Inherent problems with paranormal studies

So all or most of those studies on the paranormal pretty much debunked their subjects. So far, no one’s been able to prove that there’s ESP, ghosts, little men in funny hats, whatever. And I’m not saying they’re wrong. But it occurs to me that there are a few flaws in the process here.

  1. If you’re going to accept that there is another system of laws outside of nature, which is what most of the paranormal proponents believe, there’s no reason to think it would work the same way as nature. That is to say, there’d be no guarantee that the scientific method would be valid with supernature. Alternatively, performance could be dependant on other supernatural things which we have no way of detecting- weather patterns in the aether or such.
    (Why you would believe that there’s another system outside of nature is discussion for a different thread. Let’s just go with the assumption that you do for now).

  2. This one is specfic to the ESP studies. You know the drill- subject is asked to visual which card you’re holding up, subject fails, ESP debunked. Fine. They can’t do it at will. But what if ESP is subconscious?
    There’s a technical term that I can’t remember the name of right now- basically, if you’re trying hard to do something that you can do subconsciously, your conscious mind will interfere and mess things ups. For instance, there was this study where students were asked to rate different brands of strawberry jelly. The ones who were told, “Taste this jelly and see if it’s any good,” came up with the same ratings as test-tasting experts. The ones who were told, “Evaluate each jelly based on sweetness, texture, etc,” gave really random ratings, because they were thinking too hard and it messed them up.
    So suppose a person really did have ESP, but it was subconscious. Naturally, they wouldn’t be able to perform at the standard card-tests. Maybe the experts have adjusted for this in their tests, but if they have, I haven’t heard about it.

I’m not saying that I do believe in psychic powers. (In fact, I’m rather agnostic about the whole subject). I’m just giving examples of what I think could be logical flaws in the process. If you think I’m completely, wildly wrong, tell me and I’ll have my ignorance fought. If you feel the need to tell me that I’m completely howling-at-the-moon loony, be polite and tell me in a PM. Thank you.

Sits in corner and pulls hat over head

You are largely correct. Clearly, applying the scientific method only detects things that can be detected via the scientific method - this is a tautology. The people conducting the research know this. Most psi research over the past century has been concerned with what can be detected via controlled empirical testing, rather than that which cannot. Some people maintain there has been good evidence for ESP or other paranormal phenomena gathered via the scientific method. This is a minority view. What is not controversial is to say that no repeatable and independently verifiable evidence for psi has ever been discovered, in over a century of research - some of it very well-funded. Anyone asserting otherwise is either a little misinformed, unaware of what constitutes scientific evidence, or prejudicially biased.

Anyone is free to conjecture that there exist some phenomena which are real but which nonetheless cannot be verified via the scientific method. This may be true, but it gives rise to the question: how would we know? Or, how would we reliably know? The scientific method has its flaws and limits, but it remains the best tool we have for figuring out how our world works. It is also pretty good at distinguishing between ‘reality’ as most of us understand it and personal belief, personal or group delusion, erroneous observation, fantasy and other errors of perception, measurement or logic.

If you want to assert that something might be real but not verifiable in evidential or empirical terms, you are straying into a philosophical debate about what we mean by ‘real’. This is what ‘epistemology’ is all about.

Card guessing is only one kind of test that has historically featured in paranormal studies of ESP. There have been many others. There is no reason to say that if something occurs subconsciously, it must lie beyond empirical testing. The adrenalin response to sudden perceived danger occurs subconsciously. but can be verified empirically. There have been some studies that allowed for the fact that ESP might function in a way that cannot be demonstrated at will. For example, some people have claimed that they sometimes have precognitive dreams. You could test this by saying that whenever the subject has one of these dreams, he is to write out the details in a log that is submitted for independent safekeeping. Over a period of time it can be checked against actual events to see whether there is any evidence of precognition.

Um, no, it’s quite relevant to this thread. The only reason found so far for proposing that there is another set of laws outside the universe is so that there can be an excuse when these things are found to violate this universe’s laws. If you just accept that these things are governed by laws outside this universe, you basically give paranormal proponents a get out of logic free card, allowing them to propose whatever they want, because by definition none of it can be checked.

What evidence do have that suggests ESP is subconscious? If you don’t have any, why propose it?

In order for the conscious mind to interfere with something, that something has to exist in some form in the first place. Since ESP can’t be shown to exist in any form, suggesting that it might be purple instead of blue does not advance the discussion any. Psychologists do experiments all the time where the subject is told the object of the experiment is one thing, when it’s actually another. This is a perfect place for subconscious ESP to be seen and measured, but so far we’ve seen nothing.

If the scientific method is not valid (i.e. knowledge of supernature cannot be used to make any kind of prediction about reality), then what’s the point? Not only are you incapable of ever finding a rational reason to believe in its existence, but even if you do believe, it doesn’t tell you anything.

The preferred way to test something is to make a working hypothesis of how the effect is happening. If someone had a hypothesis for how paranormal effects occur, a test which allows the effects to happen could be devised.

“It only happens when I’m not thinking about it.” Well fine then, get a video camera and install it in your house so you forget about it.


It’s not a difficult process. The problem is that the further away from a lab it is, the better the chances that the subject has of employing tricks and cheats.

I’m basically in agreement with your thesis. In regards to the whole “outside of nature” qualification, I’d merely point out that a lot of real nature doesn’t happen in accord with what the professional skeptics seem to believe about nature. For example, suppose Bob shows up claiming the ability to communicate with the dead, read minds, levitate, or something of that sort. The professional skeptics will immediately demand that the ability be demonstrated uniformly. That is to say, they’ll want to see it used repeatedly at a time, place, and circumstances of their choosing.

The problem is that many things humans do can only be done one or a few times, and only under certain circumstances. For example, some people can run a marathon in 2 hours and 6 minutes. But the mere fact that someone can do it once doesn’t mean that they can do it repeatedly, or that they could do it in any place or at any time, or that they’d be willing to do it in a scientific lab just to prove something.

(Needless to say, I don’t personally believe in mediums, ESP, or levitation. I’m just pointing out that much of the thinking wielded by James Randi types is intellectually sloppy.)

I agree, a century plus of research, and NO evidence? I think this area of research is unlikely to generate any Nobel Prizes!What keeps these people going?
It is as if we still had physicists still looking for “phlogiston”-or the “luminiferous aether”.

Yes, but if Bob claims he can run a marathon in 2 hours and 6 minutes, but every time we try to test his marathon-running ability we never once see him cross the finish line, we’ve done two things.

One, we have discovered that we have no good reason to believe that Bob can run a marathon in 2 hours and 6 minutes. Two, we have discovered that we have no reason to believe that Bob can run a marathon at all. If Bob ran a marathon in 2 hours and 17 minutes, we might not believe his claim to be able to run faster, but at least we’d know that the phenomenon of marathon running actually exists.

Speaking of intellectually sloppy, you’re wrong. Randi, and other skeptics don’t care about specific times, places or general circumstances when it comes to these things, unless the specifics are important. If you’d bother finding out for yourself rather than just making stuff up that already agrees with what you think, you’d know that Randi allows the applicant to set the conditions on the test, and only modifies them to keep the test blind or prevent them cheating. And even if they are changed, the applicant has to agree that any conditions are fair before anything happens. No really, it’s all there.

If someone shows up claiming to be able to read minds, or levitate or something of that sort, they are making a claim. They will of course be asked to demonstrate that claim. When first trying to establish the claim, no one, Randi included, gives a rat’s ass about repeatability or uniformity. If you say you can levitate, then we just wanna see you levitate. We’ll get out the calipers and stop watches once we think there’s something to measure. Science wants it to be uniform and repeatable, skeptics just want to make sure you’re not cheating or deluded.

That’s not such a great example since a very large number of people have demonstrated the ability time and time again under controlled conditions to run marathons in about that time - so there’s nothing really wild about the claim and if that person ran it in 2:15 when the testers clocked them it wouldn’t be very surprising (although I wouldn’t officially credit them as a 2:06 runner until they could demonstrate it under official conditions). I certainly would say that they are potentially capable of 2:06.

However if somebody showed up claiming to have run a 1 hour marathon that’d be different. It’s a quantum leap over what anyone has ever done, anywhere. If they were put on a course and timed and turned in a 2 hour marathon I wouldn’t give their 1 hour claim much credence. If they ran, say, 1:15, then I’d agree that this person is demonstrating an extraordinary ability and was worth further study, and they were certainly in the ballpark of their original claim.

IMHO we exist in the physical world (mind/body) and the spiritual world (soul/spirit) at the same time. When we use science we focus on the physical as that is what it does. The more we focus on the physical the less we can sense the spiritual.

Using science to study the spiritual is like using a bright light to study what is in the dark.

That’s how I usually do it. What’s your method? Groping around on your hands and knees?

First, the studies are attempting to prove the existence of the phenomena, not how they work. So them being outside the laws of nature, but still detectable, should be no problem.
Second, if the factors you mention make the phenomena indistinguishable from random events, they are no different from random events. We don’t know for sure that the roll of a die is actually deterministic, controlled by hidden variables, right? The criterion for success of an experiment is that the results are distinguishable from chance with a given probability. If that is never true here by definition, the psychic investigators should stop wasting their time.

Good point. However, psychology experiments measure lots of things that are subconscious, and it is quite common to define an experiment that appears to be about thing X and is actually about thing Y. So, if what you say is true, it would be trivial to define an experiment to measure esp without telling the subject that is what you are measuring. I don’t know if this has ever been tried.

I see nothing wrong in devising a stringent set of tests that could rule out, beyond any doubt, that certain phenomena, believed in by too many people, just cannot be proved as authentic by any technological means and the alleged phenomenon should be ignored as baseless.

The best known one is ESP. I think that there’s a huge amount of experimental results carried out in the 1970s and 1980s that pretty much proved that this form of communication is a non event.

I really don’t believe that scientists have done anywhere near enough to actually try to disprove other kinds of popular fallacies.

Perhaps some serious experimentation should be carried out by trustworthy scientists on other phenomena such as, to take one example, so called Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). A simple experiment on something like that, with a watertight set of protocols to cover every possible angle, would be easy to set up and probably would cost less than a $1000, mainly to hire sensitive audio-visual and recording equipment and to print up signs.

It might be worthwhile for a respected team of scientists to set up a set of unimpeachable tests and rule EVP out of contention. I’m not suggesting that the researchers should commit fraud. That shouldn’t be needed. The tests would have to be carried out honestly and might help put an end to at least one other type of nonsense.

Not so. I was able to reasonably predict the responses to your OP.

Why should anyone accept that? If there is paranormal phenomenon - ghosts, ESP, telekinesis, whatever - then it would change the way we understand the laws of nature.

So such phenomenon would not be subject to gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning? We would not be able to collect data through observation and experimentation?

If we have no method of observing or detecting a phenomenon (either directly or indirectly), then it does not exist.

Doesn’t matter what you believe. All that matters is what you can prove through observation and experimentation.

Then you select a different test. But at some point your “ESP” becomes statistically indistinguishable from intuition or blind luck. It’s like going to a roulette table and calling yourself psychic because you picked the right number once out of 36 tries.

The flaw in your logic is this. If you can’t test for or observe a phenomenon or infer how it would work based on what we already know or otherwise detect it, how can you define it? Take your ESP example. Ok, so you can’t read my mind or see flash cards. So what can you do?

You obviously have no clue how Randi works.

Here’s a typical example.
Mike, a dowser, shows up, making an interesting claim. Randi lets Mike set up the test to his own satisfaction. There is one target and 9 other choices.
With the target in plain sight, Mike scored 100% - 20 tests in a row.
(Obviously his detection system is working perfectly.)
The target is now concealed.
Mike now scores 10% - exactly what you’d expect from chance.

This is a well-designed test and proved something.

My problem (well, one of them) with things like ESP is that should they be possible, they’d have to be pretty nearly ubiquitous – I can hardly imagine a greater survival advantage than being able to foresee the future, in however limited a way, or knowing somebody else’s thoughts, or anything like that. Heck, even a natural predisposition for dowsing would make your tribe the kings of the desert!
Even if these abilities were somehow limited to humans, if they existed, any human group possessing them would out-compete other groups effortlessly.

And I don’t think the notion of rules ‘outside’ of nature is worth much – the scientific method doesn’t actually depend on the ‘naturalness’ of whatever it investigates, mainly because that simply isn’t anything remotely like a well-defined notion. If there are rules supervening or completely sidestepping the natural ones, they’re simply rules we don’t know yet. It seems to me that, even if it can’t fully describe it, the scientific method is broad enough to at least say some things about the existence of everything that interacts in some way with observable reality; anything that doesn’t interact, well, it’s hard to see how that can be said to exist at all.

Thanks, guys. Ignorance corrected!

We’ll never be able to rule it out. The best we can do is to say that no one so far tested has it, and say with some confidence that ESP is not present in some large percentage of the population, based on the number of people tested. Some one person might have it and be hiding it. For all practical purposes, you’re right and I’m nitpicking, of course.

There’s been enough Randi threads to open that can of worms again.
I don’t beleive in dowsing but the way Randi set up the test were not quite was the dowser says he can do.