University days are a great time to explore new directions. But sometimes you may end up a long way from where you thought you were going.
Back in 1969 I was a fresh-faced first year student at Auckland University. I had come there to bathe in the fountain of wisdom. I wanted to understand the deep mysteries of life, and learn how to think logically. Oh, and maybe learn how to speak Spanish fluently – you had to learn a language anyway, in those days, in order to get a BA. No real thoughts about how that might earn me a living – no big deal either in those days, as you were considered employable in a variety of professions with a BA. I did have an idea of eventually becoming really wise, and setting up in private practice as a clinical psychologist – I had heard of Freud and was yet to be disillusioned about his approach.
The first big event at Uni was “orientation”. In 1969, (maybe still today?) each society splashed out (pun intended) on wine and cheese evenings, to attract new members. I guess a portion of each new member’s funds were stashed away for next year’s wine and cheese. Anyway, I attended about a dozen wine and cheeses and joined one club. That club offered to sort out some of the deepest mysteries – it was the Psychic Research Club. I still feel a wee frisson at the memory: those wonderful youthful yearnings for secret knowledge, the suggestion that the world had so many wonderful properties waiting for my eager and well- trained mind to discover. Even if these psychic possibilities were all bunkum, I and my new-found friends decided that we would then have a new and interesting phenomenon to investigate, ie why do so many believe? In those hippy happy days (and I was already calling myself a hippy), the idea that there were no real psychic phenomena was rather novel. Many believed in Uri Geller’s psychic powers, and those guys at Duke University had apparently scientifically proved the existence of telepathy using specially designed cards in controlled experiments.
Our own investigations
Well, our motto was that we kept an open mind. We had not come to any definite conclusions, so, in true scientific fashion, we decided to carry out our own investigations.
I remember we did think that there were academics who seemed to be closed minded in rejecting psychic phenomena. Of course, they were also spoilsports – we had great fun going out on field trips to check out ghosts, and talking to eccentric colour therapists, “crystallologists”, people who had had prescient dreams, and the like. The focus of our studies, however, was to try to replicate the only possible scientific proof we had come across, the Duke university studies, which were published in the seriously academic-looking Journal of Parapsychology.
I recall that barely had we begun our serious work, when along came a couple of real spoil-sports from the Psychology Department. Professor Barry Kirkwood (now running a bed and breakfast on Waiheke Island I hear) gave a special talk – or it may have been a debate – on the validity of the Duke experiments, and a few other matters. He pointed out, I recall, a very serious methodological flaw. That is, the academics (in those days quite a few psychic experiments were conducted at universities) had admitted that psychic abilities could only be proved to manifest at some times and not others. Many attempts at replication (and to cut a long story short, also our own) failed. What factors turned “Psi” (the term for that ability) on and off were unknown. This problem is a classic one, and still slows down our scientific progress. The buggers, you see, only published their “successful” results, when probability calculations would “prove” Psi (telepathy, etc) was the most likely explanation. On the days the subjects failed – well, that was just an off-day: Psi had gone away, so those results were thrown in the rubbish bin. Thanks to Prof Kirkwood, we kept all our results, and learnt quite a lot about what randomly generated results look like, how to do statistical analysis, and what are appropriate, acceptable p (probability) values to prove anything scientifically.
I seem to remember that my friend Brian Whitworth, who was our president, got excellent marks for the statistics section of psychology.
In the end, as my now rather ancient memory goes, we tired of talking to “Psychics”. I remember Brian saying something about what nutters some of them were. They certainly never seemed to come up with anything definite that could be investigated scientifically. Then the other spoilsport in the Psych Department, David Marks (and another colleague, Richard Kammann) happened to be in a restaurant or bar next to Uri Geller. (I guess it was planned). Anyway, he heard first hand what Uri really thought of his fans – or should that be suckers. About that time, a jeweller I think it was, appeared on TV and de-monstrated how Uri’s “psychic concentration of energy” – or whatever he called it – was effective in re-starting watches that had stopped. (You have to remember that back in those days, most of us wore wind-up watches.) Apparently, when you followed Uri’s instructions of holding the watch in your hand, the oil thinned with the heat, freeing up the mechanism – for a while at least!
Finally, as I recall, we wound up our society, “for lack of evidence”, and had a final extra big wine and cheese party. Marks and Kammann published the landmark Psychology of the Psychic, which (to me at least) convincingly explained how so many otherwise sane people come to believe in psychic phenomena. I didn’t see Brian again after we graduated, although he did attend my (first) wedding, which occurred about seven months after I managed to get my girlfriend pregnant. It is a shame I didn’t listen to good old Prof Kirkwood earlier, and start tuning in to the actual processes and effects of the real world!
I went on to training college (now known as Colleges of Education), where I was paid a wage to study, and only briefly (and much later) became a trainee clinical psychologist. I was very disillusioned and disappointed with that profession, but that’s another story. For a while, I worked as a professional entertainer, as singer, guitarist, and magician with psychic abilities! I gave up the psychic act after a while, when I realized that the magician’s code of not spoiling the fun by revealing your tricks was incompatible with my newly acquired distaste for seeing people refuse to relinquish their belief that I was psychic – no matter how many times I denied it.