Pigs Might Fly! Randi, Bem and A Sceptical Failure?

I like James Randi, a lot. He has had a rough year, and I wish him well – and I have long supported the JREF, despite endless objections to some of Randi’s videos. Long time readers of this blog will recall my annoyance, near apoplexy, at woo in the Nazareth Never Existed one, and his sceptical piece on man-made global warming (strongly suggesting he did not believe in it) shocked me, but hell I guess it’s good to question. If a difference of opinion with another sceptic OR parapsychologist stopped me talking to them, and far more importantly, listening and learning from them, I’d be both ignorant and friendless.

The JREF staff I have spoken to over the years have been unfailingly polite and helpful, despite my tendency towards accepting some “paranormal” beliefs, and my strong commitment to investigating these issues scientifically. I’m particularly a fan of the JREF forum, where I have made many friends, and can promise that though there are some acerbic and rather strident critics there, there are also some excellent sceptics, critics and thinkers. I learn a lot there. I have respect for DJ Grothe and Phil Plait, who have both been JREF Presidents, and usually enjoy my reading there.

However, often the JREF videos can be wrong, or misleading. Today I finally saw this years Pigasus awards, ofter spotting a mention on the SPR Facebook page, and went and watched it. The Pigasus Awards are basically Ig Nobel Prizes for the worst in some paranormal, psychic or parapsychological related field, a mock honour that highlights the worst out there. And I tend to actually be pretty pleased with some of the choices, and irritated by others. There is a good wikipedia page on the Pigasus Awards

Anyway this years Awards make for fun viewing, so here they are

Video (c) JREF 2012.

Now, the bit I have a problem with this year is the awarding of the Pigasus for Science to Daryl Bem for his work on habituative presentiment, that infamous study I wrote about a few weeks back – if you have no idea what I am on about best read that first. Given I don’t actually believe in psi, and find it hard to see how it can work — though clearly there would be vast adaptive advantage in precognition if such a thing could exist, so yes in evolutionary terms it would make sense — why am I so irritated?

Listen to the speech again.

“The winner of the Pigasus Award for Science is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research which has been discredited on many accounts, by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”

I had not actually read Steven Novella’s piece before today, but I do in my previous piece refer to the research he cites — Wagenmakers et al (2011) — and link to it and Bem’s response. I am curious as to why Novella was mentioned rather than Wagenmakers here, and even more striking omission is that while two of the researchers who performed the recent failed replication of Bem’s experiment are mentioned, Stuart J Ritchie the other author does not get a mention at all. I have seen lots of theoretical criticisms of Bem’s work – here is an interesting thread on the JREF Forum, and here is Bare Normality’s recent blog post. However to me the most important critique remains that of those who have like Galak & Nelson and Ritchie, French & Wiseman actually replicated the experiments. As I commented in my last piece on spin in science and the Bem affair, there have of course also been successful replications.

Now the use of the word shoddy to describe Bem’s work is to me highly unfair, given that Wagenmakers critique, if correct, is that the methods used by almost all social scientists and lots of “hard” scientists too for dealing with probability are flawed, and these are inherent issues in our statistical methodologies. I’m not going to get involved in a discussion of Frequentist versus Bayesian analysis, because I’m not qualified to do so — but if Wagenmaker’s et als critique as put forward by Novella is correct then it is a common and widespread issue effecting a centuries research across the sciences, not something specific to Bem. How is that shoddy? I don’t know if it is correct – Bem has responded, and I encourage interested parties to go back and read the papers and discussion, which are linked in my last piece. The use of the word “shoddy” however really needs some justification.

Let’s move on. Randi continues —

“such examination, shows very strange methods used by Bem, which ends up unproven, though the popular media of course have chosen to embrace it.”

I have seen some suggestions of methodological flaws, which I linked above, but the paper was published in a major peer reviewed journal and has generally been positively commented upon by many of those who have like myself been through the paper looking for such flaws to explain the bizarre results. As anyone who has read my last piece knows, I am dismayed by the media spin: but plenty of popular science magazines have also reported on the affair, and the failed replications.

The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail? A failed replication speaks far more to me than all the theoretical objections folks have raised, and is no real scandal. People do research, get funny results, others try to replicate and if replication fails we then start to try and work out what the hell is going on. Now in this case Dr Richard Wiseman is maintaining a “file drawer” registry of replications, and will publish a meta-analysis later in the year or next, which will finally clarify what exactly the experiments say. I have plenty of time for French, Ritchie and Wiseman — but this assassination of character by implication and slur just annoys me.

The truth is Bem performed perfectly good science, and while the media hype that followed was a bit odd, over the top and regrettable, he will be vindicated or be proven wrong by perfectly good, and normal, scientific methods. The Pigasus Award seems to be an attempt to place Bem’s research firmly in the pseudoscience camp; I think that is manifestly unfair. I can’t see Ritchie, Wiseman and French condoning this, and have drawn it their attention: all it does is widen the gap between parapsychologists and their intelligent critics, and it’s simply misleading. It does also make those who bothered like the above British team to replicate and seriously take on Bem on the issue look like fools.

And here is the thing: Randi appears to think that Bem’s work is worthy as a Pigasus because it can’t be right. He has made an a priori assumption it will not be vindicated (as have I to some extent, I just don’t claim to know that until the evidence is in, it’s simply a personal prejudice…) but by the award of the Piagsus he goes much further, belittling Bem for taking the subject seriously enough to research it.

Randi seems to think he knows what science contains, and psi is clearly absurd. He ridicules those who use science to investigate these issues – if they happen to disagree with his prejudice, while praising those like Wiseman and French (and the not-to-be-mentioned Ritchie) who use exactly the same methodologies, yet find results he personally finds acceptable. This is not uncommon in an ideological struggle like the parapsychologicalist-believers versus sceptic struggle has been since the days of William James at least, but it is ultimately far more damaging and dangerous to real scientific inquiry than Bem’s research. Science asks questions, tests them, and falsifies hypotheses — and is conducted not by sneering and cheap shots, but by hard work and real research.

As usual the Daily Grail beat me to the story, and did it better, but anyway, enough. As usual, it is science that is the victim here, and the war of spin continues…

UPDATE: Just saw that Stuart J Ritchie one of the authors of the failure to replicate experiment wrote on Twitter “Should put it on record that I think James Randi giving Bem the Pigasus award is unfair, unhelpful and disappointing.”

🙂 I agree totally.

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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9 Responses to Pigs Might Fly! Randi, Bem and A Sceptical Failure?

  1. Just one solution really: MOAR REPLICATIONS!

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      I have the software, if I could find the time and volunteers. But Wiseman’s replication registry will sort it out I think, once the meta-analysis is done. If you have been following the discussion between myself, Stuart J Ritchie and Richard Wiseman on Twitter you will see I have invited them to comment too here.

  2. Michael Duggan says:

    Wiseman’s registry? I would prefer it if this registry was controlled by someone neutral to precognition rather than somebody who is on record calling for an end to parapsychology. Wiseman’s record in psi research is pretty poor, although I couldn’t find anything wrong (on paper) with the recent failed replication. Will he include the very large positive databases of Jonathan Schooler (14 expt’s) or his post-doc Michael Franklin?

    On the issue of psi, if you are sympathetic to survivalist interpretations of poltergeist cases then why the reticence over psi? The evidence for psi is very strong and psi suggests mind is non-local and survivable after death. A corrolary of this; believing in survial demands acceptance of psi. No?

    Another good piece by-the-way.


  3. “The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail?”
    This is exactly the question I answer in the blog post you link to. I wonder if you read it all?
    It seems that you use it merely as a fig leaf, to provide some faux balance.

    That you would dare shed crocodile tears over the victimization of science must be the height of hypocrisy.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Without looking I can only recall you mentioning the difference between conceptual and close replication with reference to this. Wiseman Ritchie and French was a close replication using the same methodology and same software — so what am I missing?

      • Yes, it was a close replication. That is exactly the reason why it did not replicate.
        Why that is so is something I spend the entire post explaining in a simple manner.
        tl;dr I guess.

        Take it from someone who has actually analyzed the Bem paper. The Pigasus is well deserved.

      • Chris Jensen Romer says:

        No I read your article and took on board the critique the other presentiment research I referred to was of dubious relevance as conceptual not close — different set up. I like the opening on the danger of post hoc analysis where you throw statistical measures at a mass of data till you get the results you want. I clearly need to re-read the mathematical section in the middle again though. I link to your critique not in interest of balance but because you have worthwhile stuff to say and have been right before. (I think every paper I cite in this piece was sceptical anyway so balance issue would be the other way?)

  4. Pingback: Randi doesn't like scientific enquiry, he just wants people to listen to him! - Parapsychology and alternative medicine forums of mind-energy.net

  5. Pingback: Randi doesn't like scientific enquiry, he just wants people to listen to him! - Page 2 - Parapsychology and alternative medicine forums of mind-energy.net

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