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Anomalous Cognition? A Second Perspective

Article

Ray Hyman

Volume 32.4, July / August 2008

Challenged by findings of leading parapsychologists that the evidence for anomalous cognition was not repeatable and has otherwise failed to meet scientific standards, participants in a conference on the subject simply ignored the challenge.

In the previous article, Amir Raz provides an interesting and insightful account of the Meeting of the Minds (MoM) conference. His report offers the viewpoint of a young neuroscientist who is newly encountering the world of parapsychology and its claims. I thought I might complement his description with a few comments from my perspective. I have been a critic—I hope a constructive one—of parapsychological claims for fifty years. Together, our two accounts can better convey some of the issues stemming from this meeting.

I was invited to speak as a representative of the skeptical community. As a presenter, I felt my responsibility was to directly address the issues in the statement of the meeting agenda and goals. These issues, as spelled out in advance by the organizers, were:

My attention was captured by the following two quotations from the agenda:

…meta-analyses of several classes of experiments published in peer-reviewed journals suggest that some effects, while small in magnitude, are highly repeatable….

Because of these and other reasons once commonly used to dismiss contemplation of anomalous cognition are becoming increasingly debatable, we believe the time has come to examine the taboo that has constrained serious scientific consideration of this evidence.

The obvious subtext of this meeting statement can be summarized in three propositions:

  1. Psi (ESP and Psychokinesis) is real.
  2. The evidence for psi is consistent and independently replicable.
  3. The time has come for the scientific community to seriously consider the claims for psi.

My presentation directly challenged each of these propositions. I did so by using data and arguments provided by leading figures in parapsychology. I began by considering parapsychological claims of having demonstrated an “anomaly.” Since the beginnings of modern science, the scientific community has repeatedly been confronted with claims of anomalies. Some, such as meteorites, discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus, discrepancies in the advancement of Mercury’s perihelion, X-rays, and continental drift, eventually were shown not to be the result of mistaken observations or flawed methodology. Furthermore, they were supported by evidence that was consistent and independently verifiable. Given these circumstances, the claims were accepted, and scientific theories were appropriately modified to accommodate them.

Other claims, such as those for Martian canals, N-Rays, polywater, mitogenetic radiation, the “discovery” of the planet Vulcan, and cold fusion, were rejected because the evidence was inconsistent and could not be independently replicated. Interestingly, some of the defenders of these claims argued that the inconsistencies and failures of replication were properties of the claimed phenomena. The parapsychologists, who now admit that their evidence cannot be replicated, also argue that this failure to replicate is one of the unusual properties of psi!

I first addressed the apparent inconsistencies in parapsychological claims about the status of the evidence. Some parapsychologists, such as Jessica Utts and Dean Radin, repeatedly declare that the evidence for anomalous cognition is compelling and meets the most rigorous scientific standards of acceptability. Others such as Dick Bierman, Walter Lucadou, J.E. Kennedy, and Robert Jahn, openly admit that the evidence for psi is inconsistent, irreproducible, and fails to meet acceptable scientific standards. I quoted Radin’s statement in his 1997 book The Conscious Universe that “we are forced to conclude that when psi research is judged by the same standards as any other scientific discipline then the results are as consistent as those observed in the hardest of the hard sciences” (italics in the original). I also quoted from Jessica Utts’ 1995 Stargate report that, “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been established.” Both Radin and Utts were present during my presentation. Neither took this opportunity to retract these claims. I can only assume that they still stand behind these strong assertions.

I was hoping Radin and Utts would provide an explanation of how they can maintain such a position in the face of mounting evidence and arguments within the parapsychological community that the reality of psi cannot be justified according to accepted scientific standards. Dick Bierman, the Dutch parapsychologist, for example, carefully re-analyzed major meta-analyses of parapsychological research on mentally influencing the fall of dice, the Ganzfeld psi experiments, precognition with ESP cards, psychokinetic influence on RNGs, and mind over matter in biological systems (Bierman 2000). He looked especially at the relationship between effect size and the date when the studies in each of these research areas was conducted.

Bierman fitted a regression line to the data in each area. In all cases, the regression line revealed a consistent trend for the effect sizes to decrease with time and to eventually reach zero.1 In addition to these linear trends from the meta-analyses, Bierman and other parapsychologists point to dramatic failures of direct attempts to replicate major parapsychological findings. These particular failed replications cannot be dismissed as being due to low power, which is the excuse commonly offered by Utts, Radin, and a few others. Bierman concluded, “In spite of the fact that the evidence is very strong, these correlations are difficult to replicate.”

Other major parapsychologists also agree with Bierman’s conclusions. Lucadou put it this way, “The usual classical criteria for scientific evidence are effect oriented. Experimental results of parapsychology seem unable to fulfill these requirements. One gets the impression that an erosion of evidence rather than an accumulation of evidence is taking place in parapsychology” (Lucadou 2001). Kennedy put it this way, “Many parapsychological writers have suggested that psi may be capricious or actively evasive. The evidence for this includes the unpredictable, significant reversal of direction for psi effects, the loss of intended psi effects while unintended secondary or internal effects occur, and the pervasive declines in effect for participants, experimenters, and lines of research. Also, attempts to apply psi typically result in a few very impressive cases among a much larger number of unsuccessful results. The term unsustainable is applicable because psi is sometime impressive and reliable, but then becomes actively evasive” (Kennedy 2003).

As the preceding quotations indicate, many leading parapsychologists acknowledge that the existence of psi cannot be demonstrated with evidence that meets currently accepted scientific standards. Most critically, these standards include the essential ingredient that the evidence has to be capable of being reliably reproduced by independent investigators. Lacking this basic ingredient, a claim cannot be considered seriously by the scientific community. Above all, it is this basic standard that has made contemporary science the preeminent—and the only—method for gaining trustworthy knowledge. The parapsychologists who admit that the evidence for psi cannot achieve this standard, however, still believe that psi exists and, in most cases, want the scientific community to take their claim seriously. How can they justify such a position?

My presentation dealt directly with this issue. Again, I was hoping for some sort of explanation or justification of this demand for special treatment. It seems to me that the parapsychologists, especially the organizers of the MoM conference, were pleading for a special exemption from the standard scientific criteria. They want the scientific community to accept their claims without having to pass the usual tests. I pointed out that this was not going to happen. N-Rays, Martian canals, and other claims of anomaly that did not pass these tests occupy the junk heap of discarded science. Why should claims of psi be treated any differently?

Finally, I speculated about what might happen if the parapsychologists, especially the organizers of the conference, achieved their goal of getting the scientific community to take their claims seriously. For example, what if the National Academy of Sciences appointed a committee to examine in detail the current evidence for psi? The committee members would obviously find the same results that the parapsychological community has already uncovered. The effect size for psi, in every major research program in parapsychology, declines over time and reaches zero. Major attempts to directly replicate a key parapsychological finding, even when possessing adequate power, fail. The scientific community, when apprised of these findings, would dismiss the parapsychological claims with even more force than they now do. Rather than earning the respect that it seeks, parapsychology’s reputation as a serious research program would suffer greatly.

I ended with a quotation from Martin Johnson, a respected parapsychologist of a previous generation:

I must confess that I have some difficulties in understanding the logic of some parapsychologists when they proclaim the standpoint, that findings within our field have wide-ranging consequences for science in general, and especially for our world picture. It is often implied that the research findings within our field constitute a death blow to materialism. I am puzzled by this claim, since I thought that few people were really so unsophisticated as to mistake our concepts for reality. . . . I believe that we should not make extravagant and, as I see it, unwarranted claims about the wide-ranging consequences of our scattered, undigested, indeed rather ‘soft’ facts, if we can speak at all about facts within our field. I firmly believe that wide-ranging interpretations based on such scanty data tend to give us, and with some justification, a bad reputation among our colleagues within the more established fields of science.

Johnson wrote those words over thirty years ago. However, they apply with even more force today. In spite of the many new directions that parapsychology has taken since 1976, the only consistent feature of parapsychological evidence is its inconsistency.

As I indicated, I took the organizer’s agenda seriously. My presentation dealt directly with each of the issues raised by the organizers: the claim that psi was real and supported by replicable evidence; the implication that the scientific community was unfairly refusing to accept parapsychological claims; and the consequences of having the scientific community seriously consider such claims. I pointed to the apparent contradictions in the claims of the organizers that the evidence for psi was convincing and scientifically warranted and the admission by many contemporary parapsychologists that the evidence for psi does not and cannot meet scientific criteria. I suggested that if, indeed, the organizers succeed in their quest to gain the attention of the scientific community, the result would be a serious blow to the status of parapsychology.

I was expecting serious consideration of my specific challenges to the assumptions of the agenda. I also was expecting that the other presenters and discussants at the conference would deal directly with these issues. I wish I could relay to you how the presenters and the conference attendees responded. Unfortunately, there was a disconnect between the stated agenda and goals and what actually took place. As far as I could tell, I was the only presenter to directly address the issues spelled out in the meeting statement. The majority of presentations were irrelevant to the conference goals. Indeed, several appeared to actively distract from the goals.

The conference organizers and the parapsychologists in attendance failed to respond or even discuss my challenges to the claims in the meeting statement. No one seemed bothered by the contradictions inherent in the claim that the evidence for psi is rock solid or the admissions within the parapsychological community that the evidence for psi is capricious and irreproducible. I have no idea why the conference failed to follow its stated agenda. Perhaps I misunderstood. Maybe the agenda was advanced not as something for discussion but rather as a set of “truths” that were to be presupposed by the participants. I do not know.

What I do know is that although I attempted to put the stated goals of the agenda on the table for debate and discussion, no one seemed eager to do so. What I also know is that the conference agenda implies two requests that the parapsychological community is putting to the scientific community. Both of them are radical and unrealistic. The first request is that the scientific community accept the claim that psi is real. The second is that they do so by exempting parapsychologists from the requirement that they provide evidence according to acceptable scientific standards. Both requests amount to changing science as we know it. Obviously, the scientific community will not, and should not, acquiesce to these requests.

Note

  1. In two cases, Bierman suggests that after reaching zero, the effect size shows signs of increasing again. However, this is questionable and appears to be an artifact of fitting a polynomial to data where the zero effect size has existed for a while. Under such circumstances, a second-degree polynomial will better fit the data than will a linear regression line.

References

Ray Hyman

Ray Hyman is professor emeritus of psychology, University of Oregon.