The Pseudo-Skeptics Fight Back

January 9, 2011 at 8:36 pm (By Realpc)

Parapsychology has been out of style for a long time. Maybe this is partly because of James Randi, who devoted his career to debunking psychics. Randi became famous when he, supposedly, exposed Uri Geller as a fake on a live TV show. I doubt that Geller is a total fake, although anyone who makes their living on these unreliable and fickle abilities must use trickery at least part of the time. Anyway, Randi became famous and “smart” people became skeptical of anyone who claimed to have psychic abilities. Randi offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could demonstrate these abilities, and the prize has never been won. If you argue with a pseudo-skeptic materialist, their argument will always depend mainly on this fact.

I don’t know why no one has won the Randi prize, and there could be various reasons. But the field of parapsychology has suffered. Parapsychology has been around for about as long as experimental psychology, both having begun somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. In both of these sciences, something called inferential statistics are used. And this is also the case in various other branches of science, such as medical research.

Parapsychology has been respectable at times, but in recent decades it has not been, in general. There are a very small number of parapsychologists working in universities. I only know of two in America, Dean Radin and Gary Schwartz. Mainstream scientists mostly ignore parapsychology, and mainstream journals have refused to publish the research. Well until just recently that is.

Daryl Bem of Cornell University did some high quality experiments that seem to demonstrate precognition. That is not so surprising if you already have an open mind about the paranormal. What is surprising is that a mainstream psychology journal accepted the research for publication.

Bem is a respected psychologist at a respected university. He does not think precognition is ridiculous or impossible. He does think it is compatible with current knowledge in physics. So maybe those of us who believe in psi are not all complete idiots and wackos after all.

Of course, the pseudo-skeptical materialists are fighting back. They are assuring us that the experiments will never be replicated (scientific research cannot be accepted until it has been repeated, and therefore verified, by independent researchers). As far as I know, others have already done similar precognition studies, so it has already been replicated. But 3 recent attempts have failed. That is not surprising given the tricky and unreliable nature of psi.

The pseudo-skeptics are also telling us that the effect sizes were small, and therefore can’t be trusted. For example, in one experiment subjects’ hit rate was 53%, when 50% was expected by chance. But Bem was not trying to show that people are constantly gazing into the future with ease. We are influenced by the future in subtle ways. If we had constant easy access to the future, this would be a very different kind of world.

The point of using inferential statistics is to show that an effect,  however small, is probably real. The pseudo-skeptics are skeptical of these statistical tests when they are used in parapsychology. But  when          they are used in psychology or medicine, for example, the pseudo-skeptics have no problem with them.

The pseudo-skeptics also complain that Bem has not provided an explanation for how precognition might work. Without an explanation, they are unwilling to accept any kind of evidence. Well that is ridiculous. No one can explain how gravity works, for example, yet we still believe it exists. Most things are not explained.

It will be interesting to see if Bem’s precognition research is replicated. Parapsychology might become respectable again. But more importantly, mainstream science might be forced to finally let go of materialism. Minds that were closed might be forced open.

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24 Comments

  1. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Real, I’m actually on the skeptical-of-the-skeptics side on parapsychology — the folks like “the Amazing Randi” have for a long time operated on the model that if they can think of a way to fake the results, the experimenters must faked the results. And I’m glad this paper was published.

    That all said, 53 percent with a null hypothesis being a normally-distributed 50 percent isn’t nearly as dramatic a result as some people are making it out to be.

  2. Icepick said,

    Randi didn’t assume resutls were faked. He worked out ways to fake results himself. Then he would design set-ups where someone using the fake methodology Randi had discovered would be exposed, but someone using paranormal abilities would still be able to do whatever without triggering Randi’s trap.

    At least he did that some of the time. With things like the spoon-bending he just worked out what was being done.

    And with regards to Uri Geller and James Hydrick: Geller has backed off is claims of psychicpowersin recent years, and Hydrick has supposedly confessed to being a fraud. So score those two (along with several faith healers) for Randi.

  3. michael reynolds said,

    I don’t know why no one has won the Randi prize, and there could be various reasons.

    No, there could only be two: 1) Psychics don’t like money or 2) Psychics are frauds.

    Since so many psychics spend their time in pursuit of money I’m going to guess it’s option number 2.

  4. wj said,

    Michael, there might be at least one more possibility. Any gain, even one like this one, comes at a price. And for this one, it might be too high.

    Suppose you were someone with a sufficiently reliable parapsychological ability to win Randi’s prize. Suppose further that you had sufficient other “normal” talents that you were quite comfortable financially. What would winning the prize get you?

    On the plus side, you would get a million dollars. Which, if you are already doing well financially, would be nice but hardly life-changing (in the positive sense).

    But there is also a minus side. First off, you immediately are subject to requests/demands from anybody who wants the use of your abilities. Some of them you can ignore; but if it is the government that decides that they need your ability for something, a bit more of a challenge.

    Second, unless you have not just a, but every, parapsychological ability (including any one that has ever been imagined by an author with a wonderous imagination), someone is going to decide that you must have that one that they care about, too. So all of the first set of problems, multiplied enormously.

    And finally, the world is full of people who would find someone with some of those abilities a threat. Most obviously, anyone who can read minds is a threat to anyone with a secret to preserve. Doesn’t matter if all you have demonstrated is the ability to move a mass of under 1 gram at a distance of not more than 5 meters — who knows what else you can do? Which makes you a target for all of them (“just to be on the safe side”).

    So I, for one, would be extremely disinclined to pay the price/run the risk required to claim that million dollars. Perhaps if I was deeply in debt, and had no prospect of getting out, and my family was about to be out on the street. But somehow even then bankruptcy seems like a more attractive option.

  5. Icepick said,

    Other possible reasons no one has claimed the prize:

    People with abilities don’t think they will get a fair test.

    Those that have been tested have been cheated somehow. (I don’t believe this, but it is possible.)

    The burden of proof is too high for marginal abilities.

    Perhaps only unstable people have abilities. The stress of testing might ruin their ability to perform.

    I can think of several way’s to extend wj’s idea nafariously, but I’ll keep those to myself. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets.

    Just because Michael Reynolds can’t think of any more than two reasons doesn’t mean there aren’t more than two reasons.

  6. realpc920 said,

    “53 percent with a null hypothesis being a normally-distributed 50 percent isn’t nearly as dramatic a result as some people are making it out to be.”

    The effect size is irrelevant. In order to know if a result is probably meaningful, you have to know the number of trials/subjects and the variance. Then you calculate the odds of the result happening by chance (using inferential statistics). You get a probability score (called a p value) and if it’s low enough, it’s fairly safe to assume your result is meaningful. Then of course others have to do the same experiment and have it turn out the same way (replication).

    The pseudo-skeptics claim that the p value cut-off should be set lower for “extraordinary claims.” Well the claims may be extraordinary to them, but for most of humanity they are a normal part of life. We don’t sense the future constantly all the time, so the effect is weak. But it is there and it is real, and of course I bet that there will be successful replications.

    And Bem is not the only one doing precognition experiments and getting positive result. The pseudo-skeptics are absolutely sure all replication attempts will fail. Well if they already “know” what will happen in the future, they must be using precognition!

  7. realpc said,

    “Geller has backed off is claims of psychicpowersin recent years,”

    I don’t think so.

  8. realpc said,

    “People with abilities don’t think they will get a fair test.”

    Randi is not known for being fair in these tests. And psychic abilities are not reliable, so there is a good chance even genuine psychics will fail any particular test.

    “The burden of proof is too high for marginal abilities.”

    That is probably true. ESP is demonstrated in experiments using statistics. Each subject is correct only a small percentage of the time. The nature of our world is such that most of us have NORMAL abilities most of the time.

    Another possible problem is that psychic abilities may be vulnerable to the social context. If Randi is radiating “I know you’re a fake, you scum” vibes, that could interfere with the sensitive person’s ESP.

  9. Icepick said,

    Geller still claims that he has powers, but he’s also become a bit sly about his claims.

    Further, there’s been lots of work done showing him to be a fraud. His “work” picking winners at sporting contests would have broken any sprts bettor. (There ARE people who do quite well making bets on sprting events, but it’s a hard way to make an easy buck.)

    As for Randi’s hostility… Busting charlatans like Peter Popoff probably hasn’t helped his view of the “kindness”of pyschics.

    You can have whatever opinion of paranormal abilities, and of Randi, that you want. But the truth of the matter is that Randi HAS exposed several frauds, and not just harmless street performers.

  10. realpc920 said,

    “the truth of the matter is that Randi HAS exposed several frauds”

    Icepick, I would never say there are no fake psychics. There are fake everythings in this world. There are crooked people in every corner of life. So debunking several psychics says nothing about paranormal abilities in general. I think we all have some ESP, but it works mainly subconsciously. We cannot depend on it to always give the right answers.

    Some people have exceptional psychic abilities, and may decide to make money at it. But they can’t rely on their ESP all the time, so they might have to fake when their powers fail. That could be what Geller did.

    It is not logical to say that because Randi debunked several fake psychics, there is no ESP. Yet that’s what so many people have concluded.

    And Randi only debunked one scientific experiment, that I know of. Benveniste was a scientist who studied homeopathy (memory of water) and claimed to have found good evidence. Then James Randi showed up and, supposedly found the research to be defective.

    A respected scientist with many years of experience was discredited by a magician with no scientific education or experience. There is probably no one who knows exactly what happened. Other scientists have found evidence that water can have memory.

    So who knows? It certainly is not as clear and obvious as the pseudo-skeptics claim.

  11. realpc said,

  12. Donna B. said,

    If “memory of water” is real, does that validate homeopathy?

    If ESP is real in the manner that Bem’s paper suggests, does that validate any other form of ESP?

  13. realpc920 said,

    Donna B.,

    Homeopathy depends on the idea that water can store information, so if an experiment shows that water can store information under certain conditions, that lends support to homeopathic theory. Lending support to an idea is not the same as validating it. Bem’s experiment suggest that precognition can occur under certain conditions. It does not validate all types of ESP under all conditions.

    If it turns out that Bem’s research is replicated enough times that everyone agrees precognition can occur under those conditions, then we would have to reject that idea that precognition is impossible. And that would mean rejecting the idea that ESP in general is impossible.

    But of course an experiment that validates precognition does not validate telepathy, for example. That would obviously require a different experiment.

    Bem’s research, if verified by enough replications, would show that the pseudo-skeptics are wrong. They state that precognition, and anything we consider paranormal, is complete nonsense. They reject scientific evidence if it contradicts their world view.

    So we’ll see what happens as the research continues. Hopefully the pseudo-skeptics won’t try to prevent it.

    Isn’t it interesting that a pseudo-skeptic will believe something as far-fetched as parallel universes theory, if it supports materialism, but will deny that time could go backwards?

  14. Donna B. said,

    If time can go backwards, why can it not also go sideways and exist on more than one plane? And how does parallel universes theory support materialism?

  15. realpc920 said,

    “If time can go backwards, why can it not also go sideways and exist on more than one plane?”

    Donna B.,

    Are you aware that human knowledge is limited? You seem to think there are smart people who have figured everything out.

    “how does parallel universes theory support materialism?”

    They can’t explain how life could have originated by chance, because the odds are so much against it, even given extremely long periods of time. So they came up with the idea that there are an infinite number of parallel universes, so even the most improbable things must happen in at least one of them. Or something like that. It’s just another example of materialists speculating wildly to support their world view.

  16. Donna B. said,

    Oh well.

  17. Icepick said,

    Wow, that is the worst explanation of the genesis fo the multiple universe theory I have ever read. Real, the physicsts came up with the Many-Worlds Interpretation as an attempt to avoid the absolute weirdness of collapsing a quantum wave. It had nothing whatsoever to do with biology. NOT ONE SINGLE THING. Furthermore, it still isn’t even the most widely held belif on the matter. There are many competing interpretations of quantum mechanics*, and that will likely remain true for some time if not forever. **

    You could at least try to understand what your so-called materialists are trying to accomplish.

    As for the near impossibility of life arising – that is a matter of considerable debate and very little evidence. We know of a handful of worlds we can claim to have any real knowledge of, and so far the only thing we can say on the matter is that earth-like conditions are needed for most terrestrial life. That’s it. Life may well exist in innumerable locations about the Universe. Or we may be it. We won’t really know until we look, and we’ve just started looking.

    However, the basic building blocks of life-as-we-know-it are rather common. And as experiments have shown it doesn’t take much to build amino acids. (I believe that was first done at Florida State.) Additionally, amino acids have been detected in space. The most limiting factor for life might be a relative dearth of decent real estate. Time (and huge amounts of money spent on research) will tell. But if they find life in the probable world ocean under the ice of Europa, I’ll be betting that life is fairly common in the decent parts of the Universe. And with just ONE example of non-terrestrial life, the biologists will have a lot more information to figure out how the genesis works.

    *Sorry, but I couldn’t find a good summary article on the Stanford site.

    ** And don’t even get me started on M-theory.

  18. Icepick said,

    Donna, I believe that some versions of string theory postulated more than one time dimension, but I’m not sure if (a) I’m remembering that correctly, or (b) the current state of such theories.

  19. realpc said,

    Icepick,

    I know that the multiple universes theory came from physics, not biology. I meant that materialists like Dawkins USE the theory to explain how life could originate by a random mechanistic process. Even Dawkins admits the odds are close to zero, even given an unlimited amount of time.

    “I’ll be betting that life is fairly common in the decent parts of the Universe.”

    I agree that life must be common in the universe, but NOT because it can happen by chance. I believe the universe is alive and conscious, so it naturally creates life and consciousness.

    Whether or not there are multiple parallel universes is another question, and I have no idea if there are. But if you believe that life arises naturally in a living universe, there is no need for a theory that says anything at all can happen, however unlikely.

  20. Icepick said,

    So they came up with the idea that there are an infinite number of parallel universes, so even the most improbable things must happen in at least one of them. Or something like that. It’s just another example of materialists speculating wildly to support their world view.

    -and-

    I meant that materialists like Dawkins USE the theory to explain how life could originate by a random mechanistic process.

    In the one post you claim they just create wild theories to come up with anything. The next you say they only use such theories. Which is it? You’re pretty fast and loose with who’s doing what when it suits you.

    Further more, just because they haven’t figured something out doesn’t mean that everything they have done has been completely wrong. Nor does it mean they won’t figure things out. And despite what you seem to think, there isn’t some pre-ordained conclusion they’re trying to reach. The whole of science isn’t dedicated to simply lying about the nature of reality just to make Uri Geller look like an ass.

  21. realpc said,

    I am not talking about scientists Icepick, I am talking about MATERIALISTS. They are NOT the same thing.

    And sorry my wording was imperfect. I will try to always get every word perfect from now on.

  22. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Michael, the most obvious issue with Randi’s wager is that winning it depends on performing an experiment that will be judged by someone who not only gets to decide after the fact it it’s convincing, but who has devoted the majority of his professional career and reputation to denying that such a result is possible, and who also gets to keep his million dollars if not convinced.

    Under those conditions, it might be difficult to win a wager that the sun rises in the East.

  23. realpc said,

    That’s right Charlie, it is hard to believe Randi has been considered the ultimate infallible authority for so long. But my more recent post, on Quantum Woo, shows that Randi is on the verge of being discredited. Benveniste’s credibility and career was smashed by Randi, but now there is Montagnier.

    Scientists are beginning to realize they have to get their Nobel prize, establish their reputation, BEFORE they get into the really interesting research. You can’t experiment with the memory of water and expect to ever get tenure, let alone a Nobel prize.

    So now we have Bem, an emeritus psychology professor at Cornell, and Montagnier, a Nobel prize winner, both venturing into quantum woo.

    We are living at a fascinating turning point in science and religion!!

  24. Jim C. said,

    I sure see a lot of commenters grasping at straws and crying sour grapes.

    Mr. Randi just operates on logic. The same logic that most people count on to get them through daily life. Is it really so unfair? If a phenomenon is legit, it should not be affected by alternate setups.

    Will you people ever give up pretending that magic is real?

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