Do Psychic Powers Exist, or Is Science Broken?

by Jess Whittlestone
Originally Published: 

I’m going to tell you about the weirdest “psychology” experiment I’ve ever heard about.

There’s a field known as “parapsychology” in which people study and publish findings on psychic phenomena. Yes, psychic phenomena. And they seem able to get some pretty astonishing results. For example, in one study a subject is put alone in a room and hooked up to a one-way video link: an experimenter in another room can see the subject, but the subject can’t see the experimenter. The experimenter stares menacingly at the subject through the video link at random times, and the subject’s stress response appears to increase when he or she is being stared at.

This should be pretty surprising to anyone who doesn’t believe in psychic phenomena: there’s clearly no way the subject could know when the experimenter was glaring, short of actually being telepathic. Is there a way to explain this without accepting that telepathy exists?

Along comes Professor Richard Wiseman, a Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. Wiseman is very skeptical of these findings, and so he tries to replicate them. His replications show no such effect. Phew, we might think. There was probably something wrong with the original studies – the researcher who conducted them, Dr. Marilyn Schlitz, was after all a psychic believer, which may well have biased the research in some way.

But wait – I haven’t even gotten to the “weirdest experiment ever” part yet. Wiseman and Schlitz, good scientists that they are, decided to get together and figure out why they were getting different results. They re-ran the same experiment together, agreeing on every detail and keeping a close eye on each other whilst they planned and set it up. Wiseman conducted half of the trials at random, and Schlitz conducted the other half. The only difference between trials was which researcher was greeting the participants, giving the instructions, and doing the staring.

The result: When Schlitz was doing the staring, later analysis found the stress-response effect, i.e. the subjects seemed to have “psychic powers.” When Wiseman was doing the staring, no such effect was found. Think for a second about how ridiculous this is. The only explanation seems to be: Something like psychic powers exists, meaning people can tell when someone is staring at them through a video link from another room, but this only works when the person doing the staring believes in the existence of psychic powers.

If you didn’t already believe in telepathy, your reaction to this probably isn’t, “Wow, I guess telepathy actually is real – I’d better go tell all my friends!” Even if you can’t give any decent explanation for what’s going on here (I can’t), you’re still probably not willing to accept that psychic powers exist (I’m not).

This seems like a pretty reasonable response. But I bet in the last few weeks you’ve also heard about some cool-sounding psychological study – that changing your body posture makes you do better in job interviews, for example:

We’ve all done this, myself included: We hear about an interesting study, accept its results without much questions because they sound pretty intuitive, and add it to our arsenal of “interesting studies to bring up in conversation.” But the point I’m getting at is that we can’t use different standards of evidence for the cool-sounding psychological study and the crazy-sounding parapsychological study. The Wiseman and Schlitz study was performed in line with the best norms and standards of modern science. If the evidence for telepathy is as strong (or perhaps even stronger) than the evidence for the body-posture-confidence hypothesis, then we have to treat them similarly. If we’re going to believe other psychology studies unquestioningly, then we also have to accept that the parapsychology study really does demonstrate that psychic powers exist. If we’re not willing to accept the telepathy conclusion, then perhaps we need to be a lot more skeptical of the validity of psychology studies we hear about in the news.

More generally, if parapsychologists are doing research that adheres to all the standards to which we hold other scientific research, and they’re finding evidence to support psychic phenomena, we can only conclude one of two things. Either we accept that the evidence for psychic phenomena is actually pretty strong. Or we conclude that our standards for evaluating scientific evidence are nowhere near good enough.

For a deeper look at this phenomenon and its implications for the scientific community, see this awesome piece by blogger Scott Alexander, who provided the initial inspiration for this article.

Photo: flickr/Sara Lando

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