Monday, January 24, 2011

I Knew You Were Going to Say That....

Did you hear about the recent ESP research published in a top psychology journal? No, that is actually not the start of a joke. There actually was a research article published by a highly respected psychologist in a highly respected journal which possibly provides evidence of ESP. You can read the article here. It's not a short article, but there it is for you to read.

You can read a variety of reactions throughout this long sentence.

My take on this whole controversy is a bit different. Controversy, you ask? Yes! Psychologists are a wee bit skeptical and like to point out that there are no such things as ghosts, witches, astrology, ESP, and other superstitions. They are interesting in the way they protect (or harm) one's psyche but have absolutely nothing to do with reality.

So my take is this: Is there ESP? Unlikely, but I still find this study quite interesting: students were able to pick out the correct location of a randomly assigned pornographic picture 53% of the time while they only got the regular non-naked pictures 50% of the time. (College students apparently have a "gift" of finding naked people doing things they'd like to be doing themselves.) However, as you can see this "gift" is not too strong. Picking the correct picture 50% of the time is what we'd expect by chance--just guessing. 53% is not a big gain over 50%. But with enough people, it can be a statistically significant improvement.

So here is what I think:
1) The most likely thing that will happen is that these data will not hold up in additional research. I'm can predict (!) this outcome because this is what happens the majority of the time there is a new research finding. I actually do not have in my hot little hands the percentage that makes up the majority of the time, but I think it approaches 90% of the time. 90% of the time is a little bit larger than 50% of the time. And what it means is that we are constantly refining our research to find the "truth" and the first finding is not likely at all to be the final say in what is actually true.

2) I disagree with every single criticism of people who say this research shouldn't have been published or there is something wrong with the peer review system (where researchers anonymously review others' research to determine if it's adequate for publication). The data are what the data are. These results are neutral (as long as they weren't faked). If the results of this study don't agree with what you think, too bad, so sad. If anonymous reviewers can't find a flaw, then the research should be published. I guarantee you that the editor gave special care to picking out people who do NOT believe in ESP to get the best feedback.

3) Here is what I do believe will happen from this study: we are going to find a flaw. It's either going to be a methodological flaw (there is an error in the design or enactment of the study) or there is a statistical flaw. And what is going to be so cool is that it's going to push our discipline ahead in our research and statistics. Why do I say that? Because those reviewers couldn't find a flaw--this research meets the standards for good research in its current form. So whatever mistake was made is not something we as a discipline know is a mistake. And that means growth in how we study. Sounds good to me.

4) Of course, I could be wrong and there is ESP. But I'm not convinced by this study. I'm not convinced by any one study of anything. Unless, of course, it's my study because mine are all brilliant and insightful and completely accurate descriptions of the truth in this world. (((cough, cough, cough, wiping tears from eyes)))

So I think this is pretty exciting. Something good is going to come from this. It's going to take a while--several years at the least before the next studies are designed, data collected, analyzed, vetted and published, but how exciting for psychology!

It's almost as exciting as a talking dog. Which is what I want to talk about next in research.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I watched something on PBS with Allen Alda and he was at MIT and they were doing research on ESP. It was quite convincing.