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The Psychic World of Stanley Krippner: A quest to document ESP 

Wednesday, Apr 25 2012
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You can see home runs and you can see sex — and, for that matter, you can see apples falling out of trees. But, in a laboratory setting, you don't exactly "see" ESP. The field's most compelling work is the result of painstaking repetitions, complex tabulations, and "statistically significant" deviations from the "null hypothesis" — the outcome you'd expect due to sheer chance. To dismiss the results of successful studies as mere statistical flukes — be they Krippner's work at Maimonides or the decades-long, government-funded psychic experiments at Stanford — would veer into fanaticism. Yet beating the null hypothesis is one thing. It's another to explain how you did it — and then do it again.

In his overwhelmingly positive analysis of the Maimonides dream telepathy experiments, Yale's Irvin Child affirmed that Krippner's results were intriguing and the methodology was sound — but nothing was proven. "Statistical significance indicates only the presence of consistency," wrote Child, "and does not identify its source." Even repetitions of "the statistically significant outcome of the Maimonides experiments" wouldn't "establish the presence of the kind of anomaly called ESP." Repetitions, of course, have been hard to come by.

And this encapsulates the ongoing cycle of parapsychology. Over the years, one study after another has been released alleging that something is going on; last year Cornell psychology professor Daryl Bem made waves claiming experimental evidence of "precognition" when subjects guessed the location of erotic imagery behind multiple curtains at better-than-chance odds. Eventually, numerous studies are bundled together via a process called meta-analysis, which advocates claim indicates that something is really going on. But, sex and baseball analogies notwithstanding, nothing is happening on demand. So it's a debatable point that "the presence of the kind of anomaly called ESP" is any more established now than it was when the Dead were dropping by to visit Krippner at the dream lab. In the ongoing debate between parapsychology's advocates and counter-advocates, an agreement hasn't even been reached on the shape of the table. This ought to put Krippner — a unique conduit between the two camps and skeptics' favorite parapsychologist — in an awkward place. But it doesn't.

Rather than crossing swords with the critics of parapscyhology, Krippner often finds himself nodding his head — "really, I agree with about 95 percent of what they say. Nothing in parapsychology is guaranteed to replicate. So, really, I understand where the counter-advocates are coming from." He does not expect to see mainstream scientific acceptance of ESP in his lifetime. Sadly, he does not even expect to see the day ESP research acquires mainstream approval as a worthwhile endeavor. "And I am not losing sleep over this." Despite spending the bulk of his life in the field, it's just not something he gets worked up over. "I don't have any great emotional investment in this. The world is not gonna stand or fall based on one experiment or another. I have done what I can to expand the boundaries of science and human capacities. If [the argument for parapsychology] falls apart — so be it. If it is established, we've done what scientists are supposed to do."

SF Weekly asks Krippner to assess an eminent scholar's summation of the state of the field:

Since Charles Richet first applied statistics to psychical research [in 1884], no experimental procedure has emerged which would invariably produce the same results, no matter who followed it. Furthermore, no mechanism underlying [psychic phenomena] has been discovered.... Finally, no practical use of ESP or psychokinesis has been validated by laboratory research.

Krippner's milky blue eyes light up. "Yes!" he cries. "Yes, this is a wonderful summary! Who wrote that?"

Actually, he did. Back in 1977.

The professor smiles and then laughs. "But that was so articulate! I must have written it on one of my good days." He shakes his head. "Unfortunately, it's true. I will have to stand by my statement."


The odds of randomly guessing the five-digit number sequence 25132 are 100,000-to-1. That was the numeral parapsychologist Charles Tart randomly selected from the RAND book of random numbers. He then wrote 25132 in magic marker on a slip of paper that he placed atop a ceiling-level shelf in his sleep laboratory, where a woman who claimed to regularly undergo out-of-body experiences would spend the night hooked to an EEG. At 6:04 a.m, "Miss Z" awoke and called out the number 25132.

Tart published his paper in 1968. He says that his critics at that time theorized that Miss Z had entered the lab with a "collapsible miniature periscope" concealed within her vagina. This criticism was not repeated when Krippner attempted a version of experiment with a male student in his Brooklyn lab. The male subject subsequently claimed to have looked down at the shelf upon a print of a sunset. Whether he did so is uncertain — but it was a print of a sunset Krippner placed on the shelf.

Lab subjects floating outside their bodies and glancing down at shelves violates just about every established principal of physics. But nothing came of it. Neither psychologist delved further into the matter; Tart, in fact, didn't learn Krippner had bolstered his work for another 40 years.

The laws of the universe have not been toppled. But neither has Krippner's desire to explore alternative hypotheses. Yes, he concedes, his work in the dream lab was never adequately duplicated — but what about later analysis of his data claiming telepathic "accuracy was significantly better during calm nights with little sunspot activity and few electrical storms than 'stormy' nights marked by high geomagnetic activity"? How much sunspot and geomagnetic activity was taking place during those subsequent, failed attempts to match his success?

It's these kinds of gnawing questions that keep Krippner from agreeing with the skeptics 100 percent of the time. Yes, ESP debunkers' arguments are logical. But, unlike Krippner, they weren't struck with the realization his uncle Max was dead moments before grieving relatives phoned. Krippner lists this 1946 incident as "my first paranormal experience." They didn't envision the death of President Kennedy, as Krippner did, while undergoing a 1963 psilocybin session under Timothy Leary, months before the grim events in Dallas. "It's my own reinforcement history that has made me an advocate instead of a counter-advocate," Krippner says. "If I didn't have these personal experiences inside and outside the laboratory, my natural inclination would be extremely skeptical about all of this."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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