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Arbitration Committee Decisions on Pseudoscience

The Arbitration Committee has issued several principles which may be helpful to editors of this and other articles when dealing with subjects and categories related to "pseudoscience".

Four groups

Scientists who changed their minds about psi[edit]

This is carried over from the Dean Radin discussion page, where I pointed out that there were many scientists who were originally sceptical about psi but for one reason or another changed their minds when confronted with the evidence. I was asked to give examples. I enquired of a number of parapsychologists and got back a range of responses. Stephan Schwartz in particular listed several, including Harold Edgerton, Chair of the department of radio physics at MIT, who he says 'began as a deep skeptic and then co-authored a paper with me.' Probably the article should have a section about this facet of psi eventually, but I'll just raise the point in the talk page for now. --Brian Josephson (talk) 09:28, 19 August 2014 (UTC)

We would need some sources for this. jps (talk) 11:28, 19 August 2014 (UTC)
I'll see what I can find. --Brian Josephson (talk) 11:51, 19 August 2014 (UTC)
Edgerton died in 1990 at age 86. How old was he when this supposed 'conversion' to the wonders of psi happened? Odd that there is no mention of it in our article about him. SteveBaker (talk) 02:17, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
The Stephan Schwartz paper referenced in your link does not appear to have been co-written with Edgerton. What it says is that Edgerton was involved with an experimentally modified side-scan radar system used to scan the harbor of Alexandria. That seems like exactly the kind of thing that you'd expect the Chair of Radio Physics at MIT to be involved with. The "remote viewing" part of the study seems to have little to do with Edgerton's work in the area. It's one hell of a stretch to infer that Edgerton "changed his mind about psi" as a result. His equipment didn't produce great results - but that's often what happens when you're trying some experimental piece of equipment for the first time. Edgerton's only recorded input to that paper is buried in one of the references "Harold Edgerton, Private Communication, 8 May 1979"...a vague reference to a 'private communication' is hardly evidence of anything. These "papers" don't appear to have been published anywhere - and I don't see any efforts to peer-review them, or to have some other team attempt to reproduce the results. This isn't science.
The impressive endorsements of Schwartz's books by "Nathaniel Branden, PhD" (who, it's claimed had his mind completely changed by reading Schwartz's book) had been publishing self-help books for years before that - on subjects such as raising self-esteem, and to "INSPIRE READERS TO HONOR THEIR LIFE AND HAPPINESS" not exactly a hard-core scientist who changed his mind about psi. The other endorsement is by Judith Orloff, M.D who writes books with titles like "SURRENDER TO THE POWER OF YOUR INTUITION" and "THE ECSTASY OF SURRENDER"...she's also written a bunch of online quizzes like "What's Your Money Type?", which asks penetrating scientific questions like:
  • Do I worry about money every day?
  • Do I make financial problems larger, not smaller?
  • Do I have difficulty falling asleep because I’m worried about money?
  • Do I worry about money even during comfortable times?
  • Do I find I can’t stop worrying, even though I try?
  • When one financial worry is solved do I immediately go onto another?
She helpfully points out that if you answered "YES!" to all six questions then you're a worrier about money. (WOW! I didn't know!)
Truly, I don't see a single scientist of any credible stature who had their minds changed. Sorry Brian, this is bullshit. Rather than posting vague suggestions and then promising to go find some "real" references when you're challenged, save us all a lot of effort and find the really convincing references FIRST and only after you have a stack of them should you come and suggest them to this list.
SteveBaker (talk) 02:47, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
You have obviously misunderstood what I wrote and have gone off on a wild goose chase. I've removed the link to Schwartz's home page to save anyone else getting similarly confused. I assume he added the comment about having written a joint paper in his email just to indicate that he knew Edgerton personally, but what is important is that he changed his mind, having been initially sceptical. I never met Edgerton myself, but it just happens that on my first visit to MIT someone I knew was enthusing about his breakthroughs in high-speed photography. Do you not consider Edgerton to be of credible stature yourself?
Here's a real reference showing scientists and others of reasonably credible stature who were sufficiently supportive of parapsychology to become Presidents of the Society for Psychical Research. --Brian Josephson (talk) 08:22, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
Brian, this is just an argument from authority, you have a list of old people (some scientists, some philosophers) who are mostly dead who believed in paranormal powers. It means nothing. I could compile a list of 300 scientists or philosophers skeptical of paranormal powers. It means nothing. Look at the data not what people of "credible stature" have said. It is a fallacy to go down this route. Stuart Sutherland covers this in his book Irrationality - (as quoted below) "distinguished people have often been deceived". Anyway if you know your history of parapsychology then you will known most of the SPR presidents were all before the 1940s, look at the dates. This is back in the day when mediums and séances were still popular. Scientists like William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, Charles Richet or William F. Barrett were a load of old boys in their late 70s who were utterly deceived in the séance room from charlatans like Daniel Dunglas Home, or Eusapia Palladino etc. They did not understand methods of deception. We already have a page on the SPR Society for Psychical Research covering this. Goblin Face (talk) 21:15, 26 August 2014 (UTC)

Impossibility of experimental fairness?[edit]

Somewhere in the skeptical literature, I recall coming across mention of the inherent methodological problem of isolating the effects of the psi phenomenon being studied. For example, in a telepathy experiment, it seems difficult to guard against the possibility of accidental and unconscious participation by the researchers themselves, via the same telepathic mechanism that is being examined. This would seem to make almost any double-blind psi experiment impossible to carry out. It's sort of analogous to sensory leakage, except by paranormal means. I haven't done a detailed WP search, but I can't find any specific mention of this challenge, although it seems rather obvious - to me anyway! If people think it's worth including, I'll try to hunt down a suitable reference. Thoughts? jxm (talk) 15:44, 22 August 2014 (UTC)

That's right, and it is known as the experimenter effect. I think of it more as the experimenter having a facilitatory effect rather than leakage. The experimenter effect is by no means unique to psi, probably in any psychological investigation if the experimenter makes the subject feel good the subject will do better. I think it is well worth having a section on this. --Brian Josephson (talk) 17:17, 22 August 2014 (UTC)
Tnx fr that! I'll do some poking around for reliable material. However, I think it's actually more than just a garden-variety experimenter effect. Here's another way of thinking about it: a protocol that is designed to isolate and test one ESP phenomenon cannot simultaneously exclude the possibility of another ESP phenomenon being accidentally involved. For example, it seems impossible to set up a telepathy study involving Zener cards which completely eliminates the potential influence of psychokinesis, retrocognition, or another undesired psychic behavior at the time the card deck was shuffled. Karolyi 2003 (An Excursion into the Paranormal, ISBN 1-921008-83-0) describes some (quite inadequate) attempts to control for this type of problem, but it's much too credulous to be used as a reliable source. I will continue the search. jxm (talk) 20:06, 23 August 2014 (UTC)
Isn't this the secondary challenge before parapyschology? Before differentiating and testing the types of ESP phenomena, parapsychology should convince mainstream scientific view and skeptics, as the primary challenge. How come do skeptics or skeptical literature raise such an argument, which -by its nature- assumes that ESP exists. Logos (talk) 11:58, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
Mainstream scientists pretty open-minded compared with the small number of voluble sceptics, and it is not good use of time and effort to try to persuade that committed minority. We are up against human psychology here, including phenomena such as groupthink. "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die ... ." as Max Planck once said. --Brian Josephson (talk) 15:53, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
The problem is that you don't have one solid set of definitions for what these variously claimed phenomena actually are. If you make the claim that person A can read person B's mind, regardless of interference - then that's easily testable. If you make the claim that A can read person B's mind but only when A is comfortable with the setting in which it's happening - then that's probably untestable...indeed 'unfalsifiable' because A can always claim that any failure may be attributed to interference of one kind or another.
However, if A can be queried "Did you feel that you were being interfered with?" before the outcome of the experiment has been determined - then if A asserts that there was no interference - and still fails to produce results that are significantly better than chance, then it's all busted. If A asserts that interference was indeed present - then that result may be rejected from the sample.
Of course it's possible that A will always claim which case we may discount their power as being pretty darned useless - and it's possible that they'll claim that they won't know whether they were interfered with until the result of the experiment has been which case we will have to put them back into the "unfalsifiable" pile.
What is needed in order to put this onto a more orderly scientific basis is for the proponents to take an appropriately scientific stance and determine for themselves what things interfere with results and what don't. When you have that list and the proponents are prepared to stand by it - then serious scientific experiments can be designed that eliminate those things completely. However, when the so-called psychic can at any time introduce a new and previously unspecified excuse for failure, we have to say "Your claim is unfalsifiable" - and at that point, nobody should take the claim very seriously.
If a psychic writes the list of influences, the scientist methodically eliminates them all, the experiment is run, the results prove that the psychic is a fraud...then the psychic says "Oh...but there was a black cat walking by somewhere outside the building...I sensed it and it threw me off...oh...didn't I tell you about the need to exclude black cats from within a mile of me?"...then you're rather quickly going to form the opinion that this experiment is indeed impossible - and since unfalsifiable claims are generally treated as being false, the result will be considered to be negative.
SteveBaker (talk) 20:14, 25 August 2014 (UTC)
If ... ... . Yes, if. But this kind of difficulty is recognised by parapsychologists and appropriate steps are taken to deal with it. Sceptics on the other hand can't be bothered to study the details and keep up, and continue to raise the same tired old objections. --Brian Josephson (talk) 15:58, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
Name one where it has been " recognised by parapsychologists and appropriate steps have been taken to deal with it." -- TRPoD aka The Red Pen of Doom 01:11, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
Discussion of the steps taken in the case being discussed is quite technical and I would only take time to go into the details if I thought I was dealing with someone who was genuinely interested. People who are genuinely interested can email me if they want to learn more. --Brian Josephson (talk) 16:07, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
Incidentally, it is amusing to reflect that climate change research is proceeding along lines that almost make it pseudoscience. The temperature rise doesn't fit expectations, so researchers hunted round for a mechanism that would make theory fit observations and with some effort found something (see It is not surprising that some are sceptical. --Brian Josephson (talk) 21:06, 25 August 2014 (UTC)
Ironically, neither carbon dioxide nor anything else but collective "psi power"s of people might be responsible for the unusable heat, sort of a "cancer" of the earth. Logos (talk) 23:39, 25 August 2014 (UTC)
I don't want to get us distracted into a debate about climate change, but Logos raises a key point here. The climate scientists' search for 'excuses' to explain these observations involves exploring the possible application of other phenomena that are already broadly accepted in other related areas. But here, we're dealing with the potential problem of 'excusing' one apparent psi phenomenon by appealing to another equally-implausible one. As noted earlier, we still need reliable sources for cases where this issue is "recognised by parapsychologists and appropriate steps have been taken to deal with it." jxm (talk) 05:29, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
The cabal will promptly designate any such source unreliable. As easy as falling off a log! --Brian Josephson (talk) 10:28, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
It should not be that difficult to "isolate" the so called experimenter effect. The experiments can be isolated from the experimenter, who designs and sets up the experiment, by holding the experiments by a computerized operator and on the dates the experimenter does not know. Logos (talk) 09:50, 26 August 2014 (UTC)
I'm afraid that wouldn't work, because if psi exists the influence would still be there. After all, in ESP experiments the pictures to be transmitted are selected by a computer (which, I may say is an example of an advance over the last 125 years, motivated by reducing the possibility of errors, that the people who say there has been no advance seem not to have heard of), and the results are also evaluated by computer, and the effect is still found. --Brian Josephson (talk) 10:28, 26 August 2014 (UTC)

Edits by Brian Josephson[edit]

Brian Josephson added to the article lead "It has been suggested however that most people's evaluations of parapsychology are based on false information."

His source for this is a single page commentary titled "Observation versus theory in parapsychology" by the parapsychologist Harvey Irwin. The source can be found here [1]. Can you explain Josephson what does this mean? What false information and why should this be in the lead? And does anyone have full access to this source to confirm that it even says this?

On further investigation it appears Irwin's commentary is in reply to Mario Bunge. (1987). Why Parapsychology Cannot Become a Science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10: 576-577. Goblin Face (talk) 17:22, 22 August 2014 (UTC)

Your detective work hasn't got you very far, I'm afraid. The commentary by Child is in fact a response to an article 'Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or search for the soul?' by James Alcock, not to the one by Bunge. What Child says (amplifying my extract) is 'critics (including Alcock) have grossly distorted the most basic facts about that research, so that most people's evaluations of it are based on false information'. I trust that explains the language of the quote and why it is an important point.
Re whether that quote should be in the lead, by my count that paragraph in the lead contains 7 sources critical of parapsychology (the rest of the lead being essentially factual), so I think adding the single quote by Child cannot be construed as excessive. Further, his comment is one that I'm sure is echoed by many others and not in any way a freak point of view. --Brian Josephson (talk) 18:57, 22 August 2014 (UTC)
Sorry, but that sounds like garden variety special pleading rather than anything actually relevant to the topic of the article. Also, the form you have written it in is weaselly. Dominus Vobisdu (talk) 19:40, 22 August 2014 (UTC)
What would be less 'weasly' wording, can you help? And if you are unable to see the relevance to the subject right now, I'm very sorry. --Brian Josephson (talk) 19:58, 22 August 2014 (UTC)
"critics (including Alcock) have grossly distorted the most basic facts about that research" - why does this line use the word "that"? Obviously Child is not referring to the entire topic of parapsychology he is criticizing Alcock on a specific thing. You need to give more details, what facts has Alcock distorted and why? It seems to me you have cherry picked what Child has been saying and are not letting us know what his commentary is actually about in full. You need to explain what Child is actually saying and give full context if you want this source to be cited on the article. His commentary is behind a pay-wall and I doubt it is online. It does not belong in the lead but it could be cited with Alcock's paper somewhere if we can establish was he is actually saying. You can find Alcock's paper here [2], he argues parapsychology is not a science. Goblin Face (talk) 20:59, 22 August 2014 (UTC)
Why are you doing this nit-picking, Goblin Face? You give the appearance of someone desperately looking for a reason to remove that item from the lead; otherwise you would be content to bring closure by allowing it to stay. Most people in your position would I think say 'OK, the article isn't exactly how I'd wish it to be, but I'm prepared to let it go'. Think about it! You give the appearance of grinding away with a strong PoV. For example, many of the sceptical references to the article you can't get at at all but that doesn't seem to bother you the way the fact that this particular article is not available free seems to. You refer to a paywall as if it is something impossible to scale, but all you need is a credit card and a pretty modest amount of $$$ and you can read all of the target articles and all of the comments (I am assuming you are over 18, or that could be a problem). But all that you'll find at the end of your quest is that the reference is a pretty appropriate one for the lead. By the way, the comment focusses on Alcock for the simple reason that it is the target article, and it is conveniently there so that the reader can see how he is engaging in misrepresentation by withholding important information. And 'that' is the area of psi research that Child specialises in where he can be confident that there is misrepresentation, but similar complaints have been made by others working in other areas of psi research. Misrepresentation of the evidence is a dominant aspect of the parapsychology story, and it fully deserves a mention in the lead. --Brian Josephson (talk) 21:45, 22 August 2014 (UTC)

──────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────── If there are examples (many or few; does not matter) of misrepresentation -with references-, then it is feasible to add a separate section named as "misrepresentation of the results" or sort of similar under the "Parapsychology#Scientific_reception" heading. Then a sentence like "There are examples of misrepresentations of..." in the lead would be justified without any citation/reference. Logos (talk) 23:23, 22 August 2014 (UTC)

Josephson what you are suggesting is just irrational. The lead is supposed to represent the scientific consensus on the topic not a single parapsychologist's opinion. We do not put fringe views right into the lead on controversial topics, this is undue weight. You are being unrealistic with your suggestions. They are not in accordance with Wikipedia policy. Anyway, two days ago I purchased a book entitled "Irrationality" by the psychologist Stuart Sutherland. I finished the book last night but when I came to his chapter on parapsychology on page 315 it put a smile on my face. Here's what Sutherland wrote "Credulity is not limited to the layman. From Conan Doyle to Brian Josephson, a Nobel prize-winning physicist who holds a chair at Cambridge University, distinguished people have often been deceived." You may believe in psi and all kinds of magical pseudoscience Josephson but Wikipedia is not a dumping ground for you to promote your fringe views. I see no reason to put Child's commentary in the lead, especially as you have not even explained what "important information" Alcock has withheld. Goblin Face (talk) 12:01, 23 August 2014 (UTC)
I'm sorry to trouble you, but would you mind directing me to the place in the guidelines where it says 'the lead is supposed to represent the scientific consensus on the topic'. If of course the guidelines actually say that in as many words, rather than it being something produced by you making use of WP:SYNTH or WP:OR I shall of course accept it.
You say that the part I added is just 'single parapsychologist's opinion', but in fact it is the view of very many parapsychologists. --Brian Josephson (talk) 20:45, 23 August 2014 (UTC)
WP:LEAD via WP:NPOV : The lead is a summary of the content of the article, and the article is a proportional representation of the academic mainstream says about the subject.-- TRPoD aka The Red Pen of Doom 21:03, 23 August 2014 (UTC)
OK, I see the first part, but where does the second part come from? I can't see those words in WP:LEAD, and while WP:NPOV does refer to mainstream views it doesn't state what you are saying above. I am sorry to keep pressing you on this, but this really does look more and more like WP:SYNTH, the more I look at it. --Brian Josephson (talk) 21:26, 23 August 2014 (UTC) (talk) 21:25, 23 August 2014 (UTC)
If you want to look at it that way, but WP:SYN] only applies to the actual article content. WP:CREEP clearly tells us that we do not need a specific policy for each and every variation of editing question that we come across - we are SUPPOSED to interpret how the general policies fit together for any particular circumstance. It is clearly the intent of the policies that UNDUE emphasis of very fringe claims should not be given undue prominence in the lead.-- TRPoD aka The Red Pen of Doom 22:03, 23 August 2014 (UTC)
Anyway, I accept the first part of RedPen's statement, with its implication that my earlier addition should not be in the lead at this time. Logos's proposal above, of a new section on 'misrepresentation by sceptics' or whatever, looks like a good way ahead initially. --Brian Josephson (talk) 08:15, 24 August 2014 (UTC)
However, I'd dispute the claim that parapsychology is 'very fringe'; indeed I'd ascribe that more to the people who know about the experimental work and declare it pseudoscience -- the number of such people must be small compared with the number of scientists who believe ESP exists (though only the former publicise their opinions, which creates a false impression). In 1997 I discussed ESP with Dawkins prior to his CP Snow lecture which led to him asserting that his attacks on ESP were directed at the uncritical TV shows on the subject, not on the science with which he was unfamiliar. The fact that he had not studied the scientific evidence came out very clearly in a discussion with Sheldrake in connection with a TV programme. This is the problem here, unfortunately -- declarations by sceptics cannot always be taken at face value. --Brian Josephson (talk) 09:39, 24 August 2014 (UTC)
Re the Cumberland quote, what a marvellous illustration of the power of groupthink!! --Brian Josephson (talk) 19:58, 23 August 2014 (UTC)