Psychologists Go Demonic
Delving into Ouija boards, committing fraud… is there anything secular psychologists won’t stoop to?
Doctrines of demons: Clare Wilson at New Scientist reported on how psychologists at the University of British Columbia are using Ouija boards to probe the unconscious of experimental subjects. Many conservative theologians consider these devices to be devices for contacting deceiving spirits (I Timothy 4:1; see The Berean Call), and not a few non-theologians consider them dangerous (search Google on “ouija board dangerous”). Even if such theological views are deemed unscientific by secular psychologists, there is no question that these devices have an occult reputation: “Beloved of spiritualists and bored teenagers on a dare, the Ouija board has long been a source of entertainment, mystery and sometimes downright spookiness,” Wilson wrote up front.
It’s not as if the psychologists are trying to debunk paranormal theories in their experiments. The psychologists employed the devices as probes of inner mental mysteries, believing in a Freudian doctrine that “the unconscious plays a role in cognitive functions we usually consider the preserve of the conscious mind.” One of them asked a question that borders on contact with the devil: “How can we communicate with that unconscious intelligence?” (For background on Freud and the unconscious, see The Berean Call.)
The experimenter may not realize whose intelligence he is communicating with. According to Wilson, the results were a little spooky: “When using the computer, if the subjects said they didn’t know the answer to a question, they got it right about half the time, as would be expected by chance. But when using the Ouija, they got those questions right 65 per cent of the time – suggesting they had a subconscious inkling of the right answer and the Ouija allowed that hunch to be expressed.” (Note: the experimental subjects were blindfolded.) Maybe that’s why the URL to Wilson’s story asked, “is-there-anybody-there”.
Father of lies: Jesus spoke of Satan as a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44), the classic first lie starting in the garden (Genesis 3:4-5). All humans fall prey to bearing false witness at times, but it is especially egregious when scientists, ostensibly committed to intellectual integrity, follow the father of lies. Last year the fraud of Diederik Stapel “shook the field to its core” (see 11/05/2011); now, another psychology fraud from the Netherlands was reported in Science magazine (6 July 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6090 pp. 21-22, DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6090.21), this time by a software algorithm devised by Uri Simonsohn to detect fraud. In the category “Scientific Ethics,” Martin Enserik headlined, “Fraud-Detection Tool Could Shake Up Psychology” because the ripple effect could affect more than just the career of latest perpetrator, Dirk Smeesters of Erasmus University Rotterdam:
The method may help the field of psychological science clean up its act and restore its credibility, he adds—but it may also turn colleagues into adversaries and destroy careers. The field will need ample debate on how to use it, Nosek says, much the way physicists had to grapple with the advent of nuclear physics. “This is psychology’s atomic bomb,” he says.
Simonsohn already created a stir last year with a paper in Psychological Science showing that it’s “unacceptably easy” to prove almost anything using common ways to massage data and suggesting that a large proportion of papers in the field may be false positives.
While the validity of Simonsohn’s statistical tool is still being evaluated, Smeesters didn’t help matters much when he included in his explanation this cop-out: ” the odd data patterns found by Simonsohn emerged because of what he calls ‘questionable research practices’ that aren’t uncommon in his field, such as doing multiple analyses and picking the most convincing one, or leaving out certain subjects.”
Update 07/12/2012: Nature News reported another catch. Simonshohn found suspicious anomalies in the data of Lawrence Sanna, who retired inexplicably at the end of May from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, after requesting retraction of 3 of his papers. Again, Sanna’s data was too good to be true. Simonsohn had been questioning Sanna since fall, but the university would not explain the reason for his resignation, and Sanna is not responding to requests for information. Simonsohn denies being on a fishing expedition. ““Some people are concerned that this will damage psychology as a whole and the public will perceive an epidemic of fraud,” he said. Claiming that retractions are common in many fields, he said, “I think that’s unfounded.” He claims he’s just trying to set an example for how research data should be reported.
What is implied by the quote, “The method may help the field of psychological science clean up its act and restore its credibility”?
Suppose, just for the sake of illustration, that Screwtape’s junior devil Wormwood decided to help out the experimental subject (“The Patient”) with the Ouija board and improve her score from chance to 65% correct. Wormwood, you realize, is a liar just like his mentor, Screwtape, and their master, “Our Father Below,” Satan. (To call these beings “deceiving spirits” would be a great compliment to them, from their point of view.) Knowing this background, let’s watch the dupe, er, the psychologist, perform his experiment, as we imagine the cackles of glee in the background.
The psychologist notices that the Patient is getting correct answers to a surprising number of questions she shouldn’t know. To alleviate any suspicions of trickery, he asks the Patient, “Am I communicating with your unconscious mind?” The blindfolded Patient moves the marker to the Yes mark on the board. “Is there any kind of outside influence acting on you right now?” Answer: No. “Do you believe in demons?” Answer: No. “Demons don’t exist, do they?” Answer: No. “Theologians are unscientific to believe in devils, aren’t they?” Answer: Yes. “Am I a good scientist?” Answer: Yes. “Should I write this up in a journal as experimental proof of the Unconscious?” Answer: Yes. “Are all my colleagues in psychology honorable and noble seekers of the truth?” Answer: Yes.