Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Infamous Staring Experiment

Most scientists consider psychic powers like ESP and clairvoyance impossible. But some do not, and they regularly do psychic experiments that produce what seem to be positive results. Skeptics who do the same experiments hardly ever get positive results. The result is a grim lesson in the limitations of science as we now practice it. Slate Star Codex considers one famous experiment:
Wiseman & Schlitz’s Experimenter Effects and The Remote Detection Of Staring is my favorite parapsychology paper ever and sends me into fits of nervous laughter every time I read it.

The backstory: there is a classic parapsychological experiment where a subject is placed in a room alone, hooked up to a video link. At random times, an experimenter stares at them menacingly through the video link. The hypothesis is that this causes their galvanic skin response (a physiological measure of subconscious anxiety) to increase, even though there is no non-psychic way the subject could know whether the experimenter was staring or not.

Schiltz is a psi believer whose staring experiments had consistently supported the presence of a psychic phenomenon. Wiseman is a psi skeptic whose staring experiments keep showing nothing and disproving psi. Since they were apparently the only two people in all of parapsychology with a smidgen of curiosity or rationalist virtue, they decided to team up and figure out why they kept getting such different results.

The idea was to plan an experiment together, with both of them agreeing on every single tiny detail. They would then go to a laboratory and set it up, again both keeping close eyes on one another. Finally, they would conduct the experiment in a series of different batches. Half the batches (randomly assigned) would be conducted by Dr. Schlitz, the other half by Dr. Wiseman. Because the two authors had very carefully standardized the setting, apparatus and procedure beforehand, “conducted by” pretty much just meant greeting the participants, giving the experimental instructions, and doing the staring.

The results? Schlitz’s trials found strong evidence of psychic powers, Wiseman’s trials found no evidence whatsoever.

Take a second to reflect on how this makes no sense. Two experimenters in the same laboratory, using the same apparatus, having no contact with the subjects except to introduce themselves and flip a few switches – and whether one or the other was there that day completely altered the result. For a good time, watch the gymnastics they have to do to in the paper to make this sound sufficiently sensical to even get published. This is the only journal article I’ve ever read where, in the part of the Discussion section where you’re supposed to propose possible reasons for your findings, both authors suggest maybe their co-author hacked into the computer and altered the results.
Maybe Wiseman is just such a nice guy, with such a pleasant aura, that his staring isn't menacing enough to set off anyone's psionic stare detectors. But more likely this just points to the same problem with contemporary science that has brought so many psychological results into question.

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