The Data So Far in Support of Supernatural Powers

From XKCD today:

The Data So Far.


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Looks like the jury is still out on this one! Supernatural powers could be fun. I was telling someone the other day that I wished I could see in infra red. It would cut down on flashlight batteries costs at night! LOL!
Dave Briggs :~)

Well supernatural.. No, probably natural, but not yet fully understood.

Rejected by mainstream science since telepathy etc. doesn't fit into the existing paradigm - but the confirmed experiments are out there, loads of them really, after 130 years of psychic/parapsychological research -if there only was a nice theory to try fit the data into.
If interested, check out Dean Radins recent speech at Google headquarters on "Science and the taboo of psi"
One hour + 34 minutes Q&A

(I just posted a lengthy item on how to debunk the claims of televangelists who offer wealth to true believers who donate to them, and now I run across this stuff...)

I'm going to be somewhat impolitely blunt about this.

First of all, there is sufficient good research to demonstrate valid effects for remote viewing (Targ & Puthoff) and psychokinesis (Jahne & Dunne). Reasonable people can argue methodological details and the paradigmatic importance or lack thereof of the findings, but it is obvious that much of the overt a-priori closed mindedness about this topic is not scientific in nature but rather cultural. Purely cultural.

Second, I'm going to call it out as to motives: attempts (most visibly on the part of subordinate individuals) to curry favor with their peers and superiors for the sake of funding, promotion, and career advancement. Repat the platitudes, get social points, move ahead. These dynamics are the same as for partisan politics: in some fields and social circles, it pays to be a Republican so people mouth Republican platitudes to get ahead; in some fields and social circles it pays to be a Democrat so people mouth Democratic platitudes to get ahead.

We laugh when we see highschool students conforming to fashions in music and clothing to get points with their social groups. Then as adults we go right around and do the same things, with our seriousness made all the more serious by the fact that money is involved. To which I say, bah!, humbug!, have the guts to use your brains, and think for yourselves.

Hint #1: Accepting the evidence for psi will not oblige you to give up your atheism or agnosticism, or buy into some kind of new-age horse manure. You can still say "but this doesn't prove God any more than a missing fossil proves creationism" and leave it there.

Hint #2: Decent bodies of theory are beginning to emerge that provide a basis for explanations of psi that do not require ghosts & goblins or other nonsense. At some point this stuff is going to become purely mundane. Not long ago, topics such as eidetic imagery and synaesthesia were considered "nutjob stuff" too, until the theory caught up with the anecdotal and subjective reports, at which point these topics went completely mundane and mainstream. You can count on that happening with psi, and you'll save yourself a lot of embarrassed backtracking by backing down from the "a-priori impossible" position earler rather than later.

Hint #3: A more empirically viable and pragmatically useful attitde to take is something along the lines of "Yeah, the evidence says that certain phenomena (remote viewing, psychokinesis, etc.) occur, but the magnitude of the effects is consistently small, which points toward a naturalistic explanation. I'm a lot more interested in (fill in the blank with your field of interest)..."

Really, folks. The more rigid the dogma, the greater the collateral damage when it finally breaks. Don't commit yourselves to a losing position, or the woo-woos and religious wackos will eventually have a good time at your expense.

Dear sirs,
Much gratitude for all the pearls of wisdom. I am now a true believer in psi and anything else preposterously paranormal. Indeed, let us do away with this antiquated 'scientific method' and become Ghost Busters. Long live the ponderous blog comment!

By Garibaldi's Un… (not verified) on 24 Jan 2008 #permalink

It's true Garibaldi! I just ran an experiment with 100,000 trials and was able to predict coin tosses at significantly above-chance levels! I am a psychic too!

"First of all, there is sufficient good research to demonstrate valid effects for remote viewing (Targ & Puthoff) and psychokinesis (Jahne & Dunne). Reasonable people can argue methodological details and the paradigmatic importance or lack thereof of the findings, but it is obvious that much of the overt a-priori closed mindedness about this topic is not scientific in nature but rather cultural. Purely cultural."

I wouldn't call either of these examples "good research." Here are some result-nullifying problems of both:

1. For both, you're attempting to apply statistics to an assumption, rather than something that can actually be measured. Statistics work with tangible, measurable things. They don't work with unprovable assumptions. For example, let's refer to the remote viewing experiments of Targ and Puthoff at the Stargate project. The entire premise of the experiment works thus: "If psi ability exists, these people can achieve result x with statistical significance. These people are able to achieve result x with statistical significance, thus psi ability exists."

It's the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. Psi ability still hasn't been proven. We don't know that it really was psi ability that caused people to achieve results. We could just as easily assume that little angels whispered the correct answers into the ears of the remote viewers and made them *think* they had psychic abilities.

To rephrase it another way, you're using as a variable the very thing you're attempting to prove.

2. Again referring to Targ & Puthoff, when you say that people can argue "methodological details" I assume it's because the actual details in the studies mentioned are significant enough to nullify the results of the study and/or give us alternate explanations for the results. For example, during the Stargate project where the above mentioned researchers worked there was no double-blind situation and shoddy interjudge reliability. In the research the remote viewers reported extremely vague descriptions to a single judge who knew the remote viewers personally. This makes the study subject to expectation effects. It also leaves it completely at the whim and subjective interpretation of the one single judge.

Like when people read vaguely-phrased horoscopes and read into them what they want to see (confirmation bias), saying "OMG it's so accurate," in the above mentioned research the remote viewers reported vague images to a judge that believed in remote viewing abilities, knew them personally, and interpreted the vague images to be accurate.

3. And the "methodological details" of the psychokinesis research of Jahn and Dunne is also something that makes you question if the study really confirmed what they asserted. They didn't have actual statistical significance for their results, but asserted that because of the sheer number of participants they didn't need to meet an accepted level of statistical significance. They asserted that what little difference they found was "good enough" to indicate that psychokinesis was real.

Another problem, I'm not sure if you'd call it methodological or technical, with Jahn and Dunn is that they used machines to generate random sets of numbers that weren't actually random. When running upwards of a million tries, which is what they did, you'll find that most machines can't actually generate a truly random sequence. The sheer volume of their studies, which they thought was an asset, likely allowed a technical error in.

4. To assert that there is a 'cultural bias' against psi research is to deny the vast majority of research on psychic ability. The fact is that the vast majority of it has never indicated that psychic ability is real and the sparse few studies that have hinted at it can't be replicated. While we can't 'prove' that it isn't real per se in this fashion, it isn't due to a lack of research but the limitations of negative proof. The overwhelming body of research on the subject indicates no psychic ability. Thus, further research at this point isn't spurning a potential scientific breakthrough. We don't research the influence of Voodoo Loas on the stock market much either.

By Alexander (not verified) on 24 Jan 2008 #permalink

Steve, Garibaldi, and Brian's responses support my point: cultural reactions.

Alexander has some reasonable critiques of the kind that produce useful debate on these topics.

1) Statistics and affirming the consequent: the underlying problem is the attempt to measure something that is largely defined in the negative, by the absence of normal sensory cues; or defined by correlation rather than measurable causal mechanism. Psi as a postulate is not much better or worse than quantum entanglement in photon pair experiments, since the "mechanism" for the latter is still a body of theory rather than a measurable chain of causality.

2) Methodological flaws in Targ & Puthoff: if your description is accurate, I would agree that those are flaws that should be eliminated from subsequent experiments. If I'm not mistaken, Krippner & Ulman used a tighter procedure involving multiple independent judges. Ultimately what would be interesting is to arrive at a methodological design that can be agreed upon by critics, and then see what results, if any, are produced.

3) Jahne & Dunne, mechanical RNGs: Interestingly, I've personally seen it work with seeded algorithmic RNGs on computers (the subject would press a key to initiate generation of a sequence of random bits), where one subject in particular was literally off the chart consistently. However, algorithmic RNGs are deterministic, so to my mind there is still room for improvement. Ideal case would be thermal noise from a back-biased diode source, or radioactive decay. Once again, if critics and researchers could agree on a protocol, that would be useful.

4) "Vast majority" That's what's called the "file drawer effect," that all the experiments that produce insignificant results are filed away rather than published. If that was true, the amount of psi research actually going on would be at least a few hundred times greater than what is actually reported: highly unlikely at best. Or if there's that much funding available for this kind of stuff, please share the secret and I'll be glad to set up experiments that satisfy critical scrutiny!


As for bad methodologies:

I was just reading something about certain types of social behavior in mice, and I couldn't help but think that there were flaws in the procedures that should call the results into question.

The standard of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" is a double standard that allows so much bad research to pass, that it's frankly an excuse for a degree of hypocrisy that I find contemptible. It's the scientific equivalent of "driving while black" and "if you're white, then it's alright." IMHO *all* research should be held up to the same standard, and it should be the higher standard rather than the lower standard.

There is never a good excuse for faulty methodology, bad operationalization of varaiables, or shoddy statistical methods. Yet these problems are endemic in many many fields. We would do well to apply the critics' standards for psi research to other fields, though in doing so we would probably find that much of what we think we know, we don't really know after all.


Here I should mention that I routinely debunk nonsense where I find it, your "vague horoscopes" included, and I also routinely look for normal explanations for anecdotal reports (e.g. subconscious pattern matching, etc.). And I find the new-agey woowoo crowd equally frustrating if not more so, for their frequent apparently total lack of intellectual rigor. The human brain is after all optimized for pattern recognition, and thus it can produce numerous false positives where patterns are "perceived" that are not real, and beliefs are derived therefrom. Conversely, the existence of false positive implies false negatives as well: failure to perceive patterns that actually exist. One should be careful to not overcompensate for another's excess with one's own.

What I personally "believe" about this stuff is that, as I stated, the effects are real but of very small magnitude, are probably an example of physical nonlocality involving subcellular structures in the brain, and as such are as useless for practical applications as entangled photon pairs are for faster-than-light communication. If I get a valid remote view of a friend in a fender-bender, that impression is useless since I don't really know until my friend calls me from his cellphone to ask me to look up & call a tow truck!

IMHO psi is more likely to lead to interesting discoveries about the brain, than to earth-shaking paradigm revolutions, and for this specific reason it deserves to not be subject to an embargo of cultural bias. Obscurantism does no one any good.

I'm disappointed that you interpreted my post as a critique. I was being genuine. I think we should spend research looking into the supernatural too, since it's been such a productive (but misunderstood) area of research.

"Psi as a postulate is not much better or worse than quantum entanglement in photon pair experiments, since the "mechanism" for the latter is still a body of theory rather than a measurable chain of causality."

I also agree that colloquial theories should be placed on par with scientific theories. Being able to make testable predictions via logic is ultimately a dogmatic assumption by scientists, and the sooner we break away from that the better. Regardless of their place in a plausible model of physics, psi should be far better understood than it is today.

Yes, but is it statistically significant? :-)