He was an interrogation specialist with the CIA and, perhaps bored with hooking up prospective agents and communist sympathizers, decided to attach a polygraph to a plant. He did this in his science laboratory, also known as his living room.
First, Backster watered the plant to see if the polygraph indicated the plant was happy. To his surprise, it instead suggested (to him) that the plant’s response was similar to a person when asked an unpleasant question. He never considered that a fern isn’t a nervous suspect. He just jumped to the conclusion that the plant was trying to communicate to him. Plants react to physical and chemical stimuli, but since they lack nerves or sensory organs, they would seem incapable of sentience.
To understate the case, Backster failed to use proper controls in his study. The purported fluxes he recorded were probably due to a change in humidity since the readings were down right after a watering. Other possible causes were static electricity or movement in the room.
Still, pumped by his seeming discovery, Backster spent 14 minutes trying to get more reaction from the plant by torturing it in various ways. Instead of saying “This is stupid” and giving up, our intrepid plant doctor took this stagnation as a sign of it being bored. He may be onto something. Could you imagine spending all day as a scented geranium?
After getting no reaction, he went to the extreme with his CIA enhanced plant interrogation technique. He decided to burn one of its leaves. I came up with some crazy ideas myself while burning a leaf in my 20s, but never went this far. When he chose this course of action, Backster reported that this caused the polygraph needle to sway mightily. He took this as proof the plant was reading his mind. No other cause was considered, which would become a hallmark of Backster’s method. On the spot, he invented the field of plant psychology.
Backster’s experiments contained several scientifically fatal errors. He failed to explain precisely what he was testing and how he would do so. He used a polygraph, which measures a person’s blood pressure and heartbeat, not a plant’s purported emotions. He committed the logical fallacy of Begging the Question in assuming plants have the ability to feel and think.
To conduct the test properly, he should have had another party think or do something around the plant, then have a third person record the data. This should have been done at least 10 times, with independent parties examining the results and drawing their conclusions.
Despite the shoddy research and lack of independent verification, some persons embrace the notion. His ideas are championed by dowsers, energy healers, remote viewers, telepathic communicators, and a few Wiccans. They feel plants telepathically experience love and fear, store energy like batteries, and do something the proponents call “transducing bioenergetic fields.” These wide ranging, poorly defined claims reek of pseudoscience.
One of Backster’s fans asked him if he could influence chemical and metals as well. So he went to Times Square and tried it for a couple of weeks, apparently without success. This approach to experiment speaks to scientific ignorance. A reputable scientist would never respond to this speculation or employ such a research method.
Controlled experiments repeatedly failed replicate Backster’s findings, and he was criticized for failing to use the Scientific Method. His most public repudiation came during the 141st annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science, where a panel of biologists found his claims unsupportable.
Botanist Arthur Galston told journalists, “We know plants don’t have nervous systems. But they do have little electrical currents flowing through them and are subject to outside manipulation.” Backster Backer Jim Cranford could manage only an ad hominem response: “Backster’s not a scientist and those guys don’t like to admit that anyone else knows anything. That’s pride and arrogance at its worst.” Curiously, neither Cranford nor Backster let us know what the plants were thinking about all this.