Bizzarre ESP Experiments or Shades of Media Bias?

There is, without question, a bizarre history pertaining to psychic experimentation. Throughout the Cold War era, world governments sought to explore whether powers of the mind could allow for espionage that far exceeded anything technology could produce. At times, the lengths those in officialdom may have gone to in attempting to unlock the supposed superhuman powers of the mind may have entered the despicable; in likelihood, the full extent to which tests involving humans may have been carried out will never be known.

Apart from human experimentation into psychic powers, with little doubt, there were even greater injustices brought against aboriginal children in parts of Canada during the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. These ranged from poor treatment to children being underfed, assaulted, and of course, represented by government when parents existed who should have been considered as legal guardians instead; altogether, a very troubling history of human rights violations is highlighted in the history of Canadian residential schools for aboriginal children.

However, a recent Washington Post article, extrapolating on an earlier CBC News piece, connects ESP experiments documented in a 1943 paper with the residential school atrocities in a peculiar way, which appears to involve cherry-picked statements from prominent members of the skeptical community, as well as links to articles about far more invasive “experiments” only tangentially related to ESP tests carried out at Indian Residential School in Brandon, Manitoba.

The article reads:

“Fifty children at the Indian Residential School in Brandon, Manitoba, became the subjects of a series of tests that sought to establish a new measure for identifying ESP and also to find evidence of supernatural abilities of “primitive” people.

As was typical for the time, there was no parental consent. But the children, ranging from ages 6 to 20, likely participated “willingly,” as the study claims, eager for candy that might stave off their persistent hunger.

The study was conducted for researchers at what was then known as the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory; the findings were published in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1943.”

It should be pointed out that the final sentence in the excerpt above is worded in such a way that one might mistake that the experiments had been carried out at Duke University, North Carolina, rather than at the Indian Residential School in Brandon, Manitoba; this is not the case, of course. Also, in phrasing what is referred to as “bizarre, cruel and unethical experimentation” in relation to the ESP study, the article links to an earlier piece (albeit with a broken link) describing ear experiments carried out with aboriginal children at a separate location, the Kenora Residential School.

Later in the article, prominent skeptic Michael Shermer is quoted saying of ESP research that, “It’s fallen into disuse due to the fact that there’s just nothing there… Parapsychology has been around for more than a century. (Yet) there’s no research protocol that generates useful working hypotheses for other labs to test and develop into a model, and eventually a paradigm that becomes a field. It just isn’t there.”

Despite mention in the article that the experiments were carried out “for researchers at what was then known as the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory,” no similar statements were gathered from representatives at the present day Rhine Research Center in Durham, which continues the work of the original Duke Parapsychology Lab. This is particularly interesting since the quote from Shermer was taken from an unrelated 2013 Discovery article, and one that also quotes John Kruth, executive director of the Rhine, earlier in the same piece.

Since the Washington Post omits Kruth’s statements on ESP research in its piece, we will include them here:

“People have never stopped doing research in these areas,” Kruth said. “But the skeptic community is strong and vocal, and they’re much better at working the media.” Kruth attributes much of the field’s decline in the United States, during the 1970s and 1980s, to media-savvy debunkers such as James Randi.

“Certainly there are fraudulent practitioners out there, and we’re always watching for that,” Kruth said. “It’s like we have the frauds on one side and the debunkers on the other, and we’re in the middle, still trying to do science.”

Arguably, Kruth is right in his statement about how the skeptic community works the media, and the Washington Post article seems to have done a fine job illustrating this, without any mention of the research that continues today at the Rhine.

To illuminate this aspect of the media’s bias toward research into subjects like ESP and consciousness studies (or as Graham Hancock might call it, the broader “war on consciousness”) is not aimed at detracting from the horrible treatment of aboriginal children in Canada during the early part of the last century. We could argue, however, that highlighting this case, where children were given candy in response to guesses about symbols on ESP cards, amidst the broader number of ethics violations from the period is in some ways still troubling, since it is only one of many experiments carried out within conditions known to have been more than just ethically questionable. None of them can be excused… but it seems obvious that by using “ESP” in the title, it’s probably more attention-grabbing, without necessarily addressing the more abhorrent activities that took place at the residential schools around the same time.

In looking at some of those, to quote a similar CBC News article from 2013:

“The residential schools system, which ran from the 1870s until the 1990s, removed about 150,000 aboriginal children from their families and sent them to church-run schools under a deliberate policy of “civilizing” First Nations.

Many students were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide. Mortality rates reached 50 per cent at some schools.

In the 1990s, thousands of victims sued the churches that ran the schools and the Canadian government.

The $1.9-billion settlement of that suit in 2007 prompted an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper followed by the creation of the commission in 2008.

Physical, mental, and sexual abuse, mortality rates of 50 percent, and the continued search for further documentation of the atrocities that occurred during this period are the conditions that should be emphasized in the broader sense. And at least as far as it relates to ESP research, a balanced perspective on the state of psychic studies, and their continuation today, might not hurt either.

Perhaps most importantly, it would be prudent to seek commentary from those in the field of psychic research in relation to human rights violations as well, so that the mistreatment of aboriginal children who suffered during the 1940s won’t be overshadowed by the carnival-like treatment of consciousness research that the modern skeptical community already considers a joke.


Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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