Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Not so well-informed skepticism. . .

On the way to work today I listened to this Skeptico podcast interview with Dr. James Alcock.

I noticed a few inconsistencies between what Alcock said and the psi research I am familiar with.

5:50 Alcock: "One would expect that over this length of time that there would be at least some phenomenon that was indisputable. Some phenomenon that however weak, could be reproduced by skeptical, by neutral scientists, but that's never occurred".

Wrong. Just as one example, quantum physicist Henry Stapp was at best neutral to the possibility of psi, but he participated in a fraud-proof experiment that provided strongly statistically significant evidence for PK effects.

It is true that those who are strongly skeptical to psi phenomena are quite unlikely to discover any evidence for it. Alex mentions a related phenomenon in the interview:

13:15 Drug research done at major universities is three times more likely to show efficacy of the drug if the drug company has sponsored the work.

Later in the interview, Alcock assures us of his intimate familiarity with psi research:

15:15 Alcock: "I've looked at probably as much parapsychologic literature, certainly as any "skeptic" and probably more than most parapsychologists.

Having informed the listeners of his bona-fides as an investigator of psi phenomena, Alcock later turns his guns on Rupert Sheldrake's research on staring detection:

28:40: I don't know if you're familiar with the staring experiments -- some of the early parapsychologists back in the 20s, did staring experiments, and they came to the conclusion there was nothing there, and this was then abandoned by modern parapsychology, no modern parapsychologist that I know of, apart from Dr. Sheldrake has had much, or any interest in this.

Actually, this is completely incorrect. Dean Radin covers a recent meta-analysis he conducted in his book Entangled Minds that showed an extremely significant effect. He has also conducted studies with statistically significant evidence for this phenomena. Other parapsychologists who have independently conducted recent research into staring detection with positive results include Jonathan Jones, Marilyn Schlitz, and D.L. Delanoy.

Somehow James Alcock missed this in his extensive review of the parapsychology literature that he alluded to above. In particular I am surprised that a "well-informed" skeptic missed the very prominent discussion of these experiments in Dean Radin's book Entangled Minds, which really has to be considered must-read book for anyone who wants to be abreast of the latest psi research.


There was something else about Alcock's statement that really bothered me. Let's revisit it again:

I've looked at probably as much parapsychologic literature, certainly as any "skeptic" and probably more than most parapsychologists.

I happen to agree with him that he is probably much more familiar with the literature than most psi deniers. However that's a pretty damning indictment, since he appears to be largely unfamiliar with the latest and most important published review of the parapsychological research (Entangled Minds). If the average psi denier is even less familiar with the research (and probably a lot less), can their opinion even be worth listening to? I guess that's what happens to any group of people who outsource their beliefs to a propaganda organization. . .


andrew said...

I wonder if you could ask yourself if the boot was on the other foot, what would your reaction be? If a noted parapsychologist conducted an interview in which s/he made a number of blunders, would that effect how you saw them? How you saw their work? Or how you saw parapsychology in general?

M.C. said...

Well the whole point of a professional skeptic of psi phenomena is that he is claiming to be an expert in the research, to have made a thorough study, and determined it to be not worth pursuing, and is then going to provide good reasons that other people should dismiss the research, fire the psi researcher, cut off government funding, etc.

If the professional skeptic isn't going to be well-informed of the field he is critiquing, what value exactly does he bring to the discussion?

I didn't even address Alcock's dismissal of Gary Schwartz's mediumship research as having poor methodology. Yes, in the past some of Schwartz' research has been criticized for methodological reasons, but his latest triple-blind experiments are a tremendous advance in answering virtually all previous criticisms of his work. So again, Alcock is mounting an attack on research that he (apparently) isn't even familiar with.

A parapsychologist, on the other hand, is not necessarily a professional advocate for a particular position. Many parapsychologists spend most of their time on their particular research projects, so they are delivering something to the discussion other than critiques of someone else's work.

Of course, there are a few psi-disbelieving parapsychologists who actually do conduct experiments (ie: formerly Susan Blackmore and currently Richard Wiseman) and these should be granted much more leeway since they are contributing to the debate in other ways than simply attacking someone else's scientific research.

But for those whose only contribution is to point out flaws in what someone else has done -- damn right I expect them to have their facts mostly straight in their criticisms -- because otherwise they have nothing to offer.

I haven't posted yet on this week's interview with Richard Wiseman, but he had the guts to come out and admit that Rupert Sheldrake was correct about his reporting the facts of their dispute about Jaytee the "psychic dog". That took intellectual integrity, and I commend him for it. Maybe Alcock will come back and admit he was wrong about staring research, and wrong about his assertion that neutral researchers are never able to replicate psi experiments successfully. I would commend him for that if it happens.

andrew said...

A parapsychologist is not necessarily a professional advocate, no. But sometimes they do speak in that role, and when they do and they make factual errors, would I be justified in thinking that their opinion is not worth listening to? Can I further assume that if this person is an expert, then I can also dismiss the arguments of the “average” psi proponent as not worth listening to? That’s what you seem to be saying.

Leaving parapsychology aside for a monment, on the previous version of this blog I’ve seen you put up incorrect texts from other authors about meteorites, continental drift and Robertson’s novella “Futility”. When I pointed out their mistakes, did you get as angry at them as you did at James Alcock?

M.C. said...

I'm not angry with Alcock, or any other skeptic of psi phenomena. Not even the quite nasty and unpleasant ones like James Randi, and certainly not polite and friendly ones like James Alcock, Michael Shermer, etc.

And I've certainly called out some advocates for some of the phenomena covered on this blog because of their inaccuracies, such as Victor Zammit.

Out of the three things you've mentioned in your comment, only one author that I cited had any prominence: Richard Milton.

Because of your questions about him, I did investigate him more thoroughly, and he seems to be a pretty dogmatic individual who doesn't address criticisms of his writings. So not someone I would cite again. I certainly do hold people to a higher standard and put bigger expectations on them for preparedness and if they are given a lot of prominence and standing in the relevant communities. So, for example, I consider it far more important to notice when someone like James Randi Michael Shermer, James Alcock, Susan Blackmore, Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake, Russell Targ or Gary Schwartz is careless with the facts, versus someone like Matthew Cromer, Victor Zammitt, Michael Prescott or Andrew Endersby. And I've been critical of some of the big "pro-psi" names on that list before, for example I asked Dean Radin to address some of your criticisms of his meta-analysis and expressed my disappointment when he decided it wasn't worth responding to your article because it was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. It's true that I haven't been as pointed and strident with my criticisms of parapsychologists as I have with their critics, mostly because I had (at one point) plans to interview most of them them for the blog, and also needed their assistance getting access to certain research papers. It's true that isn't very fair, but having a good working relationship with sources is necessary for most journalistic projects.

Now that Skeptiko has done such a great job landing interviews with skeptics and parapsychologists, I feel much less pressure to conduct interviews (although I'm always open to doing so). I'm also not going to put as much time into this blog, and the time I put in will be 90% just writing the content instead of marketing it elsewhere on the internet, tracking hit count statistics, engaging in interminal comment threads, etc.