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RS53 - Parapsychology

Release date: January 29, 2012


In this episode, Massimo and Julia take on parapsychology, the study of phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition, and remote viewing. Its practitioners claim that there is more evidence for it than there is for other areas of scientific inquiry, such as string theory for which there is no empirical data at all. Yet string theory is taken seriously as a science whereas parapsychology is not. So, what is the scientific status of parapsychology? What does the best academic literature on the subject tell us? Finally, what can we learn from parapsychology about the practice of science in general?

Julia's un-pick: "My Little Pony"
Massimo's pick: "Be it Resolved"


Reader Comments (4)

At least some of the ganzfeld experiments used a protocol where the receivers described their experiences, which were transcribed, and the matching of descriptions to targets was done by a panel of judges who had the set of four possible targets and did not know which one was the correct one. This methodology has also been used for remote viewing experiments.

Some of the specific examples of hits look subjectively quite impressive, though that's not an objective measurement of an effect. For example, in one of Honorton's experiments, a target was a Coca Cola Christmas ad from the 1950s, with Santa Claus in a three-button coat holding a Coke bottle in his left hand, with a large Coca Cola bottle cap leaning against a Christmas tree in the background. The receiver's description said "... There's a man with a dark beard and he's got a sharp face... there's another man with a beard. Now there's green and white and he's in bushes and he's sort of colonial. He looks like Robin Hood and he's wearing a hat... I can see him from behind. I can see his hat and he has a sack over his shoulder... Window ledge is looking down and there's a billboard that says 'Coca-Cola' on it.... There's a snowman again and it's got a carrot for a nose and three black buttons coming down the front... There's a white beard again. There's a man with a white beard... There's an old man with a beard..."

Honorton reports a bunch of other similar examples with this set of studies: Charles Honorton, Rick E. Berger, Mario P. Varvoglis, Marta Quant, Patricia Derr, Ephraim I. Schechter, and Diane C. Ferrari, "Psi Communication in the Ganzfeld: Experiments with an Automated Testing System and a Comparison with a Meta-Analysis of Earlier Studies," Journal of Parapsychology vol. 54, no. 2, June 1990, pp. 99-139.

A couple of books defending parapsychology which skeptics should be familiar with are:

K. Ramakrishna Rao, _Charles Honorton and the Impoverished State of Skepticism: Essays on a Parapsychological Pioneer_, 1994, Parapsychology Press/McFarland & Co.
Richard S. Broughton, _Parapsychology: The Controversial Science_, 1991, Ballantine.

Re: your comment on Bayesian analysis of parapsychology--if I recall correctly, this was a topic of ongoing debate in the _Journal of Scientific Exploration_ between skeptic William H. Jefferys and parapsychologist York Dobyns, when Jefferys offered a Bayesian analysis of the PEAR random number data. It starts in vol. 4 no 2:

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard

Regarding the point about significant tests with large data bases, you should have mentioned that it can happen without any bias at all. If you take say, a million people sample from the whole world that is completely random and measure their height for example, and then take another million people sample from the population, there will be some differences that will be significant without any bias. Psychologists know for a long time to make a distinction between significant in the statistical sense and important or meaningful.

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGil

I love these segments on pseudoscience, but it strikes me that I never hear anything about how to distinguish real philosophy from pseudophilosophy. Massimo, any interest in writing that book?

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllan Rosenberg
Researchers need a place to publish negative results and replication studies. This type of work benefits society enormously by letting us know what doesn't work, and what relationships do or do not hold. Drug and medical device companies in particular should publish all their results, especially the negative ones.

Sad to learn "My Little Pony" rejects rationalism and embraces superstition.
January 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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