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Jack Smith

A premonition: History will repeat itself and so will heroic failures of foresight

January 22, 1986|Jack Smith

A final word on ESP.

Though I don't happen to believe that we can transfer our thoughts from one to another by mental telepathy, I am aware that many people who are better educated and more intelligent than I am do believe it.

Norman L. Chalfin, acting manager of technology utilization, Office of Patent Control, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, writes to remind me that "ideas cannot always be dismissed out of hand."

He cites the well-known work of J. B. Rhine, American psychologist, in which subjects identified cards dealt behind a curtain more times than pure chance would produce.

I have read that skeptical inquiry has discovered suspicious flaws in Rhine's method, and that his results have never been convincingly reproduced.

Citing the use of the electrocardiograph and other devices for measuring electrical signals from the human body, Chalfin observes that "the human body and animal bodies are veritable electric generators whose outputs are detected with appropriately sensitive instruments. Signals from various areas of the body which are being detected by these instruments may reasonably be also detectable by other humans and animals. . . ."

As for my skepticism, Chalfin notes that in history I have had distinguished company. Here are a few examples of heroic failures of foresight from a paper he wrote for publication in "World Radio":

--When Samuel F.B. Morse asked Congress for a grant to build a telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, he was greeted with derision and suggestions that instead he build "a railroad to the moon."

--Asked by Parliament whether the telephone would be of any use in Britain, the chief engineer of the British Post Office answered, "No, sir. The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."

--H. G. Wells, the visionary British writer, did not think it likely that aeronautics would ever be important in transportation. "Man is not an albatross," he said.

--In 1903, a year before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, Prof. Simon Newcomb, a distinguished astronomer, said that flying without a gas bag was impossible, or at least would require the discovery of a new law of nature.

--A week before the Wright Brothers' flight the New York Times editorialized on the rival efforts of Samuel Pierpont Langley, who had just achieved flight by an unmanned heavier-than-air craft:

"We hope that Prof. Langley will not put his substantial greatness as a scientist in further peril by continuing to waste his time and the money involved in further airship experiments. Life is short and he is capable of services to humanity incomparably greater than trying to fly. . . ."

Within three years the Wrights had an airplane that could fly 40 miles an hour for 100 miles. They offered it to the British navy. The Admiralty declined, opining that the aeroplane would be of no practical use in the naval service.

"Skepticism," Chalfin warns, "when it is founded on good information and a background of knowledge based on education, is a good thing. But, skepticism based on ignorance or bigotry can lead to many problems for people who cannot accept the reality of scientific knowledge. . . . Some skeptics, as we have seen, have had to 'eat crow.' "

He also points out that in the early 1930s Sir James Jeans, the British physicist, observed that the body contains all the elements necessary for the possible detection of the electromagnetic waves (brain waves) generated in the body of another, so detection of thought waves by one person from another over considerable distances should not be dismissed.

Chalfin said he was considering an experiment to test Jeans' hypothesis, using sensitive detectors on either side of the head, and he mentioned this to Margaret Halsey, author of "With Malice Toward Some." Her response, he said, was revulsion. "It's hard enough to keep one's thoughts to oneself as it is," she said.

Those are my sentiments exactly.

Ed Shoaf, the sage of La Canada, who can put his finger on a quotation to suit every need, has sent me three quotations that elucidate my belief (and Ms. Halsey's) that the perfection of mental telepathic techniques would be a calamity.

One of the three is from Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist and philosopher: "If all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world."

Pascal was the founder of the modern theory of probabilities, but I wonder what made him think there might be as many as three friends if we could read each other's minds.

The second was by William James, the New England philosopher and psychologist: "If we were given the power to read each other's thoughts, the first effect would be to dissolve all friendships."

The third was my own: "If everyone were suddenly given the ability to read everyone else's mind, by nightfall human society would be in chaos."

Notice that James and Pascal were not saying that mental telepathy is impossible. They were simply saying that it would be a disaster for humanity.

I admit that my skepticism is based more on ignorance than on knowledge, but in my ignorance I always doubted that we could build an atom bomb, too.

I wish I'd been right about that.

And I hope I'm right about mental telepathy.

At the very least, it would be hard on conversation.

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