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Geoffrey FalkGeoffrey Falk is the author of The Science of the Soul, Stripping the Gurus, Norman Einstein, Rock and Holy Rollers and Hip Like Me. He studied electrical engineering and physics at the University of Manitoba. He currently divides his time between writing, software development, and music composition. See also Falk, Books, blogs and articles.


The Salmon Of Belief

Comments on the Status of Psi Research

Geoffrey Falk

From Don Salmon and Jan Maslow's The Challenge of Writing About Sri Aurobindo's Integral Psychology:

In recent years, many have attempted to make the teachings of yoga "safe" for modern consumption—i.e., to "sanitize" the traditional teachings by presenting non-material realities as "merely" subjective aspects of objective (i.e. "real") physical phenomena. For example, chakras are explained as the "felt experience" related to the endocrine or nervous system....

Which is probably all that they are.

... various meditative experiences are explained (or explained away) as nothing more than a by-product of complex brain activity.

Which is probably all that they are, to a much greater degree than even most of the people applying cognitive neuroscience (and memes) to religion are yet aware of.

The details of all that, however, will have to wait for another day.

Richard Feynman, considered by many to be one of the most brilliant physicists of the twentieth century....

Well, that's putting it very mildly. If they were as cautious with the rest of their claims, we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

We open the section of parapsychology with a series of quotations that bespeak the level of irrationality often found behind the critiques, if not outright rejection, of psi research findings....
"Why do we not accept extra-sensory perception as a psychological fact? [Parapsychologist] Rhine has offered us enough evidence to have convinced us on almost any other issue... I cannot see what other basis my colleagues have for rejecting it... My own rejection of his views is in a literal sense prejudice.--Psychologist Donald O. Hebb, 1951"

Well, sometimes you can get the right answer for the wrong conscious reasons; blink and call it "intuition." Since 1951, Joseph B. Rhine's work has been debunked to a point that would unconvince us on almost any other issue. Just read the SkepDic entries which mention that particularly inept fool. We're dealing there with someone who not only thought that Lady the "talking" horse was psychic, but also "believed that persons who disliked him guessed wrong to spite him" on ESP tests ... and correspondingly excluded their low scores from his statistics. (File Under: Paranoia, Incompetence, Fraud.)

According to [Ronald] Melzack, one of the leading researchers on the psychological aspects of pain, "The field of psychology is in a state of crisis. We are no closer now to understanding the most fundamental problems of psychology than we were when psychology became a science a hundred years ago... some neuroscience and computer technology have been stirred in with the old psychological ingredients, but there have been no important conceptual advances... We are adrift... in a sea of facts and practically drowning in them. We desperately need new concepts, new approaches."
Psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker....

Leaving aside the question as to when exactly psychology became a "science" (it sure wasn't such back in the day of the hyper-imaginative babblings of Freud or Jung) ... ever heard of evolutionary psychology? Or "theory theory"?

If you really think evo psych hasn't contributed any "important conceptual advances" to understanding human behavior, or that it merely consists of "some neuroscience and computer technology ... stirred in with the old psychological ingredients," you honestly don't have a clue what you're talking about. Natural selection applied to the genetic basis of human behaviors is in no way the same thing as "neuroscience and computer technology." And if evo psych isn't dealing with "fundamental problems of psychology," what do you think it's addressing? Aside from the "hard problem" of consciousness, which no one knows how to solve (except a few fools who think they've experienced the "nondual Spirit which has become all matter and relative consciousness," etc.), it's addressing just about every other "fundamental problem" in psych.

And then in the very next paragraph Salmon and Maslow are quoting Pinker, probably the world's most prominent advocate of evo psych. Brilliant.

In my review of the research, I came across only one example of a legitimate critique of the CIA remote viewing experiments as well as Utts' and Hyman's analyses, and that was from an article published in the Journal of Parapsychology!....
[Of] the eleven most successful of those experiments [two parapsychologists] found five which could be considered, by the most stringent standards [??], to have at least some minor methodological flaws.
This left six remote-viewing experiments which were, by all accounts I could find, essentially flawless.

Well, I found this in five seconds of research on SkepDic:

[T]he later [Stargate, CIA remote-viewing] studies—done under the direction of [Utts' erstwhile co-author, Edwin] May—which were better designed and controlled than the ones done by Targ and Puthoff, were [still] fatally flawed because May, the director of the program, was the sole judge of the accuracy of the reports and he conducted the experiments in secret (which made peer review and replication impossible). David Marks tried for years to get May to let him look at his data, but May wouldn't allow it....
There were hundreds, maybe thousands of trials, where a remote viewer would draw something and give a verbal report of what he was seeing. It would be highly unusual if there weren't some that would seem very accurate for the targets. Since it was never required for success that the drawing or report be exact, it is always possible that an ambiguous image will be seen as fitting a particular target especially if the judge knows what the target is! Furthermore, we have only May's word for it that the very detailed descriptions that were spot on, were as he says they were. He hasn't made his data public....
An analysis of the Targ and Puthoff experiments was done by Marks and he found that they systematically violated the rule about blind judging. Marks found substantial evidence that Targ and Puthoff cued their judges by including dates and references to previous experiments in the transcripts, "enabling the judges to successfully match the transcripts against the list of target sites."

And that surprises you? Or is the above simply not a "legitimate critique" of the Stargate experiments, in Salmon and Maslow's "integral yoga" view? Pathetic. If you're as ignorant about extant debunkings as those two obviously are, you shouldn't be pushing the "smiling, happy" side of the subject in the first place.

[P]sychologist Joseph Alcock, who responded to Utts' comments in a special Journal of Consciousness Studies issue entitled, PSI Wars, typified those critics in that he attacked her conclusions without providing a single specific piece of contrary evidence.

That would be James Alcock. He's the one without a coat of many colors....

More from the fishy Salmon and Maslow:

British psychologist Julie Milton of the University of Edinburgh analyzed 78 studies published between 1964 and 1993, "in which people attempted to acquire information [by means which cannot be explained in terms of our ordinary understanding of the working of] the physical senses. These experiments had been reported in fifty-five publications by thirty-five different investigators and involved 1,158 subjects... Milton found the overall effects to be highly positive, with odds against chance of 10 million to 1."

Yet, from the very same piece as above, on remote viewing:

[Dean] Radin mentions that Julie Milton did an analysis of 78 free-response psi experiments published between 1964 and 1993 and found that "the overall effect resulted in odds against chance of ten million to one".... He doesn't mention that only two of the studies had proper safeguards for the crucial protocol of "avoiding giving cues to judges and keeping the experimenter blind to the identity of the target in telepathy and clairvoyance".... Nor does Radin mention that 26% of the studies failed to provide adequate safeguards regarding the person transcribing the subject's descriptions being blind to the target's identity and that this was associated with a significantly higher effect size than the studies that contained this safeguard....

And that surprises you? Really, it surprises you? Really??

More Salmon and Mayo:

Robert G. Jahn, the director of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory (PEAR), has conducted experiments for a number of years reliably demonstrating psychokinesis—the power of mind over matter; or, in the case of his experiments, mind over machine.

Oh, not even close! Again from

In 1986, Jahn, Brenda Dunne, and Roger Nelson reported on millions of trials with 33 subjects over seven years trying to use their minds to override random number generators (RNG). Think of the RNG as producing zeros and ones. Over the long haul, the laws of probability predict that in a truly random sequence, there should be 50% of each produced. The subjects in the PEAR experiments tried to use their minds to produce more zeros (or ones, depending on the assignment). In short, the PEAR people did what many drivers do when they try to use their thoughts to make a red light turn green.
Radin thinks the PEAR group replicated Schmidt's work in 258 experimental studies and 127 control studies. C. E. M. Hansel examined the studies done after 1969 and before 1987 that attempted to replicate Schmidt's work. He notes: "The main fact that emerges from this data is that 71 experiments gave a result supporting Schmidt's findings and 261 experiments failed to do so" (Hansel 1989: 185). That is the beauty of meta-analysis: you can transform a failure rate of nearly 4 to 1 into a grand success....
However, according to Ray Hyman, "the percentage of hits in the intended direction was only 50.02%" in the PEAR studies (Hyman 1989: 152). And one "operator" (the term used to describe the subjects in these studies) was responsible for 23% of the total data base. Her hit rate was 50.05%. Take out this operator and the hit rate becomes 50.01%. According to John McCrone, "Operator 10," believed to be a PEAR staff member, "has been involved in 15% of the 14 million trials, yet contributed to a full half of the total excess hits" (McCrone 1994). According to Dean Radin, the criticism that there "was any one person responsible for the overall results of the experiment ... was tested and found to be groundless".... McCrone has done the calculations and found that "If [operator 10's] figures are taken out of the data pool, scoring in the "low intention" condition falls to chance while "high intention" scoring drops close to the .05 boundary considered weakly significant in scientific results"....
The main assumption that Jahn and his colleagues made may not be warranted. "It is not clear that any of these machines is truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed that there are no truly random machines. It may be that lack of randomness only begins to show up after many trials"....
Furthermore, Stanley Jeffers, a physicist at York University, Ontario, has repeated the Jahn experiments but with chance results.... And Jahn et al. failed to replicate the PEAR results in experiments done in Germany....

If that's what you call "reliably demonstrating psychokinesis," we are clearly using very different definitions of the words "reliably" and "demonstrating." But then, I could have predicted that going in. And I'm not even psychic!

According to Alan [Wallace], one of the basic requirements for reliable exercise of what we call "paranormal" abilities is precisely the ability to maintain this awareness—unbroken—for at least several hours. Traditional yogis have generally considered that, along with this ability, a profound ethical development is also essential—honesty, sincerity, humility, etc.
I am not aware of any psi studies that come even close to training their subjects to achieve such an inner state.

No studies at all? What about the (inadequately controlled) testing of psi and PK claims done by Elmer and Alyce Green on Swami Rama (and Jack Schwarz) at the Menninger Clinic back in the late 1960s? True, Rama came into that "pre-trained" (and probably lacked a good deal of "honesty, sincerity, [and] humility"!). But if you really need people trained in "unbroken awareness" to do studies of psi ... well, I'm sure you can find them aplenty in the hills around Boulder. Start with everyone who's ever blown $249 or thereabouts on a few CDs, DVDs and booklets (ooh, and a poster too!) in the Integral Life Starter Kit.

And then when you've "proved" psi as being more than just a statistical artifact, take James Randi up on his Million $ Challenge. If you succeed in that challenge I can guarantee you (without even being psychic myself!) that even the most hardened skeptic will sit up and take notice. Until then, it's just so much chin music about "reliably demonstrat[ed]" phenomena which sadly never turn out to be what the believing sheep claim.

(I would have much preferred to see Randi simply reduce his Challenge payout to, say, $100,000, rather than withdrawing it completely in a couple of years from now, as he's planning on doing. He says they don't even need the money, so I can only guess that he just wants to spend his time doing things more productive than vetting claims from weirdoes, even though he already has hired help with that. I sympathize, but I still don't agree with how he's handled it in that context. But, of course, it's his money, not mine.)

Will any of the above dent Salmon and Maslow's "open-minded" confidence that psi phenomena have already been "reliably demonstrat[ed]" to exist, even in long-ago debunked and "fatally flawed" experiments? Of course not.

Whenever you find people quoting Dean Radin or the work at PEAR in a positive way, you don't actually even need to read any further to know that you're dealing with ones who can't tell shit from Shinola. (You can hardly go too far wrong in quoting Ray Hyman, so no points at all to them for getting that much right.)

Me, I still side with the Salmon of Doubt on this one. Or with the "Hyman of Doubt." Or even the hymen of doubt, if there was one readily at hand....

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