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Friday, October 20, 2017

Stigma-Seeking Psychology Experiments Are a Waste of Research Dollars

There is a type of psychology experiment that we can call a stigma-seeking psychology experiment. This type of experiment is typically designed by some experimenter who is offended by some belief that others may hold. The experimenter (who we may call the stigma-seeker) runs an experiment designed to find some psychological defect in those who hold the belief he is offended by. The stigma-seeker's goal is to be able to say something like, “Aha, those type of people believe such things because they have this type of glitch in their minds.”

For example, if you are a Democrat psychology professor, you may run some experiment designed to show that Republicans believe some thing because of a glitch in their minds; and if you are a Republican psychology professor, you may run some experiment designed to show that Democrats believe some thing because of a glitch in their minds. Similarly, if you an atheist you may some run some experiment designed to show that people believe in God because of some glitch in their minds; and if you are a theist you may run some experiment designed to show that people do not believe in God because of some glitch in their minds.

An example of this type of weaponized psychology experiment was recently published. The stigma seekers are Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Karen M. Douglas, and Clara De Inocencio. They have aimed their arrows at the target of people who believe in the paranormal. That is probably a majority of the people in the United States, as studies show that more than 50% of Americans believe in one or more things that can be called paranormal.

These psychologists have done a joint study on believers in the paranormal and conspiracy theorists. This is the same kind of crude “smear by bad association” trick one might do if you were to try to smear Democrats by doing a joint study on the thought habits of Democrats and flat earth believers, or if you were to try to smear Catholics by doing a joint study on the behavior of Catholics and arsonists.

Our stigma-seeking psychologists start out in their paper by very aggressively attempting to portray belief in the paranormal or supernatural as something irrational and dangerous. This is a dead giveaway as to their hostility and bias on the topic, something very different from the objectivity which a researcher should have. I may note the weakness of their reasoning designed to show that belief in the supernatural is harmful, such as this claim: “Supernatural beliefs may lead people to consult spiritual healers instead of qualified medical specialists to treat dangerous illnesses, or to base important life decisions (e.g., whether to buy a house, or get a divorce) on information derived from horoscopes or a random draw of tarot cards.” But that's peanuts compared to the oceans of death and pain delivered by people who did not believe in the supernatural, such as the atheist Joseph Stalin who sent many millions to their deaths or to prison work camps in Siberia.

The psychologists did five experiments, which all used the same approach. Each experiment was done using only a few hundred anonymous online subjects who the psychologists never even met. The subjects used an online site (something called Crowdflower), and did little quickie tests running about 15 or 20 minutes. As part of such testing, the subjects were asked to fill out online questionnaires asking about their beliefs about the paranormal and conspiracy beliefs. The subjects received a small payment of 75 cents, meaning they were paid at the rate of about $3 an hour.

Since they were online tests, why could our experiments not have waited until thousands had finished the tests? An online experiment with a few hundred anonymous subjects is hardly a way to produce an effect that we should have any confidence will be replicated reliably.  The results reported are not very strong, and the reported correlations are almost all weak, most much less than 50%.

The hypothesis the psychologists were trying to show was that belief in the paranormal results from a tendency to see patterns where there are none. This hypothesis does not make sense. There is almost no belief in the supernatural or paranormal that can be plausibly explained in such a way.

Let's consider some examples. People may believe in God because of the universe's unexplained beginning, and the extraordinary fine-tuning and order in the universe's physics and organisms. Others may simply believe in God because they believe what their religion teacher told them. Such belief has nothing to do with a pattern. People may believe in ghosts or Bigfoot because they saw a ghost or saw what looked like Bigfoot, or they may believe witnesses whose accounts were written up in a book. Again, this has nothing to do with pattern interpretation. Belief in near-death experiences is based on the accounts of people who had such experiences, and has nothing to do with pattern interpretation. People may believe in ESP (extrasensory perception) because they read about the very convincing laboratory experiments which have shown such a thing, or because they had some memorable experience in which they seemed to know the thoughts of someone in a way that seemed inexplicable. Again, this does not involve pattern interpretation. People may believe in UFOs after they saw something dramatic and inexplicable in the sky, or read lots of accounts about other people seeing dramatic and inexplicable lights in the sky. This has nothing to do with pattern interpretation.

There is a general rule that the larger the size of a belief group, the more that belief group will tend to have average mental characteristics. In some tiny belief group you might see aberrant mental characteristics; but in some group with a size such as 50 million you will see mental characteristics very close to average mental characteristics. In the case of belief in the paranormal or the supernatural, the belief group is actually a majority of humanity, which makes any type of mental aberration hypothesis (such as that of our stigma-seeking psychologists) very implausible.

For someone eager to show some psychological defect in people they are studying, there are two advantages to running an online study paying test subjects “slave wages” of only $3 an hour, such as this study did. The first advantage is that you can pay less than $100 for 200 20-minute subjects, meaning if necessary you can very inexpensively keep repeating the experiment until it produces the desired effect. The second advantage is that pretty much the only people who will work for these “slave wages” (must less than the minimum legal US wage) are the financially desperate; and if you're getting only such subjects, you maximize your chance that some psychological defect will show up in the subjects you are studying.

An earlier scientific paper done by different scientists, based on tests with hundreds of subjects, stated “This paper argues against the theory that people interpret unusual coincidences as paranormal because they misunderstand the probability of their occurring by chance.” This scientific paper found that when only those with college educations were chosen, there was no tendency for believers in the paranormal to over-estimate patterns. 

It might be rather easy to turn the tables on our stigma-seeking psychologists trying to show some glitch in the mind of believers in the paranormal. You could design psychological experiments that might show that rejection of convincing evidence for the paranormal or supernatural correlates with unreasonable stubbornness, observational bias, or refusal to accept reliable and highly repeated testimony. But it would be pointless to do such a thing, because all stigma-seeking psychology experiments are a waste of research dollars. If you don't agree with someone's opinion on a topic, it is best to argue why such an opinion is wrong, and why your opinion on the topic is right. Attempting to fight an opinion by trying to experimentally demonstrate mind glitches in those who hold it is just a fancy version of the ad hominem fallacy. 

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