Board member Interview
With Dr. Ronald Crowley
Dr. Ronald Crowley received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics
from USC in 1967. He has been a professor of theoretical physics
and mathematics at Calstate Fullerton since 1965. His specialty
is in the science education and computer science departments, as
well as in the liberal arts studies program. He has also been a
visiting associate professor of theoretical physics for six out
of the last eight years at the California Institute of
Technology. Dr. Crowley was the winner of Calstate Fullerton’s
Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award, 1970.
Dr. Crowley was co-developer of the Discovery Center which is a traveling
experiential museum modeler the Exploratorium
Science Museum in San Francisco, where he spent several weeks
working. Dr. Crowley also teaches a course at Calstate Fullerton
entitled “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” which
investigates various paranormal phenomena and other fields which
have questionable scientific validity. Dr. Crowley has done an
in-depth study of the field of parapsychology and has
investigated many psychics. His special areas of expertise are
biorhythms, biocosmic energy, orgone energy, UFOs, Kirlian auras
and Kirlian photography, out-of-body and near-death experiences,
and faith healing. Dr. Crowley also listed as a scientific and
technical consultant to the Committee for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
SCS: Dr. Crowley, how would a relativistic astrophysicist like
yourself get interested in the field of parapsychology?
CROWLEY: My field deals with things that have extremely unusual
properties, such as black holes. You get into the center of one and times
comes to rest. Space and time can interchange roles and you pass through.
It convinced me that the universe is certainly a more interesting
place than most of us experience it to be. Because of this I began an
exhaustive study of the paranormal to see if it had a place in this
unusual universe. I attended faith healings and seances, conducted ESP
tests, hooked up electrodes to plants, and duplicated other
experiments in which researchers have claimed positive results. I soon
became convinced that none of it worked. For instance, I don’t think
there is any evidence whatsoever to support ESP. It’s just wishful
thinking that there was such a thing. People are easily deceived by the
anecdotal information that they receive. They can’t filter out the
fact that they have a thousand misses and one hit. What they do is forget
the misses and keep the hit.
SCS: Do you have any area of the paranormal that you particularly
CROWLEY: None at all. I don’t take offense at someone who believes in faith
healing or any of these other beliefs. That doesn’t bother me at all. They
are misguided. I don’t even take offense at a lot of the people who
perpetrate these things. There are certainly a lot of frauds; however, I
have met many, many people who truly believe they’re doing something. I’ve
met faith healers who are absolutely convinced that they have faith healing
capabilities. I’ve met astrologers who really believe that they’re doing
something real in manipulating this mathematical data, and have an ability
to predict people’s lives. So, I don’t think it is possible to fault
someone like that when they are convinced that they are doing good.
Although there are many frauds, I am not so much after them as I am
interested in helping people learn how not to be taken in by them. I don’t
hold any strong animosity toward anyone. I don’t have an axe to grind.
SCS: You have investigated the work of many well-known
parapsychologists. Can you tell us any interesting anecdotes
about their work?
CROWLEY: Yes. I’ve had a number of interesting experiences. So
many of the people that I have come into contact with do not
realize that they are totally outside of their domain. Some of
the most interesting one are quite well-known, like Dr. Thelma
SCS: Can you tell us about her?
CROWLEY: I went with a friend of mine, to visit her laboratory at
UCLA. Listening to her was an interesting experience. She happened to
believe in the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and orgone energy. She had taken the
time to build an orgone energy box. An orgone energy box is made of layers
of organic and inorganic materials, basically, something like cotton and
steel, things of that nature. The idea is that the organic material traps
the orgone energy, the Elan Vital, in the box. She proceeded to show me
that if you stuck a compass inside the box it would no longer point north.
That was fascinating to her, that there was something mysterious about
this box that would screw up compasses. It was interesting to me that she
didn’t realize that metal objects attract compasses. She also pointed out
that there were regions in the box which would produce no preferred
orientation of the compass. What I found in my three to three-and-a-half
hour visit with her was that she was overload with these experiences. She
had no idea of why things were happening; however, they were blatantly
obvious to anyone who really knew science or physics.
SCS: Can you tell us about her famous phantom leaf effect with
her Kirlian Photography apparatus?
CROWLEY: She was saying that in Kirlian Photography, when they
pulled the leaf away quickly, they would take a photo and nothing
would happen. She was totally convinced that the leaves had an
ethereal body as well as a physical body. That is the basis of
the aura. She was having difficulty capturing this phantom leaf
effect so she deduced that the ethereal body must be following
the physical body. Pull the leaf away and the ethereal body goes
with it. She needed some way of slowing down the ethereal body so
that it wouldn’t keep up with the physical body.
SCS: How did she try to accomplish that?
CROWLEY: She thought that she could drug the leaf. If she did
this then the ethereal body would be slowed down and she could
photograph it. She dipped the leaf in ether and then put it on a
photographic plate. She pulled the leaf away and took a picture
and got a nice aura of this phantom leaf. We, of course, know
why, but she couldn’t see that the moisture on the leaf accounted
for the image of the phantom leaf. Moisture from the fingers also
accounts for a lot of what we wee in Kirlian Photography. She had
many things along that line. I think she is oblivious to the real
world. She is a very nice lady. I think that she just doesn’t
understand science at all.
SCS: Why do parapsychologists get fooled by their own
CROWLEY: I began to understand, in many ways, how easily a
parapsychologist can get carried away when I did a replication of
Puthoff and Targ’s famous remote viewing experiment. The
experiment is basically one in which you have an experimenter go
off in a car with a random number generator. While he is out in
the car the subject in the laboratory is drawing pictures of
where he thinks the experimenter is going to be. After the
drawing is done, the experimenter in the car punches the random
number generator and picks out a card and finds out what location
to go to, goes there and does whatever is on the card.
You take the transcripts and the drawings and the take the
descriptions of the locations to your judges. You then try to see
if there are any correlations. One of the critical things is
that you set up your protocol ahead of time. You establish what
constitutes hits and what constitutes misses. You don’t make any
of the old mistakes that Rhine and others have done by shifting
data around. You don’t look at one ahead or one behind, unless
you are going to take that into consideration in your statistics
In one of the experiments we did, we used a successful person.
According to Puthoff and Targ, that is one of the critical
criteria; successful people are supposed to have more abilities
than unsuccessful people. We had him describe one of these
targets and he drew a Chinese-type bridge, like you would see in
a Chinese garden, with a pond and ducks.
When he drew that, the experimenter did not go to that
location. the next day, however, he did. And so, when the judges
examined the data they found that these two things matched up. Of
course they were misses, as they had occurred on different days.
At this point there is a very strong drive to change your rules.
I can’t tell you how strong a drive it is to shift your data by
one or two in order to make a match and get positive results. You
shouldn’t change your rules in order to be successful in the
middle of the experiment.
It was an interesting experience for me to see how compelling
this little coincidence can be in forcing you to want to change
your rules. We did run a number of tests and all of them turned
out to be on the chance level. This one turned out to be on the
chance level as well. That kind of thing has been very
educational for me. I think that everyone who dabbles in this
field should try to do some of these experiments so that one can
begin to understand the problems of the field.
SCS: I hear that you also tried to replicate the work concerning
emotions and sensitivity in plants. Can you tell us about that?
CROWLEY: Yes, we attempted to replicate the experiments of Cleve
Backster in talking with plants. Backster claimed that when he
hooked up a plant to a polygraph that it reacted just like a
human being. It would experience an emotional arousal, or
something of that nature. One of the common problems with
parapsychologists is that they are working at the limits of
sensitivity in their instruments. If you look at the graphs you
get from your polygraph equipment, you will find that it is doing
things all the time, even if you don’t have it hooked up to
anything. If you hook it up to a plant, a quarter dollar, or a
piece of styrofoam, you will find that the graph will produce the
same kind of noise signal. These are just artifacts from the
machine, as it’s working at its limit of sensitivity.
Doing the experiments yourself, you can see and begin to
appreciate the kinds of things a lot of parapsychologists
experience. You can understand why, if they are not careful
experimenters, how they would be led to these false conclusions.
If they have an emotional stake, or are getting any grant money,
researchers need to get positive results in order to support
their future experiments.
SCS: Have you been disappointed that there have not been any
positive results in all the careful research that has been done?
CROWLEY: I was somewhat disappointed when I found out that none
of the work done so far seemed to carry much weight. I keep
looking. We may find something, someday. If we do, I’ll be among
the first to admit it. Up to now, it’s been zip.