Don’t give woo a platform.

Posted on January 12, 2011


Apparently, according to a recent New York Times article, a well-respected scientific journal on psychology gave a green light to “study,” by a Dr. Bem, on ESP.  Yes, ESP, as in extra-sensory perception.  Nothing quite gets my goat than when science journals give the nod to truly non-scientific papers under the pretense of not wanting to inhibit “open inquiry.”  Now, I am all for open inquiry, but a line has to be drawn between science and non-science, often called simply nonsense.

“It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in,” Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon and longtime critic of ESP research, said. “I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”

I agree, Ray.  It must be kept in mind that my reasons for disgust do not stem from any sort of fear that there may actually be something to ESP, I assure you.  No, the reason this shouldn’t be allowed is because ESP proponents will be citing this article for decades to come, no matter how the paper is received.  Furthermore, and even more importantly, this paper shouldn’t be given the time of day because it isn’t science, as is revealed in the same N.Y. Times article:

“All four [editors] decided that the paper met the journal’s editorial standards, Dr. Judd added, even though “there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results.

Emphasis mine, and please, let me emphasize it again rather annoyingly:  THE STUDY PROPOSES NO MECHANISM!  How many times does “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” need to be expounded before people get the picture?  If you’re claiming that something as profound as ESP exists, you had better be able to speak the language of science and explain how  it works.  Christopher Hitchens may have said it best–“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

This paper is just hoping to grab headlines.  It reminds me of the recent brouhaha regarding the bacterial extremophile supposedly able to incorporate arsenate into its DNA.  The misleading headline was “NASA Finds New Life Form.”  If that headline isn’t suggestive I don’t know what is.  First thing I thought when I read that headline was that we discovered E.T.  The headline has recently been updated and changed to “NASA Unveils Arsenic Life Form,” which is still misleading, since the claim that the extremophile actually incorporated arsenate into its DNA was thoroughly refuted by Carl Zimmer in his response entitled “This Paper Should Not Have Been Published.”  Shocking headlines are detrimental to science, because they give the lay person a distorted view of real science, thereby establishing a rapport of disappointment, which leads to a general distrust of science.

The thing to be considered is that postulating that a strain of bacteria is able to incorporate arsenate into its DNA, or that ESP exists, are extraordinary claims.  And, as Eric-Jan Wagenmakers state in this article:

“an extraordinary claim . . . should undergo more scrutiny before it is allowed to enter the field.”

Here is an example of an experiment in the paper:

“. . .Dr. Bem had subjects choose which of two curtains on a computer screen hid a photograph; the other curtain hid nothing but a blank screen.

A software program randomly posted a picture behind one curtain or the other — but only after the participant made a choice. Still, the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent, at least when the photos being posted were erotic ones. They did not do better than chance on negative or neutral photos.”

Fifty three percent to 50 percent is not a statistically significant figure.  You would expect that amount of fluctuation, or more, in the relative frequencies of heads and tails when flipping a coin 100 times.

“What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

Truly astonishing.