The 2017 publication of Transcendent Mind: Rethinking the Science of Consciousness by Imants Barušs and Julia Mossbridge (B&M) by the American Psychological Association (APA) represents something of a landmark in parapsychology. For one thing, it carries the imprimatur of publication by the APA. In fact, it is one of only three books listed in the APA’s Fall 2016 publications catalog for Basic and Experimental Psychology (the other two books are guides for succeeding in academe). This is an impressive honor for parapsychology, which has been increasingly successful in placing its publications in “mainstream” academic journals, due in large part to Daryl Bem’s success in publishing his paper on “feeling the future” in the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2010. (See James Alcock, “Back from the Future: Parapsychology and the Bem Affair,” and editor’s column “Why the Bem Experiments Are Not Parapschology’s Next Big Thing,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2011.)
One might think that this increasing openness to parapsychological articles reflects parapsychology’s maturation as a science. However, it could instead be due to a lowering of the APA’s scientific standards. The APA is an organization of clinically oriented psychologists, whereas experimentally and scientifically oriented psychologists tend to belong to the rival Association for Psychological Science.
Publication by the APA will give Transcendent Mind a high visibility in the academic community, which is unfortunate because the authors adopt an extremely credulous approach to their analysis of the parapsychological literature. For instance, they enthusiastically cite Lee Polus’s seminal paper “From Egg to Chick in 14 Minutes” on the paranormal acceleration of the growth of unfertilized chicken eggs. Here is the relevant excerpt from page 142 of B&M’s book:
Tomaz [a psychic] asked for 15 [unfertilized] eggs to be purchased at the local market and brought to him. Once these had been placed on the table in front of him, he appeared to enter an altered state of consciousness, in which his eyes were “open but unfocused.” One by one, he slowly held each of the eggs against his forehead, before cracking them and spilling their contents into a flat bowl. He then hyperventilated with “puffed” chest and “taut and crimson” face” and stretched his arms with “palms down over the eggs.” Within 5 minutes, the yolks solidified and darkened until the “fetal forms of baby chicks could be identified”. . . At 7 minutes, “the internal organs of the embryos could be seen through thin membranes.” And at 9 minutes the cheeping of baby chicks could be heard. Nine of the 15 eggs hatched, four survived longer than 3 days, and a couple of them lived in the backyard until they were eaten for dinner.
B&M state that “a reader could react by thinking that these [events] sound like magic tricks.” (You think?) Needless to say, these events were witnessed by multiple observers.
Of course, no parapsychological experiment would be complete without a failure to replicate. One attempt, filmed by an Australian film crew, resulted in only well-defined internal organs. Note that precisely this result could be obtained by cracking incubated fertilized eggs and pouring them into a bowl. This is very disappointing, as this research held out the promise of solving the world hunger crisis. A similar trick might have been used in the first experiment.
B&M also cite Stephen Braude’s work on the “Gold Leaf Lady,” whose primary gimmick was to “materialize” golden leaf paper on her body, clothes, and surrounding objects. Laboratory testing showed that the paper so materialized appeared to be ordinary, commercially available brass foil. It should also be noted that brass foil or aluminum foil can be rolled up in a tiny ball, making it very easy to hide (as well as an excellent prison for dog ticks, by the way). The Gold Leaf Lady’s materializations sometimes occurred under poor observational conditions, such as when she was shopping and dining out. For some strange reason, attempts to film the moment of materialization failed. Stephen Braude, it should be noted, is the editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration, one of the major journals in the field of parapsychology, and is a past president of the Parapsychological Association.
B&M attribute partial success in a laboratory psychokinesis experiment to the intervention of “discarnate entities,” and they propose that human beings harbor astral bodies and that those astral bodies in turn harbor higher level astral bodies and so on ad infinitum. B&M compare this structure to a nested set of Russian dolls.
The pièce de résistance is B&M’s interrogation of the deceased physicist Richard Feynman—as channeled through the medium Angie Aristone. B&M state that the medium provided some accurate details of Feynman’s life. B&M do not provide these details or any description of the conditions under which they were provided. This line of investigation was prompted by Barušs’s reading of Feynman’s books on physics. Mossbridge asked Barušs to ask the “Feynman” personality some technical questions about physics. So Barušs set up another appointment with the medium (who by that time of course had a “heads up” that investigators would ask Feynman-related questions). Barušs asked “Feynman” for the fine structure constant, which most physicists know as 1/137, or .0073 in decimal form. The medium said, “Zero. Eight.” At that point, Barušs cut her off by saying “something like ‘No. No. That’s wrong. That’s not the right number.”’’ Undeterred, the medium stated that “there is a capital M piece of something; attached to something.” Barušs replied that there was no capital M anywhere. Later it dawned on him that Mossbridge’s name begins with a capital M.
At some point in their conversation, Mossbridge’s phone died, leaving the number 0.08 displayed on her phone calculator. (She had been playing around with her calculator in a desperate search for numbers related to the fine structure constant.) At this point, “a light bulb went on” in Barušs’s head. He recognized .08 approximating the square root of .0073, the fine structure constant. But .08 is not in fact the fine structure constant, which is .0073. An Internet search revealed that Feynman sometimes called the square root of .0073 (.085) the fine structure constant, although few physicists followed him in this practice. B&M claim that the probability of guessing the first two digits of the (erroneous) fine structure constant (i.e., zero and eight) correctly by chance is 0.01. However, the initial zero is only a placeholder and would not be considered a significant figure in scientific notation. The second digit (eight) is simply wrong. If we are going to consider initial zeros, then the initial digits are both zero in the fine structure constant, and B&M are wrong again.
In conclusion, the publication of B&M’s book by the APA may not reflect parapsychology’s scientific maturation as a science but rather the erosion of the APA’s scientific standards.