• Paranormalia is written by Robert McLuhan, a journalist and author based in London. Please contact me at robertmcluhan@gmail.com

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January 12, 2011

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People such as Ray Hyman are completely dishonest. He and his ilk blast parapsychologist for not publishing in mainstream journals and then when they do, they attack the credibility of the journals for allowing a parapsychologist to publish. This is the old persecutors trick of stopping you from publishing and then blasting you in public for not publishing.

You might find this decidedly fretful piece from Douglas Hofstadter amusing. (In fairness, some of the other contributors are pretty sensible.)

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/06/the-esp-study-when-science-goes-psychic/a-cutoff-for-craziness

Yes, plenty of handwringing here! But it's good to see the Brits, Wiseman and Goldacre, keeping cool under fire.

I like this remark, by Anthony Gottlieb:

It’s very suspicious that hard evidence of paranormal powers only ever seems to show up in laboratories. If people really can predict the future in extrasensory (and extra-rational) ways, how come they only seem to manage it when ESP researchers ask them to do something trivial, like guess a playing card or a picture?

Perhaps I'll send him a copy of Randi's Prize.

Typical "skeptic". Suppress that which does not fall into your world view. Heaven help us all if these " skeptics" ever gain control of governments it will make the inquisition look like child's play.

the moderator of this blog: http://www.talyarkoni.org/blog/2011/01/10/the-psychology-of-parapsychology-or-why-good-researchers-publishing-good-articles-in-good-journals-can-still-get-it-totally-wrong/comment-page-1/#comment-3035

chalked out the usual "why hasn't Bem applied for Randi's prize" line. My reply I hope, clarifies things!

Nice post. I love it. Waiting your new posts. Thank you...

Robert – first I’ll mention that I received your book in the post recently. I haven’t had time yet to do more than skim the contents, but the parts I have looked at are well laid out and seem to form some tight arguments. What I like in particular is that the book is set out in sections that can be read as independent pieces in their own right. That is useful for me right now because I am not able to set aside several hours at a time to get into hefty tomes (and it is a very involved book – I applaud you for being able to put it all together). No doubt I’ll be able to make some comments at a later date.

With regard to Bem’s research, I don’t think anyone who supports the paranormal hypothesis should get too excited just yet. He has reported results that are statistically significant, typically between 1.7 and 3% above chance expectation, but that does not imply that anything paranormal is happening. Some other researchers will likely assume that he has been less than careful in his methodology, for example, and of course the acid test is replication – of which there have been at least three failures so far.

Let me quote the physicist Ernest Rutherford: “If your result needs a statistician then you should design a better experiment.”

That, for me, sums it up nicely. As I have suggested many times here, why don’t the psychics do their stuff without any ambiguity? It’s all very well to argue about statistical analysis of alleged paranormal ability, which only leads to further argument about the validity of those statistical analyses, etc., ad infinitum, but we really need to see solid results.

I wonder if we could find a “holistic” car mechanic, for example. The believers in the paranormal could take their broken-down cars there to be repaired, and the rest of us could take our broken-down cars to a time-served mechanic. And then we compare the results.

When I have had to use the services of a qualified mechanic in the past, I have had no problem (except for a couple of cowboys). But I have certainly never had to pay for a car to be returned to me still broken down, but then being told that, statistically, it works, but if it doesn’t then it’s my own fault for not having enough faith. But that is what happens when someone visits a psychic or a faith healer or anyone else who claims to be getting their “powers” from the “other side.”

There really is a simple bottom line here: can someone who claims to have paranormal powers actually demonstrate it? Can Uri Geller really bend a chrome vanadium spanner with “psychic powers”? Some people say yes. I would say to Geller, do it with a spanner that I supply, and I will be convinced (never mind James Randi and the rest of the world, just convince me).

Additional note: I followed Michael Duggan’s link. If you read the whole article, you will find an excellent analysis of Bem’s work, and an illustration of some of the problems inherent in statistical analysis and interpretation of results.

Not suprisingly, the three failed replication attempts (one of which clearly suffered from severe limitations) receive much attention, while successful replication(s) are ignored. Unscientific predjudice in online media at its finest.

See http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1715954 for:

Batthyany, A. (2010). Retrocausal Habituation and Induction of Boredom: A Successful Replication of Bem (2010; Studies 5 and 7). Social Science Research Network, Working Paper Series.

Also see:

Savva, L., Child, R. & Smith, M. D. (2004). The Precognitive Habituation Effect: An Adaptation Using Spider Stimuli. The Parapsychological Association Convention 2004, pp. 223 - 229.

and

Parker, A., & Sjödén, B. (2010). Do some of us habituate to future emotional events? Journal of Parapsychology, 74, 99–115.

[I just noticed that my above comment could be misconstrued. I'm not accusing anyone on this blog of "prejudice"; rather, that was in reference to the NYTimes Piece, for example.]

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  • ‘These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one’s ideas so as to fit these new facts in.’ Alan Turing, computer scientist.

  • ‘I have noticed that if a small group of intelligent people, not supposed to be impressed by psychic research, get together and such matters are mentioned, and all feel that they are in safe and sane company, usually from a third to a half of them begin to relate exceptions. That is to say, each opens a little residual closet and takes out some incident which happened to them or to some member of their family, or to some friend whom they trust and which they think odd and extremely puzzling.’ Walter Prince, psychic researcher.

  • When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. Arthur C. Clarke

  • ‘Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’ Thomas Henry Huxley

  • We can always immunize a theory against refutation. There are many such immunizing tactics; and if nothing better occurs to us, we can always deny the objectivity – or even the existence – of the refuting observation. Those intellectuals who are more interested in being right than in learning something interesting but unexpected are by no means rare exceptions. Karl Popper, on the defenders of materialism.

  • If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run - and often in the short one - the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative. Arthur C. Clarke.

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