published in Archaeus,
Volume 3, Summer 1985, pp.
A CRITIQUE OF
George P. Hansen
IN RECENT years there has been a fair amount of attention focused
on the phenomena reported by the SORRAT (Society for Research on Rapport
and Telekinesis). This attention has been primarily due to the efforts
of Dr. John Thomas Richards (1976a, 1976b, 1977, 1977-1978, 1979a, 1979b,
1980, 1982, 1984) and W. Edward Cox. Richards is a long-time member
of SORRAT, and many paranormal phenomena have been reported in his presence.
Both Cox and Richards have reported numerous macro-PK phenomena manifesting
around various SORRAT members. These have included levitation, raps,
apports, materializations, psychic photography, and the like. Articles
concerning SORRAT have appeared in many periodicals and books (Parks, 1983;
Phillips, 1984; Richards, 1983a, 1983b, 1983c, 1984).
It is worth noting that a positive mention
of the SORRAT has been made by a number of parapsychologists, including
Schmeidler (1982,1984), Grattan-Guinness (1982), Randall (1982) and Isaacs
(1981, 1982). Lawden (1983) commented favorably on Cox's work, and Rhea
White, former president of the Parapsychological Association, has given
the SORRAT material considerable attention (McClenon and White, 1983).
Bierman (1981), however, expressed some skepticism about the methodology
of some of the experiments.
It is likely that this case will generate
further interest, because at least two books on the topic are in preparation--one
by Cox and one by sociologist James McClenon. Popular writers have
also shown interest (e.g., Cleaver, 1982; Fairley and Welfare, 1984).
At the 1983 Parapsychological Association
convention, Cox presented a formal paper on a most unusual topic, entitled
"Selected Static-PK Phenomena under Exceptional Conditions of Security."
He reported that he had conducted a controlled experiment that implied
spontaneous occurrences of matter through matter. Briefly, Cox attached
an inverted fish tank to a board so as to produce a completely enclosed
box (or "mini-lab," to use Cox's term). Fig. 1 shows the basic components
of a mini-lab. The construction varied slightly for each experiment.
The most complete description of Cox's experiment appears in the Presented
Papers of the 26th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association
(Cox, 1983), and a shortened version appears in the volume Research
in Parapsychology 1983 (Cox, 1984). Page references below refer to
the longer version.
COX had a locksmith secure the box and then took it to the home
of Richards, where it remained for several days. Thus the entire
apparatus was entrusted completely to Richards. Cox later retrieved
the box and found several additional objects inside; he concluded that
these had entered by paranormal means.
There are quite a number of factors that
indicate that this report should be taken quite seriously. It should
be noted that Cox's report was refereed and accepted by the P.A. Program
Committee. In fact, approximately a third of the papers submitted
for this convention were rejected. It is also worth mentioning that
Cox had previously made a valiant attempt to inform other researchers about
his work. He had made an earlier formal presentation at the conference
of the Southern Regional Parapsychological Association in 1981 (Cox, 1981)
and had had
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 27th Annual
Convention of the Parapsychological Association, Aug. 6-10, 1984, Southern
Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.
ARCHAEUS 3 (Summer 1985)
Fig. 1. Typical mini-lab. (Details vary for each experiment)
that paper and an earlier one abstracted in the Journal of Parapsychology
(1979). Cox has also made informal reports at workshops of the 1981
and 1982 P.A. conventions. In addition, Julian Isaacs (Wilson, 1981)
made a presentation of some of Cox's evidence at a conference of the Society
for Psychical Research. Also, surprisingly, Cox had previously presented
his claims to the National Enquirer (Lutz and McCandlish, 1981).
This full-page article included a picture of Cox and nine frames from his
motion picture films. We can certainly expect the P.A. to have treated
this report cautiously. If such a paper survives refereeing, we can
put more faith in its credibility.
It should be realized just how unusual
this report is. I am not familiar with any other experimental report
of this kind, with positive results, that has been accepted by the P.A.
Even viewed in the context of the history of psychical research, this report
is most unusual. The famous psychic D. D. Home did not believe that
matter-through-matter effects were genuine, and such phenomena were never
reported in his presence (Home, 1877).
Although the phenomena reported by Cox
appear to be quite similar to poltergeist effects, there are salient differences
between this investigation and RSPK-oriented field work. In a field
study, the investigator can rarely apply much control over the situation
in order to rule out fraud or other alternatives, such as poor observation,
hallucination, or incomplete records. In contrast, in a fully experimental
investigation, much time, effort, and attention can be given to making
sure that such alternatives are eliminated. Experiments can be planned
in advance, while field studies must often be done on the spur of the moment.
Thus Cox's work is of exceptional interest because he claims experimental
control over the phenomena.
IT IS fortunate that Cox's experiment is so "elegant" or simple.
It allows only two possibilities—-genuine phenomena or fraud; there seem
to be no other explanations. In contrast, many other types of parapsychology
experiments allow the possibility of several other alternative explanations,
such as statistical artifact or anomaly, subtle sensory cues, low-level
electromagnetic effects, or little-understood non-psi experimenter effects
(although many experimenters do go a long way to exclude such possibilities).
In this type of research, however, a great deal of thought does need to
be given to precluding fraud. Because Cox's experiment is "proof-oriented"
(i.e., an experiment that
has the primary focus on demonstrating a paranormal event rather
than exploring underlying processes), the onus is on him to demonstrate
that all normal explanations were completely ruled out.
Another advantage of the simpleness of Cox's test is that it allows
nearly everyone to understand what was done. No technical training
in science or mathematics is required; common sense alone should provide
guidance in evaluating the report.
Evaluation of Cox's Claims
In this section I will discuss issues to
be considered when evaluating Cox's paper. Some have suggested that
there are no standards by which this report can be judged. It is
true that no single set of ironclad rules can be applied when judging the
merit of any scientific report. Science does not work that way.
There are general principles that can be applied, however, and comparisons
can be made with similar reports, procedures, and experiments. Indeed,
there is a great deal of historical literature in psychical research discussing
controls in macro-PK research. The literature on legerdemain is also
quite relevant to such a task.
One pertinent principle is the dictum
that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This
does not mean that an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence
is false, but it does indicate that it should be viewed more skeptically
than a more moderate claim. What constitutes an extraordinary claim is
dependent on currently accepted scientific knowledge as well as on the
forum and context in which the claim is presented.
Most parapsycholegists realize the validity
of such a principle. J. B. Rhine, for example, waited nine years
and conducted many experiments before presenting the PK studies on tumbling
dice. On the other hand, when a result has been confirmed by a number
of independent investigators, the level of evidence required for acceptance
may be correspondingly lowered. For instance, a positive result in
a card-guessing or ganzfeld experiment should find easier acceptance than,
say, a single controlled experimental study reporting the occurrence of
When one is evaluating a report, the specific
claim made by the investigator should be of special interest. If
the investigator acknowledges possible sources of error or forms only a
tentative conclusion, the paper can be evaluated with that in mind.
On the other hand, when a strong conclusion is made, strong evidence is
required before the paper can be admitted into the arena of scientific
discourse. Cox did not claim tentative results, but strong, impressive,
robust phenomena. He included no discussion of alternative explanations.
Thus his paper should be examined with special care.
IN EVALUATING material of this type, the history of the situation
is important as well. If deception was indicated in the past, a more
thorough report and evaluation must be made. Highly suspicious activity
involving SORRAT has been reported by other investigators such as Hansen
and Broughton (1983) and A. D. Cornell in a workshop during the 1982 P.A.
convention. While this type of problem occurs only rarely in most
ordinary areas of science, it has long been realized that it is a most
pertinent consideration in psychical research. It should also be
noted that Phillips and McBeath (1983) attempted to replicate Cox's mini-lab
experiments and were not successful.
Another factor to consider in evaluating
experimental reports is the amount of preplanning indicated. It is
most important to determine how much care was taken to rule out alternative
sources of error prior to conducting the experiment.
In this particular report, our primary
concern is whether the objects entered the mini-lab by normal means.
In order to accomplish this normally, some part of the mini-lab might have
been removed, objects placed inside, and the same or some seemingly identical
part or parts of the apparatus replaced. It is of utmost importance
to evaluate this possibility because the entire strength of the report
depends upon excluding this. The experimenter must provide adequate
that such measures were ruled out. Fortunately, there are
comparable cases in recent literature that can offer some guidance as to
the level of detail and evidence needed. The early literature also
includes a number of examples of critical evaluation of claims of matter
through matter (especially notable are analyses by Hyslop  and Carrington
Several recent reports illustrate some
of the controls we should expect to find in this type of investigation.
Eisenbud (1982) sealed film and spoons in a lead-lined container.
The loading of the container was done while the subject was still in Japan,
and the loading was witnessed and videotaped. The seals of the container
were photographed in close-up. In another recent report, Randi (1983)
sealed metal bars in tubes and took photographs with polarized light that
showed the internal stress patterns of the plastic tubes. He also
very accurately weighed the tubes; this was witnessed and documented. Still
further precautions were taken. These reports demonstrate good forethought.
The controls were documented and witnessed prior to the experiment.
They allowed others the possibility of examining documentation of security
precautions before and after the completion of the experiment. The
close-up photographs prevented the surreptitious substitution of test objects
or manipulation of the containers. The experimenters were thus not
forced to rely on their memories of how the containers previously appeared.
These were simple, straightforward, common-sense precautions that were
not taken by Cox.
Cox presents only two experiments with
any substantial detail that claim paranormal results—one using a mini-lab
sealed with a lock and another, a mini-lab sealed with wire and silicone.
As noted earlier, Cox constructed his mini-labs by attaching an inverted
fish tank to a board so as to produce an enclosed box. The tank was
encircled outside with a metal band or bands that passed through slots
in the board. The ends of the metal band(s) had holes to accommodate the
shackle of a padlock or other fastener. The actual construction varied
in each experiment.
For the experiments described in his paper,
Cox employed a locksmith to secure the mini-labs. (The fact that
Cox employed a locksmith to help him seal his devices might seem like a
good idea; however, it should not give the reader a false sense of security.
One need only recall the numerous times Houdini foiled locksmiths, prison
wardens, and the like!)
In the first experiment, Cox reports that
the key was broken off and glued in the lock, a piece of paper was glued
over the keyway and initialed, and personal marks were made for identification.
There is no mention of any special attempts to mark or take close-up photographs
of the metal strips, the fish tank, or the wooden base so as to preclude
substitution. There is no mention of any advance recording
of the security measures that were taken. The only written documentation,
from the locksmith, was obtained after the "paranormal" occurrences.
There is no indication that any secret,
hidden, or inconspicuous markings were made that could positively identify
the lock (or any other part of the mini-lab). The only statement
of this type is that "at the suggestion of a neighbor, B. L. H., personal
marks were made for further identification" (p. 5). This statement
deserves comment. There are no further details given, but the statement
certainly does not imply secret or hidden markings. It also reveals
that it was a neighbor who made the suggestion. Thus Cox and the
locksmith were not the only ones who knew the level of security involved
with this mini-lab. Who else knew? What was their relation
to others who might have had access to the mini-lab while it was out of
Cox's possession? Such necessary details are absent from the report.
VIRTUALLY no details are given about checking the mini-lab after
the occurrences. It is stated only that the locksmith "confirmed
all of the prepared evidences that the lock was the same, and that there
was no damage done to it" (p. 6) and "Repeated scrutiny of the entire equipment
revealed no fault" (p. 6). No more details are given. Of course,
little more could have been said, because Cox and the lock-
smith were forced to rely on their memories. Could anyone
really have expected them to notice carefully hidden evidence of tampering?
A year before the publication of this
report, I suggested to Cox that perhaps someone had simply removed the
lock and replaced it with a similar one. The lock apparently could
not be unambiguously identified because the key was broken off inside the
lock, thus not allowing verification with the key. The paper over
the keyway may have been carefully scraped off and placed on a second,
seemingly identical lock, or perhaps the paper was duplicated. I
have briefly mentioned this criticism elsewhere (Hansen, 1982).
Perhaps the mini-lab was slightly pried
up from the wooden base; Cox admits this possibility: "... the flexible
steel band completely prohibited prizing up the ML more than a millimeter
or so" (p. 3). This would apparently allow insertion of a thin saw blade,
which could be used to cut off the corner wooden stobs (see Fig. 1).
The tank might then have been slid over the edge of the base, and objects
inserted. Perhaps the stobs were temporarily removed by boring through
the wooden base. Maybe other parts of the mini-lab were breached.
There is no discussion of any such possibilities in this report.
The above scenarios are only suggested
on the basis of my reading of the report. Direct examination of the
apparatus might have allowed other possibilities to be discovered.
Incredibly, however, the mini-lab was immediately dismantled after the
In this section, I will examine Cox's claims
in light of additional evidence not available in his written report.
This information was obtained through my correspondence with him and through
my observations made on site.
In the second positive experiment reported
in Cox's P.A. paper, the steel straps around the mini-lab were secured
with wire and silicone rather than with a padlock. Again several
objects "entered" this enclosure. In the report, virtually no details
are given on checking of security precautions. Cox does include a
portion of the notarized statement from the locksmith, which simply describes
the apparent paranormal effects. Cox does not include a passage from
the same page of the statement that read: "... I began to think Mr.
Cox simply had unsealed the silicone and replaced it after thus gaining
entry." Thus, in effect, the person responsible for sealing of the
mini-lab admitted that it could have been breached without his having detected
it! Cox does not mention this statement in the written report to
Regarding the first experiment, in which
the padlock was used, Cox (personal communication, Oct. 7, 1983) now claims
that special scratches had been made on the shackle of the lock to help
identify it. Cox admits that he was unaware of this when the scratches
were made, however, and even at the time the lock was removed and destroyed.
He learned about all this later. When I asked him about it, he was
not able to say exactly where the marks were made.
IN HIS paper Cox mentions that "only Drs. James McClenon and Peter
Phillips were able to spend appreciable time at in-residence observations"
(p. 9). Cox did not mention that I had spent five nights in the home
of Dr. Richards. My visits gave further insights into Cox's procedures.
For instance, in his paper Cox states that, for some of his experiments
(the ones in which he did not employ a locksmith), he used synthetic, varicolored
string, in addition to a lock, to seal his mini-labs. He claims that
Richards had no access to any of it. What is not mentioned in this
paper is that Cox would take the roll of string to the Richards' home,
unwind a considerable length, and then turn his back on it to attend to
some other detail. I observed him do this a number of times; sometimes
he turned his back for half a minute.
Also in his P.A. paper, Cox mentions that
he filmed a number of paranormal events inside his mini-labs. He
has collected a number of films of these. The mini-lab I saw had
been secured with a lock by Cox. He had neglected to remove the erasable
number on the lock, how-
ever; it would have been easy for someone to have obtained a duplicate
key for the lock and to have entered the mini-lab. I later spoke
to Cox about this, and he acknowledged that he had not realized his lapse.
Some might suspect that Cox himself fraudulently
produced the effects in the mini-labs. I see no grounds whatever
for such a suspicion. Cox has always been very open with his research
and has pleaded that others attempt replications. Cox has spent considerable
time replying to my questions and providing detailed answers, even when
these did not seem favorable to himself.
Others will suspect that fraud by some
other party was responsible for the phenomena. Although this seems
reasonable, 1 want to remind the reader that I never saw any direct evidence
indicating fraud with regard to the mini-lab experiments. Nevertheless,
it should be remembered that suspicious activity has been reported involving
I n science the burden of proof is on the
claimant. The claimants here have not yet provided good evidence
that these phenomena can be satisfactorily tested with experimental controls.
Perhaps the most favorable comment might be that this is a difficult area
to research. Given what has already been attempted, one might reasonably
question whether further scientific research on SORRAT is justified.
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