Saturday, June 24, 2006

AAAS Symposium on Retrocausation

I gave a talk at a AAAS regional conference at the University of San Diego earlier this week; part of a symposium on retrocausation. About half the attendees were mainstream physicists hailing from the US, Europe and Israel. The linked newspaper item discusses it a bit.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Weird Science?

Snippets from a March 17, 2004 article by Ronald Bailey, entitled "Weird Science."

My comments in blue. Original text in black. This article is typical of authors whose knowledge of this topic is limited to third party sources. I address these types of comments and assumptions in Entangled Minds. I won't repeat those discussions here, but I will briefly comment on a few points here.

Still, a 2001 Gallup poll found that Americans continue to be credulous about the reality of psychic phenomena. About half of all Americans believe in psychic healing and extrasensory perception (ESP), and around a third believe in ghosts, telepathy, and clairvoyance.

The implication is that only stupid, uneducated, credulous folk believe in such silly things. The unstated assumption predicts that the more educated one is, the less one should believe in psi. The problem is that surveys show that the relationship is significantly positive, and not negative. Skeptics don't like to talk about this because it doesn't fit preconceived assumptions about who believes and why. I discuss this in Chapter 3 of Entangled Minds.

Notoriously, during the Cold War, the CIA and the KGB both had programs researching paranormal abilities like "remote seeing" and telepathy. It should be noted that a 1995 study of the Department of Defense's STAR GATE remote viewing program done by the American Institutes for Research concluded: "[T]he information provided by remote viewing is vague and ambiguous, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the technique to yield information of sufficient quality and accuracy...for actionable intelligence. Thus, we conclude that continued use of remote viewing in intelligence gathering operations is not warranted."

The implication here is that there was insufficient evidence to support the reality of remote viewing (not "remote seeing"). But that's not the case at all. The conclusion cited above refers to an application of remote viewing, not whether it exists. Both of the analysts agreed that the scientific evidence (the little they were allowed to evaluate) could not be easily explained away, and one of the analysts firmly concluded that remote viewing was indeed real. Given the scientific implications of such phenomena, one would certainly hope that governments would be sponsoring research on these effects.

Still, according to the New Scientist, most micro-PK experiments fail to show results. For example, Stanley Jeffers of York University in Canada, using a different random number generator, found no effect. Even Jahn himself, collaborating with German researchers, could not reproduce his earlier results.

This doesn't state what "fail to show results" means. It is quite true that not every experiment works, but this is also true for any experiment, especially those involving human performance and health. What we can say about the micro-PK experiments is that when we consider the cumulative data, meaning all available studies, we find strong evidence that the effects are being repeated by independent investigators. Even Jeffers is a coauthor on a successful micro-PK study. The high variance in study outcomes is most likely due to our poor understanding of all the important variables. The same can be said of similar high variance results often observed in studies of new drugs and medical procedures.

Most studies of paranormal effects, then, find that they are not very robust; research results are often on the knife-edge of statistical significance, and can appear and disappear capriciously. There is also the believer effect: researchers who believe in the paranormal regularly find effects, while those who are skeptical do not...

It's true that many psi studies do not provide robust effects, meaning statistically unequivocal results on demand. But as I state above cumulatively, when considering all data and not just selected portions, there is little question that effects occur more than they don't occur, even when taking variations in experimental quality and selective reporting practices into account.

What would convince skeptics that there are paranormal phenomena like remote viewing and clairvoyance? In a word, "replication." One may be skeptical that photons can act like waves, yet the double-slit experiment showing this effect can be replicated on demand by anybody. If just thinking at them could reliably bend photon beams for all researchers, then there really would be something to study. Until experimental replication without a lot of fancy statistical massaging occurs regularly, research on the paranormal will and should remain on the fringes of science.

The author is correct about what is required to convince some skeptics who need in-your-face demonstrations to accept evidence. But his idea of what replication means is far too stringent. He means repeated on demand by anybody. This is an unrealistic requirement. In no other area of science (excepting demonstrations in high school science labs, and even those don't always work as any high school teacher will attest) do we demand that anyone should be able to demonstrate anything, anytime. In addition, when I see an author using a phrase like "a lot of fancy statistical massaging" it tells me that he doesn't know how to evaluate meta-analytical arguments. In which case his opinion is that of an amateur.

I don't say this to be disparaging. Outside any scientist's own speciality he or she is also an amateur. At the frontiers of all scientific disciplines specialists are always arguing about details and interpretations of experiments and analyses. The same is true in parapsychology. But as I describe in The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, when we look at the accumulation of experimental data over many decades, we find increasingly strong, scientifically valid reasons to believe that extraordinary experiences reported by the majority of the world's population are, in some cases, precisely what they appear to be: extrasensory experiences that transcend classical notions of space and time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

About the Google ads

I'm now using Google ads to help pay for the hosting fees for my site. The Google adsense program automatically searches words in the blog to decide what type of ads to display. Thus, if an ad appears for say, a psychic service, this does not mean I endorse it! The ad is there because Google decided it matched this blog. If you don't like it, don't click on it.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Constructive criticism

From reviewer Julio C. S. Barros on (my comments in blue):

"However, I do think Radin was rather "weak" in other points. I did not like the way "consciousness" was discussed. Concepts and terminology regarding "consciousness" and "mind" seemed ill defined and sometimes confused with one another. This is very bad, because Radin's central thesis is that psi is our "experience" (Subjective perception? If not, what else?) of the entanglement of our minds with the universe and with other minds. So, what is a mind? What is consciousness, in his view? ..."

This is a good point. By "mind" I usually mean self-reflective awareness, preconscious information processing, subliminal and superliminal perception, intention, attention, altered states, and so on. All of these. By "consciousness" I usually mean just self-reflective awareness. I realize that everyone has a different definition of these terms, and I probably should have spent a bit more space defining more clearly what I had in mind (so to speak).

Then, page 219, Radin says "Few of us believe that...we have absolutely no free will." Well, I happen to be one of these "few ones", and I do not think we have any theory (or logical reasoning) for accounting for free will or for choice. What we do have are theories for determinism and for randomness (the latter, with or without bias). Not for choice. Not yet.

True. And yet, this implies that Mr. Barros felt he had no choice in writing his review, or in thinking of the words in his review, or in getting up out of bed in the morning. In other words, while it's true that philosophers and neuroscientists continue to argue over theories pro and con, in practice we behave as though we had free will. As I mention in the book, most legal systems insist upon this assumption.

Linked to it, on page 257, we get the feeling that classical physics cannot account for consciuousness and that quantum mechanics (Stapp) accounts for it. Again IMHO, quantum mechanics is just as feeble as classical physics in trying to account for this mystery (qualia). I disagree, too, with the concept that psi may not involve information transfer. Page 264: "Maybe psi is purely relational and manifests only as correlations." With this, Radin sidestepped a needed in-depth discussion about what is correlation, what is causation, and how can two things be correlated via psi without transfering information.

I agree that so far nothing adequately resolves the "hard problem" of consciousness, not classical or quantum physical theory, or anything else. As for how two things can be correlated without transferring information, this too is an unresolved question underlying the very concepts of entanglement and nonlocality. What I propose is that spooky action at a distance provides a different way of thinking about psi, and in particular that the type of holism it implies suggests a new set of questions we can ask about these experiences. Sometimes when difficult problems are tackled for a long time without resolution it suggests that the questions we've been asking are wrong.

Doesn't like the bent spoon

Review of Entangled Minds by "Glass hand" on My comments in blue.

"This book is utter nonsense. Spoon bending? The author, Dean Radin, fell for spoon bending??? (see endnote 1 on page 331). Sorry, but given that, his credibility is zero or less. Just as bad, Radin can only offer lame excuses (page 290) for not pursuing some of the many prizes that are being offered for a valid, definitive demonstration of psi. (If the evidence is as strong as Radin claims, he should have already walked home with several of these prizes.)"

It's always interesting to see what pushes each individual over the edge. For this fellow, it's bent spoons.

The spoon in question can be seen here. The fact is, as I say in the cited footnote, that I bent this spoon. So I know that the bend did not occur by ordinary force. I have spoons of the same type and have had to work hard to bend the bowl with the assistance of two industrial strength pliers. And then the resulting bent portion looks discolored and fractured around the bend, quite different from the smooth, shiny surface of the one I bent without force. As I wrote in the book, I was very skeptical of claims of this type of phenomenon before it happened to me. Afterwards to deny that it happened given that I still have the spoon, and it's still quite bent, would be dishonest. I sympathize with others' skepticism, but that doesn't change the observable facts.

As for the prizes for such claims, master skeptic Ray Hyman agreed that no scientist would ever accept a single demonstration as evidence for psi. Such prizes might be good for skeptical PR, but they are not science and not what my colleagues and I do. I mention in the book that even should someone try to win the prize, it would realistically cost over a million dollars to produce sufficiently strong statistical evidence (of the type discussed in the book) under conditions that would satisfy any skeptic, and thus the prizes are literally not worth the effort.