COULD THE FIELD OF PSI RESEARCH HAVE FOUND ITS BREAKTHROUGH?
Near as I can figure it, this is the year the debate over whether or not telepathy exists shriveled down to an argument over the statistical analyses common throughout the entire field of psychological research.
As a result, I’d argue the field has reached a kind of crisis point. This development shouldn’t come as a surprise: The period right after I turned in Fringe-ology started with such promise for psi proponents that hardcore skeptics were likely to reach for nuclear options.
Daryl Bem’s paper on retrocausality—can an action taken in the future influence the present?—sparked massive media interest. You can read up on it here. But the upshot is that Bem’s research suggested yes. A storm of coverage ensued, and opponents of all things paranormal leveled a large argument: Not only were Bem’s results flawed, the story went. But, essentially, the entire field of psychology does a poor job of handling statistics, producing false-positive results.
“False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant,” argues that researchers in the field of psychology essentially leave themselves too much wiggle room. For instance, according to the authors, researchers often do not predetermine how much data they will collect before moving on to the analysis phase. Further, they write, “it is common (and accepted practice) for researchers to explore various analytic alternatives, to search for a combination that yields ‘statistical significance’ and to then report only what ‘worked.’”
To be clear, “psi” comes up in this paper just once, and then only in terms of how statistical data are analyzed. There, the authors list a paper critical of Bem’s retrocausality study. I had read this source material, by Wagenmakers, et. al, but only became aware of the “false positive” paper when I saw it referenced in a tweet by the skeptic Richard Wiseman:
“Psychologists,” he writes, “this neatly sums up why some studies appear to support psychic ability.”
He then links to the article.
And there you have it—an entire field of research dismissed in a less than 140 character tweet. Only a hardcore skeptic could make so extraordinary a claim. And given the history of the field, it’s hard not to think that skeptics are guilty—again—of moving the goal posts. As sociologist of science Trevor Pinch told me during my research for Fringe-ology, every time parapsychologists cross some new threshold in terms of the evidence they present, skeptics ask for more.
In other words, for many years skeptics cried that fraud was involved in the production of positive results for psi. Then they cried for stricter protocols to eliminate opportunities for fraud or for subliminal means of influencing the results. With all those calls heeded, positive results have continued to turn up. So the new skeptical battle cry is that psi researchers—and psychologists in general—mishandle their statistics. For a fuller discussion of this trend in the argument, please see my discussion of a paper critical of Bem here. For now, I want to offer up a couple of wishes: First, that the current debate ultimately produces more meaningful and congenial dialogue between skeptics and believers than this field usually enjoys. (As usual, the not so great James Randi is more hindrance than help in this regard.) Second, I want to take a moment to suggest an approach that might, not to put too fine a point on it, change absolutely everything.
What I have in mind is a paper from the Journal of NeuroQuantology by Dr. Michael Persinger, who has made headlines many times in the past with his God Helmet.
Persinger is a curiosity to me because his research lands on both sides of the believer-skeptic fence: His God Helmet work leaves little doubt that he is not a believer in God; but his work touting psi or telepathy runs counter to strict atheist-materialist orthodoxy. In other words, where most atheists or materialists seem to hold the position that claims of a God and psi are somehow equal, Persinger is willing to look at these ideas separately. And this paper on Sean Harribance, a psychic he’s studied for many years, advances his argument considerably.
“The Harribance Effect…” includes references to a series of studies Persinger has conducted over the years. He found, for instance, that when Sean Harribance is accessing accurate information the alpha rhythms in his brain increase. Conversely, when the information he is “receiving” proves inaccurate, there is a corresponding decrease in alpha activity. But, as Persinger puts it, those findings are not the wow.
The “wow” is that when Harribance is obtaining information from a human subject whose mind he is supposed to be reading, a correlation occurs between his brain state and theirs’.
“An effect was shown conspicuously in all four separate subjects,” writes Persinger. “As the duration of the proximity increased over the approximately 15 to 30 min period there was increased similarity in the EEG patterns over the temporal lobes of [Harribance] and the subject. The increased similarity was most apparent within the 33 to 35 Hz range. More specifically, there was increased coherence within the 19 Hz to 20 Hz range and the 30 to 40 Hz band for SH’s right temporal lobe and the subject’s left temporal lobe.”
The subjects also reported that Harribance was more accurate when correlations between their brain activity and his was higher. Persinger theorizes, in part, that Harribance might be using his right temporoparietal region to access information from the subject’s left temporal region, an area “associated with the representation and consolidation of experiences that become the individual's memory.”
I won’t argue for or against the validity of Persinger’s study. And I will also acknowledge, for the sake of skeptical readers, that where there is a “wow” there is also a “whoa”—a need to slow down and be sure of our findings. But what I want to stress is that this line of research is worth pursuing.
First of all, if one brain really is sending information to a receiving brain, or one brain really is reading another, we have no idea how such a thing would be possible.
The result is a possible paradigm shift. In the current culture wars, the debate is usually framed as a battle between materialists, who say matter is everything, and those who argue there must be something… more. The battle lines usually shape up, at least in media portrayals, as materialist-atheists to one side and believers to the other.
This puts me in mind of a lecture I saw given by Dr. Charles Tart to fellow parapsychology researchers. Tart argued that materialism is dead, and a chill wind seemed to sweep through the room. Even parapsychology researchers, men and women dedicated to teasing out evidence in favor of telepathy, are largely materialists. So when Tart concluded his talk, silence reigned for several long, awkward seconds before one of his colleagues finally raised his hand and forced a question out of his mouth. “You-, you-, you’re not advocating dualism, are you?” he asked.
The word “dualism” clearly stuck in his questioner’s throat. But Tart smiled genially.
“Maybe,” Tart replied. “I mean, monism and dualism are not our only choices. It could be one-ism, or two-ism or even three-ism. It could even be 2.5-ism.”
In other words, any assault on materialism throws the windows open and what exactly is outside those windows would be an open question. Of course, that’s a big problem, sociologically and psychologically speaking. But is telepathy research really an assault on materialism?
I hasten to point out here that a scientist like Persinger is looking for material explanations for psi. And such possibilities should not be dismissed out of hand. In other words, a materialist universe could be far stranger—and admit far wilder possibilities—than materialists normally admit. Even controversial quantum theories of mind are, at heart, materialist theories, which also—in some hands—allow for the possibility of telepathy and even an afterlife.
But I think we need to set these larger arguments aside, at times. And psi research is one of them. In fact, I think that rather than worrying over the philosophical implications of parapsychology research, psi proponents and opponents and scientists should do something particularly novel here and just, you know, shut up. And do some more science.
Think about it: If other labs could reconstruct Persinger’s study or conduct a similar study that is itself then replicated, subjective statistical arguments about “Bayesian priors” would likely fall by the wayside. Suddenly, we’d have stats and associated physical findings in, theoretically, two test subjects (the “sender” and “receiver,” or “sitter” and “reader”). We’d have multiple lines of evidence that seem to demonstrate some communication directly—there is no other way to say it—from brain to brain.
Of course, one of the things I learned while attending a parapsychology conference in Seattle is that the field of telepathy research is underfunded and understaffed. The barriers to doing this sort of research, then, let alone replicating it in different labs a few times, is extraordinary. But my response to that is so what?
Yes, putting on this kind of dog and pony show will be expensive and labor intensive, requiring expertise and equipment—in the form of perhaps fRMI machines or SPECT-imaging devices—beyond what’s available in the standard parapsychology lab. But after more than a century of pitched debate about the existence of parapsychological phenomena isn’t the prospect of victory worth putting together what might be the most ambitious set of experiments in the field’s history? Isn’t it time, after all this time, to go for a killshot?
I could be wrong. But I bet the prospect of testing so definitive might persuade a lot of potential funders to kick in a few dollars more. And I’d also argue that without so definitive a set of tests we are likely to remain in this position—stuck in a debate without end, mired in a pitched battle with people more worried about their worldviews than the data in their hands.