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Project Alpha


In 1979, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri was given a grant of $1/2m to study individuals who had psychic powers. Magician James Randi (see fact of 8/9/19) heard about the grant and wanted to demonstrate something he had always believed, that far too many paranormal investigators came with a preconceived bias that people actually had psychic abilities and this blinded them to the tricks and deceptions of practiced magicians. To do this he trained two young teenage magicians - Mike Edwards and Steve Shaw (known as Banachek) - and they, along with 300 others, applied to the lab. After initial interviews to demonstrate their 'psychic abilities' they alone were selected for testing. Before they attended however, Randi had contacted the lab and suggested they implement some protocols which would have stopped people using deception, including have a conjurer helping design the experiments. Professor Peter R. Phillip, the head of the lab, told Randi he was quite confident he could conduct proper experiments without Randi’s help.

Before sending them to the lab, Randi had told the boys that if they were ever explicitly accused of deception, they must admit to it and not lie. For 4 years, and over 160 hours of experiments, the two teenagers were able to convince the testers that they had extensive psychic abilities. Phillips and his lab assistants became absolutely convinced the boys had psychic powers, calling them 'gifted psychic subjects'. In 1981, they took a videotape of the Banachek/Edwards sessions to a convention of the Parapsychological Association. After some negative feedback and pushback from their peers on their protocols, the lab decided the institute some of the suggestions that Randi had given them. quite quickly the abilities of the boys seemed to diminish and ultimately vanish.

It was at this point that the boys were dismissed by the lab and Randi made the hoax public. Randi’s take on the project after it was completed was: "If Project Alpha resulted in Parapsychologists (real parapsychologists!) awakening to the fact that they are able to be deceived, either by subjects or themselves, as a result of their convictions and their lack of expertise in the arts of deception, then it has served its purpose. Those who fell into the trap invited that fate; those who pulled back from the brink deserve our applause."

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