Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Welcome to the Great Psi Debate! It’s not just a scientific area of interest, it’s a full blown culture war.
If you look at the number of votes on this page, it’s up to 109 as of today. It’s 20 times higher than my normal posts. Very few people take the time to vote on blog pages and with the exception of my permanent pages, I normally have between 1 and 5 votes on any blog post. The reason it’s so high is that a bunch of skeptics came through and systematically down voted all of my permanent pages, including some of the comments. Nowhere is this absurdity more obvious than my rather obscure permanent page for Rules for Skeptical Comments which has a whopping 65 votes,almost all of them for one star for a post almost no one cares about. The objective is clearly to discourage people from reading my blog.
This petty little skeptical dirty trick pretty much sums up the nature of the psi debate at all levels from poorly informed comments on popular psychic related articles to the hallowed halls of science. (You can read more about that in this post: (Fanatical Skepticism: The Last Desperate Stand)
Update: Re-written 7-28-11
Telekinesis: Is it Real?
The Holographic Universe
The Global Consciousness Project
Plant Consciousness? Are You Kidding Me? Nope. It’s True
Psi in Animals
Psi as an Evolutionary Trait
Evidence for the Afterlife
Occasionally, articles appear about research into psychic ability and very rarely is any of the existing research ever mentioned. Very few people, many scientists included, are aware that any credible research exists at all. It does. However, in order to walk you through the research that has taken place, it’s important to understand where this research comes from. Many people, including scientists have the idea that research into the paranormal is done by a handful of crackpots doing very questionable experiments which no one can replicate and who are totally unaware of their own biases. If you start from this premise, it can be very difficult to take the experiments seriously. Here are the facts:
The term used for the scientific study of paranormal ability is called parapsychology and the premiere scientific organization involved in this research is the Parapsychological Association. They publish a peer reviewed scientific journal called the Journal of Parapsychology and are a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientific experiments in parapsychology follow the well worn path that studies in other fields take. A proposal is submitted, usually to a university department, a professor is involved, the proposal is accepted, the experiment is carried out and the results are submitted to peer review and if deemed satisfactory, are published in the appropriate scientific journal. That’s as good as it gets.
Contrary to popular belief, the use of professional psychics in experiments is very rare; nearly all experiments test people without any extraordinary professed psychic ability. This virtually eliminates the problem of possible fraud from test subjects because they have nothing to gain from cheating. (Psi experiments involving humans all have procedures to protect against fraud anyway.) Parapsychology, like many other fields of research, is a statistical science in which results are measured in odds against chance. It is typical in this field to combine many studies into a meta-analysis, in order to discover trends that are too small in individual studies to be convincing.
There is no smoking gun in parapsychology; no single study by itself is convincing and no results are so obvious that they cannot be questioned. It is only with the gradual accumulation of evidence over time that a clear picture emerges. In other words, you have to see the big picture to really be convinced.
If an experiment is controversial, (and psi experiments ALWAYS are), the experiment needs to be replicated; it’s a process that can take years before enough evidence is accumulated if the effect is small. The advantage of this is that the same experiment done by a wide variety of people in different locations at different times removes experimenter error or bias as a probable explanation of the results.
The Autoganzfeld Studies
No other class of psi experiments has generated the controversy that this one has. Ganzfeld Studies have been around since the 1930’s and the Autoganzfeld Study merely refers to a computerized version of the same thing. (Go to Wikipedia for a full description. It’s actually fairly accurate . . . today.)
A ganzfeld experiment (from the German for “entire field”) is a technique used in the field of parapsychology to test individuals for extrasensory perception (ESP). It uses homogeneous and unpatterned sensory stimulation to produce an effect similar to sensory deprivation. The deprivation of patterned sensory input is said to be conducive to inwardly generated impressions. The technique was devised by Wolfgang Metzger in the 1930s as part of his investigation into the gestalt theory.
This telepathy experiment is straightforward enough. Person A is shown a photo, which he/she then sends telepathically to Person B, who then must pick the correct photo out of a selection of four photos. This establishes pure chance at 25%. If you run the experiment enough times, you can determine whether the results are due to chance or not using very straightforward statistics. This experiment routinely yields results of around 33%, sometimes higher, sometimes much higher, and sometimes lower. What made these experiments impressive is that Ray Hyman, a noted skeptic, picked over the experiments with a fine tooth comb and could find no way to legitimately dispute the results. This debate is covered in depth in Dean Radin’s book: The Conscious Universe and summarized on Page 88: (These studies have been performed at U. of Amsterdam, Netherlands, U. of Ednburgh, Scotland, Institute for Parapsychology, N.C and U. of Gothenburg, Sweden.)
While only the 1985 meta-analysis, the autoganzfeld study, and the Edinburgh study independently produced a hit rate with 95 percent confidence intervals beyond chance expectations, it is noteworthy that each of the six replication studies (after the autoganzfeld) resulted in point estimates greater than chance. The 95 percent confidence interval at the right end of the graph is the combined estimate based on all available ganzfeld sessions, consisting of a total of 2,549 sessions. The overall hit rate of 33.2 percent is unlikely with odds against chance beyond a million billion to one.
Chris Carter, in his book Parapsychology and the Skeptics produced the following charts: (pages 63,66,67)
|Ganzfeld Replications as of 1995|
|PRI., Princeton, NJ||354||34%|
|U. of Amsterdam, Netherlands||124||37%|
|U. of Edinburgh, Scotland||97||33%|
|Institute of Parapsychology, NC||100||33%|
|Standard Ganzfeld Replications 1996 on|
|U. of Amsterdam, Netherlands||64||30%|
|U. of Edinburgh, Scotland*||128||47%|
|Institute for Parapsychology, NC||259||28%|
|U. of Gothenburg, Sweden||150||35%|
|* Artistically gifted sample|
|All Ganzfeld Studies 1974-1999|
|Original 28 ganzfeld||1974-1981||35%|
|95% confidence interval||28%-43%|
|95% confidence interval||30%-39%|
|Standard replications (rated +6)||1991-1999||33%|
|Standard replications (rated >4)||1991-1999||31%|
|Non standard studies (rated <4)||1991-1999||24%|
|All forty studies||1991-1999||30.10%|
As Chris Carter notes:
These figures should make the conclusion clear: the earlier results have been replicated by a variety of researchers in different laboratories in different cultures with similar hit rates. (…) Hyman and other skeptics have lost the ganzfeld debate.
The RNG Studies
RNG stands random number generator. This study is simplicity itself. The test subject tries to mentally influence a random number generator so that the numbers aren’t completely random. Then the researcher simply crunches the numbers to find out if they succeeded. Naturally, they need to be sure that the numbers are completely random, (this is harder than it seems) so they use scientific grade random event generators. (It uses data from radioactive decay, which is truly random.) The study can be done quickly and easily with no chance of tampering by the test subject. As far as studies go, it’s fairly easy to get it right as long as the test subjects aren’t under too much pressure either from a negative atmosphere or being made to hurry, both of which can reduce the results to mere chance. You can take part in an ongoing on line experiment here:
The nature of this testing procedure allows for many trials to be done. From pages 153-155 of The Conscious Universe:
From a wide range of sources, we found 152 references dating from 1959 to 1987. These reports described a total of 832 studies conducted by sixty-eight different investigators, including 597 experimental studies and 235 control studies. Of the 597 experimental studies, 258 were reported in a long-term investigation generated by the Princeton University PEAR laboratory, which also reported 127 control studies. [Here are the Princeton studies.]
The overall experimental results produced odds against chance beyond a trillion to one. Control studies were well within chance levels with odds of two to one. In terms of a 50 percent hit rate, the overall experimental effect, calculated per study, was about 51 percent, where 50 percent would be expected by chance.
Although the effect is small, it is yet again an experiment that meets all the criteria of scientific success.
The Staring Studies
This experiment is exactly what you think it is; it tests people’s ability to tell whether they’re being stared at from behind. What makes this experiment convincing is that the starer and the stare-ee are not in the same room. Instead, the stare-ee is monitored by a video camera and the person doing the staring is in an entirely different room doing the staring via a television.
It is an experiment that is so simple that it can be done by high school students. (And it has.) As with the other studies mentioned, this one has been replicated many times by many different organizations. [Here is a list of studies done.]
From The Sense of Being Stared At-Part 1: Is it Real or Illusory? (pdf) (Studies have been conducted at Cornell University, Stanford University, U. of Edinburgh, U. of Adelaide, Australia and by Rupert Sheldrake)
|Year||Trials||Right||% Right||Subjects||P value|
|1998||3,240||1,843||56.8||160||3 X 10^-6|
|1999||13,903||7,636||54.9||661||1 X 10^-15|
|Total:||30,803||16,849||54.7||1,558||1 X 10^-20|
The P value, on the right, is another way of saying “odds against chance.” .01 is considered good enough and the smaller the number, the more likely that the experiment was successful. The total shown in the lower right corner is considered to be very, very good. Like the other experiments listed, this experiment qualifies as acceptable evidence of psychic ability.
This is not a list of all the experiments, only a short list of the most replicated ones.
The basic premise of the skepticism is that ALL of the experiments are flawed and none of the data meets scientific standards. This is not unique to parapsychology, any experiments which suggest an expanded role for consciousness from any scientific field meet the same fate of instant disbelief. In my studies of both parapsychology and the skepticism surrounding it, it has become obvious that a double standard is in effect. The bar for parapsychological experiments is perfection, while the bar for skepticism is “truthiness.” There is simply no skepticism of parapsychological scientific data which can be traced to verifiable scientific facts. It’s all opinion. Whenever any data supporting skeptics surfaces, however flawed, it sticks around as “truth” long after it has been debunked. A perfect example of this is Richard Wiseman (skeptic) and Julie Milton’s meta-analysis of the autoganzfeld data where they purportedly showed that there was really no effect. In reality: (Parapsychology and the Skeptics by Chris Carter, page 64)
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 results with odds against chance of about 20 to 1.
Not only that, but Milton and Wiseman did not include a large and highly successful study by Kathy Dalton due to an arbitrary cut-off date, even though it was published almost two years before Milton and Wiseman’s paper; (…)
That’s it. That’s the best skeptical evidence. One botched study. Skeptics still reference this study as “proof” -some ten years after it was discredited- to this day. However badly it was done though, at least this effort was done in the interest of actual science by people who clearly possess some expertise in the field of parapsychology. Both of these people are part of the parapsychology scientific community. Skeptics Ray Hyman and Susan Blackmore are also included in this list. (Blackmore is no longer active.) There is really only a very small handful of skeptics, probably less than five, who have enough expertise in parapsychology to legitimately comment on it at all. Ray Hyman even noted:
. . . members of the scientific community often judge the parapsychological claims without firsthand knowledge of the experimental evidence. Very few of the scientific critics have examined even one of the many experimental reports on psychic phenomena. Even fewer, if any, have examined the bulk of the parapsychological literature . . . Consequently, parapsychologists have justification for their complaint that the scientific community is dismissing their claims without a fair hearing . . .
Beyond them, things go downhill in a hurry. The rest of the skepticism is based on a whole list of questionable arguments.
An example of the worst sort of skepticism comes from JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation and its Million Dollar Challenge. The foundation supposedly offers a million dollars to any psychic person who can pass a scientific test proving their ability. It seems reasonable on the surface, numerous sources have pointed out such serious flaws that the challenge cannot be taken seriously by any scientifically minded person. (Here, here, here, and here to name a few.) To demonstrate the ridiculousness of the challenge, retired lawyer Victor Zammit has issued a million dollar challenge to skeptics and homeopath John Benneth has issued a $100,000 challenge to anyone who can prove Randi’s challenge is legitimate. No one has collected on those either.
The skepticism surrounding the paranormal is one large echo chamber filled with talking points and not much else. Mainstream scientific publications in psychology refer to psychic ability by the derogatory term: “magical thinking” when it is addressed at all. For the most part, it is treated as though there is no evidence at all. The consensus scientific opinion does not match the evidence and it’s not even close.
The debate will rage on, probably for long after I’m gone. It is a subject that generates very strong feelings either for or against, but eventually the scientific community at large will have to accept the reality of psychic ability and that will be a good thing when it happens. I’ll leave you with this quote from George Hansen, author of The Trickster and the Paranormal:
“Surveys show that over half the adult population in the U.S. have had psychic experiences and believe in the reality of the phenomena. . . . Those who have had the experiences but encounter the debunking attitudes of apparent “scientific authorities” are likely to conclude that science is a dogma and inapplicable to important aspects of their lives. . . . Ironically, CSICOP’s [ed. note: a.k.a. CSI, a skeptical organization] activities will likely inhibit scientific research on the paranormal and might potentially foster an increased rejection of science generally.”