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Wikiversity/Parapsychology/Seminar/Introduction

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Welcome to the Introduction seminar, set up by Abd. There are no prerequisites to join this seminar. However, see the attached Discussion page for suggested participation guidelines.

Participants[edit]

To participate in this seminar, please introduce yourself briefly on the Participant subpage, stating your experience with parapsychology, if any, and any goals you have for this participation.

Reading list[edit]

This is a suggested reading list for those participating here. This list should be brief, but could be as much as a few hours of thoughtful reading.

  • w:Wikipedia:p-value. Unfortunately, this is not currently well-written as an introduction for general audiences. However, parapsychological scientific research is largely statistical in nature, and a basic understanding of statistics is necessary to approach the topic. Wikiversity resources exist on Statistics, but that's currently a mess, I was unable to quickly find what would be particularly relevant to statistics as used in parapsychology research. Perhaps we may be able to better develop those resources, and, as well, some of us might choose to improve the Wikipedia article to make it more accessible, or we may create our own guide inside the parapsychology resource. --Abd (discusscontribs) 13:05, 29 May 2014 (UTC)
A lot of good source material on psi-research concentrated here. Selected by the person many consider to be the premier parapsychological researcher in the world, Dean Radin. --JohnCMaguire (discusscontribs) 23:31, 2 June 2014 (UTC)
Thanks, John. That's a long list. Below, I'm going to suggest that we focus first on Bem's work, I'll create a section for it. --Abd (discusscontribs) 14:28, 14 June 2014 (UTC)
Believe this was Dr. Utts' official evaluative report on the U.S. Government's Stargate Project, conducted at SRI over the course of twenty years. Utts concluded there was adequate statistical proof demonstrating the reality of psi. Dr. Ray Hyman, psychologist and cofounder of CSICOP, found the evidence wanting. With the evaluation yielding a split decision, and with Cold War tensions winding down by the mid-90s, officials decided to pull the plug on further research. --JohnCMaguire (discusscontribs) 23:31, 2 June 2014 (UTC)
Deconstructs various skeptical arguments & claims that are often utilized to debunk parapsychology. --JohnCMaguire (discusscontribs) 23:31, 2 June 2014 (UTC)
The Carter paper (the second is a critique of Wiseman, so it should be read with -- or confirmed against -- Wiseman's Skeptical Inquirer article, ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’: How Parapsychologists Nullify Null Results (January, 2010).
Wiseman is pointing to something real, but is rejecting the well-known principle "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Failure to replicate is failure to replication, not confirmation that an original claim is wrong. When there is repeated failure to replicate, it is evidence for one of two major alternatives: failure to reproduce conditions, or the absence of an effect, i.e., results may be due to unidentified artifact, or are flukes. What is of much higher interest is demonstration of artifact, i.e, the *production* of results that match an original claim, with a showing that the results are the product of some prosaic condition. What I find really fascinating is when an "artifact" points to some extraordinary phenomenon that is considered prosaic, because it is not "psychic," but that is, all the same utterly unexpected, showing some "unconscious" perception and information processing capacity, such as reading and recognizing the significance of ordinarily-invisible fingerprints without assistance.
Wiseman is clearly taking a pseudoskeptical position, which is shown by his treating results as "null" when they merely failed to meet a high standard. I.e., the preponderance of the evidence was for the result being positive, but because the goalposts had been set artificially high, he could claim failure. This is treating some vague opinion (parapsychological phenomena are impossible) as if it were some strong and scientific position, requiring "extraordinary evidence" to allow question.
The problem of replication is a real problem. However, when a phenomenon is based on an unknown, not-understood mechanism, replication failure easily happens. Wiseman is correct that researchers may always claim that replication failure does not prove that the phenomenon is not real. Wiseman should "get over it." This is reality, we don't know what we don't know. Wiseman is attempting to convert ignorance (in this case, absence of evidence confirming, or some weakness in such evidence) into knowledge (i.e., proof that the phenomenon is not real.) That is classic pseudoskepticism, w:Cargo cult science, belief in the completeness of our knowledge, defense of belief.
None of which, of course, proves that parapsychological phenomena are real. However, it's obvious to me: the phenomena are real, at least some are. However, the mechanism is unknown. I.e., in one very interesting set of results, it was shown -- by the parapsychological researcher -- that when the random number generator was changed, the statistically significant results disappeared. So, new hypothesis: the research subjects were able to anticipate outcomes based on a pseudorandom number generator. So they were not actually "predicting the future," they were recognizing patterns of high subtlety, at least as far as I understand these results so far. Now, what is the limit of this? There is a definitional problem: parapsychology is defined as study of what is not understood. Are the results now understood? No. However, there is a new hypothesis that reduces the phenomenon to pattern recognition, which is considered "ordinary." But what if it is possible to recognize the pattern of reality and thus predict the future? Or the pattern of thinking of human beings, thus predicting how another will think. Telepathy. Indeed, that is possible, we do it routinely. The issue is the limits of this. --Abd (discusscontribs) 15:14, 14 June 2014 (UTC)
See also - Baptista & Derakhshani (2014). Beyond the Coin Toss: Examining Wiseman's Criticisms of Parapsychology.Ben Steigmann (discusscontribs) 14:36, 4 August 2014 (UTC)

Bem and response[edit]

Let's take a look at a specific and recent case.

When I realized what Wagenmakers et al were actually saying, I was astonished. They revealed something very important to understand, they revealed why parapsychological research is so commonly rejected. It's about Bayesian "priors." Quoting them:

This distinction provides the mathematical basis for Laplace’s principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This principle holds that even compelling data may not make a rational agent believe that psi exists (see also Price, 1955). Thus, the prior probability attached to a given hypothesis affects the strength of evidence required to make a rational agent change his or her mind.

Yes. This is Bayesian analysis. However, what was amazing was the "prior probability" that they assigned. After giving some reasons to doubt psi results:

  • there is no mechanistic theory of precognition
  • there is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future
  • Bem’s psychic could bankrupt all casinos on the planet

they proceed:

To return to Laplace’s principle, we feel the above reasons motivate us to assign our prior belief in precognition a number very close to zero. For illustrative purposes, let us set P(H1) = 10^-20, that is, .00000000000000000001.

Very close to zero indeed! That is a representation of belief so complete that one will only state "not zero" in order to appear reasonable. I.e., of course, there is *some* possibility that we are wrong. Yet, evidence strong enough to ordinarily convict someone of murder, strong enough to bet one's life on it (as to the effect of medicine or treatment), strong enough to stand every decision of import on it, with confidence, would not suffice to overcome this "Bayesian analysis."

Wagenmakers is indeed explaining why parapsychological experimental results are not causing many to change their minds. It's very simple: these people are completely convinced that it's impossible, therefore there must be some artifact, it must be pathological science, etc. What's remarkable is that he came out and said it. In a peer-reviewed journal.

I'm, here, so far, confining my report on Wagenmakers to one salient point. Wagenmakers made other points; however, once we know that someone is proceeding with such a strong prior, an utter conviction, extraordinarily strong belief, we also have, then, very strong and very ordinary expectation that their arguments will be biased, they will be cherry-picking them from a universe of possible arguments, as those that maintain their own psychological stability. That, of itself, does not negate any of their arguments, and we may proceed to examine them in detail.

Using Bayesian analysis in rational decision-making requires that the priors be based in evidence. Now, our "hunches" are evidence. So we do, routinely, assign high priors based on hunches, i.e., intuition or overall and not-specified or necessarily analyzed understanding. However, anyone with high self-knowledge and study will recognize that these hunches can be way off, blatantly false, wrong, etc. They may be right often enough to make some level of reliance on them useful. But an error rate of 1 in 10^20? These people don't have intuition, they have an infallible crystal ball! With this crystal ball, of course, they can decide what research to fund and what not to fund, what research to ridicule, what researchers to condemn and reject and shun, all knowing, with certainty, that they are only protecting society from error and waste of time and money. No wonder parapsychology has such a hard time!

Yet, in fact, that level of certainty is far from a 'scientific consensus,' or else Bem and the like could not be published at all. Wagenmakers et al are representing a faction among scientists, and, I'd submit, it's a faction that is not following the scientific method. Bayesian priors are not used in the scientific method, the statistical significance of results in genuine scientific research does not depend on priors, and the whole method is designed to eliminate, as much as possible, the effect of prior opinion and belief.

A more reasonable prior might be on the level of 10^-2. But much is not well defined. What "psi" amounts to is a claim that there may be real phenomena that are not understood. I actually think this is *likely*. Wagenmakers, et al, without making it clear, are defining this (for themselves) as essentially impossible, when, in fact, that is preposterous. There is a great deal we don't understand.

They gave circumstantial arguments in support of their high prior. Those arguments, however, were only relevant as establishing that if psi exists, it is not understood -- and we already knew that -- and it is not known, as well, how to control it, how to use the effect in, say, betting on a roulette wheel. It is entirely possible that the mechanism of psi, were it understood, would be seen as making that kind of usage impossible. I agree with them, in a way, on one point: a psi faculty could be highly useful, one might think, in enhancing survival. Yet, philosophically, this could lead to many contradictions and paradoxes. To really understand this possibility, we would have to understand the universe on a level that, quite simply, may not be accessible to science, or not yet accessible. However, psi itself is not pseudoscience, and Bem's approach, if reproducible, could be of high interest. -Abd (discusscontribs) 16:18, 14 June 2014 (UTC)