Psi, Sci. (Sigh!)
June 11, 2014
Some say the case for psychic ability has been made, others say it hasn’t. Yet others say someday it will be, or will never be. In 130 years, has there been progress in psychical research?
Once upon a time, a parapsychologist and a skeptic—Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman—sustained a five-year long, mostly-cordial, formal discussion regarding the best evidence that supports the reality of psi. Mostly cordial! Imagine that. This was not a fairy tale, it really happened in the 1980s.
The Honorton-Hyman “Joint Communique” was published in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1986. I thought this was fascinating, two serious researchers on opposite sides of the proverbial fence, working together. I wanted details on how this landmark paper developed and was received. I obtained a copy of The Elusive Quarry (1989) (known hereafter as TEQ) by Ray Hyman, the “counter-advocate” to Honorton’s “advocate,” and studied it cover to cover. This piece will discuss the points and themes that recurred in that collection of essays that included Hyman’s writing and critiques to it.
When I was done with TEQ, I was left wondering if anything had changed since 1989. Had psychical research improved as a result?
I was seeing continued animosity from the new crew of parapsychology researchers like Daryl Bem, Dead Radin, and Rupert Sheldrake, but didn’t hear of impressive results. There exists a suitable sequel to The Elusive Quarry, an anthology entitled Debating Psychic Experience (2010) (known hereafter as DPE) edited by Krippner and Friedman, which contained commentary by not only Ray Hyman, but other advocates and counter-advocates of parapsychology. It was through analysis of these two volumes that I think I now understand how the subject remains totally messed-up. So, I will share because it’s important to know what we don’t know, why we don’t know it, and what to think about today’s science-y claims about psychic mediums, remote viewing and other extraordinary human potential.
The title The Elusive Quarry refers to the lack of a repeatable experimental result in parapsychology. The study of psi by psychical researchers, known in contemporary-speak as parapsychologists, has quite a history that formally began in the 1800s, the still-early days of science.
Psi is a term not used much anymore. Many of today’s modern paranormal investigators aren’t familiar with it. Psi comprises all the interactions between organisms and their environment that appear to transcend current knowledge of physics and biology. Notice this is a negative definition, just like paranormal—it’s anything that isn’t thought of as normal by the modern yardstick of science.
Today, we split psi into skills such as extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK, formerly telekinesis), mediumship (communication with the dead), and general psychic abilities (clairvoyance, etc.) that people claim to have.
The Society of Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in the U.K. in 1882 by scientific men. They already believed they had seen good evidence of life after death and organized in order to make the field reputable and to demonstrate to the world that such human potential exists.
Long story short, it didn’t happen. After testing many subjects (see D. Blum’s Ghost Hunters, 2007), they found a gaggle of fraudsters using parlor tricks and skills that were indeed strange but not paranormal. Some SPR members endorsed psychic mediums as genuine that were later exposed as fraudulent. This is when excuses began in earnest in the field. I’ll get into the reasoning and excuses advocates used and continue to use, but first, a bit more about the history.
After the heyday of SPR and American SPR (1884), though both are still going, the next phase of parapsychology surrounded the work of J.B. Rhine. Rhine moved parapsychology into the laboratory using Zener cards and controlled experiments. The Parapsychological Association was founded in 1957 as an attempt to “to advance parapsychology as a science, to disseminate knowledge of the field, and to integrate the findings with those of other branches of science.” Rhine’s work was considered credible, and the field did gain recognition by the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes Science journal).
While Rhine’s methods tightened up the testing standards, the results were not all that advocates had hoped. Replication of the experiments, a key to scientific acceptance of a phenomenon, was not forthcoming.
Post Rhine, there came people like Robert Jahn who founded the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) that ran from 1979 to 2007. He used random number generators in experiments to see if psi could affect the results.
Then there was a trend to study “remote viewing” for possible military and other uses. This term came into use in the 1970s by physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff at the Stanford Research Institute. The methods and procedures were loose and this gave encouraging results. But ultimately, it did not amount to solid evidence of paranormal-based psi.
Parapsychology was invited into the circle of respectability from the 50s to the 90s as they were affiliated (often not formally) with credible academic institutions. Yet, the field was not on solid ground. 132 years after the first president of the SPR stated that there was proof of this human potential, each generation of psi researchers has attempted to achieve that standard. What occurred was a tradition of changing paradigms and ever-hopeful researchers, but no tradition of cumulative evidence. Counter-advocates argue that the evidence is even eroding as the years go by.
I was intrigued to find that the conclusion of counter-advocates in the DPE volume was not that there is nothing there but instead that there is something complex there that is interesting but not compelling as paranormal evidence. The advocates obviously and vociferously disagree.
The Statistical Anomaly
In the 1960s, the best evidence for psi was said to be the Ganzfeld results derived from a particular means of sensory deprivation to test for ESP. It’s frustrating and amusing to observe how two different people or groups of people can look at the same data and conclude very different things from it.
This is what happened with the Ganzfeld data set of forty-two experiments. Charles Honorton was happy to provide Hyman with the data, every paper that went into the database, so Hyman could make his own assessment. Honorton’s crunching of the data indicated a 55% success rate in achieving overall significance in the primary measure of psi (TEQ, p. 20-62). Hyman, having a critical eye and not invested in the belief, found problems with all 42 studies including randomization, missing records, and possible (inadvertent) cueing that might have skewed the results. In the field in general, he found the file drawer effect, where non-significant studies were not included.
Honorton agreed in the Joint Communique that there were problems, and this “best” data set was not the golden proof. Once Hyman discarded those data that he found to be very unreliable, there remained a smaller but still significant statistical anomaly, a deviation from a chance baseline. What was the anomaly? What did it mean? Departure from chance was a fact, but it was not an explanation.
It wasn’t proof of psi because psi did not yet fit into any explanatory system. It was a mystery effect—unreliable, elusive. Advocates saw all outliers and deviation as paranormal. That interpretation, while convenient, is unfalsifiable.
If psi was the explanation for everything odd, how could you predict what was really psi and what wasn’t? Advocates saw psi as a scientific anomaly, but what if it was instead a kind of experimental error we hadn't noticed? Hyman described that ESP behaved pretty much like an experimental error, not a definite phenomenon. That’s not a good sign.
Psi researchers accept that there is something called psi out there to find. It’s sporadic, weak and ephemeral nature is frustrating. An early psychical researcher, William James, thought that God had made this phenomenon deliberately baffling.
Evading scientific scrutiny became a characteristic of psi itself. The key problem was always lack of replication. A single experiment cannot be definitive. There must be many that converge upon something robust and reliable. This was not happening. Many insignificant studies were placed in the file drawer while this or that experiment provided hope. When studies didn’t go well, advocates looked for a hidden effect—perhaps sitters had guessed the card right before or right after the chosen card. Adjustments sometimes snatched a success out of the jaws of failure.
Hyman called their methods of retrofitting and adjustment the “patchwork quilt fallacy” (after Ronald Giere) where the hypotheses, conditions, and assumptions are connected in a way that seems to imply the facts. Psi is constructed just as it is observed by advocates. It can’t be predicted. This fallacy works well for conspiracy theorists to connect unrelated facts under an umbrella idea. It’s contrived.
DPE was, I felt, an attempt at another form of joint communique between the advocates and counter-advocates. They provided their arguments to each other and replies were allowed. This time, it didn't go well. There was little productive communication or agreement. There were two groups seeing the same situation very differently, often talking past each other.
In DPE, the advocates are highly defensive, pulling out mischaracterizations and ad hominem attacks. Current researchers, like Chris Carter, wrote messy, erroneous characterizations of skeptical thought and failed to make anything resembling a coherent case. Dean Radin cited a few cases of scientific prejudice against parapsychology, as if that bolsters evidence for psi.
Radin also volunteered some stupendous predictions—if we look for paranormal effects in other areas, we would find them, he said. By 2015, we will see breakthroughs in psi application from the Chinese and possibly Russian researchers.
Hang on? Are there quantum physicists seeing psi effects? No. Should physicists attribute anomalies to psi instead of unknown error by the experimenter or equipment? No.
The advocate contributions exhibited a strong trend of anti-materialism. People like Jahn follow the musings of Rhine, in wanting to rid the field of scientific materialism. Jahn states that the rules should be changed. This field is somehow special so it should not have to meet the same scientific standards. This jaw-dropping assertion is an admission of desperation. Psi research is motivated by a deep belief in the phenomenon, not a quest for the best answers. You can sense their frustration—over a century of work and no progress achieved. The desperation is obvious.
The advocates are annoyed with the counter-advocates’ unrelenting criticism, and they fail to answer it. They can’t answer it. They wish for the counter-advocates to accept the reality of psi and just shut up already. Their current platform is to use meta-analysis, pooling many studies together, like with the Ganzfeld database. The counter-advocates say that the data is intriguing but not compelling, and there are problems with the studies that are included in meta-analyses. Meta-analysis is not a substitute for reproducibility.
Some of the questions that remain glaringly obvious to the skeptical-minded are as follows:
Why can’t these effects be repeated?
Why haven’t we identified psi effects in other experimental fields?
Why is there still no agreed upon framework or structure to explain it?
The excuses have piled up high: The displacement effect, psi-missing, decline effect, scientific prejudice and pathological disbelief by skeptics—oh, come on!
Is psi elusive? Or is it just not there at all? How many negative studies must be accrued before the advocates will conclude there is nothing left to study? The major labs have closed, there are scant funding sources. What now?
It is time for advocates to reassess. The shift is now to anomalistic psychology.
Anomalistic psychology (AP), practiced by academic psychologists such as Dr. Richard Wiseman, Dr. Stuart Richie, and Dr. Christopher French, is an approach to the same issues from an entirely different perspective. Parapsychologists seek evidence for psi. Anomalistic psychologists seek to find explanations for the same experiences without assuming psi exists.
The transition can be seen in the Koestler Parapsychology unit, which appears to reflect the evolution of the traditional parapsychology view from 1985 when it originated to a more AP-focused research program today. AP is on the rise—offered as an option in degree programs and the topic of conferences, symposia, books and journal publications—contrary to parapsychology.
The great researcher into the behavior of electricity and magnetism, Michael Faraday, put his work on hold in 1853 to examine mediums. He was unimpressed. Several researchers who came to inquire about psi, either as an advocate or undecided, left because there was nothing of substance, nowhere to go. Science does not ignore data, even that of extraordinary claims. But if the data are not good, not reliable, not robust, and not reproducible, it’s not “ready for prime time” and will not be accepted as mainstream.
To move forward, improvements must be made such as acceptance of and accountability for constructive critique, adherence to high standards, and maybe even an established end point. A well-articulated theory for psi must be derived, but first there must be a consensus that psi exists! That's the fundamental problem to which there still is no resolution.
Advocates cry that the counter-advocates create a cacophony that prevents making sense of the data. I don’t know what that means—it makes no sense and it sounds like another excuse. Science is debated, sometimes very loudly (so I hear from paleontologists), and there is plenty to debate about here. The skeptical counter-advocates are correct to apply caution when dealing with a concept that attempts a patchwork quilt explanation while unraveling a whole pile of stuff we had already adequately explained.
We are justified in not buying into a nebulous, poorly-defined idea that does not mesh with other areas of knowledge. Advocates and counter-advocates cannot seem to settle disagreements with logical arguments and move forward as one unit. Advocates seem to know that the acceptance they seek can never come by following the stringent rules of other sciences. Therefore, the reality of psi will exist only to parapsychologists, and remain elusive to the rest of science, unworthy of attention.
French, C. 2011. “The rise of anomalistic psychology—and the fall of parapsychology?” Online at http://blogs.nature.com/soapboxscience/2011/12/19/the-rise-of-anomalistic-psychology-%E2%80%93-and-the-fall-of-parapsychology
Hyman, R. 1989. The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research.
Krippner, S.C. and H.L. Friedman. 2010. Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion?