Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Update: May 8, 2013. Professor Chris French responded to my email regarding the ethics committee. I am changing the post to reflect this.
Back in May of 2009, a psychic medium from England, Patricia Putt, attempted the preliminary portion of the million dollar challenge hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. The test was administered at Goldsmiths University by Professor Richard Wiseman (yes, that Richard Wiseman) and Professor Chris French. She had ten attempts and was required to get five right; none of them succeeded (which is kind of odd, but we’ll get to that later). According to Patricia, the protocol was set up by professor Wiseman and she had little to no say in the design. Her statement in the matter is this:
Answer to your question Wiseman did do the Protocols and there has never been any discussion on it. I either went for it or I didn’t. No
grey areas, just black or white.
JREF typically portrays these negotiations as being two sided, but I have found little evidence that this is true and much evidence to the contrary. The Pavel Zibarov negotiation had similar problems. On the most crucial detail: the number of trials, JREF refused to budge.
It is apparent from the design of the Patricia Putt challenge that it was ill conceived and lacked some of the basic necessities of good parapsychology study design.
While Patricia agreed to the challenge, this does not mean that it was a fair test of her skills. While she also agreed that it was a fair test of her skills, this is a requirement to take the challenge and it is therefore meaningless. Also, she is not qualified to make this statement. Being psychic (or being a skeptic for that matter) is not the same as understanding the protocols of scientific studies nor the specific challenges of parapsychological testing.
On a positive note, Prof. Wiseman did keep all the records and therefore the challenge itself is one of the better documented ones done on behalf of JREF. Ordinary challenge record keeping is very poor at JREF, so this was a welcome change.
This test had a non ordinary element to it that does not show up in any of the JREF official accounts of the testing, nor on Richard Wiseman’s site which needs addressing. When I first contacted Patricia, she mentioned an ethics committee that allowed Wiseman to delete portions of her readings that were deemed too personal. This is definitely NOT a wild accusation. She passed along an email from French which explicitly states the existence of an ethics committee.
From: Prof Christopher C French
Sent: 09 February 2013 18:53
To: Patricia Putt
Cc: richard wiseman
Subject: Randi Test 2009
I was a bit confused by your email. At Goldsmiths, all experiments by staff involving human participants have to be approved in advance by the College Ethics Committee. The form submitted for our test is attached, along with the full protocol. No Ethics Committee was involved any further once approval had been given to carry out the test.
The only type of information that would have been redacted was any that was ruled out in the stipulations laid out in the protocol (i.e., that there is no mention of the volunteer’s number, physical attributes, etc., no indication of the sequential position of the trial, and no mention of events which occurred during the reading). (…)
Some portions of Patricia Putt’s readings were blacked out and there is no indications from surrounding text that she was violating protocol. She claims that the blacked out areas were done by Wiseman. Here is a PDF of the readings that Patricia hand wrote. The numbers are kind of confusing. 15 people were invited and each given a number. Then 10 were chosen at random out of that pool. That’s why the numbers aren’t consecutive. As you can see portions have been blacked out of most readings. Some more than others. (begin updated area). Prof. French has responded with an explanation:
(…) As is usual in all Psychology Departments, all investigations have to be approved by an Ethics Committee in advance of work being carried out. Our proposal was approved by the Committee who, after that, played no further role in proceedings. The main responsibility for ensuring that investigations are ethical lies with the investigators, of course. I do not recall the Ethics Committee asking us to make any changes to the protocol we submitted to them. It is potentially misleading to say that “the ethics committee decided to black out anything that they considered to be of a personal nature” for two reasons. First, our concern was not that all material “of a personal nature” should be blacked out (after all, what would that leave?). We were concerned about the possibility that one or more readings might contain personal information of a sensitive nature, e.g., relating to, say, a prediction of death. Any such material might cause upset and distress regardless of whether or not it came true. In the event, I do not think that there was any such material (but you have the readings yourself so you can confirm that). Second, I do not think it was the Ethics Committee that insisted upon this condition but that we ourselves decided it was a wise precaution.
Another reason for blacking out certain words was in order to avoid the possibility that something would be written that gave an indication of the temporal position of the reading in the series, e.g., some reference to the time of day.
Any deletions were approved at the time by Mrs Putt. I do not have the readings to hand but Prof Wiseman has looked over them and agrees with your own assessment that, in fact, very little was blacked out. (…)
I think that this adds a bit of friction to the testing to black anything out and Patricia wasn’t at all happy with it, but my opinion is that this is fairly minor. (end update)
You could argue that this was entirely benign, or you could argue that this was a cynical attempt to make Patricia Putt fail the challenge. I leave it up to the reader to speculate. My view is that since the whole test was a complete failure, this doesn’t matter.
In any case, the above is not the reason that I refer to this test as flawed. That comes from the test design which completely fails to create psi-favorable conditions. The most glaring flaw comes from the choice of test subjects to read, which the protocol states were women between the ages of 18 and 30. According to Patricia, the actual selection was even more narrow than that.
The girls were all students aged between 18 and I think 21, I had asked earlier for the demographics to be totally different say a cleaner aged about 50, or a kitchen worker at 60 you know what I mean, this was not so. (…)
Patricia was right to ask for a wider demographic both in age and profession. This is an extremely narrow selection for a medium to read. All students, all women, all within a few years of each other and on similar paths. As the objective of the test is to have the subjects pick their own reading, it’s obviously much harder if the most prominent details of their lives are all essentially the same. In fact, this design violates standard parapsychology protocol which acknowledges the importance of the gradient of Shannon Entropy in psychic ability. (May, Spottiswoode, Faith, 2000) As Wiseman is considered an expert in this field, this is not excusable. Now maybe the reasoning behind the narrow demographics was to make sure that Patricia didn’t get lucky. If that’s the case, then the solution is a different test design that doesn’t include this problem.
In the same vein, there was another serious flaw in the design of the test. Mrs. Putt was required to write out her readings instead of speak them as she normally does. The problem with this is that she was being asked to do something she had not claimed to be able to do. If you look at the photo on Wiseman’s page you will see that she is right handed. Psychic ability is known to be a right brain skill, so if a person is writing with their right hand, they are using the left side of their brain, which does not let them stay in the flow. Writing requires a specific type of focus that is different from mediumship. This requirement forced Patricia to move in and out of the focus she needed for mediumship in order to communicate in writing. It disturbed the flow of information. (Psi Favorable Conditions, William Braud.) Contrast this to Patricia’s normal process:
The test was done in a way I don’t normally work, my way is people sit in front of me just the other side of a table which holds my box of tissues often used and my old audio tape machine I will then give them a preliminary talk through telling them how I like to work that is giving Spirit time to enter the room and the person to relax. I will start with I have a man here linking on Dad’s side of the family, your Father is still on the earth plain (alive) they will nod or if it is Dad who has come through I will say I have Dad here at this point I will see the tears welling up, and I go from there. I actually don’t give them much time to talk to me as I always say I am passing information you must give me nothing except the yes or if it is a no then I must also be given that answer.
Finally, there is one other problem with this study design. Part of ordinary mediumship is to see the clients flaws and communicate them to the client so that they can improve themselves and succeed. Nearly all clients of psychic services are aware of this and accept it. They are there to be helped and understand the need to keep an open mind. The subjects of these readings though, did not participate with the intent of being helped. Therefore, information about their flaws might not be well received and in fact, might be rejected altogether. This could possibly account for why no one picked their own reading. They could have been specifically avoiding an accurate account of their flaws by choosing something less threatening to them. This is a form of psi missing and it actually argues in Patricia’s favor.
These three flaws in the Patricia Putt test miss an important feature of testing. The objective is to give any test the best possible chance to succeed in order to determine if there is an effect. You can’t learn about seed growth if you put the seed on a shelf. It needs to be in its natural environment under natural conditions. It is quite possible to institute strict controls and still give a medium the freedom to stay in the flow of their work. Here is an example: (Beischel, Schwartz, 2007)
At best, this challenge demonstrated that something interesting might be going on due to the psi missing. At worst all you can say is that the test demonstrated nothing. Patricia Putt cannot be said to have failed the test because the design was completely inadequate to test anything. That did not stop the press releases of course: (here) and (here)
I think that this demonstrates the problem of skeptical testing. The mindset is all wrong. Their attitude seems to be that if the controls are adequate then it must be a good experiment; they appear to completely disregard the need to create psi-favorable conditions. That’s certainly the problem with this experiment.
To sum it up, my conclusion is that the study design rendered this challenge to be nothing more than a skeptical publicity stunt. I find it appalling that neither Wiseman nor French noticed these glaring errors or if they did, did not seek to correct them. They are university professors who have studied parapsychology and critiqued it. I think it is a lapse of ethics to produce such a poor test because Mrs. Putt’s good name has been smeared and harm has been done to her reputation as a result of this taking this challenge. Short of physically hurting someone, it’s hard to do more harm than that.
Maybe the Goldsmith ethics committee should have been paying more attention.