No psi please, we’re British

Lord_Winston.jpgThe Telegraph reports that Professor Robert Winston has criticised the recent British Association Festival of Science for allowing an ‘unbalanced’ discussion of parapsychology as “I know of no serious properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense.”

This is a little ironic, as Winston recently had adverts for ‘clever milk’ pulled from newspapers by the advertising standards authority for being misleading.

In the adverts, he claimed that a brand of Omega-3 fortified milk boosted children’s intelligence. The authority did not find evidence to support this claim.

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian summarises the evidence as follows:

Contrary to what the pill-peddlers would tell you, the evidence for omega 3 pills being beneficial in children is really rather thin: only a handful of small trials have been published in proper journals, and at last count 3 were positive, 2 were negative, and none were in mainstream children.

The conclusion of these studies is about as strong as that drawn from a recent review in Psychological Bulletin on psychokinesis.

The review concluded by saying that the evidence was weakly positive in support of this ‘psi-ability’, but they couldn’t be sure that the effect wasn’t due to a reporting bias.

In contrast to the Omega-3 studies, however, the authors of the review found that the psychokinesis studies were generally of a high standard.

One of the ironies of this debate is that parapsychology studies are often some of most rigorously conducted in science, largely to avoid accusations of ‘pseudoscience’.

The fact that they tend to find a weak effect at best (and most commonly no effect) doesn’t make them bad science.

Furthermore, as pointed out by a 2004 New Scientist article, (pdf) the studies are typically better conducted and can produce greater supporting evidence than the often notoriously-biased pharmaceutical drug trial reports.

To quote psychologist William James “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices”.

Link to Telegraph article “Festival attacked over paranormal ‘nonsense'”.
Link to Times article “‘Misleading’ Winston milk ads pulled”.
pdf of New Scientist article ‘Opposites Detract’.

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