Psychology and the Paranormal

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Thanks for the visit!

I approach this blog site with a sense of anticipation, wondering where it may lead…

I hope it might lead towards light, new treasure, in the form of new knowledge and theory.  

How can that be, you might well ask ?  Surely, a so-called ‘expert’ must already have an opinion one way or the other about the paranormal? Wrong!

The truth is that I have no fixed ideas about which direction the evidence will lead. 

One thing I do know – it is necessary to step beyond old assumptions, seek new objects of knowledge. 

If we already KNOW the answer, the TRUTH, why would we bother to read, write or even THINK for that matter, because the truth must already be determined, already out there, written by somebody, somewhere and all that would be left to do would be to pick up dead learning.

Believers vs. Disbelievers

It is quickly apparent to any observer that the paranormal field is heavily divided between two armies of believers (so-called ‘sheep’) and skeptics (so-called ‘goats’ who are actually dis-believers) battling it out with no holds barred.

The stakes are high. The fight is not about empirical studies, observations and anecdotes.  The very nature of science, life and reality are being contested.  

There are ‘dead bodies’ and ‘unexploded land mines’ all over the place and one would be lucky to leave the field in one piece. One can surmise that there can only be losers, never winners, in this futile type of war. In the end every soldier in the affray is a loser. It’s an intellectual version of World War I with permanent trenches and barbed wire fences that has been waging for over a century.  

I know this because I have been there on the battle field.  I entered the field and did several tours of duty. Then, battle-weary with the affray, I walked away.

Recently I returned to see if anything has changed.

As I stuck my head over the trench top waving a white flag of peace, a few warning shots were fired. The same old battle is raging but with the difference that many new foot soldiers have been recruited and there have been scores of  new studies over the last 20 years. These studies have been weaponised to provide increased power, precision and impact.

The army of non-believers now possesses a stockpile of findings consistent with scientific explanations of the paranormal. The believer army, meanwhile, has accrued an equally large stockpile supportive of paranormal interpretations.  

White Flag of Neutrality

Offering the white flag of peace and neutrality causes no small amount of trepidation.  Am I now to be a target for both sides – because, in the battle of the paranormal, nobody is permitted to be neutral?  It’s a ‘do or die’ scenario like no other in science.

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The blog posts here are written from a dispassionate point of view. If I am passionate about anything, it is about the importance of neutrality. My purpose is to create a balanced and even-handed review based on the best contemporary evidence on paranormal claims in science and medicine.

I present here the evidence, both pro and con, explain the relevant psychological processes, present scientific arguments, and produce a final balance sheet at the end.

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Out soon:

“Psychology and the Paranormal

Exploring Anomalous Experience”


June 2020 | 400 pages | SAGE Publications Ltd

 

 

 

Psychology in Crisis – Sail On

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‘Psychology in Crisis’ by Brian M Hughes has much in its favour. Like a knife through soft butter, it cuts through the huge swathes of BS that permeate Academic Psychology.  Brian Hughes addresses many different crises in Academic Psychology:

the Replication Crisis

the Paradigmatic Crisis (aka as the Theory Crisis or Fragmentation)

the Measurement Crisis 

the Statistical Crisis

the Sampling Crisis

the Exaggeration Crisis

None of these crises is new. The problem is the different crises are all getting bigger and more insoluble over time.

In his delightful book,  Psychology in Crisis, Hughes explains that there is little momentum to change because the discipline has taken over a century to build the mould. “The fact that the majority of those who teach psychology see no problem with the status quo, and so say nothing about it, does not indicate that their discipline is healthy. If anything, it implies the presence of groupthink. One might even consider it an instance of a mass delusion.” (p. 148, my italics).

A ‘mass delusion’! Strong words, but fully justified. The biggest delusion of all is the claim that Academic Psychology is a Science. There is no justification for this claim if Hughes’ allegations are true. Which they are.

As an academic discipline, Psychology continues to grow. The American Psychological Association reports that in 2012 – 2013, 1.84 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded to students. Of those, 6.2 percent of the degrees (or 114,080) went to psychology majors. The psychology major is the fourth most popular college major after business, health-related majors, and social science and history. In the 2013 academic year, 6,496 psychology doctorates were awarded in the U.S., a 32 percent increase from 2004.

One of simplest measures of Academic Psychology’s growth is publications numbers. The figures are plotted below for each quarter century since 1900. I got these numbers from Google Scholar.  Bearing in mind that the current quarter century still has 6 years to run, the increases are huge. The dotted line is an estimate for 2000-24 based on current trends. The line goes way off the chart.

Number of Publications about Psychology

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As the Psychology enterprise continues to grow, it becomes ever more difficult to turn it around. To use a nautical analogy, the radius of the Turning Circle widens. The momentum to ‘Sail On’ becomes ever greater.

“Milestone text of the 21st century”

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In ‘A General Theory of Behaviour, David Marks has applied scientifically established theory to conceptualize disparate areas of Psychology in a manner that both unifies and brings greater insight, establishing this book as a milestone text of the 21st century.

Dr David A Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Founder of the Forensic Research Group, Manchester Metropolitan University

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Psychology as a Natural Science. Part I: Measurement

I wished, by treating Psychology like a natural science, to help her to become one.

William James

The Problem

For more than a century, Psychologists have struggled to make their discipline a ‘proper science’.  From introspection, to behaviorism and then to cognitivism, Psychology has fallen somewhat awkwardly between the biological and social sciences. Suffering existential doubt, and always looking over their shoulders, Psychologists never quite found a place of comfort at the high table of Science. Contributing to this liminal status have been three issues, measurement, theory, and paradigm.

In this article, I discuss measurement in Academic Psychology. The branch of Academic Psychology that is usually held up to be the most ‘scientific’ is Psychometrics, otherwise known as ‘Psychological Measurement’. Bizarrely, it is also the largest thorn in the side of Academic Psychology considered as a science. I explain some of the reasons for this curious state of affairs below.

S. S. Stevens – “Mass Delusion”

Attributes of the physical world are measured quantitatively. Attributes of the psychological world are more ‘sticky’ to deal with. For good reason, psychologists are unable to measure many of the most interesting psychological attributes in any direct and objective manner. Unfortunately, measurement in Psychology is an ‘Emperor’s clothes’ story.  The early years as an infant science were spent paddling at the shallow end of the pool with attempts to make psychophysics and ability testing the showcases of a new quantitative science. But it was all downhill from there on.

In spite of limited successes, Psychology’s ‘measurement problem’ has never been satisfactorily resolved. S.S. Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology (1951) invoked ‘operationism’ as a potential solution and, since that time, Psychologists have assumed as an act of faith that measurement is the assignment of numbers to attributes according to rules. Sadly, Stevens’ solution is a mass delusion, a sleight of mind.

Joel Michell: “Thought Disorder”

Among his many in-depth writings about Psychological measurement, Joel Michell (1997) summarized the situation thus: “…establishing quantitative science involves two research tasks: the scientific one of showing that the relevant attribute is quantitative; and the instrumental one of constructing procedures for numerically estimating magnitudes. From Fechner onwards, the dominant tradition in quantitative Psychology ignored this task. Stevens’ definition rationalized this neglect. The widespread acceptance of this definition within Psychology made this neglect systemic, with the consequence that the implications of contemporary research in measurement theory for undertaking the scientific task are not appreciated…when the ideological support structures of a science sustain serious blind spots like this, then that science is in the grip of some kind of thought disorder.” (Michell, 1997).

A ‘kind of thought disorder’ – strong terms but it is true.

It is apparent that numbers can be readily allocated to attributes using a non-random rule (the operational definition of measurement) that would generate ‘measurements’ that are not quantitatively meaningful. For example, numerals can be allocated to colours: red = 1, blue = 2, green = 3, etc. The rule used to allocate the numbers is clearly not random, and the allocation therefore counts as measurement, according to Stevens. However, it would be patent nonsense to assert that ‘green is 3 × red’ or that ‘blue is 2 × red’, or that ‘green minus blue equals red’. Intervals and ratios cannot be inferred from a simple ordering of scores along a scale. Yet this is how psychological measurement is usually carried out.

Stevens’ oxymoronic approach aimed to circumvent the requirement that only quantitative attributes can be measured in spite of the self-evident fact that psychological constructs such as subjective well-being are nothing like physical variables (Michell, 1999, Measurement in Psychology). However, positivist psychometricians blithely treat qualitative psychological constructs as if they are quantitative in nature and as amenable to measurement as physical characteristics without ever demonstrating so. For more than 60 years many psychologists have lived in a make-believe world where ‘measurement’ consists of numbers allocated to stimuli on ordinal or Likert-type scales. This feature alone cuts off at its roots the claim that Psychology is a quantitative science on a par with the natural sciences.

Measurement can be defined as the estimation of the magnitude of a quantitative attribute relative to a unit (Michell, 2003). Before quantification can happen, it is first necessary to obtain evidence that the relevant attribute is quantitative in structure. This has rarely, if ever, been carried out in Psychology. Unfortunately, it is arguably the case that the definition of measurement within Psychology since Stevens’ (1951) operationism is incorrect and Psychologists’ claims about being able to measure psychological attributes can be questioned (Michell, 1999, 2002). Contrary to common beliefs within the discipline, psychological attributes may not actually be quantitative at all, and hence not amenable to coherent numerical measurement and statistical analyses that make unwarranted assumptions about the numbers collected as data.

Psychometric Myth

Psychometricians often make the precarious assumption that ordinal scales constitute a valid description of underlying quantitative attributes, that psychological attributes are measurable on interval scales.  Otherwise there can be no basis for quantitative measurement across large domains of the discipline. Michell (2012) argued that: “the most plausible hypothesis is that the kinds of attributes psychometricians aspire to measure are merely ordinal attributes with impure differences of degree, a feature logically incompatible with quantitative structure. If so, psychometrics is built upon a myth (p. 255).

This view is supported by Klaas Sijtsma (2012) who argues that the real measurement problem in Psychology is the absence of well-developed theories about psychological attributes and a lack of any evidence to support the assumption that psychological attributes are continuous and quantitative in nature.

Scientific Psychosis

A person with delusions of grandeur can be labeled as suffering from psychosis. But what if a whole discipline has delusions of grandeur? In this case the term ‘Scientific Psychosis’ would not seem inappropriate.

Using ordinal data as if they are interval or ratio scale data leads to incorrect inferences and false conclusions. Using totals and averages requires data to be on an interval scale. Performing parametric analyses on ordinal data can produce biased estimates of variances, covariances, and correlations and spurious interaction effects.

Yet these practices are regular, everyday occurrences in Academic Psychology. I am not talking about first year undergraduate lab classes. I am talking about people at all levels from illustrious professors at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge.  They not only regularly break the basic rules of measurement themselves on a wholesale basis, they negligently train their students to do it also.

If the received wisdom about measurement in Academic Psychology is characterised as mass delusional, thought disordered and confused, we have a serious problem, a very serious problem. And the problem seems to be getting worse. We can quite justifiably call this syndrome: ‘Scientific Psychosis’.

Thurstone: Ratio Scaling

To be consistent with its claim to be a science, psychologists must use measures that preserve the requirements of a ratio scale, namely, that there are meaningful ratios between measurements. For example, if you have a cold and took three paracetamol tablets today and four yesterday, you could say that the frequency today was ¾ or .75 of what it was yesterday. Measuring objects by using a known scale and comparing the measurements works well for properties for which scales of measurement exist. L L Thurstone (1927) used the method of pair comparisons to derive scale values for any set of stimulus objects with the Law of Comparative Judgement which states:

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In his ‘Analytic Hierarchy Process’, Saaty (2008) also uses direct comparisons between pairs of objects to establish measurements for intangible properties that have no scales of measurement. The value derived for each element depends on what other elements are in the set.  Relative scales are derived by making pairwise comparisons using numerical judgments from an absolute scale of numbers (e.g. 0-9). Measurements to represent comparisons define a cardinal scale of absolute numbers that is stronger than a ratio scale.

Intuitive measurement is something that we take for granted in everyday life. However the way intuitive measurement works may be far from intuitive.  Consider how we are able estimate and compare magnitudes of objects, even when we have never actually seen these objects. For example, how do we compare the sizes of animals such as lions and hippos and judge which is larger or which is smaller? One theory of this process that appears to be especially accurate is described below.

Reference Point Theory

One theory of the estimation and comparison of magnitudes assumes there are implicit minimal and maximal reference points at the extreme ends of the distribution. As a special case of the Law of Comparative Judgement, the theory assumes that stimulus objects are represented by distributions with variances that increase with distance from the reference point contained in the question (Marks, 1972).

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DM with JL PhDThis photo from 1969 shows the author and ‘subject’ with the basic apparatus and stimuli from Experiments 7 and 8 of the author’s doctoral research at Sheffield University, ‘An Investigation of Subjective Probability Judgements’.

Keith J Holyoak

In 2014, Reference Point Theory received strong empirical support from a team at UCLA under the leadership of Keith J Holyoak.  Keith is not only a Distinguished Professor but he is Editor of Psychological Review.  Chen, Lu and Holyoak (2014) present a model of how magnitudes can be acquired and compared based on BARTlet, a simpler version of ‘Bayesian Analogy with Relational Transformations’ (BART, Lu, Chen, & Holyoak, 2012). The authors concluded that Reference Point Theory provided the best fit to their data:

“BARTlet provides a computational realization of a qualitative hypothesis proposed four decades ago by Marks (1972)…The reference-point hypothesis implies that the congruity effect results from differences in the discriminability of magnitudes represented in working memory, rather than a bias in encoding (e.g., Marschark & Paivio, 1979) or a linguistic influence (Banks et al., 1975). BARTlet provides a well-specified mechanism by which reference points can alter discriminability in direct judgments of discriminability (Holyoak & Mah, 1982) as well as speeded tasks (p. 46).”

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As well as being a Distinguished Professor at UCLA, and editing Psychological Review, Keith J Holyoak is also a poet and translator of classical Chinese poetry.  Kudos!

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” (Albert Einstein).

“The greatest scientists are artists as well,” said Albert Einstein

A Redesign for Psychology

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Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations.

Stephen Hawking

It has been said that advances in science come not from empiricism but from new theories. With this thought in mind, A General Theory of Behaviour has the potential – or so I aim to convince the reader – to advance understanding of human nature and to integrate the discipline of Psychology. In A General Theory of Behaviour I explain why this is (a) necessary, and (b) possible.

I think the majority of psychologists agree that integration is necessary. Fragmentation has been a longstanding and difficult problem for Psychology. Over more than a century, fragmentation has been called a ‘crisis’. The problem has been described thus: “a nexus of philosophical tensions, which divide individuals, departments, and psychological organizations, and which are therefore primarily responsible for the fragmentation of Psychology.” In many years’ experience as a student, researcher and professor of Psychology, I can testify to persistent and intractable tensions in every quarter of the discipline, worse in some places than others, but the fragmentation is evident everywhere.

The discipline can sometimes feel like a medieval country split into fiefdoms by moats, walls and a haphazard set of paltry roads, odd rules and customs (Figure P1, left panel). As the visitor approaches the border of the country, a smart road sign reads: “Welcome to the Science of Psychology”. Full of expectation, one passes through the guarded gates at border control (sniffer dogs, disinfectant spray guns, x-ray machines and millimetre wave scanners).

After screening by unsmiling officers in peaked caps, the traveller explores what excitement exists inside this guarded place. Each fiefdom provides glossy brochures, catalogues, and travel guides in which skies are always blue, buildings chateaux, and fountains high reaching with crystal waters.

Fountain, chateau, blue sky

Each area invites the visitor to drive over the draw bridge and take a detailed look. However, on close inspection, one senses a deep-seated problem. Something strange and slightly sinister appears to be going on. The locals appear defensive and ill at ease when one makes inquiries and asks even the simplest of questions such as “What does X mean?” As we travel around the country, barbed wire fences of ‘no-man’s land’ are everywhere and the few connecting roads are potholed and ill-made.

No man's land

In each sub-area, there is evidence of industrialisation with companies of artisans ploughing long straight furrows, planting pest-resistant seeds, spraying fields with Roundup®, harvesting their crops and filling rodent-proof silos with carefully sifted data, e.g. long-eared corn tastes better that short-eared, short-eared corn tasted better than oats, oats tastes better that long-eared corn (!) in cycles of planting, harvesting, testing and analysing.

Ploughed fields

Producers with the largest silos rule. In spite of all of the graft, one senses tension, disharmony and technical disputes is causing ill-feeling. If somebody breaks the famine with a bold new idea, s/he risks being pilloried, dunked or quarantined in the cut-off region called “Critical Psychology”. One wonders if Psychology really were a Science, would there be so many sub-regions, stretches of ‘no-mans-land’ and unrewarding customs?

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Figure P1.The Science of Psychology. In its fragmented state (left panel), each sub-field acts as a defended niche with its own specific theories and data. In a unified state (right panel) the discipline would consist of a single General Theory that encompasses the entire field with a minimum number of assumptions, a large set of falsifiable hypotheses, and a body of empirical studies aimed at falsification of the General Theory.

Most commentators agree that a major redesign is long overdue to re-engineer the discipline. Travel between sub-areas needs to be made more navigable, moats emptied, walls razed and bridges built. It’s an Isambard Kingdom Brunel the science needs as much as another Charles Darwin.

BRUNEL

The objectives of A General Theory of Behaviour are to take a few measured steps towards advancing Psychology as a natural science and, in so doing, to unify it (Figure P1, right panel). This brief introduction of 40,000 words offers twenty principles and eighty auxiliary propositions, 100 empirically falsifiable propositions. The principles and multiple auxiliary propositions make the General Theory fully and transparently capable of falsification. In embracing intentionality, purpose and desire, the General Theory is non-reductive while, at the same time, drawing upon principles from other sciences, in particular, Biology and Physiology. Following in the footsteps of Claude Bernard, Walter B Cannon and others, I try to convince the reader of the usefulness of the metamorphosed concept of behavioural homeostasis and, in so doing, explain the implications for the Science of Behaviour.

My thesis is that organisms are not adapted to each other and the environment because natural selection made them that way, but they are made that way owing to an inbuilt striving towards stability and equilibrium. A General Theory of Behaviour is an introductory ‘User’s Guide’ aiming towards a reconfigured Science of Psychology – the target in the right-hand panel of Figure P1. In Chapters One and Two I describe the core elements of the theory. Chapters Three, Four and Five contain additional parts of the theory concerning biological rhythms, concepts of behaviour, Consciousness and the central Behaviour Control System. The remaining five chapters each cover three core topics from the perspective of the theory. These 15 topics indicate the ability of the theory to cover a broad cross-section of the discipline.

Heavy traffic

In building roads and bridges, one must neither over-design nor under-design. Nobody knows how sturdy the structure is until it is tested with a fleet of trucks. Should cracks occur (or worse), other ‘engineers’ might be persuaded to renovate the project. Surely it should be worth the effort. However long it takes, our broken discipline needs to be put together into one beautiful whole.

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