So I’ve read Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker piece now several times. I take it seriously. The policy implications, particularly with regards to the use of pharmaceuticals, are incredibly disturbing. I’m less concerned with the Rhine’s ESP research in the 1930’s.
I should point out that there are many areas of science ranging from molecular biology to astrophysics where I don’t believe there is any evidence at all for such a “decline effect”. The disciplines affected by the problem are those that generally depend on to a greater extent on parametric statistics (t-tests and the like) rather than categorical “yes-no” results (e.g. a gene sequence, the timing of an eclipse, a band in a gel).
So what about the causes? First, yes there is experimenter bias. Experimenters are (still) human and hence are imperfect.
But much more interesting to me is the problem of replicability. As a journal editor myself, I have to make difficult decisions about what to publish and the reality of today’s scientific marketplace is that negative results have a hard time making it past editors and into print. So another real part of the problem is that when many studies are compared for replicability (meta-analysis), this type of research itself is inherently biased by the “dark matter” of unpublished negative results.
Is something else spooky going on here? I don’t think so. Science, I’m pleased to say, has not yet been seriously targeted by deconstructive criticism.