Psychic Powers, Replication and the collapse of psychology ???

27 Apr

As part of my teaching I focus on students gaining an understanding of how knowledge progresses by the employment of the scientific method. One of the tenets of this teaching is the idea that you would never accept a hypothesis after one positive result, but would seek to replicate the finding with different samples and different experimental methods. When students begin to read scholarly journals they may gains rather different impression of how knowledge progresses, as the world appears to consist of positive findings associated with new theories and hypotheses. This absence of replication would seem to be one of those unwritten rules of academia, but recent developments seem to suggest that it might be beginning to unravel.

In 2011 the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper by Daryl Bem suggesting the existence of precognitionhttp://www.dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf As you might imagine, a paper in a leading peer-reviewed journal reporting experimental evidence of a psychic phenomena produced a good deal of interest.

Three British psychologists Stuart Ritchie, Richard Wiseman and Chris French set about trying to replicate Bem’s work, and unsurprisingly failed to reproduce his findings. This is where the story gets interesting, as they struggled to get their failed replication published. In particular it was rejected by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, who had published Bem’s original work. Ritchie, Wiseman and French have written about the saga of trying to get their replication published in the May 2012 edition of The Psychologist.

All of the above makes for an interesting discussion with students, Psychic powers to engagement initially, the idea that we should be looking for replication and the evidence that we actually aren’t really interested in publishing it. However, another development makes it an even more interesting topic for discussion. A group of researchers started something they call The Reproducibility Project that is aiming to replicate all the work published in three leading journals Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition during 2008. There is an interesting article about this project in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s interesting to speculate about what might happen if they fail to replicate much of the work from three such prestigious journals

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