What do new replications of Dr. Daryl Bem’s parapsychology research tell us about the original phony replications?
photo by: Skeptiko
On this episode of Skeptiko, I’m joined by science/psychology podcaster and creator of ThePsychFiles.com, Dr. Michael Britt. And while I didn’t contact Michael looking for a way to follow-up on Dr. Daryl Bem’s Feeling the Future experiment, I found one… and a lot more. Because it’s only through the lens of time (Bem’s original work was published in 2011) and through the hard work of Bem and his colleagues who replicated this important parapsychology experiment 90 times that can we truly appreciate what the PSYOP parapsychologists are up against…
Michael Britt: I have to say I’m a little uncomfortable with you playing clips from previous episodes. I don’t know if it’s fair to play a clip from what someone said without that person being here.
Alex Tsakiris: Well the first clip was your clip, right?
Michael Britt: And frankly, I was curious whether or not you used my clip. And I thought to myself, you know, if I go along with this guy and I say something that he disagrees with, so it’s three or four episodes down the line, are you going to say, “Here’s a clip of Michael Britt saying this,” and then criticize it without me being there to say, “Well, you know, he didn’t clarify.”
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s break that down because this could be the most important part of the discussion. Michael, I played a clip from your show. So if it was a clip that was out of context, I would understand that objection and we could deal with that. Was the clip out of context? Was it different? Did I edit out something at the beginning or the end that would add to what you said?
Michael Britt: Not to my knowledge.
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Alex Tsakiris: Here’s the story. Daryl Bem, who’s this highly regarded social psychologist, publishes this parapsychology experiment in 2011, and unlike 99% of other parapsychology experiments, this one kind of explodes on the stage and makes a big splash. And he’s on the Colbert Report, on Comedy Central, and he’s in all these places — then boom, out of nowhere, out comes Richard Wiseman. Out comes other scientists saying we not only object to this experiment and all these ways that it was done, we question whether or not psychology can even go forward with the kind of crazy statistics we use that allow people like Dr. Daryl Bem to come up with these crazy conclusions. It was really kind of an outrageous claim. And then they doubled down by saying we’re going to challenge everyone to replicate this experiment, but we’re only going to give you six months to do it. And then they did that and as planned, they got a failure of replication. And then they went out with that and they made a big splash out of that. And if you look at the science media, the science media covered that extensively. Oh, wow, there’s a lack of replication. Hold on, guys, I know you heard that report about precognition and all that, but no, forget it. Richard Wiseman has saved the day. He’s come in and told us that that’s not really true.
Now, the reason that I make such a big deal about this is that like I said a minute ago, if you don’t understand this as an orchestrated PSYOP, psychological operations, if you don’t understand this as a conspiracy theory, if you just think, “Gosh darn it, that Richard Wiseman fellow, he sure doesn’t like parapsychology,” then you will never understand any of this stuff because you won’t understand the motivation. You won’t understand why his partner, Caroline Watt, who we’ve talked to on this show, has completely co-opted the University of Edinburgh. But, you know, that’s not even the whole story because to understand the whole story, you have to understand today’s guest, Dr. Michael Britt, who has the number one psychology science podcast and is, I think, representative of this larger body of psychology science — if you will — and would fit in nicely with all the “science-y” news sites that you find out there. And the reason he’s so important is because he’s not a skeptic. He’s not part of this grand conspiracy that people always kind of talk about. And, in fact, this isn’t a grand conspiracy; this is a tiny, tiny, tiny little baby conspiracy in parapsychology and science. But the way that it works is interesting. When Michael Britt reported on Daryl Bem’s story, he not only got it completely wrong, but he had no idea he was getting it completely wrong. He, like the vast majority of the science media, has been so conditioned to a certain way of thinking, to a certain way of looking at evidence that he cannot begin to deconstruct the extent to which he’s been played. So when you ask him why he never interviewed the original researcher, Daryl Bem and instead, chose to interview this Richard Wiseman crony, he doesn’t really know why. He just did it that way. If you ask why he reported on the phony replication and not the replication that was done with 90 replications from all these labs around the world, he doesn’t really know why. And that’s what makes a good PSYOP, because you can’t run the game if you have to go and manipulate all the little players in line. No, the best run PSYOP is from the top where you just do a little tweak here, a little nudge there, and the machine turns out the result.
Excerpts from the interview:
Let me play a clip for you and for our listeners. This is from the episode that we’re talking about that you did with Daryl Bem. See if you can hear this. This is a clip from your show.
Michael Britt: There are a number of issues with what Bem did. The first one though is that by unusual, we’re talking about 53% of these randomly chosen future words versus 47% of the words that weren’t on the list or words that weren’t chosen. Is it a huge effect, you know? In other words, of the ten words, are all ten of those on this future test? Hmm. No. Are 80% of them on the future test? Hmm. No. So, you could at first just say, wow. Forget this. I mean, this isn’t even a very big effect, you know. But you could argue well, if enough people find it, other than Daryl Bem, if it consistently comes up, boy, that’s interesting.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. First, straight up, it seems to me like you’re mixing up the idea of effect size and statistical significance.
Michael Britt: So what are you asking then?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, here’s what I think you’re mixing up. You kind of go to great lengths to say, gee, you know, he didn’t get eight out of ten. He didn’t get ten out of ten. His effect size in this experiment was like 2%; 52% versus 48% in one of the experiments. So that’s the effect that he measured, but the way that relates to statistical significance, of course, is the number of trials that you do. I mean, the casinos in Las Vegas are built on a 52% to 48% difference in slot machines, in terms of how much the house wins.
Michael Britt: It may be right in saying that the skeptic community is perhaps quick to put some things down, but it’s probably, you know, one could say that they’re not open-minded or you could say that there’s a lot of other research. I mean, I was listening to one of your episodes today where someone said that they strongly believed in something. Well, you know, it really doesn’t matter how strongly you believe in something. Like every scientist, I mean, I’m just going to say okay, well that’s interesting, but what’s the evidence?
Alex Tsakiris: Right. That’s why I’m glad what we’re talking about here is the evidence and how we go about collecting the evidence and how we go about presenting the evidence. That’s why I think the whole thing with the skeptics is an interesting topic. And again, I don’t think you’re coming at it from a hardcore skeptical kind of stance, but that’s the way it plays out in your show. I mean, the mere fact that you interviewed on this episode that you did, Stuart Ritchie, who was at the time a grad student, right? I understand, but why not interview Daryl Bem? This was the whole setup right? So Richard Wiseman props up this guy, Stuart Ritchie, who’s a grad student and says, “Hey, go on out there and do this replication so I can go publish this phony metanalysis.” And these guys find all this goofy stuff that they say all psychological experiments are out because the way we all collect statistics. It just seems really phony and especially, that was Daryl Bem’s take on it, and I think the data bears that out. So I think you were led down this path of extreme skepticism by these guys, Richard Wiseman and Stuart Ritchie, who were really kind of running this game against parapsychology. And that’s how I see it. You don’t have to see it the same way, but that’s kind of one of the points I wanted to make on that show — and I think you’ve responded — but if you have anything else on that, I’d be happy to hear it.
Michael Britt: Well, you know, you’re making me think about it. And again, you know, I have not delved very, very deeply into this research as much as you have. But, I guess, I am still a little skeptical. Let me say what I did do in preparation for the episode, is that in an earlier episode, as I think I mentioned to you, you said something that skeptics don’t read the research, right?
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Sure. A general statement. I mean, of course, some skeptics read a lot of the research, but in general, they don’t seem real concerned with the research, right.
Michael Britt: Right. And I thought to myself, well, that’s probably true of me. I’m not reading all the research on the various types of parapsychology stuff. You know, again, my area is in things like memory and teaching, but it’s about critical thinking, which is why I devote time to it.