Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent’s Dishonesty in Parapsychology

Context

I write this blog as a long-term investigator into psychology and the paranormal. This post concerns a saga of intellectual dishonesty by the late Cambridge University psychologist, Carl Sargent, and his mentor, Professor Hans J Eysenck, of King’s College London. A diary of events weaves a dark story that many wish the world would forget, but the story needs to be told. The parties in this story displayed gullibility, bias and wilful deceit. One of them (CS) was forced to leave his academic post and seek another career. Many years after his death, the other (HJE) stands accused of producing ‘unsafe’ publications on an industrial scale.

Carl Lynwood Sargent (1952 – 2018) was a British parapsychologist and author of several roleplaying game-based products and novels, using the pen name Keith Martin to write Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Sargent also wrote four books with Hans J Eysenck.  

According to his Wikipedia entry,

Hans Jürgen Eysenck, was born in Berlin onand died in London on, was a British psychologist of German origin known for his work on personality , heritability of intelligence , behavioral therapies and for his critiques of psychoanalysis. At the time of his death, Eysenck was the most frequently cited living psychologist in English-language scientific journals.”

Hans J Eysenck’s intellectual honesty   was recently the focus of renewed controversy after Anthony Pelosi exposed a series of impossible findings published by Eysenck in the field of health psychology (see here, here and here). 26 of Eysenck’s publications were recently considered “unsafe” by an investigation by King’s College London, and many others are also suspected.

Intellectual dishonesty

Richard Smith (personal communication) astutely remarked as follows: “When forensic accountants detect fraud they assume that everything else from that person may well be fraudulent. Scientists tend to do the opposite–assuming that everything is OK until proved to be fraudulent. But as proving fraud is hard lots of highly questionable material remains untouched.”

Smith continues: “I think of the example of R K Chandra, who was eventually found guilty not only of research fraud but also of financial and business fraud. His first paper established to be fraudulent was in 1989. Why, I ask myself, would you start being honest after you’d practised fraud–yet hundreds of his papers are left unremarked, including unfortunately some that have been shown to be fraudulent.”

A reliable source and long-time colleague of Eysenck’s states: “Eysenck was a mendacious charlatan. I base that not so much on his published fiction but his denial of the link between smoking and cancer was pernicious. His espousal of the beliefs of the John Birch Society was egregious…a grant had to be withdrawn and several researchers dismissed.

A profile of Hans Eysenck based on his biography by Rod Buchanan and also his books with Carl Sargent provide insights into Eysenck’s intellectual values as a scientist and scholar. There were four books with Sargent, all with Eysenck as first author:

  1. Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal – Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 01/01/1982 (1982)
  2. Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal – (2nd Ed.) – Prion Books Ltd (1993)
  3. Know Your Own Psi-Q – John Wiley (1983)
  4. Are You Psychic? –  Prion Books Ltd (1996).

The collaboration between the two authors began in the early 1980s in Sargent’s heyday at Cambridge and continued until 1996.

 

A Distorted Account of Parapsychology

These four books all present a distorted and strongly biased view that psychic powers are scientifically proven.  The evidence suggests exactly the opposite (Marks, 2020).

Eysenck’s and Sargent’s ‘ naivety and credulity are everywhere apparent. They present a one-sided view of the scientific evidence on psi and affect the naive stance that fraud and trickery do not need to be considered. David Nias and Geoffrey Dean (1986) summarised their criticisms of the Eysenck/Sargent books thus: “the failure of Eysenck and Sargent’s books to cover trickery and credulity is a serious deficiency” (p.368).

In my opinion, these books are among the most distorted and misleading accounts of parapsychological phenomena ever published by academic psychologists. The four books are a total disgrace and how Eysenck had the gall to put his name to them – perhaps only to build his reputation as the fearless contrarian – is beyond imagination.

In addition to the terrible scholarship, there is convincing evidence of scientific fraud by Sargent. How much Hans Eysenck knew about this, we will never know exactly because Eysenck requested that his papers be destroyed after his death. However, Blackmore’s report on Sargent’s fraud became public knowledge several years into the collaboration and years before the third and fourth books with Eysenck were published.

If Sargent had kept his trickery hidden from Eysenck then Eysenck could have been an innocent party.  In a partnership built over 14+ years, surely there would have been a conversation that included a question of the kind, ‘Oh, I hear you left Cambridge, why was that?”  If, as seems likely, Sargent ‘fessed up’ by admitting the occurrence of some kind of experimental ‘error’, then Eysenck could have been party to covering up Sargent’s deceit. Did Eysenck imagine nobody would notice? or perhaps he simply did not care. After all, that great Cambridge genius, Isaac Newton, had done the same kind of thing, and Eysenck saw no problem with a bit of data fudging. According to Eysenck, a ‘genius’ does whatever is necessary to prove their theories, as he had stated in one of his many pot-boilers.

Escaping Early Disaster

1978: Carl Sargent starts playing Dungeons & Dragons and submits an article to Imagine magazine.

1979: The University of Cambridge awards Sargent a PhD, that he claims was the first awarded to a parapsychologist by this university.

1979: The Society for Psychical Research provides a grant to Susan Blackmore (SB) enabling her to visit Sargent’s lab at Cambridge in November.  The original plan was to visit for a month. However, SB was only able to stay eight days from November 22-30 1979.  Blackmore describes her visit to Sargent’s lab as follows:

“[Sargent’s Ganzfeld] research was providing dramatically positive results for ESP in the GF and mine was not, so the idea was for me to learn from his methods in the hope of achieving similarly good results …. After watching several trials and studying the procedures carefully, I concluded that CS’s experimental protocols were so well designed that the spectacular results I saw must either be evidence for ESP or for fraud. I then took various simple precautions and observed further trials during which it became clear that CS had deliberately violated his own protocols and in one trial had almost certainly cheated. I waited several years for him to respond to my claims and eventually they were published along with his denial. (Harley & Matthews, 1987; Sargent, 1987).”

Sargent’s Career Temporarily Blossoms with Eysenck

In this period, Sargent developed his career in parapsychology at Cambridge with Blackmore’s ‘cheating’  report brushed under the carpet.

1980: Sargent writes a monograph, Exploring Psi in the Ganzfeld. Parapsychological Monographs No 17.

Sargent, C. L., Harley, T. A., Lane, J. and Radcliffe, K. publish: ‘Ganzfeld psi optimization in relation to session duration’, Research in Parapsychology 1980, 82-84.

1981: Sargent and Matthews publish ‘Ganzfeld GESP performance in variable duration testing’. Journal of Parapsychology 1981, 159-160

1982: Eysenck and Sargent (1982) publish their first book together, Explaining the unexplained: mysteries of the paranormal. Weidenfeld and Nicolson; First Edition.

1983: Eysenck and Sargent publish their second book, Know Your Own PSI-Q.

Then the Inevitable Downfall

1984: The Parapsychological Association Council asked Martin Johnson to head a committee to investigate SB’s accusation of fraud by Sargent. My book, Psychology and the Paranormal, describes what happened next;

The Parapsychological Association (PA) invited CS to provide an account of the ‘errors’ that SB had reported, but he declined to offer any explanation. The PA President, Stanley Krippner, wrote to CS at four different addresses, but still received no reply. The PA’s ‘Sargent Case Report’ dated 10 December 1986 found that, in spite of strong reservations about CS’s randomisation technique, there was insufficient evidence that CS had used unethical procedures.

CS was ‘reproved’ for failing to respond to the PA’s request for information. However, CS had allowed his PA membership to lapse through non-payment of dues, but he was informed that, should he wish to renew his membership, his application would be considered with ‘extreme prejudice’, I.e. CS would I likely be re-admitted as a member.

The final report of this committee reprimanded Sargent for failing to respond to their request for information within a reasonable time.

1985: Sargent leaves Cambridge University and the parapsychology field [stated in the 2nd edition of Explaining the unexplained: mysteries of the paranormal, 1993].

At some point, Sargent moves into full-time authoring of game-books.

1987: Susan Blackmore’s 1979 report is finally published: ‘A Report of a Visit to Carl Sargent’s Laboratory’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 186-198.

1993: Undeterred by the report of cheating, Eysenck and Sargent publish their third book, Explaining the unexplained: mysteries of the paranormal. (2nd ed.)

1996:  Eysenck and Sargent publish their fourth book, Are You Psychic?: Tests & Games to Measure Your Powers (1996), a revised version of ‘Know your own Psi-Q’.

The Hidden Truth

Two editions of the book by H. J. Eysenck and Sargent (1982, 1993) raise questions about how much Eysenck knew of the fraud accusations against Sargent in Blackmore’s SPR report of 1979. In the 1982 edition of the first book, the procedural problems with Sargent’s GF research are not even mentioned. In the 1993 edition, the authors refer to ‘spirited exchanges on GF research’ between Blackmore, and Sargent and Harley (p. 189).

However, the Ganzfeld evidence of psi is described by them as ‘very, very powerful indeed’. They do not mention the accusations of fraud, CS’s departure from Cambridge University, and his repeated non-cooperation with the Parapsychology Association enquiry.

I obtained an update from Susan Blackmore on her current thinking about her 30-year-old allegation of fraud by CS and on psi research more generally, which I reproduce below. Here are Susan Blackmore’s answers to a few specific questions:

Do you think, in the light of everything that has come to light, CS committed fraud at Cambridge? (Ideally, a yes or a no).

Yes, at least on one specific trial.

Do you think CS knowingly deceived anybody (including possibly himself) or was he simply a victim of confirmation bias/subjective validation?

The former.

Is there anything else you would like to say about research on psi?

In the light of my decades of research on psi, and especially because of my experiences with the GF, I now believe that the possibility of psi existing is vanishingly small, though not zero. I am glad other people continue to study the subject because it would be so important to science if psi did exist. But for myself, I think doing any further psi research would be a complete waste of time. I would not expect to find any phenomena to study, let alone any that could lead us to an explanatory theory. I may yet be proved wrong of course. (Blackmore, personal communication, 1 August 2019)

Summary of facts and conclusions

  1. A consistent pattern of data manipulation in Hans Eysenck’s and at least two collaborators’ research practice is evident over several decades. Yet only recently have journals found it necessary to retract 14 of Hans Eysenck’s papers and to publish 71 expressions of concern. One paper of concern was published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1946. 
  2. A reliable source accused Eysenck of cheating with his data analyses in the 1960s and other colleagues and PhD students publicly critiqued Eysenck’s laboratory methods.
  3. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, Eysenck formed a long-term collaboration with a Cambridge academic Carl Sargent in spite of the fact that Carl Sargent had been accused of fraud in 1979.  Eysenck and Sargent’s joint publications, with Eysenck as senior author, occurred over the period 1982-1993.
  4. In 1992 and 1993, Anthony Pelosi, Louis Appleby and others raised serious questions about publications by Eysenck with R Grossarth-Maticek (Pelosi, AJ, Appleby, L (1992Psychological influences on cancer and ischaemic heart disease. British Medical Journal 304: 12951298.Pelosi, AJ, Appleby, L (1993Personality and fatal diseases. British Medical Journal 306: 16661667.) The authorities failed to respond.
  5.  Anthony Pelosi (2019) again voices his concerns. This author’s editorial appealing to Kings College London to open an enquiry finally led to concrete action. 25 publications by H J Eysenck and R Grossarth-Maticek have been deemed by KCL to be unsafe.
  6.  As suspicions strengthened over a 75-year period from the mid-1940s, torpor and complacency in the academic system enabled research malpractice to continue, not only Eysenck’s and Sargent’s, but across the board.
  7.  The currently available systems for regulating research integrity and malpractice are an abject failure. A totally new approach is required. An independent National Research Integrity Ombudsperson needs to be established to significantly improve the governance of academic research.

 

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