BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Psi statistical analysis ...

I'm not sure at this juncture what had triggered my ordering this book, but it's been sitting in the to-be-read pile(s) for quite a while. I've read/reviewed another of Dean Radin's books previously (Entangled Minds), and I seem to have been luke-warm towards that … which is likewise the case here. I'm sure I'd seen his The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena referenced elsewhere and it sounded interesting enough to snag off of Amazon … however, I also took a read through some of the reviews there – which, while 85% run 4-5 stars, many also pointed out the book being “dry”. Now, I don't particularly like to “prejudice” my reading of a book by delving too deeply into the reviews, but it did give me a context for the book, which was probably a good thing.

One of my complaints about the previous book was that he was constantly in a defensive posture towards the skeptics, and that same sort of stance is at play here, not as blatantly, but he's constantly pushing advanced statistical analysis of the data to the forefront, which, while certainly providing a “scientific” edge to the material discussed, does leave the narrative a bit on the arid side. This is too bad, as (much like in the other book) the studies he is looking at are both fascinating and provocative, and could have been presented with a bit more “gee whiz!” than creeps in here. I have to think that there is a middle ground between a totally woo-woo “AMAZING PSYCHIC POWERS!” sort of pop presentation, and this, which for much of it has all the sexiness of a report on comparative bridge load bearing data (that in-between niche is, perhaps, the realm of Rupert Sheldrake, in whose books I think I first encountered the sort of meta-analysis of study results that is the backbone of The Conscious Universe).

Meta-analysis is where researchers take the results of many experiments and analyze them in relation to the whole. This could be done (as in one illustration in the book), with taking a baseball player's batting stats over a number of seasons to come up with an over-all stat for his capabilities at the plate (the movie Money Ball was anchored on a lot of this kind of number crunching). Here, examples of numerous sorts of Psi experiments are looked at together to produce “meta” results. If you would pardon a rather extensive quote, I found the following both indicative of the “tone” of the book, and revealing of the sort of rather remarkable numbers involved:
      Figure 5.3 shows the hit-rate point estimates and 95 percent confidence intervals of each of the twenty-five studies. As indicated, the overall hit rate for the combined 762 sessions was 37 percent. This hit rate corresponds to odds against chance of about a trillion to one – even though the majority of the individual studies (fourteen of twenty-five) were not independently “successful” (their 95 percent confidence intervals included chance). This again demonstrates the value of combining all available studies as opposed to just a few selected experiments.
      To show that the psi ganzfeld effect is larger than it first appears, let's compare it with the results of a widely publicized medical study investigating whether aspirin could prevent heart attacks … That study was discontinued after six years because it had become abundantly clear that the aspirin treatment was effective, and it was considered unethical to keep the control group on placebo medication. This was widely publicized as a major medical breakthrough, but despite its practical importance, the magnitude of the aspirin effect is extremely small. Taking aspirin reduces the probability of a heart attack by a mere 0.8 percent compared with not taking aspirin (that's eight-tenths of one percentage point). This effect is about ten times smaller than the psi ganzfeld effect observed in the 1985 meta-analysis.
I'll admit that the specifics of the math still are a bit hazy (the 95% confidence intervals, for instance), but everything in the book is pretty much drawn through that knothole. Radin isn't quite “so defensive” in this volume, but he's certainly eager to point out where other fields are able to take very weak results and move forward with them as “proof positive” for an effect.

There is a certain defensiveness implicit here, however, as pointing out how tiny effects shown against a placebo or in response to some influence sets up a case where the results of the various psi experiments start looking “pretty impressive” in comparison. It's not like these experiments are regularly racking up 75-80% hit rates when “chance” would be 20-25% … even the most hardened critics of psi would have a tough time maintaining their skepticism in the face of those sorts of numbers … but this example, at 37%, is about as good as it gets – about half better than the chance result of 25%. While that's good and it's hard to dismiss (especially in light of the statistical voodoo which comes up with figures like that “trillion to one”), it's not particularly wowing to the uninvolved. Where a ballplayer will be in the Hall of Fame if he “fails” 2 out of 3 trials, getting only a bit more than 1/3rd right when pure random selection would yield 1-in-4 “hits” comes across more as somewhat “interesting” than really “convincing”.

However, these are the results that are there, and Radin strives to make do with them as best he can. Ultimately, the argument is more convincing than not, with the statistical analysis churning through responses to most challenges. One thing that I found interesting was the “file-drawer effect”, which is an argument that unsuccessful studies languish in files and don't get published (and added to the data in the meta-analysis). In most cases, the putative number of these unseen studies would have to be many times (often ridiculously so) more than all the published studies to be able reduce the effects of the analyzed data down to chance.

The Conscious Universe is structured in four “thematic” sections – Motivation, Evidence, Understanding, and Implications – with “Evidence” being the bulk of the book. In this, the following are discussed and the data picked apart: Telepathy, Perception at a Distance, Perception Through Time, Mind-Matter Interaction, Mental Interactions with Living Organisms, Field Consciousness, Psi in the Casino, and Applications. The last two of these are fascinating in that there appear to be a ton of money being spent on Psi research within a handful of fields. Obviously, the Gaming industry wants to be able to manage any elements that could possibly effect its percentages, and there are some remarkably suggestive studies shown here (albeit with a rather small sample size as nearly all the big players were unwilling to discuss the subject with Radin). Other “applications” include the now-famous military studies, as well as ones done in the context of medicine and technology. There was even a 1982 experiment taking a non-investor psychic and having their stock picks go up against a group of 19 stock professionals … over the six-month study the psychic beat 18 of the 19's results, with an over-all gain of 17% for the psychic's stocks, vs. a 8% drop in the value of the stockbrokers! That's just one study with one psychic, but one wonders how many of the big investment houses might quietly have Psi divisions providing a different data stream than what shows up in the WSJ.

Again, if you're looking for a “rah-rah!” book for things in the Psi filed, this will no doubt be a disappointment to you, but if you're interested into delving deeply into an analysis of the data that's out there (and some of these data sets cover vast numbers of studies over long periods of time), it's a fascinating read. Sure, I would have like to have some more “preaching to the choir” myself, but you have to respect Radin for his reticence for flag waving, and staying with the statistical analysis as much as he does.

The Conscious Universe came out in 1997, and the 2009 paperback edition is still in print, and must be reasonably popular as the new/used guys don't have either it or the hardcover at massive discounts. The on-line sources currently have it for about 30% off of cover, which is what I went with on this. I found it an interesting read, and if you don't mind the “academic” dryness of the presentation, you are likely to get a lot of very good info here.

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Tags: book review
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