A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review


The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena

by Dean Radin
(HarperOne 1997)




part twelve

Radin discusses perceptual, affective, and cognitive biases in chapter 14, long after he has presented most of his scientific evidence for psi—evidence he thinks clearly demonstrates the reality of ESP and PK. Chapter 13 is devoted to his critique of skepticism; I'll address that critique later.

Radin would have served the reader better had he discussed the biases that lead us astray before the discussion of psi anecdotes and experiments. He waits until late in the book to discuss these biases because he wants to make a case against skeptics. According to Radin, skeptics don’t accept psi because they are deluded and guided by wishful thinking and other biases. Radin thinks that experiences (anecdotes) and experiments together provide a slam dunk for psi. Skeptics, of course, think that the anecdotes tell us a lot about ourselves, but not much about psi. We also are not convinced by the experiments. Radin’s task in chapter 14, as he sees it, is to explain why skeptics are so stubborn.

He begins by noting, correctly, that “we do not perceive the world as it is,” but he adds, incorrectly, we see the world “as we wish it to be.” That is true only some of the time. He goes on to say that “we construct mental models of a world that reflect our expectations, biases, and desires, a world that is comfortable for our egos, that does not threaten our beliefs, and that is consistent, stable, and coherent.” So far, so good.

Jim Alcock. a skeptic, puts it this way: we construct our beliefs “without any automatic concern for truth.”* Alcock reminds us that “experience is often a poor guide to reality.” That is why, I believe, it is important to study the perceptual, affective, and cognitive biases—the hidden persuaders—that can lead us astray before we study the anecdotes or the scientific experiments. In that way, we can be guided in our investigation of both the stories and the experiments by our understanding of how we are likely to go astray. Alcock also writes: “The true critical thinker accepts what few people ever accept—that one cannot routinely trust perceptions and memories. Figments of our imagination and reflections of our emotional needs can often interfere with or supplant the perception of truth and reality.” Radin gives notice of his awareness of this problem in chapter two, where he notes that memory “is much more fallible than most people think” and eyewitness testimony “is easily distorted.”

Our minds are “story generators,” says Radin (p. 229) and the models the mind creates “inevitably perpetuate distortions.” What we perceive is influenced by “ideas, memory, motivation, and expectations.” It should be obvious that many of these influences occur without our conscious awareness. My own view is that the study of perceptual, affective, and cognitive biases is essential to the proper evaluation of experiences and experiments. This study will also help, as Radin notes, our understanding of “why we should be skeptical of both overly enthusiastic claims of psychic experiences and overly enthusiastic skeptical criticisms” (p. 229). I’m also confident, as is Radin, that this study will explain “why controversy over the existence of psi has persisted in spite of a century of accumulating scientific evidence.” However, Radin thinks this study will help us understand the perverse persistence of skeptics in rejecting psi, while I think it will help us understand the perverse persistence of people like Radin who continue to believe in psi despite the poor quality of the scientific evidence in its favor.

Radin claims that “the bottom line is that if we do not expect to see psi, we won’t” (p. 230). If we conclude that psi doesn’t exist, we will also conclude that “anyone who claims that it does is just stupid, illogical, or irrational.” I disagree. I have concluded that the likelihood of psi existing is negligible, but I do not consider all who accept psi as being stupid and irrational. In fact, it is often the believer's exceptional intelligence that permits her to find rationalizations for the evidence that appears to contradict her cherished beliefs.

Radin is right to emphasize the role of prior convictions in perception, but this should be a preface to a description of the kinds of controls experimenters must put in place to prevent their convictions from biasing the outcome of their studies. Instead, Radin launches into a largely irrelevant rant about cognitive dissonance, the alleged psychologically uncomfortable state caused when the facts are inconsistent with one’s beliefs. Radin’s interest is in showing that skeptics believe psi is not real, even though the evidence strongly supports the reality of psi. Therefore, skeptics are uncomfortable and must respond in some way to deal with their cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger, who first studied this concept in the 1950s, thought there were three possible responses to cognitive dissonance:

1.  One may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance;

2.  One may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or,

3.  One may try to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger 1956: 25-26).

There’s a fourth way, as Radin notes, and that is to take disconfirming evidence as actually strengthening your original belief, which is what Marian Keech, Festinger’s prime example of someone with a cognitive dissonance problem, did.  Keech was the leader of a UFO cult in the 1950s. She claimed to get messages from extraterrestrials (known as The Guardians) through automatic writing. Like the Heaven's Gate cult forty years later, Keech and her followers (known as The Seekers or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays) were waiting to be picked up by an alien spaceship. In Keech's prophecy, her group of eleven was to be saved just before Earth was to be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. When it became evident that there would be no flood and the Guardians weren't stopping by to pick them up, Keech

became elated. She said she'd just received a telepathic message from the Guardians saying that her group of believers had spread so much light with their unflagging faith that God had spared the world from the cataclysm (Levine 2003: 206).

One might quibble that Keech followed the second of Festinger’s possibilities: she acquired new information that transformed the disconfirming data into confirming data. In any case, Radin goes off in a different direction from Festinger and argues that another way to deal with cognitive dissonance is to “apply pressure to people who hold different ideas,” i.e., ostracize them and label them as quacks, pseudoscientists, heretics, and the like. However, Festinger wasn’t concerned with how people deal with those whose views conflict with the consensus viewpoint. That is a completely different issue. Festinger was concerned with how people deal with evidence that disconfirms a cherished belief. Radin considers ethnic cleansing and witch-hunts as examples of dealing with cognitive dissonance. Festinger would shake his head and wonder what such practices have to do with the psychological problem of discomfort caused by evidence that threatens to shake the foundations of one’s beliefs.

Radin claims that one reason there is so much skepticism about psi is that “public ridicule adds to the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance” (p. 232). He thinks that many skeptics dismiss psi without looking at the evidence because the claims of the psi researchers make them uncomfortable. Again, Radin mistakenly thinks that cognitive dissonance is caused by being confronted with views rather than with evidence that conflicts with some basic belief one holds. Radin is certainly right, however, in noting (as T. S. Kuhn did in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) that there have been several cases in science where beliefs hindered the ability to see phenomena for what they were (think astronomy before Copernicus) and where ideas that were ridiculed when first proposed (such as Wegener’s idea of continental drift) are now universally accepted. He is wrong, though, if he thinks these examples are relevant to the reasons the majority of scientists continue to reject psi research. Scientists came around to Wegener’s way of thinking when plate tectonics was introduced and there was an explanation for how continents move. Nothing analogous to plate tectonics has occurred in parapsychology that would explain how psi works and thereby give strong impetus to the reasonableness of accepting that psi exists.

It is true that some of the criticisms that have been made of parapsychological and other scientific research have been made by critics who have not studied the evidence. It is also true that what scientists believe affects how they tend to evaluate the quality of design and implementation of experiments: the expectancy effect. If you expect the results to be what they are claimed to be, you tend to give the experiment high marks. If the result contradicts what you expect, you tend to give the experiment low marks. Review bias, Radin notes, occurs in all the sciences (p. 235). However, this fact is irrelevant in considering an experiment and the criticisms that have been made of it. One can’t assume that all skeptical criticism of parapsychology is invalid on the grounds that skeptics don’t expect positive results from such experiments. We have to look at the experiments themselves and consider the criticisms individually to determine whether they are fair.

Radin is right to point out the problems of confirmation bias, the tendency we all have to notice and to look for what confirms our beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts our beliefs. He warns us that “we cannot fully trust fascinating psychic stories reported by groups that expect such things to occur, unless they also demonstrate that they are aware of, know how to, and did control for expectation biases.” Radin writes: “Because of the confirmation bias, skeptics who review a body of psi experiments are likely to select for review only the few studies that confirm their prior expectations” (p. 238).

Radin does have a legitimate gripe that the media are likely to represent psi with stories about celebrity “psychics” like Uri Geller and his arch-critic James Randi. Radin’s concern is that such stories bias the public about psi research. I think Radin’s biases overtook him when he decided that Geller and Randi are “so irrelevant to the scientific evaluation of psi that not a single experiment involving either person is included among the thousands of studies reviewed” (p. 240). Randi’s evaluation of the Stanford Research Institute’s  processes, by which physicists Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff evaluated Geller’s alleged PK abilities, is instructive. Randi’s critique of the so-called Geller effect illustrates Radin’s point about how the strong belief in something can affect the scientist’s perception and lower his or her guard when testing for paranormal powers. Geller used a variety of tricks to create the illusion that he was able to do such things as bend metal spoons with his mind.  Randi, an expert in the art of deception, was able to detect these tricks, but rather than admit that their work had been discredited, Puthoff and Targ went on the offensive and accused Randi of not being fair. Geller even sued Randi, rather than admit he was a fraud. Geller lost the lawsuit, but the story of Geller and Randi should have been told by Radin, lest he be accused of being selective in his presentation of evidence and ignoring all the evidence that counts against the psi hypothesis.

Radin should also have included Randi’s participation in Project Alpha. What happened at the McDonnell Lab at Washington University in St. Louis under the direction of physics professor Peter R. Phillips is illustrative of one of the serious problems that has plagued parapsychology from its beginnings. The subjects in the experiments on “psychokinetic metal bending (PKMB) by children” systematically cheated and deceived the professor for about four years. Randi had taught them how to use trickery to make it look like they possessed PK powers. Randi is a student of science, a careful and trusted observer, and an expert on the art of deception. He may not be a scientist, but he has proven beyond a doubt that, if it’s the truth you’re after, having a magician in the psi lab is a good idea.

Radin also discusses hindsight bias, the way our judgment of how we had judged something in the past changes in light of new information and deceives us into thinking that our original judgment was in tune with the new information even though it wasn’t. Radin gives the example of a person who is originally very impressed with the results of a telepathy experiment and who later hears a rumor that the study was flawed. “Hindsight bias will covertly reconstruct our memory so that we begin to recall that we were actually not at all impressed by the experiment in the first place” (p. 240). We should remember, however, that sometimes we change our mind about an experiment because after hearing a rumor that it was flawed, we take the time to investigate it and find that it really was flawed. It is true that sometimes we see things only because we’re primed to see them by others, even though those things aren’t really there (as in many examples of so-called backmasking in popular music). It is also true that sometimes we are able to see things at first only because someone directs our attention in a certain way that allows us to see what is actually there.

Radin seems to confuse hindsight bias with communal reinforcement. He notes that if we’re repeatedly exposed to stories about angels and aliens on television, this will “boost our confidence in those ideas, completely independently of whether those stories are true” (p. 240). The same might be said of psychics and psychic ability.

Radin relates his discussion of hindsight bias to his belief that scientific ideas go through four (or five, see p. 240) stages, discussed at the beginning of his book. He thinks stage four for psi will be when “everyone thinks that he or she thought of it first” (p. 230). I guess he thinks that once skeptics see that the evidence is in favor of psi, we will change our minds and claim we knew it all along. He doesn’t seem to take seriously the notion that some of the criticisms of skeptics could be fatal to the psi enterprise.

In any case, recent research on hindsight bias indicates that it plays a positive role in memory reconstruction. Ulrich Hoffrage, Ph.D., in an article titled “Hindsight Bias: A By-Product of Knowledge Updating?” argues that hindsight bias “is a cheap price we have to pay for a much larger gain: a well functioning memory that is able to forget what we do not need, such as outdated knowledge, and constantly updates our knowledge by increasing the accuracy of our inferences (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Vol. 26, No. 3.).

Next, Radin takes up mediated evidence, data that is filtered through others rather than being the result of first-hand experience. Edited information is always selective and biased. Radin says: “we should always be wary of scientific evidence presented in the brief formats available on television shows” (p. 241). We should always seek “multiple sources of similar information and see if the evidence converges.” The natural tendency, however, is to turn the channel if we don’t like what we’re hearing. If we like what we’re hearing, we feel no need to investigate further: the data confirm our bias.

Radin also discusses the sleeper effect, a memory distortion involving separating the source of data from the data itself, which allows data from a questionable or unreliable source to be remembered as good data, or data from a reliable source to be remembered as questionable.

Radin proceeds to a section called “beyond the perceptual filters,” in which he brings up issues usually reserved for writing about pathological thinking or behavior: reaction formation, repression, dissociation, and projection. He claims that we in the Western world teach our children not to speak about “psychic experiences.” He claims that “the more vigorous skeptical attacks on parapsychology are reminiscent of reaction formation,” a defense mechanism whereby one unconsciously is driven to act in a way that is in conflict with one’s true feelings. There is no way to disprove an accusation that one’s criticisms are too enthusiastic to be motivated by honest feelings of disagreement. Such unfalsifiable claims are of little value in understanding either support or criticism of ideas.

Radin’s discussion of repression is particularly unenlightening. His example of repression is of being taught in school not to ask too many questions or wonder about certain taboo topics. Then, as adults we repress these “rules” and this “protects us from bad memories about how ‘only crazy people get psychic impressions,’ and thus the experience will disappear from awareness almost as fast as it arises” (p. 243). This example doesn’t seem to be any different from suppression. Yet, Radin’s main point is worth remembering: we are socialized to conform and to ostracize those who are seen as “different.” But we should not forget that most of us are affected by several social groups and some of the rules we are taught by different groups are contradictory. Thus, we develop an imperfect hierarchy of rules based on which social group has the most influence on us. For example, even though 99.9% of the scientific community in America accepts evolution as the essential foundation of modern biology, 50% of the adult population rejects evolution in favor of a view that is taught by fundamentalist religions: God created all species at once a few thousand years ago. Religious institutions have more influence in reinforcing the idea that creationism implies evolution is wrong than scientific and educational institutions have in reinforcing the idea that evolution is correct.

Radin brings up identification and introjection to assert that some of us may be influenced by important people in our lives—including college professors—who dismiss psychic research as sloppy, and reject psi “because it contradicts a dozen inviolate Laws of Nature” (p. 244). We may never be able to cast off such skeptical messages, he says. On the other hand, we may be influenced by important people in our lives who dismiss the criticisms of skeptics or who promote the wonders of psychic research. We may never be able to cast off those messages, either, which we must do if we are to do a fair and balanced critique of paranormal research. The moral of the story is that a critical thinker must learn to think for him- or herself; we must overcome the messages we’ve come to identify with and examine them openly. We shouldn't blindly accept everything our parents or teachers tell us.

His discussion of dissociation is necessarily curt and superficial, but I don’t think it adds anything to our understanding of this alleged phenomenon to describe it as “compartmentalizing” aspects of our lives, such as the religious and the scientific. Radin comments that scientists who “publicly and vigorously deny the existence of psi while harboring a couple of secret psi experiences that they have not admitted to anyone” are dissociating. He doesn’t name any such scientist who might have come out of the closet, but to me such a person would be dissembling rather than dissociating. It is also not clear how Radin would reconcile dissociation, as he thinks of it, and what he had to say about cognitive dissonance. I think it might be best to treat examples of people who publicly deny psi, but privately believe they’ve had paranormal experiences, as examples of people who fear others will think they’re crazy and so they not only suppress their views but pose as holding views they think are compatible with the majority’s thoughts.

In his discussion of projection—the perception in others of one’s own faults without recognizing that the trait one perceives is one’s own—Radin asks the rhetorical question: Could skeptics who insist that “the only rational explanation for psi is fraud, collusion, or mushy-minded thinking” be projecting? To be fair and balanced, I suppose, Radin also asks the same question of enthusiasts who see no value in any criticism of psi research and think of critics as “malicious, evil rationalists” (p. 245). The moral of the story seems to be that both critics and paranormal researchers should be open-minded.

One might wonder what the point of all this psychobabble is. Radin’s answer is a non sequitur: “All this leads us to predict that a person’s level of commitment to the current scientific worldview will determine his or her beliefs about psi” (p. 245). His argument has been, up to this point, that the doubters fall into one of two camps: they are ignorant of the scientific evidence for psi or they are suffering from a pathological bias that cannot be overcome.

What we know for certain is that the more one knows about science the less likely one is to accept psi. Radin points out that a high percentage of the general public accepts the reality or possibility of psychic phenomena (68%), but a smaller percentage of college professors agree, and a still smaller percentage of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science agree, and only about 6% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences agree. The evidence appears to support the notion that the more one knows about science, the less likely one is to believe in psychic phenomena. One might think that this is due to having more knowledge and understanding of science. Perhaps, the more ignorant one is of the perceptual, affective, and cognitive biases that can affect our perceptions and their interpretations, the more likely one is to accept psi.

Radin says that the disparity in acceptance of psi by scientists and the general public may be due to the fact that “the expectations of the scientific elite actually put them more at risk for being swayed by perceptual biases than the general public” (p. 246). This claim seems incredible. Does Radin really believe that the average untutored citizen is more able to overcome the hidden persuaders than our best scientists? He thinks that what drives scientists to such bias is the motivation to protect their careers and credibility. “So if Joe Sixpack and Dr. Scientist both witness a remarkable feat of clairvoyance, we can predict that later, when we ask Joe what he saw, he will describe the incident in matter-of-fact terms. In contrast, when we ask Dr. Scientist what he saw, he may become angry or confused, or deny having seen anything unusual at all” (p.246).

Radin's critique of skepticism

In chapter 13, "A Field Guide to Skepticism," Radin reveals his dislike of critics. Rather than thank skeptics for their criticisms, he derides them and makes a straw man out of the appraisals that many skeptics have made of psi research and claims about the paranormal. If you accept Radin's account, skeptics attribute all psi experiences to hallucinations, self-delusion, wish fulfillment, "or other forms of mental aberrations" (p. 227).

Critics should be welcome if your goal is the truth. Radin seems unable to accept the notion that maybe the criticisms of skeptics like Ray Hyman, Jim Alcock, David Marks and others could benefit parapsychologists by encouraging them to develop better designs, protocols, controls, and statistical methods for their research. Instead, Radin complains about critics and skeptics, as if they existed just to torment people like himself. Not only are skeptics dismissed as providing mostly invalid criticisms of psi, the media and college textbooks are taken to task for their "distorted portrayal" of psi studies. Radin insists that psi phenomena have been demonstrated in thousands of experiments and anyone who disagrees is wrong! "There are a half-dozen psi effects that have been replicated dozens to hundreds of times in laboratories around the world," he writes (p. 207). Skeptics look at the same evidence and see no such thing. The conjured proof using meta-analyses of data culled from various experiments is not persuasive. To assert or imply that those skeptics who disagree with his methods or rosy assessment of the data are prejudiced and deluded is Radin's way of getting back at those critics who assert or imply that people like him are wasting their lives chasing chimeras. "Skeptics are fond of claiming," says Radin, "that believers in psi are afflicted with some sort of abnormal mental condition that prohibits them from seeing the truth" (p. 224). Radin returns the charge and accuses skeptics of being obstinate due to some sort of abnormal mental condition and of accusing society of being crazy because so many people believe in paranormal phenomena. "Most of the commonly repeated skeptical reactions to psi research are extreme views, driven by the belief that psi is impossible," he says without proof (p. 227). (I know of no major skeptic who claims that psi is impossible.) The charge sounds hollow, like the whining of lost dog in the distance.


Festinger Leon. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study (Harpercollins 1964). (Originally published in 1956 by the University of Minnesota Press.)

Levine, Robert. The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold  (John Wiley & Sons 2003).

end of part twelve 

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