Reason and the Paranormal Hypothesis (Part 1)

As promised, today begins our analytical exploration of paranormal phenomenology and it’s difficult to validate claims of extra sensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK). Generally, ESP contends that human beings possess, in addition to the normal five physiological sense organs, extraordinary mental skills of perception or communication manifesting in clairvoyance (precognition and remote viewing) and mental telepathy. A related ‘extraordinary mental skill’ is the purported ability to move, deform, or levitate physical objects without the application of any known physical force, called psychokinesis or telekinesis.

Later, we will look at the claims of spiritualism and closely-related psychic phenomenons, including, disembodied spirts, angels and demons, cryptozoology (mythical and folkloric creatures), discarnate gods and jinns, and so forth. For convenience, I include Magick. Magick is primarily, a mental art employing an occult force not recognized by modern science, though, some proponents employ potions and amulets as intermediaries. Magick is always associated with one of the more folkloric entities, warlocks, witches, necromancers, allies, and sorcerers, to list a few.

For convenience, I will denote the varied categories of psychic phenomena claimed to exist by its adherents, under the rubric, the parapsychic. The field of study is technically called parapsychology; in which some researchers include ESP.

Our blogs begin with the paranormal world view as the paranormal does not presume that the hypothesized ‘extraordinary mental skills’ of ESP and PK are parapsychic. Rather, ESP is thought to utilize an unknown psychophysiological channel for transferring demonstrative information between persons over space and time. PK postulates an unknown mental force which can oppose gravity and chemical forces.

ESP is an extremely difficult area for scientific study, as it is difficult to effectively shield the experimental subject from being influenced by extraneous, unrecognized communication between the sender and the receiver.

For instance, Howe and Webb (Howe PD, Webb ME, Detecting unidentified changes, Plos One, 2014, 9(1):1-9) found that subjects can detect changes in natural images, though they are often unable to localize such change. Apparently, persons possess an unconscious awareness of the global properties of their environs. Subsequently, in an ESP experiment, particularly one of forced choice, the sensory signals emanating from the examiner body habitus may differ depending on the card being held up, or the prosody of the examiner’s voice; such information utilized by the subject unconsciously, rather than telepathically.

The earliest case study demonstrating subtle and unconscious communication is found in the story about Clever Hans, a horse, owned and trained by a gymnasium mathematics teacher. Upon questioning, Hans appeared to be able to add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones, and read, spell, and understand German. His owner, Herr Von Osten would ask, “If the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?” Hans would answer by tapping his hoof. Questions could be asked orally or in writing.

In 1907, Herr Professor Oskar Pfungst demonstrated, contrary to what seemed obvious to his amazed human observers, that Hans did not cognitively perform such mental tasks; rather, Hans had learned to watch for body clues unconsciously provided by the questioners capable of answering the question posed. Moreover, after having become adept at giving Hans performances with conscious physical cues, Herr Professor discovered that he would produce these cues involuntarily regardless of whether he wished to exhibit or suppress them.

In honor of Pfungst’s study, unconscious body language communication between people and animals bears the moniker, the Clever Hans Effect. Appreciation of this phenomenon has had a sobering effect on experimental design and methodology in ESP and animal cognition studies.

So to prevent an unintentional invoking of the Clever Hans Effect, comparative psychologists normally test animals in isolated apparatuses, without physical interaction with them. However, such isolation is problematic, in itself, as many interesting phenomena in animal cognition require that behaviors occur in a well-defined social context. For generally, mammals, primates, and human are social creatures whose behavior results from social interactions.

As demonstrated by Herr Professor Pfungst’s original experiments and confirming studies over the past century using multiple animal species, Clever Hans Effects are just as likely to occur in experiments with humans as in experiments with animals. For this reason, care is often taken in fields such as perception, cognitive psychology, and social psychology to make experiments double-blind, meaning that neither the experimenter nor the subject knows what condition the subject is in.

Moreover, sophisticated statistical analyses are required employing large study populations so to remove data sequences appearing nonrandom, but in truth are random (in which the investigator is not involved). Such artifacts often complicating most small population studies conducted in ESP. Recognition of this phenomenon is mandatory when considering an experimental design and methodology for all experiments whatsoever involving sentient subjects, including humans.

Unfortunately, to my knowledge, all published ESP experiments showing a ‘statistically relevant response have violated one or more necessary experimental criterion or suffered from biased statistics; as proven by later experiments under more controlled conditions.

Tomorrow, we continue with our analysis of the paranormal.

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