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shyness effect

The shyness effect is a term coined by physicist John Taylor in his 1975 book Superminds: a Scientist Looks at the Paranormal to describe what he considered a quality of the paranormal: an aversion to scrutiny. Paranormal phenomena have feelings, likes, and dislikes. That is why, said Taylor, the children he was studying for their psychokinetic powers could bend forks and spoons with their minds only when nobody was looking. James Randi offered an alternative explanation in his 1982 book The Truth about Uri Geller: the kids were cheating. Taylor put the objects to be bent in tubes that he sealed and then sent the kids home to work their paranormal powers. He naively believed that because he couldn't detect any tampering with the tubes that the kids bent their objects through mental intention. This was not the first nor the last time that children would fool an eminent scientist. (Taylor was called one of the top 20 scientists in the world by New Scientist.*)

In 1882, Sir William Fletcher Barrett, a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, and a few friends, including the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick, formed the still-existing Society for Psychical Research (SPR). The goal of the society, in part, according to Sidgwick was to

drive the objector into the position of being forced either to admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse the investigators either of lying or cheating or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy.

Barrett led SPR’s first study (1882-1888). It involved a clergyman’s four teenage daughters and a servant girl who claimed they could communicate telepathically. Barrett introduced a method for testing telepathy that was popular for more than a century, though it is rarely used anymore by scientific investigators: card guessing. He did a number of guessing experiments (of cards or names of persons or household objects) with the girls and came away declaring that the odds of their being able to guess correctly in one experiment “were over a million to one.” The odds of their guessing correctly five cards in row were “over 142 million to one” and guessing correctly eight consecutive names in a row were “incalculably greater” (Christopher 1970: 10). More men of integrity with high degrees were brought in to witness the telepathic powers of the Creery girls and Jane Dean, their servant. All the scientists agreed that there was no trickery involved. How did they know? They had looked very carefully for signs of it and couldn’t find any.* Finally, after several years of repeated testing, the scientists found out that the girls were cheating.

Then there was Project Alpha. For four years (1979-1983), two teenagers trained by James Randi, fooled physicist Peter Phillips into thinking they had psychokinetic powers. But whereas Taylor's kids did their trickery out of his sight, Steve Shaw (who now uses the stage name Banachek) and Mike Edwards performed their magic right in front of Phillips.

Alan M. MacRobert was one of the first to note that the shyness effect also affects parapsychologists.* Neither Taylor nor Phillips would let Randi help them scrutinize their experiments to make sure no cheating was being done. (Randi's malicious and delicious sense of humor is nowhere better demonstrated than in his dealings with Taylor and Phillips. In Project Alpha, he trained the tricksters and then offered the scientist his assistance in detecting trickery by them. With Taylor, he met him disguised as a reporter and opened and closed his "sealed" tubes in front of him without the scientist even noticing. He even scratched "bent by Randi" on one of the tubes.)

The final blow to Taylor's shyness effect occurred when an alternative team of scientists decided to replicate Taylor's findings. Six of his metal-bending prodigies were tested in a room with one observer, who noticed no cheating even though "psychokinetic" metal-bending occurred repeatedly. But a hidden camera recorded the truth about the shyness effect, as reported by the investigators in the September 4, 1975, issue of the scientific journal Nature: "A put the rod under her foot and tried to bend it; B, E, and F used two hands to bend the spoon . . . while D tried to hide his hands under a table to bend the spoon." Today, Taylor has retracted many of his 1975 claims.*

The shyness effect has been used in a number of different contexts since Taylor's work with Geller children: "kids who could bend forks and spoons psychokinetically, just like Uri Geller."* The expression is often used to refer to the loss of paranormal powers in the presence of skeptics or any critical observer. Some even postulate that skeptics, by their very presence, can generate "negative vibrations" or thoughts that hinder the presence or detection of ESP or PK. Skeptics see this as nothing but an ad hoc explanation for the failure to replicate, get positive results, or test adequately. Postulating a quality of phenomena that makes it impossible to test in the presence of critical observers or under controlled conditions does little to enhance the reputation of people who claim to be scientists doing scientific investigations. Given the history of cheating in parapsychology, the history of eminent scientists being duped by unsophisticated trickery, and the general knowledge of how easy it is for humans to deceive themselves, one would think that parapsychologists interested in the truth would welcome scrutiny and critics. Alas, it is not so.

In her discussion of soul stuff and its equally elusive nature, Patricia Smith Churchland comments: "Since there is no independent evidence for a shyness effect, postulating shyness is a blatant cheat to avoid facing the implications of the absence of positive evidence"  (Brain-wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy, p. 43).

Some have tried to explain the failure to demonstrate homeopathy under properly controlled conditions as due to the shyness effect. Steven Novella notes that the shyness effect comes up in such disparate areas as UFOlogy, alternative medicine, and cryptozoology. Dr. Novella comments:

The problem with the logic of the shyness effect should be obvious when viewed in the context of its many applications – you can invoke this as needed to explain away the lack of evidence for any claim. Because it can be invoked for everything, it has no predictive or discriminating value - which means it is worthless scientifically. In other words, because someone can invent a reason to explain away the lack of evidence for a claim does not in any way rescue the claim from this lack of evidence.

However, the main problem with invoking a concept like the shyness effect is not just that it is a form of special pleading, as Novella says, but that it is a blatantly stupid shield against proper scientific inquiry and critical thinking about beliefs that one does not want challenged. The shyness effect is parapsychology's equivalent of faith in religion.

See also clairaudience, clairvoyance, cold reading, decline effect, displacement, ESP, experimenter effect, file-drawer effect, ganzfeld experiment, Uri Geller, medium, meta-analysis, Raymond Moody, Nostradamus, optional starting and stopping, parapsychology, past life regression, precognition, psi assumption, psi-focus assumption, psi-missing, psychic, psychic detective, psychic surgery, psychokinesis, psychometry, James Randi Foundation psychic challenge, remote viewing, retrocognition, séance, sheep-goat effect, Charles Tart, telekinesis, and telepathy.

further reading

A Short History of Psi Research by Robert Todd Carroll

Reality shopping; a consumer's guide to new age hokum by Alan M. MacRobert, Whole Earth Review, Autumn, 1986

A Skeptical Examination of Psychic Phenomena by Gene Doucette

Skeptics, Paranormal Researchers, and the Shyness Effect by Steven Novella

Last updated 23-Dec-2013

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