Project Alpha was a hoax that began in 1979 and ended with its disclosure in 1983. It was orchestrated by the stage magician and skeptic James Randi. It involved planting two fake psychics, Steve Shaw (now better known as Banachek) and Michael Edwards, into the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research, a parapsychology (PSI) research project at Washington University in St. Louis. Introduced to the researchers during the initial stages of the program, the young men convinced the researchers that their psychic powers were real. With spoon bending demonstrated, the lab ran a long series of experiments to test the range of their abilities, involving everything from moving objects in sealed globes, to changing electronic clocks, to making images appear on unexposed film.
After over a year of such tests, the lab began to prepare papers for presentation at a Parapsychology Association meeting in Syracuse in August 1981. In July of that year, Randi leaked statements about the project at a meeting of the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention in Pittsburgh. The August parapsychology meeting was dominated by discussions of the experiments and Randi's role; opinions were sharply divided about what was actually happening. Randi presented a critique of the lab's videotapes, pointing out obvious fakery. When the team returned to the lab and ran a number of the experiments with tighter controls, all indications of PSI powers disappeared. At this point the lab largely ended their involvement with the two, quoting "meager results." Other researchers continued working with them, and for the next year they engaged in a wide variety of experiments. Many glowing reports were published in various journals and magazines.
In early 1983, Randi called a press conference at the offices of Discover magazine, ostensibly to announce the first example of true psychic abilities. When introducing the two, Randi casually asked how it all worked. Edwards replied "To be quite honest, we cheat", resulting in gasps from the assembled reporters. The fallout was immediate; the McDonnell lab was shut down shortly thereafter. One PSI researcher claimed that "Randi has set back the field 100 years!" To which Randi responded that they were the ones who tried to set back the study of parapsychology, but he "brought it into the 20th century." Others came to believe Randi and the lead researcher, Philips, were conspiring to discredit the field, which is widely considered a pseudoscience.
Following Project Alpha, Randi went on to use variations of the technique on several other occasions. Perhaps the most famous example led to the downfall of TV evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff, when Randi had a man pose as a woman with uterine cancer, which Popoff happily "cured". In another example, Randi worked with performance artist José Alvarez, who posed as a channeller known as "Carlos", who was presented on Australian TV and soon had a wide following. After this hoax was exposed, the artist was constantly approached by people who believed him to be genuine, even if he told them directly that he was an actor. In 2015, Project Alpha became the subject of a movie development.
Peter Phillips' experiments
During the 1970s, James S. McDonnell, board chairman of McDonnell Douglas and believer in the paranormal, began to give grants to a number of researchers who were working in the PSI field. Looking for a more substantial effort, he approached his home town's Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri with plans to set up a permanent PSI research facility. At first his overtures were rebuffed, but eventually physicist Peter Phillips, who was also interested in the field, agreed to lead up a parapsychology lab at the school. In 1979, McDonnell arranged a $500,000 USD grant for the establishment and five years operation of the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research.
The formation of the lab was relatively well reported, and Philips was often on-camera explaining their efforts. He was most interested in spoon bending by children, also known as "psychokinetic metal bending", or PKMB. In response to these stories, James Randi wrote to the lab with a list of 11 "caveats" they should be wary of, and his suggestions on how to avoid them. These included a rigid adherence to the protocol of the test, so that the subjects would not be allowed to change it in the midst of the run. This had been the modus operandi of Uri Geller while being tested at Stanford Research Institute; whenever something did not work, he simply did something else instead. The researchers then reported this as a success, when in fact the original test had failed. Other suggestions included having only one object of study at any time, permanently marking the object or objects used so they could not be switched, and having as few people in the room as possible to avoid distractions. Randi also offered his services to watch the experiments as a control, noting that a conjurer would be an excellent person to look for fakery. Phillips did not take Randi up on the offer because of the skeptic's reputation of being "a showman rather than an unprejudiced critic" and his perceived hostility towards psychic claimants. In his letters, Randi even told the researchers that the subjects were fake, but the researchers did not check out their backgrounds.
Throughout the early phases of the project, many people claiming to have psychic powers presented themselves to the lab. The vast majority quickly proved to have no such ability, or, just as commonly, used sleight of hand to make their "abilities" work. Many of these were convinced what they were doing was "real". However, after a short while it became apparent that two young men, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, were much more successful, and the lab started to focus their energies on them. In fact, the two young men were "plants", friends of Randi whom he had met some time before as part of his magician's trade. Part of Randi's instructions to these men was to tell the truth if they were ever asked whether they were faking the results; they were never asked this question directly. The researchers assumed that the participants would have no qualms about lying in their answer to a straightforward question if they were also lying about their abilities.
Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards
Shaw and Edwards (aged 18 and 17, respectively, at the time Alpha started) were skilled amateur magicians who managed to fool the researchers with fairly simple tricks during the first stages of investigations. The project had originally started with spoon bending, so the two quickly developed a way to accomplish this. Contrary to one of the caveats Randi noted in his letter, the test setup included not one, but many and all sorts of spoons on the table, labeled with paper on a loop of string instead of some permanent marking. When starting to bend a spoon, they would actually pick up two or more and remove the labels, which they were allowed to do, because they claimed they were in the way. They would then simply switch the labels when putting them back and wait. The spoons were measured before and after the experiment, and since all sorts of spoons were used, simply switching the labels would produce different measurements, causing the scientist to believe that something paranormal had occurred. In other cases, they would drop one of the spoons in their lap and bend it below the table with one hand, while pretending to bend a spoon in their other hand, distracting the scientists.
Because the studio was set up to allow people in front of the camera to see themselves on monitors, and the videotapes were available to be watched by anyone, the two used the video to critique their own performance. They would deliberately fail on their first attempt at any given demonstration, and then use the video to find out what was visible to the researchers and what was not. They would then develop a technique that would not appear on video. Edwards found that one particular camera operator was on guard to capture any attempts at sleight of hand, so he picked the man to assist him in one experiment, and he was replaced by a less competent cameraman. This was also a clear violation of one of Randi's caveats; the test run should have been stopped at this point and recorded as a failure.
The two were so successful at spoon bending that several other tests were invented. In one they were given pictures in sealed envelopes and then asked to try to identify them from a list shown to them later. The two were left alone in a room with the envelopes, and although there was a possibility that they would peek, this was supposed to be controlled by examining the envelopes later. The envelopes were held closed with four staples, which they simply pried open with their fingernails, looked at the picture, and then resealed by inserting the staples back into the same holes and forcing them closed by pressing them against the table.
Another test was electronic; they were asked to influence the burnout point of a common fuse. After they were given a chance to work it with their mind, an increasing amount of current was run through the fuse until it blew. The two proved to have amazing abilities in this test after a few trials, eventually causing the fuses to blow immediately once they got used to it. In fact, they were simply palming the already blown fuses and then handing them back to the experimenters. They also found that pressing down on one end of the fuse in its holder, or just touching it briefly, caused the instruments to record unusual results that were interpreted by the experimenters as psi effects.
In one instance, Shaw and Edwards were asked to move small objects in a sealed transparent globe, normally small bits of paper balanced on an edge. At first they were unable to get anything to happen, but later noticed that the container was being removed to replace the object within. During one such event they took the opportunity to roll up a small ball of metal foil and drop it into the circular ring cut into the surface of the table that held the globe. This introduced a small gap under one edge, which they could blow into to cause the paper to move.
Other examples included their ability to make digital clocks stop working properly (Edwards put it in a microwave oven for a few seconds), or make images appear on film just by staring at the camera (Shaw spat on the lens). In an example of a sort of Rorschach test, the experimenters later described the images as being various bits of the female anatomy, which, "of course", young men (such as Shaw and Edwards) would be interested in.
In one particular experiment, Shaw tried to get them to say on film that he was not allowed to touch the object he was supposed to bend in the experiment (he had already secretly done that, and with them affirming that he could not and had not touched it, the "miracle" would look even greater). When Shaw asked: "Can I touch it?", the reply was, to his surprise: "You do what you have to do."
The researchers explain these apparently inexcusable inadequacies in experimental protocols by drawing a clear distinction between two different stages of an investigation: the exploratory, informal experiments and the formal experiments. During the exploratory phase, the researchers would simply be trying to determine whether there is a phenomenon that could be worth further investigation, which often implies the use of much more complicated protocols and expensive equipment. In doing so, they are also trying to set up a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere that is believed to be conducive to psychic phenomena. It is during this stage that Shaw and Edwards were able to convince the researchers of psychic abilities.
Revelation and aftermath
In mid-1981, the two were fairly famous in the psi world, and even outside it, and Phillips decided to release a research brief at a workshop of the Parapsychological Association Convention (August 1981). According to the researchers' official version, Phillips also wrote to Randi to ask for a tape of fake metal-bending, which was to be shown alongside the recording of Shaw and Edwards. The researchers were looking for opinions and critical input from the parapsychology community and finally released a revised abstract that reflected the received criticism in its conservative and skeptical language. After the announcements in the press, Randi wrote to the lab again and stated that it was entirely possible the two were magicians, using common sleight of hand to fool the researchers.
Randi started to leak stories that the two were a plant of his. These stories reached the lab, but they were not taken seriously on the grounds that (1) it seemed hard to believe that a plot could have been carried out so consistently by Randi and the two young magicians for 21 months, and (2) there was no precedent known of such a plot ever being carried out by a skeptic. The story had been widely circulated by the time the meeting was held the next month. Reactions were varied; some thought it was simply a lie, others that Randi was pulling off a hoax, and still others concluded the entire experiment was dreamed up as a conspiracy by Randi and Phillips to discredit the field.
Upon returning from the meeting, Phillips immediately changed the test protocols. The two found that they were no longer able to fool the experimenters so easily, and in most cases, not at all. During this time the lab started releasing additional reports that seriously toned down the success rate. In their own words, "We did not conclude that they must be frauds, but only that after extensive testing, they were not behaving nearly as psychically as they had led us to expect." This improvement of protocols later led James Randi to list a "straight spoon" award to Phillips in a press release of his "bent spoon" awards, but that award was omitted from the list of awards published by Omni magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer; it was reported in the latter in a subsequent letter to the editor.
At this point Shaw and Edwards were so famous that they were asked to travel widely and present their powers. Many other psi investigators interviewed the two and gave glowing reviews, thus tainting themselves in the eventual aftermath. In An Honest Liar, Shaw and Edwards recounted an occasion where BBC producer Tony Edwards requested the two to present their supposed powers on camera for a documentary; upon receiving the same checklist from Randi, however, the producer followed the list's instructions to the letter, which left Shaw and Edwards unable to reproduce their tricks. Once the cameras were turned off and the setting was more relaxed, however, the two "bent everything in the laboratory, absolutely everything", causing the producer Edwards to erupt in anger and despair, blaming Randi for his perceived failure of capturing the supposed para-psychological powers on tape. The incident caused Shaw and Edwards to request Randi to end the experiment, feeling responsible for the psychological toll they took on the producer by tricking him.
Randi decided to end the project and announced the entire affair in Discover magazine. Many of the researchers who endorsed Shaw and Edwards after the August meeting were now burned in the process. One went so far as to claim that the young men really did have psychic powers, and that they were now lying about being magicians. The bad press was so widespread that the McDonnell Lab was shut down.
The Skeptical Inquirer revealed that Shaw was a fake psychic in their fall 1980 issue. At the time neither the authors (McBurney and Greenberg) nor the editor (Kendrick Frazier) knew that Shaw was part of Project Alpha. Shaw had, in fact, posed as a fake psychic prior to Project Alpha, and his high-school paper ran a story about his powers. In addition, rumors that the psychics were fake reached the researchers, but they didn't believe them. According to the researchers,
The rumor seemed unlikely to be true for several reasons: the two young men came from different states and had never met before being brought to the MacLab; if they were both conspiring with Randi, then the plot had gone on for 21 months. What critic would be so persistent in engaging in fraud and conspiracy on such a time-scale? There seemed to be no precedent. Nor was it possible to track down how reliable the rumor might be.
The complaint of psi investigators for years had been that they did not have enough funding for their experiments. However, in Randi's opinion it was not funding but the experimenters that were the problem. With $500,000 from McDonnell, Randi felt that lack of funding could no longer be blamed for any failure. Randi's purpose was to show that no matter how much money was spent, there would still be no reliable results.
Some within the parapsychology community were outraged, with Berthold Schwarz declaring: "Randi has set parapsychology back 100 years!" Randi's approach also raised outcries concerning ethical considerations and doubts about positive effects on methodology awareness, both within the parapsychology and the skeptic communities. But Randi reports that other parapsychology researchers have contacted him with praise, describing the project as "splendid and deserved", "an important sanitary service", "commendable", and "long-needed".
Even decades later, Project Alpha remains one of the talking points in the PSI field. A 2011 biography of Michael Thalbourne, one of the Mac-Lab experimenters, dismisses the entire affair thus:
James Randi, who sought to discredit Mac-Lab staff just to prove some vague point. He had two of his poorly trained magicians infiltrate the lab so they could indulge in deceptive practices that included cheating and all manner of fraud. Needless to say, this reprehensible behaviour was detected, and no published works ever emerged from Randi's farcical escapade.
- Thalbourne 1995, pp. 356–359
- James Randi and Project Alpha (video). Event occurs at 2:30.
To be quite honest, we cheat.
- An Honest Liar, a 2014 film documentary by Left Turn Films; Pure Mutt Productions; Part2 Filmworks. (The quoted remarks commence at 59 min, 37 sec.)
- McNary, Dave (12 March 2015). "Barry Sonnenfeld Boards the Amazing Randi's 'Project Alpha'". Variety.
- Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, July 30, 2008, archived from the original on September 8, 2008
- Thalbourne 1995, p. 348
- Gardner 1983
- Thalbourne 1995, p. 357
- Randi 1983a
- Donahoo, Refugio (15 October 2015). The Esoteric Codex: Paranormal Hoaxes. lulu.com. p. 93. ISBN 978-1329624108.
- Thalbourne 1995, p. 351
- Thalbourne 1995, p. 356
- Thalbourne 1995, p. 358
- Thalbourne & 1984-85, pp. 187–188
- An Honest Liar, 2015
- Cummings 1977
- Gardner 1984
- Broad 1983
- Storm, Lance (7 November 2011). "2011 Outstanding Contribution Award Winner: Michael Thalbourne". Mindfield Bulletin.
- Randi, James (1983a), "The Project Alpha Experiment: Part 1. The First Two Years", Skeptical Inquirer, 7 (4), archived from the original on 2006-05-03 (This article, but not part 2 (next reference), was reprinted in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus Books, 1986, ISBN 0-87975-314-5.)
- Randi, James (1983), "The Project Alpha Experiment: Part 2. Beyond the Laboratory", Skeptical Inquirer, 8 (1)
- Randi, James (1983–84), "The PA and the Success of Project Beta", Skeptical Inquirer, 8 (2): 102–3
- Cummings, Holly (1977), "ESP: Extra Special Person", The Hiller (Trinity High School, Washington, Pennsylvania), 1 (1) October 13, page numbers uncertain. Earliest known report of Shaw posing as a psychic.
- Hazlett, Terry (1979), "Steve Shaw: Mentalist or Magician? The Strange Case of the Bent Nail", Observer-Reporter (January 4, 1979) Section B, page numbers uncertain. Prior to Project Alpha.
- Gardner, Martin (1983), "Notes of a Psi-Watcher: Lessons of a Landmark PK Hoax" (PDF), Skeptical Inquirer, 7 (4): 16–19 (Reprinted in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus Books, 1986, ISBN 0-87975-314-5.)
- Gardner, Martin (1984), "Response to Project Alpha: Sabotage?", Skeptical Inquirer, 8 (2): 187
- McBurney, Donald H; Greenberg, Jack K. (1980), "Downfall of a Would-Be Psychic", Skeptical Inquirer, 5 (1) (Reprinted in Paranormal Borderlands of Science, edited by Kendrick Frazier, Prometheus Books, ISBN 0-87975-148-7)
- Broad, William J. (February 15, 1983), "Magician's Effort to Debunk Scientists Raises Ethical Issues", The New York Times
- Thalbourne, M.A. (1995), "A history of the Randi Hoax" (PDF), Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
- Thalbourne, M.A. (Winter 1984–1985), "Phillips's "Straight Spoon"", Skeptical Inquirer, 9: 187
- Truzzi, Marcello (May 1983), "Trickery in the name of science", Omni: 117
- Truzzi, Marcello (August 1987), "Reflections on "Project Alpha": Scientific experiment of conjurer's illusion?" (PDF), Zetetic Scholar (12/13): 73–98
- Truzzi, Marcello, "Project Alpha: Sabotage". Skeptical Inquirer, 8(2)187.
- Project Alpha at Skeptic's Dictionary
- Project Alpha hoax at the website of Banachek.
- An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
- Project Alpha Introduction Collection of papers at the website of the Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research.