Monday, June 12, 2006

Weird Science?

Snippets from a March 17, 2004 article by Ronald Bailey, entitled "Weird Science."

My comments in blue. Original text in black. This article is typical of authors whose knowledge of this topic is limited to third party sources. I address these types of comments and assumptions in Entangled Minds. I won't repeat those discussions here, but I will briefly comment on a few points here.

Still, a 2001 Gallup poll found that Americans continue to be credulous about the reality of psychic phenomena. About half of all Americans believe in psychic healing and extrasensory perception (ESP), and around a third believe in ghosts, telepathy, and clairvoyance.

The implication is that only stupid, uneducated, credulous folk believe in such silly things. The unstated assumption predicts that the more educated one is, the less one should believe in psi. The problem is that surveys show that the relationship is significantly positive, and not negative. Skeptics don't like to talk about this because it doesn't fit preconceived assumptions about who believes and why. I discuss this in Chapter 3 of Entangled Minds.

Notoriously, during the Cold War, the CIA and the KGB both had programs researching paranormal abilities like "remote seeing" and telepathy. It should be noted that a 1995 study of the Department of Defense's STAR GATE remote viewing program done by the American Institutes for Research concluded: "[T]he information provided by remote viewing is vague and ambiguous, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the technique to yield information of sufficient quality and accuracy...for actionable intelligence. Thus, we conclude that continued use of remote viewing in intelligence gathering operations is not warranted."

The implication here is that there was insufficient evidence to support the reality of remote viewing (not "remote seeing"). But that's not the case at all. The conclusion cited above refers to an application of remote viewing, not whether it exists. Both of the analysts agreed that the scientific evidence (the little they were allowed to evaluate) could not be easily explained away, and one of the analysts firmly concluded that remote viewing was indeed real. Given the scientific implications of such phenomena, one would certainly hope that governments would be sponsoring research on these effects.

Still, according to the New Scientist, most micro-PK experiments fail to show results. For example, Stanley Jeffers of York University in Canada, using a different random number generator, found no effect. Even Jahn himself, collaborating with German researchers, could not reproduce his earlier results.

This doesn't state what "fail to show results" means. It is quite true that not every experiment works, but this is also true for any experiment, especially those involving human performance and health. What we can say about the micro-PK experiments is that when we consider the cumulative data, meaning all available studies, we find strong evidence that the effects are being repeated by independent investigators. Even Jeffers is a coauthor on a successful micro-PK study. The high variance in study outcomes is most likely due to our poor understanding of all the important variables. The same can be said of similar high variance results often observed in studies of new drugs and medical procedures.

Most studies of paranormal effects, then, find that they are not very robust; research results are often on the knife-edge of statistical significance, and can appear and disappear capriciously. There is also the believer effect: researchers who believe in the paranormal regularly find effects, while those who are skeptical do not...

It's true that many psi studies do not provide robust effects, meaning statistically unequivocal results on demand. But as I state above cumulatively, when considering all data and not just selected portions, there is little question that effects occur more than they don't occur, even when taking variations in experimental quality and selective reporting practices into account.

What would convince skeptics that there are paranormal phenomena like remote viewing and clairvoyance? In a word, "replication." One may be skeptical that photons can act like waves, yet the double-slit experiment showing this effect can be replicated on demand by anybody. If just thinking at them could reliably bend photon beams for all researchers, then there really would be something to study. Until experimental replication without a lot of fancy statistical massaging occurs regularly, research on the paranormal will and should remain on the fringes of science.

The author is correct about what is required to convince some skeptics who need in-your-face demonstrations to accept evidence. But his idea of what replication means is far too stringent. He means repeated on demand by anybody. This is an unrealistic requirement. In no other area of science (excepting demonstrations in high school science labs, and even those don't always work as any high school teacher will attest) do we demand that anyone should be able to demonstrate anything, anytime. In addition, when I see an author using a phrase like "a lot of fancy statistical massaging" it tells me that he doesn't know how to evaluate meta-analytical arguments. In which case his opinion is that of an amateur.

I don't say this to be disparaging. Outside any scientist's own speciality he or she is also an amateur. At the frontiers of all scientific disciplines specialists are always arguing about details and interpretations of experiments and analyses. The same is true in parapsychology. But as I describe in The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, when we look at the accumulation of experimental data over many decades, we find increasingly strong, scientifically valid reasons to believe that extraordinary experiences reported by the majority of the world's population are, in some cases, precisely what they appear to be: extrasensory experiences that transcend classical notions of space and time.


Jonah Dempcy said...

Good article, I agree entirely!
I, too, have brought up the point that although experiments may fail in producing the desired results, this does not disprove other epxeriments which did produce desired results (ie: statistical evidence of psi being real). Usually the skeptic will respond that if it is not reproducable by anyone, then it is not a scientifically demonstrable fact, because you can't trust only a select few researchers while nobody else can reproduce the results. But again, I think the burden of proof lies on the skeptics, as those who have shown experimental evidence of psi existing have already done all they can to "prove" it. (insofar as you can prove anything)

In other words, what more could a skeptic ask for than statistical evidence that psi exists? To say that "because some people cannot replicate it, it is not replicatable, thus it does not exist" is a logical fallacy.

It's too bad that skeptics became known as such, because in reality, anyone can be skeptical of anything, and just as they consider themselves skeptical of the "paranormal" world view on psi, I consider myself skeptical of the "mainstream" world view!

Dean Radin said...

"if it is not reproducable by anyone..."

This is indeed a common complaint, and yet even skeptics accept without question that there are wide variations in talent for sports, music, medicine, teaching, etc. The same is true for conducting experiments. Some people are able to get results, others cannot. The ideal of "repeatable by anyone anytime" is nice in theory, but it doesn't work in practice.

Spooks said...

I couldn't agree more!

Anonymous said...

A great article dr Radin, but i have a question i have read an article on a physics web page, this one to be precise
which is quite junk skeptic ridden but does say that in experiments done in greece random number generators produce results that show the the focusser is produceing undeniable effects on the target , it claims it shows this by the arrangment of the data. If this is so how can their still be a debate about the effect? also does the fact that a skeptical site claims that some paranormal effects are genuine and not fraud encourage you? e.g the poltergeist one is thought as i postulated to be pseudo-psychic with the psi of the individual starting the reaction. but more specifically the reffering to the random number generator experiments as valid

Dean Radin said...

The PhysicsWeb article mentions the work of Greek physicist Fotini Pallikari, who is skeptical in the sense of open-minded doubter rather than disbeliever (I'd describe myself the same way). In addition, she has conducted significant microPK studies and has proposed models to explain the results of those experiments.