Thursday, January 06, 2011

More on that Bem article about "psi" woo and science in general.

The story makes the NY Times.

In recent weeks science bloggers, researchers and assorted skeptics have challenged Dr. Bem’s methods and his statistics, with many critiques digging deep into the arcane but important fine points of crunching numbers. (Others question his intentions. “He’s got a great sense of humor,” said Dr. Hyman, of Oregon. “I wouldn’t rule out that this is an elaborate joke.”)
Dr. Bem has generally responded in kind, sometimes accusing critics of misunderstanding his paper, others times of building a strong bias into their own re-evaluations of his data.
In one sense, it is a historically familiar pattern. For more than a century, researchers have conducted hundreds of tests to detect ESP, telekinesis and other such things, and when such studies have surfaced, skeptics have been quick to shoot holes in them.
But in another way, Dr. Bem is far from typical. He is widely respected for his clear, original thinking in social psychology, and some people familiar with the case say his reputation may have played a role in the paper’s acceptance.

Peer review is usually an anonymous process, with authors and reviewers unknown to one another. But all four reviewers of this paper were social psychologists, and all would have known whose work they were checking and would have been responsive to the way it was reasoned.
Perhaps more important, none were topflight statisticians. “The problem was that this paper was treated like any other,” said an editor at the journal, Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri. “And it wasn’t.”
Many statisticians say that conventional social-science techniques for analyzing data make an assumption that is disingenuous and ultimately self-deceiving: that researchers know nothing about the probability of the so-called null hypothesis.
In this case, the null hypothesis would be that ESP does not exist. Refusing to give that hypothesis weight makes no sense, these experts say; if ESP exists, why aren’t people getting rich by reliably predicting the movement of the stock market or the outcome of football games?
Instead, these statisticians prefer a technique called Bayesian analysis, which seeks to determine whether the outcome of a particular experiment “changes the odds that a hypothesis is true,” in the words of Jeffrey N. Rouder, a psychologist at the University of Missouri who, with Richard D. Morey of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has also submitted a critique of Dr. Bem’s paper to the journal. 
 Recently I have also read a bit of critique on a poorly written article in the New Yorker which points to some valid concerns in science,  but does so in a way that seems to question the scientific method itself.  In particular,  it conflates a bias that researchers might have for unconsciously wanting particular outcomes of experiments with problems with the scientific method itself.  (See here and here for good critiques of the article.)  

It is possible that Bem wanted very much the results he got, perhaps too much.    But I also know that the point of the use of Bayesian analysis might have a point as well (plus there's that infinite energy issue I alluded to earlier).  I will be reading the Rouder and Morey article to determine the extent of their critique of Bem.  As I noted earlier,  the wording of the Bem paper itself was problematic to me; it seemed hard to verify that all possible contributors to the outcome of experiments might not have been isolated. After scanning the critique, though they clearly have a point: Bem's statistical analysis does indeed appear problematic.

Even in science, attachments to outcomes have consequences.  Good science can only be practiced with non-attachment; otherwise one is likely to run into trouble.

Update: I see that Dr. Cassandra Vieten is defending the Bem article.

But I’ll put my cards on the table – given all that I’ve read – scientific studies yielding evidence both for and against, theories for and against, and data from the thousands of people I’ve surveyed and interviewed about their noetic (subjective) and psi experiences, combined with recent discoveries in serious physics that provide possible underlying theories - there are enough data to warrant a much closer look at experiences that seem to transcend the currently understood boundaries of time and space.
I think I agree with what English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington said (in reference to the uncertainty principle in physics) in 1927: “something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” And whatever it is, I think like the Facebook relationship status: "it's complicated." My proposition here is that we work to figure out what. Let’s take the lid off of the box and use the power of science, reasoning and systematic observation to explore this realm of our human experience. Why? Because experiences of “psi,” real or imagined, have profound influences on people’s lives. Because it’s possible, in fact quite probable, that our current ideas about the structure and function of reality are probably not complete. And, because it’s totally fascinating – at least to me and, it appears, many others.

It is absolute nonsense a) to claim that recent discoveries in physics provide underlying theories to this stuff, and b) that the Uncertainty Principle is in any way a useful way to appeal to ignorance.  Of course our theories about the physical world are incomplete.  But that doesn't mean any old thing goes; it doesn't mean that there's any increased likelihood that the law of gravity as seen on the scale of human perception is going to be repealed tomorrow.

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