Please note that this post is a re-post from my lab webpage. I removed it from there because the opinions expressed here are my own and shouldn’t be taken to reflect those of my lab members.
In 2014 I was drawn into debates with various parapsychologists about purported extrasensory perception, such as precognition, telepathy, or clairvoyance (also frequently referred to as “Psi”). It is important to note that there is nothing wrong per se with studying such phenomena. For some “mainstream” researchers even talking about these topics seems to have a stigma and such studies are sometimes ignored. Even though I think many of the claims from para-psychology research are preposterous, ignoring or shunning hypotheses should not be part of the scientific method. Here is a quote by Carl Sagan about a person who had put forth an implausible theory about the solar system:
“Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny. The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross contradiction to the facts.
Rather, the worst aspect is that some scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky’s ideas. The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge. And there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science.”
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Episode 4, Heaven and Hell
So-called Psi phenomena are all fairly common human experiences and therefore gaining a better understanding of them will doubtless advance our general understanding of how the mind works. Critically though, such study calls for an open-minded approach that allows us to see past our preconceptions (I am fully aware of the irony of this statement: failing to keep an open mind is a criticism parapsychologists frequently level against “skeptics”). It requires taking seriously all the possible explanations and working gradually from the bottom up until we have a theory with adequate explanatory power.
Most Psi experiences probably have a very simple explanation. Some observations may indeed be evidence of some process we don’t currently understand; however, the vast majority most likely aren’t. It is far more plausible that the mechanisms by which our brain tries to make sense of the world around us can go wrong occasionally and thus give rise to experiences that seem to contradict physical reality. We know the brain allows a form of precognition, which is called making educated guesses. It also has a kind of telepathic ability to infer what another person is thinking or feeling – this is known as theory of mind. And it even allows clairvoyance of a sort by tapping the endless power of the imagination. Moreover, we know that the human mind is very poor at detecting randomness, precisely because it has evolved to be excellent at detecting patterns, a crucial skill for ensuring survival in a cluttered, chaotic environment. Our intuitions also frequently make us fall for simple logical fallacies and even people with statistical training are not immune to this. By investigating and scrutinising Psi experience in these terms we can learn a lot about the mind and the brain. However, it is when this cautious approach is replaced by the aim to support the existence of a “statistical anomaly that has no mundane explanation” that things go haywire. This is when psychology turns into parapsychology*. It is my estimation that most research on Psi does not aim for a better understanding of the cosmos. Rather, it strives to perpetually maintain the status quo of not-understanding.
As for many “mainstream” scientists, my interest in this line of research was originally sparked by the publication of a study by Daryl Bem in a major psychology journal about apparent precognition effects. I used some of his original data for an inferential method I have been developing because I felt that the implausibility of his findings made for a very good demonstration of how statistical procedures can fail. However, as I outlined above, there is also a wider philosophical aspect to this entire debate in that much of the parapsychology literature seems to violate fundamental principles of the scientific method: Occam’s Razor and informed skepticism. I was thus drawn into debating these issues with some of these researchers. Here I will list the various publications and posts I have written as part of this discussion.
Why presentiment has not been demonstrated – Additional clarifications on my Frontiers commentary
I saw this coming – A counter-response to the response by Mossbridge et al (written before theirs was published)
Finally, I published an external blog post arguing why I feel Psi is not a legitimate hypothesis. This was also in response to Jacob Jolij as well as a general response to Mossbridge et al and Bem.
I was also asked to review an EEG study investigating telepathic links between individuals. This journal (F1000 Research) has a unique model of transparency. All of the reviews are post-publication and thus visible to all. Critically, all the raw data of the study are also publicly available allowing the reviewers (or anyone else) to inspect it. You can read the various versions of that manuscript and the review discussion here.
*) Some people use parapsychology to simply mean the scientific investigation of purported paranormal or psychic phenomena and perhaps this is the traditional meaning of the term. This seems odd to me however. Such investigation falls squarely within the area of “mainstream” science. The addition of the “para” prefix separates such investigations unnecessarily from the broader scientific community. It is my impression that many para-psychologists do base their research on the Psi assumption, despite protestations to the contrary, and that they are mainly concerned with convincing others that Psi exists.