Dean Radin knows that parapsychology is hardly the most credible field of science. That doesn’t stop him from believing he can turn on a switch with his mind.
By Chip Brown

New York Times Magazine
August 11, 1996

It was data that pushed Dean Radin to the fringe of science, and it is data that keep him there, out on the edge, in that hard country where researchers in less controversial fields will often give him the Look. The Look is delivered by other scientists and fellow rationalists and even his ophthalmologist cousin, Barry, who bug one eye and clamp the other and twist their lips around as if trying to decide, in light of his data, whether to rethink space, time and causality or to get someone from the dean’s office to verify his Ph.D. (University of Illinois, 1979, educational psychology.)

AS the director of the Consciousness Research Lab at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Radin readily concedes that there are easier courses than having to steer between the die-hard skeptics who lump him in with astrologers and alchemists and the Madame Zodiac true believers who think that every bent spoon and levitated table is proof of the mind’s agency in the material world. Once, a psychiatrist whom Radin was dating brought him to a party of academics. When she made the introductions, she sounded like a curator with a rare insect specimen: “This is my friend Dean – he’s a parapsychologist!”

There are about 40 of these exotic creatures doing research in the world. Of those, Radin may be the most creative; certainly no one is running harder. He has published 165 papers, 44 in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and has 16 more in the mill. He has worked almost everywhere a parapsychologist can collect a paycheck. He spent six years doing industrial research at AT&T Bell Laboratories and four at G.T.E. He had a parapsychology fellowship at the University of Edinburgh and did stints at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab and at S.R.I. International, an institute in Menlo Park, Calif., where he took part in classified military research.He has served twice as president of the Parapsychology Association.

Radin and his colleagues, citizens of the scientific margin, console themselves with the stories of scientists who were ridiculed for theories that turned out to be right – like Galileo, who was forced to recant his support of the Copernican view that the Earth moved around the sun, or the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, who, in the 19th century, had the bizarre idea that doctors should wash their hands. Still, any mentor will tell you to get tenure first, or to keep a day job. In the lab, even if you get significant results, the effects often seem so weak that audiences just shrug and say, “So what?” And every day you march off into the mind-body problem, the swamp that most sensible scientists avoid lest they get mired in the epistemological muck familiar to any sophomore who has ever stayed up too late, drinking bad coffee and brooding over the graffiti in the philosophy department bathroom: “What is mind? Never matter. What is matter? Never mind.”

For more than half a century, a debate has raged among the scientific classes over the existence of psychic phenomena. Is there such a thing as mind over matter? Can energy or information be transferred across space and time by some mysterious process that on the face of it seems to confound the principles of biology and physics? Most scientists believe the answer is no – no, no, no, a thousand times no.

An adamant minority, parapsychologists point to scientifically stringent psychical research and say that the data speak for themselves, and then the wonder how a professional guild that subscribes to pieties about open-mindedness can behave like the clerics who wouldn’t peek into Galileo’s telescope.

For the most part, the debate between parapsychology, or psi, and the rest of science has been left to simmer in obscure journals and books. It occasionally surfaces in a conference, like the one in April at the University of Arizona at Tucson, “Toward a Science of Consciousness,” which was attended by more than 1,000 people, including mainstream physicists, neuroscientists, philosophers, cognitive psychologists and medical researchers. The program committee had agreed to include a session on parapsychology as long as a skeptic – in this case, Susan Blackmore, a psychologist from the University of the West of England – was part of the package. One of the three people carrying the standard for parapsychology was Roger Nelson, a psychologist at the P.E.A.R. lab who was presenting work he had published with Dean Radin.

That the suasions of rhetoric are part of making converts is something of a dirty secret in science, which has traditionally emphasized drama-free writing and monochromatic presentation on the ground that arguments should be won on data, not style. Radin, at one time a professional violinist, is very much at home on the stage. But today he took a seat in the audience, agreeing that it would be strategic, in this credential-conscious forum, to let his colleague from Princeton have the spotlight. Nelson laid out the work he and Radin had done – a series of experiments in which people tried to concentrate their thoughts to influence the output of a random-number generator, a standard tool in psychical research. But Nelson’s talents in the lab notwithstanding, his case for psi suffered for want of some old-fashioned showmanship.

The contrast was all the more striking when Blackmore offered her dissent. A lively, articulate speaker with a lemony English accent, she has long been something of a thorn in the side of parapsychology. She did her own psychical research for 20 years, but, unlike Radin and other researchers who have what are known as “golden hands,” Blackmore never produced what she considered evidence of psi functioning; having caught no fish in the river, she concluded that the river had no fish. Her apostasy included a dramatic defection to the Committee for the Scientific Claims for the Paranormal, a religiously rational group of skeptics.

AS Blackmore paced the stage, chopping the air with her hands, the audience awoke. Are there psi phenomena? She asked. Probably not. Do they tell us anything about consciousness? In her opinion, no. She ridiculed the notion that some people have golden hands and that others have personalities that somehow discourage the phenomena. “My experience,” Blackmore said, “Has been that when I looked in detail to some claim, I have always come to the conclusion that there was not any psychic phenomena. But what if I’m wrong? What if there are? Would that tell us something interesting about consciousness? I’m not sure.”

Parapsychologists, Blackmore said, are going in the opposite direction of neuroscientists. As she noted in the article from which her talk was drawn: “The more we look into the workings of the brain, the less it looks like a machine run by a conscious self… Indeed, the brain seems to be a machine that runs itself very well and produces an illusion that someone is in charge.”

While Blackmore spoke, Radin was working up a slow boil. He annotated a copy of her article, scribbling in the margin: This is nonsensical… Her term, not ours… Misinterpretation of mystical view… i.e., Sue is a zombie.

“I’m always upset when she talks,” he said afterward. “Her theatrical method is much more compelling than most talks about data by parapsychologists. The only thing we can do is demonstrate correlations. Something is going on in the head that is affecting something in the world.”

At 44, with a small, thin frame, watchful brown eyes, a severely receded hairline and a tidy mustache, Radin is a mix of curiosity, scholarship, technical expertise and sly wit. The day we met, he described the unforeseen benefit of using the phone in academia when your first name is Dean – who is going to put Dean Radin on hold?

After the conference, when he had calmed down a bit, he tried to delineate the difficulties inherent in a field that challenges the assumptions of mainstream thought. “Science is conservative,” he said. “People have these strange experiences. You can throw out the ones that might occur by chance, the subjective mistakes, but there are always a residue left over. What do you do about those? Scientists and skeptics would ignore them. That doesn’t mean they go away. These phenomena suggest that there are gaps in the way we know the world. Of course, those gaps are closely related to religion and mysticism, and that’s why scientists avoid them. Their assumption is that theology will take care of them, and that’s faith, and Q.E.D. faith is not science.

“I try not to be absolutist about anything. For some things, the common-sense view is adequate. For demonstrating gravity or building a house or explaining an internal combustion engine, you don’t need a more complicated way of describing reality. For other realms, the existing techniques fail and fail miserably. For some kinds of phenomena, a post-modern view is necessary. Some areas of science, like the shape of a cloud, are extremely difficult problems that were thought to be unsolvable until chaos theory came along. In some ways, the proponent-skeptic debate is a red herring. I believe in my data – what am I supposed to do, deny it? That would be pathological.”

The past dozen years have been especially trying for parapsychologists. The modern era of psi research got off to a bracing start in the 1960’s with the dream telepathy work of the psychiatrist Montague Ullman and with experiments using a random-number generator developed by Helmut Schmidt, a physicist at Boeing. But by the mid-1980’s, financing for psi research began to dry up, and cheating scandals rocked the field. The fierce criticism of psi research methods did help parapsychologists get their house in order. Procedures were refined, new experiments were devised and new data were continuously harvested. What really gave parapsychologists confidence was the introduction of meta-analysis, a statistical technique common in medicine and the behavioral sciences in which the results from many different experiments are combined and analyzed as a group. This gives investigators insights into broader patterns and provides a way of assessing the overall reliability of data.

For all of its usefulness, meta-analysis has hardly resolved the debate. Last November, the chronic controversy burst into public view when the C.I.A. announced that for two decades the military had been conducting exercises in “remote viewing,” the modern term for clairvoyance. The project, “Star Gate,” cost more than $20 million, and some 1,200 psychic tasks were carried out: psychical researchers sitting in California described the layout of buildings at a Soviet weapons factory and gave precise coordinates for aircraft lost in Africa.

Typically, two consultants hired to evaluate the C.I.A.’s data came to opposite conclusions. “Using the standards applied to any other area of science,” said one, “the case for psychic functioning has been scientifically proven.” Ray Hyman, the dean of psi skeptics, conceded that “the case for psychic functioning seems better than it ever has been,” but argued that “inexplicable statistical departures from chance, however, are a far cry from compelling evidence of anomalous cognition.”

So it goes. “There are four stages of adopting new ideas,” Radin mused. “The first is, ‘It’s impossible.’ The second is, ‘Maybe it’s possible, but it’s weak and uninteresting.’ The third is, ‘It is true and I told you so.’ And the fourth is, ‘I thought of it first.’ I believe an informed analysis over the years will show that parapsychology was stuck in stage 1 for decades. However, because of the weight of the data, around 1985 we began to move in to stage 2. Now we are firmly in to stage 2. I think around the year 2000 we will begin to move into stage 3, and maybe a few years later be firmly there. Stage 4 is inevitable.”

While academics continue to skirmish about the meaning and authenticity of psi phenomena, polls say the horse is already out of the barn. Nearly half of Americans believe in ESP; 145 million think they’ve had a psychic experience. It’s hard to know what to make of these reports in a credulous, God-fearing country up to its neck in angels and alien abductions. Hard-headed psi researchers know too well how easily magical-seeming experiences can have mundane explanations. And in an age when the tide of faddish belief seems to be running in full flood, all psychic claims can seem conspicuously wet.

The week after the conference in Tucson, I flew up to Las Vegas to spend a few days with Radin at his lab on the U.N.L.V. campus. I found him in his office, straightening a line of rubber dinosaurs on the windowsill and puzzling over an interview he had given to an English science journalist who had described one of Radin’s ideas – a switch that could be turned on with only the mind – as “wacky.”

The idea of a psychic switch came to him 11 years ago. He is now testing a prototype; theoretically, it could end up someplace like NASA, helping ground controllers re-establish telemetry links with wayward satellites. “You’re wacky before you succeed,” he said. “Afterward, you’re a genius.”

Radin is careful in describing his work to visitors. “I try to present what we do without the sensitive terms and metaphysics,” he said. “I emphasize that what we do is science. There’s nothing incompatible between being a proper scientist and exploring anything you can imagine.”

But why should anyone care about something that may not exist, that at times seems like another synonym for God? The short answer – and this is inevitably an article of faith on the part of Radin and all parapsychologists – is that psychical phenomena seem to extend what we can know about ourselves, our capabilities, what Radin calls “our deep interconnectedness.” Psi phenomena imply that our notions of singularity and separation are blinders that keep us from seeing the extent to which we embody some deeper reality, the underlying unity celebrated by mystics and saints and sundry enchanted screwballs.

Radin considers the ability to have a psychical experience a given – as a largely unconscious sensitivity or faculty that can be influenced by variables ranging from temperature and geomagnetic activity to beliefs and personality type. In one recent experiment, he delved into the phenomenon of remote healing, He had subjects make dolls in their likenesses out of Play-Doh and snippets of hair and other personal effects. He found that a “patients” blood flow and electrodermal activity increased during those periods when a “healer” in a room 100 yards away massages the patient’s doll.

Another experiment involved a series of “mass consciousness” studies designed to test the idea that when millions of people are focused on the same event they can affect physical systems. Radin monitored the fluctuations of random-number generators during climactic moments in the broadcasts of the Academy Awards and the O.J. Simpson trial; the results, he says, represented a significant deviation from chance and suggest that when large numbers of people concentrate on a common event or goal, they can increase the “coherence” and “order” in the world around them.

But what do these correlations mean? You can correlate the prevalence of smoking in the 1930’s with church attendance and divorce rates and draw some patently stupid conclusions about cigarettes and family values. Radin argues that correlations are only part of the spectrum of causation. “Some are more or less self-evident, and some are more complex,” he said. “The emerging view of complex ecosystems suggests that everything is constantly affecting everything else.”

The lab lies just down the hall from Radin’s office. There is equipment everywhere: Geiger counters, random-number generators, a pair of magnetometers. At any one time, Radin has half a dozen experiments running. He sat down at the keyboard of a Dell computer, which was hooked to a Robix robotic arm whose lobsterlike claw dangled over a red peanut M&M.

“O.K.,” Radin said. “Press ‘return.’ ”

I took a seat and hit the return key. Robix began to wheeze and twitch. At the back of the computer, millions of electrons were tunneling through two diodes, producing a random stream of ones and zeros. The computer samples strings of those numbers to create a Z score, a number representing a degree of deviation from chance. A low Z score – a low deviation from chance – will keep the robot arm where it is or reverse its progress. Middling Z scores will produce only incremental progress. High ones will inspire Robix to zip past all the intermediate physical positions and, like some overzealous new employee, snatch up the M&M and drop it into a little cup. (The M&M is meant to provide some motivation – participants in the experiment are promised that they can eat it afterward.) One thousand baseline trials had established that, unobserved, Robix would complete the job in an average of 25 steps – that is, it would stop at 25 incrementally different positions before finishing. Radin told me that it could be done, and had been done in a run with a human participant, in two steps.

Radin’s hypothesis is that a person’s mental intention can speed up the delivery of the M&M by pushing the random output away from chance. How intention might interact with a random flow of electrons to cause a nonrandom distribution, he doesn’t know. Nor does anyone else in the field. As you quickly discover in a parapsychology lab, mental concepts like intention, which seem so much a part of everyday life – inseparable from getting out of bed and making coffee and telephoning friends – become strangely chimerical under scientific scrutiny. Intention is as hard to measure, as tricky to define, as consciousness itself.

It is not just the foundation under parapsychology that starts to seem shaky, but the one under all psychological science. Nobody really understands how your mind’s intention to lift your arm translates into the arm’s lifting, but that’s not considered an example of psi phenomena. How do “ideas” cross from the subjective to the objective? Do they cross? Are there even “ideas”? Aren’t they “physical” in the sense that they correspond to states in the brain? This line of inquiry leads to epiphenomenalism, which considers intention to be an afterthought, a story the brain tells itself to describe the actions of the body.

So there you sit, an arguably more colorful zombie than planted before a zombie with no visible illusions about itself, one of you trying to project intention onto the other. How? Well, any way you want, apparently, as long as you don’t hit Robix, which as you quickly discover, is intensely tempting. Radin encourages participants to express emotions. I tried some hard frowning, as if Robix were a child cued to an authoritative face. Shazam! The obedient puppet plucked and delivered the M&M in 17 steps.

“That’s fast,” Radin said.

I thought of what someone like Sue Blackmore might say – that if psi is a largely unconscious faculty, as Radin asserts, why did I have to try to do anything consciously? Couldn’t a mind-matter interaction be established Justas easily between a random-number generator and a disembodied kidney?

Maybe Robix was picking up my confusion, because in the second round it started to equivocate, hovering over the M&M like some parody Hamlet paralyzed by a bountiful candy rack. I tried yelling “Come on!” but that was as effective as giving orders to a cat. Gentle swearing didn’t work, either. Finally, some truly profane language spurred on desultory progress. The performance – Robix’s? mine? ours? – was worse than chance: 35 steps. On top of that, Radin said I couldn’t even have the M&M: it was the last one in the lab.

It is a puckish fate that would post a parapsychologist in Las Vegas, if only because those who argue that psi is bankrupt often cite Sin City as exhibit A. If psychokinesis were real, wouldn’t roulette players be steering the ball to winning numbers?

Unlike most parapsychologists, Radin has actually studied what he thinks might be psi in the casinos, and why there isn’t more of it. The simple answer, he says, is that the state of mind most people attain in a casino isn’t conducive to psi. Radin lucked into a heap of data last year when Bernice Jaeger, the assistant general manager of the Continental Casino, called him up. She had read an article about his work in the U.N.L.V. alumni magazine and was intrigued by parapsychology – intrigued enough to let Radin have four years’ worth of the Continental pay-out data.

Radin decided to look at moon-behavior correlations, which some researchers put stock in and others don’t. To his surprise, he found that four out of five majot slot-machine jackpots in the Continental data occurred during a full moon. Looking at the daily pay-out rates, he found that overall, gamblers did a little better – about 12 percent – during a full moon.

As Radin saw these correlations, he felt the blood rushing to his face, and a twinge of nausea. He could already anticipate the objections to his results. So he worked the data again from the start, but his second analysis confirmed the first. Was this psi-enhanced performance, a faculty of the mind enhanced by conditions in nature? He couldn’t say. Whatever it was, it was subtle, and not all that meaningful in practical terms: people weren’t beating the house during the full moon, only having the pleasure of losing a little more slowly.

Las Vegas, Radin says, is the last place in the world he thought he would end up. He was born in New York City and spent his early childhood in Atlanta. He took up the violin, and by age 8, when the family moved to Springfield, Mass., he was on the prodigy track, practicing up to three hours a day. “The single word of my childhood was ‘creativity,’ ” he said. “ ‘Do something creative.’ I heard that a hundred thousand times.”

At 9, he built an abacus-like computer out of jelly beans; at 13, he stumbled onto C.E.M. Hansels book “ESP: A Scientific Evaluation” and was struck not by its dismissal of psychic phenomena but by the revelation that weird stuff could be scientifically studied. Radin played violin with the Springfield Youth Symphony during high school, then went on to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and then the University of Illinois for his doctorate.

In the late 70’s, a job on the technical staff at AT&T Bell Labs in Columbus, Ohio, was an experimentalist’s dream. “Anybody who wanted could do stuff, whatever you liked,” Radin recalled. He chose a psi experiment. “I wanted to focus on scientific anomalies because that’s where the history of science shows that breakthroughs occur.”

He devised some pseudo-random-number generator experiments and looked in to applied kinesiology. He ran double-blind and triple-blind trials with 58 adults using vials of sugar and sand and a dynamometer, which measures a hand’s gripping strength. The results startled him, and he noted in a report he published that they seemed “preposterous.” But data were data, and his data showed that people’s muscle strength decreased significantly when they held vials of sugar. “Parapsychology,” Radin said, “was the first thing I ever did that became more interesting the more I looked into it.” By 1985, he had been recruited to work on Government projects at S.R.I.

It is fair to say that many parapsychologists have had what could be called conversion experiences. Radin is not one of them. But the data continued to speak to him; at S.R.I., he had access not only to classified Government research in remote viewing but also to psi literature newly translated from Chinese and Russian journals. “ Was blown away,” he said. “ I had no idea that remote viewing could be that good, for real, on real-life targets. Mainly, I was surprised to see a long list of Department of Defense and intelligence agencies that had been funding the program for decades, with the highest level of support in the Government, and most importantly, the fact that within the agencies there was no question anymore that the basic phenomena were real. They weren’t funding for the hell of it – they found the stuff pragmatically useful.”

In stage 2 of Radin’s four-part formula about adopting new ideas lies the inevitable question: If this weak effect is real, what could it possibly be used for? Psychic switches and the like may turn out to be pipe dreams, and it certainly would be bathetic if realizing the vision of interconnectedness that has inspired psychical research since the days of William James had the practical effect of sucking more zombies into Las Vegas on the full moon.

A number of parapsychologists have been prompted to look at a much older manifestation of paranormal ability: the various forms of healing. In medical spheres, the role of the mind is gaining a currency it seems to have lost elsewhere. If “healers” can change the physiology of a patient, are they transmitting energy? Is that an example of bio-psychokinesis?

Radin is open to these and many other possibilities of applied psi, believing that he recognizes the crossroads where parapsychologists now stand. “We’re in a period similar to the 1800’s in classical physics,” he said. “Everything was about wrapped up then. There were just a few anomalies to explain – the photoelectric effect, black-body radiation, the anomalies created by quantum mechanics. Now with quantum mechanics firmly in place, we’re beginning to understand the implications of non-locality. Determinism and mechanism and materialism and positivism are starting to unravel. Unfortunately, there’s not much to replace them with, and that’s where the crisis lies. The universe looks less like a big machine than a big thought.”

Before I left Las Vegas, I stopped by the Continental Casino. It was the night of the new moon, absolutely the worst time to be gambling according to Radin’s correlations, but you can’t keep a moth from the flame. The Continental seemed down on its luck, sad to say, so I drifted into a few other places and finally ran aground on a roulette table in Bally’s, losing $100 in 10 minutes. I went to a cash machine and floated myself another hundred. I knew I hadn’t yet found the zone. All performers – heart surgeons, tennis players, gamblers, clairvoyants – acknowledge the concept of the zone, of having the feeling that time is slowing down and that events can be anticipated and that failure is not possible. But how? Psychokinesis, in some people’s view, is not a matter of bending reality to your will, but of trying to participate in it, of cooperating with it as you would with a dance partner.

It was apparent that the rock-faced English croupier at Bally’s was sick of being asked to dance. Before I knew it, she had taken another $100 from me. It was at that nadir that merry, curly-haired Curtis took over the shift. It seemed to me that certain numbers came up more frequently than they had with Mrs. Stonehenge. It seemed that he had a pattern and that I could tune into it. I bet on my hunches, and, lo, a modest tower of chips emerged. Then Mrs. Stonehenge returned, and my tower shrank. Sure enough, when Curtis returned, “his” numbers started hitting: 22, 25, 32.

Now it was after midnight, and the rail was crowded with conventioneers. One guy from New York was betting on 17 and continually losing. Again and again, he would put three or four chips on the number, only to see them raked away. “I can’t believe 17 hasn’t come up,” he cried.

And then he did something dramatic. He moved a giant stack of chips onto 17. Everyone at the table stared at the stack a moment, then started leaping in, putting more chips on top of his. I laid two on 17 and spread a bunch more around it. The corners and sides of 17 vanished under chips, and the chip skyscraper directly atop the number looked straight out of downtown Singapore.

Curtis gave the ball a whirl.

I don’t know if time slowed down, and I can’t say that I had any precognitive flash of where the ball would land. I can say that all the people at the table who had been pursuing separate strategies were suddenly bound together. We were projecting our intention as a unit, with much more at stake than a red M&M. I suppose at some level we were deeply interconnected, our consciousness massed and struggling to declare itself. And when the ball scrabbled and hopped and settled, and Curtis, with astonishment in his voice, called out “17!” a roar went up that rocked the far ends of the casino.

I later mentioned this incident to Radin. He said that he thought stuff like this happened all the time and that we saw only the most dramatic examples of it, when we were paying attention. Maybe it was psi at work. But how could he be sure? He was a scientist after all, and doubt was part of his gospel, maybe the foundation of it.

Later, Radin sent me a note. “For years,” he wrote, “I’ve thought about the question ‘Am I fooling myself?’ And I know the same issue has been thought about by my colleagues. Are we seeing things that simply aren’t there? I’ve reached the conclusion that I am not, although it is an ever-present danger that I pay attention to because I’m well aware of the psychological blinders we all wear.”

In truth, I don’t know why the ball landed on 17 on that turn of the wheel. If I had to take an official postion, I would say that the number just came up, that it was just luck. Off the record, I think maybe not; I think maybe we helped. I only know that the synchronicity, if that’s what it was, abruptly ceased when Curtis began to chatter about all the U.F.O.’s he had seen in the Nevada desert. There’s nothing like extra-terrestrial phenomena to bring you back to earth. It was time to cash out. My net for the night was 30 hard-won dollars. I walked back to my motel, drinking the cool air and the desert smell of sage. The money was a paltry sum, but it felt like more somehow, as if it had been stolen from the moon.