June 11, 2009

Psychic Phenomena Discredited Yet Again

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and author of several books, and also a personal acquaintance of mine, recently teamed up with New Scientist magazine to carry out athe first ever science experiment using the popular Twitter microblogging site. A rather revolutionary idea. The premise of the experiment was to investigate remote viewing, the ability to gain information about a distant or unseen target by means of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Wiseman announced the experiment on his own Twitter page (@richardwiseman) and recruited a good number participants in that way. The experiment was covered in several newspapers, and sources such as the Guardian, Daily Mail, Daly Telegraph, Sky News and Fox News, generating a fair amount of publicity.

Those of us who are familiar with scientific research in the area of paranormal phenomena are keenly aware that experiments into the same have almost always reported nothing of substance, lending credibility to the idea that when tested under sufficient scrutiny, these psychic powers always tend to fail. This has always been a consistent finding when testing various instances of so-called psychic ability, and based on that it isn't too much to expect this experiment to generate interesting results either. However, informal experiment that it is, the application of stringent scientific principles to a wholly randomised and sufficiently chaotic source such as Twitter was an interesting exercise. I don't know if a journal paper will come out of this but it should make interesting reading.

Wiseman carried out his experiment in the following way. At 15:00 (GMT) each day he travelled to a randomly selected location and sent a 'tweet' (message) on Twitter, asking his participants to tweet back their inclinations about his location. Thirty minutes later, he posted another tweet that linked to a website containing photographs of five different locations (the actual location of Wiseman and four decoy locations) and arbitrarily labelled 'A' to 'E'. Participants would be asked to see the photographs, concentrate their abilities and then vote on the location they believed was correct. They would also be asked their gender, rate their belief in the paranormal, and whether they believed they had psychic ability. Voting would remain open for 1 hour. If the majority of people selected the correct location the trial would count as a success. But before carrying it out, Wiseman carried out a test trial to test the procedure and also familiarise the participants with the procedure of the experiment. After some necessary ironing out of the details, Wiseman proceeded to carry out four experimental trials on four successive days, with three or more successful trials considered as evidence of ESP.

The experiment was carried out as outlined above and the results of the trials were posted at the end of each day at Wiseman's blog (Trial 1, Trial 2, Trial 3, Trial 4). More than a thousand participants were reported to have taken part, with believers in paranormal phenomena claiming a high level of correspondence between their thoughts and the actual locations.

The results of the experiment were also posted on Wiseman's blog, essentially stating no differences in choice between paranormal believer and non-believers. The experiment thus failed to support the existence of remote viewing, and suggested that participants claiming paranormal belief were only proficient at claiming illusory correspondences between their thoughts and actual targets.

Certainly this is not an experiment conducted under orthodox means and there are a number of uncontrolled variables operating that were uncatered for. However, it seems that even an informal study using basic scientific procedures and relying on user input is capable of generating interesting results, even non-significant ones. Wiseman states that he hopes to provide further post-hoc analyses of his results such as the difference between paranormal believers and sceptics, males and females, etc., but one update so far states that the data from those who claimed psychic ability and also a high confidence in their choice of target location scored a zero out of four. Surprise surprise.

As I mentioned, it is unknown if a serious analysis can be made of this strategy or if a journal paper will be published, but I think that that even without the stamp of authority given to 'orthodox' experiments this study is still consistent with those orthodox studies of paranormal phenomena that reported insubstantial results. Not a good day for psychics.


  1. Wiseman has duped you with his 'remote viewing experiment'! You need to checkout the response at the International Remote Viewing Association (irva.org) and remote viewing sites to appreciate the irony that the remote viewing community anticipated his negative result. His SET UP was not scientific nor remote viewing. The particpants were not remote viewers. His conclusion is as ridiculous as saying swimming doesn't work because some non swimmers drowned when you told them to swim. As Russell Targ said "The secret is, remote viewing is extremely easy to do", but you do need to learn how before you can claim to be doing it.

    With best intent
    Loraine Connon

  2. Hi Loraine,

    thanks for your comment, and I will certainly check out your link and the information there when I get some time.

    However I think Wiseman was pretty clear that this wasn't a strictly scientific experiment, just an informal one, and I think I made this clear in my post as well. I think there was more excitement about the prospect of using Twitter as a resource for experimentation, which is quite hard to do.

    Kind regards.

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