The level of discourse on the internet is notoriously variable in quality, and often descends into base levels of polemical venting. This may be expected in questions of pop-culture fashion or politics, but it is surprising at first to discover it turning up in what one might assume to be scientific discussions.
Nowhere else in science does irrational polemic seem to turn up so reliably as when discussions of scientific studies on the “paranormal” are involved.
For example, A recent Huffington Post article on the book First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life drew many respectful and thoughtful comments, pro and con, as one might hope; but then a little band of the psi-denying vigilantes who seem to prowl the internet discovered the posts and salted most of the responses with rude and peremptory dismissals of a sort that seem to flow from some central script. For instance, they seem often to be arguing against proponents of creationism, even when that is far from the issue at hand. Their arguments are typically buttressed by links to posts of other “authorities” that share their own biases and arrogance but don’t really attempt much balanced debate.
Then, as is typical, some more balanced responses are offered to the vigilantes. However, they seem by then to have gone on searching for some other irrationality to debunk and offer no response (or respect) to these rebuttals.
I think this is a fascinating element in our cultural discourse right now and it bears some attention and attempt to understand its dynamics.
To further this effort, I will quote the posts to the Huffington Post piece from a denier who calls herself (or himself) Pulseteresa. Following that will be the responses of an apparent psychologist named Psychnow.
“Bem’s experiment has not been replicated meaning it was likely a one off fluke:
The above link also points out some of the methodological flaws in Bem’s study as well as Bem’s obstructionism in getting the studies that did not replicate his findings published. This gives the unmistakable impression that Bem is not interested having his research truthfully examined. There are two good reasons for this:
1) Researchers sometimes get overly emotionally invested in their research and thus are protective about it. This is exactly why attempts at replication by multiple third parties who don’t have an emotional attachment to the original results is necessary. People cannot be fully objective. Science provides our best chance at pure objectivity. As physicist Richard Feyman stated so precisely:
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
2) Positive outcome psi research is always ultimately invalidated.
This second link provides, in addition to a critique of Bem’s research, contains this quote from Bem, a classic example of psi researchers discounting psi studies with negative outcomes. The quote in my followup comment is an excerpt from Bem’s response to the researchers who were unable to replicate Bem’s findings:
“Ritchie, Wiseman, and French are well known as psi skeptics, whereas I and the investigators of the two successful replications are at least neutral with respect to the existence of psi.”
Bem here implies that all scientific research can be negatively influenced by a skeptical attitude. This is not only exceptionally unscientific, it’s absolute nonsense. (Although it’s a typical move for psi researchers). Skepticism is a cornerstone of science, as is repeatability of research outcomes. Bem certainly should know this.
My point of addressing Bem’s research (click first link in this article) here is to point out that the author of this article is relying on falsified premises to prop up his own nonsensical hypothesis.”
In response to these statements, Psychnow wrote:
“You raise important points: Scientists do get emotionally involved in their work, and we always need to be on guard against this; Second, replication is important to help us know when any experimental result is valid.
There are also two very important errors in fact in your posts.
First, you say that Bem’s research is flawed and that he has been obstructive in the publication of non-replications. Bem actually dealt with most of the issues brought up before the paper was ever published, with critical review editors. He has responded fully and satisfactorily to the questions raised since his paper was published. If you cite the criticisms you must also cite his responses. Bem has been anything but obstructive. I can think of no other case in which a psychologist put so much effort into making it easy for other scientists to carry out exact replications of his procedures, and do their own analyses of his data. He had nothing to do with the non-publication of replication attempts. This was a decision of editors, and they have explained their reasons, which are standard in the field.
Have his results been successfully replicated by others? Only a few have been tried, and some efforts are still ongoing. So far the answer is Yes and No. Some have succeeded and some have not. The more exact replications have tended to succeed more those that significantly altered procedures. This will all have to be sorted out when more results are in.
The second error is the statement that psi effects are always invalidated. Monumentally wrong! In my experience, psi effects replicate about as well as any in the rest of psychology. This doesn’t imply a defect in psychology. Same is true in, say, microbiology or biochemistry. Replication efforts are routine there as part of trying to build some next step,and first tries routinely fail. This doesn’t mean the prior research was dishonest or poorly done. Only that some important variables are not well understood or communicated. This gets sorted out by lots of off-line communication, lab visits, so on, until everyone gets a better grasp of how things work. Bem’s findings will get sorted out too.
Parapsychology has a lot of replication in fact. The book that the post is about (First Sight) is not meant as a proof of psi, but it covers a great deal of research, most of it well-replicated. There are 52 dense pages of references. You would find it helpful to look at some of the 1000-plus research papers cited there.
One last point about your posts: It is hardly “exceptionally unscientific” or “absolute nonsense” to say, as Bem implies, that the attitude of an experimenter might be an important variable in how some effect shows up in an experiment. This is actually quite well established, and may turn out to be important in Bem’s findings as well. Robert Rosenthal, in an earlier generation, showed that many, often inadvertent, differences in experimenters’ attitudes had strong effects on the expression of many psychological processes that no one had thought to be susceptible in that way. More recently, hundreds of studies are coming out that show that subtle, implicit situational cues (including experimenter’s attitudes) can have major effects on whether and how some psychological process will be expressed. For one example, see the study by Milyavsky et al (Consciousness & Cognition, 2012) that showed that very subtle experimenter manipulations of implicit motivation can have big effects on how subliminal primes affect the choices people make. It’s not that hard to subtly influence how people respond to other subtle cues. This is not unscientific, it is just science sorting out something that is more complicated than a layperson might assume.”
This is a drama that is being played out over and over in internet discussions of many topics, such as remote viewing, ganzfeld research, Bem’s Feeling the Future studies, presentiment, Sheldrake’s research on Feeling Stared At, and any other of the currently topical parts of parapsychological research. This is a great curiosity: Why is this happening? What drives it?
I think this question should concern us not primarily because we might value good scientific work on the “paranormal” but because we value a climate of discourse for all areas of scientific work that is respectful and not polemical. Science must progress by a process of rational debate in which all parties listen as well as talk. Highly polarized polemic that is driven to win rather than to reason splits us in science as much as it currently splits American society in other areas, such as our divorce courts and our political contests. This may seem like fun for a few for a moment, but it does none of us any good.