Update, January 31, 2008: Banacek, one of the magicians mentioned below, has his own recollection of events, which is somewhat different from Thalbourne's. For his side of the story, please see this post.
Today a reader, Travis, asked me about Project Alpha, the famous episode from the early 1980s in which superskeptic James Randi arranged for two young magicians to infiltrate a parapsychology lab in order to confound the researchers. Over the years, this strange incident has assumed almost legendary proportions in the minds of some skeptics and reporters, who claim that the researchers were totally fooled. Here, for instance, is the way the story is told in Las Vegas Style magazine, with my comments and corrections in brackets and in bold font:
By 1979 BANACHEK [one of the magicians in question, whose real name is Steve Shaw] was starting to draw national attention as a gifted performer in extra sensory perception crafts. That was also the year that McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft awarded a $500,000 grant to Washington University in St. Louis for the establishment of the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research. [Incorrect - the grant was not bestowed by the corporation, but by James S. McDonnell as a private gift.] The lab was supposed to come up with evidence that things like bending a fork with your thoughts was a real thing. If the idea of spending half a million clams on fork bending seems just a little soft in the head, you're not alone. James Randi was an internationally known magician and an active investigator of paranormal claims when McDonnell-Douglas [sic] made the grant. He decided to send two young illusionists into the MacLab to debunk it. BANACHEK was one of the illusionists.
For three years [he] was subjected to every test the pros could come up with to prove he had authentic psychic powers. He bent things, burned things, moved things and knew things. He passed every test with flying colors [false - see Thalbourne's article, linked below] and at the end of the three year period the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research proudly announced to the scientific community that they had the real thing in the form of BANACHEK [false - no such announcement was made]. OMNI Magazine did a spread on BANACHEK. Discover Magazine said "...his demonstrations were just phenomenal." Even the National Enquirer called him a "Prodigy. Nobody like him in his field."
Mid bow for the McDonnell folks James Randi drops his bomb that BANACHEK had been working for him for the past three years and what's more everything he did was an illusion. Remember? Illusions are ideas creating misleading appearances. And mislead BANACHEK did. You know you have a major coup in your pocket when you sting the National Enquirer. [Really?] The guys at the Laboratory for Psychical [Research] were crushed. [False - they had already suspected Shaw and his partner of fraud, and had dismissed them both more than a year earlier.]
I guess Las Vegas Style subscribes to the motto "print the legend." The actual facts behind this case are thoroughly presented in a paper I found online in PDF (Adobe) form: "Science Versus Showmanship: A History of the Randi Hoax," by Michael A. Thalbourne.
Originally I had thought of summarizing this article, but there's no need to do so because it speaks for itself. Thalbourne, who was a participant in some of the events, writes in a straightforward, engaging style and lays out the key facts and timeline in the clearest possible way.
The case is also covered, in less detail, by John Beloff in Parapsychology: A Concise History.
As both Beloff's and Thalbourne's accounts make clear, there is much less to Project Alpha than its cheerleaders would have us believe. Regardless of what the National Enquirer may have said, the researchers never publicly committed themselves to the view that the phenomena they observed were genuine. They remained properly cautious in their published remarks. Indeed, they privately came to the conclusion that the two test subjects were not worth studying any further, and politely terminated the experiments. Even so, Randi had the chutzpah to hold a press conference claiming that the lab had been successfully duped - a story that is repeated to this day.
To nail down this point, I direct your attention to the appendix that follows the bibliography in Thalbourne's paper, where the published conclusions of the researchers are reproduced. This document is dated September 1, 1981, more than one year before Randi's January, 1983, press conference exposing the hoax. Regarding the test subject Mike Edwards (Shaw's partner in trickery), the researchers write:
The outcome of this research is suggestive of psychokinesis but inconclusive, due to its exploratory nature ... ordinary explanations exist for these effects, given the conditions under which they have been observed. Thus, although several events of interest have transpired, we do not claim that evidence conclusive of "psychic ability" has yet been demonstrated in our research. [Emphasis added]