In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

Note: This is the fourth installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu's website

So far, we have seen how paranormalist Winston Wu misunderstands core skeptic principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, parsimony, burden of evidence, the perils and pitfalls of anecdotal evidence, and the fallibility of human memory. We have also investigated the difference between the unexplained and the unexplainable, the nature of beliefs, the methods of scientific skepticism, irrationality and the scope and influence of pseudoscience.

In this fourth installment of this articles series, we move onto examining specific paranormalist claims, such as psychics that claim to be able to talk to the dead, the value of controls and replication in psi research, the nature of the placebo effect and the alleged existence of miracles.

Misunderstood principle #16: Psychological techniques of alleged psychics

Alleged psychics use a wide range of psychological techniques (reviewed here) to persuade people that they have supernatural powers that allows them to supposedly communicate with the dead or gain important insights about the past: cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, time-shifting, inflating probabilistic resources, shotgunning, covering all bases, vanishing negative, escape hatch, changing the subject, spreading the net wider, retrofitting, post hoc rationalizations and so on.

Wu apparently do not recognize the breadth of psychological techniques because he only brings up cold and hot reading:

The problem with the cold reading/hot reading explanation is that for many accounts of psychic readings (including some of my own) the techniques do not account for the specific information attained. For example, some psychic can tell you very specific things about you without asking you any questions, which rules out the “fishing for clues” technique. If neither they nor any of their accomplices talked to you beforehand, then that would also rule out the same technique. […[ Unfortunately for skeptics, there are many cases of psychic readings where all of the above were ruled out. Therefore, cold/hot reading cannot account for every case. In such cases, the skeptic is left without explanations, but often continue to insist that the client must have given away some kind of clue, and demand that this be disproved first before imposing any claim of genuine psychic ability at work.

Because there are dozens and dozens of other techniques besides cold and hot reading, this is a very weak argument for the existence of psychic powers. Although Wu does acknowledge that there are many frauds out there, Wu has denied himself the opportunity to fully investigate alternatives to his hypothesis that alleged psychics have genuine supernatural powers.

The next part of the section contains anecdotes about visits to psychics that he and various people have done. However, as was explored in a previous installment, the plural of anecdote is not data. Also, many of them are second or third-hand accounts, taken from email list discussions or an anonymous story about remembering playing with an Ouija board at age 11. Thus, they contain information that can be considerably different from the actual events and Wu even acknowledge that at least some of the alleged examples are examples of cold reading. Because of that, this installment focus on examining Wu’s own experience.

Wu claims to have visited his “acting teacher’s mom” called “Pearl” and gotten a psychic reading. According to Wu, “she sensed that I had a tragic period in my life when I was 9 years old” because of “the vibrations she felt”. Wu rules out guessing, because that probability of guessing very bad years in his life would have been to low (he estimates that it is (2/25), but this is a flawed approach. First, talking about “vibrations” in this way is a classic pseudoscientific tactic based on misusing scientific terminology. Second, it would have been unlikely for Wu to remember a tragic event before the age of 3-4 because of childhood amnesia. So that means that the probability is probably closer to at most 1 in 11. Third, that probability would have been correct had the question been “Guess one of the two most tragic years in my life”. But that was not the question. Rather, what probably happened was that the alleged psychic made a very general claim (“you had a tragedy”) that Wu, spurred by confirmation bias, retrofitted to fit events in his own life. Had the psychic said that Wu had experienced something tragic when he was 13, it is likely that Wu would have been able to come up with some tragic event that fitted the “prediction” made by Perl. Wu even alludes to this possibility in his description of the event when he writes that a “fellow student mentioned that she was amazed because Pearl told her that she had a certain tragedy when she was 5 years old.” In other words, the alleged psychic might have been using this “tragedy gambit” as a general psychological technique.

After his list of anecdotes, Wu references experiments carried out by Gary Schwartz and claims that this provides serious scientific evidence for psychic powers. However, this research has several methodological flaws: (1) allowance for sensory leakage, (2) not double-blinded, (3) lack of independent verification of claims made by sitters, (4) flawed calculations of probability, (5) failure to correct for multiple testing. These and many other problems are discussed in greater detail in Hyman (2003) and Wiseman and O’Keeffe (2001).

Misunderstood principle #17: Replication

In science, we want knowledge that is robust and can be trusted. It is always possible that the results of a single study or single research group is flawed. That is why the most trustworthy scientific results are the results that are replicated using solid methodology across many studies and many research groups. Wu laments replication for studies allegedly demonstrating psychic powers:

If the 2,549 sessions of the Ganzfeld and Autoganzfeld experiments from 1974 to 1997 by different research laboratories which produced above chance results doesn’t count as replicable, then what would?

As we saw in the first installment of this articles series, the Ganzfeld and Autoganzfeld experiments had numerous methodological flaws:

The Ganzfeld experiments suffered from a number of flaws, such as incomplete randomization, the fact that the receiver was not fully isolated and insufficient correction for multiple testing. Attempts to improve the failings of these experiments showed negligible effect sizes and any positive results have not been independently replicated.

Thus, if the original study has a flawed methodology, replication attempts should use a scientifically defensible methodology. There is no point in trying to “replicate” a finding by reusing the same flawed methodology. When replications are done without the flawed aspects of the original methodology, the supposed evidence for psi vanishes.

Wu continues his misunderstandings of replication by confusing replication of the event and replication of the research:

For example, if an Olympic Track and Field runner breaks a world record, and other athletes don’t repeat it, it doesn’t mean that it never happened. […] Similarly, phenomena such as supernovas, balls of lightning, and comets are outer phenomena not replicable under our control but are acknowledged to exist anyway. Therefore, replicating the appearance of UFO’s or ghosts may not be possible because they are out of our control, but that doesn’t mean they never happen or don’t exist.

Science is not about what happens or what exists. It is about establishing reliable knowledge. There are certainly things that happen that science has no idea about, or perhaps even can have no idea about in principle. However, this does not mean that it is rational to accept supernatural claims without sufficient evidence. Furthermore, it is not the event itself that needs to be replicated, but he research of that event. Analyzing the DNA of blood stains from a crime scene is scientific because that analysis can be replicated by independent investigators despite the fact that the crime “only happened once”.

Misunderstood principle #18: Adequate controls

The points of using controls in science is to exclude competing explanatory models for the observed results. If controls are not used, there will be confounders that interfere with the correct interpretation of the data. Wu does not really discuss controls at any great length, merely continues the discussion from the previous section, this time focusing on Uri Geller and the experiments at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). James Randi has discussed these experiments at great length in his book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions. It turns out that Geller made use of sensory leakage (being able to hear through an opening in the box he was in), had confederate and could skip tests were he failed. The experimentalists also selectively reported positive results and hid a lot of the negative ones. So the SRI results are not evidence of psychic powers, but rather evidence of a skilled artist. This is precisely the reason why tight controls are required.

Misunderstood principle #19: Placebo effects

Right of the bat, Wu misunderstands the argument that alternative medicine is a placebo effect:

It basically presumes that if we don’t understand how or why something works, then it must be due to chance, the placebo effect or the person’s own imagination. Since we don’t know everything there is to know about the body and mind, why should we assume that only what we understand is real and the rest is superstition?

The argument is not “we do not understand how or why alternative medicine works, therefore it must be placebo effects”. Rather, it is scientific research has shown that alternative medicine are not more clinically effective than placebo and the proposed mechanisms contradict most of mainstream physics, chemistry, biology and medicine.

Wu appeals to the research by O. Carl Simonton which claimed that mental imagery improve survival times for cancer patients. However, this research lacked a control group, so it is not possible to attribute the observed results to the mental imagery procedure. Controlled research has shown that this has no impact whatsoever on survival. The American Cancer Society explains:

Some studies also suggest that imagery can directly affect the immune system. Although one uncontrolled, exploratory study suggested that guided imagery could improve survival for people with cancer, available scientific evidence does not support that these techniques can cure cancer or any other disease. More carefully constructed studies have shown improved quality of life in some patients, but have found no survival advantage for imagery or other psychological techniques.

The rest of the section focuses on arguing in favor of acupuncture. However, acupuncture is nothing more than theatrical placebo. You can find studies that appear to show that acupuncture works, but these are often methodologically flawed. When proper methods for controls are put into place, acupuncture does not better than sham acupuncture. Colquhoun and Novella (2013) explains:

Large multicenter clinical trials conducted in Germany7–10 and the United States11 consistently revealed that verum (or true) acupuncture and sham acupuncture treatments are no different in decreasing pain levels across multiple chronic pain disorders: migraine, tension headache, low back pain, and osteoarthritis of the knee.

If, indeed, sham acupuncture is no different from real acupuncture, the apparent improvement that may be seen after acupuncture is merely a placebo effect. Furthermore, it shows that the idea of meridians is purely imaginary.

[…]

A small excess of positive results after thousands of trials is most consistent with an inactive intervention. The small excess is predicted by poor study design and publication bias.

This paper has been discussed in additional details in Acupuncture is Almost Certainly Clinically Irrelevant.

Misunderstood principle #20: Appeal to popularity

The next section on miracles rehashes a lot of the arguments brought up in the earlier sections of the book. Here he simply asserts that miracles (who he refuses to define in the first place) exists:

In either case, miracles do happen. Many doctors and nurses can attest to this. […] Whatever the case, the “miracles are impossible” argument is illogical because miracles have happened already. There is ample evidence of this both from anecdotals and hard evidence from X-Rays of the affected region of the patient’s body that were taken before and after the miracle.

Wu does bring up spontaneous remission, but he does not address the core crux: why are these supposed miracles happen only in such a way that they can be explained by other factors? Why do people who have undergone amputation not have their limbs grow back? Why are supposed “medical miracles” stuff that could be explained by science? Needless to say, anecdotes are not scientific evidence.

Wu then appeals to the popularity of beliefs in miracles as if that demonstrates that miracles actually exists:

In fact, according to a Newsweek poll, described in the May 1, 2000 issue, 84 percent of adult Americans say they believe that God performs miracles and 48 percent report that they have personally experienced or witnessed one. Three fourths of American Catholics say they pray for miracles, and among non-Christians, and nonreligious people, 43 percent say they have asked for God’s intervention. Now, 48 percent of Americans is a huge number, about 150 million people. And that can’t all be due misperception, mistake, or flukes on the probability curve. Common sense tells us that statistically, such widespread reports probably points to a real phenomenon, whatever it may be.

The reason why a lot of people believe in miracles is because of religious indoctrination and cultural factors. The fact that lots of people believe in unreasonable things is not an argument for their existence.

In the end, Wu doubles down and acknowledges spontaneous remission as a valid explanation. However, he makes one last-ditch case for miracles:

However, this explanation is a lot like saying that anything we don’t understand must be due to chance. Sure spontaneous remission happens as well, even to those who are Atheists and those that haven’t been prayed for. But even so, who’s to say that spontaneous remission is solely the result of chance and luck? The bottom line is that miracles do happen, that is a fact. How we interpret them is the issue.

Spontaneous remission is probably caused by immunological mechanisms. The human immune system finally develop a powerful immune response and gets rid of the cancer. This is not “chance” or “luck”, but it is also not a miracle due to supernatural powers.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

  • March 9, 2015 at 07:12
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    Emil Karlsson,

    I think its safe to say that if psychic powers were real, at least one scientist would have proven their existence by now. Not to mention, think of how useful such abilities would be?

    • March 9, 2015 at 10:22
      Permalink

      That is an excellent point. I think the economic argument you alluded to is very powerful. Eventually, proponents of the existence of psychic abilities will trout out the usual post hoc rationalizations like “we do not have enough funding”, “it has not been enough time”. They are seemingly unaware that this approach contradicts their other approach that is based on saying that the evidence is already in and shows that psychic abilities exists.

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