In Search of the Fur Bat

The True Story of Psychical Research at Stanford University

It's tempting to argue that Stanford was wrong to abandon psychical research. There are certainly people who believe that ESP is a scientifically valid field of study. Some cite the work done by Duke University psychologist J.B. Rhine in the 1940s and 1950s—experiments that seemed to show something odd was happening in the laboratory, whether or not you wanted to call it ESP. Rhine's methods were faulty, and his results are probably meaningless, but recent work done at Princeton and elsewhere suggests that the human mind has other powers: It can, for instance, influence electronic random-number generators. Although the effect of mental influence is tiny—the results deviate from chance by only a few parts in 10,000—it is statistically significant, and largely inexplicable.

If Stanford had stayed in the game, this argument goes, it might be at the forefront of a new understanding of the relation between the mind and the physical world. It may be more useful, however, to take Thomas Stanford's story, along with these recent developments in psychical research, as a reminder that bodies of knowledge—even when they have been enshrined on respectable campuses—are provisional, that even rich men sometimes place poor bets on the future, and that even poor bets may sometimes, in the very long run, pay off.

Thomas Stanford, benefactor and man of séance
photo: Stanford University Archives
Thomas Stanford, benefactor and man of séance

Buy Paul LaFarge's The Artist of the Missing
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