In the service of science, not spin

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In the service of science, not spin

#1  Postby RichardPrins » Mar 01, 2010 10:38 am

In the service of science, not spin
Sue Blackmore wrote:

Most scientists are more interested in finding out the truth than attempting to make the world how we'd like it to be

The question: Can spin ever be justified?

If by "spin" you mean selecting some data to publish while leaving others out, or presenting your results in the clearest way you can to reveal their implications, then spin is unavoidable. If by "spin" you mean selecting data to fit your own theory or twisting the facts to support one side of an argument regardless of its validity, then spin in science can never be justified. At the extreme it amounts to fraud.

Of course scientists are only human. They want their own theories to triumph; their findings to be widely cited; and they want to get prestigious and lucrative grants. So some succumb to spinning. Yet happily science has procedures to reduce spin and mitigate its effects.

I can think of many examples from my long-ago life as a research parapsychologist. Like climate science, parapsychology raises strong emotions. The majority of the general population believes in telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and life after death; the majority of parapsychologists working in this small and under-funded field are there because they do too. Maybe they fear that life is pointless unless it continues after death; maybe they have had strange and powerful experiences that they are convinced require other-worldly explanations; maybe they long to be the one who overthrows the shackles of the "reductionist materialist" science they abhor. These are powerful motivations to spin.

The field as a whole has long recognised this and taken steps to constrain it. One example is the "file drawer problem". Not every experiment that is carried out is eventually published. Many remain in the "file drawer". Some journals, such as the European Journal of Parapsychology, ask researchers to notify them of planned experiments and give priority of publication to the results of those who do. This means results are published regardless of whether they show evidence for paranormal phenomena or not. This is a good anti-spin rule but of course in a field where positive results are very scarce it leads to a lot of very boring papers.

A different method is to estimate the plausible size of the file drawer and use this to assess the overall strength of published findings. This is often done as part of meta-analyses that try to summarise the outcomes of large bodies of published data.

I once tried to actually wheedle out as many as possible of the file-drawer of "ESP ganzfeld studies". These are experiments in which subjects relax in a type of sensory deprivation and later try to match the imagery they experience to pictures observed by a distant ESP "sender". This method is time-consuming and requires considerable shared expertise. So I reasoned that by contacting the handful of published authors I could track down everyone else who was attempting replications (pdf). I found that the file drawer was not contributing unduly to the claimed success of the method.

In a more traumatic piece of research I found what could happen. Having failed to replicate the ganzfeld results myself, I visited a highly successful and trusted colleague in Cambridge. He had already told me that in his opinion a little bit of cheating in parapsychology would not matter because the evidence was already so overwhelming in its favour. I disagreed. Having started out as a strong believer in all things paranormal I had studied that evidence for some years and by this time become increasingly sceptical. The upshot of this visit was that I discovered evidence pointing to fraud in the experiments I observed there. Although he maintained his innocence to the end, he left the field shortly thereafter and reported no more significant findings.

None of these processes eliminates, or can eliminate all fraud and all spin from emotionally charged areas of science. But they do keep it under control, and scientists are generally vigilant and determined to get at the real effects amongst all the masses of data. I'm sure we all want our own theories to turn out to be true, as I once wanted my own doomed theory of telepathy to be true. But most of us are ultimately more interested in finding out the truth about the universe than in spinning our findings to fit how we'd like it to be.
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Re: In the service of science, not spin

#2  Postby alienpresence » Mar 01, 2010 11:21 am

I try to avoid white bread and other things because they contain acrylamide. Someone(s) spun the truth out of sight with that didn't they?
To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty. - Maximillien Robiespierre

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Re: In the service of science, not spin

#3  Postby RichardPrins » Mar 01, 2010 11:33 am

alienpresence wrote:I try to avoid white bread and other things because they contain acrylamide. Someone(s) spun the truth out of sight with that didn't they?

Better stick to raw/boiled foods then: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrylamide

What was spun?
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Re: In the service of science, not spin

#4  Postby alienpresence » Mar 01, 2010 11:39 am

RichardPrins wrote:
alienpresence wrote:I try to avoid white bread and other things because they contain acrylamide. Someone(s) spun the truth out of sight with that didn't they?

Better stick to raw/boiled foods then: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrylamide

What was spun?


I do. This is bad stuff. They used to bring the men in spacesuits out like it was asbestos on steroids. Suddenly the truth changed. Lots of research or should I say funds going into research I read somewhere. They should have done a lot, lot more.

Same thing seems to be happening with climate change - studies, studies, studies then some talk of action followed by minimal action followed by studies, studies, studies. We need better models and more money for studies. Blah. Spin. Blah.

Exactly how much ice needs to melt before the idea of drastic change is voiced? How much? Someone should be testing a large scale ice cap space shield, not on a computer but in orbit, oh I forgot that's spin isn't it?
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Re: In the service of science, not spin

#5  Postby jerome » Mar 01, 2010 12:48 pm

This is quite frankly plain funny. I have my own opinions on the Sargent affair - I have talked to most concerned, but not Carl, who dropped out of parapsi years ago - but if Sue wants to being it up again I will happily write lengthy piece on it. If he really did admit cheating, or more importantly chest, that is unforgivable. Still I can certainly find his papers and at least see what he had to say for himself...

On file drawer and Ganzfeld see Wiseman and my response to Wiseman - http://jerome23.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/1187/

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