Skeptical Scientists May Fail in Testing Psi—But Not Because Psi Isn’t Real
Skeptical Scientists May Fail in Testing Psi—But Not Because Psi Isn’t Real

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In many kinds of scientific experiments, researchers must protect against the experimenter effect. Scientists conducting experiments may give human subjects subtle cues as to their own biases. Body language or tone of voice, for example, could communicate something to the subjects that could affect their performance or responses.

A scientist may, therefore, unwittingly influence the outcome of an experiment, particularly in experiments involving human responses or psychology. This experimenter effect may have an even greater impact on psi experiments. 

The term “psi” refers to any psychic phenomenon, such as psychokinesis, telepathy, or clairvoyance. Skeptics, or debunkers, have often dismissed psi based on failed attempts to replicate experiments that give evidence psi exists.

Dr. Garret Moddel at the University of Colorado says, however, that the experimenter effect is part of what could be at play in these failed tests. Furthermore, the subjects’ belief or disbelief in psi may influence their abilities to perform psi tasks.

His student tested 12 subjects, asking them to guess which cards were being held up without being able to see the cards. The subjects were asked beforehand whether they believed in psi. Regardless of their answers, they were randomly given brief literature either in support of psi research or against it, each citing various studies as evidence. Thus the subjects were divided into four groups.

One group had a predisposition toward believing in psi and was given pro-psi literature. One group had a predisposition against psi and was given pro-psi literature. One group had a predisposition toward psi but was given anti-psi literature. One group had a predisposition against psi and was given anti-psi literature.

The believers presented with pro-psi literature guessed the cards correctly 27 percent of the time. By random chance, they would be expected to guess correctly 20 percent of the time.

The believers presented with pro-psi literature guessed the cards correctly 27 percent of the time. By random chance, they would be expected to guess correctly 20 percent of the time. The odds against chance are 25 to 1. This is considered a statistically significant result in support of psi.

The other three groups—those either predisposed to disbelief or those given literature to stoke their doubts just before the experiment—were pretty close to random chance in their number of correct guesses.

Dr. Moddel told Skeptico in 2010: “You know, this whole argument about psi needing replicability, I think is to some extent, a red herring … As this and other experiments show, psi is intention-based and it’s based upon not only the intention of the subject, but the intention of the experimenter.

“Psi is intention-based and it’s based upon not only the intention of the subject, but the intention of the experimenter.”
— Dr. Garret Moddel

“It’s very hard to control for that because if you have one person involved in the experiment who really thinks the whole thing is bunk, then they essentially ruin the experiment. A skeptic would say, ‘Oh, that’s just a salacious argument used by proponents.’ In fact, if you think about it, it’s totally logical. These are intention-based phenomena, so of course the intentions of the people involved are critical.”

Dr. Moddel holds an electrical engineering degree from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard University. His more conventional work has focused on quantum engineering, but he has also been an active proponent of psi research.

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