Date: Mon Oct 10 1994 13:41:30 Psi in Psychology by Susan Blackmore (The Skeptical Inquire

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Date: Mon Oct 10 1994 13:41:30 From: John Powell Psi in Psychology by Susan Blackmore (The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 18, No. 4, Summer 1994, Copyright 1994 by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, 3965 Rensch Road, Buffalo, NY 14228, published quarterly with a membership/subscription rate of $25/yr.) "Most academic psychologists do not yet accept existence of psi." So begins the abstract of an important new paper on parapsychology. The claim is undoubtedly true, and many readers of SI will think it ought to stay that way. Yet this quotation implies that the psychologists in question might soon be changing their minds. It comes, not from a tirade against the skepticism of academia but from an article just published in one of psychology's most prestigious academic journals, Psychological Bulletin. Titled "Does Psi Exist? Replicable Evidence for an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer," the article is by parapsychologist Charles Honorton (who died in 1992 - see SI, 17:306-308, Spring 1993) and Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem. Bem's high profile and the respect he is accorded by psychologists will ensure that this article is taken seriously and that perhaps some of them will begin to wonder about psi. So how good is this "replicable evidence"? Is it sufficient, as the authors claim, to suggest the existence of "anomalous processes of information or energy transfer (like telepathy or other forms of extrasensory perception) that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms"? The evidence in question is an overview of research on the ganzfeld. This technique of partial sensory deprivation of subjects in ESP experiments, pioneered by Honorton in the mid-1970s, produced the great Ganzfeld Debate in the mid-1980s (Hyman 1985; Honorton 1985; see also SI, 10:2-7, Fall 1985), and finally culminated in fully automated testing procedures (Honorton et al. 1990). The paper reviews the various meta-analyses of ganzfeld findings and, as Honorton has done before, argues that obvious problems like multiple analysis, selective reporting, and methodological flaws cannot be responsible for the high replication rates. It then presents data from "11 new ganzfeld studies." In 1988 the National Research Council produced a report on enhanced human performance that included a highly negative conclusion on parapsychology (Druckman and Swets 1988; see SI, 13:34-45, Fall 1988). Bem and Honorton have some new light to cast on this report that might seem out of place in an academic article. The NRC apparently solicited a background paper from Harris and Rosenthal, and this paper noted the impressive ganzfeld results. According to Bem and Honorton, the chair of the NRC committee telephoned Rosenthal and asked him to delete this section of the paper. Rosenthal refused to do so. But the section in question did not appear in the final NRC report. This is troubling indeed if it means that prejudice is coming before genuine scientific inquiry. It serves more than anything to highlight how difficult it is to stick to purely scientific issues in this controversial arena. Bem and Honorton also accuse the NRC report of not being an independent examination of the ganzfeld because it was heavily based on Ray Hyman's original critique. As for their own paper, I would say it could also be misleading. The strength of some of Hyman's arguments is not at all apparent and the impression is given that many laboratories have found replicable effects. This claim receives some support from Honorton's analysis, which shows that the overall effect does not depend on just one or two labs. Nevertheless, by far the greatest number of studies were contributed by just two researchers. Out of 28 studies, Honorton contributed 5 and Carl Sargent, at Cambridge, 9. So Sargent's are by far the largest number of studies. However, I have shown (Blackmore 1987) that there were very serious problems with nearly all of Sargent's ganzfeld studies. By failing to mention this, Bem and Honorton imply that these nine studies are reliable research. The story of my visit to Sargent's laboratory is no secret. I went there to try to find out why Sargent was successful with the ganzfeld while I was not. I observed 13 sessions, of which 6 were direct hits. I then considered whether the hits might be due to sensory leakage, experimental error, fraud, or psi, and made predictions based on all these hypotheses. I was satisfied that sensory leakage was not a problem but found serious errors in the randomization procedure. This cumbersome procedure required sets of sealed, unmarked envelopes containing letters specifying the target selection (Sargent 1980). On the basis of my various hypotheses I predicted specific errors in the placement and contents of some of these envelopes and, when was able to open all the envelopes, I found several such errors. I published the findings and Sargent and his colleagues responded, claiming that they were due to minor experimental error (Harley and Matthews 1987; Sargent 1987). Whatever one's favored interpretation, it is my opinion that these problems are serious and we should not consider Sargent's studies a valid part of the ganzfeld database. It may be for this reason that parapsychologists now rarely cite them as evidence for psi. So I was disappointed to find that Bem and Honorton did not mention this at all. They then go on to provide data from "11 new ganzfeld studies." This will perhaps give readers the impression that the data are being presented or the first time. In fact they were previously published, in almost the same form, in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1990 (Honorton et a1. 1990). Admittedly they are impressive and deserve presentation to a wider audience than the readers of parapsychology journals. They are the series of experiments using the autoganzfeld - or fully automated ganzfeld system. This was designed to meet the "stringent standards" set by Hyman and Honorton (1986) in their joint communique-which ended the great Ganzfeld Debate. In this new paper Bem and Honorton claim that these "stringent standards" have been met - a view with which I widely concur. As the experiments are presented here, and in the previous 1990 paper, there are no obvious methodological flaws. The results are highly significant and the effect size is comparable to that found in previous ganzfeld studies. There is also confirmation of findings that emerged from earlier meta-analyses. For example, selected subjects who are artistic and believe in psi do better than unselected subjects. They do better when friends act as senders and dynamic targets are better than static ones. I think one's response to this should be optimistic. The work so far looks promising - let's see whether the results can be replicated by other researchers. Honorton is no longer with us, but fortunately he was in Edinburgh long enough to help set up the autoganzfeld there for others to continue. Just a few months ago the first results were reported at the Society for Psychical Research annual conference in Glasgow (Morris et al. 1993). Two pilot experiments were reported. In the first, 16 unselected subjects, with friends as senders, tried to detect both dynamic and static targets. Results were at chance. In a second study 32 subjects were selected for artistic or musical ability and a positive attitude toward psi. They were tested in pairs using dynamic targets. This time the hit rate was over 40 percent (25 percent is expected by chance), which is comparable to Honorton's previous results. What can we now conclude? These were only pilot studies carried out by students and they used a ganzfeld setup that was not quite completed. Will these results continue when the promised refinements are in place? Will the final setup really rule out methodological flaws and the chance of experimenter or subject fraud? I await the next set of results with more than bated breath. In my opinion Bem and Honorton have overstated the strength of the earlier ganzfeld evidence. They have completely ignored the problems with Sargent's work and understated some of Hyman's objections. However I agree with them that the autoganzfeld procedure appears sound and the results are important. It is too soon for those "academic psychologists" to change their minds about psi, but it is no bad thing that they have been given the chance to consider it. References ---------- Bem, D. J., and C. Honorton. 1994. Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 115(1):4-18. Blackmore, S. J. 1987. A report of a visit to Carl Sargent's laboratory. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54:186-198. Druckman, D., and J. A. Swets. eds. 1988. Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories and Techniques. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Harley, T., and G. Matthews. 1987. Cheating, psi, and the appliance of science: A reply to Blackmore. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 54: 199-207. Honorton, C. 1985. Meta-analysis of psi ganzfeld research: A response to Hyman. Journal of Parapsychology, 49: 51-86. Honorton, C., R. E. Berger, M. P. Varvoglis, M. Quant, P. Derr, E. I. Schechter, and D. C. Ferrari. 1990. Psi communication in the ganzfeld. Journal of Parapsychology, 54: 99-139. Hyman, R. 1985. The ganzfeld psi experiment: A critical appraisal. Journal of ParapsychologY, 49: 3-49. Hyman, R., and C. Honorton. 1986. A joint communique: The psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50: 351-364. Morris, R. L., S. Cunningham, S. McAlpine, and R. Taylor. 1993. Toward replication and extension of autoganzfeld results. Paper presented at the 17th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, Glasgow, September 1993. Sargent, C. L. 1980. Exploring psi in the ganzfeld. Parapsychological Monographs, 17. New York: Parapsychological Foundation. -------. 1987. Sceptical fairytales from Bristol. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54: 208-218. -------------------- Susan Blackmore is senior lecturer in psychology, University of the West of England, Bristol BS16 2JP, England.


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