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Psychic Ability Claim Doesn't Hold Up In New Scientific Experiments 315

Posted by timothy
from the pre-imagining-the-counterevidence dept.
cold fjord writes with some stunning news from the world of science, excerpting: "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." Here's a link to the academic paper.
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Psychic Ability Claim Doesn't Hold Up In New Scientific Experiments

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  • Social Psychology? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:35AM (#39388249) Journal

    If ESP is ever proven real, the ones that will be most interested are the physicists.

  • So, convince me (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:36AM (#39388251)

    A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real. Skeptics may scoff at the finding as obvious

    No, sceptics may consider the finding plausible but will question whether the evidence supports it.

  • Re:Interesting... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bunratty (545641) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:41AM (#39388271)
    "A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real." TFS says they failed to have a positive result, not that they proved a negative result. I think the scientists who conducted the study would also be smart enough not to claim that proved that humans don't have psychic abilities. The best that science can do is provide evidence that humans have such an ability, or fail provide evidence.
  • by brokeninside (34168) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @08:44AM (#39388287)

    A "negative" finding, as you put it, is really just failure to find a positive outcome. In other words, they were not able to replicate the original study even though apparently using the same methods. This doesn't prove that psychic phenomena does not exist. But it is a data point that suggests that there are no good scientific reasons to believe in psychic phenomena.

    The real interesting bit of the article is this:

    Wiseman has a registry of attempts to replicate Bem's work and has plans to analyze all of the data together, Ritchie said. One big problem facing the work is reluctance on the part of journals to publish studies with negative findings, especially those that are replications.

    When Ritchie and his colleagues submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the journal that had originally published Bem's work, they were told that the journal does not publish replications.

    "There's a real problem with finding shocking findings and then not being interested in publishing replications," Ritchie said.

    That's the real controversy here. Many journals are biased against articles that describe attempts to replicate previously published results, even if the outcome is negative. This is a disincentive for scientists to engage in much of what would be very useful research.

  • by Hatta (162192) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @09:02AM (#39388399) Journal

    ^This is how crazy you have to be to actually believe in ESP.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rgbatduke (1231380) <rgb AT phy DOT duke DOT edu> on Saturday March 17, 2012 @09:06AM (#39388425) Homepage
    Ah, yes, but then you'd have to know how to rigorously test for uniform distributions to obtain and interpret p-values and the like, and seriously (speaking of probabilities) what are the odds that a psychologist who takes the hypothesis of precognition seriously knows either statistics or how to design double-blind experiments properly?

    rgb (speaking ex cathedra as the author of dieharder, which does indeed know how to test for uniform distributions as well as test random number generators in general many, many ways...;-)
  • by arse maker (1058608) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @09:25AM (#39388513)

    Journals not publishing null results or replications is a widespread problem that many reserches lament.

    I've thought for a while that there should be a journal just for replication or null results to be published im. Even if the goverment has to fund it.

  • Re:Not surprising (Score:5, Insightful)

    by History's Coming To (1059484) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @09:28AM (#39388531) Journal
    Look at the available evidence - if there was any psychic ability then the chances are that it would already be well documented. Even a slight statistical ability would have big impacts in warfare, commerce and many other areas of life. Whether a single study will overturn this is unlikely, so making a prediction that study-X won't show psychic ability is valid.

    If you want an analogy, imagine getting a big crowd of people together who believe in psychics, and who have handed over their name, address, CC details and other snippets of information - you could probably convince them that you're talking to their dead relatives, if you wanted to be a fraudulent shyster who likes making money from the grief and hope of the gullible.
  • by Tom (822) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @09:42AM (#39388623) Homepage Journal

    You don't have to be crazy. Uncritical or uneducated is enough. Keep in mind that the amount of logical and mathematical education most of the /. audience have is not representative for the general population.

    There are a couple proven psychological traps at work here, such as confirmation bias, our inability to correctly estimate non-trivial probabilities, and more.

  • by rgbatduke (1231380) <rgb AT phy DOT duke DOT edu> on Saturday March 17, 2012 @10:18AM (#39388883) Homepage
    That's the real controversy here. Many journals are biased against articles that describe attempts to replicate previously published results, even if the outcome is negative. This is a disincentive for scientists to engage in much of what would be very useful research.

    This is dead on the money -- I agree. I keep Richard Feynman's "Cargo Cult Science" address here: http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/cargocul.htm [lhup.edu] permanently open in a browser tab just to remind me how important replication really is. There is a major effort at the highest levels of the government that sit in oversight of the granting agencies and that ultimately fund the journals themselves (indirectly) to change some of this, because it is this very reluctance (plus a tendency to publish "results" but hide the actual data and methodology from precisely the public access and scrutiny and critical replication that is essential to the scientific process) that leads to a huge amount of junk science being published every year, much of it (sadly) in social psychology, medicine, and climate science, where at least two of these have enormous costs associated with error.

    ESP, fortunately isn't one of them. As you note, it (as a hypothesis) could be true, but there is so far no good reason to believe in it. Such evidence as there is is anecdotal and fails to stand up in a reproducible way to skeptical critical tests seeking to verify the anecdotes. However, we can go farther than this -- ESP may exist, but it is in some sense a rare phenomenon if it does. If it were universal and common, we could hardly have failed to discover this by now. The many experiments that have been done seeking to confirm the phenomenon (and failing) have the effect of gradually lowering the plausible boundary of its existence, just as the many (failed) experiments seeking e.g. magnetic monopoles don't disprove their existence but they do establish plausible limits on how common they are (at least in the forms being tested).

    ESP, unlike monopoles, suffers from a serious flaw as a scientific hypothesis. I can understand how a monopole might exist, and can further see how their existence has considerable explanatory power and esthetic appeal -- electrodynamics would become more symmetric, charge quantization would be "explained", if there was at least one monopole in the Universe. They consistently fit in with our existing knowledge. ESP, on the other hand, does not. There is not one single theory (that I know of) that offers a consistent explanation of how ESP could function in terms of known physical law. Indeed, things like precognition overtly violate so very many physical laws -- for starters, the second law of thermodynamics -- that verifying it might well require the complete rewriting of all the laws of physics. This is actually a serious problem. It is like "coming back from the dead" or other forms of supernaturalism and magic -- sensible people reject such hypotheses as the default belief (often in the face of various offerings of anecdotal "evidence") because, to paraphrase somebody (Thomas Paine?) it is far more easy to believe that a human is a liar or mistaken than to believe that the stars themselves have gone out of their courses. If true precognition were reproducibly demonstrated, analyzing the requisite dynamical flow of information involved would very much make the stars go out of their courses, with future complex phenomena causing entropic shifts in current chemistry. We do not, as a general rule, ever observe entropy-shifting effects preceding their causes.

    rgb
  • Of course. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 17, 2012 @11:04AM (#39389203)

    All the real psychics never admit to being psychic. They win in vegas or the lottery or the stock market and keep their mouths shut.

    Because they can also see being cut up into little slices and studied by someone if the world ever really gets proof they are psychic.

  • Re:in my minds eye (Score:5, Insightful)

    by snakeplissken (559127) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @11:43AM (#39389445)

    There are over 6 billion people in the world sir, it would be amazing if there wasn't anyone who had had this experience. The fact that you know someone for whom this has happened demonstrates nothing, can you vouch that she has never ever said "don't go" any other time and nothing untoward taken place? Given that your grandmother thought she was psychic would she have noticed if she had "a feeling" and nothing happened?
    How often did she have "feelings"? As a parent I've had "feelings" quite a few times but nothing ever happened, of course if i had a "feeling" every day then some of them would have correlated with incidents that occurred, who has a life without incident?

    I don't mean to be disrespectful, but this is possibly the most common fallacy of belief regarding "precog". Lets face it, if it were real we would have noticed all the rich and successful people who got that way being precog, there would be government departments staffed by precogs predicting plane crashes, stock market crashes, crimes, weather, asteroids, etc. It's like aliens, who only ever visit when no-one else is watching :)

    snake

  • by Mr. Slippery (47854) <tms.infamous@net> on Saturday March 17, 2012 @03:48PM (#39390823) Homepage

    The peer review was not a double-blind study.
    Ergo: No scientific evidence, any finite conclusion is worthless.

    I'm not sure what you mean by a "finite" conclusion, but if you think that only double-blind studies count as scientific evidence, then I suppose you don't think astronomy or particle physics or paleontology are scientific fields?

    A double-blind study, when possible, is a great way -- perhaps the best way -- to investigate certain questions. That does not make it the only form of scientific evidence.

  • Re:in my minds eye (Score:5, Insightful)

    by EllisDees (268037) on Saturday March 17, 2012 @05:21PM (#39391447)

    Sure, but how many times did she have a bad feeling about something and then nothing at all happened and she forgot about it?

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