Monday, 11 November 2013

Fraud in Psi-Research

 
 
 
 
 
Chapter Four of Randi's Prize briefly describes cases of fraud in experimental psi-research.
The discussion generally centres around four particular cases. Two are from the earliest period of psychic research, namely 'thought-reading' experiments with the young Creery sisters, in which two of the girls were subsequently found to have cheated, and with two young men, Douglas Blackburn and G.A. Smith, where in later life Blackburn alleged that the two had collaborated in a hoax.
The two other cases are more recent. In one, researchers at the Institute of Parapsychology became suspicious about highly significant results achieved by the director, Walter J. Levy, who had taken over from the institute's founder J.B. Rhine. They found he had falsified the data. Rhine fired him, and reported the fraud  ('A new case of experimenter unreliability', Journal of Parapsychology 38, 1974: 137-153.).
In the second, a British psychic researcher named G. Soal achieved highly significant outcomes in ESP experiments in the 1940s with a subject named Basil Shackleton. To others in the field his results seemed a bit too good to be true, but it was only when a computer analysis became possible in the 1970s that patterns in his data were uncovered showing clear signs of tampering (see below for references and here for a Wikipedia summary).
Sceptics naturally argue that these episodes discredit the whole enterprise of psychic research. If subjects and experimenters cheat, why should claims of anomalous mental phenomena arising from the experiments be trusted?
Ray Hyman, for instance, fell back heavily on this argument when he found himself unable to fault remote viewing data arising from the Stargate programme. The results might seem interesting now, he suggested, but then so did results with the Creery sisters and Blackburn and Smith, and look what happened there. His point: scientists should be in no hurry to take such claims at face value - the problems with them may not be apparent now but they are bound to surface eventually.
It's a reasonable argument, but there are some points to be made against it.
The two cases of experimenter fraud are egregious and fairly clear cut, but it's worth noting that they were both uncovered by parapsychologists, not by debunking sceptics, also that experimenter fraud is a fact of life across many scientific disciplines and parapsychology could not expect to be spared.
Two cases in a field so potentially open to abuse might actually be considered quite a small number, too small to affect the credibility of thousands of other experiments. That also applies to the two nineteenth century cases, which far from representing the main case for psychic functioning initially formed only a small part of it, and within a decade had become virtually irrelevant to it.
The two earlier cases of subject fraud are in fact more complicated.

With regard to the Creery sisters, it's clearly the case that the later cheating contaminates the earlier results. It's far from obvious, though, that these were actually achieved by the use of secret codes between the girls. A characteristic of psi, researchers say, is that it emerges in a spontaneous and light-hearted atmosphere, which would have been typical of the young sisters' early 'guessing games', and that conversely it tends to disappear when the experiments become routine, dull and earnest, which had become the case six years later when two of the girls were still being used as experimental subjects.

So an alternative view of this episode is that what began as a fun game became a duty, and the subjects responded to pressure by artificially creating the results they believed were expected of them, if not by the researchers then by their father who had first brought them to the researchers' notice.  As such, it is indicative of the sociological issues relating to psi, as much as the scientific ones. See for instance the study by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, which makes similar observations about experiments with so-called 'Geller children' in the 1970s.  (Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982)

A similar point can be made about the Blackburn and Smith episode, in which Blackburn in later life repudiated the results claimed in thought-reading experiments, claiming that he and his partner had colluded in a hoax in order to expose and embarrass the psychic researchers.

Again, it's clear that following this no credence could be attached to the experiments, but equally that Blackburn's claims are problematic, not just because his partner, who he erroneously believed to have died, indignantly denied them, but also because the methods he casually described, not expecting to be challenged, could not remotely have achieved the effects that the experimenters had earlier reported.

It may be relevant that it was Smith, not Blackburn, who was being tested for psychic ability in these experiments. He was the subject or 'receiver', attempting to intuit the images that Blackburn, as the agent or 'sender', was attempting to transmit.

Here too a sociological perspective may be useful. As I described in some detail in Randi's Prize, it's common for so-called 'confessions' of fraud in psychic research to be alleged to have been made, but at second or third hand, when the person supposed to have made it either denies having done so, or is long dead and in no position to confirm it. First hand confessions like Blackburn's are more rare - another obvious example is that made by Maggie Fox some four decades after the poltergeist disturbances that made her famous, in which she described having made the notorious 'rapping' sounds with her feet.

A third that might fit both categories is that alleged to have been made by Florence Cook - again, long after her death - in which she supposedly denied that she had mediumistic powers and claimed that the extraordinary experiments reported by William Crookes had been the cover for a sexual liaison between them.

Interestingly, all three cases concern individuals in their teens or early twenties who found themselves caught up in psychic investigations, which in middle age they repudiated. Why? Was it a guilty conscience? Possibly, but I think there is another explanation.

As I argued in Randi's Prize, there are substantive reasons for doubting the Fox and Cook 'confessions', as is surely also the case with Blackburn's. An alternative explanation, surely, is that all three, for differing reasons, had over the years become embarrassed by their youthful involvement in such a deeply controversial activity, one that perhaps their present friends and associates disapproved of, and wanted to disassociate themselves from it.

None of this, it needs to be stressed, is intended to rehabilitate the Creery or Smith-Blackburn research as evidence in support of psi's existence. But I believe they put in perspective the sceptics' simplistic claims regarding these episodes. Far from discrediting psychic research, they indicate the need for a deeper, more nuanced and reflexive approach to it.  

Here are the relevant papers relating to Creery, Smith-Blackburn, and Soal described in abstracts from the SPR catalogue.

Barrett, W.F. et al.   FIRST REPORT ON THOUGHT-READING, Proceedings 1, 1882, pp. 34-64. This paper starts by reviewing the generally understood principles and objections to the idea of thought-transference, with reference to the sceptical views of the psychologist William Carpenter. The acts of well-known stage performers Irving Bishop and Stuart Cumberland are also noted and the fact acknowledged that feats seemingly suggestive of thought-transference are most likely achieved through purely physical means.
    However the authors argue the case for the transference of thoughts independent of any known sensory mechanism, with reference to experiments with the Creery family. The committee investigated the claim by Creery that four of his five daughters, together with a servant girl, were 'frequently able to designate correctly, without contact or sign, a card or other object fixed on in the child's absence.' A number of trials are described, in which the claim appear to be largely confirmed. In one card guessing experiment (p.23), out of fourteen successive trials nine were guessed correctly the first time. The girls were also able to achieve close approximations of names selected, for instance 'Freemore' for 'Frogmore', and 'Biggis' for 'Billings'. The possibility of sensory clues being given  is discussed and largely discounted.
    The first part ends with two anecdotal cases of telepathy, one involving a waking vision and the other a premonition of fatal illness, both corresponding to actual events.
    More trials with the Creery family are described, followed by reflections from Creery himself, and a final paper by Barratt on his investigations with other subjects.
Gurney, E. et al.  SECOND REPORT ON THOUGHT-TRANSFERENCE, Proceedings 1, 1882, pp.70-97, (illus). More card guessing trials with the Creery sisters are given, with instances of what the writers consider to be significant successes. Experiments involving a member, Douglas Blackburn, and a mesmerist G.A.Smith are also described, in which the latter was often able to correctly reproduce shapes drawn the experimenters and briefly shown to Blackburn. (These experiments were later the cause of confusion and embarrassment, when Blackburn publicly asserted the pair had been cheating, which however Smith denied - See here below: Blackburn, Douglas, et al.  CONFESSIONS OF A 'TELEPATHIST', Journal 15, 1911, pp. 115-32.)
CHANCE GUESSING VERSUS THOUGHT-TRANSFERENCE, Journal 1, 1884, p. 65. A sceptic is converted to belief in the inexplicability of the Creery sisters' results by chance coincidence. [CREERY SISTERS], Journal 3, 1887, pp. 164. Announces the discovery of cheating by the sisters.
CORRESPONDENCE, pp. 175-6. The girls' father records his belief that early experiments which he personally instigated could not have involved trickery.
NOTE, Proceedings 5, 1888-9,  pp. 269-70. Gurney reveals that in a recent series of experiments two of the sisters were detected using a code of signals, and a third has confessed to signalling in an earlier series. He points out that the cheating was pointless, since it had been explained to the sisters that no scientific value was attached to experiments in which they acted as agent and percipient in sight of each other, but accepts that it discredits earlier results in which they were involved. PSI-X/telepath/scep/card/conjur/precog/fraud

Blackburn, Douglas, et al.  CONFESSIONS OF A 'TELEPATHIST', Journal 15, 1911, pp. 115-32. Douglas Blackburn, one of two subjects in telepathy experiments undertaken by Myers and Gurney nearly thirty years earlier, now publicly asserts that these were fraudulent and reveals the methods by which the pair supposedly deceived the investigators. Their motive, he writes, was to 'show how utterly incompetent were these 'scientific investigators,' ... bamboozle them thoroughly, then let the world know the value of scientific research.'
    The editor of Light writes to deny Blackburn's claim that the paper published an enthusiastic account of his abilities and that this was the basis upon which the Society laid its interest in him and his partner in the experiments.
His partner, G.A. Smith, writes at length to deny the claims of fraud, saying that it is a 'tissue of errors from beginning to end.' He denies the pair had an agreement to deceive the investigators and argues that they were too experienced to be taken in.
Blackburn, surprised to discover that his erstwhile partner is still alive, is forced to defend his claims at greater length, eliciting a further response from Smith.
Brief communications from members of the Society include a letter from Eleanor Sidgwick, pointing out that the experiments in which Blackburn took part are 'a very small part of those on which the case for telepathy rests.' PSI-X/telepath/scep/scep-r

Scott,  Christopher,  and Haskell,  Philip. THE SOAL-GOLDNEY EXPERIMENTS WITH BASIL SHACKLETON: A DISCUSSION. I.  FRESH  LIGHT ON THE SHACKLETON EXPERIMENTS? Proceedings  of the Society for Psychical Research, 56, 1974, pp. 43-72.  Discusses a claim by Gretl Albert, a sitter in the Soal-Goldney precognition experiments with Basil , she had seen Soal altering his record sheets, changing 1s into 4s and 5s. Since this claim was made in 1941 the scoring patterns and random sequence of the targets had been frequently re-examined. Soal, having lost the original score sheets, had given a detailed description of how he had derived the targets. The available copies were submitted to a computer search carried out by G.  Medhurst in 1971 which however failed to identify the target sequences as described by Soal. A new computer analysis finds definite evidence in support of the claim for the sittings specified. But there is clear evidence that this specific manipulation did not take place in the great majority of sittings. Scott and  Haskell looked for data support of  the  manipulation hypothesis in terms of four predictions: (1) an overall deficit  of target 1;  (2) an overall excess of targets 4 and 5; (3) a deficit of target 1 in those trials in which the guess was 4 or 5; and (4) an excess of hits on 4 and 5. The first two predictions were not upheld; the second two gave a significance level that virtually rules  out chance as an explanation. To accommodate these seemingly conflicting results, Scott and Haskell modified their hypothesis, suggesting that the targets  were 'stacked' in advance with an excess of  1s  and  a deficit  of 4s and 5s. This modified hypothesis accounts for the ESP score in Sitting 16, as well as Sittings 8 and 17, but not for any of the rest of the 40 sittings. An alternative hypothesis is that the observed effects were due to ESP operating in an  eccentric manner.  Since so much about ESP is not  known, this hypothesis cannot be rigorously tested  or refuted. But Scott and Haskell feel that such a hypothesis appears uncomfortably complex and the coincidence with  the alteration claim still has to be swallowed. They conclude there is a strong case for accepting  the essential truth of the claim, arguing that it would then seem unlikely that any significant proportion of the results in the Shackleton series was obtained by extrasensory perception.  PsiLine
Roberts, F. Somerville, et al.  THREE COMMENTS ON THE SOAL-GOLDNEY EXPERIMENTS WITH BASIC SHACKLETON, Journal 48, 1975, pp. 87-94. Somerville Roberts indicates vulnerabilities in the Scott-Haskell fraud theory. G.D. Wasserman and K.M. Goldney discuss Soal's honesty with personal reflections.
CORRESPONDENCE, pp. 245-67
Scott, Christopher & Haskell, Philip.  FRAUD IN THE SHACKLETON EXPERIMENT: A REPLY TO CRITICS, pp. 220-26. Rebuts criticisms of the argument that Soal cheated.
CORRESPONDENCE, Journal 49, 1978, pp. 965-8.
Goldney, K.M.   II. THE SOAL GOLDNEY EXPERIMENTS WITH BASIL SHACKLETON (BS): A PERSONAL ACCOUNT, Proceedings 56, 1974, pp. 73-84. Soal's co-experimenter denies that Soal cheated and looks for another explanation for  the  Scott-Haskell statistical data. She points to all of the experimental work Soal did in which he did not find evidence of ESP and his later successful ESP work with Mrs. Stewart, which was never questioned.  PsiLine 
Mundle, C.W.K.   III. THE  SOAL-GOLDNEY EXPERIMENTS, Proceedings 56, 1974, pp. 85-7. Argues that Scott and Haskell miss some important points. Mundle doubts the reliability of Albert's testimony and questions  the assumption that Soal cheated on other sittings also. He concludes that 'there are difficulties in making  psychological sense of the hypothesis adopted by Scott and Haskell.  Such considerations are not, of course, conclusive, but they ought to be weighed before concluding that a scientist made a habit of cheating in his own experiment.' PsiLine 
Thouless,  Robert H.   IV.  SOME  COMMENTS ON 'FRESH LIGHT ON THE SHACKLETON  EXPERIMENTS'  Proceedings 56, 1974, pp. 88-92 Questions a reliance on the unsupported testimony of a single witness. Argues that the  peculiarities of  the guess/target matrices brought out by Scott and Haskell not alone prove manipulation nor warrant the conclusion  that none of the results in the Shackleton experiments were obtained by ESP. Suggests a moral in the ability of a simple experimental design to exclude all possibility of  cheating than the complex formula adopted by Soal. PsiLine 
Beloff,  John.  V. WHY I BELIEVE THAT SOAL IS INNOCENT, Proceedings 56, 1974, pp. 93-6. Points out two errors by Soal: his failure to let other experimenters confirm Shackleton's ability independently, or to leave precise explanations of how the  target sequence was determined. But believes Soal to be innocent of the charge of  manipulation, explaining Shackleton's pattern  of scoring in terms of positional biases, which he argues are by no means unknown in ESP research. PsiLine
Pratt, J.G.   VI. FRESH LIGHT ON THE SCOTT AND HASKELL CASE AGAINST SOAL Proceedings 56,  1974, 97-111. Points to errors in Scott and Haskell's appendix and  disputes many of their points. Suggests that Scott and Haskell have inadvertently  shown the need for a new analysis of all of Shackleton's significant  results in order to check  for 'consistent missing', a category which the author describes elsewhere, in which 'the subject, because of some undefined psychological factor...tended to avoid calling 4 or 5 when the target was 1, but that he fairly consistently overcalled 3's when 1's were presented.'  PsiLine
Barrington,  M.R.    VII. MRS. ALBERT'S TESTIMONY, Proceedings 56, 1974, pp. 112-6. Argues that there are too many inconsistencies  and loose ends in Albert's testimony to place much weight on her accusations.  PsiLine
Stevenson, Ian. VIII.  THE CREDIBILITY OF MRS. GRETL ALBERT'S TESTIMONY, Proceedings 56, 1974, pp. 117-29. Attacks Albert's credibility as an observer and argues her statements are not to be taken seriously.
Smythies, J.R.   IX.  ESP  FACT OR FICTION:  A SIDELIGHT ON SOAL,  Proceedings  56, 1974  pp. 130-31. Refers to a 1951 experiment with hospital patients that produced unexpectedly significant results, with relevance to the Soal controversy. 
For a description of the conclusive computer analysis that uncovered irregularities in the data see below: Markwick, Betty.  THE SOAL-GOLDNEY EXPERIMENTS WITH BASIL SHACKLETON:  NEW EVIDENCE OF DATA MANIPULATION, Proceedings 56,  1978, pp. 250-77. PSI-X/bs/esp/fraud

Markwick, Betty.  THE SOAL-GOLDNEY EXPERIMENTS WITH BASIL SHACKLETON:  NEW EVIDENCE OF DATA MANIPULATION, Proceedings 56,  1978, pp. 250-77. Presents computer results and detailed target sequence analysis of the data gathered by S.G.  Soal in the years 1941-43 using B. Shackleton  as percipient in a series of cardguessing experiments. Many target  sequences proved to be near duplicates with interruptions in the sequences, suggesting the insertion of single extra digits. Three in  four  of  these insertions corresponded to hits. Removing these trials  from the data eliminated the significance of the ESP effect.  This does not mean that Soal consciously cheated, since he was known to often write automatically in a state of dissociation when distracted by a task.  The evidence, however, does establish data manipulation and discredits the results.  PsiLine
Goldney, K.M.  STATEMENT, Proceedings 56,  1978, p . 278. Goldney praises Markwick for noting the repeated sequences of target lists not picked up either by Hansel or by Scott and Haskell.  She concedes that if the new findings are valid she and other defenders of Soal would be wrong, but would have been justified in their views by the available evidence. PsiLine
Pratt, J.G.  STATEMENT  Proceedings 56,  1978, pp. 279-81. Pratt praises Markwick's achievement of  problem-solving through data analysis. He agrees with Markwick that, since some of the data are seriously deficient, all of the records must be considered invalid as evidence of ESP, but advises against making judgements of Soal's behaviour, motives, and character.  PsiLine
CORRESPONDENCE, Journal 49, 1978, pp. 968-70; Journal 50, 1979, p. 126, 191-2. Reactions to Marwick's discovery of fraud by Soal, including retractions by Beloff and Stevenson of their previous insistence, against Scott and Haskell, that he was innocent. 
Sargent, Carl.  THE PARSONS EXPERIMENT WITH BASIL SHACKLETON: SOME NEGLECTED DATA, pp. 174-9. 
CORRESPONDENCE, Journal 51, 1981, pp. 123-4. Takes issue with Marwick's automatic rejection of a survivalist interpretation of a psi dream, although this might seem a logical one.  PSI-X/bs/esp/fraud/comput



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