Dr. Michael Thalbourne, scholar and parapsychologist, died May 4, 2010, at the age of 55. At the time of his death he left unfinished a book project that was to be based on a collection of papers concerning an episode in the early 1980’s called Project Alpha, involving Michael, Professor Peter Phillips of Washington University, St. Louis, and the magician James Randi (a.k.a. The Amazing Randi). Briefly, Project Alpha was Randi’s idea; a hoax with its main target (though not the only one) the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research (a.k.a. the ‘Mac Lab’), set up by Professor Phillips at Washington University in 1979 for a five year term. Michael joined the laboratory as principal researcher in late 1981.
In the 1970’s, the world-famous psychic, Uri Geller, had attracted the attention of some parapsychologists, especially for his apparent paranormal metal-bending. Professor Phillips was interested in this effect, and Randi saw his chance. He sent two young men to the Mac Lab, Mike Edwards and Steve Shaw, alleged metal-benders, but actually magicians. They used simple tricks such as misdirection to enable them to simulate genuine psychic ability. Of course, neither Edwards nor Shaw told the Mac Lab staff they were working with Randi, who suspected that they would not be able to detect the fraud on their own. Randi also doubted that the Mac Lab staff would accept his advice, which he freely offered. The researchers were, indeed, deceived at the beginning, but took Randi’s advice in the summer of 1981. Under Michael’s direction Mac Lab staff conducted experiments free of fraud, saw no psychic effects, and ceased research with these subjects in 1982. Randi revealed his project as a major media event in January, 1983, claiming that it was a scientific experiment to test the Mac Lab’s ability to cope with magicians.
Out of affection for Michael, and respect for his commitment to parapsychology, Professor Phillips has assembled Michael’s papers and produced an archive for the AIPR website. This archive, “The Project Alpha Papers”, is dedicated to Michael, who was disturbed by the fact that many people seemed to have a very exaggerated idea of what Project Alpha actually achieved. This archive presents all points of view, from the most critical to the most supportive, so that a thoughtful reader can make up his/her own mind about the significance of Randi’s hoax.
To access The Project Alpha Papers (Web version), click here
To access The Project Alpha Papers (PDF version), click here