Gulf War Syndrome


Warfare has always been stressful for its participants. Before the psychological impacts of the conflict in Afghanistan became apparent, our regular medical columnist looks at the history of post-war syndromes

For a very short-lived conflict the Gulf War has produced an enigmatic legacy of illness which has continued to produce wide-ranging theories as to the cause of what has become known as Gulf War Syndrome (GWS). My view is that GWS can best be understood by examining the history of ill-health both during and after warfare.

Disturbed behaviour during or after conflict was recorded during Greco-Roman times.

In 1678 the Swiss Physician Johannes Hofer described this behaviour in terms of a longing for home and family, and coined the term “nostalgia”.

By 1755 nostalgia was recognised as endemic. However, it did not prove a particularly severe problem in terms of casualties because battle fatigue and exhaustion were limited by the short time scale of early conflicts. For example, the Battle of Agincourt could be measured in a few hours and Waterloo was over in three days. Given such circumstances, it is easy to see that nostalgia was related to prolonged periods away from home rather than the stress of imminent conflict.

The American Civil War provided some useful records and during the first two years of the conflict nostalgia produced a casualty rate of 2-3 per thousand. The American Civil War was a conflict where the weaponry was greatly in advance of the tactics and this led troops to have a certain anxiety about the blast effects of artillery. This led to the concept of “windage”, where it was thought that the pressure wave of a passing shell could produce paralysis of one or more limbs. Two percent of the Union Army were discharged owing to such paralysis.

In 1866, Sir John Erichsen had introduced the concept of “railway spine”, the idea being that the shock of a railway accident could produce functional disturbances of memory and neurological function in the absence of any physical injury. No connection appears to have been made between this syndrome and windage injury in soldiers. Doctors were, however, trying to come up with a classification system for mental illness. The term “neurosis” had already been coined by William Cullen in the 18th century as a blanket expression for all nervous disorders. Later, George Beard introduced the concept of neurasthenia which sought to explain nervous symptoms through some physical exhaustion of the nerves.

By 1910, Professor Glynn, writing in the Lancet, concluded that an emotional disturbance “probably plays a more important part in the production of the traumatic neurosis than physical injury. ” It was therefore easy to describe at this time how experience of war could lead to a war neurosis.

During the Boer War, MOs were highly suspicious of functional disorders which were widely believed to be a manifestation of malingering. Psychological theory, moreover, was strongly influenced by class considerations.

Nevertheless, there was a high rate of discharge for insanity which was probably really a description of “shell-shock”, an expression originally coined by Charles S. Myers of the RAMC in 1915. About the same time, American Physician John T. MacCurdy described conversion hysteria where the stress of combat exposure led to the development of loss of speech, deafness and limb paralysis.

Belief in windage persisted during WW1 and soldiers believed that the percussion of a near miss could produce some mysterious changes in the nervous system capable of destroying their self control. This illness perception was subject to local interpretation; for example, German troops developed a Parkinsonian type of tremor while French troops developed limb paralyses as a result of conversion hysteria. British soldiers suffered from effort syndrome which was a psychosomatic condition producing shortness of breath.

Widespread concern

By 1915 there was widespread public concern at the diagnosis of shellshock, in particular the number of soldiers sent home with the label of insanity. Army GS did not accept the diagnosis of shellshock as a defence at Courts Martial for cowardice and desertion. This is not surprising when many MO’s held opinions like one anonymous RMO on the Western front: “If a man lets his comrades down he ought to be shot. If he’s a loony so much the better.”

In the opposing trenches the German Army held to similar views. War neurosis was initially seen as a violation of military discipline with underlying suspicion of malingering. In the best Teutonic tradition, treatment consisted of strict military discipline and electric shock treatment. By 1916 most German neurologists agreed that shell-shock was purely psychological and it was realised that the best treatment was rest with the expectation of return to the front line. It was found that repatriation led to symptoms becoming entrenched and also encouraged a hysterical contagion to others.

Increasing public concern in the UK led to the Royal Society of Medicine Symposium on Shellshock in Jan 1916, where a consensus was sought. Some measure of the size of the problem can be gauged by the figures for the 12 month period up to April 30th 1916, when 1300 Officers and 10,000 other ranks were repatriated because of shell-shock.

By July 1916, shellshock was widely accepted as a legitimate label for disturbed behaviour not caused by any physical injury, but the military authorities remained anxious to separate those suffering from this disorder from those with “insufficient stoutness of heart”, a euphemism for cowardice.

By WW2, both Commanders and their MOs had a much better understanding of shellshock. It was clearly understood that the syndrome involved a stress reaction which could occur either at the time of combat or some time afterwards, something we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It was also known that the common initiating pathway was combat fatigue. Lack of sleep was an important factor. US studies during the Italian campaign found that one third of men in the frontline got less than four hours sleep per 24 hours. Only 13 per cent of troops got more than seven hours sleep.

Stress inoculation

Basic military skills training became extremely realistic and gave soldiers the confidence to be able to withstand combat stress. This process has been described as “stress inoculation”.

It was found empirically that soldiers operated at peak efficiency up to 90 days in the field and became burnt out after 200-240 days. During the Libyan campaign a “left out of battle scheme” meant that 20 per cent of front-line troops were regularly left in rear areas in order to recuperate from the stress of battle.

Total US neuropsychiatric casualties during WW2 numbered 400,000 of whom 25 per cent were repatriated.

The pattern of stress symptoms became changed and motor hysteria was replaced by cardiac and gastrointestinal symptoms. Advances in neurology meant that limb paralysis had become too easily diagnosed as hysterical.

The psychiatric casualty rate steadily diminished and was lowest after the Vietnam War. The major problem after this conflict was the late emergence of PTSD.

Individual susceptibility

Attention now became focused on the individual soldier and his or her susceptibility. For a period it was hoped that psychological screening on entry would detect those individuals most likely to become psychological casualties. This belief was tested during the Korean War and was found to be worthless. There was simply not enough time to screen candidates during enlistment. Despite this failure of prevention, the management of battle fatigue was considerably improved and only 6 per cent of psychiatric casualties had to be repatriated. This was due in part to a Command Policy that limited front-line service to a nine month rotation.

During the Vietnam War, it appeared that things were improving, with an all-time low casualty rate of 10-12 per thousand from war neurosis but it soon emerged that the major problem for veterans of this conflict was their integration back into civilian life. The Vietnam war was politically unpopular and it is hardly surprising that returned servicemen were met with hostility and rejection.

Fifteen percent of veterans (In NZ 20 per cent) claimed to be suffering from a disorder that became known as PTSD. This disorder entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980 after a prolonged campaign by well organised pressure groups and the label owes more to this process than any real scientific validity. Nevertheless, PTSD is defined as a constellation of symptoms and signs related to painful memories arising from experiences outside of normal human experience. The definition seems to have lost sight of the fact that shooting somebody or sticking a bayonet in them is generally outside of normal human experience. PTSD is believed to be caused by psychological arousal that produces chronic symptoms of anxiety and emotional withdrawal. In one major study that traced over three million Vietnam vets, 25 per cent were suffering some degree of PTSD.

Falklands War

The situation was even worse following the Falklands War. Fifty percent of veterans still serving had some of the symptoms of PTSD while 22 per cent had the complete PTSD syndrome as defined in DSM-III. Concerns at this high rate led one research project to look at the efficacy of psychological debriefing following experience of mental, physical or emotional trauma. It was hoped that an appropriate debrief would prevent the development of PTSD. Unfortunately the incidence of PTSD was exactly the same whether or not those exposed received immediate psychological debriefing.

In summary, up to the time of the Gulf War, there is a long recorded history of war-related psychological illness which start as battle fatigue and progress to either an acute neuropsychiatric syndrome or a much later expression as PTSD. The important question is whether GWS is a variation of PTSD or whether it is indeed some unique syndrome arising from some specific consequence of the Gulf War.

Chemical/biological threats

The Gulf War started with the Coalition forces ranged against the real threat of Iraqi troops hardened by years of war with Iran. The threat of chemical and biological weapons was also very real and the requirement to use respirators and restrictive protective clothing caused added stress in an already hostile environment. A US MO observed at the time that most acute medical problems had an emotional basis, frequently rooted in separation anxiety from family and friends. This is an exact modern description of Hofer’s nostalgia.

Soldiers were scared about chemical weapons, which is precisely the value of such agents. Panic, hyperventilation and inability to use respirators were reported in a number of subjects as was the inappropriate use of various remedies against chemical agents.

Since the Gulf War ended in 1991, large numbers of veterans have presented with a diversity of unexplained symptoms such as fatigue, headache, joint pains, skin rash, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness. It has been claimed by sufferers that GWS has somehow been transmitted to family members and even their medical attendants These symptoms have affected nearly 10 per cent of 697,000 US Veterans but only about one percent of 45,000 UK veterans. Some members of the Coalition forces have had no cases of GWS despite serving in exactly the same circumstances as those who claim to have the syndrome.

GWS has generated a vast number of studies and theories about causation. One such study costing $80 million and surveying 18,924 vets found “no single cause or mystery ailment to support suspicions about the existence of a GWS.” These findings have been confirmed by similar British and Canadian studies.

Random medical events

Despite these findings, researchers continue to promote ever more theories about the cause of GWS in which random medical events are now reported as proof of illness.

Over-investigation (the “million dollar work-up”) has produced unexpected laboratory results leading to further confusion and controversy about suspected aetiologies. Theories abound in direct proportion to the number of specialists involved and the mass media has become involved in popularising GWS with its disease of the month mentality. Veterans have developed a “fixed illness belief” characterised by paranoia and conspiracy theories. These are amply served by websites on the Internet and support groups. Veterans react angrily to any suggestion that GWS has a psychological basis such as a form of PTSD.

Throughout all of this, the US Government has been cautious and sympathetic and Vets with GWS are entitled to disability payments.

I believe that GWS is a functional disorder arising from psychological arousal. In other words, a somatoform disorder. The rates of symptoms reported are the same as in the civilian community and this explains the resemblance to Chronic Fatigue syndrome (CFS) which has an identical causation. GWS should be labeled with the more generic description of post-war syndrome.

Failure to recognise this has led to an entrenched illness perception with associated paranoia and conspiracy delusions. Continued over-investigation and speculation has paralleled a similar process in CFS. This fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of post-war syndromes has already led to a new variant – Balkans Syndrome alleged to be due to exposure to depleted uranium.

A combination of factors

My own theory as to the actual initiation of post-war syndromes is that they arise from a combination of factors such as Hofer’s nostalgia and a rejection of warfare as a means of solving disputes, with the major factor being psychological activation and the creation of perceived illness. This illness is real to the afflicted individuals and the real challenge is to work with them rather than deny their symptoms. No funding should be made available for conducting further investigations and tests as these are irrelevant to the causation of GWS.


Shell Shock, A History of the Changing Attitude to War Neurosis. Anthony Babington

Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation. Report of the Findings from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study 1990

Hystories, Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media. Elaine Showalter

A History of Psychiatry. Edward Shorter

From Paralysis to Fatigue. A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era. Edward Shorter.

Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program for Gulf War Veterans. Department of Defense 1995

Illness of Persian Gulf Veterans. Hearing Before Committess of Veteran’s Affairs Serial No. 102-51

She went to War. The Rhonda Cornum Story. Presidio Press 1992

GWS. Letter in BMJ 1995; 310:1073 (22 April)

Hokum Locum

Recently returned from a posting in Saudi Arabia and now suffering from a cold and a bleeding nose, John Welch continues his column on medical matters.

Dilutions of Grandeur

As a Fellow of the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners (it came in the cornflakes) I receive a regular copy of their journal, the NZ Family Physician. There are some good contributions but I find it irritating to see reviews of homeopathy studies appearing in what should be a serious and scientifically based journal. In Vol 27 Issue 5, a study is reviewed in which mice were given nux vomica 30c, 200c and 1000c. 30c means that the “active” substance has been diluted 10 to the power 30 times. A mole of a substance contains about 10 to the power 24 atoms (Avogadro’s number) and this means that the 10-30 dilution is extremely unlikely to contain any active material. This is the main failing point of homeopathy, which depends on faith and the placebo effect. In the study reviewed a positive finding was made that mice treated with various dilutions of nux vomica, and then challenged with ethanol, regained their righting reflex more quickly. Such a result is a delusion.

I would add from my perspective: “The abuse of science will cause discomfort for many scientists.”

Integrated Medicine?

The same issue contains an article which should not have been published as it is a commercial for the use of Vega (read “vaguer” and you are on the right track) testing. There is no place for this unscientific rubbish to be practised by any medical practitioner and it is a matter of regret that the Medical Council do not have the power to ban the use of such machines. I have written before on the subject of this quackery and at the last Auckland Conference Dr David Cole gave an excellent presentation on the evolution of “black-boxes” which allegedly test “biofields”. The article frequently uses the following words and expressions (with my translations):

  • Biofield = imaginary energy aura which can only be detected by trained observers
  • Paradigm shift = more of a lurch into another dimension of foolishness
  • Energy based Quantum Physics = the author is ignorant of any physics
  • Dramatically improve = an excellent placebo effect was obtained

A double-blind randomised study of Vega-testing published in the BMJ (Vol 322, 20 Jan p131) concluded predictably: “Electrodermal testing cannot be used to diagnose environmental allergies.”

Re-birthing Backfires

Because a young girl was having trouble bonding with her adoptive mother, a couple of loony therapists decided she had a “reactive attachment disorder” and decided that a spot of rebirthing was in order. This unfortunately went tragically wrong when the girl suffocated inside the sheet which had been wound around her. This is a graphic reminder of the sometimes appalling outcomes associated with the activities of the lunatic fringe. It need not actively cause death as in this case, but can cause death by neglect when effective measures are denied such as in the Liam Holloway case.
(Sunday Star Times 22/4/01)

Aromatherapy Flunks

Subjects had their reaction times tested with and without the benefit of essential oils sprinkled onto surgical masks they were wearing. I will quote directly from the article: “The essential oils appeared to make no difference to reaction times, but the volunteers who rated the oils highly showed small improvements in their reaction times.” (Presumably not a significant difference).

“Dr Richard Tonkin, president of the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, said the power of suggestion was a big factor in all medicine.”

I would only add that the power of suggestion is the main factor in all complemetary medicine.
(The Dominion, 20 April)

Teething, Feeding, Wind and Worms

One of the problems of an aging population is that there are too many “old wives” promulgating myths about childhood illness. Twenty-five years ago, my old Professor of Paediatrics, Fred Shannon, gave a lecture to us with the above title, and observed among other things, that wind was a meteorological phenomenon. He must have been ahead of his time because Australian researchers found no link between ill-health and teething in a cohort of infants over the period of 6-24 months of age. It is obvious that chance events such as a minor illness will occur when a tooth is erupting and a folk myth is soon created. When death certification began in the UK in the early 1800s, as many as 4000 deaths annually were attributed to “teething”. As Fred Shannon observed: “teething causes teeth”. I certainly found this to be true with my own series (N=2 daughters) of cases.
(Pediatrics 2000;106:1374-9)

Head-drilling again?

I have mentioned this subject before but thought it to be an uncommon procedure. In the US (where else?) two men pleaded guilty to practising medicine without a licence after drilling a hole in the head of a woman’s skull in order to “restore her childhood buoyancy”. Now I have been doing quite a bit of swimming lately and I am very sure that a hole in the head would not help my bouyancy at all!

It’s about time!

At a medicolegal conference reported in Doctor 14/3/2001, Fiona McCrimmon called for the Ministry of Health to act against the manufacturers of complementary medicines where misleading claims are made. Pharmacies are full of such products which are not registered and are only lawful if they do not make any therapeutic claims. Ms McCrimmon went on to observe: “It is a challenge to find a flyer (for complementary therapies) that complies with the law.”

What Are We To Make of Exceptional Experience?

The following is an abridged version of a paper presented at Skeptics 2000, Dunedin, New Zealand. The author would like to thank NZCSICOP and NZARH for sponsoring this visit to New Zealand.

In this paper I discuss some major categories of “exceptional” or anomalous experiences and how to interpret them. I am particularly interested in the kinds of experiences studied by parapsychologists (ie ESP, PK, and precognition). An important assumption is that the description of an exceptional experience needs to be kept separate from any of its possible interpretations. The brain/mind is structured in such a way that exceptional experiences and their interpretations easily become conflated.

Interpretations of exceptional experience take principally one of two forms: normal or “N” theory accounts (NIEs) or a paranormal or “P” theory accounts (PIEs). Analysis of lay accounts of exceptional experience suggests an acceptance of and belief in paranormal claims ahead of the evidence that is necessary to warrant these claims.

Evidence supporting PIEs appears to be conflicting, inconsistent and, in other respects, seriously wanting. I argue that PIEs often result from eight special circumstances that pass unnoticed by the original investigators or PIE claimants. These are methodological flaws, sensory cues, imperfect randomisation, selection of best cases, subjective validation, inappropriate statistics, and outright deception, trickery or fraud.

The issue will be illustrated with seven specific examples.

1. Remote viewing ability

(1A) SRI series

This series of experiments on a form of ESP called remote viewing ran from 1972 to 1985 under the direction of Dr Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and created a huge international interest in the paranormal. Unfortunately, the studies were very badly flawed.

Science separates itself from pseudo-science along a number of dimensions. One of these is accessibility of the data. Following publication of interesting and significant observations it is an accepted scientific practice for researchers to allow colleagues who are doing serious research in the same field to have access to their original data. When researchers consistently refuse to allow colleagues such access, something important is being signalled. Of course data may get lost or destroyed or be difficult or costly to retrieve in the form required. Or they may be classified information or have commercial value that a scientist may wish to exploit prior to their general release.

However, when none of these considerations is applicable, refusal to supply a copy of a data-set leads to the unpleasant inference that something is wrong, that the data do not support what is claimed for them, that the data are an embarrassment following an extravagant claim that cannot be substantiated.

During the 1970s I made frequent requests to Puthoff and Targ for copies of their remote viewing transcripts. Targ and Puthoff consistently refused to supply this information, as they did to others I know who have made this request. Their only concession was to supply me with a single transcript from the Price series (Experiment 7) published in Mind-Reach.

Following publication of The Psychology of the Psychic, I conducted a “remote judging” exercise with the Hammid series of remote viewing experiments. The three remote judges had access only to the cues provided in the Hammid transcripts together with the target lists and the map provided to the SRI judge. No site visits were possible and none of the descriptive material from the SRI transcripts was available. A total of 24 cues was found in six Hammid transcripts.

The claim that the Hammid target list given to Arthur Hastings was randomised is also doubtful. It actually depends on which list one is talking about, because, although the SRI researchers were unwilling to admit this, no less than three listings of targets in the Hammid series were given to the judge. “I received three target lists” (letter from Hastings, May 26, 1977). One of these lists was randomised; this is the one cited by Puthoff as the (implying only) target list given to the judge. The other two lists provided by SRI (described in detail by Hastings in his letter to me of May 26, 1977) were not random.

Contrary to Targ and Puthoff’s claims, the quality of the subjects’ descriptions is extremely poor and, without the cues, cannot be matched against the targets. Had cue-less matching been possible, T and P would not have needed to leave these obvious clues in the transcripts in the first place.

Tart, Puthoff and Targ (1980) claimed to have conducted a re-judging of the Price series with all of the cues removed from the transcripts. After asking Puthoff for a set of the edited transcripts on multiple occasions over three years, they were eventually sent to a colleague Dr Chris Scott. On inspecting these supposedly “edited” transcripts, it was readily apparent that many obvious cues were still present (Marks & Scott, 1986). The little remaining credibility for Targ and Puthoff had now been absolutely and irrevocably destroyed.

(1B) SAIC or Star Gate series.

This series of remote viewing studies ran from 1985 until 1995 and was directed by Dr Edwin May. The Star Gate RV series consisted of three projects:

  1. “Operations” using remote viewers stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, to collect intelligence;
  2. “Research and Development”, the laboratory research conducted at SRI and later at SAIC;
  3. “Foreign Assessment” focused on gathering intelligence on what potential enemies were doing in the area of parapsychology.

Much of the information about Operations and Foreign Assessment remains classified although many ex-military remote viewers have established private businesses that offer remote viewing services. They are responsible for a lot of hype in the media, in their books and on their WebPages.

The CIA carried out a review of the SAIC program in 1995 which was aimed at determining: (a) whether Star Gate had any long-term practical value for the intelligence community, and (b) if it did, what changes should be made to enhance the value of remote viewing research. The review reached the following conclusions:

  1. “A statistically significant effect has been observed in the recent laboratory experiments of remote viewing. However, the existence of a statistically significant effect did not lead both reviewers to the conclusion that this research program has provided an unequivocal demonstration that remote viewing exists. A statistically significant effect might result either from the existence of the phenomenon, or, alternatively, to methodological artefacts or other alternative explanations for the observed effects.”

  2. “The experimental research conducted as part of the current program does not unambiguously support the interpretation of the results in terms of a paranormal phenomenon.”

The principal reason for this conclusion is that only one judge, who happened to be the Principal Investigator, was used in assessing matches throughout these experimental studies. The CIA report concluded:

“As a consequence, there is no evidence for agreement across independent judges as to the accuracy of the remote viewings. Failure to provide evidence that independent judges arrive at similar conclusions makes it difficult to unambiguously determine whether the observed effects can be attributed to the remote viewers’ (paranormal) ability, to the ability of the judge to interpret ambiguous information, or to the combination or interaction of the viewers and the judge. Furthermore, given the Principal Investigator’s familiarity with the viewers, the target set, and the experimental procedures, it is possible that subtle, unintentional factors may have influenced the results obtained in these studies.”

2. Ganzfeld ESP ability

This field is a core part of the parapsychology literature and has been intensively researched in at least ten different laboratories in the USA and Europe for about the same length of time as remote viewing. The ganzfeld research has gained an almost symbolic importance for the parapsychology field as the best case for the existence of psi. The results obtained in the ganzfeld allegedly appeared in multiple studies by different investigators with subjects who were not especially selected or gifted as psychics. It is the main focus for discussions of parapsychology in a leading psychology journal (Psychological Bulletin) and it has increasingly been viewed as a genuine and uncontroversial finding. Until now, that is.

Ganzfeld experiments involve two participants, a sender and a receiver, located in separate rooms. The receiver is in a ganzfeld that is usually created by wearing translucent Ping-Pong ball halves taped over the eyes and a red floodlight directed towards the eyes, producing an undifferentiated visual field. White noise is played through headphones. To reduce internal “noise” in the form of somatic sensations, the receiver may be taken through a series of progressive relaxation exercises. The term “ganzfeld”, a German word meaning “total field”, refers to the mild sensory habituation created by the environment described.

The sender is shown a target picture or video clip that has been randomly selected from a large pool of possible targets. The sender is asked to try to send the information about the picture or video to the receiver by psychic means (telepathy). The receiver is asked to receive this information and to report any images, thoughts or feelings that occur during the trial. The receiver is then given a randomly ordered set of four stimuli, the target plus three decoys. If the receiver chooses the correct target it is recorded as a hit. The mean chance expectation (MCE) is 25 percent: a statistically significant deviation above MCE is suggestive of an anomalous effect consistent with psi.

The ganzfeld research is unique in parapsychology for the way in which believers and sceptics have worked together to agree a protocol for properly controlled investigation (Hyman & Honorton, 1986). This resulted from the leadership of two principal figures, the late Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. One of the progressive outcomes of Hyman and Honorton’s joint communiqué was a set of guidelines concerning methodology. Hopefully these guidelines for ganzfeld research were implemented and the quality of studies improved as a consequence.

Not only should the methodology have improved beyond the earlier studies, which were heavily flawed (Hyman, 1985), but the results should not be dependent on a small band of investigators: when a small number of well-insulated people and organisations are responsible for a program, the research can go badly off the rails.

Milton and Wiseman (1999) systematically reviewed the ganzfeld literature since the Hyman/Honorton joint communiqué, 1987 to February 1997. They found 30 studies in 14 papers by 10 principal authors from seven laboratories; the database included 1,198 ganzfeld trials. They calculated a probability score across all 30 studies of only .24, meaning that the ganzfeld effect was so small it did not differ statistically from chance. Milton and Wiseman’s study, published in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, has already created a few waves in the parapsychology pond.

Startling Results

As if this result was not damaging enough, the investigators went on to critically examine three of five other claims made by Bem and Honorton (1994) and to determine their methodological rigour. What they found is even more startling. The new ganzfeld studies, 1987-97, examined three out of five variables that Bem and Honorton had suggested were statistically related to high psi scoring rates in the autoganzfeld studies. These three variables were:

  1. Trials with dynamic targets (videos) had been more successful than trials with static targets.
  2. Novices who reported prior psi experiences in everyday life scored more highly than those who did not.
  3. Novices who reported studying a mental discipline such as meditation or yoga scored more highly than people who did not.

Milton and Wiseman’s analysis found only one of these variables to be significant of the new studies (number 2). However when they looked into the original studies examined by Bem and Honorton (1994) they discovered that there appeared to be no good evidence to support this in the first place. The two papers in which this ‘novices with mental training’ effect was allegedly found contained one non-significant effect (Honorton & Schecter, 1986) and one reversed effect (Honorton, 1997). The same problem appeared in respect of another of Bem and Honorton’s “discoveries” about psi, that high scoring novices were also high on Feeling and Perception on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Briggs & Myers, 1957). This was another “discovery” that appeared in the first study and then disappeared in the second.

Milton (1999) extended the meta-analysis to included nine further well-controlled ganzfeld studies run between February 1997 to March 1999. This longer series of 39 studies managed to reach significance (p= .011) but, when a single highly significant study by Dalton (1997) was excluded, the Stouffer z score was only 1.45 and p=.074 (not significant). Thus, there is no evidence of a consistently replicable ganzfeld effect across a 12-year period of well-controlled ganzfeld research. One or two strikingly significant studies appear now and then but this does not constitute replication. The occurrence of one highly significant study in a general run of non-significant studies in fact sets alarm bells ringing. Dalton’s (1997) study with an effect size that is significantly higher than the general run suggests the need for an in-depth investigation of Dalton’s protocols.

In addition to the non-significant meta-analyses, criticisms of studies included by Bem and Honorton have also arisen. These are:

  • Inadequate randomisation of targets and judging sets (Hyman, 1994)
  • Possible sensory leakage of target information (Wiseman et al, 1996)
  • Lack of replication (Milton & Wiseman, 1999)

3. Ability to detect unseen staring

Rupert Sheldrake (1994) proposed An Alice Through the Looking Glass vision of things that might be so but probably are not. He advocates the collective participation of non-scientists who have the “freedom to explore new areas of research”, and promotes a radically new theory of perception. We do not see images of things inside our brains, he maintains, the images may be outside us: “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images.”

This process of outward projection has some interesting implications. If our minds reach out and “touch” things, then we may affect what we look at. For example, when we stare at somebody from behind s/he may be able to feel that we are staring on the back of his/her neck. Titchener (1898) described the feeling as “a state of unpleasant tingling, which gathers in volume and intensity until a movement which shall relieve it becomes inevitable” (p. 895). Colwell, Schroeder and Sladen (2000) have recently reviewed the literature on psychic staring and carried out some empirical tests.

The idea that “unseen” staring can be detected has been supported in the following research with incidence rates as high as 68-86% (Coover, 1913), 74% (Williams, 1983) and 92% (Braud, Shafer & Andrews, 1993). Titchener rejected the idea that the staring effect was based on telepathy and suggested the hypothesis that the eye is attracted to movement and the starer’s gaze is therefore attracted to the staree’s head turning in his direction.

Sheldrake (1994) has conducted new experiments on the staring phenomenon and encouraged school children and other members of the public to participate in his research program. Experimental kits can be downloaded from the New Scientist Web Site including an interesting list of 24 “random” sequences for use in experimental trials. Sheldrake suggests that each child in a group is tested with a different sequence or use sequences determined by tosses of a coin. The results are being compiled by Sheldrake into a pooled data set.

A colleague, John Colwell, decided to put the Sheldrake findings to rigorous test under controlled laboratory conditions (Colwell et al, 2000). On the basis of Sheldrake’s observations, it was decided to investigate the staring effect both with and without feedback. Colwell’s team carried out two experiments. The results of the first experiment suggested that the subjects in the staring research are able to score above chance as a consequence of being able to learn the non-random patterns in the sequences using the feedback. The tendency of the participants to show negative recency by avoiding multiple repetitions was well matched by Sheldrake’s sequences that showed exactly the same property. The fact that starees can guess when staring is occurring at above chance levels therefore demonstrates nothing other than an ability to notice patterns. This is a low-level ability that even a mouse could manage.

John Colwell and his team repeated the experiment using 10 properly randomised sequences taken from random number tables instead of Sheldrake’s non-random sets. The results support the hypothesis that the improvement in accuracy during staring episodes observed in Experiment One was due to pattern learning. When no feedback was provided and pattern learning was blocked, no ability to detect staring was observed and also no learning.

4. Pets’ ESP ability

Are animals psychic? Since time immemorial human beings have attributed supernatural powers to animals. The latest example of a long tradition of paranormal claims on behalf of our animal friends is the “psychic pet”. For example, a pet dog is claimed to be able to use psychic powers to detect when its owner is returning home. This has been the subject of Sheldrake’s (1999) Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Sheldrake believes that a dog called Jaytee uses its “sixth sense” of telepathy to determine its owner Pamela Smart’s decision to return home.

According to Sheldrake, many pet owners claim the ability in their pets to know when a member of the household is about to come home. The dog goes and waits for the owner at a door or window, in a driveway, or even at a bus stop.

Sheldrake claims that on 100 different occasions between May 1994 and February 1995 when Pamela left Jaytee with her parents and went out, 85 times Jaytee reacted by going to the French window before Pamela returned, usually at least 10 minutes in advance of Pamela’s decision to set off for home. The anticipatory behaviour occurred regardless of distance or vehicle used. However, as Sheldrake acknowledges, the “anticipatory signalling” behaviour of Jaytee could have been cued by the expectations of Pam’s parents William and Muriel Smart as they consciously or unconsciously cued the dog that Pam would be home soon. It was necessary to conduct trials in which Pam set off for home at randomly selected times that were unknown to William and Muriel.

The story took an interesting twist in 1995 when Rupert Sheldrake (RS) invited Richard Wiseman to investigate Jaytee (Wiseman, Smith and Milton, 1998). Richard Wiseman’s team proposed eight normal explanations for the “psychic pet” phenomenon that controlled studies would need to take into account, including response to routine, sensory cueing, and selective memory.

Wiseman conducted four studies with the full co-operation of Pamela Smart and Sheldrake, based on the above safeguards and precautions. In none of these studies did Jaytee detect accurately when PS set off to return home. If this pet dog had any psychic ability at all, it did not appear in this study.

Rupert Sheldrake (1999) reports a series of observations carried out in a pre-planned series of 12 “experiments” in which Jaytee’s behaviour was recorded throughout Pam’s absences on time-recorded videotape. In these trials Pam came home at randomly selected times that were not known to her in advance. A third party (usually Sheldrake) selected the return time and bleeped Pam on a pager.

The resulting observations were analysed in two ways. First, by plotting the percentage of time that JT spent by the window for three periods:

  1. 1. The first ten minutes following the bleep: 55%
  2. The 10-minute period prior to PS’s return: 23%
  3. The main period when PS was absent prior to the pre-return period that varied between 110 and 150 minutes: 4%.

It would be a common sense interpretation of Sheldrake’s data to assume that JT could learn the timing of PS’s returns. This is exactly what happens. The results of Sheldrake’s tests are therefore not convincing. Why Sheldrake chose to use a pre-arranged bleep period that started between 80 and 170 minutes after PS had left is unclear. This restricted range for the bleep means that the return is more predictable. John Colwell estimated the return periods following the bleep by examining Sheldrake’s plots of the data. He found that PS always returned within a period of 110-200 minutes following her departure, 10 of the returns (83%) occurring during a 40-minute period between 120 and 160 minutes after departure. This means that JT may have learned when PS could be expected home and signalled accordingly. This hypothesis assumes no psychic powers, only the power of memory. The procedures used by Wiseman had allowed the return to occur at any time following PS’s departure. This procedure stopped JT from learning a simple routine based on timing similar to the situation that pertained when PS had followed a daily routine of reliable departures and returns.

5. Uri Geller’s ESP ability

In turning to claims 5-7 by self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, the fact that his claims are unproven is so well known among parapsychologists that we do not need to dwell on them for very long. However they need to be discussed because Geller is still actively involved as a paranormalist and many lay people appear to believe that his claims are genuine. There is only one peer-reviewed article on his ESP abilities; this is the same paper that reported the remote viewing studies carried out at the Stanford Research Institute by Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff (1974).

Like the remote viewing studies, Targ and Puthoff’s studies with Geller were very badly flawed. As in the case of remote viewing, however, the flaws were not apparent until in-depth investigations could be carried out into the experimental conditions. Following visits to the SRI laboratory Dick Kammann and I were able to reveal that the investigators Targ and Puthoff had left Geller unobserved in a chamber which had a hole in the wall stuffed only with cotton wool. An intercom was also available for Geller to listen to the investigators as they chose the targets and produced the stimulus drawings. At least one of the drawings (a bunch of grapes) was placed on a wall in the adjoining room opposite the access hole.

There has never been a single replication of this study. Repeated attempts by the author and others to persuade Geller to participate in laboratory experiments have been rejected. Field observations of Geller’s performance have revealed his use of sensory cues available from signals sent by accomplices.

6. Uri Geller’s PK ability

Geller’s claim to be able to bend metal without touching it is well known. However in spite of his claims, there are no peer-reviewed reports of his alleged PK ability (metal bending, influencing objects at a distance). Field observation shows that Geller can only bend metal in his hands.

7. Uri Geller’s clairvoyant ability

A set of 10 trials of a clairvoyance experiment was carried at SRI using a dice in a locked box (Targ & Puthoff, 1974). This study was also seriously flawed because Geller had the time and opportunity to flip open the lid of the box and see the target information. Again there is a lack of replication and field observations of his alleged clairvoyance ability suggest the use of normal perceptual-motor abilities in the form of signals from an accomplice and other means.

The genesis of P Theory

In the seven examples of Exceptional Experience discussed above, a NIE has proved to be a perfectly adequate explanation making any form of PIE redundant or superfluous. This rather pessimistic conclusion about the validity of PIEs is not purely a negative exercise however. Psychological and statistical studies of Exceptional Experience have yielded an interesting account of how the everyday operation of the processes of attention, perception and decision making promote PIE-thinking even when the alternative and more rational NIE-thinking can do perfectly well with the same experiential data. These analyses have revealed processes that make the genesis and high prevalence of PIEs understandable from a psychological viewpoint.

Subjective validation.

This is a powerful effect of belief and selective attention. Subjective validation occurs when support for one’s beliefs is found in a piece of evidence independently of any objective support. This process is also known under the term, “confirmation bias”.

Coincidences as “odd matches”.

There is a compelling and widespread tendency to believe that coincidences cannot occur purely by chance. An “odd match” is an association between two events that appears to lack a causal explanation. In The Psychology of the Psychic (1st ed.) Kammann and I referred to the belief that such odd matches cannot arise by chance as Koestler’s Fallacy after the most famous of its proponents. In fact, odd matches can and do occur by chance. “One-in-a-million” odd matches occur with a probability of precisely one in a million. The problem is that you and I are unaware of the million-minus-one combinations that do not strike us as vivid odd matches.

Assume that at the end of an ordinary day a person can recall 100 distinct events. This gives 4950 pairs of events. In 10 years and 1000 people we have 18 billion pairs of events. This generates 18,000 “one-in-a-million” events, some of which will be very striking.

The numbers of “one-in-a-million” experiences over the entire human population become impressively large. From the statistical viewpoint, that these experiences happen is inevitable. From a psychological viewpoint, it is equally as inevitable that the individuals concerned will have difficulty dealing with the experience without a fatalistic or paranormal interpretation. If a few exceptional experiences inspire their authors to write about them in their full paranormal regalia (e.g. Koestler, 1972) we have discovered the genesis of parapsychology itself. The reason parapsychologists continue to work in their chosen field is not the often disappointing results they obtain from their formal studies but their compelling personal experiences that have a PIE attached.

References available on request from the editor

Of Con Tricks and Conferences

Many moons ago I packed into a dimmed lecture theatre along with 400 other keen-eyed stage I psych students to listen to a presentation on psychic ability.

The mood was festive – it was almost the last lecture of the year and promised to be a good one. Some bloke was going to demonstrate their prowess with telepathy and fix some broken watches. Students packed into the aisles and I’m sure there were a few economics or accounting students present.

I distinctly recall being suspicious. Honest. Probably aided by my brother sitting next to me who was trying to work out the tricks. What I remember most of all is the utter gullibility of the majority of the other students – they swallowed it hook, line and little lead balls. It was, of course, a setup brilliantly executed by Otago University psychologist David Marks. I was so impressed I went out and bought his book, Psychology Of The Psychic (written with the late Richard Kammann) – one of the earliest books on the topic that I ever read. (Could the person I lent it to please return it?) It was this incident, somewhere back in the early 80s, that first sparked my interest in skepticism.

So it is with considerable delight that I see Dr David Marks will give a presentation at the next skeptic’s conference (the one in Dunedin, the one you are about to register for straight away…). Dr Marks is these days professor of psychology at Middlesex University and we are grateful to the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists who have helped with financing his visit to this country. I also note he is pencilled in for Saturday night’s entertainment which alone could be worth driving 800km to listen to.

Unhappily the Taylor/Riddell household won’t be attending – having just settled in following six months in the deep south we’re not ready to turn round and go back again.

Which is a shame because the theme of this year’s conference is one close to our hearts – Evolution, Creationism and Education.

Another distinguished speaker who will need no introduction to most members is Australia’s Ian Plimer, professor of Earth Science at Melbourne University. His talk on the evolution of creationism will be a highlight of the programme.

Conference organiser Warwick Don has put together an excellent weekend – if only it was in Hamilton!

But welcome to the 56th issue of the NZ Skeptic in which we examine medical matters, with Dr David Cole looking at the history of black box devices and Dr Bill Morris’s article on the pill.

We also welcome back Dr (am I the only non doctor in these parts?) John Welch who for many years wrote the Hokum Locum and is picking up his pen again. Many thanks to Dr Neil McKenzie for his contributions.

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UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery

UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery, by Robert E. Bartholomew & George S. Howard; 1998. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, US. ISBN 1-57392-200-5

Readers of NZ Skeptic will have seen R.E. Bartholomew’s article “The Great Zeppelin Scare of 1909” in last autumn’s issue, no 47. This covered the same event as one of the chapters in this book. Several other chapters describe similar episodes which occurred in other times and other places, and in a final section all these are woven into a coherent story. Each chapter is supported by a copious list of references, most of them newspaper reports pubished during the development and decay of the case concerned.

In addition to detailed factual accounts, each episode is placed in its social and historical setting, with an explanation of why the different experiences took the form they did.

Previous psychological commentators have labelled the “experiencers” of the events described in this book, mostly on very little evidence, as in some way mentally sick. Bartholomew and Howard disagree; their careful psychological analysis of over one hundred such people found no evidence of psychopathology, but rather “Fantasy Prone Personality” (FPP).

“While functioning as normal, healthy adults, FPPs experience rich fantasy lives, scoring dramatically higher…on hypnotic susceptibility, psychic ability, healing, out-of-body experiences, religious visions, and apparitional experiences. In our study, “abductees” and “contactees” evidence a similar pattern of characteristics to FPPs.”

The experiences of these individuals mirrored the concerns of the society in which they lived. Thus, in late 19th century, United States, the achievement of powered flight was thought to be imminent, and a host of “airship” sightings were reported.

Just before World War I, when the British were very nervous of Germany’s growing military strength especially its lead in airship development, zeppelins were seen by thousands all over England.

In Sweden in 1946, fear of the German V-rockets recently acquired by the USSR was widespread, and hundreds of reports of missile sightings were published. And so for other cases, including, of course, the 1947 sighting of “flying saucers” in the western US and all that flowed from it.

The objects in the latter case were described by aviator Kenneth Arnold as skipping along “like a saucer would…across the water”, and this gave rise to a deluge of “flying saucer” sightings, although Arnold had said the objects he saw were crescent- not saucer-shaped.

These objects were at first almost everywhere considered to be of terrestrial origin, as secret weapons or aircraft, either “ours” or “theirs” of the cold war. Only after a few years did belief suddenly switch to an extra-terrestial origin; the authors ascribe this to two best-selling books.

Wherever and whenever the events described in this book occurred, some common features are apparent. Firstly, the technology imputed to the “visitors” is just a little ahead of contemporary achievement. Thus:

  • the US airship sightings of the 1890s preceded the Wright brothers’ flight by almost a decade
  • early reports of aeroplanes were all sightings at night, at a time when night flying had barely been attempted
  • the New Zealand Zeppelin scare of 1909 occurred many years before flights of such dirigibles in the Antipodes were possible

A second common theme is the way these stories wax and wane. Initial incidents were widely reported, and the numbers rose rapidly. After a while, as physical evidence obstinately refused to reveal itself, editors denounced the reports as hoaxes or the reporters as deluded (despite the prominence many of these same editors had given the initial reports).

Following these skeptical editorials, the number of incidents being claimed fell greatly — were they still being experienced, but by people now shunning ridicule, or did the editorial expressions of disbelief change the FPPs’ inclination to fantasise?

The extent and depth of the newspaper reports on which most of this book is based are truly amazing. Think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of papers in the UK and US of similar circulation to the Geraldine Guardian and Clutha Leader (both quoted largely in the chapter on the New Zealand Zeppelin Scare), think of over 100 years of publishing, and contemplate the enormous database which provides these stories.

The reliance on this local reporting has one disadvantage — the notoriously monoglot English-speaking world gets told in this book very little of UFOs and “aliens” as reported in foreign language newspapers.

The main impression left by this book is to confirm the conclusion that our minds and senses can easily deceive us. So often “seeing is believing” should be read “believing is seeing”. The bizarre examples described here provide a wide background of rationality against which to view, and judge, the further phenomena which are sure to be presented to us.


An article by Gordon Hewitt in NZ Skeptic 47 states, “In June 1995…an article appeared in this publication saying counselling was no use. This judgement was based on a single study conducted in 1939.” This is not true, but as the author of the article I am obviously biased. May I urge all skeptics to read it for themselves?

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Counselling, Criticism and Scepticism

As a counsellor and psychotherapist also trained in science and in scepticism I have been disappointed in the apparent lack of depth to the sceptical analysis of counselling that seems to be present from time to time in the NZ Skeptic. This lack of rigour in analysis goes back some way. In June 1995, for example, an article appeared in this publication saying counselling was no use. This judgement was based on a single study conducted in 1939.

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