Psychical Research President states scientific disbelief in psi is “pathological”

coverPNRWhat a very strange “President’s Letter” is in Issue 77 of the Paranormal Review published by the Society of Psychical Research (Winter 2016). I read and re-read it trying to make heads or tales out of Dr. Poynton’s meaning and assertions. He seems to despise the application of reason and questioning, wishing the stodgy “pathological” scientists and skeptics would just BELIEVE already since the evidence for psi is as plain as day.

Fortunately, you can view the letter here (scroll down a bit past the editorial). Take a read and see what you think.

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Well-worn paranormal paths go nowhere: When to give up

Gary Campbell is the keeper of the Official Sightings Register at Loch Ness. In an article today in the Daily Record, he says that even after 20 years of this project, sightings still continue.

Gary Campbell, keeper of the register, said the fascination of Nessie was showing no signs of abating.

He accepted five sightings for 2015 – the most in 13 years.

Hoaxes and those that can be explained are not logged. The mystery, he says, remains unsolved. It appears that any reported sighting that can’t be easily explained is logged as evidence of a bigger “mystery” and the “mystery” is subsequently turned into a singular mystery “creature”. Through mass media magic, an unknown phenomenon (or multiple phenomena) morphed into a plesiosaur-like monster living in the loch. Living plesiosaurs in Loch Ness is an absurd and unscientific conjecture. However, that the Loch has some strange surface phenomena is not in doubt. But, Campbell connects the phenomena reported at the Loch not only with Nessie, a real creature, but with a long historical record (since the story of Saint Columba).

“It’s 1450 years now since the first report of a monster in Loch Ness – it doesn’t look like Nessie’s going anywhere just yet.”

This is bogus reasoning. The Nessie mystery is long-solved. It’s not one neat and clean explanation but there is no monster.  He’s right in that she’s not going anywhere because tourism is too big of a hook for this area. Even though this would have to be an animal that does not breath air, doesn’t die, doesn’t have babies, and can live on sparse food supplies and avoid detection during thorough scans of the water body, it’s still “real” to some who can’t let go of that cherished belief. There’s nothing very harmful about myths and local legends but what about those for which this has become the basis for their life’s work?Read More »

The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

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The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.

Anomalies

In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.