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Science Tribune - Letter - May 1998


A reliable observation in the area of extra sensory perception (E.S.P.)

Max Hammerton

Newcastle University, UK
E-mail : Max.Hammerton@newcastle.ac.uk

In 1985, Dr Susan Blackmore remarked that the only repeatable result in the area of paranormal studies was that positive results did not repeat (1). In 1894, H.G. Wells had sadly noted the same thing (2). I wish to suggest that both were wrong for, in my experience, there is one phenomenon which can be guaranteed in the neighbourhood of any successful paranormal experiment. This is the Phenomenon of the Cynical Smile (PCS).

I first came upon it in the late '50s, when talking to the late Professor Mace, who had been one of the observers at the notorious Soal 'demonstration' of precognitive ESP (3). I asked him how reliable he thought the results to be. Naturally, I do not recall his exact words after all these years but the sense was that I could believe it if I liked, and he favoured me with a cynical smile (CS).

No man questions the honesty and experimental competence of Dr. John Beloff of Edinburgh. Both are demonstrated by the fact that, in decades of research on E.S.P., he never obtained a positive result. Surprisingly - at least, it surprises me - he chooses to interpret this by supposing that he radiates some kind of negative aura which inhibits paranormal phenomena in his vicinity. After all, results were obtained when he was absent. I remarked this once when visiting the Psychology department at Edinburgh, and the PSC appeared in full blast.

I observed the same strength of PSC once in Cambridge, well before Susan Blackmore's brave whistle-blowing escapade (4) (5) (6) (7). More recently, I observed it in contacts of the late C.'Chuck" Honorton. I have come to expect it.

If so many people had suspicions - as I am sure they did and do - why did they limit themselves to CSs in private ? There are many factors involved, I suspect. Honourably, suspicion does not constitute proof; and a lot of people are reluctant to voice doubts when there is the slightest chance that they might be unfounded (a). Then, of course, in this country at least, there may be a risk of legal action. I recall the late Bernard Singer in a towering rage - no mere CS there ! - because Soal had threatened to sue if he reported what he had seen. On a (then) demonstrator's salary Bernard just had to keep quiet. Perhaps, strongest is the sad fact that few people love a whistle-blower. One I know personally recently remarked to me, with some justified bitterness, that she had come in for more flak than the cheat she had exposed. I think they call it 'group solidarity' or some such.

For my part, I have simply given up on the whole dreary 'paranormal' circus. When the next 'breakthrough' is announced, I shall simply wait until the story is blown; for that also is predictable.


(a) Although many people suggested that Soal (3) might have been cheating, no-one could prove it; most believed he really had convincing evidence for E.S.P.. However, in 1978, Betty Markwick (8) finally showed that he had been changing the numbers on the score sheets.


1. Blackmore SJ. Unrepeatability : Parapsychology's only finding. In: Shapin B, Coly L (Eds) The repeatability problem in parapsychology, Parapsychology Foundation, N.Y. pp 183-206, 1985

2. Wells HG. Review of Podmore &c., Nature LI (6 Dec), 121-122, 1894.

3. Soal SG, Bateman F. Modern experiments in telepathy, Faber & Faber, London, 1954.

4. Blackmore S. In search of the light. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1996.

5. Blackmore S. A report of a visit to Carl Sargent's laboratory. J Soc Psychical Res 54, 186-198, 1987.

6. Harley T, Matthews G. Cheating, psi, and the appliance of science: A reply to Blackmore. J Soc Psychical Res 54, 199-207, 1987.

7. Sargent C. Sceptical fairy tales from Bristol.J Soc Psychical Res 54, 208-218, 1987.

8. Markwick B. The Soal-Goldney experiments with Basil Shackleton: new evidence of data manipulation. Proc Soc Psychical Res 56, 250-277, 1978.