The Anomalists

The absence of proof is not proof of absence. —William Cowper (1731-1800)

Two early American anomalists, Robert Ripley and Charles Fort, challenged preconceived notions and got wealthy doing it in the early twentieth century. The ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ cartoon strip started its very own cottage industry of books, television shows, and museums here in America while Charles Fort promoted his magazine The Fortean Times upon the strength of the demand for the unusual. In 1919, Fort’s book The Book of the Damned promoted the idea that social values (what Kuhn would later call ‘paradigms’ and Polanyi, ‘implicit’ knowledge) could influence what scientists consider true or not. Early fans of Fort’s perspective and work even included the iconoclastic hard-nosed journalist H.L. Mencken.

In the 1960s, American physicist and writer William R. Corliss began his own documentation of scientific anomalies along much more conservative lines than Fort. Corliss claims to be at least partially inspired by Fort and went so far as to check some of Fort’s sources. Corliss concluded that Fort left more work to be done with regard to the cataloging of scientific anomalies (Corliss, William R. “A Search for Anomalies.” Journal of Scientific Exploration 16, no. 3 (2002): 439-453).

My second unanticipated discovery made me realize that anomalies were common in all branches of science. This happened in 1953 in the library at the University of Colorado when I was trying to find out what was known about the solar spectrum in the far ultraviolet. (The Physics Department had spectro-grams of the sun taken at high altitudes during flights of captured V-2 German rockets. ) Right next to a book I desired was Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned. Naturally, I had to take out that book, too. It turned out to be chock full of anomalies of all sorts, all of which Fort had extracted from major science journals prior to 1930. Fort designated these anomalies as ‘damned’ because they were generally ignored by mainstream science.”

In Unexplained! author Jerome Clark explains the difference between Corliss and Fort by saying that Corliss is “more interested in unusual weather, ball lighting, geophysical oddities, extraordinary mirages, and the like — in short, anomalies that, while important in their own right, are far less likely to outrage mainstream scientists than those that delighted Fort, such as UFOs, monstrous creatures, or other sorts of extraordinary events and entities” (Clark, Jerome. Unexplained! Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2003, p. 466-467).

For example, Corliss catalogs the claims from both sides of the infinite-dilution debate in chemistry. Homeopathy and medicine have long had an antagonistic relationship. Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine that treats its patients with dilutions of substances that are believed to cause effects similar to the symptoms presented. These remedies are diluted so much that none of the original substance remains.

When the authoritative scientific journal Nature published the controversial findings of J. Benveniste that claimed that a solution of antibodies diluted by a factor of 10120 triggered a response from 40-60% of the white blood cells tested, the anomalous idea that a remedy diluted beyond Avogadro’s constant can have an effect troubled mainstream scientists. For Corliss, the case of ‘infinite dilution’ should not be closed as “[t]oo many unexplained data survive. We doubt, however, that many scientists will rush to their labs to explore this subject. It would be too risky in the present scientific environment. Nature has, in effect, relegated ‘infinite dilution’ research to pseudoscience, whether deserved or not” (Corliss, William R. “Update on the “infinite dilution” experiments.” Science Frontiers (Online), no. 60 (November-December 1988).

While there are many more fascinating anomalies like this in chemistry and physics, it is in the field of psychology where anomalies have recently received much more attention. The study of the unusual or paranormal in psychology is called parapsychology, and it has begun to attract serious attention in academic and intelligence circles, although most people aren’t aware of the research. ESP (extra-sensory perception) has received the most attention.

One form of ESP that has received vast amounts of study and funding (both from public and private sources) has been ‘remote viewing.’ Remote viewing is the act of attaining information about some person, place, or thing in particular without engaging one of the five senses. Following the declassification of documents related to the 20 million dollar ‘Stargate Project’[1] [2] sponsored by the U.S. Federal Government in the 1990s, ESP surfaced as a subject that was no longer taboo to study. Not all the programs in parapsychology are governmental, however; some are actually thriving in academia. Rockefeller money funded the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (aka PEAR) for many years before they closed their doors. Goldsmiths, University of London, has the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit[3] and Garret Moddel at University of Colorado, Boulder, offers an ‘Edges of Science Course,’[4] among others.

One of the largest private institutions to seriously research parapsychology is SRI International,[5] based in Menlo Park, California. In 1970, the entity was spun off from Stanford University to become an independent non-profit research organization. The U.S. Government funded the psychic research at SRI until 1989. In 1974, two of its research scientists Hal Putoff[6] and Russell Targ published the first full-length peer-reviewed paper on telepathy in Nature titled ‘Information transfer under conditions of sensory shielding’ (Putoff, Hal, and Russell Targ. “Information transfer under conditions of sesory shielding.” Nature 252, no. 5476 (October 1974): 602-607).

In 1990, government funding for this type of research transitioned to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) under the direction of Dr. Edwin May, who had been employed in the SRI program since the mid 1970s and had been Project Director from 1986 until the close of the program.

In 1988, Edwin May and his colleagues analyzed all psi experiments conducted at SRI since 1973. The analysis was based on 154 experiments, consisting of more than 26,000 separate trials, conducted over those sixteen years. Of those, just over a thousand trials were laboratory remote-viewing tests. The statistical results of this analysis indicated odds against chance of 1020 to one (that is, more than a billion billion to one) (Radin, Dean. The Conscious Universe. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 107).

In 1995, the US Congress asked two independent scientists to assess whether the $20 million that the government had spent on psychic research had produced anything of value. One of the reviewers was Jessica Utts, a statistics professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of textbooks on statistics, who maintained that there had been a statistically significant correlation:

It is clear to this author that anomalous cognition is possible and has been demonstrated. This conclusion is not based on belief, but rather on commonly accepted scientific criteria. The phenomenon has been replicated in a number of forms across laboratories and cultures.

Utts, Jessica. “An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning.” UCDavis: University of California–Department of Statistics. 1995.

The other scientist, Ray Hyman, while skeptical said “I agree with Jessica Utts that the effect sizes reported in the SAIC experiments and in the recent ganzfeld studies probably cannot be dismissed as due to chance” (Hyman. “Evaluation of a program on anomalous mental phenomena.” Journal of Scientific Exploration, 1996 : 39-40). Despite this, the program was shut down in 1995 for failing to find convincing evidence that it had any value to the military or intelligence community.

Are the statistics used to study Psi phenomena creating a Type I error due to bad experiment design (the use of Gaussian distributions to approximate randomness as a benchmark)? Are the social sciences like ‘parapsychology’ plagued by the same problems as financial modeling? Maybe, our expectations of human abilities aren’t wrong; maybe, it is our understanding of randomness and chance that needs reformulating.

The unlikely financial event of Black Monday happened, despite overwhelming odds and so have the positive events in the test for remote viewing. Does this tell us something anomalous about the nature of reality (for example, that ESP exists) or does it tell us that our benchmark of measuring chance (randomness via a Gaussian distribution) is wrong? As outrageous as it may seem, I’d venture to say the latter would generate more opposition than the former since it would require a revision of an enormous amount of our current scientific ‘paradigm.’ That is to say, I bet that scientists would prefer to include parapsychology under the penumbra of science than revise all the inductive knowledge that has modeled chance using Gaussian distributions.

So if our analogy for chance is misleading, how else are these Psi phenomena being explained away? Famed neuroscientist Michael Persinger has noted correlations between repeated paranormal experiences and geomagnetic phenomena as early as 1985. He researched 25 published cases of profound paranormal activity and their correlations to global geomagnetic activity at the time of their occurrence. Every reported experience happened on days that exhibited geomagnetic activity that was less than the norm for those particular months of the year. The results were “commensurate with the hypothesis that extremely low fields, generated within the earth-ionospheric cavity but disrupted by geomagnetic disturbances, may influence some human behavior” (Persinger, Michael A. “Geophysical Variables and Behavior:XXX. Intense Paranormal Experiences Occur during Days of Quiet, Global, Geomagnetic Activity.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 61, no. 320. 1985).

Persinger went on to create what has come to be called the ‘God Helmet,’ a helmet equipped with electromagnetic field-emitting solenoids on the sides aimed at the temporal lobes of the wearer.

Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use – Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations – describing the presence as one’s grandfather, for instance – while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.

Hit, Jack. “This is Your Brain on God.” Wired (Online), November 1999

So it seems that there may be some sort of connection between the paranormal and EMF or geomagnetic field (GMF) activity. However, the questions persist: do electromagnetic fields create hallucinations or augment our perceptions, yielding way to a deeper level of awareness? Are psychic phenomena happening more often than what chance would predict or is our idea of chance wrong? Again, a position other than agnosticism at this point seems overreaching, even arrogant. Even noted author and proponent of scientific skepticism Sam Harris writes:

While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson’s 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists.

Harris, Sam. “Response to Controversy.” Sam Harris. August 11, 2009. (accessed October 10, 2009

Dean Radin is one of a cadre of statistically trained parapsychologists shaping a paradigm that is attempting to integrate psychic phenomena into mainstream science. Many of these parapsychologists leverage the ideas of quantum mechanics to validate their new paradigm. Radin says it very succinctly:

The fact that quantum objects can become entangled means that the common sense assumption that ordinary objects are entirely and absolutely separate is incorrect.’

Quantum theory implies that the universe is a single integrated system containing innumerable subsystems. Everything in it is ‘entangled’ with everything else. But what’s so ‘spooky’ about that? It is, after all, what the word ‘universe’ means. It’s only ‘spooky’ if the idea of being a part of a larger entity is disturbing to you.

We are trained from birth to see things as disconnected. Our language does it. Learning is as much learning NOT to see as it is learning to see. What a child sees initially is an undifferentiated whole. By careful training it learns to carve pieces out of that reality and look at them as separate material objects. But why should that be considered more ‘real’? It’s just one way of seeing. People with greater ability to communicate telepathically aren’t ‘gifted’–they simply haven’t been as thoroughly indoctrinated. Instead of asking why some people (perhaps everyone at birth) can communicate telepathically, we should be studying the mechanism that enables us to shut out that information most of the time.”

Slater, Philip. “Why What Frightens ‘Skeptics’ Frightened Einstein.” The Huffington Post. April 8, 2009.

Parapsychologists like Radin have been accused of misinterpreting the anomalies and abusing quantum mechanics to explain psi phenomena (e.g., see Alcock, James. “Parapsychology’s Past Eight Years: A Lack-of-Progress Report.” Skeptical Inquirer 8, no. 312. 1984). Again, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Anomalists are skeptical, even of skepticism itself, and as such seek evidence that challenges the status quo. This isn’t nihilistic; instead it is creative like the demolition of an old building in favor of a newer, better, and more accommodating one.

To paraphrase David Hume , the anomalist, “therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.” Ultimately, the anomalist stands opposed to the problems presented by the centralization of symbology and isn’t afraid to present unusual evidence or facts, dominant paradigm be damned. Why? This is as good of a guess as any:

More generally, we have learned that our colleagues’ tolerance for any kind of theorizing about psi is strongly determined by the degree to which they have been convinced by the data that psi has demonstrated. We have further learned that their diverse reactions to the data themselves are strongly determined by their a priori beliefs about and attitudes toward a number of quite general issues, some scientific, some not. In fact, several statisticians believe that the traditional hypothesis testing methods used in the behavioral sciences should be abandoned in favor of Bayesian analyses, which take into account a person’s a priori beliefs about the phenomenon under investigation (e.g., Bayarri & Berger, 1991; Dawson, 1991).

…In the final analysis, however, we suspect that both one’s Bayesian a prioris and one’s reactions to the data are ultimately determined by whether one was more severely punished in childhood for Type I or Type II errors.

Bem and Honorton. “Does Psi Exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer.” Psychological Bulletin, 1994.

[1] Other such covert research programs sponsored by the CIA went by names like ‘Sun Streak’ and ‘Grill Flame’.

[2] Under the Freedom of Information Act, you can request for STARGATE (remote viewing program) RECORDS that have been released up to the current date. The entire collection totals 89,900 pages in nearly 12,000 documents.




[6] It is rather interesting that three of the most influential figures within the remote viewing program, Puthoff and remote viewers Ingo Swann and Pat Price, have all achieved the high ranks within L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology system, with Puthoff and Swann achieving the highest rank at the time, Operating Thetan VII.