Replicating Psi

LiveScience is featuring an article on the unsuccessful replication of Daryl Bem’s controversial precognition experiment by skeptics Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Stuart Ritchie, after their paper was posted on the open-access journal PLoS ONE:

Bad news for Miss Cleo and other alleged clairvoyants: A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real.

Skeptics may scoff at the finding as obvious, but the research is important because it refutes a study published in a psychological journal last year that claimed to find evidence of extrasensory perception. That research, conducted by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, triggered outrage in the psychological community when the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology announced in 2010 that the paper had been accepted for publication. Psychologists immediately leapt on Bem’s statistics and methods, finding reasons how he may have come up with the unbelievable results.

But the real key to a strong scientific finding is reproducibility. If no other researchers can replicate a particular result, it’s not likely that the result is real. So University of Edinburgh psychologist Stuart Ritchie and colleagues decided to mimic one of Bem’s experiments almost exactly to see if they would also find evidence of psychic powers.

The results were clear. “We found nothing,” Ritchie said.

The LiveScience report also quotes Daryl Bem as saying, in his official response to the negative replication, that this one failed study does not automatically invalidate his positive results – and that some attention should be paid to the alleged ‘experimenter effect’, where skeptical researchers get negative psi results, and neutral/pro-psi researchers get positive findings:

In a response to be published alongside Ritchie and his colleagues’ research in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, Bem wrote that it was still “premature to conclude anything about the replicability” of his experiment. It takes multiple replication failures to definitively refute a study, he said.

Bem also suggested that because Ritchie, Wiseman and French are skeptical of psychic abilities, they might have unwittingly influenced their participants not to display any clairvoyance. (The computer-based design of the study, however, is supposed to help prevent researchers from biasing their participants.)

“This does not mean that psi[psychic phenomena] results are unverifiable by independent investigators, but that we must begin regarding the experimenter as a variable in the experiments that should be included in the research designs,” Bem wrote.

Now, I think it may be a stretch for Bem to invoke the ‘experimenter effect’ explanation – unless we stretch it to some sort of telepathic or psychokinetic influence – as Bem himself set up the study protocol specifically to run via a computer in order to minimize the experimenter interaction.) And if we do that, I’m not sure how you could ever really study psi in a standard scientific manner. On the flipside, as I’ve noted previously, skeptics need to be careful of writing Bem’s ‘experimenter effect’ concern off as ‘special pleading’, given that arch-skeptic (and lead author on the negative replication paper) Richard Wiseman himself has previously published papers discussing this possibility.

What I was amazed by though was what the LiveScience article *left out* from Bem’s response…and also what Wiseman, French and Ritchie have thus far failed to share in every mention I’ve seen regarding their negative replication. According to Bem:

In their article, Ritchie et al. mention that their experiments were “pre-registered.” They are referring to an online registry set up by Wiseman himself, asking anyone planning a replication to pre-register it and then to provide him with the data when the study is completed. As he noted on the registration website: “We will carry out a meta-analysis of all registered studies…that have been completed by 1 December 2011.”

By the deadline, six studies attempting to replicate the Retroactive Recall effect had been completed, including the three failed replications reported by Ritchie et al. and two other replications, both of which successfully reproduced my original findings at statistically significant levels. (One of them was conducted in Italy using Italian words as stimuli.) Even though both successful studies were pre-registered on Wiseman’s registry and their results presumably known to Ritchie et al., they fail to mention them in this article. I consider this an important omission. (I also note that Ritchie et al., describe their replication attempt as three independent studies, but the total number of sessions they ran was the same as the number I ran in my own original experiment and its successful replication.) [my emphasis]

If Bem is correct in his claim, this means that both LiveScience and Wiseman/Ritchie/French are happily promoting their ‘refutation’, but failing to mention that Wiseman has also collected two other positive replications supporting Bem’s results. This would certainly constitute “an important omission”. I look forward to hearing more about this, hopefully when Richard Wiseman publishes the results of his meta-analysis of the pre-registered studies.

As an addendum, Chris French has written in The Guardian about his experience in trying to get the negative replication published in a journal, and what this might mean for the future of science journal publishing.

See also…

  1. Replicating Psi

    I’m pursuing a working theory that Psi technology isn’t latent human power. But is networked active power of the humanoids. If you think of the computer network model: there is the server, user computers and the cables/switches that connect them. In parapsychology, there is the medium who is simply the conduit (the network if you will) through which the humanoid materializes. All the medium does is open the door to mind; the humanoid provides the power to materialize. Back to the computer network model, the humanoid is the server where the data resides; the medium is the user computer that calls up the server data to download; the nonlocal extradimensions of mind where the humanoid resides is the cable/switches. We might call this process Psi Network. Uri Geller is an example of this. He claims his power emanates from humanoids that reside on planet Hoova. Uri has had multiple UFO experiences that began at age 3, when he saw a UFO from the family garden in TelAviv. The UFO knocked him to the ground. From that point forward he possessed Psi power.

    If the Psi Network is true, it could explain why science cannot replicate Psi experiments. Psi would be mediumism dependent not on the human subject, but on the humanoids. The Psi power or force would therefore be subject to the same anomalies and unpredictabilities of the UFO experience that have been documented so well for the last 65 years. : >)

    1. I like Gary’s theory
      I’ve entertained similar ideas myself, though maybe not with the same specific. The reason this is all hopeless is because all these studies do is prove that Psi can’t be reproduced in the contrived, artificial confines of a laboratory experiment.

      That’s it.

      Most people have had genuine psi experiences on a personal level so these studies do nothing but confirm biases in those skeptic types who’d never change their minds even if the experiments produced positive results.

      1. Secret Sun response
        Inherent in the phenomena is the tendency for the phenomena to negate itself. That is it both affirms and denies itself by using truths and deceptions. John Keel (The Mothman Prophecies) and Jacques Vallee (Messengers of Deception) write about this absurd but true behavior.

        John Keel’s investigations revealed another startling aspect. It is that there is a “reflective factor” where the phenomena will actually mirror the observer’s theories and beliefs.

        Taking these observations into account, it is highly unlikely at the present time that science will observe anything helpful to our understanding of the phenomenon.

  2. Skeptical Special Pleading
    It has long been a standard claim of psi deniers that the replicability requirement in science means, in the case of parapsychology, that anyone can repeat the experiment every time and get the precise same results. This is a definition of “replication” that applies only to parapsychology. No one would claim that because I didn’t see a black swan on my way to lunch that supposed observational studies claiming to have found them are not replicable.

    When an experiment is performed its results are considered tentative since they might be due to an unrecognized error (e.g., a loose cable). The solution is to require a replication before the results are considered final. A failure to replicate mostly just means that the results remain tentative. There is no requirement in science for a phenomenon to be completely understood, and for all the conditions necessary for its occurrence to be understood and entirely controllable (including statistical variation).

    Note that the temporal order of events in regard to evidence is relevant only when causal connections are at issue. This means that it is equally true that Wiseman, et. al.’s experiment showing no result failed to be replicated.

  3. Experimenter Effect
    Even if we restrict ourselves to conventional information transfer mechanisms, experimenter’s attitudes can be communicated to subjects (or scorers, or technicians, etc.) and create motivations for the subjects to act in particular ways. Note that this is an internally controlled experiment rather than a treatment/placebo experiment — double blinding, does not apply since all the subjects are test subjects and every trial is a test trial — the control conditions are other times from the same experiment sequences.

    Skeptics tend to take it as a given that such communication takes place without any of the participants being aware of it. Subtle cuing is the standard conventional explanation for lots of apparent psychic experiences (e.g., Ouija boards producing veridical information about bystanders), and is a major component of skeptics’ critiques of psi experiments. Wiseman’s critique of the Auto-Ganzfeld experiments, for example, relies on such subtle cuing taking place via perceptual abilities sensitive to stimuli many orders of magnitude below what has been demonstrated (in fact well below what QM predicts is physically possible by any mechanism) and with a much higher degree of influence than has ever been recorded even in experiments of marginally subliminal stimuli. But if parapsychologists raise the possibility that such an effect might have some bearing on a negative result then the same Skeptics dismiss the possibility as just “making excuses”.

    Furthermore, if psi phenomena is effecting an outcome it is rather implausible that there would not be a psi mediated experimenter effect modulating the results. So even if Dr. Bem had been referring to that, it is entirely reasonable response. It answers the implicit question of “If psi effects occur why didn’t the Wiseman experiment show them?” — the same question that any result apparently inconsistent with a particular view of any scientific question needs to be answered by holders of that view.

    But the psi mediated experimenter effect is not just a theoretical expectation. There have been hundreds of experimental demonstrations of it over the last 80 years or so. Most notably, an experiment by Wiseman (do I need to state that Wiseman who took the part of the experiment with a negative expectation?). This is one of many secondary patterns found in psi experiments that appear to have no conventional explanation and that critics of parapsychology have almost never attempted to explain (unless they find a way to distort those results as a proof of a flaw).

  4. Location location location…
    I for one would be interested to know the exact geographical location where each of these experiments were conducted, including the negative ones.

    Dr. Barry Taff’s research into poltergeist and haunting phenomena strongly suggests geography constitutes a significant component in PSI manifestations.

    If you want to measure rain, don’t do it in the desert 😉

      1. I continue to be amazed that
        I continue to be amazed that the scientific community thinks psi is something a person just turns on like a light switch no matter the set and setting. Of course, there are psi-masters who virtually can do that.

        I do believe this woman may be a prime candidate for taking Randi’s 1,000,000 bucks. Does he pay any mind to her? Randi’s typical ploy is to cherry pick for only the goofiest mediums.

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