Statistical problems in ESP research

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Science  14 Jul 1978:
Vol. 201, Issue 4351, pp. 131-136
DOI: 10.1126/science.663642


In search of repeatable ESP experiments, modern investigators are using more complex targets, richer and freer responses, feedback, and more naturalistic conditions. This makes tractable statistical models less applicable. Moreover, controls often are so loose that no valid statistical analysis is possible. Some common problems are multiple end points, subject cheating, and unconscious sensory cueing. Unfortunately, such problems are hard to recognize from published records of the experiments in which they occur; rather, these problems are often uncovered by reports of independent skilled observers who were present during the experiment. This suggests that magicians and psychologists be regularly used as observers. New statistical ideas have been developed for some of the new experiments. For example, many modern ESP studies provide subjects with feedback--partial information about previous guesses--to reward the subjects for correct guesses in hope of inducing ESP learning. Some feedback experiments can be analyzed with the use of skill-scoring, a statistical procedure that depends on the information available and the way the guessing subject uses this information.