Original in the New York Times.
By BENEDICT CAREY
Published: February 10, 2007
PRINCETON, N.J., Feb. 6 — Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events.
But at the end of the month, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, or PEAR, will close, not because of controversy but because, its founder says, it is time. The laboratory has conducted studies on extrasensory perception and telekinesis from its cramped quarters in the basement of the university’s engineering building since 1979. Its equipment is aging, its finances dwindling.
“For 28 years, we’ve done what we wanted to do, and there’s no reason to stay and generate more of the same data,” said the laboratory’s founder, Robert G. Jahn, 76, former dean of Princeton’s engineering school and an emeritus professor. “If people don’t believe us after all the results we’ve produced, then they never will.”
Besides the annoying use of the term "telekinesis," which no one in the field uses, and the fact that Princeton University administrators were supposedly embarassed, as though embarassment has any role in evaluating scientific research, this article implies that the PEAR Lab was an academic anomaly reporting anomalous results, and as such, it was justifiably shunned by all sober scientists. What the article does not ask is whether the PEAR Lab's results have been independently confirmed by other scientists. The answer is clearly yes, as anyone can discover with a bit of homework, or by reading Entangled Minds or The Conscious Universe. This makes the Princeton lab's interests not so anomalous after all, and their empirical results not anomalous at all.
Was their work actually dismissed by most scientists? Perhaps in public within university circles, but certainly not in private. As the PEAR Lab found, I've also discovered that there's a large and growing network of mainstream academics who are privately very interested in these topics. But taboos in academia prevent scientists from openly discussing their real interests.
There is much said about the lofty ideals of academic freedom, the freedom to explore any topic with impunity. But the ideal is a myth. It is not possible to study any topic one wishes without risk. Scientists who attempt to study controversial topics will find that they do not get tenure, or if they already have tenure they will not get promotions, and if that fails the administrator will attempt to avoid embarassment and try (usually unsuccessfully) to fire the violator. In this sense the PEAR Lab showed incredible fortitude by simply surviving within an environment that tried every trick in the book to make the lab disappear. This emotional side of supposedly rational academia is a hidden and shameful secret, not often seen by those outside the ivory towers.
I recently had a conversation with an intelligent, highly skeptical scientist who vehemently insisted with unshakable confidence that there is no reason to accept any claims of psychic phenomena because there are no peer-reviewed publications supporting their existence. Thus, any claims to the contrary, even by places like the PEAR Lab, are necessarily flawed or fraud. And further, if there were such evidence, then it would have won the "million dollar prize" by now. Ipso facto, there is no evidence. It's all fraud run by scam artists.
I calmly pointed out that there are in fact hundreds of such publications, most in peer-reviewed journals. The scientist was incredulous, refusing to believe that this could possibly be true, and even if was true, those journals couldn't possibly be any good. I could only sigh. There are tens of thousands of journals. No one can know more than a tiny sliver of information appearing in journals that are not within one's speciality. To assume that because you haven't heard of the information it doesn't exist is the height of hubris. As Prof. Jahn said in the NYTimes piece, “If people don’t believe us after all the results we’ve produced, then they never will.” I'm afraid that is quite true.