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Seeking Psi with Twitter

Last week on Twitter, skeptical psi researcher Richard Wiseman quickly mentioned, “Next week Richard Wiseman and New Scientist conduct a mass participation expt on twitter – to join in, follow @richardwiseman“. Today, New Scientist has posted details of the experiment, which will investigate ‘remote viewing’ – the supposed ability to ‘see at a distance’ without the use of the ‘normal’ senses:

Can some people correctly identify a place using mind power alone?

Psychologist Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, UK, wants to find out, and New Scientist readers can help.

Over the course of this week, we’ll be carrying out an experiment to find out if there’s any substance to claims that some people are “remote viewers” – able to psychically identify a distant location without being shown or told where it is through conventional means.

The US military spent $20 million and 30 years trying to find out – but the only equipment we’re going to use is an iPhone and the Twitter social messaging service, which we’ll use to gather data from thousands of participants.

…During each day of the study, Richard Wiseman will travel to a randomly selected location within the UK. Once there, he will send a tweet asking participants to tweet their own thoughts concerning the nature of the location. There will be a warm-up session at midday BST on the first day, Tuesday 2 June.

Twenty minutes later, he will send another tweet directing participants to a website where they can choose between photographs of five possible locations. If more participants guess correctly than can be accounted for by chance, that will support the existence of extrasensory perception.

I’ve got mixed feelings in posting about this. On the one hand, it’s a great idea in terms of using new technology to do some science on an oft-neglected and unfairly ridiculed topic. On the other hand though, I have some reservations. Not least, that Richard Wiseman is quite the ‘media-slut’ (a crass, but apt description), and so in posting about this I’m – against my inner desire – helping aid him with his publicity (both for this experiment, and with his Twitter feed). Additionally, many have suggested over the years (including myself) that Richard Wiseman is not averse to bending facts to suit his POV (whether consciously or not) – see here and here and here.

However, in this case I can’t begrudge someone getting off their butt and doing some high-profile parapsychology research, no matter what their motivations. So I encourage y’all to become involved and give it a shot.

One of my main concerns with this experiment is of using remote viewing as the basis of a mass experiment – anyone that has read the history and documentation on RV knows that there are a number of pitfalls, such as trying to avoid ‘analytical overlay’ (AOL), where the analytical brain imposes itself on the process and makes an early guess. Techniques have been evolved to deal with these issues, but most people taking part in this experiment won’t have any knowledge of them. If you wish to ‘bone up’ on these, make sure you download Daz Smith’s PDF collection of RV docs – given the short time frame, the best thing to do would be to check out Daz’s ‘Open Source CRV Guide’ at the end for a crash course.

Also, some people seem naturally talented at RV, while others are not (often, the latter category are ‘left-brained’ people – the most likely to take part in Wiseman’s experiment). So the averaging out could well see any effect disappear…which is kind of contrary to the start of the New Scientist article, where it says “some people” (not “all people”). Hopefully the data collection will include some extra questions which might aid in ‘drilling down’ into some of these areas (eg. define yourself most closely with artistic, or scientific), and the data will be available openly to anyone that wishes to analyse it.

Perhaps a good idea might be to create our own Daily Grail subgroup (if we’ve got enough numbers willing to take part). When taking part in the experiment, send your submitted data to me as well on Twitter (@DailyGrail) or via email (greg ‘symbol for at’, and we’ll analyse our results as a group. In case its not in the actual experiment, let me know also whether you consider yourself more an artistic/intuitive, or scientific/logical thinker, and your gender.

And it would be good to have some all-stars. Though it’s really short notice I’ll see if I can get hold of any known RVers – it would be interesting to see their data as opposed to the average from the experiment. Midday BST is a pretty stupid time as well – it’s unlikely too many in the US will be able to participate at that time. Short notice, bad time…who organised this thing?

Note: If you’re interested in taking part, can you send me either an email or Twitter message beforehand so that I can prepare.

Update: Richard Wiseman has posted more details on his blog. In particular, the benchmarks:

If the majority of people select the correct target then the trial will count as a hit, otherwise it will count as a miss. There will be trials at 3pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week. Three or more hits in four trials will be seen as supporting the existence of extrasensory perception.

I can’t really understand why you would do a mass participation study, then divide the success benchmark into just four hit/miss criteria. Why not just study the complete dataset for significance?

  1. RV protocols
    So Wiseman and his pseudo-skeptics are completely ignoring the protocols the participants of Project Grillflame and others adhered to rigorously? They were, and still are, pretty serious about those protocols. If Wiseman wants to disprove RV, then replicate the RV techniques exactly as developed by Grillflame and pioneers like Ingo Swann. Afterall, isn’t this how you test any lab experiment, by replicating it? If they don’t follow these protocols and replicate the techniques exactly, then they’re just being a bunch of smart-a***ed kids with a ouija board out for kicks and giggles.

    This is just pseudo-scientific fluff. Like Randi, Wiseman’s all media smoke and mirrors, the FOX news of science and skepticism.

    1. Positive negatives
      [quote=Rick MG] If Wiseman wants to disprove RV[/quote]

      No no Rick, Richard Wiseman is trying to *prove* RV. Isn’t he?

      Kind regards,
      You monkeys only think you’re running things

  2. Given that any skill
    Given that any skill requires both talent and training, it’s doubtful that a mass participation experiment will show any significant effect.

    The ability to see others’ tweeted thoughts and impressions prior to making the photograph-selection means people may be swayed by seeing others’ tweets, rather than trusting in their own thoughts and impressions.

    However, if there will be several days of tests, and if photo-selection data is linked to Twitter ID, perhaps some talented remote viewing individuals may emerge.


    I don’t believe in belief!


  3. Check-point
    Is there to be someone verifying that this gentleman is actually at the location where he claims to be? If not, the whole experiment is a waste of time as the data could be massaged to show whatever anyone particularly wants it to show.

    Regards, Kathrinn

  4. Limited data collection
    Just been through the trial. I’d managed to convince myself he was wearing a wide-brimmed hat in a city, near a concrete tower, even went so far as to name the city, and was wrong on all counts — the picture was of a river.

    I filled in the ‘survey’ at the end though, and was surprised by the limited amount of data being collected. From what I recall, it was just Male/Female; Do you beleive in psychic powers (5 point scale); how right or wrong were you (5 point scale).

    With as many participants as this survey has attracted, I feel they could have recorded some more information. Maybe overall they’ll get a negative result, but if they’d invited information on age and location, there may have been spikes and troughs which could have elicited further study. For instance, if more people nearer Wiseman’s location got it right, or people in a certain age range?

    Also, the survey was very open to misrepresentation. I filled out my answers truthfully, but it looks like I could have easily gone back and entered a different answer.

    It’ll be interesting what the reposnse is to this study, but I’ve got a pretty good idea what it’ll be: “Ha ha, there’s no such thing as RV, losers!” even though there seem to be pretty major procedural flaws in the testing.

    1. any verfication ?
      Sounds like they didn’t do much verification. So the results would be as scientific as your average internet poll.

      How many people were informed of the result beforehand, and how did they avoid collusion? Collusion could easily sway the result in any direction the colluding people want.

      It is not how fast you go
      it is when you get there.

    2. Red Herring
      I’m increasingly thinking that the RV element of this experiment could be a red herring – it’s so badly thought out and executed.

      The data about gender, psi-belief and self-rated accuracy lead me to think it’s about correlating just these three factors – maybe to see if those who have psi-belief rate themselves as better at the task.

      I bet he never visits any of the supposed locations.


      I don’t believe in belief!


      1. Definitely smells fishy
        It’s a poll, not an experiment, and there’s something sly about it that makes me suspicious about how the results will be explained and publicised.

        How would Wiseman, Randi, Myers, et al, react if it was us conducting the RV-Twitter “experiment”? Rhetorical question, we know exactly how they’d react. Hypocrites.

        1. opinion vs experiment
          This whole thing seems silly to me. Either way.

          Is this a scientific experiment, or an opinion poll among a select crowd that thinks that twitter is cool?

          What does this have to do with any of the issues?

          Suppose all these tweety kids find the “correct” answer? Suppose they all find the opposite ?

          Why would anyone believe them, given how this could easily be manipulated.

          This does for both the pro-RV and the con-RV, of course.

          Did some phone company make money off this?

          It is not how fast you go
          it is when you get there.

  5. 51% for statistical significance?
    From his website, with my bold:

    If the majority of people select the correct target then the trial will count as a hit, otherwise it will count as a miss.

    So he’s saying that over 50% must select the correct target for the results to be statistically significant. That doesn’t sound like ‘real science’ to me.

    1. Majority rules
      [quote=Kat]So he’s saying that over 50% must select the correct target for the results to be statistically significant. That doesn’t sound like ‘real science’ to me.[/quote]

      No, it’s a 5-choice test, so theoretically the “majority” in each test could be 21% (if the other 4 are 19/20%). He mentions more of the protocol/benchmark in a new post.

      Still, if 30 to 35% of 2000 people or so pick the right targets over the course of 4 tests, but that is only enough to ‘win’ one day, why would this not be considered significant, given that chance is 25%…

      Kind regards,
      You monkeys only think you’re running things

      1. Stats
        Didn’t Stargate and Grillflame achieve statistics higher than chance? I have a quote written down at home by an independent academic on why the RV statistics are eye-opening, I’ll post it later.

      2. statistics
        While statistics is a tricky subject, results that are different from the nrom are not unusual.

        I give you one example:

        in the 1980s, most dentists took x-ray pictures of the patients’ teeth. Some of them took full-mouth x-rays, some did not. Insurance companies were going after those who took significantly more than average, these things were expensive.

        This was utter nonsense – less than half of the dental offices had the machines to take full mouth x-ray pictures.

        If you take all the statistics, like standard deviations and such, over a heterogeneous population, you end up with meaningless results.

        Similarly, take this twitter experiment. First, the people who use twitter are not representative of the general population.

        Second, it is assumed that they are honest in their responses. I don’t think that is a sound assumption.
        How the dishonesty skews the result will depend on your presumptions.

        How much does it cost, on a per-tweat basis?

        It seems that this is another advertising campaign for

        It is not how fast you go
        it is when you get there.

        1. stats
          I agree that most of the stats they’ll pick-up will be pretty meaningless. Especially considering the pictures they’ve used (four urban, concrete scenes, one a nice shady leafy path…)

          As for the cost, though: I did it over the web while at work. It might have cost me in man-hours, but it didn’t cost anything to participate.

          I reckon they’ve gone for Twitter because of the promotional, media value rather than anything more erudite. I mean, they could be examining Twitter as sme kind of modern hive mind/collective unconcious… but I doubt it.

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