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How One Man Used a Deck of Cards to Make Parapsychology a Science

Okay, I know, I know, parapsychology is not a science. But science does study claims of psychic abilities. Dr. Joseph B. Rhine was influential in codifying a way to do that.

Since the 1930s, Zener cards, also known as ESP cards, have been used to quantify psychic ability, testing for telepathy and clairvoyance (you might remember them from that scene in 1984’s Ghostbusters, when Venkman tests the “effects of negative reinforcement on ESP”). The cards straddle the intersection of science and the paranormal, pseudoscience and legitimacy. In a lot of ways, that’s a space also occupied by the man who pioneered their use, Dr. Joseph B. Rhine, founder of the Duke Parapsychology Lab.

Rhine’s interest in the paranormal took hold in 1922, when he was a young plant physiologist earning a Ph.D. in botany at the University of Chicago. Rhine and his wife Louisa were both dedicated scientists, but they had questions that simple biological reductionism didn’t seem to answer; Rhine had once thought of joining the ministry, until his wife steered him towards science. And then, in May of that year, they sat in the audience to hear Sir Arthur Conan Doyle make his case for life after death.

While fascinated by the phenomena they observed at Spiritualist seances, they were also scientists who wanted proof. Since there is no way to observe life after death and report on it, Rhine focused on ESP, and developed Zener cards (along with psychologist Dr. Karl Zener) in order to test those powers in a scientific manner. Read the story of Dr. Rhine and his ESP research at Atlas Obscura.    


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I used Zener cards in a high school science fair project. My subjects thought they were getting an ESP test, but you'll be glad to hear it was a math project -specifically, statistics. I won first prize, too.
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