Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
The news that should have rocked the world, that eventually will completely upend the scientific world and cause a radical rethinking of theory in a variety of sciences ranging from physics to biology to psychology, arrived . . . on little cat feet. The announcement, as is typical of the scientific community, came out in December of 2010, with little fanfare in the form of an abstract of a scientific paper with an unwieldy title: Extrasensory Perception and Quantum Models of Cognition. It reads:
Today, using modern experimental methods and meta‐analytical techniques, a persuasive case can be made that, neuroscience assumptions notwithstanding, ESP does exist. We justify this conclusion through discussion of one class of homogeneous experiments reported in 108 publications and conducted from 1974 through 2008 by laboratories around the world. Subsets of these data have been subjected to six meta‐analyses, and each shows significantly positive effects. The overall results now provide unambiguous evidence for an independently repeatable ESP effect. This indicates that traditional cognitive and neuroscience models, which are largely based on classical physical concepts, are incomplete.
The experiment in question here is the ganzfeld, which is briefly described in the paper:
In a typical ganzfeld telepathy experiment, a “receiver” is left in a room relaxing in a comfortable chair with halved ping-pong balls over the eyes, and with a red light shining on them. The receiver is asked to keep his/her eyes open, and to wear headphones through which white or pink noise is played. The receiver is exposed to this state of mild sensory homogenization for about a half hour. During this time a distant “sender” observes a randomly chosen target, usually a photograph or a short videoclip randomly drawn from a set of four possible targets (each as different from one another as possible), and he or she tries to mentally send this information to the receiver. During the ganzfeld stimulation period, the receiver verbally describes any impressions that come to mind. These “mentations” are recorded by the experimenter (who is also blind to the target) via an audio recording or by taking notes, or both.
After the ganzfeld period ends, the receiver is taken out of the ganzfeld state and is presented with four photos or video clips, one of which was the target along with three decoys. The receiver is asked to choose which target best resembles the image sent by the distant sender. The evaluation of a trial is based on (a) selection of one image by the receiver, based on his/her assessment of the similarity between his/her subjective impressions and the various target possibilities, possibly enhanced by listening to his/her mentation recorded during the session, or (b) an independent judge’s assessment of similarity between the various targets and the participant’s mentation recorded during the session.
The results are then collected in the form of ‘hit rates” over many trials, (i.e., the proportion of trials in which the target was correctly identified). Because four possible targets are typically used in these studies, the chance hit rate is normally 25%. After many repeated trials, hit rates that significantly exceed chance expectation are taken as evidence for nonlocal information transfer. Most of these experiments are now fully automated, eliminating the possibility of data recording errors.
This paper bases its conclusion on six meta analyses. Honorton (1985); Bem & Honorton (1994); Milton & Wiseman (1999); Storm & Ertel (1999); Bem et al. (2001); Storm et al. (2010). Of particular interest is the paper by Milton & Wiseman. They are both skeptics and their paper originally was meant to show that the ganzfeld actually showed no effect. However, the paper had serious statistical errors, which, when corrected, yielded significant positive results. Make no mistake; including this meta analysis to support the existence of psi was the parapsychologists way of giving a big middle finger to the skeptics and Richard Wiseman in particular. (You can find my post about him here.)
More than 50 authors have reported successful replications from laboratories across the USA, UK, Sweden, Argentina, Australia, and Italy, and the reported effects have been reliably repeatable for over 30 years. In addition, a team of avowedly skeptical researchers led by Delgado-Romero and Howard (2005) successfully repeated the ganzfeld experiment, and they obtained the same 32% hit rate estimated by the meta-analyses.
This is the first paper I’ve seen where the researchers flat out say “it’s been proven.” Tressoldi, Storm and Radin are all senior psi researchers with a great deal of experience in the field and judging by previous literature, they do not take this statement lightly.
This is a rather short paper as these things go, being a sort of meta, meta analysis. What they’re saying here is that if you take all of the ganzfeld experiments and crunch the numbers in a variety of different ways, you still come up with significant positive results. Given the importance of the experiment, the database is not very large, but these meta analyses show that there is no rational way to explain these results other than telepathy. If you’re wondering why this would be difficult, it’s because not all ganzfeld experiments are created equal. Some of them are straight replications, but others are not and there is some room for interpretation when deciding which studies to include. In the 2001 Bem meta analysis for example, the studies were ranked according to how closely they hewed to the replication study design. Some studies, such as those that substituted music or video for the original pictures would be excluded because they were experimental designs that explored whether the ganzfeld method worked for different types of sensory input.
In this way and others, the data was looked at from varying angles to see if the effect that the data demonstrated was legitimate, or, as skeptics claimed, the product of experimental design problems or statistical flukes that artificially created positive results. Having all these different meta analyses which explored different subsets of the data yet still came up with significant positive results pretty much puts those questions to rest. The evidence, in other words, sits silently on its haunches now, waiting to be acknowledged by the mainstream scientific community. As of this month it’s been a whole two years that this has been ignored. The problem now is not a lack of evidence, but a lack of belief.
Naturally, the skeptics would never allow any progress in parapsychology to go uncontested and their go-to skeptic for the ganzfeld is none other than Ray Hyman. Hyman, never one for subtle titles, published a paper titled: Meta-analysis that conceals more than it reveals: Comment on Storm et al. (2010) In this paper, Hyman argued that the evidence for psi is “contradictory and elusive.” It’s the usual skeptical hatchet job that is subtly inaccurate in order to be convincing enough to those skeptics looking for any reason at all to dismiss the data. Hyman cherry picks statements by researchers and twists the research to present a picture of a confused, not-ready-for-prime-time science. You can see the reply to this paper from Storm and Tressoldi to Hyman here. It’s in their reply that you see all the inaccuracies that Hyman introduced in his paper. Hyman’s assertions are picked apart one by one. It’s boring, tedious stuff, but defending yourself from spurious skeptical arguments is all part of the job description of a typical parapsychologist.
Hyman is not the worst of the skeptics and it can be argued that he has made some actual contributions to parapsychology, but he is also completely unmovable. In order to maintain his skeptical world view, he has no choice at this point but to resort to obfuscation. All of his legitimate objections about the ganzfeld were addressed thirty years ago in a series of experiments with the late parapsychologist, Charles Honorton. And by resorting to obfuscation, Hyman has all but admitted defeat.
There is also another skeptical paper published in the Psychological Bulletin that attacks the conclusion of the Tressoldi, Storm and Radin paper titled A Bayes Factor Meta-Analysis of Recent Extrasensory Perception Experiments: Comment on Storm, Tressoldi, and Di Risio (2010) and of course, the obligatory rebuttal: Testing the Storm et al. (2010) Meta-Analysis Using Bayesian and Frequentist Approaches: Reply to Rouder et al. (2013). Basically the skeptical argument goes like this: IF you switch from standard to Bayesian statistics, AND IF you set the prior probability really low AND IF you omit a bunch of the the studies, (including the ones with the best results) well, see? There is no effect. The problem with this approach is that it requires too much manipulation of the data to be a useful evaluation. You could do this to any set of data and have a situation where no one ever proved anything.
This is what winning looks like in parapsychology. Your detractors never, ever shut up and never, ever concede. However, over the course of years, as the evidence has mounted up, the objections have become increasingly obtuse, shrill and incoherent. -Hyman actually argued that the meta analysis was inappropriate for parapsychology and that it created problems in examining the data.- That’s a little like arguing that you shouldn’t use a measuring cup for your sugar because you could be sure of the amount you just poured.
The ganzfeld evidence in fact, is so convincing that skeptic Richard Wiseman conceded:
I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do. If I said that there is a red car outside my house, you would probably believe me. But if I said that a UFO had just landed, you’d probably want a lot more evidence. Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionise the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions. Right now we don’t have that evidence.
Which he later clarified to mean:
It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more general sense of ESP — that is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.
This is as close to as an admittance of defeat as you’re ever going to get from a skeptic in parapsychology. In order to wall off the admittedly convincing evidence for psi, Wiseman has resorted to the skeptical fairy tale known as “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
It is a completely arbitrary, subjective term that can mean anything a skeptic wants it to. This way, a skeptic never has to acknowledge that any evidence is good enough. Ever. Anyone then, who takes that position has lost all claim to a rational, scientific position.
So yeah, telepathy has been scientifically proven to exist. The evidence has come silently, on little cat feet into the scientific arena. And the skeptical arguments? I’m reminded of a line from Macbeth:
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
As I said, in parapsychology, this is what winning looks like.