J. G. Pratt

J Gaither Pratt

Brought to prominence in 1958 through his investigation of the Seaford case. Originally trained for the ministry, but in his first year of graduate study at Duke University he began to do research work with Professor William McDougall and his young colleague, Dr Joseph Rhine. Except for a brief period at Columbia and three years in the Navy during World War II, Dr Pratt was responsible for some of the most exciting experiments at Duke University.

Parapsychology: The Revolution Spreads

- J G Pratt -

          THE AIM of a revolutionary development in thought is to extend its influence. Axiomatically, the main concern of those who are committed to existing modes of thought is to resist the threat to their ways of thinking. A struggle inevitably ensues - a fight to the death of one or the other of the two contending ways of thinking. Nor dare we assume that just because a new idea deserves the label of Truth it will be welcomed upon its first application for admission to the fraternity of science. Can we yet say with assurance that parapsychology will succeed in winning acceptance on this try?

Any revolutionist worth his salt must, it goes without saying, believe in his cause and in its ultimate success. If this book has in any degree served its purpose, it should at least have engendered the feeling that the author is deeply involved as a parapsychologist. But the foregoing series of close-ups of developments in the field, described by one who has participated in or witnessed many of these events, may not by itself form a finished, unified picture of the movement. I feel an obligation, therefore, to attempt in a few final pages to tie together the threads of thought that the preceding chapters have in common.

Parapsychology is here to stay. This is not to say that its job is finished. Indeed, it has only been well started! But the time of testing by ordeal in the fire of scientific scorn has passed. No longer need a research worker fear the kind of scathing denunciation that Sir William Crookes and Sir William Barrett encountered when they ventured to present papers on their psi investigations to meetings of British scientists a few years before the Society for Psychical Research was founded. I am not implying that papers on parapsychology are received with rejoicing by those in charge of the programs of scientific conventions or by the editors of the psychological journals. But there is today a momentum, a forward thrust to psi research. This may be seen in the developments within the field as well as in the reactions to psi by those outside of parapsychology. Especially is it apparent from the way the field has put down new roots in different parts of the world. Some of these developments have been surprising even to the research workers.

A full account of the spread of the research and of the status that parapsychology has attained today as a world-wide branch of science is reserved (as I have said elsewhere) for a later book. But some hints regarding the magnitude of the developments that have already occurred and are still taking place may properly be revealed here.

Only within the past three years have scientists working in parapsychology in the West become aware of a parallel growth of research interest and activity in Russia. Since this significant fact first came to our attention we have made considerable progress in establishing close and cordial scientific relations with the Soviet scientists concerned. These relationships have been fostered by correspondence, by translation of relevant Russian publications, and by visits of parapsychologists to Russia to consult with the U.S.S.R. scientists who are taking the lead in this bold venture. In June 1962, I went as a representative of the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University to visit the newly established, state-supported laboratory for research on ESP at the University of Leningrad. I also talked with scientists in Moscow who are no less actively interested in the field though they were at that time less well organized.

These Russian parapsychologists are waging a successful campaign to gain the support of their fellow scientists and the educated public in Russia for research in this new area. As evidence of their success, we may note that three popular books on the subject by Soviet scientists have appeared recently. Two of these have been by Professor L. L. Vasiliev of Leningrad University, and his more recent one, published in 1962, had a first printing of 120,000 copies. It is said that when the Russians go in for any new interest in science or technology they do it with single-minded thoroughness. From the facts as they have been gradually emerging, it seems that their approach to parapsychology is going to be typical of their efforts in science.

Outside of the developments in Russia, new psi research centers are springing up at other places around the world. Some of these have already become productive, others are in an early or even formative stage. Altogether, however, they represent such a great research potential that even the fact of their existence makes exciting scientific news. Certainly the significance of these new developments is not escaping the psi research workers in the older centers. For example, by the fall of 1962 the Duke laboratory felt that its active relationship with the research in various places would benefit from the kind of attention that it is possible to give only after firsthand observation and exchanges of views. Accordingly, the laboratory asked me to go on a second trip. This one covered two months, from December 8, 1962, through February 8, 1963, and it took me westward across the U.S.A. and then on around the world to visit research centers in Japan, India, and Czechoslovakia.

So widespread is this new growth of interest in parapsychology that even the journey across the United States involved public lecturing and consulting with research workers in Texas and California, two states crossed on the journey in which newly organized efforts to initiate long-range programs of research in parapsychology are now taking shape.

The situation in Japan may properly be characterized as one of great promise. The most significant development there has been the establishment of the Institute for Religious Psychology under the direction of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama. The objectives of this institute are concerned with the promotion of research on problems that are of concern to both psychology and religion, and Dr. Motoyama envisions parapsychology as comprising an important half of their program. (There can be no doubt of the historically close connection between spontaneous psi occurrences and the development of the great systems of religious thought.) One might illustrate the present prospects for parapsychology in Japan by commenting that what I learned there about the interest in this field would, by itself, have made my trip worth while.

The situation in India, however, presents an equally great challenge for parapsychology and also holds promise of major developments in the field over the next few years. In fact, so rapidly are things advancing in our field in India that the Duke laboratory sent a second representative, Dr. K. Ramakrishna Rao, to meet me there. Our joint mission was to discuss plans for a new parapsychological research center proposed by the University Grants Commission, the agency of the Union Government having general responsibility for the universities throughout that country. After our talks with the commission in New Delhi, Dr. Rao and I went our separate ways for two weeks. He visited universities throughout India to discuss the new center and to find the best location for it. I, in turn, worked in two of the states of northern India where ESP research projects were already under way with the support of the state governments. Everywhere we found enthusiastic interest in parapsychology and unreserved recognition that this is a branch of science for which India, because of her historical background of religious and philosophical thought and by virtue of her culture, should be eminently suited.

Since Dr. Rao and I returned to Duke, the plan which we submitted at the end of our visit has been officially approved by the University Grants Commission. The location for the new parapsychological research center will be Andhra University. Dr. Rao, even before our visit, had been selected as the director. He is now picking the Indian scientists who will comprise the permanent staff of the center and making plans to bring some of them to Duke for training.

The third place I visited abroad on this last trip was Prague, Czechoslovakia. Actually this was a second visit to Prague; my trip to Russia the preceding summer had included a five-day stay in that city. The purpose both times was to collaborate with Dr. Milan Ryzl, a young scientist who is doing ESP experiments there with an outstanding subject, Mr. Pavel Stepanek.

The distinctive thing about Dr. Ryzl's work is that he has apparently discovered a way to develop a subject's ability for good ESP test performance by a special method of training through hypnosis. Some questions remain to be answered by further research before it will be possible to state with the finality of a scientific conclusion just what the secret of Dr. Ryzl's success is. The combination of highly significant results obtained in his own experiments plus confirmation of this success in the joint work done with visiting scientists makes his contribution a unique one in parapsychology. In addition to our collaboration, three Dutch scientists on a more recent visit carried through a highly successful experiment with Mr. Stepanek. It is not surprising that, in the judgment of an increasing number of workers in the field, Prague is the most productive ESP research spot in the world at the present moment.

Every psychological struggle - and the psi revolution certainly can be so characterized - is a situation involving give and take. In this book we have naturally been concerned primarily with the giving: the efforts of a relatively few people to present the challenge of the field and its findings. What about the taking of what has been offered? How have the scientists and the educated, thinking non-scientists who have not been actively engaged in parapsychology reacted to what the psi research workers have been presenting to them? What has happened over the years to show that the parapsychologists are not simply wasting their efforts?

To the psi research workers themselves, the most highly prized signs of progress are those that show that other scientists are taking up the problems. These indications we have already touched upon in pointing out the spread of active interest and the emergence of new research centers around the world. These give the very best kind of assurance to the psi revolutionist that his labors are bearing fruit.

But not everyone who notices and reacts to the goings on in parapsychology can become an active participant in the research. Some, indeed, have been stirred to exert themselves in the opposite direction and have become outspokenly and aggressively critical. How have the critics of psi research made out in their efforts to discredit the subject?

Henry Sidgwick, in the first presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, predicted that the critics would stop at nothing to upset the findings of the parapsychologists. He said that therefore the investigators should strive to make their experimental safeguards so strong that the critic would be compelled to attack the good faith of the research workers themselves. This would be, in effect, a sign that the investigators had achieved the highest possible experimental standards.

Developments have proved that Professor Sidgwick was a sagacious prognosticator. It was many years before the critics gave up on the experimental procedures and mathematical methods. There were scattered criticisms during the first fifty years of experimental efforts. But when the evidence began to come in a great wave in the thirties in a way that threatened to take by storm the scientific bastion of the university laboratory itself, there was a corresponding increase in the ferocity of the critical attack.

Charges were first brought against the statistical methods, but these were soon cleared of the accusation of containing major flaws. The use of the balanced, "five-times-five" ESP pack gave results that did not fit precisely into the formulas that were applied, but these discrepancies were shown to be only minor errors of no practical consequence.

Then the critics tore into what they supposed were flaws in the experimental procedures: faulty shuffling and cutting of the cards; carelessness in guarding against sensory cues; errors in the recording and checking of the data; mistakes in checking the hits or in making the calculations; and so on and so on. This was the period when the experimenters knew that they were in a fight for their scientific lives. Therefore we answered each critical article as soon as it appeared. In view of the number of attacks and the consequent number of replies, it is no wonder that the decade of the thirties became known as the period of "The ESP Controversy." It came to an end with the symposium that the American Psychological Association organized for its annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio, in 1938. The book, Extrasensory Perception After Sixty Years, published in 1940 by five members of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory research staff, was a fitting epitaph for the critics of that time. The ultimate critics whom Sidgwick foresaw had not yet appeared on the scene.

Before we give them their cue to come on stage for a brief re-enactment of their part in the drama, let me mention one Johnny-come-lately critic of the older style. This is Dr. B. F. Skinner, who waited ten years before breaking the pact of silence by which the psychologists attempted to quarantine the parapsychologists after 1938.

In the spring number of the 1948 American Scientist, Dr. Evelyn Hutchinson of Yale University devoted his regular feature column, "Marginalia," to a discussion of the ESP experiments which Dr. S. G. Soal and Mrs. Goldney had done with their outstanding subject, Mr. Basil Shackleton. Dr. Hutchinson chided the scientists, especially the psychologists, for their neglect of the evidence for ESP and challenged them to point out what was wrong with the experiments. In the summer issue of the periodical the editor turned the correspondence column over to Dr. Hutchinson to report the sequel to his challenge. He published one critical letter from a Harvard psychologist, Dr. Skinner, and a reply from Dr. Soal which gave him a reputation among the readers of the American Scientist as "the man who skinned Skinner." Even though Dr. Skinner's letter was selected as the most worthy of the criticisms received, it was apparent that what he wrote in his attack did not have even a kissin'-cousin relationship to what Dr. Soal and Mrs. Goldney had actually done in their experiments. For example, Dr. Skinner criticized Dr. Soal for depending upon cards shuffled by hand for his random order of target events. Dr. Soal replied that in his experiments cards were not used and no shuffling of any kind was involved.

If his was the best of the criticisms, one can only guess at the level of irrelevance of the others. Dr. Hutchinson's closing remarks are silent on this point, but they do speak eloquently regarding critics of parapsychology in general, as follows:

The communication received from Professor Skinner was the only one casting doubt on the Soal and Goldney experiments that deserved any serious attention. Some other communications were received which give the impression that scientific opinion in this country is about equally divided on the validity of parapsychological research in general. It has also become very clear that the wishful thinking, which is often attributed to the proponents of this research, is equally attributable to the antagonists. Some critical articles, published in reputable journals, to which my attention has been drawn, seem to me to transgress limits of fairness and good taste. If the parapsychologists are rightly required by their critics to maintain the highest possible standards of objectivity, it is only proper that their critics maintain an equal degree of objectivity, and that, in particular, they at least pay the parapsychologists the compliment of studying the original literature before criticizing it.

The next voice to be raised in opposition was heard in 1955, seven years later. (Now, at last, we encounter the sort of critic whom Sidgwick foresaw.) This was the attack on parapsychology by Dr. George R. Price, then of the University of Minnesota Medical School, the first critic openly to look for an escape from the findings in the suggestion that the parapsychologists themselves might have been grossly incompetent or that they could even consciously have resorted to trickery. Dr. Price, in his attack upon parapsychology in Science, in August 1955, showed that he had studied the evidence and had a profound respect for it. In fact, he started his critical article by admitting that he had been won over by the findings. But he had reconsidered his earlier conversion, and his article is mainly an explanation of how he could justify his rejection of the parapsychological evidence. Dr. Price said that the results of parapsychology, chiefly those dealing with extrasensory perception, cannot be reconciled with the current scientific concepts of mechanism and materialism. He had come to see, therefore, that the conclusions of the parapsychologists must be accepted only if there is no alternative explanation. Since the better experiments as described make it impossible to reject the results on the basis of the usual kind of criticism, he points out that it is still conceivable that the scientists and academic people who took part in these key experiments could have participated in a deliberate fraud. "... it should be clearly understood that I am not here stating that Soal or any of his associates was guilty of deliberate fraud. All that I want to do is show that fraud was easily possible."

Thus the readers of Science were shown how they might escape from having to accept a universe in which ESP and similar phenomena are among the facts of nature. If this required making the assumption that scientists in many parts of the world, some of them with established reputations for scholarly work or research in other fields, might have connived to play parlor games with the purpose of fooling the human race into an acceptance of telepathy and clairvoyance, why hesitate to do so when the matter at issue is so great? Dr. Price appears to think that any alternative, even if it meant making scientific pariahs of the parapsychologists, is preferable to surrendering the cherished beliefs in a totally mechanistic, materialistic universe!

I do not intend in what I say here to be either adding to or taking away from the tone or import of Dr. Price's argument. If the position seems to be an extreme one, that is, I think, the position he chose. Consider, for example, how easily any finding in science that is not to one's liking could be brushed aside on the same basis. The point is that issues in science cannot be settled by raising a question of the lack of good faith on the part of the investigators. They must be settled, instead, by the patient, oftentimes plodding efforts of research and more research. And the directions the research takes must grow out of the phenomena Nature provides under her own conditions or they must come from the findings of earlier experiments. We cannot be guided by some arbitrary conception of what the effects claimed should be like and how we should be able to bring them to crucial test.

In his article, for example, Dr. Price proposed an experiment for the parapsychologists to perform as a crucial, do-or-die test of ESP. Perhaps such "command" performances will one day be possible - let us hope they will - but there is nothing to be gained by attempting to dictate our terms to Nature. As scientists, we have joined her game, and it is up to us to induce her to reveal the rules by which the game is played.

Another critic who showed that he would go to extremes in his efforts to remove the threat of psi from the scientific scene was Mr. H. E. M. Hansel, of Manchester University in England. He indicated to Dr. Rhine in correspondence that he was a serious student of the research who would especially like an opportunity to study the evidence for clairvoyance. In so doing, he made no mention of the fact that he had already written a critical book, then in manuscript form, on the subject.

His correspondence with Dr. Rhine brought him the offer of expense money for a visit to the Parapsychology Laboratory, and this enabled him later to launch critical attacks on two of the earlier experiments. One was the Pearce-Pratt Series, and the other an investigation known as the Pratt-Woodruff Series. Mr. Hansel's articles were published in the June 1961 number of the Journal of Parapsychology, and the answers that were published in the same issue appear to have satisfied even the critic himself, if his silence during the two years since that time may be taken as any indication. Rumor has it that he is still seeking to publish his book, but he was already more than twenty years behind the times in his previous criticism since he failed to take into account the crucial evidence for psi that has been published since 1939. He will never, at this rate, overtake the advancing research frontier!

But let us get off these trails through the sloughs of unsound and unsavory criticism and back onto higher ground. Over the years there have been those refreshing instants when the research workers in parapsychology have learned that the findings have won the favorable attention of some leader of scientific or intellectual thought. A few of these times mentioned by way of illustration must suffice here.

After the mid-century point Dr. Julian Huxley was asked in England to nominate his choices for the great discoveries of the first half of the twentieth century. Among those he mentioned was the establishment of ESP.

The favorable attention of such men as Professor P. A. Sorokin of Harvard and Professor E. P. Sinnott of Yale testifies to the willingness of eminent scientists in other areas to entertain the findings and acknowledge their claim to serious consideration even though these scholars are not themselves drawn into an active participation in parapsychology.

Similarly, scientific groups have increasingly in recent years taken the initiative in planning meetings for the purpose of hearing positive presentations of parapsychology (unlike those earlier occasions that were designed to be purely destructive). These occasions at least betoken a readiness to listen and learn.

One particularly noteworthy instance of public attention to parapsychology happened without deliberate planning. Dartmouth College held a symposium in 1961 on the general topic of the mind-body relationship. The last meeting was a panel discussion in which one of the participants was Dr. Warren Weaver, vice-president of the Sloan Foundation. Dr. Weaver sat in silence until near the end of the program, when he spoke up to say that it had been a matter of some amazement to him that a symposium on the mind-body problem could have gone on for so long without anyone once mentioning the topic of ESP. He thought that this was a revealing commentary upon the state of American science. Whatever each one might personally think of the evidence for ESP, it was not justifiable simply to ignore it. Therefore he proposed that Dartmouth College should devote its next symposium to parapsychology. Those who witnessed the occasion said that the chairman was banging his gavel and calling for adjournment while President Dickey of Dartmouth was nodding his head in approval!

Many more names and incidents could be added to lengthen this list. These are enough, however, to show that parapsychology has at least created a slight intellectual ferment in the minds of some scientists. At the same time it is obvious that the spread of the psi revolution has not been a wind which has engulfed everyone in its path. Its advance is more selective: some people are affected while others seem immune.

In all modesty, I share the opinion that I heard my friend Milan RyzI express: from now on, the progress of parapsychology cannot be stopped if man and his civilization survive. He was thinking of the scientific findings; but I would add that, even aside from these, the critics' self-appointed task of trying to obliterate the serious public interest in psi was hopeless from the start. This is due to the fact that millions of people know on the basis of their own psi experiences that there is something to it. Judge for yourself in case you are among this select number: Can you be told that something is superstitious nonsense when you already know that it is a basic facet of your own world of experience? You are only one member of a minority, but in total numbers you make up a multitude of people! You comprise the unshakable supporters of the psi revolution - those more fortunate ones who know at first hand what parapsychology is all about.

But the investigation of psi phenomena is not merely a holding action. Instead, it is very urgent business: we are engaged in a race for control over these unusual powers of the mind. It is not a race between Russia and the West to see which will be first with the great discovery about man's unique nature. This may develop in time, but what I have in mind is not a contest between two political camps. Rather, the race in parapsychology is a race of scientists against time. It is a race to extend scientific knowledge and understanding in a frontier zone regarding which man has been all too obviously and woefully ignorant until now. This is the frontier of human nature itself, of the meaning and nature of personality.

The race is concerned with discovering, on the sure basis of objective, experimental science, man's real place in the universe. The fact that there is a dangerous gap in scientific knowledge regarding the essential nature of man himself has been apparent for many years. My own inspired and inspiring teacher in psychology, Professor William McDougall, wrote in eloquent terms regarding the existence of this gap during the first third of this century. Even then he saw the imbalance between our highly advanced scientific knowledge of the physical world (giving us our dangerous technology of armaments and instruments of destruction) and our lack of knowledge regarding some of the most fundamental questions about mind as the root cause of the threat of annihilation that mankind faced between the two world wars.

The danger then was mild compared with the threat that hangs over all of us today! Confronted as we are with such unprecedented peril growing out of the triumphs of the physical sciences, we cannot escape by going back to the relative safety of an earlier era. The remedy needed is not less science but more. Man desperately needs an advance of knowledge which will bring him a real understanding of his own nature. For can we imagine that men who adequately understood themselves would be in constant danger of blasting one another from the face of the earth or that they would long preserve the instruments for doing the job?

McDougall also most clearly recognized that what was required for closing this gap in scientific knowledge was a fresh approach. Even in his day he saw the research into psi phenomena as the means of lifting the load of prejudice which has, during the last few centuries, so fully occupied the minds of the scientists. This has led them to think in terms of the conception of materialism which sees man as being essentially a freakish combination of atoms.

The message of this book is that parapsychology represents a new starting point in man's long and unending struggle to wrest from nature a fuller knowledge of our universe. This start is different from earlier ones in the simple but significant fact that the focus of scientific attention is upon mind instead of matter. What, if anything, about man makes him unique? This question which has for so long been of concern to philosophers and religious thinkers as well as to poets and other writers has at last, in parapsychology, begun to receive attention from scientists. The importance of this new branch of inquiry needs to be recognized and appreciated not only by scientists but also by all intelligent, educated people.

Even though time is at a premium, gaining the widespread acceptance that the field needs and deserves will not be easy. The difficulty is not one that is peculiar to this research. It is always true of any really new and revolutionary development in science that recognition and acceptance come slowly. This is easy to understand. The pioneer scientist has hold of certain limited phenomena. He is impelled to pursue his observations of them only because he has an unshakable conviction of the importance of doing so. But for a long time he is not able to give an adequate picture of what his findings mean.

I could illustrate this difficulty by reference to any number of developments from the pages of the history of science. Imagine, for example, what Benjamin Franklin might have said if his contemporaries had asked him - as Franklin complained in fact they were doing! - what all the playing around with electrical sparks and flying kites into thunderclouds would ever amount to. Could we expect Franklin to describe a modern satellite hurtling through space millions of miles past the planet Venus and sending back electrical messages to tell us for the first time about actual conditions there? Or could anyone reasonably expect that Galileo, when he was begging his scientific colleagues merely to take a look through his telescope at the moons around the planet Jupiter, should have been able to persuade them by describing the universe known to modern astronomy as it extends for billions of light-years? The pioneer scientist is faced with an almost impossible task. This is to make sense out of what is necessarily still nonsense. Yet this is the task which must be faced if a new scientific venture is to succeed.

This book has tried to convey, as far as possible, a sense of the importance of parapsychology even at this early stage in its development. Its importance at this juncture in history is such that the spread of knowledge about the field cannot be put off until a later stage when it would undoubtedly be easier to understand its significance. When the very existence of mankind is staked on an "eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation" between our President and Khrushchev and the outcome (as someone so aptly said) may depend upon which is the first to blink, then not only the whole human race but even life itself as it exists on this planet is in a desperate race for survival.

ESP and the other simple, elusive phenomena studied by parapsychologists are to the further advance of scientific knowledge regarding human nature as Franklin's sparks were to the advance of knowledge in the area of electrical science and as Galileo's moons around Jupiter were to the advance of knowledge in the field of astronomy. These psi phenomena, defying as they do explanation in terms of purely mechanistic and physical principles, represent the exception to the prevailing scientific conceptions of man.

In science the exception disproves the rule. That is to say, scientific concepts cannot tolerate any exceptions. A fact which stubbornly refuses to be fitted into present theories must ultimately transform those theories. The facts of parapsychology have for more than eighty years refused to conform to conceptions of man that have led to the de-emphasizing, if not the outright denial, of the role of mind. Psi phenomena thus hold the promise of a revolutionary advance in man's understanding of himself. This is the psi revolution now in the making.


"Parapsychology: An Insider's View of ESP" by J. G. Pratt (1964, Doubleday & Co, Inc).

More articles by J. G. Pratt

Does Mind Survive Death?
The Seaford Poltergeist
Psychokinesis in the Laboratory

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