Parapsychology: Science or Pseudoscience?

Well, its not always going to be stopping at the exact moment that significance is achieved, right? Nor do the calculations necessarily have to have been exactly done. A researcher could be generally monitoring the results, not necessarily performing calculations after each one. But when deciding whether to continue may be unconciously motivated by the fact that there has been a good run and can talk him or herself into stopping.

I think researcher degrees of freedom can appear in many guises, with many of them not being deliberate attempts to manipulate the results, but rather letting unconscious biases guide their decisions.

Again, the way to control for this is to set the conditions in advance.
Personally, I think that's reaching a bit.

What if some researchers are convinced that positive evidence for psi would be somehow "good" for humanity? Could that not lead to unconscious (or conscious?) decisions being made during studies.

(I know some will see this as provocative, but there appear to be many on this forum who hold that position; that physicalism is a poisonous, amoral philosophy to which to subscribe)

Also, due to the perceived rejection and marginalisation by the mainstream, there appears to be an increased motivation to produce positive psi studies. I'm not sure that this is healthy either. It appears impossible to remove emotion from this arena.
The experiments we have would NOT be wrong. Psi is indicating a new domain of discovery. What we learn would make current laws of physics as wrong as quantum theory made netwonian theory. Yes, there is a level of fundamental wrongness to Newtonian theory, and yes the metaphysics is completely wrong, but we didn't have to throw out Newtonian physics because of the discovery of quantum theory.
Amen, brother :)

And... isn't ironic that a fervent proponent of the many-world interpretation is saying something like that?
Let's replace psi phenomena with MWI...

if the MWI is true, then "the laws of physics that have been tested by an enormous number of rigorous and high-precision experiments over the course of many years are plain wrong in some tangible macroscopic way, and nobody ever noticed."
Personally, I think that's reaching a bit.
I call it the "lying for Jesus" effect. It's okay when it's for a greater truth.

Rather than doing it unconsciously, I think it's more the case that, "since psi is real, whatever I can do to tease out the effect I know must be hidden in there somewhere, is legitimate". Concerns about shenanigans are only for those people who are trying to create a false impression - not applicable when you already know the truth of psi.

(Note: I don't subscribe to that idea.)

My understanding that this is not unique to parapsychology. I don't think we need to bring in anything other than the researchers' bias to their own hypothesis, whatever it is, in whatever field. If the researcher has not controlled for this bias, they are susceptible to it.

The researcher may give themselves a justifiable reason than in itself has no ulterior motive but serves to solidify certain results.

Even if researchers haven't pre-registered (which is no longer, imo, justifiable in any field, but put that aside) they can help control for this by not monitoring the results as they go. I can understand how that might be maddening for a researcher, but they need to take some steps to protect against this.

I think people, including researchers, assume simply being aware of a possible bias is sufficient to control for it. I think that can be successful, but only to a point.
My understanding that this is not unique to parapsychology.
I wouldn't have thought so (that is, I wouldn't have thought this would be unique to parapsychology). And I should add the caveat that I suspect the public face of parapsychology (people that make it into the lay press, like Bem and Radin and Diane Powell) is bolder in this regard than those researchers plugging away in the background. But some of these researchers seem to expect to get away with fairly blatant disregard for these concerns; showing not a trace of guilt or remorse when called out on it. For example, when I asked Radin what the actual results of his blessed tea experiment were (not the results in the small sub-group which he reported), he unabashedly admitted they weren't significant, and tried to call the practice of reporting the full results (instead of his highly selective reporting) "pooling the data". I very much doubt that he would get away with that kind of crap in any other field. may also be the case that he wouldn't get away with it in his field either. If you notice, he published the study in a journal of his making. It may be that he was rejected by more mainstream parapsychology journals.

So maybe you're right, although I can't even remotely picture one of my colleagues saying something like that with a straight face (it would be something which would (and has) show up in the BMJ Christmas joke issue).

Regardless, the important part is the rest of your post - when present, it's a problem regardless of the field.

Last edited:


Going back to Bem's experiments, I think it is quite important to put the objections into perspective. Table 7 of his paper shows ten p values derived from nine experiments. It's not just that nine of the ten are significant at the 5% level, but that six out of the ten p values are less than 1.5% - a level which would be expected to occur by chance only once in every 60-70 experiments. The smallest p value is 0.2%, which of course would be expected to occur by chance only once in every 500 experiments.

Being sensible, even if there were multiple hypotheses, would this be a plausible explanation for so many tiny p values? Wouldn't it take several dozen alternative hypotheses for each experiment to produce these results? Do people really think this is the explanation?

Or if it were a question of optional stopping, would that be capable of producing so many statistical significant results? Maybe someone can demonstrate that it would, but I find it very hard to believe.

Realistically, isn't this either a real effect, or else out and out fraud - either on the part of Bem himself or someone else associated with the experiments?


But some of these researchers seem to expect to get away with fairly blatant disregard for these concerns; showing not a trace of guilt or remorse when called out on it.
I think if you're suggesting that Daryl Bem should be showing "guilt or remorse" about something he has been "called out on", you had better say what exactly you're referring to.
Yes, that's my point. People who are taking a null hypothesis that includes psi - like Francis - have a problem, because aspects of psi may invalidate their statistical methods.
I feel embarrassed to actually be responding to this, but here goes. Bem's hypothesis was that people can perceive certain future events. The ability to see future events does not imply that somehow psi will cause non-independence of observations taken on unrelated subjects. Furthermore, if psi can magically cause non-independence among subjects in a study of precognition, then psi can magically cause non-independence among subjects in a study of anything. Then every statistical test ever performed could be mistaken because the magic psi power of somebody somewhere in the world could have influenced the results. Therefore, if you believe that psi can magically make otherwise independent observations dependent, then you believe that no hypothesis can be studied empirically (or at a minimum, not if statistics must be calculated to evaluate experiments).

But there's no problem if the null hypothesis is a "no psi" hypothesis - as is commonly the case in psychical research - because by definition that will exclude such weird effects, and the statistics will be well-behaved.
If you believe that, if the null hypothesis is "no psi," then the statistics will be immune from psi-induced dependency and other irregularities, and since psi, if it existed, could influence any statistical test whose null hypothesis is not "no psi," then you must believe that the only hypotheses that can be evaluated using statistics are psi hypotheses.
Even if researchers haven't pre-registered . . . they can help control for this by not monitoring the results as they go. I can understand how that might be maddening for a researcher, but they need to take some steps to protect against this.
In that regard, I think it's worth mentioning that the prohibition against monitoring and optional stopping (without appropriate adjustment) only applies to frequentist hypothesis tests. Bayesian tests can be monitored and the experiment stopped when a particular Bayes factor is attained without biasing the results. Whereas the validity of frequentist tests depends on the sample size being specified in advance (or, alternatively, a carefully developed stopping algorithm), the validity of a Bayes test does not. Not having to specify the sample size in advance would free researchers from a very artificial, cumbersome, and counterproductive constraint.


In the interests of clarity, I'm going to respond on the assumption that Jay is really confused. So I will try to explain this once more.

The typical approach in psychical research is to assume a null hypothesis of no psi, and to see whether the experimental results are such that it can be rejected. That is what Bem does. He calculates p values which represent the probability of obtaining the observed results in the absence of psi. Those p values are small, which means it is unlikely that those results would be obtained if psi does not exist. That is a rational procedure, because in the absence of any psi effects there are well-defined statistics governing the observed results.

In contrast, Francis considers a null hypothesis in which psi exists and can be characterised by effect sizes derived from Bem's experiments. On that basis he calculates a p value which represents the probability of Bem obtaining the observed number of statistically significant results, given those psi effect sizes. Francis argues that the p value is small (less than 10%) and that the hypothesis (which is a psi hypothesis) can be rejected.

The problem with this approach is that the null hypothesis is a psi hypothesis, in which all kinds of weird effects may be possible. So there is no rational basis for calculating statistics on this hypothesis. Therefore, in Jay's words, "you can't statistically analyze the results, and if you can't do that, but your results depend on statistical analysis, then for sure you're not doing science anymore."

This is a problem for Francis's null hypothesis, not Bem's null hypothesis. Bem's null hypothesis is perfectly amenable to statistical analysis. Francis's isn't. It's Francis, not Bem, who is "not doing science anymore."
I don't know how else to address this. Wiseman chose the obvious criteria. What else could he have chosen that would lead you to believe the dog knew when Pam was on her way home?

But how would that indicate that the dog was telepathic and that there was something anomalous going on? The dog spent more time at the window the longer Pam was away, regardless of whether or not Pam was on her way home. So noticing that the dog was at the window didn't tell you whether Pam would show up in the next 5 minutes or the next hour. What's anomalous about that?

Okay, so presuming that you have looked at the data - what criteria could you use that would reliably indicate that Pam was going to be home in the next 10 minutes?

I've looked at the data in these experiments more than anybody else I know here. Over the years, I've pointed out stuff that nobody else has noticed (including Sheldrake). Just tell me what you see in the data that you think I don't see.

You could easily say that if within any rolling 600 second period, jaytees time spent at the window (without obvious cause) exceeded 200 seconds, you could predict that Pam would arrive home within 1200 seconds.
I should point out that the graphs in Sheldrake's work refer to the moment that Pam Smart begins her return home, not when she arrives back at the house.
Yes, obviously one needs to factor in Pam's journey time, you know, distance/rush hour/mode of transport, and also different environments for Jaytee that will influence the specific threshold intensity that is deemed to be predictive of Pams return.
Good job on not naming a SINGLE law of physics that psi violates. I guess you can't.
Psi does violate some laws in physics. One of these is the Inverse-square law. In all circumstances observed in physics the strength of the signal must get weaker as the receiver travels further from the transmitter, but in parapsychology experiments and according to psychics this is not the case - psi can travel any distance without becoming weaker, and the distance having no influence on the results. This is unheard of in physics.

Psychokinesis violates the law of conservation of energy etc.

Physicist Mario Bunge covers some of this:

Precognition violates the principle of antecedence ("causality"), according to which the effect does not happen before the cause. Psychokinesis violates the principle of conservation of energy as well as the postulate that mind cannot act directly on matter. (If it did no experimenter could trust his own readings of his instruments.) Telepathy and precognition are incompatible with the epistemological principle according to which the gaining of factual knowledge requires sense perception at some point.

Parapsychology makes no use of any knowledge gained in other fields, such as physics and physiological psychology. Moreover, its hypotheses are inconsistent with some basic assumptions of factual science. In particular, the very idea of a disembodied mental entity is incompatible with physiological psychology; and the claim that signals can be transmitted across space without fading with distance is inconsistent with physics.
Bunge, Mario (1983). Treatise on Basic Philosophy: Volume 6: Epistemology & Methodology II: Understanding the World. Springer. pp. 225-226.

More importantly:

Psychokinesis, or PK, violates the principle that mind cannot act directly on matter. (If it did, no experimenter could trust his readings of measuring instruments.) It also violates the principles of conservation of energy and momentum. The claim that quantum mechanics allows for the possibility of mental power influencing randomizers — an alleged case of micro-PK — is ludicrous since that theory respects the said conservation principles, and it deals exclusively with physical things.
Bunge, Mario (2001). Philosophy in Crisis :The Need for Reconstruction. Prometheus Books. p. 176.

If psychokinesis was real there would be no objectivity in science, all measurements would become falsified depending on the experimenters PK ability.

Definitely a science! Remember that the "famous" psychologist Richard Wiseman once said so, all you pseudo-skeptics! Your dear Richard Wiseman of all people!
Do you have a source for this claim?