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Project Alpha

Project Alpha was a famous hoax played on the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research, orchestrated by famous magician and skeptic James Randi.

Peter Phillips' experiments

In 1979 James S. McDonnell, board chairman of McDonnell Douglas and follower of the paranormal, awarded a $500,000 grant to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for the establishment of the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research. He intended the money to be used for serious study of psychic phenomena in a controlled setting. Physicist Peter Phillips decided to focus on spoon bending by children, technically known as "psychokinetic metal bending", or PKMB.

Before the testing had started, James Randi had written to the lab with a list of eleven "caveats" they should be wary of, and his suggestions on way to avoid them. These included a rigid adherence to the protocol of the test, so that the subjects would not be allowed to change it in the midst of the run. This had been the modus operandi of Uri Geller while being tested at Stanford Research Institute, whenever something didn't work, he simply did something else instead. Other suggestions included having only one object of study at any time, permanently marking the object(s) so they could not be switched, and having as few people in the room as possible to avoid distractions.

Randi also offered his services to watch the experiments as a control, noting that a conjurer would be an excellent person to look for fakery. Phillips did not take him up on the offer.

Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards

Throughout the early phases of the project, many people claiming to have psychic powers presented themselves to the lab. The vast majority quickly proved to have no such ability, or just as commonly, be using sleight-of-hand to make their "abilities" work. However after a short while it became apparent that two of the young men were in fact much better than the others, and the lab started to focus their energies on them, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards.

In fact the two young men were "plants" of Randi's, friends of Randi who he had met some time before. Both were amateur magicians who had no problems fooling the researchers with the simplest of tricks. The project had originally started with spoon bending, so the two quickly developed a way to accomplish this trick.

Contrary to one of the "caveats" Randi noted in his initial letter, the test setup included all sorts of spoons on the table, labeled with paper on a loop of string instead of some permanent marking. The two quickly learned to simply grab one spoon and bend it on the side of the table and then switching the tags with one hand, while at the same time pretending to study and "work" another spoon in the other hand. One particular camera operator proved to be able to catch them at this every time, even after they tried to get him to "zoom in on the action" and thereby not capturing what was going on in their other hand. They took to getting annoyed by his "bad vibes", waited until he was asked to leave, and then continued as before with a more suggestable and less competent cameraman. This was also a clear violation of one of Randi's "caveats", the test run should have been stopped at this point and recorded as a failure.

The two were so successful at spoon bending that several other tests were invented. In one they were given pictures in sealed envelopes and then asked to try to identify them from a list shown to them later. Astoundingly the two were left alone in a room with the envelopes, and although there was a possibility that they would peek, this was "controlled" by examining the envelopes later. The envelopes were held closed with four staples, which they simply pried open with their fingernails, looked at the picture, an then re-sealed by inserting the staples back into the same holes and forcing them closed against the table.

In another test the experiment was electronic in nature; they were asked to influence the burnout point of a common fuse. After they "worked it" with their mind, an increasing amount of current was run through it until it blew. The two proved to have amazing abilities in this test after a time, eventually causing the fuses to blow immediately once they "got used to it". In fact they were simply palming the already-blown fuses and then handing them back to the experimenters. They also found that by pressing down on one end of the fuse in its holder, or just touching it briefly, the instruments recorded unusual results that were interpreted by the experimenters as PSI effects.

Other examples included their ability to make digital clocks stop working properly (they popped them in a microwave for a few seconds), make images appear on film just by staring at the camera (they spit on the lens) and influence objects inside sealed containers (they blew through an opening).

Flawed procedures

In general the experiments were completely out of control, in every case the protocols were flawed in some way and violated one of Randi's suggested protocols.

When the initial experiment wouldn't work, they simply asked for it to be changed in some way. For instance, when the sealed containers proved too difficult to manipulate easily, they simply asked for them to modified with a slight opening to make it easier for their mind-rays to get inside.

Worse, no "proper" result was ever recorded beforehand, so anything that happened during the experiments was considered a success. The two had no problem making something happen every time, and thus the experiments were always successful!

Perhaps most tellingly, neither had ever been asked if they were magicians, something they had earlier agreed to answer truthfully if asked.

Revelation and aftermath

In mid-1981 the two were fairly famous in the PSI world, and even outside it, and Phillips was planning on releasing a full report of their powers at a PSI meeting in August. After the announcements in the press, Randi wrote to the lab again and stated that it was entirely possible the two were simply magicians, using common sleight-of-hand to fool the researchers. In July 1981 Phillips finally asked Randi to join him in designing some of the experiments. Randi then replied with a videotape showing him duplicating spoon and key bending, using the exact methods the two were using at the lab. Phillips agreed to show this video at the upcoming meeting.

Randi then started to leak stories that the two were a plant of his, which reached the lab a week later and were considered to be jokes. By the time the meeting was held the next month the story had been widely circulated. Reactions were varied, some thought it was simply a lie, others that Randi was pulling off a hoax, and still others concluded the entire experiment was dreamed up as a conspiracy by Randi and Phillips to discredit the field.

Upon returning from the meeting, Phillips immediately changed the test protocols. The two found that they were no longer able to fool the experimenters so easily, and in most cases, not at all. During this time the lab started releasing additional reports that seriously toned down the success rate. It was clear that they finally understood what was going on.

However at this point they were so famous that they were asked to travel widely and present their powers. Many other PSI investigators interviewed the two and gave glowing reviews, thus tainting themselves in the eventual aftermath.

Randi decided to finally end the project, and announced the entire affair in Discover magazine -- at that time a fairly in-depth magazine. The resulting crash of the parapsychology field was immediate and deep, many of the researchers who tried to get in on the feeding frenzy after the August meeting were now burned in the process. One went so far as to claim that they really did have psychic powers, and that they were now lying about being magicians! Although the McDonnell lab was by this time running considerably better experiments, the bad press was so widespread it was shut down.

Project Alpha may have been a successful experiment into the minds of PSI investigators, but it also cast a chill over the entirety of the field. Many other untainted experiments were killed off in the post-Alpha debacle, and today the field remains essentially dead.

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