Do Psi Phenomena Exist? The Debate Continues

Part 2 of 2: Should science take seriously the study of paranormal phenomena?

Posted May 30, 2020

scitechnol/Flickr
Source: scitechnol/Flickr

This is the second part of a debate between psychiatrist Ralph Lewis, representing the arguments of most mainstream scientists, and psychologist Steve Taylor, representing the arguments of parapsychologists. The debate is reproduced here by mutual agreement. We strongly suggest first reading Part 1 before this post. 

RALPH:

Parapsychology, and the assumption that science is nihilistic

Steve, there are so many fatal flaws in parapsychology research claims that one is at a loss to know where to begin in trying to point out their deficiencies. It's exhausting for scientists and science-educators to have to keep distracting themselves from serious research to have to debunk these claims over and over again, having thought that the issue was laid to rest a long time ago.

Since you mention Daryl Bem, I refer you to just one of the many occasions when the problems of parapsychology claims have been exposed. See the short article "Daryl Bem and psi in the ganzfeld" by Dr. Susan Blackmore. (For our readers: Sue Blackmore was once was a believer in parapsychology but was persuaded by the evidence that none of it holds any water. The Ganzfeld refers to a type of experiment widely regarded by parapsychologists as the strongest evidence in the field.) She had caught the parapsychology researcher Carl Sargent red-handed in what was hard to explain as anything other than cheating (she describes this in very specific detail elsewhere), and yet his research involving the Ganzfeld was included in Honorton’s, and later Bem’s, analysis. She concludes in the article, "It matters because Bem’s continued claims mislead a willing public into believing that there is reputable scientific evidence for ESP in the Ganzfeld when there is not."

But aside from the fraudulent claims that form part of the bedrock of the field and upon which later claims were built, the more common problem among the many honest and earnest parapsychology researchers is simply that they assume that departures from randomness are caused by psychic phenomena, when in fact statistical deviations from chance give no information at all about what caused them and have many other more mundane, and far more likely, explanations. Until neutral scientists can replicate the work there is really nothing to talk about.

As to quantum effects and nonlinearity or for that matter nonlocality in physics being a basis for how putative paranormal phenomena might occur, this argument amounts to nothing more than saying that quantum mechanics is mysterious and not fully explained and consciousness is mysterious and not fully explained, therefore they must be related.

Far simpler, evidence-based explanations for perception of paranormal phenomena are: random statistical fluctuations or methodological flaws, the unreliability of subjective perception, cognitive bias, and frankly, wishful thinking.

With regard to the assumption that the purely naturalistic (materialistic) scientific view of mind and of the world is stark and nihilistic, you've hit on the crux of the matter, identifying one of the main reasons why so many people are prone to the wishful thinking that there "must be something more." This is why I devoted a book-length response to that question in Finding Purpose in a Godless World. Your assumption that scientific materialism is nihilistic is completely understandable Steve, coming from an intelligent and highly educated person as you clearly are, but in my view it is mistaken. If you would prefer a summarized response in lieu of reading my book, I refer you to this 45-minute video.

Thank you again Steve for your thought-provoking contribution to this important debate, here and in your own blog series. The diversity of opinion that you represent, and the depth of your arguments, is what makes Psychology Today such a stimulating and lively forum.

STEVE:

The importance of open-mindedness

Ralph, there have been flaws in parapsychological research just as there are flaws in research in every area. But I don’t believe that the findings can be wholly dismissed or explained away in terms of the factors you suggest. Contemporary psi research is conducted in an extremely rigorous way. As Cardena’s article states, the evidence is at least ‘comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines.’ Many materialists simply refuse to engage with such evidence because it contradicts their worldview. As the statistician Jessica Utts has stated, “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established.” Daryl Bem’s experiments have also been replicated successfully many times. See this link.

About quantum physics, I never said that psi can be explained in quantum terms, only that is compatible with many of the findings of psi—which it certainly is. (As a result of which many quantum physicists have been open to the existence of telepathy and psi.)

What dogmatic skeptics like Susan Blackmore and Richard Wiseman tend to do is to find any possible means of refuting evidence from psi studies. For example, although experiments such as Bem’s have been successfully replicated many times, skeptics would highlight an unsuccessful replication and claim that an isolated failure invalidates a whole series of successful replications. But no other area of science has such a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy. In fact, as you will know, there is a’ crisis of replication’ throughout science in general, and in comparison, the replication of psi experiments looks pretty good.

All best wishes, Steve.

RALPH:

Cardeña's paper

Steve, I read Cardeña's paper. Thank you for drawing my attention to it. I would refer you in turn to Reber and Alcock's response to it published just last month (April 2020) in American Psychologist: "Searching for the Impossible: Parapsychology's Elusive Quest" (summarized here). And yes, I've read “The Data Are Irrelevant”: Response to Reber and Alcock (2019), which was Cardeña's rebuttal to an advance online publication of Reber and Alcock's arguments.

Psychologists and other critics have spent vast quantities of time over the years examining, analysing, and ultimately finding fault with parapsychological research. It is a very time-intensive endeavour. Even more of a problem, often those reviewers do not have access to key information that sometimes takes years to emerge with regard to methodological shortcomings. And after all that labour, parapsychologists have always rejected whatever criticism has been offered; they do not respond by correcting methodological faults or problems with analyses.

That being said, the most important thing is that all the statistical analysis in the world has absolutely nothing to say about the causes of any statistical deviations from chance. Parapsychologists don't want to hear this; their whole case these days rests on automatically interpreting statistical deviations from chance, in the context of a parapsychological experiment, as evidence of the paranormal.

Statistical deviations are not evidence of anything except a non-random process. To argue that the nonrandomness is due to something paranormal is completely unfounded. Based on the many laborious detailed reviews of past parapsychological studies, if I were a betting man I would bet a large sum of money that methodological flaws are the cause. The statistical deviations on their own cannot support the particular preferred explanation of parapsychologists—an explanation which they have typically already arrived at a priori and are highly motivated to confirm. (On the subject of large sums of money being bet, it is worth noting that for many years the James Randi Educational Foundation's million-dollar challenge for proof of paranormal claims under independently controlled and observed experimental conditions was not once successfully won, despite numerous earnest attempts and mutually agreed-upon experimental conditions).

And here's the thing: Parapsychological claims are so fundamentally incompatible with the entire body of scientific knowledge that in order for them to be true would require not just a major paradigm shift in science of the kind that certainly has occurred periodically in modern history. No, the problem is orders of magnitude more radical than that: It would actually invalidate science itself. Which, to grossly understate the point, would beg the question as to how any piece of engineering, any technology, any scientifically developed medical treatment, etc. could ever have been successfully designed at all.

STEVE:

Mainstream science ought to take parapsychological findings seriously

The interesting thing about the reply to Cardeña's paper by Reber and Alcock is that they explicitly say that they won't look at the statistical evidence, because the phenomena in question cannot possibly exist. That is just dogmatic thinking, more akin to religious fundamentalism than science, strikingly reminiscent of the contemporaries of Galileo who refused to look through his telescope. Every scientist would agree that science should be based on evidence rather than assumptions. And we have to be prepared to change our assumptions, if that is what the evidence suggests.   

Psi are not incompatible with science, since they don’t contradict it. As I said earlier, precognition is completely compatible with many of the findings and theories of physics, as is telepathy (with the concepts of superposition and entanglement, for instance.) Note again that I’m not saying that quantum physics can explain the phenomena. I’m not sure that (like many other phenomena such as dark energy or consciousness) psi phenomena can be explained at present. We should also remember that science is open-ended. There is no final word on how the universe works.

You mention Randi's prize, which is actually a con—the whole thing is so rigged and biased against participants that no sane person would ever agree to take part. The whole thing is set up for failure. (There is an excellent book on this by Robert McLuhan called Randi's Prize.)

I'm not a parapsychologist, but a psychologist, and I find the fundamentalism of many scientists towards psi interesting—really the same phenomenon of dogmatic certainty which affects religious fundamentalists, conferring a sense of belonging, identity and control.

All best wishes nevertheless—I do appreciate the calmness and civility of our discussion!

Ralph Lewis, M.D., is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto; an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto; and a psycho-oncology consultant at the Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto.