That Wiseman Quote

Richard Wiseman is a british psychologist known for his pop-sci books as well as his skeptical interest in paranormal claims. The Daily Mail quotes him thusly:

“I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do.

“If I said that there is a red car outside my house, you would probably believe me.

“But if I said that a UFO had just landed, you’d probably want a lot more evidence.

“Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionise the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions. Right now we don’t have that evidence.”

This is frequently quoted by believers in the paranormal as support for their position. The spin is that Wiseman, the skeptic, admits that something paranormal is proven but then resorts to a double standard to deny this.

Is there any truth to this?

Those who know Wiseman will know he is usually a rather rational person. Those who know the Daily Mail will know that it is not the most sober or reliable newspaper, that is to say a british tabloid. One suspects that the quote was simply mangled beyond recognition.

Surely remote viewing is disproven by any normal standard! Besides what’s that talk about different standards in different areas of science? I think we can infer that he is not talking about having different standards in different sciences but rather for different claims. Also, he’s misusing the phrase begs the question.

And finally, I assume that when he talks about “revolutionising the world” he talks about the scientific world. IE he means that this would uncover glaring and massive holes and/or errors in our understanding rather than that it simply would unlock new technologies.

New technologies, of course, don’t require extraordinary evidence, they are extraordinary evidence. Everyone can test if they work. Those who employ new, effective techniques profit, the rest gets left behind.

A misquote?

The misquotation hypothesis receives a partial confirmation on another blog where Wiseman clarifies thusly:

“It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more general sense of ESP — that is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc as well.  I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”

So he is not talking about remote viewing but instead about something else. Unfortunately it is quite unclear what.

It doesn’t look like there is any real clarification from Wiseman forthcoming. I don’t know what he really meant to say and who was responsible for mangling it but I will critique it anyways.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a truism that I have previously justified. An extraordinary claim is one that is unlikely to be true. And this likelihood is something we judge from our previous knowledge. Taking this into account we could render the Wiseman quote like so:

“If ESP had still more evidence going for it, it would be proven.”

Or as:

“ESP would be proven if there was not also a lot of counter-evidence.”

Both statements are true but not very sensible.

Wiseman, according to a JREF thread, specifically mentions psychology as a realm where normal claims have as much evidence as whatever he was talking about. The exchange between the poster and Wiseman went so:

Kuko 4000:
The existing RV database does not convince you, ok. But at the same time you seem to say that RV has been proven by scientific standards, now I’m confused. I would really appreciate a “clarification-for-dummies”, so to speak
This could be an issue with my understanding of science or it could be a matter of language barrier, but I’m having problems getting my head around this. Do you mean that by the standards of any other area of science, say biology, evidence of similar quality would be considered scientifically convincing? If so, could you please direct me to the research so I could look it up for myself?
Richard:
yes, it is different standards for different types of claims
so, a normal scientific claims requires a certain level of proof, but a paranormal one requires a higher level
Kuko 4000:
Could you give me an example of a normal scientific claim that in your view offers the same level of proof as the best available evidence for Remote Viewing? This way I could understand the comparison much better.
Richard:
most of psychology!

So let’s look at a psychological effect and contrast it to telepathy.

Normal vs. Extraordinary effect

For a not quite random example let’s take priming. For example, test subjects are given a list of words to read that contains the word carpet. When they are later given the beginning of words they are more like to complete C-A-R to carpet than otherwise.  An other example might be dropping the word ‘yellow’ and then finding that subjects are more likely to mention ‘banana’ when asked about fruits.

That’s not a particularly exciting effect. We already know that humans have memory, that practice helps, etc… We also know that much mental processing is unconscious. Priming is a specific effect of unconscious memory (properly called implicit memory).

Establishing priming is only showing a particular behavior of something that undoubtedly exists. I can’t think of any reason why it should be so but neither of any reason why it shouldn’t. Then again I’m not a psychologist.

In a telepathy test one will have at least two participants between who any normal communication is (supposedly) impossible. Then the experimenter will employ some method to show that communication actually happens. This is where experiments differ.

Parapsychologists argue that if they gain evidence that communication happens while it should be impossible, this must be telepathy. There are problems with that logic but that isn’t the point of this post.

The difference between priming and telepathy should be clear. One has a firm basis, the other, by definition, has none. That’s not even mentioning that people have been trying to establish telepathy for well over a century without managing to convince more than a tiny handful of the validity of the phenomenon.

Bottom line?

I think that Wiseman’s heart is in the right place but the quote is nonsense and those who criticise him for it are justified in doing so. It’s not the only time that he has said something that made little sense to me but it probably happens out of a desire not to call the emperor naked but rather to say something nice.

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2 Comments

  1. Chris Jensen Romer said,

    July 15, 2011 at 8:27 am

    Excellent blog — am enjoying it. I seem to recall Wiseman clarified he was talking about the Ganzfeld database, and let’s face it, by Ersby’s excellent meta-analysis he is absolutely right. Incidentally I also think “extraordinary claims…” is at best misleading, at worst wrong.

    What I suspect a lot of people have not grasped is that the normal level required for acceptance of a result in most disciplines is actually pretty dismally low, unless the results are extremely shocking and hence controversial. However, how many people actually conduct replications on any paper? So a psychological effect can gain mainstream acceptance based on a paper or two, conducted with a pool usually of 18-21 year old predominantly white female psych undergrads in either the USA or some other anglophone nation, and then often generalised to apply to the world. ;) And to be honest psychology is pretty good, I have seen worse in other disciplines.

    But when Wiseman says the results would be accepted in any other case he is right – they meet significance, blah, blah, blah. That does not make them correct, but owing to critical scrutiny from Hyman and others yes parapsychology has some pretty good papers compared with other disciplines. I think Wiseman may be not really talking up parapsi, but also hinting at the generally low level of an awful lot of the scientific literature.

    cj x

    • July 18, 2011 at 9:41 am

      Wiseman’s clarification of having talked about the Ganzfeld is quoted in the post.
      I have a couple of posts half finished including one about the Ganzfeld experiments but I don’t have much time at the moment. to finish any of them. I’ll prioritize the Ganzfeld one just for you. ;)
      Give it 2 or 3 weeks.


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