Why Psi is Pseudoscience

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Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#1  Postby VK-machine » Apr 07, 2010 6:51 pm

Psi threads are generally started by believers wanting to discuss some sort of supposed evidence. The discussion rarely turns to the general folly of the whole psi project.
This prompted me to write this little essay. I tried to keep it simple and general. I don't know if its any good.
I'll add footnotes later if there is any interest.
----------------------------------------------------------------
Psi is a very strange thing. It is a bit like real magic. We all know what magic is supposed to look like, we see it on TV and from professional magicians. That is what real magic is supposed to look like but that is just trickery, fake magic. Real magic should look somewhat like that but also... What? What does it mean for magic to be real? The closest we can come to that is by saying that it must be scientifically inexplicable.
Psi is just like that. When something looks like a psychic phenomenon but also happens to be real then that is psi. And again, the only criterion we have for distinguishing real psi from fake psi is that real psi cannot be explained in terms of known science. Experiments done to detect psi are done literally in expectation of the unexpected.
It gets even stranger. Psi is somehow an explanation for "real" psychic phenomena. Yet there are many different psi phenomena such as ESP or psychokinesis. ESP involves inexplicable perception and PK inexplicable manipulation. Why should such phenomena have anything in common? Our eyes and hands don't have anything in common either, nor even our eyes and ears and those are both sensory organs. Moreover, the mechanism is supposedly deeply connected to the workings of the mind (or the psyche). Many parapsychologists fancy themselves to be in consciousness research.

Nevertheless, how strange something seems is not an issue if it is reasonably supported by evidence. But is it?
There are people who claim to have psychic powers or to have witnessed some sort of paranormal occurrence. There are claims of being able to contact the dead, being clairvoyant, seeing the future, being telepathic, having seen ghosts and so on.
Sometimes people have been found to be using magic tricks to achieve the effect. Others have been found to be simply delusional. FOr example telepathy-like experiences are common symptoms of schizophrenia (and then called thought broadcasting for example). We don't know how schizophrenia works or why people are so prone to form such delusions but in the full-blown form there is no doubt that these beliefs are delusional.
Paranormal experiences are not usually a sign of mental illness, though. Hallucinations may also happen in the otherwise healthy, especially under stress. Also various cognitive biases were discovered by which ordinary people might come to believe to have abilities that they don't possess, be those abilities psychic or mundane.
That then is not psi. On the other hand, the quest to discover an individual who has psychic abilities has been unsuccesful. Today various organizations offer cash-prizes to anyone who can demonstrate some such ability under conditions ruling out the usual magic tricks. Such prizes remain unclaimed.
On the whole we know, sometimes we know that non-psi explanation are the answer and we never know that psi must be the answer.
Believers deal with this in various ways. Some argue that not every psychic ever has been caught and moreover that even those who were caught were not always caught. In short we cannot rule out that "real" psi has occurred because we are not omniscient.
Others argue that "real" psi is not under conscious control and manifests only sporadically in a noticeably dramatic way so that it cannot be realiably demonstrated.
Still others argue that scientists, including parapsychologists, and in fact any non-believers simply don't get it.
Generally there is agreement, however, that these "normal" explanations are true in some cases. However, other cases, no matter how superficially similar they look, supposedly require a completely different explanation that has to do with mind and is completely undreamt of by science.
All this does not change that claims of psychic abilities have been thoroughly falsified. As in the case of Bigfoot or Nessie, the continued failure to obtain evidence that should exist were the claim real is evidence against the claim.

Evidence also has supposedly been found in laboratory experiments. It should seem strange that there have been lab experiments on psi. After all, there is, by definition, no scientific reason to expect psi and wild claims and dubious anecdotes are at best ambigous evidence if at evidence at all.
However, that wasn't always so. At some point it was reasonable to make sure that something so widely believed was really wrong. At some point it was also not unreasonable to think that the biblical creation account might be actual eyewitness testimony. The problems only started once nature solidly told us it wasn't so and some people just could not accept it.

The big time of laborotary parapsychology happened under the auspices of a man called J.B. Rhine, easily the most influential parapsychologist of the last century. One reason for that is that he got results. Unfortunately others had trouble replicating these. In fact, even his own students couldn't do it.
It's a pattern that should be familiar to anyone with an interest in science. From N-rays to cold fusion, sometimes people fool themselves. Yet even when this is corroborated by eyewitnesses and logs, it can usually not be proven. When the factors responsible for a false result are not noticed then they are not recorded. But when they are noticed then the results are discarded and don't become public, or else the researcher is a fraud who will hide such records.
Die-hards might argue that possibly the failure to replicate is not due to unknown mistakes but due to some unknown factors present at first and missing later. Rhine, for example, believed that the enthusiasm of the early years at his institute was this missing factor. Later parapsychologists speculated in one way or another that elusiveness was simply a characteristic feature of psi.
At this point psi becomes simply pseudoscience. There is no possible way in which psi can be shown to be inexistant and at the same time there is no reason to believe it exists.
Psi, by definition, is not predicted by any theory. Of course, the same was true for lightning at some point. But psi is not like lightning. Psi is like that sub-class of lightning that is not explained by electromagnetism. We have no reason to believe that there is anything like that yet we neither have proof that there isn't. We can't have.
Compare this to Intelligent Design or Ufology. Something is not explained to the satisfaction of a believer. The believer then postulates that it can never, not even in principle, be explained in terms of present-day science. Therefor it is evidence for some idea that is as vague as it is fantastic.

And yet parapsychology marches on, and as always in its 150 year history, there is no shortage of proponents who claim to have solid evidence. In order to understand the state of parapsychology one must understand how tricky testing is.

No test is perfect, it may come up positive when the anser is negative (false positive or Type I error) or it may come up a false negative (Type II error).
Now let's say that you are doing a mass test for a certain disease. The test is false positive in 1% of all negative cases. You test 10,000 people and about 100 of them test positive. Bad news for them, or maybe not? About 100 of 10,000 is just about 1%! Maybe none of those 10.000 have the disease, or maybe a couple do. We don't know.
So you double check by applying the test again. But statistically you still expect 1 of those 100 people to test falsely positive.
What if only 1 in 10,000 people have the disease? After the first round of tests you have and average 100 of false positives for every one true positive. After the second round you still have one false for every true positive.
That's one reason why just randomly testing people for all kinds of diseases is not a good idea.
But what if the disease is more common among those you test? Maybe you only test those that had contact with an infected person or maybe it's a genetic disease and you test only whose ancestors had the disease. You test 10,000 people, and let's say that 1,000 have it. If there are 10% false negatives and 1% false positives you end up with a total of 990 positives with almost 90% of those being true postitives.
In the first group your positive test result is most probably wrong and in the second very likely true.
It is often said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This example shows why. In the first group we tested a claim (person is diseased) that was very unlikely to be true while in the second group the claim was, although still probably wrong, much more likely. In both groups the test had the same rate of false positives. The positive test results were the same kind of ordinary evidence. Yet in one group the results were almost all wrong, and in the other mostly true.
It's not so that some claims are inherently more extraordinary or less likely to be true. It's just that most claims already have a lot going for them when they are made. These claims may be, for example, the predictions of a well established theory. Historically it is clear that such claims are much more likely to be true than what are just basically guesses.
The implications for psi which, by definition, has no science going for it are clear.

From this example we can also see other important implications for science. In science one generally accepts a rate of false positives of a whopping 5%. That's not because we take into account sloppiness but simply because there is always some uncontrollable statistical variation. Lowering it would require either allowing a higher rate of false negatives, which isn't good either, or much more money for bigger tests, which usually is only expended when that seems like a good investment, either financially or scientifically.
This leads to a simple consequence. Even if every single hypothesis tested in some field is wrong, it will still produce a steady stream of positive results. One might be tempted to check if the rate of positive results matches that expected by default but one can't. Not all results are published and it is generally the negative ones that fall under the table.
The way that science deals with this is by demanding results to be replicable. This means that a suitably qualified individual following the same experimental 'recipe' must get the same result. Of course, even a succesful replication may still be a fluke while a failure may be a false negative.
Parapsychology is notorious for lack of replicable results. This is sometimes asserted to be either an inherent characteristic of psi and sometimes due to not fully understanding all factors necessary for replication. In fact, no explanation is necessary, in normal science such results would be forgotten.
Even if psi were real there would still be false positives. And as there is no theory to guide research and to determine promising hypotheses to test one would expect a very high rate of false positives indeed. True psi and its characteristics would be swamped. One cannot study something without being able to produce, or at least identify it.
It gets even worse still. Since psi is we don't know what, there is no way to detect its presence as in an anti-body test. And since it is doing we don't know what we can't compare a prediction with some measurable outcome. The only way to test for it is to find that a result is not according to expectations.
Similar problems are sometimes encountered in real science. One usually isn't looking for something tangible but rather for an effect, maybe if a drug helps. And often one doesn't know how big an effect one should expect.
One way real science deals with this is by using control groups. One compares the outcome between groups that have or have not the factor present. This doesn't work for psi because it is never known if psi is present.
An other way is indeed by somehow estimating what should happen in the absence of the effect, as in parapsychology. The
problem is that such theoretical estimates are never quite precise. At some level of precision they will break down. So the only way such a result can be convincing is if the deviation from expectation is large (but even then such a test result will remain contentious until more and different evidence is found).
Large deviations don't happen in parapsychology. Parapsychologists adress this by attempting to make extra-sure that the theoretical expectation is credible. They make the experimental conditions so that there is no conceivable cause for any deviation. Unfortunately the only way we can be sure that they succeeded in this is if there is no effect. The evidence for psi is identical to the evidence for errors.

In summary a positive result, or even many, means little. It has been estimated that in some fields (that study definitely real things) most published results are wrong. To ensure that a result is trustworthy it must be replicable and consistent or large and unambigous. There should be independant corroborative evidence such as comes from understanding the mechanism.
Nothing of that is the case for parapsychological results. Even if psi were real most results should be expected to be false. But psi being real means nothing but that some of these results which look so much like false positives require some new and exciting explanation. Something awesome to do with mind. There is no good reason to think so. In fact, even if some sort of real effect were found there would be no reason to immediately conclude its explanation would have to be anything like psi is supposed to be.
Not only is psi unfalsifiable, it is also completely unclear how it might be verified. It is clearly pseudoscience.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#2  Postby Virus » May 04, 2010 12:33 am

Yep. Psy is time-wasting bollocks.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#3  Postby jaydot » May 09, 2010 9:13 pm

much prefer the short version.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#4  Postby chairman bill » May 09, 2010 9:29 pm

Woo ... I knew you were going to say that
“There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.” Terry Pratchett
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#5  Postby jaydot » May 10, 2010 2:51 pm

lol. :)
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#6  Postby VK-machine » May 10, 2010 5:29 pm

:popcorn:
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#7  Postby ymitchell » May 10, 2010 6:27 pm

VK-machine wrote:Not only is psi unfalsifiable, it is also completely unclear how it might be verified. It is clearly pseudoscience

Psi can most certanly be falsified, as has been demonstrated time-and-again when taken into the laboratory. Remember you only have to produce the one pink unicorn to falsify all scientific causality.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#8  Postby Darkchilde » May 11, 2010 4:45 pm

ymitchell wrote:
VK-machine wrote:Not only is psi unfalsifiable, it is also completely unclear how it might be verified. It is clearly pseudoscience

Psi can most certanly be falsified, as has been demonstrated time-and-again when taken into the laboratory. Remember you only have to produce the one pink unicorn to falsify all scientific causality.


Then why don't you point us to those demonstrations? From actual scientific resources, please.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#9  Postby Vinncent » Apr 08, 2013 7:37 am

I was honestly expecting much better from a skeptic blog. No sources cited, no analysis of the body of work on the subject, and objectively poor understanding of statistical analysis.

Where do I start?

First, you equate "psi" with "magic", for no reason. From my research on various "psi" researchers, none of them have claimed "if it can't be explained via 'science', is must be magical unicorn fairies Santa Claus Jesus." The fundamental point is that there is no solid mechanism that has yet to be determined behind psi phenomena. This in not way discounts the evidence behind various psi experiments. Since you seem to be unfamiliar with scientific research, I'll provide a parallel example of a study I just reviewed. A research group used a certain procedure to create nano-scale cubic structures (SiO2, I think), with possible applications in drug delivery. Using electron microscopy, they were able to show that they successfully created these structures, despite having little knowledge behind the physical mechanisms that created these structures. It wasn't until years later that another research group was able to shed more light on what conditions were relevant to forming these structures, and -why- the initial research group's procedure worked.

Your logic is that the initial research group did not create nanoscale cubic structures, despite all evidence to the contrary, because they did not fully understand the mechanisms behind how these structures formed... simply that they did, using the procedure they used. In relation to PSI research, your argument is that PSI phenomena is impossible, because they don't immediately offer an unknown mechanism that explains their results, even though their results are still valid.

This point pretty much summarizes the rest of your post. It would be helpful if you would look up what "statistically significant" means, as understanding this is key to not only understanding PSI studies, but practically any sort of scientific study in general. There's little more to say on the rest of your points, as they all revolve back to failing to understand what "statistically significant" means.

"Mmall effect sizes are not that uncommon in psychology (and other sciences). For example, on average, the Bem studies showed an effect size of .20 (out of a possible range of 0-1). Although that is fairly small, it is as large as or larger than some well-established effects, including the link between aspirin and heart attack prevention, calcium intake and bone mass, second hand smoke and lung cancer, and condom use and HIV prevention (Bushman & Anderson, 2001). And as Cohen has pointed out, such small effect sizes are most likely to occur in the early stages of exploring a topic, when scientists are just starting to discover why the effect occurs and when it is most likely to occur."
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#10  Postby cyghost » Apr 08, 2013 8:53 am

I always enjoyed this Skeptico blog post on this :D
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#11  Postby mattthomas » Apr 08, 2013 8:57 am

PSI is not pseudoscience... I know for a fact that if I drive with too low or too high a PSI I run the risk of fucking up my tyres!
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#12  Postby VK-machine » Apr 08, 2013 9:42 am

Vinncent wrote:I was honestly expecting much better from a skeptic blog. No sources cited, no analysis of the body of work on the subject, and objectively poor understanding of statistical analysis.

Where do I start?

First, you equate "psi" with "magic", for no reason. From my research on various "psi" researchers, none of them have claimed "if it can't be explained via 'science', is must be magical unicorn fairies Santa Claus Jesus." The fundamental point is that there is no solid mechanism that has yet to be determined behind psi phenomena. This in not way discounts the evidence behind various psi experiments. Since you seem to be unfamiliar with scientific research, I'll provide a parallel example of a study I just reviewed. A research group used a certain procedure to create nano-scale cubic structures (SiO2, I think), with possible applications in drug delivery. Using electron microscopy, they were able to show that they successfully created these structures, despite having little knowledge behind the physical mechanisms that created these structures. It wasn't until years later that another research group was able to shed more light on what conditions were relevant to forming these structures, and -why- the initial research group's procedure worked.

Your logic is that the initial research group did not create nanoscale cubic structures, despite all evidence to the contrary, because they did not fully understand the mechanisms behind how these structures formed... simply that they did, using the procedure they used. In relation to PSI research, your argument is that PSI phenomena is impossible, because they don't immediately offer an unknown mechanism that explains their results, even though their results are still valid.

This point pretty much summarizes the rest of your post. It would be helpful if you would look up what "statistically significant" means, as understanding this is key to not only understanding PSI studies, but practically any sort of scientific study in general. There's little more to say on the rest of your points, as they all revolve back to failing to understand what "statistically significant" means.

"Mmall effect sizes are not that uncommon in psychology (and other sciences). For example, on average, the Bem studies showed an effect size of .20 (out of a possible range of 0-1). Although that is fairly small, it is as large as or larger than some well-established effects, including the link between aspirin and heart attack prevention, calcium intake and bone mass, second hand smoke and lung cancer, and condom use and HIV prevention (Bushman & Anderson, 2001). And as Cohen has pointed out, such small effect sizes are most likely to occur in the early stages of exploring a topic, when scientists are just starting to discover why the effect occurs and when it is most likely to occur."


LOL. Nice trolling. You totally had me for a minute ;)
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#13  Postby campermon » Apr 08, 2013 10:29 am

Vinncent wrote: For example, on average, the Bem studies showed an effect size of .20 ......


As I understand it, the Bem studies were savaged by the critics because of the dodgy way they processed the statistics and the fact that the results couldn't be replicated.

BTW, welcome to the forum!

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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#14  Postby lobawad » Apr 08, 2013 10:39 am

Vinncent wrote:I was honestly expecting much better from a skeptic blog. No sources cited, no analysis of the body of work on the subject, and objectively poor understanding of statistical analysis.

Where do I start?

First, you equate "psi" with "magic", for no reason. From my research on various "psi" researchers, none of them have claimed "if it can't be explained via 'science', is must be magical unicorn fairies Santa Claus Jesus." The fundamental point is that there is no solid mechanism that has yet to be determined behind psi phenomena. This in not way discounts the evidence behind various psi experiments. Since you seem to be unfamiliar with scientific research, I'll provide a parallel example of a study I just reviewed. A research group used a certain procedure to create nano-scale cubic structures (SiO2, I think), with possible applications in drug delivery. Using electron microscopy, they were able to show that they successfully created these structures, despite having little knowledge behind the physical mechanisms that created these structures. It wasn't until years later that another research group was able to shed more light on what conditions were relevant to forming these structures, and -why- the initial research group's procedure worked.

Your logic is that the initial research group did not create nanoscale cubic structures, despite all evidence to the contrary, because they did not fully understand the mechanisms behind how these structures formed... simply that they did, using the procedure they used. In relation to PSI research, your argument is that PSI phenomena is impossible, because they don't immediately offer an unknown mechanism that explains their results, even though their results are still valid.

This point pretty much summarizes the rest of your post. It would be helpful if you would look up what "statistically significant" means, as understanding this is key to not only understanding PSI studies, but practically any sort of scientific study in general. There's little more to say on the rest of your points, as they all revolve back to failing to understand what "statistically significant" means.

"Mmall effect sizes are not that uncommon in psychology (and other sciences). For example, on average, the Bem studies showed an effect size of .20 (out of a possible range of 0-1). Although that is fairly small, it is as large as or larger than some well-established effects, including the link between aspirin and heart attack prevention, calcium intake and bone mass, second hand smoke and lung cancer, and condom use and HIV prevention (Bushman & Anderson, 2001). And as Cohen has pointed out, such small effect sizes are most likely to occur in the early stages of exploring a topic, when scientists are just starting to discover why the effect occurs and when it is most likely to occur."


"Effect size" is not an isolated figure! In the case of aspirin, calcium, smoke and condoms, there are clear (proposed) mechanisms involved.

I do agree with you that lumping psi in with "magic" from the get-go is a bad and counterproductive habit.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#15  Postby chairman bill » Apr 08, 2013 10:52 am

Our failure to find similar results even after three close replication attempts, along with the methodological and statistical issues discussed above and at least one other published report of a failed replication attempt [17], leads us to favour the ‘experimental artifacts’ explanation for Bem's original result.


Ritchie SJ, Wiseman R, French CC (2012) Failing the Future: Three Unsuccessful Attempts to Replicate Bem's ‘Retroactive Facilitation of Recall’ Effect. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33423. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033423

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0033423
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#16  Postby Scot Dutchy » Apr 08, 2013 10:57 am

A load of bloody woo once again. Carry on dreaming.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#17  Postby VK-machine » Apr 08, 2013 11:06 am

lobawad wrote:I do agree with you that lumping psi in with "magic" from the get-go is a bad and counterproductive habit.


Fine. You tell me what psi is. I'm not asking for a big theory or mechanism, just an operational definition. What do people mean when they say it?
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#18  Postby lobawad » Apr 08, 2013 12:08 pm

VK-machine wrote:
lobawad wrote:I do agree with you that lumping psi in with "magic" from the get-go is a bad and counterproductive habit.


Fine. You tell me what psi is. I'm not asking for a big theory or mechanism, just an operational definition. What do people mean when they say it?


The term psi denotes anomalous processes of information or energy transfer, processes such as telepathy or other forms of extrasensory perception that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms. The term is purely descriptive: It neither implies that such anomalous phenomena are paranormal nor connotes anything about their underlying mechanisms.


- Bem, D. J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin', 115, 4-18. (from Wikipedia)

Even for an informal definition we have to apply some kind of filter to "what people mean when they say it", else "science" would include or fall under "magic", too.

I like how you point out that there are different mechanisms for different senses, so it can't be assumed that all psi uses the same "sense". That points to a common logic fail by both pro- and anti- psi parties.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#19  Postby VK-machine » Apr 08, 2013 12:29 pm

lobawad wrote:
VK-machine wrote:
lobawad wrote:I do agree with you that lumping psi in with "magic" from the get-go is a bad and counterproductive habit.


Fine. You tell me what psi is. I'm not asking for a big theory or mechanism, just an operational definition. What do people mean when they say it?


The term psi denotes anomalous processes of information or energy transfer, processes such as telepathy or other forms of extrasensory perception that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms. The term is purely descriptive: It neither implies that such anomalous phenomena are paranormal nor connotes anything about their underlying mechanisms.


- Bem, D. J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin', 115, 4-18. (from Wikipedia)

Alright, so this defines psi as any of these:
    anomalous information/energy transfer
    telepathy
    ESP
How are these defined? Just one will suffice, I think.
Defining something in terms of something that´s also undefined terms is not helpful.

BTW there are other definitions of psi which directly contradict that one.

Even for an informal definition we have to apply some kind of filter to "what people mean when they say it", else "science" would include or fall under "magic", too.

I don't understand this sentence.
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Re: Why Psi is Pseudoscience

#20  Postby lobawad » Apr 08, 2013 12:37 pm

VK-machine wrote:
lobawad wrote:
VK-machine wrote:
lobawad wrote:I do agree with you that lumping psi in with "magic" from the get-go is a bad and counterproductive habit.


Fine. You tell me what psi is. I'm not asking for a big theory or mechanism, just an operational definition. What do people mean when they say it?


The term psi denotes anomalous processes of information or energy transfer, processes such as telepathy or other forms of extrasensory perception that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms. The term is purely descriptive: It neither implies that such anomalous phenomena are paranormal nor connotes anything about their underlying mechanisms.


- Bem, D. J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin', 115, 4-18. (from Wikipedia)

Alright, so this defines psi as any of these:
    anomalous information/energy transfer
    telepathy
    ESP
How are these defined? Just one will suffice, I think.
Defining something in terms of something that´s also undefined terms is not helpful.

BTW there are other definitions of psi which directly contradict that one.

Even for an informal definition we have to apply some kind of filter to "what people mean when they say it", else "science" would include or fall under "magic", too.

I don't understand this sentence.


An example definition:

Extra sensory perception would be perception of information by means other than with or through the recognized physical senses.

You referred to "what people mean when they say it". What "people" mean when they say something might also be "a common misperception". I think we should avoid defining something in terms of a common misperception.
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