Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
The skeptical movement has many prominent figures, such as Richard Dawkins, Ray Hyman and Chris French, but none carry the gravitas these days of author/scientist Richard Wiseman. This is a role formerly played by Ray Hyman, but he is getting on in years and Wiseman has slowly taken over the role of the world’s most prominent skeptical parapsychological scientist. No other skeptic shows up in more parapsychology literature and no skeptic is more talked about than Wiseman. In the world of psi research, Wiseman is a central figure.
He is one of a small handful of skeptics who is familiar with scientific parapsychological literature and he has even written a book for conducting parapsychological research. You can read his full biography here. Wiseman is also a magician; he currently holds The Chair in the Public Understanding of Psychology in Britain; He has a first class honors degree in psychology from University College London and a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. He has published over 60 papers.
He has made a name for himself in unusual areas of psychology, including luck, deception and humour, and the science of selp-help. Some of what he does comes under the heading of anomalistic psychology. Anomalistic psychology is the study of human behaviour and experience connected with what is often called the paranormal, without the assumption that there is anything paranormal involved. This field of psychology is a pox on humanity, but that is an entirely different issue.
What I will be concentrating on here are Wiseman’s contributions to parapsychology in the form of his scientific investigations and the scientific studies he’s been involved in. In science, you have to put your cards on the table. You don’t get to hide your statistical formulas or your investigative process. Everyone gets to see what you did. If there are any flaws in your processes or math, these will eventually be exposed. Investigating Wiseman’s scientific record, in other words is an excellent way to take the measure of the man. Is he fair? Is his work clear headed and objective? Does he overstate his case and make grandiose claims or is he careful and measured in his words? All of these questions are answered by his body of scientific work.
In 1992 Richard Wiseman published a paper titled: The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration. (R. Wiseman, ‘The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration, JSPR, 58 (1992), pp.129-152)
In this paper he examined the Feilding report and complained that the report gave an insufficient account of the seances. He also supposedly found faults with it that implied that medium Eusapia Palladino, (1854 to 1918) could have used an accomplice and that the investigators had possibly overlooked this grievous flaw. Parapsychologist Stephen Braude questioned the implied lack of competence due to insufficient information noting:
I consider the best testimony in Eusapia’s case to be reliable. The observers were honest, experienced, well prepared, and alert for (actually, expecting) trickery. In fact, they were as competent as one could hope for. Moreover, the phenomena reported were not difficult to observe, the observations were made under conditions that ranged from adequate to good, and the phenomena observed were not antecedently incredible or without precedent. But it is still all too easy for skeptics to cast doubt retrospectively on these reports, usually by ignoring the reasons for having confidence in the testimony and by raising the mere theoretical possibility of error under the conditions that actually prevailed.
(…) A recent example of this approach is a paper by Wiseman (1992), which calls attention to various details omitted from the Feilding report of the 1908 Naples sittings, and then suggests (in light of those omissions) that an accomplice might have helped Eusapia produce most of the phenomena reported by the “Fraud Squad.” (…)
First, I should note that there are, obviously, practical and aesthetic constraints on how complete any report should be. In fact, there is good reason, when reporting on a case investigation, to omit details that (if included) would add considerably to the tedium of reading a report, especially if (a) the report is as long as the Feilding report, (b) the investigators are (like the Naples trio) good at their job and know what to look for, and (c) one assumes (naturally, and as Crookes did) that readers will give the investigators credit for enough common sense to check on obvious matters not mentioned in the report.
But quite apart from that issue, one would think it is too obvious to mention that no record of a séance (or, arguably, any event) can be complete, whether the record be verbal, auditory, or visual. One would like to think that Wiseman recognizes this and accordingly would not want to demand that experimenters attain an impossible degree of completeness in their reports. And in fact, when challenged, Wiseman seems to retreat from that absurdly strong position.
Robert McLuhan, one of the rare individuals to read completely through the Palladino reports notes in his book “Randi’s Prize” that a complete reading of the Palladino reports makes it very clear that the use of an accomplice would have been absolutely impossible to pull off. (Wiseman argued that an accomplice could have potentially hid in the ceiling. Anyone who has ever worked in an attic would laugh at this. It is enormously hard to move around in tight spaces on your belly, let alone do it without making any noise whatsoever. Most ceilings are flat, with no distinguishing marks, making it fairly difficult to hide a trap door. It is also pretty difficult to lean over into open space and then pull yourself up again. The investigators would have immediately noticed any slight noise above their heads as well making this a very trivial argument.)
Somewhere around 1995 Wiseman received a Perrott-Warrick studentship grant, (amount not known). Guy Lyon Playfair writes:
Yet much P-W money has also been given in the past to self-declared sceptics including Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman and Nicholas Humphrey, whose three years’ funding (an estimated £75,000) produced no original research at all and a book, Soul Searching, notable for the absence of any reference to any published psi research. Clever exploitation of loopholes in the wording of the P-W bequest has enabled opportunistic sceptics to get away with this kind of thing.
In 1995 Wiseman was invited by Rupert Sheldrake to investigate his experiments into a dog’s ability to know when its owner was coming home. Sheldrake explains what transpired:
With the help of his assistant, Matthew Smith, he did four experiments with Jaytee, two in June and two in December 1995, and in all of them Jaytee went to the window to wait for Pam when she was indeed on the way home. As in my own experiments, he sometimes went to the window at other times, for example to bark at passing cats, but he was at the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not. In the three experiments Wiseman did in Pam’s parents’ flat, Jaytee was at the window an average of 4% of the time during the main period of Pam’s absence, and 78% of the time when she was on the way home. This difference was statistically significant. When Wiseman’s data were plotted on graphs, they showed essentially the same pattern as my own. In other words Wiseman replicated my own results.
In total, Wiseman only performed four experiments and in one of them, the dog was sick during the experiment and left to throw up. Whether the experiments were successes or failure, there were simply too few of them to draw any conclusions. The only sensible thing to do would have been for Wiseman to compare his own data against that of Sheldrake and see how it all matched up. Certainly a review of Sheldrake’s 100 + trials that he had already carried out was in order. Yet this was not done. Instead, Wiseman went to the media and skeptical groups announcing that he had disproven Sheldrake’s work. On the basis of the data that he had in hand, Wiseman could not make this claim, yet he did. Furthermore, he got it published in the British Journal of Psychology. (British Journal of Psychology 89, 453-462) (I have to wonder how this got through peer review with only three valid trials and no review of Sheldrake’s experimental results.)
Having someone supposedly debunk your work, particularly in a peer reviewed journal can be damaging to your reputation. The fact that this was completely unwarranted based on the available evidence makes this particularly galling. The net effect of this sort of hatchet job is that this experiment, which could have shed new light on consciousness studies, will be forever after mired in conflicting viewpoints.
In 1999, Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman jointly published a meta analysis of the ganzfeld experiments in the Psychological Bulletin. (Here is the abstract.) Nancy L. Zingrone, Ph.D., then the President of the Parapsychological Association, pointed out that the paper was submitted a mere two months before a convention of the parapsychological association where it could have gotten a proper peer review. She had been involved with the paper from 1997 and was of the opinion that:
“Milton and Wiseman were gathering evidence to support an a priori commitment to the notion that all positive psi results are spurious and all methods which seem to show the presence of psi are flawed.”
Zingrone goes on:
(…) Milton and Wiseman seemed to have missed an obvious opportunity for peer review in their rush to publish their 1999 Psychological Bulletin paper “Does Psi Exist? Lack of Replication of an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer.” It is usual in the parapsychological community for people to “try out” papers that will eventually be published by presenting them at the annual Parapsychological Association conventions. An extra layer of pre-publication protection from errors of fact or method is provided to authors first by the convention refereeing process and, second, by the experience of presenting at the convention and fielding questions and criticisms both on the convention floor and in informal encounters. It seemed to me to be odd at the time that Milton and Wiseman chose to submit their convention version to Psychological Bulletin after it had been accepted for the Proceedings of Presented Papers but before the actual presentation at the convention. That is, they submitted “Does Psi Exist?” to the Psychological Bulletin slightly more than six weeks prior to the PA Convention. The submission was received by Psychological Bulletin on June 23rd, 1997 (Milton & Wiseman, 1999, p.391), and the convention took place from August 7th – 10th, 1997.
One wonders why Milton and Wiseman made the decision to forego the opportunity for more detailed critique which could reasonably have been expected to be available at the convention just over six weeks later. It seems to me that it would have been in the best interest of science to wait to revise the paper until after they had heard and considered the criticisms raised by their colleagues on the convention floor. Their decision seems especially unfortunately given the number of errors in their original work that they have since been identified in print.
The errors in the paper were simply enormous. Chris Carter writes: ( Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 74: 156-167 (2010))
But what Wiseman does not mention is this: it later turned out that Milton and Wiseman had botched their statistical analysis of the ganzfeld experiments, by failing to consider sample size. Dean Radin simply added up the total number of hits and trials conducted in those thirty studies (the statistically-correct method of doing meta-analysis) and found a statistically significant result with odds against chance of about 20 to 1. (Radin, 2007, pages 118, 316) The 30 studies that Milton and Wiseman considered ranged in size from 4 trials to 100, but they used a statistical method that simply ignored sample size (N). (…) Statistician Jessica Utts pointed this out at a meeting Dean Radin held in Vancouver
in 2007, in which he invited parapsychologists and skeptics to come together and present to other interested (invited) scientists. Richard Wiseman was present at this meeting, and was able to offer no justification for his botched statistics.
(…) And this was not the only problem with the study. Milton and Wiseman did not include a large and highly successful study by Kathy Dalton (1997) due to an arbitrary cut-off date, even though it was published almost two years before Milton and Wiseman’s paper; had been widely discussed among parapsychologists; was part of a doctoral dissertation at Julie Milton’s university; and was presented at a conference chaired by Wiseman two years before Milton and Wiseman published their paper. Here we have a case in which Wiseman nullified a positive result by first engaging in “retrospective data selection” – arbitrarily excluding a highly successful study – and then, by botching the statistical analysis of the remaining data.
The harm that this flawed paper has done to the field of parapsychology is beyond estimating. To this day, skeptics still reference it as proof that the Ganzfeld does not yield significant results. Even as recently as 2010, skeptical scientist Chris French used this study in his book “Debating Psychic Experiences” to make the case that the Ganzfeld is a flawed study. This same error is repeated over and over in a variety of sources, such as old CSI articles which rise to the top of search results and including The Straight Dope, which published an article in 2000 that has never been updated. Skeptics invariably pull out this study when they need to cast doubt on the reliability of ganzfeld data. No mainstream publication is going to sort through the morass of claims and counter claims, and in this respect, the skeptical argument wins by default. Certainly without the obfuscation that this paper has wrought, the Ganzfeld would be on much more solid ground in mainstream media.
In September of 2004 a group of CSI skeptics, (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) led by Richard Wiseman was invited by the Discovery Channel to investigate a then 17 year old Russian schoolgirl named Natasha Demkina, who appeared to have a gift for psychic medical diagnostics. Member of the council for the Society for Psychical Research, Mary Rose Barrington wrote of the affair:
Natasha Demkina, a 17-year-old Russian schoolgirl celebrated in her home town of Saransk for making accurate diagnoses of people’s medical ailments just by looking at them, was brought to New York (a gruelling 24-hour journey by train, flight and bus) to have her ‘paranormal claims’ tested by the self-styled world authorities. She was required to match seven written diagnoses against seven corresponding test persons wearing black-lens spectacles to avoid any eye contact. She said from the outset that two of the diagnoses were outside her range, but she was kindly reassured by Wiseman that she would pass her test if she scored five out of five on the other trials. Under these fairly taxing conditions she was in fact correct in four out of the seven trials, a result yielding a significant p value of .02, an outcome calling for a fair degree of congratulation.
But there were no congratulations for Natasha. While noting (in passing) that the odds against this result being due to chance were around 50 to 1, Wiseman told her that she had failed (…) She got something wrong – the claim is dismissed. Science has spoken. (…)As a fraction of the whole truth, this pronouncement scores about 2/10. The authentic message from science is that a probability of .02 would be considered sufficient in medical research to support the efficacy of a substance under test, and some fifty similar tests would have to be carried out before the results achieved by Natasha could be expected to arise by chance. So CSICOP’s experiment actually demonstrated a prima facie confirmation of Natasha’s ability to deliver paranormal diagnoses.
The test itself was a scientific disaster as can be shown in this analysis by Julio Siqueira and prompted Nobel Laureate professor Brian Josephson to write this scathing review. This particular incident had no effect on science and wouldn’t be particularly convincing to people who had personal experience with psi, so it’s likely that Wiseman did very little damage here. Demkina is from Russia and it is highly unlikely that her clientele were persuaded by a foreign TV show. As you can see though, A clear pattern emerges here, showing that Wiseman lacks the necessary objectivity to be a serious investigator.
Somewhere during this time, Wiseman was booted from the main research forum in parapsychology by the vote of a large majority. His grandiose skeptical claims were at odds with the evidence that he had to support them and his peers felt that this was not consistent with commonly-accepted standards of scientific integrity.
In June of 2009, Wiseman conducted a media stunt that posed as an experiment that was written up in New Scientist.
The experiment examined remote viewing – the alleged psychic ability to “see” distant locations. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the US government spent millions of dollars researching this phenomenon, and some have claimed that the results supported its existence. I am deeply sceptical about paranormal abilities, but Twitter provided a great opportunity to conduct a large-scale public remote-viewing study. (…) The first trial was an informal affair, and involved me travelling to a secret location and then sending out a “tweet” asking participants to tweet back their thoughts, feelings, impressions and images concerning my location.
Of all of his experiments so far, this was probably the worst. The experimental controls were so bad that Guy Lyon Playfair wrote:
By now, even first-year parapsychology students will have spotted several basic experimenter errors and significant omissions in Wiseman’s brief report. Among those spotted by New Scientist readers, who are probably fairly familiar with correct scientific procedures:
1. We are not told exactly how many people took part and what percentage of the individual impressions was correct. If, as Wiseman seems to imply, nobody made a single statement that could apply to the target location, this would be a result of some significance.
2. We are not told how many individuals, if any, guessed all four targets correctly.
3. The implication that if the group as a whole failed to demonstrate collective clairvoyance, therefore clairvoyance does not exist, is as absurd as asking randomly chosen people to play a scale on a tuba regardless of whether they had any previous experience of tuba playing, or indeed any musical ability at all, and concluding that the evidence for tuba-playing ability is so weak as to be insignificant.
One reader whose views deserve respect, Professor Brian Josephson, made a similar point – any accurate remote viewing in the group would have been lost in ‘a combination of noise from those not having those skills, and systematic error’. It would have been better, he added politely, ‘if the experimenter had discussed methodological issues with experts in the field before starting the experiment’.
Had he done so, he would have been told that (a) judging of RV tests should be done by impartial outsiders, not by the subjects themselves and certainly not by sceptical investigators, and (b) that to do good RV subjects need training. Expecting an unselected sample of the general public to demonstrate it on demand is totally unrealistic. As one sceptical reader put it, ‘I find the notion of remote viewing ridiculous, but find conclusions overreaching their results equally so’.
By now it should be screamingly obvious that Wiseman trades on his scientific credentials to do a sort of pretend-science that is specifically designed to promote his skeptical point of view. If he did not have the unspoken support of the mainstream scientific community in this charade, he most likely would have been booted out of every professional scientific organization and completely discredited.
Within the parapsychological community, Wiseman’s transgressions are well known and while he is publicly treated as an equal, privately he is considered too biased to be taken seriously. Having been aware of the parapsychology literature, and Wiseman’s work for some time, his newest adventure was entirely predictable.
Parapsychologist Darryl Bem recently came out with a parapsychology study that created a huge splash in the scientific world at the time. His experiment, titled Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect was accepted by the hugely prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). Cassandra Vieten writes:
So what is notable about the current publication? To begin, Bem is not just any psychologist; he is one of the most prominent psychologists in the world (he was probably mentioned in your Psych 101 textbook, and may have even co-authored it). And JPSP is not just any journal but sits atop the psychology journal heap; the article, especially given its premise, was subjected to a rigorous peer-review (where scientific colleagues critique the article and decide whether it is worthy of publication). Also, Bem intentionally adopted well-accepted research protocols in the studies, albeit with a few key twists, that are simple and replicable (they don’t require lots of special equipment, and the analyses are straightforward).
By now the reader is probably aware that Wiseman would look for any way he could to address this literature in a way designed to discredit it. In fact, that’s exactly what he did. As a rather ingenious measure, he created a registry for Bem’s experiment so that any results would theoretically pass through him. Thus, the fox put himself in charge of the hen house. Next, Wiseman and fellow skeptic Chris French performed three separate studies which, of course, showed no effect. And, surprise, surprise, he wrote up a paper detailing the failure of his registry to record enough positive results to be significant. (here). Characteristically, he used a condescending title for his paper: “Failing the Future.” In a comment to this study, Bem had this to say:
By the deadline, six studies attempting to replicate the Retroactive Recall effect had been completed, including the three failed replications reported by Ritchie et al. and two other
replications, both of which successfully reproduced my original findings at statistically significant levels. (One of them was conducted in Italy using Italian words as stimuli.)
Even though both successful studies were pre-registered on Wiseman’s registry and their results presumably known to Ritchie et al., they fail to mention them in this article. I
consider this an important omission. (I also note that Ritchie et al., describe their replication attempt as three independent studies, but the total number of sessions they ran
was the same as the number I ran in my own original experiment and its successful replication.)
In other words, to the the result he wanted, Wiseman omitted inconvenient data and also divvied up the results in his own study to make it appear as though there was a more significant failure to replicate than there actually was. In a Skeptico interview, Bem added this:
Well, they knew that there were three other studies that had been submitted and completed and two of the three showed statistically significant results replicating my results. But you don’t know that from reading his article. That borders on dishonesty.
Because Wiseman, et. al. didn’t run that many trials, the overall results of the combined trials yielded significant results. Had Wiseman been fair, he would have had to publish positive results.
There is a pattern here. Every time something interesting that is psi related happens, particularly if it is newsworthy, Wiseman inserts himself into the discussion and provides a trivial debunking to ensure that the news is shrouded in conflicting accounts that prevent the public and the scientific community from being persuaded by the evidence. This is a pattern that has stayed consistent for over ten years and has shown no evidence of changing. Wiseman is aware of all the criticism he has received over the years, yet his approach hasn’t varied. The only conclusion that one can draw from this is that these are not merely mistakes of incompetence, but rather they must be intentional attempts to deceive.
Of course, this brings up the question: Why would he resort to such measures if he was so sure that psi didn’t exist? The answer of course, is that he knows that it does, but he has more to personally gain through this debunking. In my opinion, his whole career appears to be as shallow as a rain puddle.