The Truth is Out There
& Ray Hyman Wants to Find it
An Interview with a Co-Founder of Modern Skepticism
By Michael Shermer
When considering the history of the modern skeptical movement three names
come to mind: James Randi, Martin Gardner, and Ray Hyman. Perhaps less
recognizable to the general public than the first two, Ray Hyman is the only
one of this group with formal training in the experimental sciences (although
the other two have more than made up for it with hands-on real-world
experience). That training has come in handy in his dealings with
pseudoscience and the paranormal, as Hyman has continuously (from the 1950s
on) conducted formal and informal investigations of all manner of
extraordinary claims, from Uri Geller’s ability to bend spoons to the CIA’s
remote viewing experiments. When the Department of Defense wanted someone to
investigate an Israeli spoon-bending psychic, they called Ray Hyman. When
James Randi wants advice on statistical analysis, he often calls Ray Hyman. Wh
en Scientific American Frontiers, the television series based on the
magazine, wanted advice on experimental protocol to test a water dowser, they
called Ray Hyman. When the government wanted an objective outsider to examine
the data from the CIA’s remote viewing experiments, they called Ray Hyman.
Hyman is meticulous in his research, careful in his analysis, and always
thoughtful in dealing with claimants, many for whom it would be generous to
call cranks and charlatans. For Hyman, however, he is more interested in how
we all deceive ourselves than in how a few scam artists deceive us.
Ray Hyman turns 70 this year, and with that he plans to retire from a long
and productive academic career as an experimental psychologist. But this
won’t slow him down in his quest to find the truth about psi, the paranormal,
and the psychology of belief, all of which began when he was a young boy
growing up in Everett, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. The second of three
children, Hyman’s older brother was killed at Iwo Jima in World War II, and
his younger sister recently retired from teaching college level art. His
father was a native-born accountant who had gone to medical school but
couldn’t stand the smell of the chemicals, and his mother was a dressmaker
who immigrated from Russia. The only Jews in their neighborhood, Hyman’s
parents fretted over “what the neighbors thought,” and for good reason in
those less enlightened and tolerant days before the war.
For the intellectually precocious Hyman, however, the religious impulse never
clicked. “When I went to synagogue as a kid I’d come home and say, ‘This is a
smelly place and the people there are crooks who come here and pretend
they’re religious. I never had a religious feeling.” The astute youngster
began his data collection early by noting that “when I lived in Italy, the
Catholic ceremonies were beautiful. I always felt I was missing something. I
guess this could make people feel good, but I’ve never had any of that. I
empathize with people who have, however.” He was bar mitzvahed at 13, but
“that was the end of it. I didn’t understand what was going on and I could
see the whole thing was a phony ritual.”
The product of a politically left-leaning home, Hyman was raised to worship
Roosevelt and the family observed “Uncle Joe” (Joseph Stalin) go from being
an ally and hero with the rise of Hitler, to being the arch enemy after the
war. “This struck me as weird,” as did his father’s sudden conversion, which
taught Hyman the power of belief systems: “I remember that when my brother
got killed my father suddenly announced that he was an atheist. It was over,
just like that. He had nothing to do with religion of any kind.” The death of
his brother also taught him something about the psychology of anomalous
experiences, and probabilities. His brother was on an LST on D-day and landed
on the beach at Normandy, survived, and was then shipped to the Pacific,
after which “I remember my mother had this dream that my brother was going to
be killed and sure enough, next day or two we got the telegram. I told her,
and I was only 16, ‘Look, you’ve been having that dream every night that he
has been in the service!’ And practically everyone during the initial
invasion of Iwo Jima was killed.”
Coupled to these youthful experiences was Hyman’s early interest in magic,
and the lessons he learned from his first hero—Harry Houdini:
When I was in high school I went to every spiritualist seance I could find in
the Boston area because I wanted to be like Houdini. I was going to expose
all this stuff. The first thing I noticed was that I was the oddball there;
it was mostly elderly women and a few elderly men…and me, this young kid!
They accepted me, more or less, and I took some spiritualist development
classes where they tried to teach us how to reach the spirit world. We were
assigned a guiding spirit. I don’t know why, but all the spirits had American
Indian names—one was Chief Looking Glass. After three or four sessions they
were all doing it and pretty soon I was the only one not apparently seeing
the spirits, so I finally dropped out.
It was his first official skeptical investigation that would lead to a
lifelong quest to find the truth that he knew was out there…somewhere. I sat
down with Ray at the January, 1998 “Gathering for Gardner Three” (G4G3), an
eclectic collection of mathematicians, magicians, mentalists, game designers,
scholars, scientists, and anyone interested in the varied intellectual
products of clever minds, who gathered to pay tribute to their collective
colleague and hero, Martin Gardner.
Skeptic: What sort of things did you discover about the world of spiritualism
in those early experiences?
Hyman: I’ll tell you a story. I was sitting in a general spirit-message
seance, performed as a come on to get to you into their private readings the
next day. People put their “spirit messages” in a basket, and this old guy,
blindfolded, pulled out the messages one by one, held them to his forehead,
and pretended to read them. He was peaking down his nose under his blindfold
and reading the message he had opened on the lecturn while holding a
substitute message to his forehead. Because he was older and his eyesight not
so good, he was blatantly pushing the blindfold up and away from his eyes as
he leaned forward to get a better view of the message. So I nudged the lady
sitting beside me, but she was looking at the ceiling. She looked at me,
looked around the room, then looked back up at the ceiling. I looked around
the room and it dawned on me that none of these people were looking at this
guy because they didn’t want to know it was a fake.
Related to this, every Wednesday night my father used to take me to
professional wrestling matches at the Boston Garden, which he loved. Here I
noticed that there was always a good guy and a bad guy, and I also wondered
how these guys could still see when they gouged each others eyes out ever
week, and that there were all these different “world” champions (how many can
you have?!), so it occurred to me that professional wrestling was also a
fake. One time, just for fun, I began cheering for the villain, and this lady
got up and came over and started swinging her purse and hitting me with it.
After awhile I tried to talk my father out of it but he didn’t want to hear
Skeptic: It was the willing suspension of disbelief.
Hyman: Right. People don’t want to know the truth behind the facade. Decades
ago this professor at Oregon State University put on this conference on
confidence games and cons of all kinds (he called it “The Big CONference”).
Jerry Andrus and I were there, and the Oregon State newspaper ran my picture
with the headline HE TAKES AWAY SANTA CLAUSE. I’ll always remember that
because it is a good lesson on how people react to skeptics. Skepticism is
always seen as negative, where people think we are are taking something away
but not putting anything back.
It reminds me of an experience I had as a professor teaching a course on
pseudopsychology in 1970, just before Geller came on the scene. At the end of
the course a student came to me and said “You know, Professor Hyman, as a
result of taking your course I now realize how I’ve been fooling myself. And
I see how others fool themselves as well. But, you know, I wish I had never
taken your class. I hate your guts.”
Skeptic: He was serious?
Hyman: Oh, yes, this was no joke. I realized again that people just don’t
want to know. Many years later, for example, a well-known magician came up to
me and said he needed to talk to me. Paul was a very active skeptic, and at
that time he was dating this woman who gave “readings” to people in
Hollywood, but presented it as real. And he said to me, “You know, Ray, there
is an ethical issue here. Do I have the right to try to convince them that
they are being fooled? Is this fulfilling some purpose for them and I’m just
taking it away?” That is a real issue for skeptics.
Skeptic: What is your answer to this ethical question?
Hyman: My answer explains why I’m always called the softy of the skeptical
movement. Randi’s approach is to get out there and confront them. I’m the
nonconfrontational skeptic. I’m the good cop, he’s the bad cop. I’m in the
ivory tower, Randi’s out there in the trenches. I can afford to be flexible.
He can’t. Out there you can’t give them any wiggle room. My approach is that
I don’t want to shove anything down anyone’s throat. But if they want to know
I’m willing to tell them about it.
Skeptic: You’re not the proselytizing type?
Hyman: No. In fact, one of the main things I have against almost every
religion is the proselytizing aspect of it. I tell them, “Look if it is so
good why do you need to sell me God?”
Skeptic: You’ve been interested in magic all your life. What is the
connection between magic and skepticism for you?
Hyman: It is through magic that I got into skepticism. Most magicians are
skeptics (unlike most mentalists, who tend to believe in the paranormal). So
I always took it for granted as a magician that I was also a skeptic.
I did my first magic show when I was seven years old. My father gave me a
magic kit that I took to school for show and tell, and the teacher thought it
was good enough that she asked me to do it for a parent-teacher association
meeting. So I did that and they gave me $5, which in those days was a lot of
money. So I had a business card made and the printer called me “The Merry
Mystic,” because we lived on the Mystic river at the time, and he put a
rabbit and a hat on the card, so I was now a real magician. And I bought a
top hat and the next week the library hired me for a story hour show, and it
took off from there. I started getting shows regularly and hanging out at
magic shops, and really learned the craft. And I did shows for money all the
way through my last year of college at Boston University.
Skeptic: Is this how you got into palm reading?
Hyman: Well, when I was early on in my magic career I realized I could make
more money doing mentalism than magic. People would pay me at least three
times as much for a mentalism show than for a magic show. The reason is that
they assumed the magic tricks were tricks, but that mentalism was real. I
would always come out and tell them at the beginning, “Look, I am going to do
something here but I’m not claiming any special powers, although I have
practiced this a lot, so you decide what is going on here.” And with this I
never got challenged. I was always considered a mind reader. After every
show, and I was just a little kid, these women would take me aside and tell
me about their personal lives and I was blushing, and they wanted a private
reading with me. I realized that I only needed to get one little fact about
them and they would attribute all kinds of powers to me.
Skeptic: How have you used this to better your understanding of the
psychology of deception?
Hyman: When I was studying psychology, the “psychology of deception” was
really the “psychology of conjuring.” The assumption was that if you
understand how conjuring works you understand deception. But as I worked on
an article about this, I realized that this cannot be the case because there
is a big difference between conjuring and deception in everyday life. In
conjuring, the last thing you want is for people not to realize they are
being deceived. When I’m up there on stage, if people do not realize they
have been deceived then I have failed as a magician. But in real life scam
artists try desperately not to let the person know they are being deceived.
Good con games take people over and over.
On the flip side, if people know they are being deceived and you can still
deceive them through magic, that is a powerful lesson.
Skeptic: What did you learn about yourself in doing magic and mentalism?
Hyman: Going back in time, I did palm readings for years, and for awhile I
had become a gung ho believer. I started as a skeptic but as I added things
to my repertoire I became a believer. I couldn’t travel as a young magician
so I was forced to play at the same places and had to come up with new things
for them. This is when I took up palm reading. I watched people in the
carnies and got to know them and picked up a lot of things from them. I
didn’t want to do sword swallowing or anything like that, but with palm
reading you could tell people all sorts of detailed things about them, like
what point they had a heart attack, what age they were when they had a
problem with their head, and so on.
By high school, even though I was a skeptic about most things, I believed in
palm reading because it seemed plausible to me since the palm is physically
connected with the body.
Skeptic: How did this tie in with your studies at Boston University? Were you
a psychology major?
Hyman: Actually I was a journalism major. This was 1946 and out of a High
School class of about a thousand, less than 20 of us went to college. I
didn’t know what to major in, but my guidance counselor gave me a vocational
test and he told me I should be a journalist. In my second year in college
they gave me an assignment to interview a reporter, which I did, but this guy
told me that the last thing you want to do to become a reporter is to take
journalism classes! So I switched to psychology.
I distinctly remember an incident at Boston University—one of those you
always remember—when the psychology department chair called me into his
office one day, closed the door, sat me down, and proceeded to dress me down
for doing palm reading, for taking people’s money under false pretenses, that
there was nothing to this paranormal stuff, etc. I sat there listening to him
and after he calmed down I said, “would you like me to read your palm?” So he
stuck his hand out and I did a reading on him. Then I left. Two weeks later
he called me back into his office, shut the door, sat me down, stuck his hand
out, and said “tell me more”! This really showed me how powerful this stuff
And in another one of those unforgettable incidents, the late Stanley Jaks
convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite
of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this
woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example, I said, “well,
you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. In this particular case,
though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually
I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback,
and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But
it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She
told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this
with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going
on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself.
This was one of the reasons I went into psychology—I wanted to find out how
it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived. In fact,
this is one of the reasons why I am not as confrontational as Randi, because
I actually see that “but there for the grace of God go I.”
Skeptic: You were a newly minted Ph.D. in 1953 from Johns Hopkins University.
Throughout the next decade, what were some of the things you investigated
that led to the founding of the modern skeptical movement?
Hyman: I was at Harvard for five years and there taught a class on con games,
psychics, and so forth. Then I worked for three years in private industry,
and after that I moved to the University of Oregon in 1961. I remember there
was this lady in Russia who claimed she could read with her fingertips while
blindfolded. An American woman who apparently could do the same thing was
featured in Life magazine, and there was this American psychologist who was
applying for grant money to study this woman in more detail. He wanted to
figure out how she did it so he could train blind people to read this way. As
a result, the National Institute of Health formed a committee to investigate
her before they granted the funds, and they asked me to be on this committee.
So we went to Flint, Michigan where this lady lived, and we watched the
psychologist test her. The procedure was that he had her put her hands into
these sleeves, and these went into a box where the reading material was, so
there was no way she could be doing the nose peek technique. He would put
inside the box three plastic chips, two of one color, one of a different
color, and she could supposedly tell which one was the odd colored chip. He
had previously tested her over thousands of trials and she was highly
significantly—way above chance.
Well, when we met the psychologist he was eager to convince us he was using
very strick controls, and he wanted us to help him make sure he was doing
everything right. But we told him to do exactly what he had always done so we
could see if there were any flaws in the procedure. But he added additional
controls to convince us of how careful he was. Well, it turned out that when
he added these controls to his procedure the lady was right at chance. He
started making excuses, and so forth, so I told him to let me try it. I did
and I got 100% right!
Skeptic: How did you do that?
Hyman: I learned in my research that it is very important when investigating
these sorts of claims that you see everything that is done before the actual
test. I had been there all day observing the psychologist, and I noticed that
when he put in a new set of chips, he put the odd chip down first!
Skeptic: Obviously he didn’t realize he was doing this.
Hyman: No, and he was quite surprised I was getting it right every time. So I
explained what I was doing. We couldn’t be sure that she was consciously
doing this—she might have unconsciously picked up the cue—but obviously
something like this was going on.
Skeptic: Was this the start of the skeptical movement?
Hyman: Actually Uri Geller gets credit for that. In December, 1972, I was
sitting in my office grading final exams when I got a phone call from a
Colonel at the defense department, Austin Kibler, who worked in what was then
called the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense,
set up by President Kennedy. It was sort of the Buck Rogers part of the
defense department dealing with futuristic technologies. Kibler had a Ph.D.
in psychology so we knew each other a little, so he called and said “Ray,
could you drop whatever you are doing and go on a mission for us to the
Stanford Research Institute?” I said, “No, I’m grading exams.” But he
insisted. “This is very important. There is this psychic down there. I know
what you’re thinking, but this guy is not like any other psychic you have
ever seen. He can do anything most psychics can do, but he can also bend
metal with his mind.”
I said something incredulous, so Kibler responded, “I don’t necessarily
believe, but I’ve watched him myself and let me tell you what he did. In a
room of scientists, not just psychologists (he meant so-called “real”
scientists like physicists!), he asked to borrow a ring. He said ‘Don’t let
me touch it.’ He didn’t touch the ring, which was placed in the middle of a
table. He concentrated on it and the ring stood on end, split, and shaped
itself into the letter S.” When I inquired more about it, it became clear
that Kibler had not actually witnessed this himself, but had heard about it,
and this was another lesson to me about what actually happens and what gets
So Kibler said he wanted to send a parapsychologist and me down there, along
with someone from the defense department, to test this guy named Geller. His
reasoning was that if he was a fake I would detect it, but if he was real it
would take a parapsychologist to see it! And he wanted me to go right away
because he said Geller was very volatile, very temperamental, and that at any
moment he might just get up and leave. So he begged me to go and the next day
I found myself in the presence of Uri Geller. And, frankly, I wasn’t very
But before I went down I called Martin
Gardner because I had never heard of Geller, as had no one else in this
country. He had never heard of him either, so I called Amos Tversky in
Israel, because Geller was from Israel, and he knew of Geller and said as far
as he knew Geller was a charlatan and a trickster, and he gave me some backgro
und about how Geller had worked the night clubs and stuff like that. Now, at
that time Geller wasn’t very good. He couldn’t bend keys as good as Randi
could, for example, but he got much better with practice.
Skeptic: Did you figure out the ring effect?
Hyman: Yes! When I got there they introduced me to Geller, who had already
met with the parapsychologists Russell Targ and Harold Putoff, and they
showed me records of some experiments they had done with Geller over the past
week. I kept asking them about this ring effect. Turns out it was not a
finger ring, like I thought, but these brass rings, and they showed me one
that was twisted into a figure 8, and they said they measured the amount of
pressure it would take to bend it by hand. So I asked them why they were
talking about him bending it by hand, when he supposedly bent it with his
mind. And they said, “Oh, he can do it either way”! So I said, “did anyone
actually see him bending this brass ring without touching it?”
It turns out that none of them had actually witnessed this great feat of
mental metal bending. This whole story about how the brass ring got bent was
from Geller himself! Geller told them he did this, and they just believed
them. It was amazing. In fact, half the things I had heard about Geller, came
from Geller himself, not from someone witnessing them. He would do something
simple like bend a key using a standard magic effect, then say, “Oh, don’t
count that, usually I can do this” and he would hold up a key twisted in a
cork-screw fashion. Then the parapsychologists would tell everyone they saw
him bend the key like a corkscrew, instead of what they actually saw. It was
Skeptic: So there was both deception and self-deception going on here.
Hyman: It was part of their own folklore. When they would tell a story you
were never sure if they saw it or only heard about it. And when you press
them it usually turned out that no one had ever witnessed Geller doing these
One of my favorite examples is in the annals of autobiography, in particular
that of Piaget. He tells a story in his autobiography that his earliest
memory in life was being on a tram with his opare, and she was taking him in
a stroller to a park, as she usually did, and these men tried to kidnap him
and she fought them off. Piaget said he always remembered that event. In his
60s or 70s, when he was writing his autobiography, he got a letter from this
woman, saying how she felt guilty about something she wanted to get off her
chest before she died. In this letter she told Piaget that this event never
happened. It was a story she made up.
Skeptic: It was a false memory!
Hyman: Piaget explained that it had become part of the family lore and he had
incorporated it as one of his memories.
Skeptic: It’s like when people see a magic trick they report seeing something
very different from what actually happened.
Hyman: The parapsychologists had no doubt that Geller was for real, but it
was obvious what was going on.
I then wrote a long, 13-page letter to Martin Gardner describing everything
that happened with Geller (I always share these things with Martin because he
his great at keeping confidences), but for some reason this 13-page letter
got out. A mutual friend was visiting Martin and he saw the letter and,
without telling Martin, photocopied it. Within a few weeks the letter had
been distributed all over the place and it got back to SRI and they were
threatening to sue me, and Time magazine wanted to quote it, and so forth.
And in the midst of all this James Randi got a hold of the letter, and that’s
how he got involved with Geller.
The next month SRI took Geller to New York to visit with Time magazine and
other places to try to get some publicity for him, in order to generate
research money from other sources because they knew my report for the defense
department was not going to be positive. So Time contacted Randi and brought
him up there, who by now had my letter. They disguised Randi as a reporter
who was in the room when Geller was doing his routine. The Time article came
out in February or March, 1973, and this was the first big American story on
Geller, called “The Magician and the Think Tank,” and it was a debunking
story. So Geller’s first exposure in this country was a complete debunking.
And he took off from there!
Skeptic: It didn’t phase him at all.
Hyman: No, in fact, it launched him! And as a result of this about a year
later Randi called me. We knew each other through Martin Gardner, but I
didn’t know him personally (we were both disciples of Martin, of sorts), and
at the time he was traveling with Alice Cooper as a mad doctor. They came to
Portland and I got a call from Randi to come up to see the show, that Alice
Cooper wanted to meet me, and so forth, so we got to talking and Randi really
wanted to do something about Geller.
As a result of this conversation, Randi, myself, and Martin Gardner formed
an informal group, called SIR—Scientists in Rationality—an obvious play on
the Stanford Research Institute. We started holding informal meetings, like
at Martin’s house, but none of us are administrators so we did a lot of
talking but not much action. Then a Sociologist at the University of Michigan
named Marcello Truzzi heard about our group, and he contacted us and wanted
to be a part of it. At that time Truzzi had a newsletter he called The
Zetetic which was simply a way of keeping academics informed about all this
oddball stuff we were interested in, and he offered to do a newsletter for
our group. So we took a look at a few issues and the three of us (Randi,
Martin, and myself) said “Ya, why not?”
At about this time, Paul Kurtz was working at the American Humanist
Association and he had managed to triple the circulation of The Humanist, and
he put together the anti-astrology statement that got a lot of attention, and
on an elevator he and Truzzi were talking and decided to form a group and
they gave it that horrible name I can never remember, and no one else can
remember—The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal—which our enemies call the “PsiCops.” Then,Truzzi brought Randi,
myself, and Martin into the group, and they decided to have the first
organizational meeting in 1976, in conjunction with a humanist meeting that
was already taking place at the State University at Buffalo. For some reason,
however, Truzzi neglected to put my name on the group, so I wasn’t invited.
Then, when they realized I was one of the original founders along with Martin
and Randi, they decided to invite me. I think Martin and Randi insisted on
it. But, everyone else had their way paid to the conference except me. And
they refused to pay my expenses because they said I wasn’t in the original
plans, so it ended up that even though I was one of the three original
founders, I had to pay my own way to this meeting! Also there were Phil Klass
and Dennis Rollins, who would become founding members.
Skeptic: This, then, was the founding of CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer?
Hyman: Yes. Truzzi’s The Zetetic newsletter was published two times the first
year as a small-sized journal, and the first issue dealt with the astrology
controversy surrounding the so-called “Mars Effect.” Well, Rawlins and Truzzi
didn’t really get along all that well, and Rawlins thought Truzzi was a
closet Satanist or something, and Rawlins left the group a few years later
and the problems surrounding the handling of the Mars Effect controversy.
Complicating matters, Truzzi wanted to make the publication an academic
journal, giving all sides an equal chance to speak their mind on any given
issue, but others in the group were afraid that this could lead to the
journal being taken over by the other side. The controversy over the purpose
and goals of the magazine, plus personal differences with Paul Kurtz,
resulted in Truzzi’s resigning as editor and leaving CSICOP. He was replaced
by Ken Frazier, who was at that time an editor of Science News.
Making matters worse, The Zetetic featured an article on Scientology, and
shortly thereafter some scientologist got a hold of CSICOP letterhead, wrote
a bogus letter on it and sent it out to various people, making CSICOP really
look like we were witch hunters and loose cannons. (We found all this out a
few years later through the Freedom of Information Act.)
Skeptic: What would it take to convince skeptics that there was such a thing
as, say, psychic power? And here I am thinking of Alfred Wegener, who
theorized about the possibility of continental drift in the 1920s, but it
wasn’t until the 1960s that the theory became viable because it was not until
then that the mechanism of plate tectonics was shown to be the driving force.
In other words, evidence of continental drift was not enough. Scientists
needed a mechanism for how it could happen before it became accepted. Is this
the case with psychic power? Even if there were evidence, would we still
demand a brain mechanism before accepting it?
Hyman: That’s right. I think of our research as a three-legged stool: 1.
Theoretical underpinning; 2. Empirical evidence; 3. Research program.
Parapsychologists have a research program, but they have neither empirical
evidence nor a theoretical underpinning.
Another thing that bothers me is the idea of a financial challenge to
psychics. Scientists don’t settle issues with a single test, so even if
someone does win a big cash prize in a demonstration, this isn’t going to
convince anyone. Proof in science happens through replication, not through
single experiments. Randi understands this, and he is careful to say this,
but it gets lost in the PR effort. But many in the scientific community
worship Randi because they wish they could be him. The wish they didn’t have
the constraints of academia. He’s out there in the trenches, on the front
line, and they envy him for that.
When I was involved in investigating the remote viewing experiments by the
CIA, I had a similar discussion with Jessica Utts and Ed May, who wanted to
know what it would take to convince me. I told them a story about a guy in
St. Louis who said he could do remote viewing, but when we set up the
experimental protocol he demanded that if the test came out positive I would
say “I now believe.” I explained to him that “belief” is subjective, and I
talked about how at magic conferences I have fooled even the best magicians
in the world, and they have fooled me, so someday a psychic is going to come
along and do something that I cannot explain, but this does not mean there is
a real psychic effect here. It may just mean that I’ve been fooled. When I
investigated the Ganzfeld experiments, for example, it took me three years to
figure out what was going on.
Skeptic: Are there some things you can partially explain but that there is
still an element of mystery?
Hyman: Oh sure. In the CIA remote viewing experiments, for example, I can
find some flaws, but their statistics look fine. This is not enough, however,
to say that there is a real effect here. We have to wait and see if these
experiments are replicated. Dean Radin, in his book The Conscious Universe,
took me to task for saying that I would never believe. Well, I didn’t say
that. I just explained that these very rare cases where there is some
statistical anomaly do not prove a real psi effect.
In Ed May’s remote viewing experiments, for example, he discovered that when
he was the judge he got much better results than his other judges did
because, he said, he knows the peculiarities of the answers of the remote
viewers whose answers were never very specific, so he could interpret them
one way or the other.
Skeptic: Did you make a conscious choice to become an academic scientist
mainly interested in testing claims, rather than an activist out there
Hyman: I discovered early on that by playing the scientific game I lost the
PR game. As a scientist I have to qualify my answers, and this does not make
for good PR or good sound bites. For example, when the CIA remote viewing
experiments story broke and Nightline had a show on it, I was supposed to be
on but Ed May objected to my participation so they got the head of the CIA on
instead. But he didn’t really know the statistics or the research protocol.
And even when I did do some shows on it, like Larry King Live, they mostly
wanted to talk about the waste of tax payers money. They definitely did not
want to talk about the data, the research methods, or the statistics.
Skeptic: What does the future hold for skepticism?
Hyman: Good scientific research is very costly and time consuming. Given
limited resources, I think we get more bang for our buck if we focus on the
media and education—the opinion makers—instead of serious research. I think
we need to be a credible source of reliable information.
Frankly I think it is useless to offer cash prizes and debunk psychics on
television. You can do that until doomsday. The public doesn’t gain anything
from this. I think we need to educate the public on the reason why these
things appear real, on why we believe, on how we are deceived. These are
epistemological questions. Most of us most of the time make decisions not on
logic or science or rationality, but on emotion. Debunking without lessons is
a waste of time.
I like to tell the story of the 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday, who
took time out from his scientific research to investigate table turning and
spiritualism. Members of Parliament were actually consulting these tables for
advice, so Faraday proposed a test, not to debunk these spiritualists, whom
he believed were sincere, but to see what was really going on. On a table he
structured layers on layers on layers of table tops tied together with
elastic bands, and down the side of them he put pencil marks. If they were
pushing the table from the top, the pencil marks would leave broken hash
marks down the side. He also put a reed on the side to see if it moved. When
the spiritualist’s eyes were opened, the reed did not move. When their eyes
were closed, the reed and table moved! Faraday was actually conducting the
very first biofeedback experiment. He showed not that these spiritualists
were fakes, but that they were unconsciously moving the table themselves.
They were self-deceiving.
The purpose of this story is to show that, in my opinion, it is more
interesting, and in the long run more important, to show unconscious bias
than outright trickery. Obviously the latter is important in the short
term—we need to do both—but in the long term I want to learn something about
the psychology of belief.