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Pissing off Scientists, ESPecially.

January 6, 2011

Being a nerd with a love of science and skepticism, I’ve never put much stock into paranormal ideas like ESP, aka extrasensory perception. Most scientific inquiries have squashed the possibility of reading minds, moving objects with the mind alone, and predicting the future.

Historically, studies that have come up with evidence to support parapsychology have been fundamentally flawed, due to researcher bias, poorly followed scientific method, or flat out lying. (5/5/11 UPDATE: All of the above appear to be the case in Bem’s study. The results were bogus. Read about it here.)

One memorable instance of such lying was a 1979 project headed by James Randi: magician, skeptic, and personal hero. Randi pointed out to parapsychology researchers at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research that many events attributed to ESP could be achieved by simple slight of hand, and asked to be included in the studies to ferret out frauds. When his request was ignored, Randi dug up a pair of his own frauds named Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards. Randi trained them in various stage magic techniques that could fool the researchers and sent them to be accepted into the study.

Randi dubbed his scheme “Project Alpha.” Shaw and Edwards were able to trick the researchers into believing them capable of ESP through a variety of slight of hand techniques. By 1981, they were famous as prodigies in the paranormal. Randi decided it was time to reveal the truth behind his project, and in an incredible press conference, Shaw and Edwards admitted that they were fakes.

The blow to the study of parapsychology was hard. The McDonnell Laboratory was eventually shut down, and future experiments into ESP were conducted with much more scrutiny. Had the experiments been conducted correctly, after all, Shaw and Edwards would not have been able to take advantage of the many flaws in the research methods.

The history of parapsychology research makes the announcement from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that much more intriguing. According the the New York Times, the highly respected Journal is going to publish a research paper that appears to support evidence for ESP, in terms of predicting the future.

The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.

Naturally, some scientists are in an uproar. Publishing this sort of nonsense is going to make the respected Journal and other scientists in the field of psychology look bad!

On the other hand, science shouldn’t be driven by reputation. If it’s been conducted properly and passes the board’s review process, it absolutely should be included.

The editor of the journal, Charles Judd, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, said the paper went through the journal’s regular review process. “Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript,” he said, “and these are very trusted people.”

All four decided that the paper met the journal’s editorial standards, Dr. Judd added, even though “there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results.”

But many experts say that is precisely the problem. Claims that defy almost every law of science are by definition extraordinary and thus require extraordinary evidence. Neglecting to take this into account — as conventional social science analyses do — makes many findings look far more significant than they really are, these experts say.

I’m going to stress again my personal opinion that this is what science is all about. Professor Bem conducted a study that appears to meet proper scientific research standards and came up with some interesting results. If the results of predicting future events is significantly higher than chance, if the conditions can be replicated, then it absolutely warrants further study, and deserves recognition.

Me, I tried to read some of the paper. Okay, I only skimmed it. Most of it’s beyond my own understanding of math and shit. I’m going to trust the Journal board on this one.

Is it ESP? Probably not. He did only study 100 subjects, after all. The data is far from conclusive, and this is absolutely not proof of precognition, nor does it claim to be. But I’m interested in seeing what conclusions come of this new data, and really interested in seeing what skeptics smarter than I am have to say.

5/5/11 UPDATE: I repeat, the results were bogus. Here’s what one of the skeptics smarter than me (Michael Shermer) had to say, emphasis mine:

Experimental inconsistencies plague such research. [Paranormal research expert Ray] Hyman notes that in Bem’s first experiment, the first 40 subjects were exposed to equal numbers of erotic, neutral and negative pictures. Then he changed the experiment midstream and, for the remaining subjects, just compared erotic images with an unspecified mix of all types of pictures. Plus, Bem’s fifth experiment was conducted before his first, which raises the possibility that there might be a post hoc bias either in running the experiments or in reporting the results.

Moreover, Bem notes that “most of the pictures” were selected from the International Affective Picture System, but he does not tell us which ones were not, why or why not, or what procedure he employed to classify images as erotic, neutral or negative. Hyman’s list of flaws numbers in the dozens. “I’ve been a peer reviewer for more than 50 years,” Hyman told me, “and I can’t think of another reviewer who would have let this paper through peer review. They were irresponsible.”

Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards

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