistician William Miller would counter-claim that fraud, misinterpretation of data and poorly implemented procedures provided a more realistic explanation for the groundbreaking results. Yet by the year of the book’s publication 33 individual experiments, consisting of almost a million trials, had been successfully completed. Of these a full 27 claimed to be statistically significant.

The researchers built upon this earlier success by testing members of the public for the ability to alter random effects through will alone. The participant, either by hand or later while utilising a simple mechanical device, threw two dice together twelve times during a single trial. They then concentrated upon influencing the outcome in such a way as to cause them to land with so called ‘high sides’, or a score of four or more on both dice. Of the 562 results reported by Rhine and his team, the average score stands at 5.53, some 300 total hits above the amount expected to be generated by chance alone. Of course, the skeptics remained exactly that, and repeated the very same accusations of fraud that had dogged the earlier experiments as well.

In fact, we must remember that this perceived unreliability reared its ugly head numerous times over the years. His assistant, Walter Levy, was let go for influencing the outcome of a trial, while many other researchers would be implicated in fraud as well. Interestingly, the scientific community has failed to replicate any of the original results as presented to this day, muddying the waters even further. By the time of his death in 1980, Joseph’s department had broken away from the faculty of Duke University and with the help of numerous wealthy backers he and his staff set up the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, which was eventually renamed the Rhine Research Centre in 1995 and continues to expand upon his work to this day.


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