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Breakthrough to Nowhere

by Guy Lyon Playfair


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Hot on the heels of Messrs. Moulton and Kosslyn, (see Mediawatch: Psi ‘proved’ not to exist ), along comes Richard Wiseman, describing in New Scientist (10 June 2009) his latest publicity stunt under the modest title Tweeting my way to a scientific breakthrough. Results, according to an editorial, ‘fail to show any support for the paranormal’. They do indeed, as one does not have to be psychic to have predicted, for this was clearly another of those experiments that are designed to come up with negative results and reassure the general public that psi is a load of rubbish. They also fail to show any sign of what is usually understood to be a breakthrough.

It purported to be a mass experiment in remote viewing (RV), or clairvoyance (seeing at a distance), with the participation of some 1,000-plus ‘twitterers’. For the first informal test, Wiseman went to a location and asked people to tweet their impressions of what he was looking at. He then sent out details of where to find a photo of where he was, so that twitterers received feedback within twenty minutes or so. He reports, somewhat vaguely, that what he calls, without defining them, ‘paranormal believers’ claimed ‘high levels of correspondence between their thoughts and the actual locations’, but gives no examples and no statistics.

Oh well, this was only an informal test. The subsequent formal one ran for four days, and was designed to test ‘whether the group as a whole was psychic’ and whether believers did better than disbelievers. As before, Wiseman went somewhere and asked participants to send in their thoughts and impressions. They were then shown five photos, one of which was of the target location, and asked to choose which one it was. Their choices were pooled and the photo receiving the most votes was designated as their collective choice. As you will have guessed, the group got it wrong four times out of four, enabling Wiseman to conclude that ‘the study didn’t support the existence of remote viewing’, adding patronisingly that ‘it suggests that those who believe in the paranormal are simply good at finding illusory correspondences between their thoughts and a target – which is maybe why they believe in the first place.’

By now, even first-year parapsychology students will have spotted several basic experimenter errors and significant omissions in Wiseman’s brief report. Among those spotted by New Scientist readers, who are probably fairly familiar with correct scientific procedures:

1.   We are not told exactly how many people took part and what percentage of the individual impressions was correct. If, as Wiseman seems to imply, nobody made a single statement that could apply to the target location, this would be a result of some significance.
2.   We are not told how many individuals, if any, guessed all four targets correctly.
3.   The implication that if the group as a whole failed to demonstrate collective clairvoyance, therefore clairvoyance does not exist, is as absurd as asking randomly chosen people to play a scale on a tuba regardless of whether they had any previous experience of tuba playing, or indeed any musical ability at all, and concluding that the evidence for tuba-playing ability is so weak as to be insignificant.

One reader whose views deserve respect, Professor Brian Josephson, made a similar point – any accurate remote viewing in the group would have been lost in ‘a combination of noise from those not having those skills, and systematic error’. It would have been better, he added politely, ‘if the experimenter had discussed methodological issues with experts in the field before starting the experiment’.

Had he done so, he would have been told that (a) judging of RV tests should be done by impartial outsiders, not by the subjects themselves and certainly not by sceptical investigators, and (b) that to do good RV subjects need training. Expecting an unselected sample of the general public to demonstrate it on demand is totally unrealistic. As one sceptical reader put it, ‘I find the notion of remote viewing ridiculous, but find conclusions overreaching their results equally so’.

Wiseman prefaces his report with a brief reference to the U.S.Army’s Stargate project, which trained military remote viewers and used them for nearly twenty years. ‘Some have claimed that results supported [RV’s] existence’, he conceded. They have indeed – the U.S.Army for example, which awarded one of its longest serving viewers, Joe McMoneagle, the Legion of Merit. This is given for ‘exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements’, and Joe’s citation credited him with ‘producing crucial and vital intelligence unavailable from any other source’. Quite an impressive claim, you might think.

Wiseman, as it happens, has met McMoneagle and witnessed an experiment he carried out some years ago at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, NC., so he knows perfectly well how RV is done properly having seen for himself. After Joe had made a drawing of a target location, the thirty attendees were shown the usual five photos of possible sites and 29 of them picked the right one. Wiseman then complained that the controls were not tight enough, so McMoneagle invited him to take over the protocol and run it any way he liked the following day, which he duly did. Joe still got 29 first-place matches out of thirty. Not surprisingly, as Joe notes in his book The Stargate Chronicles (p.251), ‘Richard has refused to discuss it since.’

In the 11 July 2009 New Scientist, (Letters, p.26), reader David Smith would also like to know how many people guessed correctly where Wiseman was, and whether the number was what chance would predict? ‘It would be interesting and necessary before dismissing the whole concept of remote viewing,’ he adds, ‘to select out such people and test them more thoroughly than Wiseman did. If this was done, we need to see the results.’ Smith also makes the important point that the US Star Gate programme ‘involved intense training of carefully selected participants’. Wiseman’s participants were not trained at all.

Wiseman replied that ‘it was impossible to analyse the statistics for each individual because of the way the experiment was run. Valid statistics could only be derived for the group as a whole.’ He did concede, however, that ‘re-testing of individuals that scored highly would be interesting.’

This seems to imply that some individuals did score highly, and re-testing of them might indeed produce some valid statistics, perhaps indicating positive evidence for remote viewing ability. It remains to be seen whether Wiseman intends to pursue this further, or if the possibility of obtaining positive evidence is a risk he would prefer not to take.

He may be equally unwilling in the future to discuss this demonstration of tendentious and utterly pointless twittering.



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