I have always wondered why parapsychological research is still viewed as something not in the mainstream of academic psychological research. Since parapsychological research came into the lay and academic interest in 1882 with the Society for Psychical Research, the field of parapsychology has been attempting to gain notoriety as a respectable field in psychology and academic institutions. There have been significant but intermittent success in ESP experiments in history that have grabbed widespread audiences which included: the J.B. Rhine experiments, the John Coover experiments at Stanford, Ian Stevenson’s research, and even The Ganzfeld Experiments(2008, Daniels). Nevertheless, there are always the critics and the skeptics; for every experiment published in favor of parapsychology, there has been numerous amounts of responses or rebuttals published in journals and articles for each of those experiments as well. Without, what many critics seem to proclaim, sufficient and controlled experimentation, many scientists in psychology, and also scientists in general, are chalking it up to chance rather than phenomenon that is significant or meaningful. The problem that resides for the nonbelievers, however, is in two courses of action that the typical nonbeliever/skeptic takes: either the nonbeliever dismisses it outright without even looking into the work and experimentation behind the parapsychological research, or the nonbeliever attempts to recreate the results of the experiment–but does it with such negative preconceived notions toward what he/she is studying, (in this case: parapsychology or psi research) that he/she thus develops a willful blindness and overlooks any meaningful findings that could be seen in the research that he/she conducted; and as a consequence does not see anything in the recreated research and,so, then naturally admits that he/she found nothing in the recreated research. Nevertheless, these patterns are typical for much of the sciences in and around academic institutions. There is nothing new here.
Without getting too much into the pop-culture and ideology that surrounds the academia in psychology–and basically the whole of the academic world as it is–I want to focus specifically on the part beliefs have to play and how that affects objective assessments in research, data, and experiments, and for purposes of this essay, will be talking about parapsychological research. Do our beliefs play a role in what we find in these psi experiments? Do they effect our impartiality that all research scientists steadfastly say they revere? Do our beliefs create an experimental hurdle in a proper assessment of parapsychological research?
The Skeptics and Critics
ESP experiments have their difficulties, and along with the criticisms of psychological research and methodology in general is the issue of reproducibility and replication of experimental results. Many of the issues within parapsychological findings is the ability for other scientists(or skeptics) to reproduce findings from said research. Skepticism that takes the shape of a critical view of the statistics, usually involving meaningful margins of error or tests of significance, has led many psychological scientists to even not attempt to reproduce and validate for themselves whether these parapsychological findings reveal anything meaningful. For example, Persi Diaconis(1978), a statistician at Stanford University writes about parapsychological and ESP research’s statistical problem:
“In search of repeatable ESP experiments, modern investigators are using more complex targets, richer and freer responses, feedback, more naturalistic conditions. This makes traceable statistical models less applicable. Moreover, controls are often so loose that no valid statistical analysis is possible” (p.2)
With such a premature skepticism held, how is it possible to even examine the experiment results or other aspects of the experimental design? Rather than researchers write about much of the mathematical criticism and resting notions of parapsychological research on what could be cursory analysis (that possibly effects reproducibility of parapsychological experimental results, which I will get into later), why are there no scientists willing to take in the parapsychological evidence unbiasedly? Or maybe start off open-mindedly?
Why be surprised about the general skepticism from the academic institutions when you have Scott Linenfeld(1999a) of The Committee For Skeptical Inquiry(formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal or CSIOP) writing on parapsychological research:
“Seemingly promising and potentially exciting effects using a novel experimental paradigm are reported, only to fizzle out upon closer scrutiny[…]positive findings using yet another novel paradigm are reported, followed by another round of replication failures” (para 1,2)
It is apparent that it is much easier to find a skeptic among psychological scientists than a believer in the findings of parapsychological research. Of course much of the sources of this skepticism harkens back to the apparent ideology and pop-culture bubble that much of academia is surrounded with and indeed governed by.
Dean Radin(1999b), a fairly objective educational psychologist and researcher of parapsychological research, echos some of the same sentiments of these skeptics;
“When we’re dealing with claims for a subtle mental skill like ESP, the inability to reliably produce experimental effects on demand makes it difficult to establish the nature or even the reliability of the phenomenon. For years this has been the single biggest stumbling block for parapsychology. But this is not exclusively a problem for ESP; it is widespread for most of the really interesting problems in psychology, sociology, and medicine” (p. 30-31)
Not only are we hearing skeptics of parapsychology but also researchers within the circle of this research acknowledge the problem of reproducibility and the fuzzy statistics that go along with parapsychological research, and any research done in psychology and sociology. Despite these admissions, it is not to say that the phenomenon and events in question are not happening–or does not exist, it is more so implying the fact that our experimental paradigms need improving. And until that improvement in the methodology is made, the conclusions of parapsychological research will run into a difficult time getting accepted into the mainstream orthodoxy of academia.
Why is it that most researchers, whether skeptical or not, have a hard time reproducing these experiments on demand? Why is most research in parapsychology hard to replicate? Is it really a experimental and methodological flaw? Or is it really part of the psychological apparatus of the experimenter; in other words, are beliefs, preconceived notions, expectations, or biases playing a deeper role in the outcomes of these experiments? It is of the utmost importance to consider the factor of beliefs, expectations etc because it does seem to portray a good reason why parapsychological research, or any psychological/sociological research really, is not considered a “hard” science like physics or chemistry; which produce a high degree of controllability in research while the other said sciences do not. And so they are thus called, according to them, “soft” sciences. Nevertheless, here, it is of paramount importance to see why sometimes the supposed controllability is lacking and other times is not in parapsychological experiments and examine the purpose for this instability and inconsistency that academics have developed a mild phobia against.
Experimenter Effects: Beliefs and Expectations
“I know I’m not seeing things as they are, I’m seeing things as I am” –Laurel Lee
As much as any researcher or intellectual values skepticism, it is important also to be skeptical about skepticism. That is, one should be skeptical of skepticism; question that very skepticism. As such, we should examine the causes and sources of the failure surrounding most of the replication in parapsychology. It is critical to note that most of the academics are steeped in certain schools of thought; patterns and habits of thinking. Especially those academics that are comprehensively indoctrinated and trained in their specializations of study and expertise; the individuals that have doctorate degrees (e.g. PsyDs, PhDs, EdDs etc). Also of some importance is to see that these degrees are given, in most cases, late in someone’s age, where mental sets and thinking become rigid and inflexible. So minds like these can be heavily biased and have a single and narrow avenue from which to view things or solve problems, a phenomenon known as functional fixedness.
As a result of these mental processes and accumulations, we have expectations and beliefs formed and accumalated within the experimenter before research and experimenting has even started. In this case, we have experimenters starting off with beliefs and expectations that are either for or against what they are studying; which indirectly and sometimes directly impacts the outcome (and consequently fortifies their negative views) of the research. Now when you have an individual who is already a skeptic of parapsychological research, it would be reasonable to see, under those specified conditions, how these beliefs and expectations will get in the way and effect the outcome of the research results.
Dr Marilyn Schlitz, of the Institute of Noetc Sciences, decided to be skeptical of the skepticism, in other words, investigate the phenomenon of why skeptics have these peculiar effects on research experimentation leading to the replication failures in much of the parapsychological results that the skeptics were experiencing. Indubitably reinforcing that very skepticism of course as a result. She wanted to look into whats known as “experimenter effects” in psi research and what part expectations played in replicating research. She starts off by saying(2013);
“An important unresolved question in scientific research in general, and in psi research in particular, is the effect that the expectancy of the experimenter has on experiment outcomes”(para 1)
Like was mentioned before, problems and issues in these replication efforts created by premature beliefs and expectations, possibly underlying the phenomenon of “experimenter effects”, do not only pose problems for parapsychology but for the research done in the other “soft” sciences; such as the anthropological, psychological and sociological sciences. She goes on to say;
“An important factor in determining the success or failure of attempted replications appears to be the experimenter’s orientation toward the phenomenon under investigation—attitudes toward and expectations about the outcome of the experiment[…]Experimenter effects have been observed in psi research for more than 70 years, with some researchers actually suggesting that evidence of psi is due less to gifted subjects than to the person who does the testing”(para 3,4)
Similarly, to test her assertion she mentions that she performed a psi experiment that looked to show that the experimenter can remotely effect the subject’s responses through the mediation of psi (Schlitz, 2013). Performing the experiment with a psi-skeptic and a proponent of psi, the result of the experiments showed that, in the proponent of psi, the experimenter was able to influence the subject’s physiology at a distance while, using the same subject pool and also performing the experiment three times, the psi-skeptic was not able to make any sort of influence on the subjects. Which suggested the “experimenter effects” that Schlitz postulated.
Dean Radin(1999b) brings to light an experiment done at Stanford University by social psychologists Lee Ross and Mark Lepies who looked into the “expectancy effect”, similar, if not exactly the same, to the experiment effect mentioned earlier looked into by Schlitz. They demonstrated that intelligent scientists often fall victim to the effects of their views becoming polarized by their initial positions; these scientists were shown a group of studies conforming to the reviewers’ (i.e. the scientists in question) preconceptions and then studies not conforming to their prior expectations; the result was that the studies conforming to the preconceptions were seen as “better designed, as more valid, and reaching more adequate conclusions” and while the studies that did not, were thus seen as flawed or invalid in some way.
Perceptions and beliefs have been another stumbling block in parapsychological research and it’s acceptance in mainstream academia. Indeed our level of commitment to these beliefs and perceptions will have a an effect on what we actually see. Certainly it is known that we can have perceptual illusions or see things that are not really there based on what we are used to seeing–or conditioned to see, as I have written about one of my previous blogs. It is furthermore possible that language; our descriptions, our level of destructiveness, and even cultural and ethnic linguistic labels, effect how and what we perceive. So there should be no doubt as to the possibility of being fooled when we do not even know it, and, as a result ruining the authenticity of our perception, how we analyze things, and of course the degree of objectivity someone can hope to aspire to. Scientists are not immune to this. Biases can always get in the way. Especially if you are already a critic of what it is you are looking for.
Dean Radin explains illustrates this issue perfectly in assessing parapsychology and psi research:
“All this leads us to the predict that a person’s level of commitment to the current scientific worldview will determine his or her beliefs about psi. Because perception is linked so closely to one’s adopted view of reality, people who do not wish to “see” psi will in fact not see it. Nor will they view any evidence for psi, scientific or otherwise, as valid” (p. 274)
Radin goes on to say that these certain academics who are committed to a particular view are motivated to maintain it, whether that be consciously or unconsciously:
“This effect should be strongest in people who are committed to a particular view, motivated to maintain it, and clever enough to create good rationalizations for ignoring conflicting evidence”(p. 274)
The sabotaging nature of beliefs, reputations at stake, immersion in particular scientific views (and a commitment to them), biases, slants all play an important role in the assessment of parapsychological and psi research. Important because in a lot of the cases biases, beliefs, preconceptions etc all mostly function at a subconscious level; acting as filters that can cause anyone , whether academic or layman, to find information that is only confirming to what they had already believed in before doing the assessment. But it all comes down to a question of what we are paying attention to. What we pay attention to as a result of these biases, preconceptions, and beliefs will play a hand in determining what we will see and how we interpret things.
Furthermore, selective attention as a result of these biases is another thing to keep in mind when reading about or hearing an academics assessment of the evidence of parapsychological research. Certainly, selective attention can work both ways; with one side (the proponents of psi research) interpreting the evidence in favor of their own beliefs–but also the same goes for the self-proclaimed skeptics, who are of course subject to their own biases, preconceptions, and beliefs. Mario Varvoglis PhD(2001), past president of the Parapsychological Association (2001-2002), admits himself that selective attention works both ways:
“We all tend to select information which confirms our beliefs and avoid that which seems not to fit with them. Selective perception undoubtedly plays a role in our interpretation of apparently paranormal experiences. Skeptics are justified in stating that those who believe firmly in psi will tend to see its occurrence everywhere, even to the point of confusing their own interpretations with the actual events. On the other hand, disbelievers will also tend toward the complementary fallacy, always finding some so-called “rational” explanation for a psi experience, even when it happens to them” (para 4)
Whether we “see” evidence of psi or not–that is not the first question that should be being asked in your assessments of psi research–the first question is is whether our preconceived notions, beliefs, biases are preventing us to see these things in the first place. That is where the first assessment should be made for anyone that values skepticism and truth-seeking. A good level of self-awareness can cue in on this necessary first step; a self-awareness that most skeptics with these distorting views in general lack. An important point about this self-assessment this form of self-assessment is not only important to the skeptics and reviewers of psi as scientific–but to the rest of the scientific community and academia that take crtical positions on any such topic–wherever there is the skeptical or critical assessment of work is needed. We must take into account what could possibly mislead the mind of a skeptic and what it does to the authenticity of research and experimental conclusions.
Furthermore, going back to Dean Radin(1999b) and what I was saying about the psychology of skepticism creating issues for authenticity is the phenomenon of confirmation bias. For those of you who are not familiar with this concept it is merely the phenomenon that occurs when we interpret information in ways that is confirming and favorable to pre-set or pre-held beliefs. For example, driving home from work and hitting green lights in every traffic intersection you pass which you interpret as God bestowing blessings on you from the prayers you did the previous night. Interpreting that occurance favorably to already held beliefs. Confirmation bias can also get in the way of what we actually see in experimental results. Radin further elaborates:
“Unfortunately, relying on subjective impressions and mental guidelines creates a cycle in which our past experience begins to divert us from paying attention to new things[information] that might be even more predictive. After a while, since we no longer pay attention to anything other than what we have already decided is important, we tend to keep confirming what we already knew. This model- or theory-driven approach is called the confirmation bias”(p. 264-265)
As I have said, because biases, beliefs preconceptions work at a subconscious level, we tend to not be aware of these filters and there inner workings when we are assessing something. Whether we are critical of what we are accessing or not. The important thing to understand is that no one is immune to these things. However, with this reality it seems understandable how parapsychological research has been taboo for all these years. Mostly because skeptics have gone unabated in their own miscalculations because many have taken on the assumption that all the perpetual and judgment errors that go on in research have belongs to the proponents of the thing of the phenomenon being researched, not the skeptics. But after all that has been written here, is there really a doubt that skeptics can even fall victim to this? Does this call for a skepticism of skepticism? Of course.
As a small addition to this whole topic, I have written about condition seeing, which American psychologist B.F. Skinner has coined, and I have written about in my blog, a phenomenon that says you are more likely to see patterns or things in your environment that you are in the habit of seeing. That is, colors, objects, words, or any sort of things in your environment that you have had a history of seeing or taught to look for; you are more likely to see or have your attention drawn to those things because of that past exposure, and so have a visual blindness to the other objects in your immediate environment which you have not been acquainted to or taught to discriminate. This of course plays a role in the level of perceivability in the experimenter, the skeptic, and the believer. This is because previous histories of experience and learning play an important role in what is seen, sensed, and experienced; in the spirit of what is being written here, whether you are able to see psi phenomena or not.
Varvoglis(2001) takes the notion of Skinner’s conditioned seeing to its conclusion in regards to “seeing” psi phenomena, he says:
“But the sheep-goat effect suggests that the differences run deeper than mere interpretation: one’s attitudes toward psi affects the likelihood that such phenomena will occur in the first place. The more an individual harbors a reductionistic view of the world, the less chance such phenomena will emerge (let alone be witnessed by them); the more one is interested in interconnectedness, and open to psi experiences, the more likely the world will “respond” by creating such experiences”(para 4)
Now, the “sheep-goat effect” is the parapsychological equivalent to what B.F. Skinner termed as “conditioned seeing”; in other words, the notion that skeptics of psi are less likely to perceive or witness the phenomena of psi because of their reductionisic view. Of course with the little difference of “openness to experiences”; being open to psi phenomena will lead you to experience psi phenomena.
As a requirement to being open to and experiencing psi phenomena, maybe a regular reading of the literature, or an effort in doing the exercises that produce psi, will lead an individual to be “conditioned” to see and perceive psi, as far B.F. Skinner’s theory goes. Another thing important to take into consideration is that most of the proponents of psi, whether layman or scientist-researcher, have a considerable degree of exposure to psi and parapsychological literature; and are open to experiences–the logic of conditioned seeing does not seem so far off when you consider priming; a behavioral out which states that previous exposure to a stimulus(object or word(s)) influences the later response to another stimulus; someone being exposed to the word ‘yellow’ is more likely to respond to, and readily perceive, a ‘banana’ in the immediate environment because of the relationship the banana has with the color yellow. Thus in considering the phenomenon of priming, it is reasonable to assume that psi proponents are more likely to “perceive” and capture psi-related phenomenon because of their history of exposure to it in the past; while the psi skeptic will not be able to perceive the phenomenon due to lack of exposure in their histories. This reality most likely negatively affecting the psi skeptics reproduction and replicability of the psi phenomenon in parapsychological experiments. Which is most likely the culprit in the instances where psi phenomenon was unable to be reproduced.
There are many reasons why you should be skeptical and value that skepticism–even in psi experiments. Skepticism and doubt have led to astonishing discoveries and the creation of many things. In the enlightenment period, methodological skepticism paved the way to many scientific revolutions that would soon lay the groundwork for the methodological sciences of today. But we must never forget how much our biases and beliefs play apart in our perception and assessments in the world around us. There are many tricks our minds and cognition can play on us and, as a result, lose the authenticity of what is around us. Academia gets no special treatment. That is not to say we are completely incapacitated by our beliefs, preconceptions, and biases; and thus not be skeptical at all. That defeats the purpose of what I am trying to point out here. Rather, so we do not be come victims of our biases and the like, distorting our views, assessments, and perception, we should be come self-aware of them and catch them when they are trying to commit these crimes. If anything, I wanted this essay to be a practice in self-awareness in our skepticism. A self-aware skeptic is less likely to fall into these traps than one not self-aware. So it is paramount that we have this tool of self-awareness so we can produce critical assessments to the best of our ability and offer critical reviews that are valuable and constructive to both parties. In this case we focused on the field of parapsychology and its research. Hopefully there can be some reignited dialogue about the possibility that beliefs effect our experimental analysis of psi research, and really any research in the human sciences.
Daniels, M.(2008). Notable Parapsychologists and Psychical Researchers. Psychicscience. Retrieved from http://www.psychicscience.org/researchers.aspx
Diaconis, P.(1978, July 14). Statistical Problems in ESP Research. Science.Vol. 201. No. 4351. Retrieved from http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/class/Psy391P/Diaconis%20on%20stats%20in%20ESP.pdf
Lilenfeld, O., S.(1999a). New Analyses Raise Doubts About Replicability of ESP Findings. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Retrieved on June 28 2013, from http://www.csicop.org/si/show/new_analyses_raise_doubts_about_replicability_of_esp_findings/
Radin, D. (1999b).The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth Of Psychic Phenomenon. New York, NY. HarperOne.
Schlitz, M. (2013, January 12).Experimenter Effects and Replication in Psi Research. Institute of Noetic Sciences. Retrieved from http://noetic.org/blog/experimenter-effects-and-replication-in-psi-resear/
Varvoglis, M. (2001). The Sheep-Goat Effect. Parapsychological Association. Retrieved on June 28 2013, from http://archived.parapsych.org/sheep_goat_effect.htm