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Robert Todd Carroll

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Charles Tart

"Anyone who thinks the brain is the total answer is ignorant." ----Charles Tart

Charles psychic eyes Tart, Ph.D., is known for his work on lucid dreams, astral projection, LSD, and ESP. He has retired from the University of California at Davis psychology department and is now associated with the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Recently, Tart hit the jackpot by hooking up with Robert Bigelow, a very wealthy Las Vegas businessman with a penchant for funding paranormal research. Bigelow gave nearly $4 million to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in exchange for establishing the Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies, a fine name for a program to fund parapsychologists like Charles Tart, who was given $100,000 to develop a curriculum for this program and to teach a couple of classes. Tart plans to enlighten students on such subjects as dreams, meditation, hypnosis, out-of-body experiences, telepathy, and the ever-popular subject among college students, drug-induced altered states of consciousness.

Early in his career, Tart edited a psychology text, Altered States of Consciousness (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 1969) and authored several of the articles in his anthology. Tart defined an "altered state of consciousness" (ASC) as one in which an individual "clearly feels a qualitative shift in his pattern of mental functioning." For those who prefer a behaviorist definition, he offered the following: "an ASC is a hypothetical construct invoked when an S's behavior (including the behavior of verbal report) is radically different from his ordinary behavior." Tart believes that Eastern Yoga and Zen had long been tapping into ASCs and that there was something mystical or spiritual, something superior or "higher" about these altered states of consciousness. For Tart, ASCs are a gateway to a higher consciousness, to the realm of the paranormal and the spiritual.

Tart considered a hypnotized person to be in an altered state and one of the more bizarre uses of hypnosis is described in his article, "Psychedelic Experiences Associated with a Novel Hypnotic Procedure, Mutual Hypnosis." The article exemplifies paraspychological research interests and techniques.

Tart's scientific experiment involved two people, or Ss. An S is a scientific notation for a subject. I guess parapsychologists think one S is like any other S so you don't need too many of them in a scientific experiment. What's true of one S is probably true of any other S. But, when you only have two subjects you might as well call them A and B. Tart had A hypnotize B. Then, while under hypnosis, B hypnotized A. Then A would deepen B's hypnotic state; then B would deepen A's hypnotic state, "and so on." Tart claims in his paper that what he was testing was the claim that "the depth of hypnosis an S could reach was a relatively constant factor for a given S." He wanted to see if he could increase the depth of hypnosis a given S could reach by having S en rapport. (A little French always looks good in a scientific paper.) Rapport is defined as "the special relationship supposed to exist between hypnotist and S." Says Tart: "I reasoned that if rapport was greatest in deep hypnotic states, a technique which markedly increased rapport would likely increase the depth of hypnosis." (292) Undoubtedly.

His experiment consisted of three sessions with three graduate students over a period of several months. He started out with just two subjects but "Carol accidentally participated in the second experimental session." (293) What physicist would write in a scientific paper "but several unplanned atoms wandered through the lab at just the crucial moment so we included them in the study"?

You might wonder how depth of hypnosis is to be measured. Well, there really isn't any way to measure depth of hypnosis, since hypnosis isn't a state of consciousness like sleeping or wakefulness. Not to worry; Tart invented a way to measure depth of hypnosis. He even says he was preparing a paper on his invention. The gist of his argument, he tells us, is "that the degree to which an S reports feeling hypnotized may be used as the criterion of hypnosis...." He calls this the Self-Report Depth Scale. (Sounds pretty scientific.) He gave his subjects a complicated scale that goes from 0 (the waking state) to 50+ ("extremely profound trance, so profound that your mind becomes naturally sluggish or slow." There were seven ranges of depth on his Self-Report Depth Scale. A fully awake and attentive person would have a very difficult time remembering the distinct depth ranges. Why think that a hypnotized person would remember the scale? Worse, what evidence is there that any two Ss would apply the scale in the same way?

Anyway, Bill and Anne, the two Ss, had no trouble in responding with a number when asked how deep they were hypnotized. Anne variously reported a 27, a 40, a 43, a 47, a 32, a 48, and a bunch of other numbers. Bill reported a 13, a 36, a 43, a 47, a 25, a 57, 48, 53, a 12 and a bunch of other numbers. What do these numbers mean? Who knows and who cares. Tart could not control his subjects. For all he knew they were dropping LSD before coming to the sessions. He claims the subjects hallucinated during the mutual hypnosis sessions. While some people might find his description of the hypnotic sessions amusing or entertaining, there is nothing very scientifically interesting about them. Yet, Tart concluded: "Although this report is based on only two Ss, the results with them were dramatic enough to warrant considerable research on mutual hypnosis." (307) He even notes that mutual hypnosis "might offer a way to produce psychedelic experiences in the laboratory without the use of drugs and with more flexibility and control than is possible with drugs." (308) Note the weasel word might. Then again it might not. But, even if it did, why would anyone want to produce psychedelic experiences in the laboratory, with or without drugs?

As to his alleged primary interest--increasing the depth of hypnosis of a given S--he says, "the possibilities of substantially increasing hypnotizability in Ss who are moderately responsive are worth looking into." Why? He doesn't say.

As an example of Tart's competence to investigate paranormal matters, consider the following  letter he wrote to the New York Review (Feb 19, 1981) in response to criticisms by Martin Gardner of his work. [The bold italics have been added to call attention to how Tart uses language to reinforce the notion that he is a reputable scientist and that Gardner is the quack.]

I see that Martin Gardner is again using this popular literary journal as a vehicle to attack my scientific research that was reported in my Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (University of Chicago Press, 1976) [NYR, May 15]. As a working scientist, I am committed to reporting and dealing with all of the facts in my studies, whether they agree with my cherished beliefs or not. Data is primary. Gardner, by contrast, apparently knows what's true and false in some absolute way, so when inconvenient facts run counter to his beliefs he suppresses them or rationalizes them away. He knows that ESP is impossible, so when he is presented with evidence for it, he imagines some way in which the experimenters are fools, frauds, or both. Mr. Gardner doesn't need actual evidence for this, his suspicions are sufficient. Most people would consider his casual and unsupported accusations of fraud against one of my more successful experimenters, Gaines Thomas (now a professional psychologist), as malicious libel, but I suppose Mr. Gardner believes he's just protecting us gullible people from ourselves....

Gardner has presented a clearly inadequate theory [about possible error and/or fraud in the work of parapsychologists] to a literary audience as if it were valid. The interested reader is invited to look at the above communications [Tart had cited several articles in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research] to ascertain the facts for himself. There are other distortions in Gardner's article that I shall not bother to waste our time correcting here: they are, unfortunately, typical of Gardner's writings on parapsychology.

When real scientists have criticisms of each other's work, the standard procedure is to submit the criticisms to the appropriate technical journal. The submission is reviewed by other scientists for basic competency and relevance, and then published. I doubt that Mr. Gardner's article would have stood up to this refereeing process in a legitimate scientific journal. A thoughtful reader might begin to wonder, then, why Mr. Gardner presents such a distorted and selectively incomplete picture of serious scientific research to the general audience represented by readers of the Review.

The implications of ESP for understanding human nature are enormous, and call for extensive, high quality scientific research. A recent survey of mine showed hardly a dozen scientists working at it full time, on a most inadequate budget of only a little over half a million dollars a year for the entire United States. The subject is too important and too underresearched to waste further time with pseudo-critics like Mr. Gardner who are covertly trying to manipulate public opinion, rather than contributing anything to scientific progress.

The first thing to note is how Tart tries to reinforce the idea that he and his ilk are real scientists, that their concern is only for the truth, they just collect data and let the stats fall where they may. Note next that Tart insists again and again on his own integrity and seriousness. Note how he reinforces the notion that while he and his dozen comrades are trying to do serious research on a subject of huge significance for mankind, they are being persecuted and unjustly attacked by unworthy and devious opponents.

I can't say for certain that Tart lacks personal integrity and seriousness. It appears that he is a liar and a deceiver, but it may be that he is just self-deceived and overzealous. Yet, it appears that he's not much of a scientist; he apparently knowingly omits relevant data that refute rather than confirm his ESP hypotheses; he sets up experiments in sloppily controlled ways; he rationalizes any failure to confirm his pet theories; he distorts the claims of his critics; and, he fails to respond to questions which seriously undermine the integrity of his studies.

He seems to be lying when he says that he is committed to reporting all of the facts in his studies and that data is primary. One of the primary methodological principles of "real" scientific experimentation is that a single test of a causal hypothesis which results in statistical data that indicate a correlation between two or more events should not be taken as proof of a causal connection. Not only did Tart make extravagant claims on the basis of one set of experiments, when he repeated the experiment with better controls than in the first experiment (where a key piece of equipment was demonstrated by several mathematicians at UC Davis to have been malfunctioning), he was unable to duplicate the fantastic results of the first experiment done with faulty equipment and controls. Yet, he trivializes this fact in his book Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception. Sherman Stein, one of the mathematicians who determined that the randomizer used in the first tests was faulty, asked Tart when he was going to do the tests over with a proper randomizer and Tart told Stein that he'd already done it. The results were negative [i.e., the data were what one would expect due to chance] but Tart rationalized the contrary data as due to the less gifted, more uptight subjects and being "constantly plagued by machine malfunctions" in the second experiment [Randi, FlimFlam!, p. 153], [Gardner, Science Good,Bad & Bogus, p. 211].

Tart is deceptive and attempts to manipulate opinion against Gardner by suggesting things it is likely Tart knows are not true. For example, Gardner has been writing about ESP and other paranormal phenomena for years. He has a long public record and he's never indicated any support for the notion that he or anyone else can have a priori knowledge about ESP. Gardner has never said, to my knowledge, that ESP is impossible. It seems odd that a man who would think all psychic phenomena are a priori impossible and therefore all paranormal claims can be known to be false without investigation would spend a lifetime nvestigating such claims! And, it seems reasonable that if in case after case, without a single exception, one's investigation keeps turning up evidence of foolishness, fraud, deception, self-deception, wishful thinking, errors and incompetence, that one would be justified in rejecting out of hand the next crackpot claim that comes down the pike. Yet, Gardner never does that. He gives even the stupidest of the stupid the same day in court as the wisest of the wise. It is Tart and other parapsychologists who act as if they know the truth about ESP in some absolute way and who rationalize away counterfactual evidence to their paranormal claims. It is they who have no need for actual evidence. One gets the feeling that they consider doing experiments to confirm their hypotheses a necessary evil that they must do to satisfy others.

It is also likely that Tart knew that Gardner did not accuse him or his associates of fraud. Gardner did point out that the design of the experiment was so poor that the results obtained could easily have been obtained fraudulently. A good experimenter--a real scientist?--especially in a field which has a lifelong history of fraudulent and incompetent experimenters, should take every precaution to guard an experiment's results from being potentially tainted. Any reasonable parapsychologist should expect to be checked for fraud and should therefore design experiments where cheating is impossible. The fact that this seems a reasonable requirement indicates something about the nature of the whole parapsychological enterprise. Would any reasonable person take physics or chemistry seriously if those disciplines were as rife with frauds and incompetents as parapsychology is?

Tart is absolutely correct about scientific papers being refereed by scientists before publication in reputable journals. He is certainly wrong, however, when he asserts that an article is published if it passes the tests of "competency and relevance." Those are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for publication in any journal, scientific or not. But I have no doubt that those are sufficient conditions for publication in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. If Tart wants to call that journal a "scientific" journal he may do so but why stop there? We may as well call Reader's Digest and Life magazine scientific.

Tart's claim that Gardner "has presented a clearly inadequate theory to a literary audience as if it were valid" is too rich and resonant with irony to deserve anything but thunderous horse-laughs for comment. Likewise for Tart's claim that "Gardner presents...a distorted and selectively incomplete picture of serious scientific research...."

As for Tart's claim about the significance of ESP and ESP research, I can only call them self-serving claims of an incompetent egoist or naive claims of a deluded psychologist.

See related entries on astral projection, esp, hypnosis, Raymond Moody, and parapsychology.

further reading

Marks, David F. "The Case Against the Paranormal," Fate, January 1989, reprinted as "Paranormal Phenomena Can Be Explained," Paranormal Phenomena/ Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991).

ęcopyright 1998
Robert Todd Carroll

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Last updated 10/07/98

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