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Schwartz, Russek and real science

By James N. Head
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
October 12, 1999

To the editor,

Regarding the current sniping over experiments conducted by Schwartz and Russek, (SR) it seems everyone has avoided any real science assessment of the research. While SR may dislike criticism from those who have not examined the data, it is difficult to do so when the chosen method of publication is HBO, instead of in the normal peer-reviewed journals. Assuming that SR have been reported accurately, there are numerous comments anyone can make.

When first reported last summer (June 16 Wildcat), Schwartz said of the February experiments that mediums acquired information from the sitters "without prior knowledge." Then he admitted that "some of the sitters" (we are not told how many out of 10) were personally acquainted with his psychic dream team. How can those "hits" be evidence of anything unusual? If I stumbled into the editorial offices of the Wildcat and told your reporter about the dead relatives of people I know, would he be impressed? Should he? Was this methodological flaw corrected in the July experiments? Why are we not told?

The SR experiment suffers from another serious design flaw - it is the sitters who determine if the mediums responses are accurate. It is possible that the sitters belief unconsciously influences their assessment of the mediums accuracy, a well-known phenomenon called the Barnum Effect. In the Tucson Citizen, Schwartz flatly denies that the Barnum Effect is operating in his experiment. Yet in the June 16 Daily Wildcat he said the data showed exactly that relationship! A skeptic sitter scored no hits while believing sitters did. Schwartz can't have it both ways. When the mediums return in December, why not screen the sitters and eliminate those with strong beliefs on either side? Why not use an independent panel to judge the accuracy of the responses? These techniques have been used with good effect to evaluate prediction accuracy in tests of astrological claims. It would be good science to adopt those safeguards here.

The control group used in the SR experiment consists of UA students, presumably from Schwartz's psych classes. Why would their abilities even be considered relevant when there is an entire profession devoted to communicating with the dead by unknown means? These professionals are called "magicians," specifically those who perform "mental acts." Their practice - known as cold reading - enables the mentalist to pretend to intimate knowledge about a complete stranger (see the classic paper by Ray Hyman, The Zetetic, 1977). They produce astonishing results often enough to keep the marks coming back for more, yet make no serious claim to psychic powers. How well would a control group of mentalist have done in the SR experiment? That is a question I'd like to see answered. If one is truly interested in demonstrating psychic abilities, wouldn't it be prudent to test the "Michael Jordans" of the "psychic world" against the very best magicians? Otherwise, what have you shown? That the "Michael Jordans" can whip that kid in the Sprite commercial? A meaningful control must be used instead.

We are not told if magicians aided in the experimental design. How better to design an experiment than to call upon those who best know how to cheat? They can eliminate means of communication between psychic and sitter SR might never have considered. The history of psychic investigation is replete with episodes of prominent scientists (including one Nobel Prize winner) being taken by a conjurer with a new trick. The debunking invariably comes from magicians familiar with the practices and techniques of the profession. Schwartz has stated it is difficult to distinguish the psychological from the spiritual.

What are his qualifications to weed out the fraudulent? By all means, conduct experiments into this aspect of human behavior, but be certain what is actually being tested. As much as I personally favor the notion of life after death, it is not at all apparent that the SR experiment is capable of revealing anything new about this topic.

James N. Head

Planetary sciences graduate student

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