- Published on Wednesday, 02 February 2011 05:39
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 5923
Recently, Professor of Psychology at Cornell University Daryl Bem, published a paper in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the world's preeminent social psychology journal. In the paper describing his trials, Bem claims to have found that “Participants successfully detected the future location of the erotic pictures on 53.1% of the trials.” You can read his full paper here. But Professor Alcock at York University in Toronto has published a full rebuttal (Copy here). Being a science discussion, Professor Bem published an answer to the rebuttal (Copy here). Since this would be proof that paranormal activities do exist – this is of considerable interest to atheists. Can it be proved true that paranormal phenomena do indeed happen? Alcock does not think so but of course Bem disagrees. As Alcock says, if conducted by a religious person, the same experiment could prove that prayer affected the outcome. It’s important that we realize that this is a scientific discussion and the experiment has not yet been replicated – this is a key point. No replication and the “proof” dies.
Meanwhile, let’s look at a summary of Alcock’s case.
- There have been many previous proofs that turned out to not prove anything – they have all been virtually forgotten and no longer quoted as proving anything.
- In 1934, Joseph Banks Rhine published Extra-sensory perception summarizing his careful card-guessing experiments.
- Physicist Helmut Schmidt conducted numerous studies throughout the 1970s and 1980s that putatively demonstrated that humans (and animals) could paranormally influence and/or predict the output of random event generators.
- In the 1970s physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff claimed that their series of remote viewing studies demonstrated the reality of psi and were published in Nature.
- In 1979, Robert Jahn, then Dean of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, established the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research unit to study putative paranormal phenomena such as psychokinesis. However, parapsychologists themselves were amongst the most severe critics of his work, and their criticisms were in line with Alcock’s. Several replication attempts have been unsuccessful.
What is the lesson from this history? It is that one should give pause when presented with new claims of impressive evidence for psi. Early excitement is often misleading, and as Ray Hyman has pointed out, it often takes up to 10 years before the shortcomings of a new approach in parapsychological research become evident.
- Research reports involve an implicit social contract between experimenter and audience. The reader can only evaluate what has been put into print, and must presume that the researcher has followed the best practices of good research. We assume that the participants did actually participate and that they were not allowed to use their cellular telephones during the experiment, or to chat with other participants. We assume that they were effectively shielded from cues that might have inappropriately influenced their responses. We assume that the data were as reported, that none were thrown out because they did not suit the experimenter, and that they were analyzed appropriately and in the manner indicated. We assume that equipment functioned as described, and that precautions reported in the experimental procedure were carefully followed. We take for granted that the researcher set out to test particular hypotheses, and did not choose the hypotheses after looking at the data. We must take all this on faith, for otherwise, any research publication might simply be approached as a blend of fact, fantasy, skill, and error, possibly reflecting little other than the predilections of the researcher. Obvious methodological or analytical sloppiness indicates that the implicit social contract has been violated and that we can no longer have confidence that the researcher followed best practices and minimized personal bias.
So what was the actual research? According to Alcock, Bem describes a series of nine experiments that "test for retroactive influence by ‘time-reversing’ well-established psychological effects so that the individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur." His stated goal is “to provide well-controlled demonstrations of psi that can be replicated by independent investigators.” He defines psi as denoting "anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms."
Alcock goes through each of the original experiments and as Bem says, gives a “harsh assessment of (Bem’s) work”. For the first experiment, Alcock says:
Overall evaluation: Just about everything that could be done wrong in an experiment occurred here. And even if one chose to overlook that methodological mess, because of the multiple testing problem his data still do not support the claimed above-chance effect.
After assessing the other 8 experiments, Alcock says: “Overall, then, this is a very unsatisfactory set of experiments and it does not provide us with reason to believe that Bem has demonstrated the operation of psi. All that he has produced are claims of some significant departures from chance, and these claims are flimsy given the many methodological and analytical problems that I have touched on this review.”
Alcock then blasts some of the material on Bem’s web site that talks about how to conduct scientific experiments.
He concludes with:
The publication of this set of experiments will serve no one well. Parapsychology is not honoured by having this paper as its representative in a mainstream psychology journal. Neither does it serve the public well, for it only adds to confusion about the scientific case for the existence of psi. And it does no service to the reputation of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In that regard, while Bem has failed to demonstrate the existence of mysterious intellectual powers that defy the normal constraints of time and space, there seem nonetheless to have been mysterious intellectual powers at play here. I refer to the decision by the editors of an esteemed psychology journal to publish this badly flawed research article.
"Think of your data set as a jewel," Bem instructs. However, with these nine experiments, Bem did not end up with a polished jewel. Rather, to extend his metaphor, the jewel cracked under the intense pressure used to try to shape it to fit expectation. One is left with nothing but useless fragments that reflect, not the light of knowledge, but the biases of the researcher.
The above is a summary of the original article by Professor Alcock
I find the whole discussion a fascinating insight into the world of science. There is no doubt the two antagonists come into the discussion with a belief (or pre-conceived idea if you prefer): Bem believes that there is something that needs explaining and Alcock believes there is not. I’m with Alcock – I don’t believe things that don’t make sense. But if there is ever proof of Psi phenomena, I’d love to see it. One way to prove that would be for a few independent scientists to replicate Bem’s experiments.