Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I had the opportunity recently to attend the Friday program of the Parapsychology Conference which is held once a year, usually on the East Coast. I ran into one of the presenters, Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell, psychiatrist and author of the book The ESP Enigma. Her experiment is interesting to say the least. She has tested an autistic girl for telepathic ability and the results were simply incredible. The girl has achieved accuracy of up to 100% consistently.
This first came up in India where an autistic girl named Nadana appeared to psychic ability. Dr. Powell went to India to investigate this case, but came away less than impressed. According to her, the Indian culture is predisposed to exaggeration, so one has to be careful about statements of extraordinary ability. nevertheless, this got the ball rolling and the question was posed: Is there such a thing as an autistic telepathy savant? It appears that the answer is “yes.”
UPDATE: 9-13-14: Dr. Powell has corrected me on some details: She explains:
Thank you for your post. I need to correct one misunderstanding. I heard about Nananda upon my return from India. I haven’t evaluated her, so she might have the telepathic abilities described in the Hindu newspaper. I evaluated three other savants when I was in India who reportedly exhibited telepathy, along with other psi abilities. None of the children were able to demonstrate telepathy with the remarkable degree of accuracy this child could. The Indian child who demonstrated the most telepathy used facilitated communication. This was a problem because it involved the mother touching the child’s hand for support as he chose the letters or numbers.
I saw the video of the experiment being done, which I cannot share at the moment because the experiment is being peer reviewed for publication. Basically, the girl and the experimenter sit side by side at a table, with a divider between them. A board is passed to the girl so that she can point to the letter or number that she thinks is the right one. She points to the correct symbol on the board and then enters it into her “talker.”
From Dr. Powell’s abstract of her presentation at the Parapsychology Conference:
Autistic savants have not undergone rigorous scientific investigation for psi, although many of their skills are very psi-like. For example, some give cube roots of six digit numbers without knowing how to perform simple mathematical functions, such as addition or multiplication, and with no conscious derivation of the answers. These remarkable skills are accepted by science because they are reliably replicated. Brief reports by physicians that are suggestive of psi in autistic savants have been ignored or criticized. The psi ability most frequently reported by parents to the author in her research has been telepathy, especially in nonverbal children. In 2013, the author received three homemade videos of a nonverbal, nine year-old, severely autistic girl that were claimed to demonstrate telepathy. The videos were intriguing, but scientifically insufficient.
Technically, this isn’t a perfect experiment and ideally, Powell or other researchers would be in a separate room while the experiment was taking place. But this is a fragile, severely autistic child who gets very upset at the slightest change to her environment. It is a very slow process to get her to accept the conditions for testing at all. On the other side of the coin, a nonverbal, severely autistic child is not going to con anyone, so no one has to consider fraud as a possible reason for the outcomes. The child also can be counted on to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore outside influences. It’s highly unlikely that she would pick up on cueing from extraneous sources.
While few have seen the video, I did go on a forum and explain the process and got the feedback of several skeptics. Their take on it was that the child was reading nearly imperceptible unconscious clues from the researcher’s hand and getting her answers that way. If you are determined to find a material explanation, I suppose that it is as good as any. (This is called a Clever Hans situation, after an experiment done with a horse.) I find it implausible because it means that the child is able to accurately discern at least 36 distinct separate clues from minute differences in hand movement from different people. First, she doesn’t hesitate when going for an answer. Second, it would require feedback, which the girl doesn’t seem to need and third, I’m not even sure that it’s even possible to have 36 distinct separate consistent differences in hand movement without trying if all you’re doing is grabbing a board with one hand and holding it to your left. The horse had been unwittingly trained to watch humans carefully and stop pawing at the ground when they unconsciously relaxed at the correct answer. In the videos, the child is not cycling through symbols until she finds the “right” one. She goes directly to it.
This experiment won’t be a real wowzer until we can all see the videos and get all the data. But still, it’s very interesting, even at this point. It does however, bring up something with I find personally terrifying to consider. Perfect telepathy can only come from receiving unfiltered thoughts from other people, which in turn means not having that person’s emotional state filtered. This filtering, -the ability to shut out other people’s emotions-, is what keeps us sane. I cannot imagine how it must feel for her to have to deal with all the complex and often contradictory emotional baggage and garbage that the average adult carries around. It took me many years to deal with it and I can point to hundreds of testimonials both in emails and on this blog from people who have difficulty with that as well. And this child is as open as it gets. Dear God! I would be a drooling idiot under the same circumstances. Can she just shut out all the other stuff and only concentrate on someone’s surface thoughts? Apparently so. But what about the rest of the time? Psychic ability isn’t something you can ever really shut off.
Source material: A Nobel Prize for Woo Woo, Evidence of Telepathy in a Nonverbal Autistic Child (Includes abstract from 2014 Parapsychological Association presentation)
Now of course Dr. Powell has been asked time and again why she doesn’t apply for the JREF million dollar challenge. As this is a subject I’ve already addressed at length many times, I wrote up an article just for her. Here it is:
My name is Craig Weiler and I am a parapsychology journalist. I cover the controversies surrounding this research and that includes the James Randi Educational Foundation Million Dollar Challenge for psychics. This is a topic that I covered at length in my book Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet as well as numerous articles on my blog and for other non mainstream publications.
In theory, this challenge seems to be straightforward: Work out a protocol with the skeptics, run the experiment and if it succeeds, collect the money. It is however, a great deal more complicated than that.
For starters, it is relatively easy to prove that psychic ability exists using existing scientific data (here) from scientific experiments that have been conducted for over 130 years. This data is far, far superior to the results of any experiment that JREF can cobble together. It’s easy to see why. One is a collection of scientific organizations, including the Parapsychological Association, a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that publish peer reviewed papers in scientific journals and the other is merely a single non profit skeptical organization that maybe does the challenge a couple of time a year. Robert McLuhan wrote in his book “Randi’s Prize”:
To offer an analogy: the difference between parapsychology and Randi’s prize is the difference between a fleet of boats heading out to sea equipped with radar and large nets, and one man sitting beside a muddy stream waiting for fish to jump into his net.
Psychic ability, particularly telepathy, has been proven to exist by any sane scientific standard. There have been over 2,000 trials of an experiment known as the Ganzfeld that demonstrates this. (Wikipedia is not a reliable source for any parapsychology experiment. But that’s another story . . . ) The authors of the paper “Extrasensory Perception and Quantum Models of Cognition wrote in 2010:
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.
In the JREF Million Dollar Challenge FAQ the parapsychological scientific data is addressed in this fashion:
(9) Scientific papers have been written supporting paranormal events and talents. Therefore, how can you deny them?
Scientists can be wrong — sometimes, very wrong. The history of science is replete with serious errors of judgment, bad research, faked results, and simple mistakes, made by scientists in every field. The beauty of science is that it corrects itself by its own nature and design. By this means, science provides us with increasingly clearer views of how the world works. Unfortunately, though science itself is self-correcting, sometimes the scientists involved do not correct themselves. And there is not a single example of a scientific discovery in the field of parapsychology that has been independently replicated. That makes parapsychology absolutely unique in the world of science. (bolding and underline mine.)
The area I’ve bolded and underlined is of particular interest because it is pure fiction and very easy to disprove. Parapsychology is a statistical science and replication is a cornerstone of evidence in this field. Besides the ganzfeld, some of the more notable experiments with many replications are the staring experiments, the precognition experiments, the psychokinesis studies and of course there are others. Science is conducted in the same manner in parapsychology as in other fields.
This one statement sums up the position of JREF and demonstrates why Dr. Powell should avoid them. If they cannot be convinced by a veritable avalanche of scientific data, certainly one lone autistic child does not stand a chance. (More on that in a moment.) Their position on parapsychology and by extension psychic people, is not shaped by science, but rather by their beliefs. They are not a scientific organization and they are not interested in conducting or even acknowledging real science. They are advocates for a particular point of view and are more easily understood as the atheist version of religious fundamentalists than the objective, fair minded skeptics they claim to be.
The organization is a scandal magnet. James Randi himself has admitted to stretching the truth, plagiarizing and in one instance, was flat out caught lying about having debunked a study by Rupert Sheldrake. His life partner is a convicted identity thief, JREF was outed as supporting the Guerrilla Skeptics, an organization dedicated to gaming Wikipedia to make psychics, parapsychologists and parapsychology look bad. The former president, D. J. Grothe, was accused of “misogyny and disrespect for women coworkers” and, “constant duplicity, dishonesty and manipulation by a female employee. In addition, they have been dogged by questions about whether the prize money really exists.
The fortunes of JREF have been declining in recent years. They’ve gone from donations totaling $1.56 million in 2011 to $887.5K in 2013. People who are skeptical by nature it seems have become skeptical of JREF.
As far as the challenge itself, one disgruntled applicant offered up a $100,000 dollars to anyone who could prove that the challenge was legitimate. (no takers.) and there is a long list of complaints about how applications have been handled. The attitude of JREF has been to dismiss these complainants as whiners and sore losers. I have never run across a single instance of JREF staff taking these complaints seriously, much less acquiescing to any of them. When a JREF staff member says that “both parties have to agree to the protocol” this is technically correct, but it appears to a “take it or leave it” type of agreement, not a genuine compromise between two parties.
I’ve carefully researched two challenge applicants, Pavel Zibarov, who spent two years going through the process (it’s not at all unusual for it take that long) only to have his proposed protocol dramatically changed at the last minute to make it harder for him to win. (He dropped out.) The other was Patricia Putt, who took the preliminary challenge and failed dramatically. I haven’t investigated more of these because it’s not a matter of simply going through the documentation and evaluating it. JREF doesn’t keep any records on their challenges.
I was able to evaluate the Zibarov challenge because the JREF was still allowing access to the forums where the challenges were worked out -something they discontinued after I published my results.- JREF volunteers had worked out a reasonable protocol with Zibarov only to have JREF staff swoop in and substantially change it at the last minute. It was done in a very arrogant way.
Putt actually agreed to be tested and did fail -at something she never claimed she could do.- She complained many times about the way the test was being set up, but went ahead with it anyway because she surmised -correctly- that this was going to be her only shot. She was not allowed verbal contact with the test subjects nor any confirmation of the answers. Instead, she was forced to write out her readings, -a technique she had never used and was unfamiliar with. Furthermore, the test subjects were students all around the same age, making it hard to differentiate between them. It was an experiment with good controls, but it was it was a terrible experiment overall. It ran counter to virtually all the best practices in the scientific literature. It was designed in such a way as to virtually guarantee failure.
In general, the few tests that are performed are too hard, too pressure filled and too short to be meaningful tests of psychic ability. Of course people are failing; the experiments are badly designed.
When all else fails, JREF has 100% control over the challenge and that led to this:
this girl is Natalya Lulova, who had the ability to discern a great deal about objects without seeing them. (You can find the whole sordid story here.) She originally began the experiment with duct tape over her eyes, but this made her too uncomfortable, so they switched to a pair of glasses provided by Mark Komissarov that were designed especially for this task.
its construction made peeking an impossible option. Two thick circles of foam sheathed by a firm, black fabric completely covered the eye sockets, with a black elastic band that passed over the nose and pressed the foam against the eyes, making it definitely impossible to cheat.
When she began to perform as advertised, Randi plastered a bunch of duct tape all over her face. When she still performed, he did it again.
This abusive behavior finally broke the little girl’s will:
So what happened next? What followed were a child’s insulted tears, filled with misunderstanding: how could he have possibly proven that she cannot “see” if she clearly can? How is it possible, to so quickly transform white to black? The consequences of this shock resulted in a viciously heavy psychological trauma, as well as Natalya’s complete loss of her wonderful ability to see without eyes.
For ten (!) months we worked to rebuild what has been destroyed; ten months of hope and disappointment, until at last, success! Once again, Natalya was able to view the world with her eyes wide shut.
I shudder to think what would happen to a fragile, severely autistic kid if JREF ever got a hold of her. It’s not worth any amount of money to find out.
To sum it up, no one in their right mind should ever apply for a challenge no one can win, least of all Dr. Powell. She does not need it to establish the legitimacy of her experiments because James Randi Million Dollar Challenge is scientifically meaningless and therefore irrelevant. Attempting the challenge may be good for Randi and his organization, but not for anyone else.