Project Alpha

Masterminded by sceptic James Randi, Project Alpha was the code name for an experiment—or some would say a hoax—to see whether psychical researchers could be tricked into believing that a pair of purported magicians had genuine psychic powers. The idea for the experiment came after Randi heard, in 1979, that the head of the McDonnell Douglas company, James McDonnell, had funded the establishment of the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University in St. Louis. As this new laboratory was being set up, Randi contacted its head scientist, physicist Peter Phillips, and insisted that the lab follow Randi’s guidelines during its tests for psychic ability. He also wanted to be present during the tests to assure that they were being conducted properly. Randi was very insistent about this because the laboratory had already announced that its first research project would involve using spoon bending to test for psychokinesis, the ability to use the mind to affect physical objects. Randi had previously worked to debunk a psychic, Uri Geller, who claimed to have the same ability.

When Phillips rebuffed Randi, the sceptic decided to try to discredit the laboratory, and to this end, he found two amateur magicians, Steve “Banachek” Shaw and Michael Edwards (aged eighteen and seventeen, respectively), who were willing to pretend to be spoon benders. Randi coached them in how to perform spoonbending tricks and others related to telepathy in ways that would violate all of the guidelines that Randi had suggested the laboratory follow. Based on Randi’s coaching, the two young men were able to manipulate the tests and fool the investigators throughout three years of testing. Then, in July 1981, Randi intentionally began spreading rumours that someone involved in the testing was involved in a hoax, suspecting that Phillips would hear the rumours and come to him for help in finding out which person was the fraud. After this happened, Randi then offered to work for the laboratory to tighten up testing procedures. After the laboratory followed his suggestions, Shaw and Edwards were no longer able to fake their psychic abilities.

By this time, though, Shaw and Edwards had become celebrities in the psychic community because of their supposed talents, and they appeared several times in front of audiences to demonstrate them. They were so convincing that several prominent people in the psychic community called them highly gifted psychics. Meanwhile, some parapsychologists had begun to suspect that Randi was involved in the rumored hoax, and a few accused him and Phillips of working together on it. Shortly thereafter, Randi decided it was time to reveal what he had done, which he did with great delight. The news caused a furor in the field of parapsychology, the closure of the McDonnell Laboratory, and the cancellation of funding for numerous parapsychology projects at facilities throughout the United States.


  • Uri Geller
  • Psychokinesis
  • James Randi


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning

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