Monday, February 12, 2007

The study of the paranormal

Furthering today's theme of posting about science (sort of), another piece from the NYTimes this weekend concerned the fate of a Princeton lab which has, for decades, attempted to study psychic abilities. Basically, the worker in this lab tried to see if human thoughts could alter what would otherwise be random events--random number generation, physical movements, etc.

In what will probably surprise anyone who met me in college or later, I at one time assumed I'd take a course in parapsychology. I've always believed that most people claiming psychic powers were frauds, but I figured there might be some legitimate basis to telepathy in particular. Just because I thought most of those claiming the abilities were frauds didn't mean I was convinced the abilities didn't exist.

In reality, I think most of the research from this lab is suspect. As Michael Shermer points out in Why People Believe Weird Things, you should generally be skeptical of things which purport to show only very tiny effect sizes. And the effect sizes claimed by this lab are indeed tiny. "Analyzing data from such trials, the PEAR team concluded that people could alter the behavior of these machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000." When effect sizes are that small, they're extremely unlikely to be meaningful.

But, at the same time, I'm annoyed by things like "Prominent research journals declined to accept papers from PEAR. One editor famously told Dr. Jahn that he would consider a paper “if you can telepathically communicate it to me.”" How annoyed I am depends on how you interpret it. If it's a statement that the papers were rejected outright because of who it was submitting them, without looking at the evidence, that's a bad thing. If it's that the papers were declined because the editors didn't think the authors had proved their claims, that's something else.

However, it should be pointed out, it's not fair to sit back and blithely condemn journals for not considering all submissions. Journals are deluged with huge numbers of manuscripts. It takes time, energy, and expense to review them thoroughly. It is therefore reasonable for many journals to conduct a form of academic triage--only thoroughly review those papers which are unlikely to have serious logical or methodological flaws and which claim interesting results in the abstract. Still, there are so many journals out there that it seems unlikely that the lab simply couldn't find a journal willing to give a thorough review to their submissions, and that's why they had to found there own. Color me skeptical when a group publishes only in a journal run by the members of the group.

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