They never saw it coming

by Paul Jay, CBC News Online

After 28 years of studying ESP (extra-sensory perception) and telekinesis, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (or PEAR) laboratory will shut down at the end of the month, The New York Times reported.

For almost three decades the lab was an embarassment for the university and an outrage to the scientific community. And lab founder Robert Jahn has decided to call it quits.

As he told the Times:

"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."

Jahn was able to stay open mostly through private donations totalling more than $10 million US.

The Times also outlines a typical experiment, which is amusing in the absurdity of its conclusions:

In one of PEAR’s standard experiments, the study participant would sit in front of an electronic box the size of a toaster oven, which flashed a random series of numbers just above and just below 100. Staff members instructed the person to simply “think high” or “think low” and watch the display. After thousands of repetitions — the equivalent of coin flips — the researchers looked for differences between the machine’s output and random chance. Analyzing data from such trials, the PEAR team concluded that people could alter the behaviour of these machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000.

Oddly enough the decision to close shop comes just as researchers in Germany, Japan and the U.K., announced they have found a way to decode people's intentions through brain scans with 70 per cent accuracy.

We can't help but think of the staff at the lab and what will become of them. Perhaps they will bounce back in the private sector like their fictional counterparts Spengler, Stantz and Venkman. Speaking of Ghostbusters, we came across this lineup while looking up the movie on the Internet Movie Database. It's an appropriate epitaph for the Princeton program:

Dean Yeager: This university will no longer continue any funding of any kind for your group's activities.
Dr. Peter Venkman: But the kids love us.