Recently a commenter named Bill left some interesting remarks on the thread of my brief post announcing a book by Cyrus Kirkpatrick, who sometimes comments on this blog. Bill took issue with a particular detail in Cyrus's book involving a famous experiment performed by parapsychologist Charles Tart. Bill wrote:
I have had a small read of Cyrus Kirkpatrick's book regarding the preview on amazon. Here is a fundamental error.
He says regarding the famous "Miss Z" OBE study that:
"Tart concluded that there was a remote chance of Miss Z cheating if she were to somehow use an apparatus of hidden mirrors that she snuck into the laboratory, but Tart believed it was very unlikely given the protocols, and he concluded a parapsychological explanation was the best fit."
This is wrong. In the paper Tart admits in his own words "Therefore, Miss Z's reading of the target number cannot be considered as providing conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect."
Here is the full quote:
"The second alternative is that she might have seen the number reflected in the surface of the case of the clock which was mounted on the wall above it. This was the only reflecting surface in the room placed in such a way that this might have been possible. Both Dr. Hastings and I spent some time in the dimly lit room to dark-adapt our eyes, and tried to read a number from the subject's position on the bed, as reflected on the surface of the clock. As the room was dimly lit and the surface of the clock was black plastic, we could not see anything of the number. However, when we shone a flashlight directly on the number (increasing its brightness by a factor somewhere between several hundred and several thousand) we could just make out what the number was in the much brighter reflection. Thus, although it seems unlikely, one could argue that the number constituted a 'subliminal' stimulus in its reflection off the clock surface. Therefore, Miss Z's reading of the target number cannot be considered as providing conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect."
So basically there was an entirely naturalistic explanation. Light could have been reflected from the surface of a clock located on the wall above the shelf, and Miss Z could have seen the number this way.
Cyrus Kirkpatrick deliberately "filters" this out of his book (something funny enough he accuses skeptics of doing earlier in his book) ignoring evidence they don't want to acknowledge; instead he only mentions the first alternative of mirrors which Tart does disregard. He does not mention the other simplistic natural explanation.
The statement "a parapsychological explanation was the best fit" is therefore deliberately misleading because Tart admitted no conclusive evidence could be given for a parapsychological effect.
Cyrus Kirkpatrick also seems to indicate the protocols of the experiment were good. They were not very good. Tart admits he fell asleep during the experiment (!), there were no video cameras and the subject had not been searched prior to the experiment (that is just a few issues, we could go on).
I don't buy into the silly mirror idea anyway, what most likely happened was the number was reflected by the glass face of the wall clock above the shelf. This gets me thinking. Should we ignore an entirely simple explanation for an unlikely paranormal one?
Cyrus Kirkpatrick in the beginning of his book admits he doesn't have time to examine all the skeptic rebuttals. Thing is with this study, skeptics are not even involved (they came later). Tart himself first admitted no conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect.
It is basically a poorly controlled experiment with a dozing observer that has not been replicated in nearly 50 years. Yet this is considered to be genuine evidence for a paranormal OBE or life after death?
In my reply, I noted that Tart actually does think that a paranormal explanation is “the best fit" (as Cyrus put it) for the experimental results. In his 2012 book The End of Materialism, Tart writes:
I was cautious in my original write-up of these results: "… Miss Z's reading of the target number cannot be considered as providing conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect" (Tart 1968, 18). I thought I was just making a standard statement of caution, because no one experiment is ever absolutely conclusive about anything, but overzealous pseudoskeptics have pounced on this statement as saying that I didn't think there were any parapsychological effects in this study. I've always thought that it's highly likely that some form of ESP, perhaps because Miss Z was really "out" in some real sense, is the best explanation of the results.
So Tart did, in fact, conclude (and still maintains) that ESP was probably demonstrated by the experiment.
Bill complains that the sleep sessions were not videotaped. I don't think there is much force in this objection. Tart published his first paper on the subject in 1968, and he says that it was considerably delayed. The actual experiments must have taken place sometime earlier. In the 1960s, video recording and playback equipment was neither cheap nor easy to come by. Very few people were using it, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect a poorly funded parapsychological researcher to have access to it.
Beyond that, Bill doesn't mention that there was continuous monitoring of Miss Z throughout the experiment. Tart explains that she was connected via electrodes to an EEG monitor; a strain gauge taped over one eye measured REM sleep; and the electrical resistance of her skin was measured by electrodes taped to her palm and forearm. So while there was no videotape, there was a complete record of her brain activity, eyelid twitches, and skin resistance. Moreover, she could not have gotten out of bed or even sat up more than a few inches without pulling loose some of the electrodes, which would have left unmistakable signs in the record. Tart writes in a footnote on pp. 204-5:
Standard sleep-laboratory procedures leave enough slack in the wires running to the electrodes on the person's head so that he can turn over with ease, but if he tries to sit up more than a little, he'll pull electrodes off, making the electrode susceptible to picking up power-line interference, which will vibrate the recording pens so hard that they throw ink all over the recording room, as well as leave a distinctive trace on the polygraph record.
Bill says that "what most likely happened” was that the target number was reflected on the glass face of the clock. But what Tart and his colleague, Arthur Hastings, determined was that a very faint reflection was visible, not on the glass face of the clock but on the black plastic casing below the clock face. It was this lower portion of the clock that would have caught the reflection, if any. They are quite clear in saying that this reflection was completely invisible unless a flashlight was directed onto the target paper. Even then, it was almost impossible to make out the five-digit target.
Although they included this caveat for the sake of completeness, it is obvious that they did not consider it to be a realistic possibility, especially given the anomalous EEG readings that seemed to accompany the out-of-body experience. Tart writes:
Floating and full OBEs occurred in a relatively discrete EEG stage of what I would technically call poorly developed stage-1 dreaming EEG, mixed with transitory periods of brief wakefulness.… Stage-1 EEG normally accompanies the descent into sleep, the hypnagogic period, and later dreaming during the night, but these shown by Miss Z weren't like those ordinary stage-1 periods, because they were often dominated by alphoid activity, a distinctly slower version of the ordinary waking alpha rhythm, and there were no REM's accompanying the stage-1 periods, as almost always happens in normal dreaming. I had studied many sleep EEG records by then and can say with confidence that this was unusual.…
I eventually showed the recordings to one of the world’s leading authorities on sleep research, psychiatrist William Dement, and he agreed with me that it was a distinctive pattern, but we had no idea what it meant.
Bill summed up his view of the experiment this way:
There is a simple naturalistic explanation for the "Miss Z" parapsychological experiment. So we do not resort to a magical explanation that doesn't have a shred of evidence to support it.
I think, however, that if we look at the case in its entirety – the continuous monitoring of the subject via EEG, REM sleep monitor, and skin-resistance measurement; the anomalous EEG pattern that seemingly accompanied the OBEs; the correct identification of the target number, with odds against chance of 100,000 to 1; the subject's relative immobility as a result of the multiple electrodes attached to her body, which could not be removed surreptitiously; the impossibility of seeing any reflection on the clock without using a smuggled flashlight; and the extreme unlikelihood of being able to the read the faint reflection of the target number even in the glow of a flashlight – that it is not correct to say that Tart's parapsychological explanation is "magical" and "doesn't have a shred of evidence to support it," nor is it quite right to suggest that the reflection hypothesis is "a simple naturalistic explanation."
In short, while it's incontestable that the experiment is not conclusive proof of OBEs, it is hardly "discredited" (as Bill calls it), and the facile "reflection" explanation is not very persuasive.
Incidentally, Bill's further point that the results of the Miss Z experiment have never been replicated is debatable. Tart, pp. 205-6:
Stanley Krippner (1996) had a similar experience with a young man who reported occasional OBEs. He was tested for four nights in the laboratory with an art-print target in a box near the ceiling of the room. On the occasion when he reported having had an OBE, he gave a suggestively accurate description of the target, and had shown an unusual EEG pattern of slow waves (unlike Miss Z) about the time the reported OBE occurred.
Again, this is certainly not conclusive, but it does count as at least a partial replication of Tart's results. There have also been many tests (both formal and informal) of remote viewing, which measure the same kind of talent purportedly demonstrated by Miss Z — the ability to accurately describe a hidden or distant target. Some of the remote-viewing experiments have proved startlingly successful.