Issues of Pseudoscience and Scientific Fraud

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  • Created by: xecila
  • Created on: 11-06-13 10:45

Characterisation of pseudoscience

A tendency to invoke ad hoc hypotheses to avoid falsifiabiliy. e.g. Creationists claim that God made the earth with prior signs of aging. 

A tendency to place the burden of proof on sceptics. If sceptics can't provide watertight explanations, then they should admit a claim is valid.

Excessive reliance on anecdotal evidence, when the best way to test claims is to subject them to double-blind, randomised, clinical trials.

Evasion of quality control afforded by peer review. Pseudoscientists will avoid this by publishing in books, magazines or directly onto the internet. 

(please note there are only a few of these as it's only necessary to have a few handy and these are the ones I can personally remember the best!)

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Issues of fraud: Soal-Goldney (1938)

Soal-Goldney was investigating telepathy (ESP), in card-guessing tasks. Initally the results were disappointing, but with statistical analysis found some individuals (Mrs Stewart and Shackleton) had done better than others Shackleton was further tested and protocols were put into place to make the study appear methodologically sound and good protection from cheating. They even invited academics to be present but no magicians (usually used to verify no magical techniques) were used.

Experiments in telepathy require a 'sender', 'agent' (receiver) and experimenter. In this, the experimenter signalled to the sender which card (1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 with pictures of animals on them) to pick up and 'send' to Shackleton, who was told to 'guess' what card was being sent, wrote down his answers on a scoring sheet. They were unsually good. 

Fraudulence: Soal's apparant attention to making the study appear sound allowed a very effective fraud. However, Soal claimed that the order list on the numbers to give to the sender was random, but he could have produced a list where the number was often 1, which could be easily changed to a 4 or 5 later. One of Soal's 'agents' stated she had witnessed Soal changing a 1 to a 4 or 5 on a number of occasions. 

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Research study: Walter J Levy Jr (1974)

Levy Jr looked at the PK ability of rats by implanting electrodes into their brains which, according to previous research, would cause them immense pleasure. Shocks were delivered at random intervals, linked to the decay of radioactive stronium 90. With no human interference, the computer would shock the rats 50% of the time. If the rats could anticipate the shocks by using ESP or PK to influence the decay of the radioactive source, their pleasure score would exceed 50%.

Levy Jr claimed the pleasure rating was 54% suggesting anomalous ability, measured quantitatively by the number of shocks received. 

Investigation by his own research assistants proved the results were due to Levy Jr tampering with the apparatus. Another set of apparatus, installed without Levy Jrs knowledge confirmed suspicions since the levels recorded were lower than those recorded by Levy Jr. 

Asher (1975) notes how the person who challenged Levy Jr's results 'one more than one occasion witnessed Levy Jr pulling a plug from the back of the random generator, causing the generator to only record hits for a period of time'. Levy Jr admitted his fraud and resigned from his position. 

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Project Alpha - James Randi (1983)

Randi set out to test if participants could deceive researchers. He chose two 'upcoming' participants who 'seemingly' had ESP powers (Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards). In one 'experiment' it appeared that they could bend spoons. 

Randi had instructed the researcher to place one object on the table for participants to bend (to test if researchers would follow protocol) but Shaw and Edwards reported many items littering the table and none permanently marked; only a tag attached by string. When the experimenter was distracted, one of the p's changed the tags around so the spoons would have a different measurement after the study! The researchers construed this as paranormal events. Also, on some days, participants would ensure they left the building last and leave a window open, returning in the night to bend all the spoons and claim they had done this by PK during the night!

For telepathy tasks, the participants had to 'see' what was on a card in an envelope sealed only by two staples. They were left alone in the room and they took the staples out, looked at the picture and then put it back in the envelope and but the staples back in the original holes. 

Though Randi went to great lengths to show researchers could be fooled by fraudulent participants, Thalbourne (1995) said a great deal of the fraud took place in the exploratory stages to see what could be tested more formally in the laboratory.

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IDA Whistle-Blowing within parapsychology

In terms of ethical issues, fraud in science is clearly the most serious. However, exposing such fraud can also raise ethical issues. Blackmore (1987) raised concerns regarding the results of ganzfeld studies of telepathy, following a visit to Sargent's parapsychology lab in Cambridge. She was not sure whether the apparent errors in protocol were evidence of deliberate fraud or not, but knew that any suggestion of fraud would be likely to tarnish Sargent's reputation and make her few friends amongst the parapsychological community. It took great moral courage on Blackmore's part to publicly raise her concerns regarding a colleague who, at the time, was held in great esteem. Sargent, who consistently refused to make his data available to other to allow proper investigation and left the field of parapsychology. 

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