ESP Case Study: The work of J.B. Rhine

Skeptics of the paranormal have argued, time and again, that there is no regularly reproducible scientific evidence for such extrasensory phenomena as telekinesis (the ability to move objects with the mind), precognition (being able to predict future events), and telepathy (the transference of information from one mind to another without recourse to standard methods of communication). However, many conventionally trained researchers have devoted time and resources to trying to provide such evidence, sometimes with startling results. One of the most famous of those researchers was the Dr. J. B. Rhine, whose long toil in the area made him a pioneer in the subject and one whose research forces reconsideration of many of the objections of the mainstream.

Joseph Banks Rhine was born in 1895 in Waterloo, PA. The family moved to Ohio when Rhine was in his early teens. After receiving his education, Rhine joined the Marines and became a crack sharpshooter stationed in Santiago, Chile. Upon his discharge from the Marines, Rhine returned to the US and received his Master’s and Doctorates in botany from the University of Chicago.

Rhine taught for a year, and then went to Harvard University to study psychology under William MacDougall. When MacDougall moved to Duke University a year later, Rhine followed to work for him.

It was in 1927 at Duke that Rhine and his wife (and research partner) first became interested in what Rhine himself would name “parapsychology,” or the study of paranormal phenomena. A lecture on communication with the dead by Sherlock Holmes author and séance enthusiast Arthur Conan Doyle fired his imagination and led him to his life’s work.

Rhine’s primary experiments were simple. They involved the use of the Zener cards, a set of five cards with symbols on them. A subject would concentrate on one of the cards, and another subject some distance away and with no contact would attempt to pick the card that the other had chosen. The process would be repeated over and over, and the number of successful results would be measured against the amount that would be expected to chosen by chance. A 20% success rate would be the expected chance result.

Over the years, Rhine and his assistants encountered a number of subjects who seemed to be able to pick the selected card at rates much higher than the chance result. His first exceptional subject was a student named Adam Linzmeyer, who in 1931 scored an incredible 100% success rate in the first short battery of tests he confronted. Over time, Linzmeyer’s success rate did fall, but remained at close to 40%, twice the expected rate of success attributable to chance guessing alone.

Other exceptional subjects over the years included Hubert Pearce, who matched and occasionally bested Linzmeyer’s record, and J. G. Pratt. In one of the most famous experiments, Pratt and Pearce were separated by 100 yards. Pratt shuffled and reshuffled the cards, and Pearce attempted to guess the order. Again, his success rate of 40% was well above the expected rate.

In 1940, Rhine published a book on his research called “Extra Sensory Perception” which brought that term into the popular consciousness. He is considered the father of the field of parapsychology as a serious scientific discipline, and his careful research methods have provided some of the strongest evidence for the existence of the phenomenon to this day.

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