Parapsychology: where wishful thinking overrides mere impossibility.

Parapsychology is the supposedly scientific study of paranormal phenomena involving the human mind. This includes such things as psychokinesis, clairvoyance, and telepathy. The goal is to apply the rigors of the scientific method to the world of the paranormal.

Zener cards

Zener cards, designed by Karl Zener and Joseph Rhine.

In practice, it is a pseudoscience due to sloppy practice (poorly designed experiments, poor controls if any, small sample sizes, ill-defined terms and procedures, bad blinding), its perennial lack of verifiable positive results, bias against publication of negative results or disconfirmation of positive results, that parapsychologists who continue to get negative results get gently pushed out of the field and that it contradicts extremely well-understood and verified known science.

Parapsychology provides useful teachable examples of compelling ideas that nevertheless can’t possibly be right, and how such wishful thinking persists well past mere physical impossibility.

“Psi” is the ill-defined term for the force or phenomenon thought to underpin parapsychology. According to the Parapsychological Association, there is psi-gamma (paranormal cognition; extrasensory perception) and psi-kappa (paranormal action; psychokinesis). The term “psi” also applies to survival of death. Of course, it doesn’t matter to those constructing this detailed taxonomy that none of this has ever been demonstrated to exist. Parapsychologists such as Dean Radin and Charles Tart claim that psi is real, but is non-physical in basis and does not operate according to known scientific laws — but has (somehow) nevertheless been proven by science in repeatable experiments (that have not been repeated). No consistent theory of psi (or parapsychology in general) exists even within the field.

The most famous example of parapsychological research is probably the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR). PEAR attempted to prove that human thought could manipulate the functioning of machines. They used devices designed to generate random phenomena, and then had subjects focus on disrupting that random pattern. They claimed to have shown that the experimental group of subjects focusing on disruption made the machine perform non-randomly in the direction the person was focusing. However, review of their procedures and data puts that conclusion into serious doubt, with effect being inversely proportional to sample size.

Joseph B. Rhine, a professor at Duke University in the mid-20th century, did extensive work on parapsychology and was substantially responsible for the field’s sloppiness in protocol design, happily throwing away negative results. Rhine and his colleague Karl Zener designed a special deck of cards containing five visually distinct shapes for use in telepathy and clairvoyance experiments, but also seemed blind to the consistent failure of experiments done under proper controls.

XKCD 882 - Significant

This XKCD is literally what Daryl Bem did.

Daryl J. Bem’s “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect” achieved some notice in 2010. In this paper, Bem wrote up an experimental run which showed effects of statistical significance … while not mentioning years of runs that didn’t. Amongst much other sloppiness, he also started from his data and worked back to a hypothesis.

The field of parapsychology is filled with deception, fraud and tricks. Whilst some parapsychologists have exposed the tricksters, many in the field seem to accept them as genuine evidence for the paranormal. Dean Radin’s book The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (2009) contains many errors and promotes discredited experiments with poor controls as genuine scientific evidence for psi. Randi’s Prize: What Sceptics say about the Paranormal: Why they are Wrong and Why it Matters (2010) by Robert McLuhan describes itself as documenting “the truth of the paranormal” and debunking the skeptics, but contains falsehoods on almost every page. McLuhan even dedicates an entire chapter (over 40 pages) to the mediumship of Eusapia Palladino and concludes she was genuine; when in reality she had been exposed in every country she was investigated in as using conjuror’s tricks.

Not everything studied within parapsychology is the result of fraud or tricks. Paranormal phenomena have naturalistic explanations resulting from psychological and physical factors that give humans the impression of paranormal activity. Phenomena such as mediumship, precognition, out-of body experiences and psychics can be explained by psychology without recourse to the supernatural: cognitive biases, anomalous psychological states, dissociative states, hallucinations, personality factors, developmental issues and the nature of memory.

The big problem with parapsychology as a field is that science is all of a piece. Thus, physics is consistent with chemistry, biology and so on; any inconsistency is a serious problem. So the question is not “what knowledge can we derive on the assumption that we know nothing?” but “what knowledge can we derive given what we know already?”

Basic physics leaves it not looking good for parapsychology as a field in any way. Sean Carroll points out that both human brains and the spoons they try to bend are made, like all matter, of quarks and leptons; everything else they do is emergent properties of the behaviour of quarks and leptons. And the quarks and leptons interact through the four forces: strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational. Thus, parapsychology would work either through one of the four known forces or through a new force — and any new force with range over 1 millimetre must be at most a billionth the strength of gravity or it will have been captured in experiments already done. So either it’s electromagnetism, gravity or something weaker than gravity.

This leaves no force that could possibly account for psychokinesis, for example. Telepathy would require a new force much weaker than gravity that is not subject to the inverse square law, and also a detector in the brain evolved to use it for signaling. Precognition, the receipt of information transmitted back in time, would violate quantum field theory. (Unless you warp spacetime sufficiently closely around a black hole or something.)

What this means is that these ideas have pretty much no chance of being right even before we test them directly.

Allan Crossman suggests that parapsychology can serve as the control group for science itself: a field using the methods of science but where the null hypothesis is always true. If they come up with positive results (as they occasionally do), this shows where the methods of science need improving.

This does have the philosophical problem that it would require dismissing out of hand any positive results, rather than properly evaluating them as merely ridiculously unlikely. Fortunately, this is unlikely to be a practical problem while well-designed tests show no positive results, and the only tests showing any positive results tend to exhibit the experimental design and file-drawer skills so popular in the field.

Adapted from Parapsychology on Reproducible under Creative Commons by-sa 3.0.

8 thoughts on “Parapsychology: where wishful thinking overrides mere impossibility.

  1. Bobby Mcbart on

    I love the seemingly willful ignorance on this site. Research skills leave much to be desired.

    • Armondikov on

      Feel free to enlighten people with your own research rather than merely asserting.

    • David Gerard on

      I’ll have you know, I wrote much of the original too. But please do detail what’s wrong, if anything.

      • RationalWiki is one of the worst sites known for spouting ignorance and personal attacks. If they see you as an opposing figure, they’ll write about you and personally attack you with abusive words, even if they’re far from the truth

        RationalWiki did a great disservice to parapsychology by calling it pseudo-science along with their ignorance in their literature.

        “In practice, it is a pseudoscience due to sloppy practice (poorly designed experiments, poor controls if any, small sample sizes, ill-defined terms and procedures, bad blinding)”

        If you bothered to actually look up the literature, you can see how inaccurate the statement above is. It is true parapsychology did suffer from poor protocols. However, those flaws were not overlooked and ignored. The Auto-Ganzfeld, for example, was a modification from the earlier Ganzfeld studies back in the 1970s run by Charles Honorton. Given its criticism of randomization error, selection bias, sensory-leakage, etc. from the skeptics, Charles Honorton created the Auto-Ganzfeld to address these issues.

        Selection bias, sensory-leakage, cherry-picking bias:

        In the Auto-Ganzfeld studies, a computer (instead of a human) selects a pool of 4 pictures out of a pool of 200 or more random pictures. The computer automatically selects the target and shows it to the sender locked in an electromagnetic, sound-proof chamber. The sender’s objective is to try and send that image to the receiver who is locked up and sensory-deprivated in another electromagnetic, sound-proof chamber. To adjust the sender’s sending strategy, an audio is already given to the sender. The sender can hear the receiver’s impressions as a way for feedback, but cannot talk to the receiver with it. Pre-testing, especially in the University of Edinburgh, were given to ensure the protocols follow.

        Confirmation/Experimenter Bias:

        RationalWiki claims that parapsychology lacks good blinding. My comment about that: B U L L S H I T

        Parapsychology did a pretty good job applying blind protocols in their studies. The Auto-Ganzfeld is a great example. In order to ensure double-blindness within the Auto-Ganzfeld, a computer selects four pictures where one is the actual target. During the Auto-Ganzfeld session, neither the experimenter nor the receiver know the actual target. Only the sender knows the actual target until the judging phrase is over. Once the judging phrase is over, the target is shown. Using this procedure ensures that the experimenter nor the receiver can give out sensory cues and thus, bias the session. Both the receiver and experimenter (that only have contact) are completely ignorant to the actual target, ensuring no sensory cues spoil the session.


        Ambiguity was actually one of the major criticism the skeptics gave out. However, the Auto-Ganzfeld also covers this issue. Suppose Earl is the experimenter, Jill as the receiver, and Jack as the sender.

        After 15 to 30 minutes (Again, depending on the experimental procedures), Earl informs both Jill and Jack that the sending phase is over. Jill then removes her Ping-Pong balls and turns of the red ganzfeld lamp. Earl turns off the white noise playing over Jill’s headphones. Then, a computer automatically presents the four images or videos in random order to a video monitor in Jill’s room. Afterwards, the experimenter tells Jill to rank the four images or videos (One which is the actual target) 1-4 based on her impressions during the ganzfeld state.

        Remember, Earl, as well as the receiver, does not know the actual target, so the possibility of the experimenter telling Jill the actual target or biasing has been ruled out. Back to the judging process, one of the four images you see above is the actual target while the others are decoys. So Jill ranks the four images or videos 1-4 based on her impressions. If she ranked the actual target 1, it is a direct “Hit”; otherwise, it’s a direct “Miss”. The probability of the receiver getting a hit is 1/4 or 25%. If she is able to get hits than what would be expected by chance, this is evidence of telepathy. Once she ranks the images 1-4, the session is over.

        Therefore, what counts as a hit is not the description, but the rankings. Whether or not her description matches the actual target, statistics tells you that she has a 25% chance of getting a hit. It’s simple math and it doesn’t get complicated than that.

        “its perennial lack of verifiable positive results, bias against publication of negative results or disconfirmation of positive results, that parapsychologists who continue to get negative results get gently pushed out of the field and that it contradicts extremely well-understood and verified known science.”

        Again, this is another B U L L S H I T from RationalWiki and here’s why:

        In 1975 at the Parapsychological Association, officers adopted a policy opposing the file-drawer problem, so both positive and negative studies have been reported at the PA’s annual mettings. This policy has been affiliated in parapsychological publications for nearly 4 decades. Furthermore, a use of a funnel-plot is used in parapsychological studies to determine whether publication bias exists in a meta-analysis.

        Their ignorance of these facts are very telling isn’t? It just shows how full of bullshit RationalWiki really is.

        I hope this helps you re-think about RationalWiki and you should because it isn’t a credible site for information,

        Best Regards

        - Musibrique

  2. skepticguy on

    Musibrique you have been spamming other blogs and forums with your woo. There’s no scientific evidence for psi. You are anti-science with your magical fairytales. You probably believe creationism is true as well. Get science education buddy or a girlfriend or something, find another hobby other than spamming nonsense and making up lies.

    • “Musibrique you have been spamming other blogs and forums with your woo.”

      Do you even know what’s the definition for spam? Spam – irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of recipients.

      My posts on the mind-energy forum are anything but spam. I suggest you think the word twice before posting such non-sense.

      “There’s no scientific evidence for psi. You are anti-science with your magical fairytales”

      I presented counter-arguments to demonstrate (I)RationalWiki’s bullshit for the credibility of parapsychology. What did you do? Rejected them out of hand and called me names. How pathetic.

      “You probably believe creationism is true as well. Get science education buddy or a girlfriend or something, find another hobby other than spamming nonsense and making up lies.”

      Jumping to discrimination huh? That is even more pathetic, really.

      “The Mind-energy forum users believe fairies are real… as I said musibrique… you need science education!”

      That’s funny, the majority of those Mind-energy forum users actually fall quite to the contrary:

      Skepticism huh? Insulting the opposition and calling them names instead of actually presenting anything. Classic.

      Truth is, you are nothing but a hypocrite who masquerades himself as a skeptic. A skeptic simply doesn’t ridicule/attack, but rather interrogate and seek the truth. The fact that you failed to meet such standards clearly shows you are just a pseudo-skeptic hiding behind a curtain. Whether you like it or not, the egg yolk is on your face, not mine.

      By the way, if you’re going to play that childish game of yours with that smugly face of yours, don’t bother. If you have nothing rational to contribute, you can just play pseudo-skeptical hopscotch with your friends.

      Have a nice day, sir.

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