The Psi Taboo in Action

I have lectured and written about the scientific taboo that prohibits scientists from openly studying psi. One way this prejudice manifests is by being invited to give a lecture at a scientific conference, and then finding yourself disinvited after someone on the conference committee discovers that the invitee has an interest in parapsychology. The idea of psi is so troubling to this person that he or she (mostly he) insists that the committee cancel the invitation. One can imagine the hysterics that must accompany this request.

This invite-disinvite sequence happened to me a few years ago, for a talk I was invited to give at the United Nations on the frontiers of consciousness. Someone chickened out when they discovered that I actually study this topic rather than think about it, and so I found myself disinvited. I discovered this only after asking the organizers several times for more details about the venue, conference dates and speaking schedule. Apparently no one thought it necessary to inform me.

Giving the snub is probably considered easy when the individual's academic affiliation or perceived status are low. When I was at Princeton I found it easy to get almost anyone's rapid attention by simply mentioning where I worked. Assessing credibility by one's affiliation is common, and unfortunate, for the same reason that stereotyping is so popular: It's a convenient way to make a snap decision if one doesn't have time, inclination or interest in doing one's homework.

But what happens when both academic affiliation and status are extremely high? Does the snub still happen? It sure does. The case in hand is Brian Josephson. Josephson is a full professor at Cambridge University, and he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1973 "for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier, in particular those phenomena which are generally known as the Josephson effects." Full professor at a major university with a Nobel prize is the pinnacle of status within the rarefied world of high powered academia.

But Josephson is also one of a few Nobel laureates who is publicly known for having an interest in psi. There are others like him, of course, but they prefer to keep quiet because the taboo is both powerful and unkind. This is the story of a perfectly outrageous case of prejudice.

April 27, 2010: See the above link at Prof. Josephson's site for updates to this case.

April 29, 2010 (London time): Another new update, from the (London) Times Higher Education

Reported by Matthew Reisz

An extraordinary spat has broken out after a Nobel prizewinning physicist was "uninvited" from a forthcoming conference because of his interest in the paranormal.

Details of the conference in August for experts in quantum mechanics sounded idyllic. Participants were due to discuss "de Broglie-Bohm theory and beyond" in the Towler Institute, which is housed in a 16th-century monastery in the Tuscan Alps owned by Mike Towler, Royal Society research fellow at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory.

Last week, any veneer of serenity was shattered. Conference organiser Antony Valentini, research associate in the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London, wrote to three participants to say their invitations had been withdrawn.

The physicist and science writer David Peat, biographer of David Bohm (co-founder of de Broglie-Bohm theory), was considered tainted because of his books on "Jungian synchronicity" and "connections between Native American thought and modern physics".

Brian Josephson, head of the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge, was rejected on the grounds that "one of his principal research interests is the paranormal".

Professor Josephson, who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on superconductivity, has long been one of the discipline's more colourful figures.

In 2001, he attracted derision from some of his peers when he discussed telepathy in his contribution to a booklet issued to celebrate the centenary of the Nobel prizes.

Recent developments in quantum theory, theories of information and computation "may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy, an area where Britain is at the forefront of research", he wrote.

Speaking this week, Professor Josephson said: "I was keen to attend the conference and would have concentrated on the theoretical ideas and touched on the paranormal as only one aspect. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for cross-fertilisation."

News of the exclusions led to what Dr Towler described as a "great email storm".

Even spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller joined in, and on 24 April Dr Towler "renewed the invitation" to Dr Peat and Professor Josephson but not to the third rejected participant, American theoretical physicist Jack Sarfatti. Dr Towler claimed Dr Sarfatti had "written something like 100 emails" since his invitation was withdrawn, "many ... suggesting that we are in the pay of the CIA".

Dr Peat agreed to participate while Professor Josephson was considering his position.


mrehayden said…
Off-topic but related.

In the content of the last link posted is mentioned F. David Peat who wrote a great book on Synchronicity following on from Jung's work in the matter. His criticism and defence of the arguments and evidence is from a scientific point of view, so I would doubt that the people mentioned in the emails had read it!

I echo Dean's sentiments on the kind of knee-jerk reaction you could expect when dealing with someone keen to press an empiricist agenda.
Sharon Day said…
Well, scientific research seems to be a terribly inbred, narrow-minded entity anyways. Sometimes it feels like it's motivated by corporations with almost religious-like controlling guidelines for its course. Thinking outside the box, whether it's questioning evolution or Big Bang theory or believing in Psi or ghostly phenomenon will all get a serious-minded person ostracized. I don't know how we're supposed to grow and learn more as a culture if we don't take the limits off of our great minds. I believe ancient Rome might have had a better grip on letting their brilliant citizens explore any avenue they wished to the maximum of its potential. Scientists are truly like artists, they need to take a path and follow it to its conclusion. People such as yourself who follow their intuition and their gut, as well as their logic-minded head...will prevail in the end. You are perhaps just too ahead of your time for them to see.
Dave Smith said…
I find this pretty disgraceful and should not be accepted. Shouldn't Antony Valentini be exposed for some kind of misconduct?
mids said…
Hello Dean! this is Mids from Lima, Perú. I was visiting IONS on January, remember? Can't believe there is s Psi taboo still in action. Some people is so scared of our "spooky" potentiality that can't stand the encounter of our Psi issues. Lack of real freedom!
Lawrence said…
This kind of behaviour is not at all frowned upon, it is simply the status quo being enforced, business as usual. This kind of thing happens all the time, I don't necessarily mean conference disinvites, I mean censorship in the prof journals, not even getting conference invites in the first place, ostracisation and hostility from colleagues, even getting fired or being denied tenure etc. I don't even mean if the scientists and academics are sympathetic to parapsychology that they suffer such mistreatment, I mean if they show any interest in maverick, controversial or dissenting hypotheses and theories that contradict and undermine the status quo paradigms in their particular fields. In medical science it (the bullying and censorship and more) is much much worse, with much more terrible consequences.

Another thing worth mentioning, it is not pointing out something new to say that parapsychology and QM (even if you can't explain psi by QM and you probably can't) complement one another and have much to teach one another. There are parallels and a complex intertwining between the two disciplines. The lines are blurred between all the disciplines of the sciences, they overlap, the whole point of much of scientific advance is to see how and to what extent these overlaps operate. Physicists who poo-poo psi cut off their noses to spite their faces, simple as that. They are the losers here, their own discipline is left impoverished.

David Peat btw wrote a wonderful book 'Blackfoot Physics' on the parallels between QM and Native Wisdom, based on his own time spent with Blackfoot elders.

An irony lost on these self-appointed guardians of the true way (sound familiar?) who have disinvited Josephson and Peat, is that Bohm himself took psi very seriously (Peat has written the definitive biography of Bohm). He was not the only great physicist to do so, Bohr had an interest in Oriental mysticism and philosophy, W Pauli is the co-author with Jung of their treatise on Snychronicity. Is Ulrich Morhoff (sp?), a brilliant physicist and originator of the Pondicherry Interpretation of the QM Paradox going to be subjected to the same treatment since he has never hidden his interest in Vedic mysticism and the teachings of Sri Aurobindo?

Scandalous, but none of this is remotely surprising.
Mike said…
"Newly published research on belief in ESP suggests a public disregard for — and perhaps even hostility toward — the scientific consensus."
Basil & Spice said…
Interesting blog Dean. Very true. Also, this I would say extends into other areas of our culture, outside of academia. My feeling is that this is changing and will continue to change.

I believe that what's important here is that people like you move forward with your work and speak out when applicable. More and more of us are now listening.
Dean Radin said…
Quite true, prejudice seems to be wired into our DNA. From school yard cliques, to tribalism, nationalism, ideological fanaticism, etc., it seems humans love to make arbitrary distinctions and then defend them to the death. It's a collective madness.
Gareth said…
depressingly unsurprising.
Jack Sarfatti said…
Valentini and Towler put under extreme pressure, perhaps even blackmailed. It's not over yet. Neither of them appear to have wanted to do this. Valentini is falling on his sword for someone more powerful. Valentini is only a pawn of the Red King.
Dean Radin said…
> Valentini is only a pawn of the Red King...

Curiouser and curiouser.
Unfortunately this stuff still happens, but the big picture is that it is slowly changing. Big money and research grants are at stake, and that is probably part of the equation here.

Dean is right to refer to the prestige issue in terms of institutional affiliation and awards (esp. Nobel prizes!) go. They do help. When I enrolled in my doctoral programme, I made the naïve mistake of thinking that my research would determine my academic future, not the institution’s name on the paper (I chose a new university, as they were very flexible with subject matter and other things). However the Department Dean actually mocked my thesis proposal about a new theory I called “integrated intelligence” (someone accidentally forwarded one of his emails to me!). I wrote about the integration of intelligence theory and the extended mind). Still, they let me enroll, and because I did what I loved, I finished in record time, and got fantastic reviews from my examiners. Speaking of Princeton, one of my examiners was actually a retired Princeton academic (David Loye), and he wrote that my thesis was ten years ahead of its time. Unfortunately, David Loye’s former employer’s name does not appear on my doctorate, and four years and over 30 academic publications after submission, I still cannot get an academic job, not even in a community college. Even my own university won’t let me tutor there.

What was the big picture again? Oh yeah, I'm basically branching out on my own, now, with my own blog and books.

So, I can certainly relate to the psi taboo story!
Mike said…
"It is a purely intellectual matter."

Yeah, right. It's a purely I-don't-want-to-be-ridiculed-by-my-peers-and-want-to-keep-my-job matter.
Tom said…
Wow. That's an appalling story. It just goes to show how messy the boundary between the rational and irrational is. "Rational" is just as much an ethos as a methodology, sometimes more so.
MickyD said…
Maybe the taboo is fading.

Just perusing the Bial website, and there are quite a few researchers at conventional psychology departments doing psi research now, and getting good results. For example Dr Julia Mossbridge, working on presentiment and cardiac responses to targets vs decoys or Dr. Alexander Batthyany looking at retroactive priming (in the same fashion as Bem et al). These researchers aren't the usual psi crowd, but from "outside" as it were.
I might be unduly optimistic, but this feels like a wind of change is just stirring. I'm not sure if you would agree Dean, but that's what I get from chatting to those in the field (on facebook and elsewhere), and those who are mainstream but interested in getting into psi research.
I put myself in this category.
Dean Radin said…
When I give talks on this topic for technical and academic audiences, the lecture hall is usually full. Why? Because most scientists, like most people, are interested in psi and always have been. Only a few have been enthusiastic or foolish enough to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire, but I think this is almost entirely due to the lack of available funding (most of which is controlled by the same people who sustain the taboo), and not to lack of interest.

I can practically guarantee that should the NIH and NSF suddenly put out a call for proposals for psi studies that there would be a huge rush of proposals submitted. Like most things in this world, interest follows money.
butterfly said…
I recently participated in a study of pk functioning. Interesting work, really cutting edge stuff. One of the senior people involved has been trying to convince me to come "out of the closet" and let my real name be published with this work.

At this point, I've asked to remain anonymous. I'm still struggling to finish off my own doctoral work, and I can only imagine what my thesis committee would say if they knew about my recent field trip. Both my marriage and my ability to function as a graduate student have been pushed to the limits by my ongoing anomalous experiences as well as by my interest in finding out why such experiences occur.

It kills me not to be able to talk abut my experiences openly. I finally got up the courage to show my husband how I can make a pk wheel move. I even had him doing it. But now he's afraid that people will find out that he has lost his mind (or at least his proper skepticism) too. Everyone who knows my secret seems to go through hell over it.

I hope the taboo is on it's way out. It just hurts way too many people.
borky said…
The upside of these sorts of antics, Dean, is that once upon a time figures like Josephson were viewed in such lowly contempt it was considered something of a sport for them to be invited so everyone in the audience could snigger and titter every time they opened their mouths.

These days, with the foundations of the establishments' towering smugness crumbling before their eyes, such individuals've become like childhood bogeymen, hence the latest gambit: if we keep our eyes closed and endlessly recite, "We're not listening, we're not listening!" it'll be as if they're not there.

Lawrence said…
you know if one peruses the commentary on this kind of thing, the taboo of psi and related from circa 1970, there was a general feeling that things would improve in academic and scientific circles with the maturation of the baby boomer generation which was perceived as more open-minded and heralding a new revolution in cultural beliefs and the like, that scientific materialism had shot its last bolt and was ready for the litterbin. A feeling of a 'Prague Spring' was in the air in scientific and academic circles.

yeah well never happened, in hindsight easy to see why. Students if they were going to succeed in securing jobs in the academy, in research institutes, nevermind tenure, if they were going to get funding and grants from the powers-that-be, if they were going to hold teaching posts in the schools, colleges, universities, they had to go along with their professors still caught in the old ruling paradigm of scientific materialism. And so there was and remains the unwritten rule of play ball or get out. And so that's what happened and continues to happen. It is more complex than this of course, but universities and research institutes are pillars of the status quo in our society, they are not going to institute a radical reform when they are part of the problem in terms of conditioning students into scientific (and economic for that matter, this is across the political spectrum) materialism.

In fact things are worse now than in 1970, since the funding and grant processes are more controlled by commercialism than ever before, the journals are more corrupted by business interests than ever before. There is more money at stake than ever before, science is so totally commercialised that it is now taken as a given, it's not even thought about, whereas forty years ago there was at least an awareness of science being subordinated to commercial interests and how this was not always a good thing. Nowadays I swear nobody even thinks about it, it's part of the background. It's taken as a given. The worst fears of those who warned of the dangers of this forty years ago have been realised, and then some.

The consequences have been disastrous in more ways than I could possibly say, without writing a book - from GMOs, to BigPharma 'medical mafia' control of medicine, to chilling censorship in the journals, textbooks, along with naked advertising for commercial interests passed off as science, to an NSF and NIH grant process that is cluttered through and through with special interests and beauracratic redtape that tends to stifle any original, daring and innovative work.

As a result of all this, the grip of scientific materialism at the universities and research institutes, even though shaky in reality if you look below the surface and probe deeper, is firm and suffocating. Whatever is admitted to behind the scenes or in private cocktail party asides remains behind the scenes.

Basically what I'm saying is, this talk of a change in the air is nothing new, it was the same talk in 1970. And yet research into psi and other scientific work that undermines the status quo will go on, even if severly underfunded, marginilised, slandered, misrepresented and censored, in the ghettos of the academy as it were as has been the case in the past. Without a total overhaul of the economic, financial and social environment in science nothing radical is going to change on this front at all, it is naive to think otherwise.
Sandy, I don't let doubts stop you from finishing your thesis. And in the end, it doesn't matter what any other academics think of conferences you've attended or research you have conducted in "anomalous" fields. They can't deny you a PhD based on that. However, as one who has faced rejection again and again and again because of my research focus, there most certainly is a price to pay for "coming out". I decided to say "the hell with it", and actually did my thesis on "integrated intelligence" (a more specific version of spiritual intelligence). Then I wrote numerous papers and a couple of books on the subject. Basically, more prestigious journals won't touch it, but there are plenty of other journals that will publish such stuff. My lowest ebb was an interview I managed to get at a prestigious university in Singapore. They only interviewed two people for this position in futures studies. They obviously didn't fully realise that my take on the future included integrating the spiritual with the rational, because I got a very hostile reception once I delivered my 45 min presentation. It really was discouraging. I suspect they wanted to hear about nano-technology and robotics. I have a commitment to simply being transparent about who I am, so I gave them "Deep Futures." They didn't buy it. As the joke goes, deep down, they are actually very shallow. :-)
butterfly said…
Thanks, Marcus. I think a big part of my problem is that I have a very strong taboo against psi myself. I think I'm a bad scientist because I have anomalous experiences. Let's face it, if I wasn't having these experiences, I wouldn't even be aware that any legitimate research had been done in this area. I'd be a typical old-school scientist.

I'm so afraid that I must be mentally ill or delusional despite having gone to medical and mental health professionals and asking to be checked out. I always get a clean bill of health in that regard. My family doctor and the counselor I go to have both seen me make a pk wheel spin. They say that makes me unusual, not sick.

Even when the people around me are being supportive, I still fall victim to the psi taboo because deep down I believe in it. That probably makes me a worse scientist that talking to ghosts or having things move does.

I am fighting the taboo as best I can. Participating in research into pk helped a lot. I find it really helps to just focus on the fact that such work will help other people like myself.
Unknown said…
Sandy, I don't know you but I love your writting and sharing the "real you" on this blog. Maybe you are not ready, today, to share it with the people around you, but I'm sure that day is very closed. We humans, have for ages, identified ourselves "only" with all kinds of "reazonable material stuffs", and if we don't, we are not accepted by society and per se, by ourselves. Life is taking all of us, doesn't matter if we are MBA, PhD, Nobel Prize, have all the degrees of the world or if you have none, to the same point of "no return". That is, to confront and accept the essence of what we are,ergo, what we have in our nous. Not what we are suppose or pretend to be or to have!
Most of you are scientist, that have study for many years, and that's great, gives you a lot of information, but the real knowledge is inside you. I'm an almost 58 year old mother, have no idea how and why I'm involved in this quantum and psy world, but I am! and after many years that all I wanted was to die, all I want now is to live and share with everybody all the "beatiful weard experiences" that I have. I embrace and love my awareness and my state of oneness with the wholeness!
PS: Sorry for my grammar, but I'm a peruvian and learned my english at school. I'm enjoying so much reading all of you guys! Sometimes, I don't understand and get lost on some concepts, but I enjoy it anyway!
By the way for peruvians - Lima's society I´m absolutely "insane" because I broke and will brake, every time I feel is needed, all the obstuse rules and paradigms we use to protect ourselves, of what? our fears of REALITY!.
I met Dean at IONS and I'm absolutely convinced he will make a big difference on this present life time! Love you Dean!
mrehayden said…
Pauli caused who experiments to fail by merely being present, it was well documented by his contemporaries. Some say he was one of the greatest scientists to have lived.
butterfly said…
Dear Mariaines,

Thank you for your kind words. Don't worry about the grammar, your colors speak very eloquently on your behalf. Words can't even begin to communicate with such grace and melody.
Unknown said…
This is an extremely insipid comment, but...

Hey Dean - you rock!

Unknown said…
The point everyone is missing here is the psi lacks a theory. Even if you can show statistically significant correlations, it requires testable theories to get the proper exponential growth of a research program going.

So from the purely pragmatic point of view of financial resources psi research will continue to flatline until a paradigmic breakthrough.

A lot of people who criticise science seem to think that just having lots of divergent speculative ideas is really cool and radical and that scientists are just closed minded and bigoted, when they appear to reject those ideas out of hand.

But the point is most speculative ideas divorced from well developed theories, turn out to be junk when put to the test. The real challange is having both the intuition and insight to identify the pearls of great price, and the skills and determination to test those ideas experimentally.

The bottom line is that if you haven't got a testable theory than no amount of throwing funds or popular support at a phenomenon with tenuous data, will work. You simply aren't going to get the much stronger empirical results that turn speculative ideas into scientific knowledge.

As far as pursuing speculative ideas without being censored and ostracised goes, an entire academic discipline already exists to allow you to do just that, and what's more its been around for several millenia, and its called philosophy.

So my message to those who keep harping on about how narrow minded scientists are when they reject speculative ideas is to get a philosophy PhD. Then you can say just about whatever you want by calling it the 'philosophy of' X (where X is your favourite 'alternative' scientific theory). Then you'll get all the prestige you deserve for your creative vision, skills and persistance without being ridiculed as a crank.

What gets scientists fuming is not speculative ideas as such, but speculative ideas that pretend to be evidence based claims. There are far too many pretenders around trying to grab as much of the action and media publicity that they can, and that's why scientists are so defensive of their practice and profession.
Dean Radin said…
> The bottom line is that if you haven't got a testable theory than no amount of throwing funds or popular support at a phenomenon with tenuous data, will work. You simply aren't going to get the much stronger empirical results that turn speculative ideas into scientific knowledge.

I disagree. While psi research at present is largely an empirical science, this is just fine. All science starts with observations. Eventually models and theories evolve, but until then vigorous empirical work must continue otherwise there's no way to test if the proposed theories are even partially correct.

In any case, I think many scientists place far too much emphasis on theory. History is crystal clear in telling us that most of our cherished theories are probably wrong, or at least woefully incomplete. The other problem with falling in love with theories is that theories can act as blinders just as much as they provide guidance for discovery.

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