Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

A Proposal and Challenge for Proponents and Skeptics of Psi

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

A Proposal and Challenge for Proponents and Skeptics of Psi

Article excerpt

In recently reading the 1988 Office of Technology Assessment report on experimental parapsychology (Office of Technology Assessment, 1989), I was struck by two topics: the optimism for meta-analyses and the suggestion that proponents of psi and skeptics should form a committee to evaluate and guide research.

In the decade and a half since this report, the use of meta-analyses has become more common, and the controversial aspects and limitations have become more clear. Meta-analysis is ultimately post hoc data analyses when researchers have substantial knowledge of the data. Evaluation of the methodological quality of a study is done after the results are known, which gives opportunity for biases to affect the meta-analysis. Different strategies, methods, and criteria can be utilized, which can give different outcomes and opportunity for selecting outcomes consistent with the analyst's expectations. The meta-analysis results can vary as new studies become available, which raises the possibility of optional stopping and selective reporting. The various controversies over meta-analyses with the ganzfeld demonstrate these issues (Milton, 1999; Schmeidler & Edge, 1999; Storm, 2000).

Bailar (1997) described similar conclusions from the experience with meta-analysis in medical research:

   It is not uncommon to find that two or more meta-analyses
   done at about the same time by investigators with the same
   access to the literature reach incompatible or even contradictory
   conclusions. Such disagreement argues powerfully against
   any notion that meta-analysis offers an assured way to distill
   the "truth" from a collection of research reports. (p. 560)

The research strategies and procedures in parapsychology stand in marked contrast with pharmaceutical research, through which I now earn my livelihood. The level of planning, scrutiny, and resulting evidence is much higher in pharmaceutical research than in most academic research, including parapsychology.

Pharmaceutical research offers a useful model for providing convincing experimental results in controversial situations. Key aspects of this research process are described below.


A company that wants to provide convincing evidence that a new product is effective begins by doing a few or several small exploratory or pilot studies. These are called Phase 1 and Phase 2 studies and are used to develop the methods of administering the product and effective dose as well as providing initial evidence for the benefits and potential adverse effects in humans.

When the researchers believe that they know the effective dose and can deliver it reliably, and that the effectiveness may be sufficient to be profitable, they plan a "pivotal Phase 3" study. This is a study that is intended to provide convincing evidence and is normally a randomized experiment. The study protocol describes the study procedures, specific data items to be collected, patient population, sample size, randomization, and planned analyses. The general statistical methods expected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and corresponding agencies in many other countries are described in "Guidance for Industry: E9 Statistical Principles for Clinical Trials" (available for downloading at no charge from http:// This document is excellent guidance for anyone doing experimental research in controversial settings and is part of the international standards for pharmaceutical research that are being developed by the International Conference on Harmonisation (ICH).

The protocol is expected to include a power analysis demonstrating that the study sample size has at least .8 to .9 probability of obtaining significant results if the effects are of the assumed magnitude. Sensitivity analyses exploring a variety of deviations from the assumptions in the power analyses are recommended, and are important for the company as well as for the FDA. …

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