Why I Can't Read Any Farther in This Book

Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn't by Steve Volk

Ran across this book and thought it would be interesting to see what sort of evidence and experiences would lead someone to investigate the paranormal and come to the conclusion that something about it was potentially real. (Note, in case you haven't figured it out from reading this blog, I'm rather a skeptic. :D)

My only regret is that I cannot hurl this book against the wall with great force, because it would damage my Kindle. Instead I shall content myself with deleting it while shouting "FOR SPARTAAAAAAA!!!" Here is one example: I'm not very far into it, and what do I find but something that's either a misunderstanding or a deliberate misstating. I have no idea if it's an honest misinterpretation of the correspondence involved, or if it's an actual, deliberate misstatement banking on the fact that his readers aren't going to know what the actual words used in the matter were. Because, I mean, really, who goes and checks on references in books?

Academic librarians, that's who. *cracks knuckles*

Here's Volk:
Richard Wiseman is another skeptical luminary. He goes out of his way, at times, to be fair--admitting some success in psi research, for instance. But he has also been accused of distorting the subject. In the episode I find most intriguing, he followed up on research conducted by Harvard-educated historian and Rupert Sheldrake. The topic was, of all things, a dog. Sheldrake had recently conducted experiments in which a dog, Jaytee, seemed to know precisely when its owner would be coming home. Again and again, in randomized experiments, just after its owner started back to the house, the dog would stop whatever it was doing and go sit by the window. Wiseman subsequently conducted a smaller series of trials with Jaytee. His data proved almost identical to Sheldrake’s. Yet he went on to make the argument that his own findings disproved the biochemist’s claims.

Volk, Steve (2011-06-07). Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn't (Kindle Locations 1279-1285). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Richard Wiseman has kindly posted the British Journal of Psychology article on his website, along with subsequent dialogue with Sheldrake. Here is, I think, the relevant bit in one of Wiseman et al.'s replies that speaks to the "...data proved almost identical to Sheldrake's..." claim that Volk makes and explains what Wiseman's meaning is:
In September 1996 [Rupert Sheldrake] wrote to RW [Richard Wiseman] and noted that he had analysed his own results by plotting the total time that Jaytee [the dog] remained at the porch during each ten minute period of the experiment. He claimed that his data showed that Jaytee waited by the porch significantly longer during the time period that PS [the dog's owner] was returning home, and that there was also an ‘anticipatory effect’ whereby Jaytee also waited a large amount of time in the period immediately prior to PS’s return journey. He also noted that, as reported in his recent commentary, he had re-analysed our videotapes of Jaytee and found the same pattern in our first three experiments.

We do not believe that RS’s re-analysis of our data provides compelling evidence for the notion that Jaytee could psychically detect when PS was returning home.

First, it appears that RS's observed patterns could easily arise if Jaytee did very little for some time after PS left home and then began to visit the porch more often, and for longer periods, the longer she stayed away. This pattern of behaviour would make sense for a dog waiting for its owner's return and would result in Jaytee being at the window most often when PS is returning, as her journey home will always constitute the final time period in each experiment. It is therefore possible that the pattern that RS describes is not evidence of some inexplicable power of Jaytee to detect PS's return but an artefact of an easily explicable pattern in Jaytee's natural waiting behaviour.

The 'Psychic Pet' Phenomenon: A reply to Richard Sheldrake

Wiseman is not arguing that they collected different data than Sheldrake, he is arguing that Sheldrake is misinterpreting the data. Volk would have us believe that Wiseman is looking at data that clearly shows an effect and is dismissing it. No, Wiseman is disputing that it clearly shows an effect.

Volk continues:
He admitted the statistical similarity of their findings recently, when cornered by Alex Tsakiris on his Skeptiko podcast.

Volk, Steve (2011-06-07). Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn't (Kindle Locations 1285-1286). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Transcripts of the Skeptiko podcast juuuuust happen to be available online. Here's what I think is the part that Volk is mis-remembering; I've bolded the bit I think is key:

Podcast #11 from April 17, 2007
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, yeah, I mean, I suspect it’s quite problematic because it depends how the data is collected, so I don’t think there’s any debate, but the patterning in my studies are the same as the patterning in Rupert’s studies. That’s not up for grabs. That’s fine. It’s how it’s interpreted.
Note that Wiseman repeats his claim that it's the interpretation of the data that is problematic.

So. If this is an example of the sort of scholarship that Volk says convinced him that paranormal phenomena may be real ... it's pretty damn shoddy. When I turned in research this slipshod in undergrad, I was rightly excoriated by the professor in red ink all over my paper. I don't know what else Volk has done, but I don't think he's engaged in any serious research in the past. His bio* says he's a reporter, but it doesn't look like he's actually had to design an experiment, produce data, the sit down and interpret that data. He seems to have no clue that, as Wiseman pointed out, the experiments run by Sheldrake and Wiseman were designed to answer two different questions, nor that the data produced needs to be interpreted before it can be used to prove something correct or incorrect, and that the interpretations thus produced must be evaluated. And that you must see what other possible explanations there could be for the data, because it doesn't matter if you think that effect A was produced by reason B, because if you have not ruled out that it could also have been produced by reason C and reason D, then your interpretation cannot be declared to be the correct one.

Volk, if you had turned this chapter in to my hard-ass Anthro advisor in grad school, she would have ripped you several new ones and made you cry in her office before demanding that you rewrite it and turn it in next week. Trust me, I, and my classmates, know that from hard experience!

If this is an example of the sort of research that Volk's conclusions are based on, then I am not impressed.
Grade: F.

* and website, but you'll have to Google it, as I'm not going to link it directly. If he's going to come here and argue in comments in a way that embarrasses himself,** he's going to have to ego-surf the old-fashioned way with Google and not through his site referral links.

** I'll be sure to let you guys know if he does.

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