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I Always Expect the ESP Inquisition

Over at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow has posted a story (contributed by Clay Shirky) on the attempted replications of Daryl Bem’s controversial ‘feeling the future‘ precognition experiments, which he has titled “ESP proponents claim that ESP skeptics are psychic, and use their powers to suppress ESP” (linking to the original story “Wait, Maybe You Can’t Feel the Future”):

Clay sez, “Stuart Ritchie, a psychology doctoral student in Edinburgh, worked with two colleagues to try to replicate the results of a famous recent experiment, claiming people could predict in advance whether they were about to be shown erotic images. When the three failed to find any such evidence for ESP they sent their results out for publication, and the British Psychology Journal, one of the journals to which it was sent, in turn sent the trio’s article out for review. When Ritchie et al got the responses back ‘…there were two reviews, one very positive, urging publication, and one quite negative. This latter review didn’t find any problems in our methodology or writeup itself, but suggested that, since the three of us (Richard Wiseman, Chris French and I) are all skeptical of ESP, we might have unconsciously influenced the results using our own psychic powers.’ They are still looking for a place to publish their findings.

Now personally, I don’t agree with the reviewer’s grounds for rejecting the replication study. Though I’ve read about the alleged ‘experimenter effect’ before, and consider it an interesting sideline topic, I think the paper by Ritchie, Wiseman and French deserves to be published regardless. Additionally, they already *do* address the possibility of the experimenter effect in their paper explicitly, in referring to the original experiment set-up by Bem:

When discussing the issue of replication, Bem drew special attention to the role of experimenter effects, arguing that a skeptical experimenter might be more likely to obtain a null effect than one more open to the possibility of psychic ability. To help overcome this potential issue, Bem describes how he specifically designed the study to be run by a computer (thus minimizing the experimenter’s role) and using undergraduate experimenters that were given only informal training. In line with these guidelines, only Replication 1 was carried out by the Principal Investigator – Replication 2 was conducted by the Principal Investigator’s research assistants, and Replication 3 was carried out by an undergraduate student as part of a project being supervised by the Principal Investigator.

(Though there could be an argument that Replication 1 did not address the issue raised by Bem, and the further possibility that the research assistants and undergraduates under supervision may have shared the skeptical view of the Principal Investigator due to their working relationship).

What I wanted to address more though is the handling of it at Boing Boing. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the title seems to me to be designed to say “those whacko ESP proponents, justifying their belief in any way they can”. The addition of the ‘Psychic Reader’ image helps reinforce the woo-woo component. The problem is this: though it has been noted for decades, the ‘experimenter effect’ has come to the fore in recent years chiefly due to research performed by Richard Wiseman, one of most high-profile *skeptics* in the world. In a joint study with ‘psi proponent’ Marilyn Schlitz, of the Institute of Noetic Studies, Wiseman found (very tentative) evidence that it might be possible that results may differ depending on the attitude of the researcher. In “Experimenter effects and the remote detection of staring” (full-text PDF), Wiseman and Schlitz discussed the possible explanations for the discrepancy in Wiseman’s negative results and Schlitz’s positive results:

Finally, it is also possible that both RW and MS used their own psi abilities to create the results he/she desired. This interpretation, if genuine, supports past research which suggests that ‘successful experimenters’ (i.e., those that consistently obtain significant effects in psi studies) outperform ‘unsuccessful’ ones on a variety of psi tasks (see Palmer, 1986 for a review of the literature supporting this notion).

Wiseman and Schlitz have collaborated three times on investigating experimenter effects – the first two resulted in positive evidence, but the most recent experiment failed to replicate their previous findings. Their conclusion at this time regarding the experimenter effect was that “the inconsistent nature of our findings does not allow for a firm acceptance or rejection of either interpretation and the issue will only be resolved by further research”.

Now, given that Bem explicitly notes his concern over ‘experimenter effect’, and further that Richard Wiseman was also one of the co-authors of the failed Bem replication, some might say it’s fair enough to raise the experimenter effect as a possible variable, given it’s part of Wiseman’s own research corpus and that he has actively stated it as a possible cause of failed results. As I said at the beginning, I do think it’s worthy of publication all the same. But the Boing Boing title is misleading, and leads to a vast comment thread with a number of boorish and uneducated ‘skeptical’ comments. Which is a shame, because it’s a fascinating field of research no matter what the final outcome is.

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  1. After digesting a short ton
    After digesting a short ton of ghost hunting shows on TV what most jumps out a me about the paranormal is that it is very much tied to time, place, and situation. A haunted house can be very active at times and at other times quite silent. If these “labs” are that variable then it should come as no surprise that sterile lab settings in some randomly sited clinic should produce such variable and wayward results. To me now the “lab” for the paranormal should be a place that has a history of engendering such events. I am all for lab controls to be in place there, but there has to be a “there.” On most of the earth there is no there there. The reason ghost hunters tend to spend all night in a haunted place is that the events can be very episodic. At best there might be an hour or two of intense activity with utter silence the rest of the time. Anyone spending a few hours there when it was silent might wrongly conclude that nothing ever happened there.
    The civil war era dressed ghost that used to walk the wooden veranda at my Dad’s very haunted ranch house nearly always appeared at the same time – around 3:00 in the morning, and his noisy march across the boards lasted maybe 90 seconds. If you did not know when to be there as a witness you would otherwise think there was no activity around there. A “lab” has to be a much more adventurous undertaking. Stipulating some sort of “neutral” ground for tests is silly. The phenomena are not neutral.

    1. Dr. Taff
      I would encourage the TDG community to head down to Radio Misterioso, and listen to the interview with Dr. Taff, author of the book Aliens Above, Ghosts Below, and researcher on the famous “Entity” case which resulted in a major motion picture.

      Dr Taff’s multi-decade research on paranormal phenomena has led him to figure out a few constants in these phenomena, which is no small feat!

      The first one is that these phenomena are more predominant with epilepsy-prone individuals, which seem to be more “sensitive” to out-of-the-ordinary stimuli.

      The second, is that the phenomena are also centered around areas heavily charged with geo-magnetic activity.

      But Dr. Taff’s approach is not that the geo-magnetic anomalies trigger completely subjective hallucinations in susceptible individuals. on the contrary, he suggests that these “sensitives” act as “bio-capacitors” that enable the phenomena to manifest in objective reality –although the perception of it might still vary from person to person.

      So it would seem that to actually find positive results you need a very special combination of factors which would make experimental replication very difficult. BUT not impossible.

      Personally, I think we’re just making our first baby-steps into ESP research. it will probably take another 100 years before we finally see some real advances in the field. All the more reason to encourage further study 🙂

    2. Our ghost
      The resident disembodied gentleman who made his presence known in my mother’s house in Worcestershire, England, chose the time of 11.15 p.m. to walk along the upstairs hallway and then down a spiral staircase (which no longer existed but had at one time!).

      Re your previous queries about how spirits understand how to activate modern electronic eqipment, you may be interested to know that a young friend of mine told me recently that while staying in a rental property before moving into their new home, her little boy’s electronic toys were turning themselves on in the middle of the night. Evidently doing this isn’t a problem for spirits!

      Regards, Kathrinn

      1. There is some episode of
        There is some episode of “Celebrity Ghost Stories” that is about that happening in a hotel whenever a child was staying in it with toys. Apparently, years ago a pregnant bride had been killed by her husband the night of the wedding staged in the hotel. It had been an arranged and shotgun type wedding against his desires, and he had managed to push her down the elevator shaft to kill her. The ghost of the bride haunts the hotel and is attracted to young children and their toys. The management claimed it was a common occurrence for children’s electronic toys to be turned on in the middle of the night.

  2. Now What?
    I’ve recorded three blatant personal examples of precognition since 1987, each somewhat different in details, but each utterly undeniable.

    So I know this is possible.

    I can’t prove this to anyone else, nor can I replicate these experiences; each was spontaneous in nature. I cannot — so far as I know — utilize precognition to, say, win some massive lottery jackpot (something I would have already done, long ago, if I could have done so).

    If I bring these experiences up in some forum as an example of how incomplete our present knowledge of mind is I am generally ignored and sometimes derided; some assume I must be mentally ill.

    O.k. Now what? What can I do with this?

    I’m no scientist — I have no credentials, no scientific education — there would be no point in me gathering the resources to thoroughly investigate this under controlled conditions; I would end up back where I started even if, somehow, such efforts led to increased knowledge — no one would publish the results and those who ever experienced such things would continue to believe as I do while those who refuse to even imagine their possibility would continue to believe as they do, keeping up their endless chants of “no evidence.”

    (At least, per the article, some have actually attempted to shed some light on this, but are they really going about this in the best way?)

    What might result if the existence of precognition were to be firmly proved in the laboratory and scientists were able to produce it at will? That is, if someone were able to obtain more than positive statistical results (but results that might or might not prove to be replicable).

    We’d have to collectively change our beliefs about the nature of quite a few things; I suspect such a change in beliefs would trigger additional changes, not the least being changes in personal experience and consciousness.

    Meanwhile, I’m left to ponder the significance of my own personal experiences, knowing that it’s not likely I’ll ever succeed in convincing anyone — who hasn’t had their own version of such experiences — of their validity:

    o Why is this? How come some people have such experiences and others don’t? How come some people refuse to even consider their possibility? What a strange planet we live on.

    o If I can “foresee” a future event, what does this say about the nature of my mind and what does it say about the nature of time?

    Allow me to augment this with other experiences, including those of telepathy, a similar or at least related subject.

    I’ve recorded clear instances of telepathy over the years, too; once again, this isn’t a skill or ability I can turn on or off at will — these were all spontaneous in nature. (One of the three most blatant precognition experiences combined information obtained in a dream with what happened, later, in so called physical reality; this is so with my recorded instances of telepathy, as well — some happened while I was quite awake; some happened in the dream state.)

    So to me, it’s clear that our official understanding of the dream state is miserably incomplete.

    So it goes. At what point does humanity come to grips with all of this? Does it ever?

    Bill I.

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