Red Herrings and Slurs: A Review by James E Kennedy of “Psychology and the Paranormal. Exploring Anomalous Experience”

James E Kennedy’s review of my book contains a mixture of faint praise, criticism, slurs and huge red herrings thrown in for good measure. In any book author’s life, a review by a respected figure, extending to six pages, is potentially a fillip, and I acknowledge James Kennedy for putting in the effort. In this case, however, Kennedy applies a stricture, which I have not noticed being applied to any other book or author, and not by Kennedy in his own writings in Parapsychology. I refer to Kennedy’s declaration of the ‘new era’ of methodology in which any Parapsychology reviewer should focus only on confirmatory studies. Reviewing exploratory studies, according to Kennedy, is an outmoded, 40-year old approach from a previous era. Here I briefly summarize Kennedy’s review and offer my response.

Abstract

David Marks’ previous book about the paranormal (Marks, 2000) and other earlier writings established his reputation as a firm skeptic. He wrote the current book in order to learn about new developments in paranormal research during the past 20 years. 

The overall conclusion in this book is that Marks now believes that spontaneous paranormal phenomena may occur, but psi is a spontaneous process that cannot be controlled and demonstrated in laboratory experiments. His belief that instances of spontaneous psi may occur is based largely on a personal experience of synchronicity that had layers of meaning for him. The experience is described and evaluated in chapter four. He rates the probability as 75% that the experience had a paranormal component.

This is a fair summary of my book. Actually it’s the best bit there is. From here, its all down hill.

Strengths and Weaknesses


One purpose of this book was to provide a summary and stimulus for students—in effect, “passing the baton to a new generation of explorers” (p. 313). The book summarizes past controversies about experimental research reasonably well and offers ideas for future research.

Even faint praise is better than none. (Or is it? it is actually hard to judge). I have learned that it is as much as one can expect from this reviewer. Plus a few slurs and fishy red herrings.

Precedents


In his own life, Kennedy reported that he knew from his teenage years that he was ‘destined’ to do work in Parapsychology. Kennedy (2000) writes:

Sometime in adolescence or before, I developed the conviction that it was my destiny to do research on paranormal phenomena. I do not know how or when this conviction developed, but it was well established by early high school. My technical undergraduate education was selected with this perspective…
During my undergraduate college years, I had many apparent psi experiences that strongly reinforced this interest and sense of destiny.

My own ‘destiny’ was to work in the field of Psychology and to develop later an interest in Parapsychology secondarily. I do not regret that decision. I was aware of the Society for Psychical Research and the illustrious names in the history of the field, Frederic Myers, William Crookes, William James and others but I never pursued the question of how and when their interests in psi first developed in their lives. As a Johnny-come-lately I never investigated whether and when these famous researchers had formative psychic experiences. On this score Kennedy scolds me for neglecting to discuss Rhea White (1931-2007), the Founder/Director, Exceptional Human Experience Network and for mentioning only:

one reference about the elusive, unsustainable nature of psi, and does not discuss the development and extent of those ideas, or investigators who have preceded him with similar conclusions. Notably, the book does not mention Rhea White, who was a pioneer in abandoning experimental research as making inadequate progress, after nearly 40 years of personal involvement. ..Rhea White appears to have already gone down the path that Marks has just discovered.

Rhea White reported: “My junior year in college I had a near-death experience associated with an automobile accident that changed my life”. Perhaps I could have discussed Rhea White’s car crash and road-to-Damascus experience and those of other leading figures, but the purpose of my book was to review the scientific findings from 2000-2019, not to provide a historical review of significant figures in the field. I appreciate that I am not alone in believing that psi is a spontaneous phenomenon. Kennedy himself states: “I am 100% certain that paranormal phenomena beyond current scientific understanding sometimes occur”. My case differs from Rhea White’s and James Kennedy’s in a crucial way: my belief in psi was not a teenage revelation but a consequence of a series of experiences that occurred throughout adult life.

Past Methodology

Kennedy scolds me again, on this occasion more brutally, in suggesting that my methodological approach is from a previous era from 40 (that number again) years in the past. Kennedy states:

Marks notes certain key methodological practices that have been recognized in recent years as needed for good research, but those practices were not fully implemented in writing this book. Rather, most sections in the book appear to have been written with the methodological standards that were widely used 40 years in the past. At that time it was mistakenly thought that studies with exploratory methodology could provide convincing evidence for a controversial phenomenon like psi…

As was common 40 years ago, Marks gives little attention to the distinction between exploratory and confirmatory research.

With this new era of methodology, the first question when reviewing a line of research is: Have any preregistered, well-powered, confirmatory studies been conducted? Searching study registries is a fundamental, initial step for a review. In the previous methodological era the first question was: Have any meta-analyses been conducted (with the meta-analyses being retrospective and typically based on small studies)? Study registries did not exist in psychology and were not considered. Marks appears to have focused on the question from the previous era when writing most sections of this book.

As was common 40 years ago! If true, that comment would sting any author badly. Clearly the remark was designed to sting but it isn’t the least bit valid. It is nothing more than a slur, an act of plain rudeness.

Let’s Look at the Facts

My manuscript was written during 2018 and 2019. Kennedy’s ‘new era’ of research preregistration dawned in 2012 with the formation of the KPU registry. This means that the ‘Old Era’ was still operating to 2012, only 10 years ago. My book summarises research from the 20-year period, 2000-2019, which includes the last 13 years of Kennedy’s ‘Old Era’ and first 7 years of Kennedy’s ‘New Era’. Kennedy’s choice of “40 years ago” is a deliberate slur. Using sleight of pen, and slice of malice, Kennedy unkindly attempts to re-label a book that is up-to-date as something that is out-of-date.

Had I chosen to go down the route proposed by Kennedy, my book would have been very short (less than 50 pages) and incomplete. Imagine the response from Parapsychology researchers all over the world had I decided to exclude all of the ‘old era’ exploratory studies and focus only on ‘new era’ preregistered confirmatory studies as recommended by Kennedy. My analysis of the KPU registry (less than one page of text and a single table) indicates only 43 preregistered confirmatory studies over the period 2012-2019 of which only 26 had reported findings by mid-2019 when my manuscript was submitted to the publisher. Of the 26 preregistered confirmatory studies, only 6 confirmed the original exploratory findings, all 6 by a single investigator, Patrizio Tressoldi, of Università di Padova, Italy. This latter point is an interesting story in its own right, and I will post more details later about this, but overall, what a short, dull and entirely negative book a ‘new era’ book using confirmatory studies only would have been. Kennedy has the chance to write the ‘new era’ book based on his recommended strictures about confirmatory vs exploratory research and I would be happy to return the favour and review it. However, I doubt this volume will be appearing any time soon.

The information detailed above indicates that Kennedy’s comments about the ‘New Era’ are a complete red herring. The comments are disingenuous. As one of the operators of the KPU registry, Kennedy is fully aware of the situation described above. His attempt to relabel my approach as “40 years” out-of-date is misleading and unprofessional.

Standards for Research Methodology

Kennedy describes his own standards for research methodology as follows:

My standards for research methodology are based on working in regulated medical research for about 15 years. These standards are very different than past and present psychological and parapsychological research (Kennedy, 2016b). To my knowledge, the Transparent Psi Project (2017) is the only study design in the history of parapsychology that applies methodological practices that are comparable to the routine practices in my experience in regulated medical research. These include measures to prevent experimenter fraud, formal software validation, and appropriate development of operating characteristics (power analysis) for confirmatory Bayesian hypothesis
tests.

I find Kennedy’s position interesting. The position is further elaborated in a letter he and Caroline Watt published in the Journal of Parapsychology in 2019.

These principles are implemented on the KPU Study Registry with the requirement that all planned analyses be identified as exploratory or confirmatory. For confirmatory analyses, the planned statistical analysis must be fully pre-specified, including the numerical criteria that the experimenters will consider as acceptable evidence supporting the hypothesis of interest. For exploratory analyses, the planned statistical analysis need not be fully pre-specified or pre-specified at all. In fact, preregistration of exploratory research is considered optional, with the stipulation that any research that is not preregistered is presumed to be entirely exploratory.

Apparently Kennedy views his own standards as superior to those generally practised in Psychology and Parapsychology. As Editor of the Journal of Health Psychology for 26 years from 1996 to 2021, I believe his standards and mine are not actually all that different. Kennedy could take a look at my book with Lucy Yardley on Research Methods for Clinical and Health Psychology to see the range of methodology these fields cover. I am not as enamoured as Kennedy about regulated medical research by believing it reaches the high threshold of excellence that Kennedy implies. Witness the multiple examples of clinical misgovernance, fraud, and methodological error that have occurred over the last several decades of such research. I mention here several poignant examples: the COVID-19 Vaccine Controversy with Pfizer and others, the Diabetes Medication scandals (US and France), the MMR Vaccine Controversy – United Kingdom (1990s), Heparin Adulteration – China (2008),  New England Compounding Center Meningitis Outbreak – United States (2012), PIP Silicone Implant Scandal – France (2009), Toxic Cough Syrup – Panama (2007), HIV-Tainted Blood Scandal – (1980s), Thalidomide Birth Defects Scandal – Germany and Worldwide (1950s–1960s), the list goes on and on. Kennedy’s advocacy of registered medical research as a paradigm for the whole of science is, quite frankly, ridiculous and medical research should never be placed at the pinnacle of probity. The majority of frauds and scandals exist within the medical research domain, and Kennedy must surely realise that.

Three Confirmatory Studies

Here arrives Kennedy’s attempted knock-out punch:

The book does not discuss the three large preregistered confirmatory studies conducted by Schlitz, Delorme, and Bem for Bem’s 2011 retroactive (precognitive) priming studies (Schlitz et al., 2021; Schlitz & Delorme, 2021).

But wait, there is a small problem with this, as Kennedy himself is aware:

Marks may have left these out because the studies were published in a peer-reviewed journal after his book was published.

May have left these out because…? Is Kennedy joking or what? Reviewing studies published after my manuscript went to the publisher on August 8, 2019 was not an option. Another huge red herring then. Kennedy knows it and then tries to allow himself a way out:

However, the results had been presented at conventions of the Parapsychological Association, and the preregistrations (2013, 2015, and 2019) were publicly available on a study registry, similar to the ganzfeld prospective meta-analysis that was discussed in the book.

Conference papers are not peer reviewed so would not have been included. Also the preregistered studies at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit Register (https://koestlerunit.wordpress.com/study-registry/) did not publish the findings of these three studies until well after my book was published.

Here Kennedy crosses a line from constructive criticism to the disingenuous. As Kennedy is one of the operators of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit registry, he should have realised that the study findings were not in the public domain until well after my book was published.

In writing any review one needs a set of criteria for what is to count as evidence. Anybody can publish a book full of anecdotes and stories about anomalous experiences, prophetic dreams, coincidences, or other squishy things but this type of publication does not pass a minimally acceptable criterion of independent peer-review. In my book, I counted as evidence only those studies that had passed independent peer-review in scholarly journals before the end of July 2019. Occasionally I also included letters or emails written by authors themselves about their methods and findings.

How Do the Three ‘Missing’ Confirmation Studies Effect My Conclusions about Psi?

Kennedy writes:

Have any preregistered, well-powered, confirmatory studies been conducted? Searching study registries is a fundamental, initial step for a review. In the previous methodological era the first question was: Have any meta-analyses been conducted (with the meta-analyses being retrospective and typically based on small studies)? Study registries did not exist in psychology and were not considered. Marks appears to have focused on the question from the previous era when writing most sections of this book.

I am preparing another post about the preregistered confirmatory studies. The findings of the existing confirmation studies are 100% consistent with my conclusions about psi. With the notable exception of a single investigator, the subject of another post, the confirmatory studies all disconfirm the originally positive exploratory findings. Thus the conclusion that psi has not been confirmed appears to be a valid one.

Experimenter Fraud

Marks, like most other psychological researchers, offers no guidelines or suggestions for preventing experimenter fraud. This leaves fraud as an endlessly unresolved confounding factor that is not addressed with preregistration or prospective meta-analysis.

My book was never intended to be a book about methodology or the avoidance of fraud. I have discussed several cases of fraud in Psychology and Parapsychology here, here, here and here. Kennedy is of course correct in asserting that fraud is commonly ignored as an issue in Psychological and Parapsychological research. I certainly agree that fraud is a huge problem. As long ago as 1978 I exposed examples of appalling methodology and even potential fraud associated with the remote viewing studies in my book and elsewhere here, here and here but the investigators Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff and everybody at the Parapsychological Association and within the Parapsychology community more generally carries on as normal, completely ignoring the evidence of potential fraud by continueing to state that remote viewing is proven, period. It is a complete joke.

Accusations of fraud must be robust and well supported by evidence. There are already several sources of evidence focusing on fraud in parapsychology, most notably the book by Hansel. Normally, to avoid the risk of libel, fraud is asserted about investigators who are deceased.

To avoid fraud, plagiarism, error, misinformation and other instances of improbity, authors, investigators, the Parapsychological Association and its members need to be 100% intellectually honest. But we all know that 100% is never going to happen. In fact, the PA is one of the worst and most influential perpetrators of misinformation in claiming proof of laboratory psi where none exists. As Kennedy is one of the PA’s most respected, senior members, Dr Kennedy needs to stop throwing red herrings and slurring authors and do something positive to reform the dysfunctional organisation, the PA.

CONCLUSIONS

In his disclosures, Kennedy claims he agrees with my position in the book:

I have previously come to conclusions similar to Marks’s beliefs that psi may occur spontaneously, but is not subject to reliable human control in laboratory experiments (Kennedy, 2013; 2016a). Therefore, I am sympathetic with the main conclusions in this book. One difference is that based on my personal experiences, I am 100% certain that paranormal phenomena beyond current scientific understanding sometimes occur.

There is something distinctly fishy about Kennedy’s review. His review is a stinker. Maintaining that he agrees with my position, Kennedy slurs my book about Parapsychology using a diversion from his own imagination. He uses his sniffy review to espouse his personal views about a so-called ‘new era’ of research that is recognized by nobody but him. Kennedy exposes an absurd misjudgment about the quality of regulated medical research. He employs faint praise, deliberate slurs and red herrings to diss a book that offers a new way for the field of Parapsychology where he claims his destiny lies.

Published by dfmarks

Author

2 thoughts on “Red Herrings and Slurs: A Review by James E Kennedy of “Psychology and the Paranormal. Exploring Anomalous Experience”

  1. What an extraordinary review this appears to be. The idea that medical research is now the gold standard, if that’s what the reviewer is implying, is beyond risible.

    1. It is indeed Andrew. Thank you for your comment. After four years writing this blog, absolutely NOTHING surprises me. Except the common decency and kindness of the vast majority of readers.
      How are your own blog plans coming along? If you’d like to guest author here, please let me know, any time.

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