It's always interesting to know what the super-stars of the science world think about parapsychology.
I'm reading Esprit: Men and Women of Parapsychology, Volume 1, a collection of reminiscences by some leading psi researchers, first published in 1987 and recently brought out in a new edition. These are investigators such as Jule Eisenbud, Montague Ullman, Gertrude Schmeidler, Jan Ehrenwald and Hans Bender. I'm barely halfway through, and may give it a detailed look in a later post. In the meantime, I picked out this nugget about Einstein.
As is well known, Einstein wrote a brief preface to Mental Radio, Upton Sinclair's 1930 book about ESP experiments. Typically these involve Sinclair sitting in his study and drawing something on a piece of paper, and his wife Craig in another room trying to reproduce it. More often than not she achieved a close match, as the book's illustrations show. It's an informal study, obviously, but a classic of its type.
Einstein's contribution consists of just one paragraph:
I have read the book of Upton Sinclair with great interest and am convinced that the same deserves the most earnest consideration, not only of the laity, but also of the psychologists by profession. The results of the telepathic experiments carefully and plainly set forth in this book stand surely far beyond those which a nature investigator holds to be thinkable. On the other hand, it is out of the question in the case of so conscientious an observer and writer as Upton Sinclair that he is carrying on a conscious deception of the reading world; his good faith and dependability are not to be doubted. So if somehow the facts he has set forth here rest not upon telepathy, but upon some unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person, this also would be of high psychological interest. In no case should the psychologically interested circles pass over this book heedlessly.
Was the great man giving ESP his blessing? Not exactly. The muddled appeal to "unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person" - what is that exactly, if not telepathy? Or did he really mean sensory cues? - suggests someone struggling to accommodate facts that contradict all experience and reason.
But the mere fact of someone of his standing not sucking his teeth and crying "fraud" is enough for it to be treated as a positive. At least he was curious and open-minded - an example for others to follow.
A few years later Einstein corresponded with Jan Ehrenwald, a psychiatrist who was writing about psi experiences emerging in therapeutic interactions, and wanted his endorsement. Naturally he flagged up the work of JB Rhine at Duke on ESP in card-guessing and psychokinesis in dice-throwing. What did Einstein think?
Einstein said he could find no explanation whatsoever for Rhine's results, but made his scepticism clear. He was alienated by the lack of any attenuation with distance, that it didn't seem to make any difference how far separated the subject was from the agent or the experimenter. In his belief this indicated the presence of a "systematic error".
He went on:
I wrote the introductory notes for Upton Sinclair's book owing to [our] personal friendship in such a way that it did not express my lack of conviction without compelling me to sacrifice my honesty in doing so. I must openly confess to you my scepticism due not so much to a close acquaintance with the relevant empirical observations and experiences but to my lifelong activity in the field of physics. I must also confess that I have not had any experiences in my own life that would point to interpersonal relationships that were not occasioned by sensory cues. When I add that the public tends to attribute more weight to my utterances than would be justified in view of my ignorance in so many things, I feel all the more duty bound to exercise utmost caution in reserve in these areas.
Having now read Ehrenwald's book Einstein wrote a second letter as follows:
I can judge as a layman only, and cannot state that I arrived at an affirmative or negative conclusion. In any case, it appears to me that from the physicist's point of view, we have no right to rule out a priori the possibility of telepathy. For that the foundations of our science are too uncertain and incomplete...
On the one hand I have no objection to the reliability of the method. Yet I find suspicious that clairvoyance [tests] yield the same probability as telepathy, and that the subject distance from the target cards i.e. from the agent, should have no influence upon results. This is improbable to the highest degree and consequently the result is suspicious.
He adds that he attaches more weight to tests with gifted subjects such as Craig Sinclair than to large-scale statistical experiments in which the discovery of a minute systematic error may upset everything.
In any case, your book was very stimulating to me and has somewhat "softened up" my attitude which from the onset was distinctly negative towards the whole problem. One should not go through this world with blinders...
It was a put-down, however tactfully expressed. Ehrenwald was "stunned" by it, as he later described in a belated reply written after Einstein's death and sent to "the Elysian Fields, please forward". However he noted that the scientist was open to the more obviously impressive "macro" experiments, and ventured to suggest that Rhine's experiments were simply indications of the same thing on the "micro" level. By now, too, Einstein's deep discomfort with "spooky action at a distance" had become evident in his rejection of quantum mechanics.
All of this seems perfectly reasonable to me. Many people would agree that the actual experience of ESP is far more persuasive than statistical indications of it. As a physicist Einstein had particular reasons for doubting claims about psi, but he conceded he didn't know much about it and wasn't prepared to go further than stating a general opinion in private.
Martin Gardner makes a similar point in an article about the correspondence (republished in Science Good Bad and Bogus), praising Einstein's "great tact and politeness" and "characteristic humility" - qualities which were comically absent from Gardner's own responses to parapsychology. Of course the snarky sceptic has simple explanations for what so mightily puzzled the great scientist. Recording errors by experimenters in Rhine's psi experiments would have neatly accounted for the distance paradox, as it wouldn't have made any difference where the subject was situated, two feet away or on another planet. And "spelling out" Einstein's suggestions about the Sinclairs, perhaps they were "unconsciously suggesting" to each other what they should draw.
Neither of which would remotely explain the experiments as they were actually described. Gardner would not have cared about that, but one feels that Einstein might have seen the point, if he'd engaged with them more closely.