(Note: some weeks after the following letter was written the editor chiefly responsible for refusing to publish letters disclosing the erroneous nature of Good's argument left the journal and, following this, Radin's letter, sent originally on Jan. 17th. 1998, was at last published)
That Nature might err occasionally, in publishing a biased and misleading review, is understandable. That it should in effect collude with a biased reviewer in perpetrating a fraudulent assessment is quite unusual, and shameful. Even this might pass, if the assessment concerned only the work of one author or one line of theory. But when it concerns an entire field of inquiry, Nature's tolerance of fraudulent assessment is quite unconscionable -- and seems more important to discuss even than the particular substance of the dismissed work.
No thoughtful reader of I.J. Good's review of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (Oct. 23, 1997) could mistake Good's dismissive intent, or the simplicity of his approach. In effect, Good opened with a round of traditional grumbling about how rife with fraud and mistake the field of parapsychology may be; purported to show, by one convincing example, that Radin had greatly exaggerated the statistical significance of the figures his report depended on; and concluded with a vague compliment for having marshaled some interesting material -- leaving the clear impression that Radin was just another sloppy, credulous enthusiast, and his book of similar character, insubstantial and beneath regard, a typical emblem of this field of inquiry.
That no letters appeared in response to this review was curious, for Good's misrepresentation of Radin's book was systematic. He began by deliberately ignoring one key theme -- the increasing methodological sophistication of parapsychological research, designed explicitly to remedy the deficiencies of earlier methods -- in order to frame his review with obsolescent critique. Good did identify another key theme correctly, for Radin's extensive survey of the accumulations of research in various domains of this field does depend importantly on modern tools of statistical meta-analysis. Unfortunately, Good's "demolition" of Radin's treatment of the ESP-card literature -- ostensibly showing that the collective outcome of the 186 studies could be reasonably attributed to chance, rather than being wildly improbable as Radin asserted -- was absolutely mistaken, though presented confidently as fact and accepted as such by Nature's editors.
This mistake was almost the entire foundation for Good's dismissal of Radin's book, and enabled him to avoid dealing not only with the remarkable statistical substance of Radin's survey, but with his other key themes. In particular, Radin asserts what his survey and book demonstrate -- that the science of parapsychology is undergoing a deep phase-shift, from prolonged effort to satisfactorily demonstrate the mere existence of anomalous phenomena, into active inquiry into their nature. He exemplifies this in discussing his own research, presenting several novel species of remarkable experiment -- including "anticipatory dermal response," soundly demonstrating precognitive reactions to the content of randomly-presented pictures -- on the forefront of current inquiry.
All this is news of a sort completely obscured by Good's review, which in context amounts not simply to one man's clumsy mis-representation of another's work, but to dis-information about an entire field of inquiry. To speak sternly of Nature's role in this is necessary, for its understandable mistakes in assigning and uncritically accepting this review have been deeply compounded by its treatment of the matter since. Besides Radin himself, at least two scientists of serious stature -- the physicists Nick Herbert and (Nobel Laureate) Brian Josephson -- have written to protest Good's unfair treatment and the fraudulence of its key argument. That no such letter has been published might be seen simply as another editorial misjudgement, rather than as deliberate suppression of debate about a "fringe" field. But how are we to understand Nature's treatment of Good's central, factual error? By belatedly publishing a bare correction of a different, minor misinterpretation, with no reference to the outstanding error that demolishes his critique of the book, Nature gives the impression that any problems with the review have been addressed, and leaves the public force of Good's contemptuous assessment to stand unchallenged.
This treatment of error is an editorial decision, which works not simply to avoid discussion of important substance (rather than of technicalities), but to place Nature as solidly as possible on one side of a stifled debate. For a journal of its stature, such a position is undignified and shameful. Given the state of the field that Radin surveys, this position has also become quite ludicrous and retrograde. May fairer treatment prevail.
12 May 1998
general commentary on Nature's treatment of The Conscious Universe