A sympathetic, somewhat rambling history of parapsychology investigations at Duke University.
All Things Considered contributor Horn (The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, 2005, etc.) begins in the mid-1920s, when J.B. Rhine and his wife Louisa arrived in Boston to research psychic phenomena. Their scathing exposé of the popular medium Mina Crandon set off a storm among believers in the occult; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bought ads in the Boston papers declaring Rhine to be “an ass.” The protests brought Rhine to the attention of John Thomas, a public-school administrator who had lost his wife and was trying to establish contact with her spirit. Thomas arranged for Rhine to join the psychology department at Duke, where he would remain for nearly 40 years. Horn gives the broad outlines of Rhine’s basic work, most of which involved experiments in which students tried to guess which of five symbols appeared on a card chosen from a deck. Especially in the early years, his researchers achieved some provocative results that drew widespread press attention and floods of mail from those seeking advice. Rhine was determined to produce scientifically sound work, the author notes. As a result, he declined to investigate many of the cases brought to his attention by the public, specifically those involving ghosts, poltergeists and other phenomena that could not be subjected to rigorous experimental conditions. Horn looks at several psychics who injected themselves into murder investigations, although Rhine had little to do with those cases. Ironically, despite Rhine’s insistence on scientific rigor, his work was frequently challenged for inadequate statistical analysis and insufficient safeguards against cheating. In latter days, his backers grew impatient with his failure to find proof of the afterlife, and funding dwindled. He left behind some intriguing results and many unanswered questions about how the mind works.
A bit unfocused, but solid on the details of Rhine’s life and work.