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Dean Radin's Psi Research List

How To Make Psi Disappear

Dean Radin's new list of psi articles includes one which he referenced on his blog some time ago, and which I mentioned here quite recently. It's one of those richly comical moments that bubble up in sceptic discourse from time to time, so I thought I'd add a bit more detail.

The paper was published in The Humanistic Psychologist in 2005, by psychologists Edward A. Delgado-Romero and George S. Howard. Their general drift is that experimental findings in psychology are much less reliable than is realised, due to little acknowledged factors such as the file drawer problem. Here they propose to investigate the case of parapsychology. They take as their starting point the Wiseman-Milton meta-analysis, which concludes that the accumulated results of methodologically sound ganzfeld experiments is non-significant. To confirm this then carry out their own experiments, but worryingly, after doing eight studies they have an overall hit-rate of 32%. Not only does this match the positive meta-analyses, when added to the Wiseman-Milton study it brings it, as they say, 'precariously close to demonstrating humans do have psychic powers', a conclusion which they admit makes them feel 'very uncomfortable'.

What to do? A thought strikes them.

In the ganzfeld procedure, participants are run in pairs. According to psychic theory, if one member of the pair is psychic (P) but the other is not (n) there will be no transmission of information. Only PP pairs can successfully send and receive messages. What exactly does this imply?

It implies, they believe, that the statistical approach in the ganzfeld methodology is fatally flawed. If the research literature is recalculated to accord with this idea, the significance in the database practically vanishes. To confirm their hunch, they do one last study, pairing up people whose psi-hitting in their previous studies indicates that they have psychic powers. As they suspect the result is now not significant.

These are enormously disappointing data for individuals who believe humans possess psychic powers- especially because the sample had undergone a selection procedure to increase the percentage of Ps in the sample. Due to this last data set, we do not believe that humans possess telepathic powers.

That said, they admit to remaining 'perplexed' by the 32% figure obtained in an enormous number of other psi studies. Perhaps, they suggest, it's

comparable to Meehl's (1978) "crud factor," which suggests that everything is correlated with everything else to a small degree. Meehl cited this as evidence that a null hypothesis is never literally true. Or, perhaps it simply reflects our enduring preference for significant results over studies that obtain nonsignificant findings.

I'm used to critics tearing published psi experiments to ribbons, with caustic remarks about potential security flaws, alleged failure to randomise properly, and so on. But when disbelieving psychologists do their own experiments they sometimes seem to lose touch with reality altogether. They wander onto a field about which they know almost nothing, and casually reorganise matters to suit themselves, without the slightest reference to anybody or anything.

Until now I'd never heard of anything called 'psychic theory', or the notion that transmission of information depends on both receiver and sender being psychic. The authors give no reference for it; it seems to have just popped into their heads. No serious parapsychologist, as far as I'm aware, talks about people having 'psychic powers'. The prevailing paradigm is that it's a property of consciousness, a form of knowing that is potentially available to anyone, but which in practice is favoured by certain conditions and characteristics. And no parapsychologist would dare declare, on the basis of a single study, that the existence of psi has been proved, so it seems reckless, to say the least, for critics to declare, on the basis of a single study, that it does not exist - never mind crowing about how devastating this must be to its advocates.

The problems are discussed by Radin in a tart rejoinder to the journal. If the authors had done some homework, he suggests, they would have realised that there is no file drawer problem in parapsychology, for the simple reason that it's such a small discipline that pretty much every extant study can be tracked down. Intriguingly, while discussing the Wiseman-Milton study the psychologists point out in a footnote that its sampling method represents a serious departure from the norm. If this is corrected, they concede, it greatly increases the effect size. Yet, as Radin says, although they profess to be puzzled by this, it doesn't stop them using the study as an authority. (An analysis based on a 'theory of crud' is hardly persuasive, Radin adds.)

I wondered how a paper so deficient in an understanding of established parapsychological principles could ever have made it in to print. My guess is that it's a symptom of the way that parapsychology is marginalised, and the views of its experts distrusted. Since from a certain point of view telepathy is a fiction, there must be something wrong with the way parapsychologists do their experiments. So it's something that anyone can have a go at, even complete beginners. The worst that could happen is that they get positive results, but then they can use the opportunity to figure out the mistake, and in so doing make a real contribution to science. In their own minds, they're at no more of a disadvantage than the veterans who have been doing it for forty years.

But perhaps that's just my attempt to make sense of something that is actually incoherent. The feeling I'm left with is of otherwise intelligent people having temporarily gone mad. It's the Enchanted Boundary phenomenon described by Walter Prince: confronted by something that seems to imply a complete breakdown of logic, they engage in wild mental contortions that they hope will restore order. It's not science so much as the effect on the academic mind of cognitive dissonance - a fascinating phenomenon in its own right, and it's good to see it sometimes illustrated so graphically.

Comments

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This happens way too much. Somebody comes in without first really doing their research and then attempts to debunk a subject they know little about, and Robert pointed out their ignorance well, and it gets published easily.

Since the editorial boards of the science journals are on their side, they overlook the flaws and only see the "truth" they want to see. It will probably even advance these psychologists careers and they will continue to be celebrated and cited as successful debunkers of psi, again, by people who really don't know much at all about the subject but have a preconceived belief about it which is validated by papers like these.

Psi in the general population has more to do with the bonds and relationships between people than an ability only shared between two psychics. Where did these nutjobs come up with such ludicrous notions, lol. Good job Robert.

The mind boggles! 88}

One wonders how this could change. Will the academic mind always be left-brained? Could we ever get back to proper mad Victorian professors instead of file-draw scientists?

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