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Parapsychology used to be a jester – and now it’s a knight in shining armour.

Let me explain. Parapsychology is the scientific study of, essentially, psychic powers. Parapsychologists—there aren’t many of them, but they exist—study alleged phenomena like people’s ability to sense the future (precognition), their ability to see into closed boxes (clairvoyance), their ability to read people’s minds (telepathy), and their ability to move objects (telekinesis), all through psychic abilities that can’t be explained by our current scientific theories.

Parapsychology studies are sometimes published in mainstream scientific journals. They often claim that experiments show that one or more of the above phenomena are real. And they usually do so using just the same standard experimental and statistical methods that are used elsewhere in science.

And that’s the reason parapsychology has been called the “jester in the court of academia”. It acts a little like the Fool in King Lear, using absurdity to tell “serious” people truths they don’t want to hear. In parapsychology’s case, that truth is: “the use of perfectly normal scientific methods can give you some very bizarre results.”

Maybe if the methods that all scientists routinely rely on are throwing up results that defy the most basic laws of physics, then there’s something wrong with the way we do science in general. Maybe we desperately need to tighten up our statistical methods, or risk finding more results that make absolutely no sense.

Parapsychologists won’t agree with my characterisation above, of course: they often really believe that what they’re showing in their studies is solid evidence for the existence of “anomalous”, unexplained human abilities. Unlike King Lear’s Fool, they’re not doing it deliberately.

Always the jester, never the king

Regardless, we can learn a great deal from what parapsychologists are doing. And with the publication of a new study from the so-called “Transparent Psi Project”, they’ve gone far beyond the “jester” characterisation, and are actively modelling how to do good science.

In 2011, the social psychologist Daryl Bem published a parapsychology paper that had a massive influence on the way we think about science. It reported nine experiments, eight of which apparently showed evidence for psychic powers – specifically precognition. It was published in a mainstream scientific journal, and—just as I noted above—used mainstream statistical techniques to analyse its results.

Here’s a description of one of the experiments:

  • Participants (in Bem’s case, undergraduate students) look at a computer screen with two little pictures of curtains on it; 
  • They’re asked to guess which curtain has another picture behind it – the other is blank; 
  • They can’t do anything other than randomly guess – then they’re shown if they were right or wrong; 
  • When the picture is something boring, they choose correctly 50% of the time; 
  • When the picture is pornographic, they choose correctly 53% of the time – a statistically significant result that indicates that they in some way “knew” which picture to choose, before they even saw it. 

Yes, it’s weird – Bem argued that people have evolved a psychic ability to sense erotic materials they’re about to see in future. But if that experiment shows consistent results, it’s hard to argue that anything other than something extraordinary is going on.

The king attempts to replicate the jester

Over the years, many researchers have tried replicating the study—running it again in their own labs—to see if they can get the results. Sometimes they are sympathetic to Bem’s position, and sometimes they’re highly sceptical; sometimes they get positive results, sometimes they don’t.

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know that it was my and my collaborators’ own attempt to replicate one of Bem’s experiments that got me into the whole “science has serious problems” thing in the first place (journals wouldn’t accept our boring study that said “no evidence for psychic powers” when they’d accepted one using the exact same setup that said “evidence for psychic powers!”).

Back-and-forth replication attempts from sceptics and believers are all very well, but now we have something much better: a joint, collaborative replication attempt of the “sending future erotic material” study, where both sides of the debate got together and designed a study they’d all carry out that, however the results turned out, they’d all commit to accepting as solid evidence.

And they went even further than that. They bent over backwards to make their experiment as transparent, robust, and unquestionable as possible.

So, for instance, having agreed the procedure, they then had their plans peer-reviewed, and posted the setup publicly online. Since it was a collaborative project, being carried out at several different universities, they made detailed checklists to ensure that everyone followed the same setup. They ran everything on a cloud server so no one set of researchers could tamper with the experiment in any way.

Then they added even more transparency, with a technique known as “born-open” data. This wasn’t a case of collecting the data, putting them in a spreadsheet, and posting the spreadsheet online (even that, of course, is unusual in standard scientific research). In this case, they set up a website, open to anyone, where every datapoint was sent and posted publicly as soon as it was collected from the participants. The world saw the data, as well as a “logbook” from each instance of the experiment, at the exact same time as the scientists, ensuring that nothing was hidden.

You might wonder: what if there was some screwup, where the data being auto-posted online were not the correct numbers? Well, they had independent scientists audit all the tech and computer code before they started the experiment, and ran a small pilot study to make sure everything worked beforehand.

They even wrote an agreed-upon conclusion that they’d publish if they found positive results, and the one they’d write if they didn’t. This was to stop the sceptics weaselling out if the study showed positive evidence for psi, and vice versa for the believers if the results were negative.

This—and I haven’t even had space to describe all the other things they did to ensure the robustness of the experiment—displays a remarkable commitment to openness and transparency, going much further than the average research study. If even a few of the techniques used here were adopted by “mainstream” researchers, the studies we see published in scientific journals would instantly become far more believable.

The jester’s results

So what did the results show? Well, I’ll quote the pre-written conclusion that they selected:

“The data were more consistent with the model assuming that humans’ guesses about the future, randomly determined, position of a target do not have a higher than chance success rate, rather than the model assuming that they do.”

That’s a long-winded, convoluted, academic way of saying “we didn’t find any evidence for psychic powers in this study”. The participants showed no ability to sense the future – indeed, the overall result for how often they picked the “correct” curtain was 49.89 per cent, when we’d expect 50 per cent by chance.

They go on to say:

“The failure to replicate previous positive findings with this strict methodology indicates that it is likely that the overall positive effect in the literature might be the result of recognised methodological biases rather than [psychic powers].”

In other words: the reason previous studies—which were nowhere near as rigorous as this one—appeared to find evidence for psychic powers is that they went wrong somewhere along the way.

They point out that this experiment doesn’t rule out psychic abilities altogether, which is of course true (maybe this specific experiment just doesn’t work for showing their existence). But they should nudge us back towards the position that “the laws of physics hold”, if the original psychic studies had us worried. I can’t help wondering whether this study made any of the researchers who were psychic believers change their minds.

And so, in the process of examining some of the most unusual and niche aspects of science, the researchers here have demonstrated with aplomb how to produce a solid, totally believable piece of research. To use the most obvious joke in the book: who, even a psychic, could’ve seen that coming?

This is now the standard to which scientific research should be held. All scientists, when they’re designing their experiments and don’t pre-register them, or when they run an experiment but don’t share their data with the world, or when they don’t use any of the many other transparency-increasing techniques that were used in this study, should have to answer one big question: if the parapsychologists can do it, why can’t you?

Other stuff I’ve written recently 

Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant near Bridgwater in Somerset (Photo: PA)

Last week I wrote a feature on hydrogen-fueled planes for the iWeekend edition – complete with pictures of all the sci-fi airplane designs for your hydrogen-fuelled holidays of the future (I also included what I hope is a healthy degree of scepticism about the whole idea).

You might also enjoy my article on peanut allergies, and how the scientific U-turn around what parents should do to prevent them is a paradigm example of a “medical reversal”.

Science link of the week 

Everyone should read this article about the biology journal eLife, how they’ve been trying to revolutionise the process of publishing scientific papers, and the significant pushback they’ve had from the “old guard”.

Thanks for reading Science Fictions.

This is Science Fictions with Stuart Ritchie, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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