Dead or alive psychic experiment results pulled from neuroscience journal

Some paranormal proponents are crying foul and “censorship” over the retraction of a paper claiming to support clairvoyance.

The paper: Prediction of Mortality Based on Facial Characteristics by Delorme, A., Pierce, A., Michel, L., and Radin, D. (2016). Front. Hum. Neurosci. 10:173. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00173 was published in May of 2016 and officially retracted in early October. The authors have issued a statement on the retraction disputing it and alleging they have not been given adequate reasons for why the paper was pulled:

Given that none of the ordinary criteria for retraction were met, and repeated requests for an opportunity to respond to specific criticisms were ignored, the reasons for the retraction remain unknown.

So, what’s going on with this study, the journal, and the researchers? I dug into some blogs that reacted to the study, some issues that have come up repeatedly with the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience (FHN) and the motivations and associations of investigators into unorthodox subject areas. What I found was a mashup of applied scientific skepticism, wishful thinking, bias, and speculation with a bit of huffy and puff outrage. First, let’s start with the study.

The study used twelve people who claimed to have the ability judge whether a person in a photograph was alive or dead simply by their face. Over 400 pictures were used from old US school yearbooks and obituaries. While the title does not suggest any paranormal skill set, the self-identified clairvoyants had eight seconds to press a button stating that the person was alive, deceased or “don’t know”. Overall, the participants were successful just over half the time (53.8%).

The retraction reads:

The journal retracts the 17 May 2016 article cited above. Following publication, concerns were raised regarding the scientific validity of the article. The Chief Editors subsequently concluded that aspects of the paper’s findings and assertions were not sufficiently matched by the level of verifiable evidence presented. The retraction of the article was approved by the Chief Editors of Human Neuroscience and the Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers. The authors do not agree to the retraction.

As the authors note in their statement, this is not detailed enough to discern the particular objection(s). With any retraction, you head to RetractionWatch to get more information. They state:

We’ve got many questions about this paper and its retraction — namely, if the journal deemed the results to be so problematic, how did it pass peer review and get published in the first place?

12 people. Small effect. No control group. How did it pass review? Well, we’ll get to that later. But the study was under scrutiny as far back as August when the “Neurocritic” blog expressed being unimpressed by the result considering the performance of the participants to be no better than guessing.

The participants all “claimed to be able to experience feelings of vitality from facial photographs alone. … They were required to have been performing professional ‘readings’ for clients…” THERE WAS NO CONTROL GROUP. In other words, participants who did not claim any psychic or clairvoyant abilities were not included in this study. Thus, there was no way to know if the marginal ability to discern whether a person was alive or dead was based on mediumship.

RetractionWatch noted that the authors were informed of the retraction request in August. The general interest ramped up with the official retraction. The Times Higher Education piece ‘Psychic powers’ paper pulled from journal after criticism was shared by pro-paranormal accounts on social media with the “censorship” label.

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-9-46-07-pmCensorship? That’s an unsubstantiated charge. But it’s a charge paranormalists tend to throw around a lot when they are called out for anemic research, weak results and heavy speculation reliant upon causes we have not established. See Cardena’s indignant piece titled: The Unbearable Fear of Psi: On Scientific Suppression in the 21st Century which invokes the Galileo gambit. The authors of this retracted study claimed that the small effect could be due to clairvoyance and thus that idea warrants more study, which is the usual conclusion from parapsychologists. Even though the effects are small, they insist there is something [groundbreaking] there.

All of the authors of this study appear to be affiliated with the Institute of Noetic Science, a fringe science organization founded by the late Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, and proponent of various odd claims including aliens are preventing a nuclear war. Noetic science is not the from the same philosophic view as conventional science in that proponents hold that reality is mysterious and subjective, maybe unknowable. For example, noetic science would suggest that our consciousness is not perception generated by our brain but something “paranormal”. Their web site says:

There are several ways we can know the world around us. Science focuses on external observation and is grounded in objective evaluation, measurement, and experimentation. This is useful in increasing objectivity and reducing bias and inaccuracy as we interpret what we observe. But another way of knowing is subjective or internal, including gut feelings, intuition, and hunches—the way you know you love your children, for example, or experiences you have that cannot be explained or proven “rationally” but feel absolutely real. This way of knowing is what we call noetic.

Intuition is a totally unreliable way to “know”, just ask the people playing the lottery today. Your gut is not designed to assess complicated perceptions about the world. But this is the trend in frontier or fringe ideas – to bend or ditch stringent rules of science in place of a non-materialistic view that is more flexible. Mitchell came upon the idea of noetics by no less than pure revelation on his return trip from space. He took his wonder way too far. Since the people who authored this paper belong to the Institute (IONS), we can surmise they accept similar ideas. That is, when they find them useful. They also invoke science when that is efficacious. Their statement about the retraction inserts the usual rhetoric about fairness as part of science:

Science thrives on healthy debate, not on censorship. Good researchers welcome serious scientific critiques and constructive dialogue, and are motivated to correct any confirmed errors to preserve the integrity of their work.

Science also has some strict rules about methodology. The debate in this case involves a study deemed so bad that it does not deserve to be part of the scientific record. It’s not nitpicking about small errors. There is plenty of solid critique and dialogue throughout the history of exploration into psychical research and, subsequently, parapsychology. Still, paranormal proponents appeal shallowly to popularity with arguments such as FHN being the “most-cited journal in psychology, the most-cited open-access neuroscience journal, and the 10th most-cited journal in all of neuroscience, giving it one of the highest impact factors within academic psychology and neuroscience.” So what? Does that make the information contained reliable? No. Even highest impact journals produce stinkers on occasion.

FHN is no stranger to controversy with regards to standards and practices. As open access, the authors pay a fee to publish their work there. Leonid Schneider has written about the journal and is not a supporter, even going so far to suggest (without good evidence) that the editor pranked his own journal by accepting unreasonable papers that some would label “pseudo-scientific raving nonsense and waste of public money.” FHN is popular with some scientists and research organizations because of the high acceptance rates, open access, and name-signed peer reviews. But they have been called a “predatory journal” more interested in money than publishing scientifically worthy and sound research.

Here is a great example of an absurd paper that conflates unsupported speculative causation with empirical facts published by FHN: Bread and Other Edible Agents of Mental Disease

We have shown that in all of us bread makes the gut wall more permeable, encouraging the migration of toxins and undigested food particles to sites where they can alert the immune system. We have shown that in all of us the digestion of grain and dairy generates opioid-like compounds, and that these cause mental derangement if they make it to the brain.

Then these authors do an interpretive verbal dance around the question of why not everyone has gone mental from eating grains. Is this a worthwhile contribution to science or fodder for sciencey-sounding, eccentric, fear-mongering bloggers like Mike Adams? The idea of “frontiers” invites fringe topics that are not accepted probably for very good reasons.

Reports on community forums from FHN contributors and reviewers suggest that the reviewers of submissions to the journal have no opportunity to reject an outright awful paper, just to revise it or withdraw yourself as a reviewer.

In brief, it appears that Frontiers’ own rules for peer review and conflict of interest are sometimes being bent and broken to boost scientists’ publication record. As result, in better cases personal ideas and largely data-free opinions are published as peer reviewed papers, often outside the journal’s original scope. In more embarrassing cases, pseudo-scientific and esoteric nonsense was peddled as original peer reviewed research.

Aside: Some people might quibble with my acceptance of near anecdotes about FHN and rejection of the study results claiming possible clairvoyance as not useful. One claim, however, is not unreasonable and several people have attached their names to their events which have circumstantial evidence in support. The other claim is asking me to accept a unknown force unsupported by several large bodies of specific scientific results and without a plausible mechanism as a cause for a tenuous study result of 12 people. It’s like comparing day and night.

So, we have a poor study with barely positive results in a journal that readily accepts unscientific dreck. It could be that they published it because of the money and didn’t care about the quality. The field is flooded with such journals and scientific literature is rife with worthless and terrible papers. Were these authors unfairly singled out? I think by touting the paper as support for their research agenda, the proponents caught the eye of critics who examined the experiment and found it wanting, who then called it out for its inadequacy in showing anything at all. However, if FHN won’t share the details of why they made that decision, we just won’t know for sure.

  7 comments for “Dead or alive psychic experiment results pulled from neuroscience journal

  1. November 16, 2016 at 5:52 PM

    It couldn’t have taken a great deal more effort to include a control group. That was a foolish oversight on the part of the proponents: any reasonable reviewer was likely to point it out. Likewise, once they’d done the first experiment, there was no reason not to repeat it with another group of “sensitives” and another control group. The authors could have mitigated somewhat the methodological objections, although the question about the significance of a 3.8 percent variance from chance would remain.

  2. November 16, 2016 at 8:26 PM

    > 12 people. Small effect. No control group. How did it pass review?

    The hit rate was only 53.8% under such limited parameters and they claimed to have successfully measured some “thing”?

    Isn’t that just outright academic fraud? Or, is it blow-to-the-head stupidity?

  3. Tom
    November 17, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    It is ironic that those who show a bias against “orthodox” science clamour for publication in “orthodox”magazines and on “orthodox” websites.
    Why should what “orthodox” science states be of any interest to them, since in their world view it is wrong?

  4. November 17, 2016 at 8:43 AM

    They seek credibility. They actually wish to “change the rules”.

  5. randall krippner
    November 17, 2016 at 8:52 AM

    This ‘study’ should never have been given any credibility in the first place. With the limited number of participants, the lack of a control group… Oh, dear. The mathematics of probability would indicate that in very limited tests of this type there would be situations where the results would deviate from what would be expected. You can, after all, flip a coin and get heads five times in a row. It’s no indication of psychic ability, it just happens. A 3-4% deviation from the expected results is completely meaningless.

    I’m also troubled about the photos being used. The selection of photos used in the test would be absolutely critical in this situation. You couldn’t just take randomly selected photos from old year books and obituaries without giving the test subjects clues as to the ages of the persons in the photos, when the photos were taken, allowing them to guess what the person’s age today would be. Show me a photo of someone who was about 60 years old, with a hair style that was common around 1990, and I could make a pretty accurate guess as to whether that person was alive or not today.

  6. Tom
    November 17, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    I they ever became credible it would be a whole new game but I see your point.

  7. Christine Rose
    November 19, 2016 at 12:05 PM

    Even all the photos were of people the same age and from the same time frame, there are many clues in a photo which might indicate health. For instance, someone who was morbidly obese in high school and is now in their fifties would tend towards a poor outcome. Other signs would be frailty, being severely underweight, obvious signs of trauma, anything that might indicate alcohol or drug use, facial asymmetry, thick glasses/poor vision, and last–but far from least–being a black male.

    I know lots of people just don’t get this, but lots of people aren’t publishing papers in journals either.

Comments are closed.