The paranormal is always with us

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While browsing New Scientist the other day, I came across this article – a report on a recent paper by one Daryl Bem, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It seems Bem is psychologist of some note, but also an amateur magician, who has now moved onto things paranormal after hooking up with a guy called Chuck Honorton (now deceased) who seems to have been one of the major contributors to paranormal research (such as it is).

In his paper, Bem claims to have measured precognition – the ability to perceive future events. He apparently did this by taking a standard flashcard test and reversing it. In a flashcard test, subjects are shown words, and they are asked to type randomly selected ones. When given a memory test, the words that were practised have been better memorised (go figure). So, he reverses this – giving subjects the memory test, prior to the flashcards. He then claims a small but statistically significant success rate in precognition.

Back to Bem in a moment. This story has something in common with another well-known precognition story – the psychic dog story (yes, I said dog). Here’s a good run-down on it. To cut a long story short, the infamous British scientist (infamous for his ‘challenging’ ideas) Rupert Sheldrake carried out some experiments on a dog whose owner claimed that the dog was psychic, and could tell when she (the owner) would come home. Again, he found that, to a statistically significant degree, the dog would know when its owner was due (regardless of the time of day), and go out onto the porch to wait.

There must be many thousands of these experiments which have been carried out around the world, as people desperately seek evidence of the paranormal. Despite this, no-one has to-date been able to provide one single verifiable example. Not one. Instead, what we see is people who are either self-deluded, want so badly to find evidence that they taint their experiments, or, con-artists, the most famous being Uri Geller (who has since come clean).

And in all recorded cases, the effect being reported is quite small. It’s not uncommon to hear about 1 or 2% variation from random as being the effect size. However, whenever the experiments have been repeated, tightening up the controls on the tests, the effect has diminished further, or vanished altogether.

The thing that these two cases have in common is that, even if they do present data showing a statistically significant result, it isn’t direct evidence of paranormal. They present evidence of a statistically significant thing, and then simply claim that the cause was paranormal. In all claims of this type, closer inspection or attempted replication usually reveals a more plausible explanation.

For example, in the psychic dog experiment, subsequent repeat testing by sceptical psychologist Richard Wiseman did indeed find an effect which showed apparent precognition in the dog. However, he was also able to propose a simpler explanation for the results – that the longer the owner was away, the more often the dog would go to the porch, and the longer he would wait, thereby increasing the hit rate. Simple. No paranormal required.

Of course, many proponents refuse to accept it when their ‘findings’ are questioned. In Bem’s case, when asked whether he would try to claim the $1 Million dollars on offer by the James Randi Educational Foundation, he replied:

No. He controls the entire process and he has never been totally clear as to what level of probability he would accept. He also insists on having all the rights to reporting what happened and that’s not how we as scientists progress.

Well, that’s just another excuse. What does he mean “that’s not how we as scientists progress’? Is he saying we shouldn’t test extraordinary claims? And of course he controls the process – would you let the proponent specify the test conditions? And, the JREF has always been totally clear on criteria for success – demonstrate the existence of the paranormal, not just some probability or statistic which implies the paranormal. Very simple. Just beat chance in any of a whole variety of tests, including flashcards, dowsing, telepathy and so on. Or, demonstrate your telekinesis from another room, or without using magnets or blowing something.

The bottom line is, it’s been many decades at least since the paranormal thing took off, and still nothing. Not a skerrick. And the road is littered with crooks and self-deluded types who have tried and been exposed as frauds.

I always wanted to be able to levitate stuff like Uncle Martin from My Favourite Martian, by waving a finger, but I fear it will never be possible.

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5 thoughts on “The paranormal is always with us

    Man on the Bus said:
    December 31, 2010 at 11:00 am

    “And, the JREF has always been totally clear on criteria for success – demonstrate the existence of the paranormal, not just some probability or statistic which implies the paranormal. Very simple. Just beat chance in any of a whole variety of tests, including flashcards, dowsing, telepathy and so on.”

    And what on earth does that mean in practice?

      rationalbrain said:
      December 31, 2010 at 2:19 pm

      Let’s take telepathy for example: you simply need to subject yourself to a test in which someone looks at a word or shape etc and you have to demonstrate you can read their mind. If you achieve a success rate no better than sheer chance, then you lose. If you can consistently do better that chance, then you win a million bucks.
      Is this clear enough or do you need a worked example? Ok – what about guessing what playing card I’m looking at? I could guess a million times (with card replacement), and I would expect to get 1 in 52 guesses correct in the long run. If you want to demonstrate telepathy, you’ll need to do better than 1 in 52 over a lot of trials to convince anyone that you’re telepathic. Fair enough?
      The other point I was making was that sometimes there are other explanations for observed statistics. For example, if you got 2 in 52 consistently, I wouldn’t accept ‘therefore it’s because I’m telepathic’ as the first and only explanation. I’d be looking to make sure the test criteria were sound, and that you weren’t cheating etc. That was the whole point of the psychic dog thing – yes, a real statistic, but why does it need to be psychic power? A perfectly reasonable explanation was presented by Richard Wiseman which put that beyond doubt.

    Man on the Bus said:
    December 31, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    What doesn’t make sense is that you say the criterion should be “beating chance,” but almost in the same breath that the evidence can’t be “just some probability or statistic.”

    By definition, the only way anyone can prove they have “beaten chance” is by using a probabilistic or statistical measure!

      rationalbrain said:
      January 1, 2011 at 10:27 am

      Yes, I take your point – some loose language for sure. The full quote however is “not just some probability or statistic which implies the paranormal”, with the intended emphasis being on the ‘implies’. In other words the stats are necessary but not sufficient to demonstrate the paranormal – as was the case with the psychic dog thing.

    […] to my earlier article on  Bem’s precognition studies,  Steve Novella has written an excellent piece on Bem’s research, which explains the issues […]

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