Project Alpha was a hoax orchestrated by the stage magician and skeptic James Randi. It involved planting two fake psychics, Steve Shaw (known as Banachek) and Michael Edwards, into a paranormal research project. During the initial stages of the investigation, the researchers came to believe that the pair's psychic powers were real. However, more formal experiments, as well as criticism from both the parapsychology community and Mr. Randi himself, led them to dismiss their initial trust (Thalbourne1995:356-359). The hoax was later revealed publicly.
The success of Project Alpha led Randi to use variations of the technique on several other occasions. Perhaps the most famous example led to the downfall of TV evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff, when Randi had a man pose as a woman with uterine cancer, which Popoff happily "cured". In another example, Randi hired a performance artist to pose as a channeller known as "Carlos", who was presented on Australian TV and soon had a wide following. After this hoax was exposed the artist was constantly approached by people who believed him to be genuine, even if he told them directly that he was an actor.
In 1979 James S. McDonnell, board chairman of McDonnell Douglas and believer in the paranormal, awarded a USD $500,000 grant to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, for the establishment of the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research. He intended the money to be used for serious study of psychic phenomena in a controlled setting. The lab was led by physicist Peter Phillips, who decided to focus on spoon bending by children, also known as "psychokinetic metal bending", or PKMB.
Before the testing had started, James Randi had written to the lab with a list of eleven "caveats" they should be wary of, and his suggestions on how to avoid them. These included a rigid adherence to the protocol of the test, so that the subjects would not be allowed to change it in the midst of the run. This had been the modus operandi of Uri Geller while being tested at Stanford Research Institute; whenever something did not work, he simply did something else instead. The researchers then reported this as a success, when in fact the original test had failed. Other suggestions included having only one object of study at any time, permanently marking the object or objects used so they could not be switched, and having as few people in the room as possible to avoid distractions. Randi also offered his services to watch the experiments as a control, noting that a conjurer would be an excellent person to look for fakery. Phillips did not take Randi up on the offer because of the skeptic's reputation of being "a showman rather than an unprejudiced critic" and his perceived hostility towards psychic claimants (Thalbourne1995:348). In Randi's letters, he even told the researchers that the subjects were fake, but the researchers did not check out their backgrounds .
Throughout the early phases of the project, many people claiming to have psychic powers presented themselves to the lab. The vast majority quickly proved to have no such ability, or, just as commonly, used sleight of hand to make their "abilities" work. Many of these were convinced what they were doing was "real". However, after a short while it became apparent that two young men, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, were much more successful, and the lab started to focus their energies on them. In fact, the two young men were "plants", friends of Randi whom he had met some time before as part of his magician's trade. Part of Randi's instructions to these men was to tell the truth if they were ever asked if they were faking the results; they were never asked this question directly. The researchers assumed that the participants would have no qualms about lying in their answer to a straightforward question if they were also lying about their abilities (Thalbourne1995:357).
Shaw and Edwards were amateur magicians who managed to fool the researchers with fairly simple tricks during the first stages of investigations. The project had originally started with spoon bending, so the two quickly developed a way to accomplish this trick. Contrary to one of the caveats Randi noted in his letter, the test setup included not one, but many and all sorts of spoons on the table, labeled with paper on a loop of string instead of some permanent marking. When starting to bend a spoon they would actually pick up two or more and remove the labels, which they were allowed to do, because they claimed they were in the way. They would then simply switch the labels when putting them back and wait. The spoons were measured before and after the experiment, and since all sorts of spoons were used, simply switching the labels would produce different measurements, causing the scientist to believe that something paranormal had happened. In other cases, they would drop one of the spoons in their lap and bend it below the table with one hand, while pretending to bend a spoon in their other hand, distracting the scientists.
Because the studio was set up to allow people in front of the camera to see themselves on monitors, the pair found that one particular camera operator was on guard to capture any attempts at sleight of hand, but they simply "randomly" picked the man to be a volunteer for audience participation, and he was replaced by a more suggestible and less competent cameraman. This was also a clear violation of one of Randi's caveats; the test run should have been stopped at this point and recorded as a failure.
The two were so successful at spoon bending that several other tests were invented. In one they were given pictures in sealed envelopes and then asked to try to identify them from a list shown to them later. The two were left alone in a room with the envelopes, and although there was a possibility that they would peek, this was "controlled" by examining the envelopes later. The envelopes were held closed with four staples, which they simply pried open with their fingernails, looked at the picture, and then resealed by inserting the staples back into the same holes and forcing them closed by pressing them against the table.
In another test the experiment was electronic in nature; they were asked to influence the burnout point of a common fuse. After they "worked it" with their mind, an increasing amount of current was run through it until it blew. The two proved to have amazing abilities in this test after a few trials, eventually causing the fuses to blow immediately once they "got used to it". In fact they were simply palming the already blown fuses and then handing them back to the experimenters. They also found that by pressing down on one end of the fuse in its holder, or just touching it briefly, the instruments recorded unusual results that were interpreted by the experimenters as psi effects
In one instance Shaw and Edwards were asked to move small objects in a sealed transparent container, normally small bits of paper balanced on an edge. Shaw and Edwards realized that the "sealed" container really wasn't. They spotted small openings and blew through them.
Other examples included their ability to make digital clocks stop working properly (they popped them in a microwave for a few seconds), or make images appear on film just by staring at the camera (they spat on the lens). In an example of a sort of Rorschach test, the experimenters later described the images as being various bits of the female anatomy, which, "of course," young men (such as Shaw and Edwards) would be interested in.
In one particular experiment, Steve Shaw tried to get them to say on film that he was not allowed to touch the object he was supposed to bend in the experiment (he had already secretly done that, and with them affirming that he could not and had not touched it, the 'miracle' would look even greater). When Shaw asked: "Can I touch it?", the reply was, to his surprise: "You do what you have to do."
The researchers explain these apparently inexcusable inadequacies in experimental protocols by drawing a clear distinction between two different stages of an investigation: the exploratory, informal experiments and the formal experiments (Thalbourne1995:351). During the exploratory phase, the researchers would simply be trying to determine whether there is a phenomenon that could be worth further investigation, which often implies the use of much more complicated protocols and expensive equipment. In doing so, they are also trying to set up a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere that is believed to be uninhibitory of psychic phenomena. It is during this stage that Shaw and Edwards were able to convince the researchers of psychic abilities. However, when the scientists moved on to tightly controlled experimental conditions, Shaw and Edwards were no longer able to replicate the effects and were now considered "no longer worthwhile to fly them in, if they were only going to produce such meager results." (Thalbourne1995:358)
In mid-1981 the two were fairly famous in the psi world, and even outside it, and Phillips decided to release a research brief at a workshop of the Parapsychological Association Convention (August 1981). According to the researchers' official version, Phillips also wrote to Mr. Randi to ask for a tape of fake metal-bending, which was to be shown alongside the recording of Shaw and Edwards. The researchers were looking for opinions and critical input from the parapsychology community and finally released a revised abstract that reflected the received criticism in its conservative and skeptical language (Thalbourne1995:356). After the announcements in the press, Randi wrote to the lab again and stated that it was entirely possible the two were simply magicians, using common sleight of hand to fool the researchers.
Randi then started to leak stories that the two were a plant of his, which reached the lab a week later and were considered to be a joke, due to the length (21 months) and the lack of precedence of plot. The story had been widely circulated by the time the meeting was held the next month. Reactions were varied; some thought it was simply a lie, others that Randi was pulling off a hoax, and still others concluded the entire experiment was dreamed up as a conspiracy by Randi and Phillips to discredit the field.
Upon returning from the meeting, Phillips immediately changed the test protocols. The two found that they were no longer able to fool the experimenters so easily, and in most cases, not at all. During this time the lab started releasing additional reports that seriously toned down the success rate. In their own words, "We did not conclude that they must be frauds, but only that after extensive testing, they were not behaving nearly as psychically as they had led us to expect." (Thalbourne1995:358)
However, at this point Shaw and Edwards were so famous that they were asked to travel widely and present their powers. Many other psi investigators interviewed the two and gave glowing reviews, thus tainting themselves in the eventual aftermath.
Randi decided to finally end the project, and announced the entire affair in Discover magazine. The resulting crash of the parapsychology field was immediate and deep; many of the researchers who endorsed Shaw and Edwards after the August meeting were now burned in the process. One went so far as to claim that the young men really did have psychic powers, and that they were now lying about being magicians. The bad press was so widespread that the McDonnell Lab was shut down.
The Skeptical Inquirer had revealed that Steve Shaw was a fake psychic in their Fall 1980 issue. At the time neither the authors (McBurney and Greenberg) nor the editor (Kendrick Frazier) knew that Shaw was part of Project Alpha. In addition, rumors that the psychics were fake reached the researchers, but they didn't believe them . According to the researchers,
The rumor seemed unlikely to be true for several reasons: the two young men came from different states and had never met before being brought to the MacLab; if they were both conspiring with Randi, then the plot had gone on for 21 months. What critic would be so persistent in engaging in fraud and conspiracy on such a time-scale? There seemed to be no precedent. Nor was it possible to track down how reliable the rumor might be. (Thalbourne1995:357)
The complaint of psi investigators for years had been that they did not have enough funding for their experiments. However, in Randi's opinion it was not funding, but the experimenters that were the problem. With $500,000 from McDonnell, Randi felt that lack of funding could no longer be blamed for any failure. Randi's purpose was to show that no matter how much money was spent, there would still be no reliable results. The researchers, however, point out that Randi avoids making the distinction between exploratory and formal investigations and should recognize that the formal experiments dismissed the magicians' psychic claims.
Some "scientists" within the parapsychology community were outraged, with Berthold Schwarz of the McDonnell Laboratory declaring "Randi has set parapsychology back 100 years!" Randi's approach also raised outcries concerning ethical considerations and doubts about positive effects on methodology awareness , both within the parapsychology and the skeptic communities. But Randi reports that other parapsychology researchers have contacted him with praise, describing the project as "splendid and deserved," "an important sanitary service," "commendable," and "long-needed."
* Thalbourne, M. A. (1995). Science versus showmanship: A history of the Randi Hoax. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 89, 344-366.