Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth



To gain a better understanding of the psi controversy (and topics labeled paranormal in general) from a sociological point of view, I recommend this 2007 book by Jeremy Northcote. Until I became involved in psi research, I didn't pay much attention to the sociology, politics, philosophy or history of science. I just assumed that science was as we were taught: a rational, logical enterprise, independent of all those troubling human frailties so evident in sociopolitics. But of course the way science is actually practiced is nowhere near as pristine as we were led to believe. As I encountered the irrational side of science, this led me to wonder what in the world had gone wrong with the way that science is taught. And that led me to study the human factors involved in science as a social effort towards "truth-making." As a sociological study this is fascinating, so I'm grateful to Northcote for publishing this book (and likewise to Chris Carter for his book, Parapsychology and the Skeptics), because if he hadn't done so, I would have been motivated to write a similar book myself.

28 comments:

Roulette said...

So what do you recommend for a scientist navigating this sea of fear? (I'd like to read the book, but am under deadline for a paper right now, hence the request for your much more concise response.)

Dean Radin said...

A precis (not necessarily of the book I recommended, but rather in general) would go as follows: Science is a public balancing act between empirical observations and explanations of those observations. As a social process it is as much a political game as a rational one. Some topics and ideas considered sensitive for historical, religious or economic resaons (among others) are effectively silenced. The "paranormal" is just one such politically incorrect topic. If one can overcome the knee-jerk prejudices that are so effectively inculcated through 20+ years of formal education, and spend some time seriously looking into sensitive topics, the result is likely to be both surprising and humbling. Not everyone is capable of, or motivated enough, to overcome prejudice. It's not easy.

When considering this emotional side of science, it is worth recalling that practically everything we take for granted today was at one time considered the lunatic fringe.

amperro said...

If some hypothetical mega-zillionaire philantropist offered to provide sufficient funding to parapsychology research, could parapsychologists produce results robust enough to be accepted by major science journals like PNAS and Nature?

sp. said...

In the summary of Monday January 7th with reference to Anomalous Cognition; you say that "Psi experiments are conducted to test, under rigorously controlled conditions, whether the experiences labelled telepathy, clairvoyance, etc., are what they appear to be (i.e. genuine ESP)"

and,

"..to assume that nothing exists outside of what we already understand, especially when the effect is empirically and repeatable demonstrable (as some psi effects are), is exceedingly bad science."

Although bad science, conceding that even repeatable demonstrable effects may not be a function of reality, but instead may be accommodated by it, only implies that the nature of reality is an unsuitable foundation from which to base assumptions about the nature of Psi. (is all I was saying)

Dean Radin said...

amperro asked...
If some hypothetical mega-zillionaire philantropist offered to provide sufficient funding to parapsychology research, could parapsychologists produce results robust enough to be accepted by major science journals like PNAS and Nature?

I believe so, yes. Although the funding would have to be used not just for research, but also to change the social climate in academia to reduce the irrationality and hysteria often associated with this topic. Some scientists are incapable of calmly and rationally thinking about psi, regardless of the evidence, who produced it, or where it may be published.

Tor said...

If some hypothetical mega-zillionaire philantropist offered to provide sufficient funding to parapsychology research, could parapsychologists produce results robust enough to be accepted by major science journals like PNAS and Nature?

I would say that some psi effects are robust enough today. Presentiment and certain categories of MMI comes to mind.

Jime said...

Amperro wrote:

"If some hypothetical mega-zillionaire philantropist offered to provide sufficient funding to parapsychology research, could parapsychologists produce results robust enough to be accepted by major science journals like PNAS and Nature?"

Yes, they could to produce great results, but I don't believe they could to publish them in journals like Nature. One strong reason is: the confirmatory bias and prejudices of the peer-review system of scientific journals (specially of the most important ones):

http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~wstarbuc/Writing/Prejud.htm

Psi researchers aren't fighting only a scientific battle, but a ideological and sociological one. And these are the some of the historical reasons to reject and resist innovations in science:

http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/pagepub/history.htm

Book Surgeon said...

Jime, there's a great column in the new issue of New Scientist (membership required) about the stifling effect of peer review on innovative, radical research. Dead on with the challenges facing psi.

Eric said...

"Not everyone is capable of, or motivated enough, to overcome prejudice. It's not easy."

Frankly, I think it is because the philosophical sophistication of the scientific establishment is at an all time low. Contemporary scientists seem to regard philosophy(anything except analytic) as some obsolete pre-scientific pursuit. Consequently, they seem ill equipped to detect the unwarranted assumptions in their worldviews. Take a look at the philosophical musings of Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Pauli, Bohm, etc. There are no, I repeat NO, mainstream scientists that write like them today.

Tor said...

Eric said:
Frankly, I think it is because the philosophical sophistication of the scientific establishment is at an all time low. Contemporary scientists seem to regard philosophy(anything except analytic) as some obsolete pre-scientific pursuit. Consequently, they seem ill equipped to detect the unwarranted assumptions in their worldviews. Take a look at the philosophical musings of Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Pauli, Bohm, etc. There are no, I repeat NO, mainstream scientists that write like them today.

Depends on who you put in the mainstream category. Physicists like Paul Davis, Roger Penrose, John Archibald Wheeler and Henry Stapp do write about these things. But I agree that most scientists today unfortunately think that all the big philosophical problems have been solved.

Tor said...

One place where the discussion is still going on is here:

http://beyond.asu.edu/

Jime said...

Book Surgeon, thanks for the information. I'll read the New Scientist's column.

This kind of information is very useful to know the psychological and sociological problems of the scientific enterprise and the "official" ways to suppress innovations in science. Most professional scientists don't have any idea of all this.

Pseudonym said...

When considering this emotional side of science, it is worth recalling that practically everything we take for granted today was at one time considered the lunatic fringe.

I've been racking my brains on this, but I can't really think of any examples from science in the last 300 years.

I can think of plenty of things that scientists take for granted that was once considered "fringe", but only one, maybe two minor things that could be interpreted as being thought of as "lunatic" in any real sense.

Perhaps it's my definitions. I don't consider "Kelvin said it was bunk" as evidence of something being on the lunatic fringe. All that says to me is that Kelvin got reactionary in his old age.

So what sorts of things did you have in mind? "Practically everything" suggests there should be a lot of examples.

Dean Radin said...

To list just a few, in no particular order:

- The germ theory of disease.
- Continental drift.
- The value of hygiene during surgery and childbirth.
- Limes preventing scurvy in sailors.
- The brain being associated with the body's center of cognition.
- Psychosomatic medicine.
- Quantum entanglement.
- Splitting the atom.
- The heliocentric model of the solar system.

These and many, many more ideas were considered laughable and were violently rejected by the mainstreams of the day. Indeed, every mainstream throughout history has always imagined that its truths were the most sophisticated and self-evident. History demonstrates that such hubris is common, that provincial truths are incomplete at best, and dead wrong at worse. To imagine that we are somehow different today than our forebears is naive.

Book Surgeon said...

There's a piece at Salon now that's both interesting and frustrating. It's a summary by Dr. Robert Burns of his book "On Being Certain," which is a look at the neurobiology of why humans tend to feel that we 100% KNOW something. Obviously, this is quite relevant to the issues of pseudoskepticism and irrational belief in the unproven aspects of the paranormal.

Where the piece goes off the rails is when Burton slides into a multi-paragraph riff on his atheist, materialist, "we're all bunches of meaningless neurons but we have to allow people to believe otherwise" views and throws subtle daggers at the placebo effect, one of the most interesting and mysterious aspects of mind-body medicine. It's like he's applying for membership in the Daniel Dennett/Steven Pinker Club and wants to show off his bona fides.

Anyway, an interesting idea and maybe an interesting book, if a frustrating article.

Eric said...

"To list just a few, in no particular order:"

Probably the most recent famous example is Barbara McClintock's research. She was labeled as a crackpot but ended up winning the Nobel.

J said...

Dean,

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Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday dear Dean and all the entanglements that connect with you to you from you in space and time and in space and times unimaginable as of yet
Happy Birthday to you!

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Love to you,

J

Pseudonym said...

Dean, interesting list.

I checked out a few of them. Unfortunately, there's not much information online of the history of some of these, so here's what I found.

- The germ theory of disease.

I'll give you that one even though the story behind this one is quite complicated, and it's not as simple as "people though it was bunk".

The germ theory of disease was very quickly accepted very soon after it was proposed in Europe, but took much longer in the US medical profession.

- Continental drift.

Again, this is not something that was ever on the "lunatic fringe". However, it stands to reason that the theory of continental drift was considered wrong, because, as it was proposed, it was wrong.

In fact, it's not so much of a stretch to say that before the 1940s, there was no theory of continental drift.

- The value of hygiene during surgery and childbirth.

Apart from a quote by Charles Meigs, I found nothing about this. In particular, absolutely no information about Europe.

- Limes preventing scurvy in sailors.

First off, this isn't "last 300 years", since the British medical profession knew since at least 1614 that it was linked to lack of fresh food in some way.

But apart from disgruntled sailors, who don't believe anything, I can't find any evidence of anyone thinking that this theory was "lunatic fringe" material. Got a reference?

- The brain being associated with the body's center of cognition.

Again, not "last 300 years". It's been known since at least the Roman Empire that the brain was associated with motor function, and since the 10th century that it was associated with mental derangement.

Again, the belief that intelligence resides in the brain was never, as far as I can tell, considered "lunatic fringe", though not everyone believed it until about 500 years ago.

- Psychosomatic medicine.

That psychology and physiology have an effect on each other has been well known for at least 1000 years.

Again, I can't find any evidence that this was considered "lunatic fringe".

- Quantum entanglement.

Nobody (even Einstein) seriously doubted that "quantum entanglement" happens; the dispute, such as it is, has always been (and still is) about its interpretation.

- Splitting the atom.

Again, this was never considered "lunatic fringe". As soon as it was theorised and shown that atoms were not elementary, the idea that you could break it into elementary particles was immediate.

Not everyone thought it was possible, of course, but the idea was not considered crazy.

- The heliocentric model of the solar system.

Even though it's outside the 300 year window I suggested, I'll give you that one, though this is controversial. Historians differ on how the Copernican model was received in different communities, and what Galileo was later (100 years later, in fact) tried for.

I didn't bother counting, but I think this underlies an important point: The story of the idea that's ridiculed then accepted is largely a myth in science. For maybe two examples on one side, there are a thousand on the other side.

Mind you, if you ask a historian, they'll tell you that the lesson of history is that there's really no lesson of history.

Jime said...

"These and many, many more ideas were considered laughable and were violently rejected by the mainstreams of the day. Indeed, every mainstream throughout history has always imagined that its truths were the most sophisticated and self-evident"

In my opinion, a current example of this is the debate on neo-darwinism. There are some good scientific criticism against neo-darwinism and the synthetic theory of evolution; but these criticisms are forbidden and censored. Neo-darwinism's apologists try to avoid any scientific criticism against that theory accusing the critics of "creationists", "religious fundamentalists" and other ad hominem irrelevances.

As an example, see Richard Dawkins' ad hominem tactics to censor Richard Milton's critical article on neo-darwinism:
http://www.lauralee.com/milton2.htm

The best scientific criticism of synthetic theory of evolution and neo-darwinism that I've ever read are the works of spanish biologist Maximo Sandin. Take a look at his scientific papers:

http://www.uam.es/personal_pdi/ciencias/msandin/synthetic_theory.html
http://www.uam.es/personal_pdi/ciencias/msandin/biology.html

Sandin isn't a religous man, nor a cretionist (in fact, he's a critic of creationism). He's been working in a new scientific model to explain evolution. His criticism is scientific and documented with data and evidence published in the mainstream scientific literature.

It's true that most critics of neo-dawrinism are religous people or creationists (because they have an ideological motivation against that theory). But it's false that all the critics of neo-darwinism are creationists.

Another example is atheist philosopher Jerry Fodor, who's a critic of darwinism. See his article "against darwinism" here:
http://ruccs.rutgers.edu/faculty/Fodor/Fodor_Against_Darwinism.pdf

See Fodor's critical review of Steven Pinker's How the mind works:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n02/fodo01_.html

Dawkins and other fanatical/ideological neo-dawinists aren't seeking the scientific truth. They're defending their own paradigms and ideological worldviews from any scientific criticism or evidence. And this defense includes censorship, ad hominem accusations and other anti-scientific tactics.

So, we can see that the "politics of truth" isn't only a current problem to psi researchers, but to other scientists too.

Dean Radin said...

My first reaction to Pseudonym's response was oi vey, what is happening to scholarship? I'm seeing a worrying trend in which an increasing number of people (not just Pseudonym) assume that instantly free information available over the Internet is all the knowledge worth knowing, or that anyone can become an expert in anything via Googling for a few minutes. Double oi vey.

I'm not interested in using my blog to teach. It's just a way to express my opinions. My opinion on this matter is that the more one reads about the history of science and technology, the more you find that there are actually two histories. One is the standard textbook story, which portrays science as a rational, logical progression of ideas. The other is a more detailed description of how ideas really advance. The former story is what is usually taught, especially to scientists. The latter story is far more interesting, because it presents the human side of science. This is what sociologists of science, like Collins and Pinch, have written about. And that story shows that regardless of what adjectives we might use to describe the behavior, the pattern is clear: The mainstream of the day always rejects new ideas. Sometimes violently, sometimes more subtly through tactics like ridicule and shunning.

A good place to begin to learn about this is the book I mentioned that started this thread. There are many others.

Jime said...

A list of ridiculed scientists and important scientific discoveries considered in the time as lunatic or absurd ideas may be read at:

http://amasci.com/weird/vindac.html

Pseudonym said...

I'm seeing a worrying trend in which an increasing number of people (not just Pseudonym) assume that instantly free information available over the Internet is all the knowledge worth knowing, or that anyone can become an expert in anything via Googling for a few minutes.

Now to be fair, the blog comment is not the best format for research. I fully admit that apart from the four or so examples from your list that I actually knew the history of, my "research" isn't great.

However, those few examples that I knew anything about simply weren't good examples. This suggests to me that many of the other examples aren't good examples either.

Let's get one thing clear that we can mostly agree on: The stereotype of the lone genius rejected by the establishment only to be vindicated later is largely a myth. Even in situations where it's partly true, the reality is usually much more complex.

(As an aside: The only "lone genius" who fits the stereotype that I can think of is Evariste Galois, but even he isn't a great example. The only other cases that come close are women who were ignored simply for being female, not because their ideas were considered false.)

Two of your examples illustrate this point well.

The germ theory of disease was never, in any singificant sense, doubted in Europe. It was only in the United States that the idea was in any way ridiculed (most famously by Charles Meigs). There are many theories as to why this is, but it's likely that it was partly due to the insular private medical schools that the US had at the time.

How to prevent scurvy was known (in a rough sense) and accepted amongst physicians since the early 17th century, but it wasn't until the mid-18th century that anyone managed a successful long-term voyage where nobody suffered from it. It was the sailors who didn't accept it, not the physicians.

I do agree that the sociological aspect of the history and philosophy of science is fascinating, and these stories should be better-known. But it's also true that it's the more interesting and colourful stories that get recorded in popular books like this one.

For every interesting story of scientific reactionaries, there are a hundred mundane stories that nobody would bother reading. To claim that "practically everything we take for granted today was at one time considered the lunatic fringe" is a gross exaggeration.

Yes, I know, you're not teaching, just giving an opinion. So am I. For every opinion, there's an equal and opposite opinion.

Dean Radin said...

reality is usually much more complex

To this I certainly agree.

The germ theory of disease .... I had Ignaz Semmelweis in mind for this. Like Cantor and others who were shunned by their peers for their radical ideas which turned out to be true, he died in a mental institution.

How to prevent scurvy .... Yes, the connection with what would later be known as Vitamin C was known for a long time. But even with successful clinical trials in hand it took decades before use of citrus fruits aboard ships became a regular practice. In the meantime, thousands of sailors (who will eat what they're told to eat) suffered or died. See "The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C" by Kenneth Carpenter.

To claim that "practically everything we take for granted today was at one time considered the lunatic fringe" is a gross exaggeration.

I don't think so. It depends on how far back you go. Certainly many of the scientific and technological advances we take for granted now would be considered magical at best, demonic at worst, by the average person living in the US during the Civil War. And even the most educated people in say, Newton's time, would regard (I contend) practically everything we teach schoolchildren today as inconceivably fanciful.

This isn't to say that we couldn't explain to them why we accept these things. I think we could do that even for very ancient peoples, and they'd accept the explanations soon enough.

My point about all this was to highlight the arrogance that accompanies confident assertions about what is and is not allowed by scientific theories today. I wonder how many of the theories published in Nature 100 years ago are still taken seriously today?

Pseudonym said...

Certainly many of the scientific and technological advances we take for granted now would be considered magical at best, demonic at worst, by the average person living in the US during the Civil War.

Indeed. If we could transport ourselves back 150 years and tell them what we take for granted now, they would think we were crazy or worse. This is a hypothetical thought experiment.

But that's actually a differnt issue. The question was whether everything that we take for granted now was once considered crazy or worse. This is not a thought experiment.

I wonder how many of the theories published in Nature 100 years ago are still taken seriously today?

Many, no doubt, still exist as refinements. However, remember that Nature publishes the latest thinking. That which was supplanted was, quite possibly, supplanted very quickly.

At any rate, I still maintain that the lesson of history is that there is no lesson of history.

Roger Knights said...

One recent example was the decades-long marginalization of evidence of and advocacy for the pre-Clovis inhabitation of the Western Hemisphere, by mainstream archeology.

Another is the refusal of mainstream publications to accept articles on the dangers of water fluoridation. A specialized journal had to be set up in a ghetto to provide a place for these to find a home. After many decades their accumulated arguments and evidence have become impressive--no thanks to "normal science," peer review, etc.

Meteorites from the sky: As late as 1904 (according to Fort) Nature published a scoffer's article claiming no such thing occurred, and that what really happened was that peasants found a hot stone after a lightning strike, etc. Prior to that, the official French Academy's investigation in the 1780s (I think) declared it all hogwash, leading most European mmuseums to discard their specimens.

Part 7 of the book The Experts Speak contains some quotes of mainstream scientists being amusingly wrong on cloning.

See also p. 236 for scoffing at nuclear energy by Millikan, Einstein, and Rutherford.

"Positive: Wrong at the top of your voice"
--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Roger Knights said...

It would provide an indication of how stringent Randi's test conditions are if he were to post the level of success he would require for certain "standard" psi tests.

These levels would become less stringent as the number of trials in each test increased. That is, in a coin-toss test, it might be reasonable to require 90% success in a test with just ten tosses, but only 60% success in a test with 1000 tosses. Therefore, for each test, Randi might post several "hit %" requirements, each associated with a differing number of trials.

Here are a few standard tests that occur to me off the top of my head. I urge others to make additional suggestions:

Zenor cards.
Coin toss.
Ganzfield.
Telephone telepathy.
Presentiment.
Ping-pong ball matching.
Remote viewing.

Mr. Radin: I hope you will start a new thread using this as a theme, and suggest levels that seem reasonable to you.

Roger Knights said...

PS: Perhaps also, for each test, Randi should provide a score for which he’d award $1000, $10,000, and $100,000. If we take a $1,000,000 award as corresponding to a home run, then these lesser awards would correspond to singles, doubles, and triples. Or “intriguing,” “suggestive,” and “compelling.”

BTW, Shermer has put his cards on the table in the manner I suggest, by giving the level of success he’d accept as conclusive for a certain standard test. (I forget which one.) But that was only for a one-shot test with a small number of trials, so the hit rate he wanted was very high.

He should also give the number of hits he’d require if the number of trials were greater (to eliminate flukes). Further, he should provide the hit rates he’d regard as intriguing, suggestive, and compelling, but less than conclusive.

Roger Knights said...

PPS: If Randi & other scoftics don't want to implicitly acknowledge partial successes by using terms like singles, etc., they should at least provide a "Not Proven" gray area in between Pass and Fail.

At present most scoftics seem to imply that anything that is not a home run--i.e., conclusive proof--is a Strikeout--i.e., a chance-level result. And yet many of those are really just failures to reach "significant" results--i.e., proof at the 95% (1-in-20) level. This excluded middle needs to be properly repositioned and made explicit.