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Essay: Extra Sensory Perception

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  • Extra Sensory Perception
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Extra Sensory Perception, which will be referred to as ESP for the remainder of this paper, can take on several different forms. ESP can be divided into four major categories; telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis. Telepathy denotes to the ability to directly transfer a thought from or to someone else’s mind. This can be simplified to mind-reading or mind-to-mind communication. Clairvoyance denotes to the ability to have knowledge of something that you acquired by paranormal means, which is also known as remote viewing. Precognition denotes a form of clairvoyance where a person can predict an event and/or thought of someone else before it happens. Psychokinesis is the most unique example of ESP. Psychokinesis which is more commonly known as telekinesis, is having the ability to move something using only the power of your mind and having no physical interaction with the object in question. The most common example of telekinesis is levitation, be it an object or a person. ESP in all of its forms is very abstract concept, making it hard to quantify through experimentation.

ESP began to be tested scientifically as early as 1934 when Dr. William McDougal and Dr. J. B. Rhine began to experiment with ESP at Duke University. This experiment was also said to be one of the first which could test for clairvoyance and telepathy individually. Telepathy would be tested by the testing agent simply visualizing and the participant guessing what they are visualizing, while clairvoyance would be tested through things such as guessing the diagrams on cards. In both situations the results would have to be significantly beyond chance in order to be considered any kind of proof for clairvoyance or telepathy. The tests were conducted using Zener cards. Zener cards were devised by Dr. K. E. Zener with the goal of being able to reliably test for clairvoyance. The cards came in sets of 5 with a different symbol on each of the cards. In the tests conducted by Rhine there would be 5 sets of Zener cards shuffled together and participants would guess “down through” all the cards in the deck without having any of the cards removed from the deck until all the cards have been guessed to keep the probability the same throughout. On average the participants would guess anywhere from 8.9 to 9.9 of the 25 cards correctly. This is a significant amount over the 5 out of 25 probability from chance. The only problem with this test is that in order to get results above pure chance the participant must guess better than 1 out of 5. For this experiment to give more concrete evidence of clairvoyance a large sample size for the participant to guess from would be necessary as this would create a larger difference between chance and clairvoyance making the data much more concise. There was also a sort of “learning curve” with the participants whenever the testing setup was changed. When first trying the new testing setup the participant would perform very poorly, improving over time until plateauing just over chance probability. This improvement over time shows that there may have been something about how they were being tested that can be learned or practiced knowing how to “guess” better, but only to a certain extent. If it were truly down to clairvoyance, then the results should be the same regardless of how the test were administered. Another flaw with how the tests were administered is how many trials were performed. While a few thousand tests may seem like a lot, a few years later another set of tests were performed with a much larger sample size of over 100,000.
Samuel Soal aimed to perform similar tests to the ones performed by J.B. Rhine as addressed in the previous paragraph. In the 1930s, he tried his best to replicate the results that were achieved with little success. He used the same set of 25 Zener cards and had 160 subjects perform the tests over several years. In the end he had recorded 128,350 guesses. The average that the card was guessed correctly was between 5 and 5.001, what was to be expected purely by chance. This sample size dwarfed that of Rhine and showed results that were in line with the expectations of our understanding of probability. Soal’s results completely disproved the results that Rhine had collected and published, and he was known in the scientific community as being one of Rhine’s biggest critics. However, Soal’s later work did not hold as much merit as his initial experiments.

After spending his initial foray into parapsychology trying to replicate Rhine’s results, he eventually moved on and began to perform his own parapsychological experiments. One would wonder why he would bother performing further research into the evidence of clairvoyance and telepathy after having so much data disproving their existence. This was due to parapsychologist Walter Whately Carrington informing him that there was a new way he could analyze his data to find proof of ESP. This new way of looking at the data was known as displacement. Carrington stated that displacement was necessary because the subjects could be suffering “temporal distraction” which would cause them to guess cards behind or ahead of the card being shown to them. This was obviously just a way to make his data look better than it actually was, and after revisiting the data he had from his previous testing he was now able to find two subjects that had data which was statistically significant. These two subjects were Gloria Stewart and Basil Shackleton. When encountering this newfound significance in his data Soal began a new set of experiments in 1941 which lasted until 1943. Soal performed these tests with Kathleen Mary Goldney, a fellow parapsychologist of the Society for Psychical research. These tests seemed to solidify psychic ability with hard scientific evidence. Quite a 180 from how Soal began his endeavor into parapsychology and all from looking at his three-year-old in a new way. Many were skeptical of the results Soal had achieved, however there was no way to prove that he had lied or cheated his way to the results he claimed and at a glance it seemed that there was nothing wrong with the new data that was gathered. The newly performed “Shackleton Experiments” were extremely elaborate, as can be seen in one of the figures from Soal’s own “Modern Experiments in Telepathy”, which he published in 1954. When this experiment was published it also gave evidence for those who were skeptical of Soal’s experiments. He himself states that, “We have not, therefore, in these new experiments concentrated on ultra-rigorous precautions against fraud on the part of the experimenters”. His view was that “if the experimenters (academic people) are not to be trusted, there is no point whatever in their doing experiments” (203, Soal). This sentence gave skeptics exactly what they needed to be able to dismiss any results he recorded from this new set of experiments. When people began to challenge his work, he quickly defended the character of Stewart and Shackleton. He tried to redirect attention from the flaw in his testing processes and assure everyone that the people participating would never do anything to falsify any of the results. Scientific data should never rely on trusting that the experimenters are telling the truth, it should have many precautions in place to ensure the validity of the data that is recorded. While this new research started as one of the strongest sources of evidence for ESP but ended up being one of the most damaging things to happen to parapsychology. Soal was able to cheat the results of his number through the way the tests were administered. He “randomly” chose the number for each number, however the way this number was randomly chosen was not explained in his paper that he published or agreed upon by him and Goldney. When deciding the trial number Soal artificially chose the trial number to be one much more often because he could alter the “1”s to be “4”s and “5”s after the fact in order to make his results look better than they actually were. These accusations were made after an experiment agent Mrs. Albert stated that she had seen him do this several times. This eventually led to curiosity and a desire to examine the original score sheets to see if there were any signs that they had been modified by Soal. According to Soal these original score sheets were lost, but luckily enough some handmade copies still existed. In these copies there was an excess of 4s, 5s, and 1s that were all hits. This confirmed all of the skeptics’ suspicions about Soal’s work and discredited him in the scientific and parapsychological communities. While all of the complicated and meticulous details of his experiments made it seem as if there were no way there could be any way that the experiments were inaccurate as there was no way for the participants to cheat, it was all as simple as changing some 1s to 4s and 5s. The complications of how he designed his experiments were just a façade to distract from his nefarious behavior while he thought no one was watching.

Psychokinesis is another large component of ESP. Psychokinesis is the ability for a person to use their mind to affect material objects. Holger Bösch, Fiona Steinkamp, and Emil Boller examined many attempts to test psychokinesis (PK), by seeing if participants could influence the fall of dice, and the output of random number generators (Bösch). They cited that there had been three previous attempts to analyze PK that ended with inconclusive results. When trying to test psychokinesis for themselves they quickly realized why the previous test had trouble getting clear results. Throwing dice was not sufficiently random as the participants could manipulate their throw in order to make their results look better resulting in a dice throwing machine being developed. They also realized that there could be errors in how the dice rolls were recorded, opting to take images of each throw to ensure accurate data. There were also issues with normal commercial dice being unevenly weighted due to the number of pits for higher numbers being lighter making higher numbered sides more likely to be rolled. This led to many dice experiments being written off and looked down upon by the scientific community as the data could easily be altered to get favorable results. When the same kind of dice experiments were done with more controlled variables the results no longer showed any significant signs of PK. Diane Ferrari who worked in the Department of Psychology at Princeton analyzed 148 different dice experiments. Across the experiments there were a total of 2,592,817 rolls. In each of these rolls the participant would attempt to mentally influence the roll through the power of psychokinesis. Of these 148 experiments only 69 had accounted for the die face bias present in consumer dice. In the end when accounting for all controls necessary, with the experiments that were left brought the results down to an insignificant level. It was obvious that dice experiments were not able to be controlled enough for the experiments to garner enough data to achieve statistical significance. This meant the hunt for a reliable means to test PK continued.

The next advancement in PK testing was the advent of computers, and with them random number generators, or RNG for short. Computers allowed us to get closer to generating something truly random. The first experiments with RNG consisted of a radioactive source whose output would be converted into bits and stored on a computer. Computers allowed for true randomness and extremely tight control over experimental conditions. RNG solved many of the problems with dice experiments, removed many of the human elements that could not be controlled reliably. The testing procedure consisted of a random source providing a stream of output to a computer in 1s and 0s. The participant would press a button triggering the computer to measure the current output of the random source, e.g. radioactive decay and record the data electronically alleviating any possibility of human tampering. Testing could also be done in large quantities and very quickly making data very easy to collect by means of RNG. Drift did need to be accounted for in the random sources, however. There was also one human aspect of the experiment that there would be no way to account for, which is stopping testing could be stopped as soon as the data reached a point of statistical significance. Proponents of PK had many issues with the use of RNG for testing PK. They argued that the power of PK is not able to be used on such a small level as the microscopic part of a computer and the quantum mechanics in place. However, with no better way for reliably recording accurate and controlled data RNG because the primary vessel for PK testing. There were still many issues regarding how the tests were performed. In the case of Dean Radin and Roger Nelson, they decided to be very inclusive in their trials testing for PK. Inclusive to the point of including cockroaches as participants in the test. When Radin’s ideas were challenged later on he stated in the conclusion of his re-analysis of psychokinesis that “the cumulative data are now sufficiently persuasive to advance beyond the timid conclusion of ‘not proven’ and that it is more fruitful to focus on understanding the nature of PK rather than to concentrate solely on the question of existence” (Radin, et al.). Radin also happened to be elected as President of the Parapsychological Association, whose purpose is, “to advance parapsychology as a science”, in 5 different years. Despite many others analyzing the data collected from many trials of PK experiments and finding much of the data to not suggest and proof of PK he insists that what he found in his 1991 Meta-Analysis of PK based on the falling of dice still stands true through new rounds of tests with RNG.

One may wonder why someone would even try to claim that they have ESP. What do they gain from having these extra sensory abilities? Psychics are a great example of this, according to industry analyst IBISWorld, the Psychic Services Industry generated $2 billion of revenue in the year 2018 alone, with the industry growing 2% that year. Psychics claim to fame is that through their telepathic and clairvoyant abilities they can extract information about you, your past, and your future. Psychics have a full range of services they provide consisting of Palmistry, Cartomancy, Mediumship, Aura reading, and Astrology. Palmistry, which can also be referred to as chiromancy, is an extension of precognition in which the Psychic will read the subject’s palm in order to tell them things about their future. Psychics make these predictions of the future seem legitimate by making them extremely vague, leaving much of the decision on what their prediction means on the subject. This also takes advantage of availability bias, by having this vague prediction inside their head, the subject will be more observant, looking for things that will show that the Psychic’s prediction was correct. The next service provided by Psychics is Cartomancy, in the United States this is more commonly known as tarot card reading. Cartomancy is the telling of fortune, using a deck of cards to base the fortunes off of. The same vagueness and availability bias apply here in contributing to people thinking these fortunes hold any weight. Another service that Psychics provide is Mediumship. This is a mediation of communication between the living and dead. People usually seek a medium for closure after a loved one has died, or if they believe some kind of spirit may be haunting their home. In Western culture we have developed a fascination with spirits and being haunted by the dead. There are many movies and shows which cover this subject. Mediums are able to take advantage of people who are either grieving, or in fear. This will put people in an unstable mental state and look anywhere for any sort of answer to ease their minds. In addition to Mediumship there is Aura Reading. Psychics claim that they have the ability to see an aura which is present and surrounding all people. This aura can supposedly be different sizes, colors, and also emit vibrations. They are said to be a sign of a person’s health and mental state, so people will opt to get their auras read to ensure they are in good health. Auras are a part of diagnosing health problems in alternative medicine. The last aspect Psychics cover is Astrology. This is a belief that the movements and positions of celestial bodies can tell us information about ourselves and our world. To this day astrology is still a large part of popular culture with its most popular aspect being astrological signs that are decided by when a person’s birthday is. Astrological signs claim to be able to classify a person and their various personality traits. There are also many websites and services which come out with weekly and even daily astrological readings for the various signs that claim to predict what kind of experiences each respective sign will experience. These readings are always extremely vague making it very easy for the “predictions” to come true. Astrological signs also take advantage of availability bias as mentioned previously. Astrology is still widely accepted because of its large cultural presence in addition to its long-running history dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE. Psychics being a large part of popular culture in the United States which is one of the reasons that so many people believe that psychics have these enhance sensory capabilities. The reason psychics claim to have these abilities is because they stand to make a lot of money by charging for psychic readings. Psychics will also develop clients who opt to see them to have psychic readings done on a regular basis. Psychics prey on people who know little about the topic of ESP and take advantage of the fallibility of human memory. Many people go into psychics’ sessions already having some kind of belief in ESP; some believing that there is a possibility of psychic ability, others believing that they have already experienced it. Many people do not go to see a psychic if they do not already have some current belief of their abilities. One would assume if many people go to see psychics that there must be something to it or else no one would go back, and psychics would be a thing of the past. Through taking advantage of the fallibility of human memory, availability bias, and peoples emotional and mental instability psychics are able to turn quite a profit off of extra-sensory abilities that they don’t even possess.

Precognition is another part of ESP. Most cases of precognition come down to anecdotes that are not being scientifically tested. A majority of the time the event or experience that the person believes they had precognitive knowledge comes down to be a coincidence, brought upon them by chance and the law of truly large numbers. The law of truly large numbers is the explanation for many things that seem to have some unexplainable connection and are an odd coincidence. There is an extreme lack of scientific evidence to support precognition. Many examples are people who claimed to have known that they knew about major events such as 9/11, but there is no way for them to prove those claims. Many of the arguments brought up in support are arguments to ignorance, since most evidence in support of precognition is anecdotal there is no way to disprove it. This leaves precognition in an unfalsifiable state until rigorous scientific trials have been done to record data to either prove or disprove this facet of ESP. The issue with getting this objective scientific data is that it is hard to find a way to reliable and accurately test precognition. Generally, precognition had been tested with Forced-Choice Precognition Tasks. These tests were performed quite similarly to the later psychokinesis trials. However, in this case, rather than using their abilities to change the outcome of the computer’s choice, the participant will predict the choice that the computer will randomly make. The computer will have several stimuli to choose from and as soon as the participant makes their choice the computer will then randomly pick a stimulus. Many studies that attempted to prove the existence of precognition did not find any consistent results. In order to keep the idea of precognition alive, its advocates stated that the reason no scientific studies could record and consistent data proving precognitions reality is because it is a “random phenomenon”. With precognition being random, it leaves it in a completely unfalsifiable state by any sort of controlled scientific testing. No matter how much data can be collected that goes against the existence of precognition, this data will always be claimed to be inaccurate by precognitions proponents making any attempts to disprove it pointless. Due to precognitions elusive nature, there would need to be a way to test precognition which accounted for its random nature. The solution to this was to use Sequential Forced-Choice Precognition Tasks with five stimuli. Once the data is collected statistics must be used in order to separate the precognitive patterns from the random ones. This is known as accounting for Bayesian Inference. This is an alternative means of gathering data. Normally data is collected using frequentist statistics. This calculates how likely something is to happen through a long running experiment. This is why when experiments are done the same conditions are maintained to maintain a certain outcome. With Bayesian Statistics probabilities are applied in order to account for differences found in new data. However, for scientific experiments control and consistency are necessary to collect data is accurate. This ensures that if a certain experiment is repeated by someone else the data can be compared evenly leaving no room for error. Even with these changes made to how testing for precognition was done, this was still not enough to find supporting evidence of precognition.
Parapsychologists will do everything in their power to ensure that null results in various experiments are not proof that the phenomenon does not exist. Richard Wiseman explores this issue in his epilogue in the book “Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion?”. He feels that time is running out for parapsychological research as after over a hundred years of research there is still no unequivocal proof of psi. For some reason parapsychology research has not been stopped by the endless null findings. Most hypotheses with null results are thrown to the side relatively quickly, however when null results were concluded from research into parapsychological abilities, there was always some excuse for why no meaningful results came from the experiment. This book contains several chapters written by Dean Radin who has performed tests that had supposedly proven ESP to be real as talked about earlier.

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