A bit of a change today, a short video of my trip to the SPR conference last month.
A bit of a change today, a short video of my trip to the SPR conference last month.
I'm very glad to see this list of psi research articles compiled by parapsychologist Dean Radin. The articles are all downloadable, and cover a range of topics - exactly what's needed.
By way of introduction Radin says:
In the past, my response to the "show me" challenge has been to give the titles of a few books to read, point to the bibliographies in those books, and advise the person to do their homework. I still think that this is the best approach for a beginner tackling a complex topic. But given the growing expectation that information on virtually any topic ought to be available online within 60 seconds, traditional methods of scholarship are disappearing fast.
So I've created a SHOW ME page with downloadable articles on psi and psi-related topics, all published in peer-reviewed journals. Most of these papers were published after the year 2000. Most report experimental studies or meta-analyses of classes of experiments. I will continue to add to this page and flesh it out, including links to recent or to especially useful ebooks. This page may eventually become annotated, then multithreaded and hyperlinked, and then morph into a Wiki.
I hope to go through the full list in the months to come, and will recommend it to visitors. In the meantime, I have commented on one of the papers in a separate post, below.
In the comments to a recent post a sceptic tried, in the usual way, to convince us to abandon our delusions. He cited various references, including a fMRI study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2008, which claims to have demonstrated that psi does not exist.
Again, as is often the case, the study says more about the urgent disbelief of debunking psychologists than it says about psi. It's shortcomings were widely noted at the time, but since sceptics take it so completely at face value I thought I'd give it another look.
The experiment was carried out by Samuel Moulton, a Harvard psychology graduate, and his mentor Stephen Kosslyn, who is well-regarded for his brain studies on mental imagery and visual perception. The authors consider that the evidence for psi so far is highly dubious. Anecdotal experiences can be attributed to cognitive illusions, while the outcome of ESP experiments is ambiguous. By contrast, they think that brain scanning technology is sufficiently reliable to settle the matter. If psi exists then, ergo, it ought to show up in fMRI scans.
Accordingly they recruited 19 bonded pairs of people - twins, couples, friends - which they whittled down to 16, one acting as sender and the other placed in the scanner as receiver. The receiver was shown two pictures, one being 'sent' by the sender and the other a control, and asked to guess which by pressing a button. The results came out at 50%, as expected if chance alone was operating, nor did anything unusual show up on the scans.
Analyses of group data revealed no evidence whatsoever of psi. Psi and non-psi stimuli evoked widespread but indistinguishable neuronal responses . . . The results support the null hypothesis that psi does not exist.
The study shows an impressive attention to detail, and in its technical aspects looks extremely solid, eg:
Functional series were analyzed using FMRIB's Improved Linear Model (FILM; Woolrich, Ripley, Brady, & Smith, 2001), which removes nonparametrically estimated temporal autocorrelation in each voxel's time series before applying the general linear model (GLM). For each series we modeled neural responses to the psi stimulus, non-psi stimulus, and feedback stimulus, as well as their temporal derivatives by convolving the basic waveforms (based on onset time and duration) of these variables with a double-gamma canonical hemodynamic response function (Glover, 1999). The same temporal filtering that was applied to the data was also applied to the model. For every functional volume, the following linear contrasts were employed to create statistical parametric maps (SPMs): non-psi > psi, and psi > non-psi.
So these guys know their stuff. Or do they?
Moulton and Kosslyn talk as if they're pioneering a new method which will settle the psi controversy once and for all. But they make no mention at all of any of the successful previous psi research using scanners, which even by this time was quite significant. Critics gave them such a hard time about this, they eventually went to Dean Radin to ask him what they'd missed (see a description here) - something they might have usefully done at the outset.
Then there's their method of producing ESP, which I did not at all recognise. If it wasn't tried and tested, it's not surprising that it was unsuccessful here. The more so, considering that the receiver is in a noisy machine and being asked to perform tasks in quick succession - hardly conducive to the relaxed state of semi-disassociation that is known to be ideal for generating psi.
And interestingly, despite their insistence that their methodology beats 'behavioural' research, it still centred on a cognitive process, of conscious knowing. At least one of the earlier fMRI studies bypassed this by looking to see if a light flash stimulus on the sender provoked the same response in the receiver's brain as in the sender's - it did.
In the earlier studies, moreover, efforts had been made to find participants that really could have produced psi. These authors knew enough to understand that bonded pairs are more likely to produce psi interactions than those that are not. But they seemed to think that alone would guarantee it. Earlier successful fMRI experiments selected people who had demonstrated psi abilities, for instance having worked as healers or taken part in a successful previous study.
There are other possible explanations for the negative results. Perhaps the ESP activity was there, but masked by the activity relating to visual perception. Or the signal might have simply been too weak to pick out from the noise. It's not clear why the experimenters were impressed by the absence of activity in the brain relating to psi if there was no psi in the first place - unless they saw the sender's intention as a material entity that was bound to register visibly among the receiver's neurons.
What really catches the eye is that one of the receivers actually did show potential evidence of psi - in the form of a relative absence of brain activity that correlated positively with the psi stimulus. The authors concede this would count as a positive result, but devote the best part of two pages trying to explain it away as an 'uninteresting artefact'. Having discussed and rejected two hypotheses, they eventually decide that the anomaly reflects the participant's 'idiosyncratic reactions to perceptual, conceptual, or affective differences between the psi and non-psi stimuli'.
Their reasoning is highly technical and difficult to appraise. But it begs a number of questions. If a single positive result can be neutralised in this way, could not similar arguments be applied in the event that other participants showed positive effects? Is there any guarantee that any of the three people whose data was rejected did not also show positive results? And what is the point of looking for evidence in the first place if it can be so easily dismissed? Surely this weakens the authors' insistence on the power of fMRI scanning to settle matters once and for all.
This is one of the more curious features of debunking studies. The sceptics embark on a process in the expectation of getting null results, are embarrassed to get positive results after all, but save the day with post hoc reasoning such as, 'yes but it wouldn't have happened if we'd done the randomisation differently'. (Radin references a wonderful study published in the The Humanistic Psychologist in 2006 by two psychologists, who carried out eight ganzfeld experiments and were shocked to get the usual 32% significance rate. To deal with this they redesigned the experiment to their own specification, and got a null result, which they then used to explain away all the rest.)
Someone who is not an out-and-out sceptic might spot the authors' hostility towards the idea of psi and wonder what effect this might have on their reasoning. To those of us who know about psi research, it stands out a mile. Their preamble makes it abundantly clear. They go to the trouble of quoting in full a rather good example of a crisis ESP episode - a woman waking one night experiencing powerful symptoms of choking and blood falling down her head, and learning two days later that her son was shot in the head at this time - but wave such testimony away on the grounds that it's probably all caused by confirmation bias, clustering illusions, etc. Even if ESP was proved, they say, it would just be an unexplained anomaly. They admit that claiming a single null result to be proof of non-existence is problematic, but consider that their results are so clear-cut it's fair to make an exception.
As an exploratory experiment it has value, and arguably forms an interesting addition to the parapsychological database. But their ambition is manifestly not to add to the database but to discredit it, backed by the big guns of contemporary neuroscience. The real story here is one of individuals setting out to rid themselves of their uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Hence the triumphant press release that one can guess generated headlines around the world: 'ESP does not exist, Harvard scientists prove.'
The result is a curious illusion - an apparently careful, well-designed and thoroughly scientific study which is in fact only superficially so, and whose real effect is to reinforce materialist prejudices. Science as propaganda, one might say.
Russell Targ has been a key figure in parapsychology ever since his experiments with Hal Puthoff in the early 1970s. Their Mind-Reach was one of the first books I read about remote viewing, and influenced my thinking at a time when I was trying to make up my mind about psi. Targ recently published an autobiography, which I have yet to read, but here he is already with another book, this time a survey of ESP research.
Much of it is his, and familiar from other sources - particularly as regards remote viewing - but it's still a fascinating read. It's important to read what parapsychologists think about the subject, rather than just absorbing it from a distance. The personal impact counts as well, which I think is why he subtitles it 'A physicist's proof of psychic abilities.' Targ is by any standards an outstandingly successful researcher - in fact he's one of these people that seems to arouse suspicions among other parapsychologists who, he says, sometimes can't bring themselves to believe his results.
I hadn't fully grasped that Targ and Puthoff are the reason why the US military got interested in remote viewing. As laser physicists they were always being commissioned to come up with various kinds of exotic hardware, so they had the contacts. It seems rather unlikely that military and intelligence types would have actually initiated the Stargate program if they hadn't happened to have dealings with people who knew all about it, and whom they had confidence in. If Targ is to be believed, once they heard what remote viewing could do, they fairly jumped with excitement. Why waste time viewing churches and swimming pools in Palo Alto, they said, when they could be looking at Soviet sites of operational interest?
It seems this wasn't a completely new idea to them. At a CIA briefing Targ was surprised by how many people stood up to describe psychic intuitions that had come to them over the years, or to their psychic grandmothers. Some had stories of occurrences of ESP in the field that had saved their lives. (Targ doesn't elaborate, but I found a possible example elsewhere, a description of certain successful 'point men', soldiers who led patrols into hostile territory during the Vietnam war and had far fewer casualties from booby traps and ambushes than the average. Naturally they had a loyal following and boosted morale. So much so that the army subsequently carried out tests and could find no other explanation other than psychic intuition.)
The episodes Targ describes are already familiar, for instance Ingo Swann's and Pat Price's exploits, such as the latter's stunningly accurate rendering of a distant gantry crane of unusual size and structure. There's a lot about Hella Hammid, a Life photographer who they brought on board to act as a control, but who then became their most reliable viewer. In fact Targ's account is so emphatically upbeat, I was left wondering why sceptics find it so easy to sweep aside. A common complaint is the 'absence of an evidence base', but the evidence seems rather abundant.
We're in the area of subjective impressions, so we have to step carefully. Targ sticks pretty much to the triumphs and successes, which can mislead one into thinking that remote viewing is all signal and no noise. Various military and intelligence bodies saw the potential, asked for results and often got them. On the other hand these 'customers' may also have been given results that seemed unlikely but which later turned out to be true, by which time however they were of no practical value. In many other cases, doubtless, the results were incorrect, which jolted their confidence. Once one takes the noise into account, one can understand why there was a certain degree of ambivalence. In their accounts, the critics artfully raise the level of noise to the point where the existence of any actual signal becomes impossible to determine. The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between.
Much is made of the CIA's dismissive conclusion that the programme failed to achieve any intelligence potential, and for that reason it was terminated. The sly insinuation is that there were no useful matches. An alert questioner would ask why on earth these hard-headed agencies would spend $20 million over a period of 25 years investigating something that did not exist. Clearly they were getting results. There are lots of reasons why remote viewing is of uncertain value in a military context; why it would have been abandoned once the Cold War had ended; and why the constant scepticism and disbelief would have helped to shape an essentially political verdict.
One of the remote viewing team's CIA monitors, Kenneth Kress, subsequently wrote a review for an internal CIA newsletter, which is published as an appendix in Joe McMoneagle's The Stargate Chronicles (also my source for the description of 'point men' above). It gives useful insight into the politics of belief and disbelief that occur when these two very different worlds collide. He says the Agency took the initiative by sponsoring serious psi research, but 'circumstances, biases, and fear of ridicule' prevented it from completing a scientific investigation. It was buffeted with investigations concerning illegalities and improprieties of all sorts. There were deep concerns that certain research contracts would be attacked as ill founded. Kress also notes two types of reactions to psi: positive or negative, with little in between.
As an example, Kress describes sceptical opposition to the random number generators that were used as 'ESP teaching machines' for potential viewers in the military. They scored 29% in more than 2500 trials, when 25% is the chance mean. However sceptics argued, in the usual way, that the machines might actually not be random at all, and that the subjects learned the non-random patterns. They resisted further analysis, but Kress insisted, finding no evidence of non-randomness, and further tests produced 28%. The project officers again insisted there must be a flaw, but it was not worth finding. The scepticism infected others, and support waned. The point here is that sceptics did not merely raise objections, they also resisted checking to see whether the objections were valid.
Targ's book is not just about remote viewing. There are sections on presentiment, mental influence and healing; also a bit more background about the famous paper published in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, in which one of the peer reviewers stated that it ought not to be published, being 'the kind of thing I wouldn't believe in even if it was true'. There are some anecdotes, including a ghost story that happened to a colleague's mother, also a description of Targ's adventures making money on silver futures (there's a DVD that you can buy to train yourself in the technique, and I'd be interested to know if there are any other documented successes of this kind.)
There's also quite a lot about the metaphysical and spiritual implications, with reference to David Bohm's idea of the implicate order, and how Buddhist teachings merge with the quantum physical phenomenon of non-locality.
I believe that our psychic abilities offer us one way of experiencing this world of non-local mind or community of spirit. Remote viewing thus reveals to us a part of our spiritual reality, but it is only a tiny part of the total spiritual spectrum. So a short answer to the question, 'how is it that I can psychically describe a distant object', is that the object is not as distant as it appears. To me, the data suggest that all of space-time is available to your consciousness right where you are; you are always on the edge.
Targ is especially good on what psi feels like from the inside, and what makes for success or failure. He keeps stressing how important it is to get people who are enthusiastic and committed, and argues the reason he was more successful than the norm in parapsychology is that he took the trouble to identify highly gifted individuals instead of using psychology students.
Also, we were asking them to do a task that corresponded to the most readily manifested form of psychic functioning, as compared with card guessing. Finally, we had an excellent rapport with our viewers. They felt that they were part of our research team uncovering the secrets of the universe, rather than being treated as psychic rats running through a maze - as ESP subjects frequently feel when the experiments' clear attitude is, "How are we going to keep these crooks from cheating".
To sum up, this is a lively and readable account, and an ideal introduction to anyone who doesn't know much about parapsychology, but is interested to find out. (As a statement by a veteran researcher I'd recommend it along with Dean Radin's Entangled Minds.) It's not a particularly critical account, and as is often the case of books of this kind, scant attention is paid to the cavils of critics, which might be a bit of a drawback for some. But psi-researchers don't need always to be picking their words and watching their backs; it's good to hear about some of the passion as well.
I've been having another look at Chris Carter's excellent book Parapsychology and the Skeptics, which I reviewed here. It's out in a new edition with the title Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics. It looks good (although the original was good too).
In a new postscript, Carter says he came to write the book after stumbling across a website devoted to debunking the belief in an afterlife.
Having read several serious books on the subject, I was shocked by the crudity of the author's arguments and by his utter ignorance of the vast amount of research that has been done on the topic over the past 12 years. I sent him an e-mail message, trying to get him to reconsider his dogmatic position, and, to my surprise, he responded with counterarguments. For the next few weeks, we engaged in a debate via e-mail, and I learned much about the so-called "skeptical" mind-set. I realized that it was based upon a certain set of metaphysical assumptions that were not treated as assumptions but as incontrovertible facts; and that it was also based upon an ignorance of certain facts that cast strong doubts on the validity of those assumptions.
I also realized that nothing I could possibly say would ever change his "skeptical" opinion. He had made up his mind, and that was that.
When I first read Carter's book I was impressed with the detail and clarity he brings to the descriptions of ganzfeld and other controversies. This time I've been paying more attention to his treatment of the philosophical challenge raised by psi, which is just as important. It's silly for sceptics to say there's no evidence for psychic functioning, but fair enough that they should have misgivings about how it fits in with established science.
A classic way to deal with the problem is to state that for psi to be true, science would have to be completely turned on its head, or "unravel all the way back to Galileo". I like this idea, like knitting coming undone (I think it comes from Steven Weinberg, or maybe James Alcock.) But intuitively I always thought it was crock. Psi has nothing to say about Newton's laws of motion, or the laws of thermodynamics, optics, chemical interactions, etc. It seems instead to have implications for the underlying basis of all matter, the realm of quantum mechanics, which at present is very imperfectly understood.
The Copenhagen interpretation, which seems to be the most commonly accepted, is that the act of measurement causes the collapse of the wave function into individual particles. The result depends on the observation; it is not a property of the electron itself. But in this interaction, if I understand it correctly, a mechanical device will do the trick just the same as a human observer. This never made any sense to me; it looks like an evasion, of the kind that physicists, not being philosophers, would easily content themselves with.
Carter focuses instead on mathematician John Von Neumann's idea that it's consciousness itself that collapses quantum possibilities into facts. This interpretation is a strictly minority view among physicists (although it was promoted by Eugene Wigner and others). How could consciousness, a product of matter, exert a causal influence on matter?
But it's remarkable, as Carter quotes physicist Nick Herbert saying, that the claim should come 'not from an otherworldly mystic in private meditation but from one of the world's most practical mathematicians deducing the logical consequences of a highly successful and purely materialistic model of the world - the theoretical basis for the billion-dollar computer industry'.
Carter goes on to describe a time-displaced PK experiment by physicist Helmut Schmidt, in which signals from a binary random event generator were recorded simultaneously on two cassette tapes, without anyone listening to them. One tape was given to a subject to listen to, with instructions to produce more 0s or 1s (usually in the form of clicks on the left or right of stereo headphones). When the results were analysed the influence of PK was observed. However the results also matched the other tape, which had been untouched.
One interpretation is that PK reached back in time to when the random events were originally generated. But a more interesting possibility, consistent with the Von Neumann interpretation, and put forward by Schmidt and his co-experimenters, is that events are not physically real until there has been an observation.
From this viewpoint, the PK effort would not have to reach into the past because nature had not yet decided on the outcome before the PK subject, the first observer, saw the result. Then, the PK effort should no longer succeed if we have some other observer look at the pre-recorded data previous to the PK subject's attempt. [An] experiment to study this situation ... has, indeed, reported a blocking of the PK effect by a previous observation.
The Von Neumann theory inevitably tends to invite quasi-theological speculation. What happened before there were conscious observers? If consciousness was needed to create humans - as conscious observers - then God or supernatural beings enter the equation. Carter quotes quantum theorist Euan Squires:
It is remarkable that such ideas should arise from a study of the behavior of the most elementary of systems. That such systems point to a world beyond themselves is a fact that will be loved by all who believe that there are truths of which we know little, that there are mysteries seen only by mystics, and that there are phenomena inexplicable within our normal view of what is possible. There is no harm in this - physics indeed points to the unknown. The emphasis, however, must be on the unknown, on the mystery, on the truths dimly glimpsed, on things inexpressible except in the language of poetry, or religion, or metaphor.
Sceptics could legitimately look for faults in experiments like Schmidt's to save themselves the bother of thinking about any of this. They can also complain - as they do - that quantum mechanics has been misappropriated and misunderstood by the spirituality community. But they would not convince me that there is not a mystery here, or that physicists are the people who really understand what's going on.
I reviewed Debating Psychic Experience here a year or so ago, and another review is coming out in the current issue of the SPR Journal. Meanwhile, parapsychologist Chris Roe sends me a copy of a recent exchange in the UK Skeptic magazine.
As usual the critics, represented here by Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, want parapsychology to declare itself dead. Hyman contests the claim, based on ganzfeld meta-analyses and supported by Dean Radin and Jessica Utts, among others, that the reality of psi has been established. Wiseman argues that parapsychology is by now 'confined to the fringes of academia'.
However Wiseman also generously offers parapychologists 'one last chance' to prove themselves. They need to focus on one or two of the most promising approaches, he says, aiming for replications in a number of different labs, and pre-registering details in order to avoid the problems that arise with retrospective analysis.
If this approach yields a significant and replicable effect then the scientific mainstream would be forced to take the topic seriously and allow parapsychology in from the cold. If it fails the field needs to have the courage to accept the null hypothesis. In short, the time has come to put up or shut up.
Counter-arguments are put forward by Caroline Watt and Chris Roe. Watt, from the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, points out that parapsychology hardly exists as a discipline: there are fewer than 100 researchers working full time in the world, and many of those study not psi itself but other areas such as paranormal belief.
Roe, a psychology lecturer and psi-experimenter at the University of Northampton, adds that at least 16 UK universities have academic staff whose doctoral training is in parapsychology. Parapsychology has featured regularly at conferences organised by the British Psychological Society, and he personally has had papers accepted by its annual conference. Interestingly, the largest of the A-level (the standard pre-university qualification) examination boards for psychology includes 'Anomalistic Psychology' in its specification, including elements on testing of ESP and PK. This means, Roe says, that 'future undergraduates will come to university with a grounding in parapsychology and an expectation that the subject will be represented on any comprehensive undergraduate syllabus' - hardly characteristics of a subject confined to the fringes.
Roe vigorously contests Hyman's claim that parapsychology doesn't look scientific. According to what criteria, he asks. For instance, studies show that the use of double blind methods are common in parapsychology at a level of 85%, but hardly at all in physics and biology and only 25% in medical sciences.
When it comes to arguments about replication, Hyman picked a poor study but could just as easily have chosen a good one, Roe says. Also, there is a very strong correlation between standardness and effect size, and where the focus in meta-analyses is on standard studies you get something that looks very like replication.
So why aren't there more of these? In such a tiny field, the active players tend to be innovators looking for interesting new approaches, Roe continues, not technicians engaged in replication exercises. This rather reinforces Wiseman's point, and Roe agrees there need to be changes, but then there's the problem of funding.
These arguments are by now quite familiar, and many were covered in Debating Psychic Experience. It's worth noting, though, that Hyman hardly ever talks about flawed methodology these days in the way that he used to. An alert reader might wonder why, if psi-researchers' experimental methodology is no longer the target of critics' attention, they are still often getting highly significant results.
But Hyman does have a new gambit, and it strikes me as one that goes to the heart of the matter. He claims that some psi-researchers themselves agree that parapsychology has failed. These neoparapyschologists, as he calls them - he mentions Dick Bierman, Walter von Lucadou and Robert Jahn - appear to concede that psi fails to meet scientific criteria, and that the evidence for it will never satisfy scientific standards. In that case, he argues, the goal set by the founders of psychical research, that psi be accepted by mainstream science, is clearly unattainable.
Since the time of Calileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Newton, modern science has flourished just because it focused only on phenomena that were available for public scrutiny, were lawful, and could be independently replicated.
Quite so, and for science to restrict its focus in this way has made sense. But it does not follow that a phenomenon for which there is abundant evidence in a number of areas - often anecdotal, to be sure, but also confirmed by careful investigation - does not exist, merely on the grounds that it does not fully meet these three criteria. On the contrary, an entity that arises from consciousness would surely be expected to be fitful and elusive.
Jahn notes that psi's primary correlates appear to be subjective in character, including such nebulous factors as
teleological intention (need, desire); emotional resonance (bonding, meaning, personal importance); attitude (confidence, playfulness, low ego involvement); masculine/feminine distinctions (both psychological and biological); and perceived uncertainty or complexity, all of which may function at the unconscious as well as the conscious level'. ('Change the Rules!', Journal of Scientific Exploration), 2008.
Such an entity is likely to evade detection as long as it fails to conform to scientific objectivity, he says.
This is what Hyman's neoparapsychologists are really talking about. If psi lies outside science, as science is presently conceived, then as far as they're concerned, so much the worse for science. It's time, as Jahn says, to change the rules. In particular - as Rupert Sheldrake too argues in his new book - scientists need to abandon the illusion that what they do is somehow purely objective, as if human subjectivity never entered into it.
The problem, then, is how a methodology designed to deal with material entities can be modified so that it can also deal with immaterial ones. And how can its guardians be persuaded to relax their vigilance?
For Jahn there are plenty of precedents. Change is a characteristic of human endeavour, for instance in sports competitions, where a modification of rules can often lead to improvement. There's a similar process of continuous change and development in the creative arts, religion and spirituality, psychology and philosophy, he notes. (Also in politics of course; there are good reasons why the American constitution has been amended so often.) So why should not change also come to science?
A rather obvious reason is its sheer authority and prestige. Science continues to be a fertile source of new technologies, and continues to attract huge public interest in areas like cosmology and neuroscience. So why tinker with it? For critics like Hyman, changing the rules would destroy science: if you let in psi, you risk endorsing other, equally dubious claims, like N-Rays, cold fusion and polywater. Indeed, from his point of view, an article with the title Change the Rules! might almost have been a spoof penned by a satirical critic.
He surely has a point. Yet all this further exposes the ideological nature of science, as an institution based on nineteenth-century positivism. Reality is held to be synonymous with what is lawful, and psi's irregular and subjective nature puts it beyond the pale. It's as much about the reality that we want than the one we're in.
So the psi debate has shifted to a new and more interesting phase, to the nature and purpose of science itself. And at bottom it's driven by the same differences of temperament and vision that drive political arguments. The Hymans and Alcocks are the reactionaries, for whom the unstable, unlawful nature of psi is intolerable and want to prevent change at all costs. The Jahns and Sheldrakes are the visionary pioneers, mapping paths to a future in which the spiritual components of humans are at last recognised.
History tells us that their time will come, because change always comes eventually - whether we like it or not. Positions that once were defended to the death are overrun and disappear, and with hindsight it's incredible that anyone took them seriously. That will happen with the resistance to psi - of that we can be sure. What we don't know is how long it will take.
It's always interesting to know what the super-stars of the science world think about parapsychology.
I'm reading Esprit: Men and Women of Parapsychology, Volume 1, a collection of reminiscences by some leading psi researchers, first published in 1987 and recently brought out in a new edition. These are investigators such as Jule Eisenbud, Montague Ullman, Gertrude Schmeidler, Jan Ehrenwald and Hans Bender. I'm barely halfway through, and may give it a detailed look in a later post. In the meantime, I picked out this nugget about Einstein.
As is well known, Einstein wrote a brief preface to Mental Radio, Upton Sinclair's 1930 book about ESP experiments. Typically these involve Sinclair sitting in his study and drawing something on a piece of paper, and his wife Craig in another room trying to reproduce it. More often than not she achieved a close match, as the book's illustrations show. It's an informal study, obviously, but a classic of its type.
Einstein's contribution consists of just one paragraph:
I have read the book of Upton Sinclair with great interest and am convinced that the same deserves the most earnest consideration, not only of the laity, but also of the psychologists by profession. The results of the telepathic experiments carefully and plainly set forth in this book stand surely far beyond those which a nature investigator holds to be thinkable. On the other hand, it is out of the question in the case of so conscientious an observer and writer as Upton Sinclair that he is carrying on a conscious deception of the reading world; his good faith and dependability are not to be doubted. So if somehow the facts he has set forth here rest not upon telepathy, but upon some unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person, this also would be of high psychological interest. In no case should the psychologically interested circles pass over this book heedlessly.
Was the great man giving ESP his blessing? Not exactly. The muddled appeal to "unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person" - what is that exactly, if not telepathy? Or did he really mean sensory cues? - suggests someone struggling to accommodate facts that contradict all experience and reason.
But the mere fact of someone of his standing not sucking his teeth and crying "fraud" is enough for it to be treated as a positive. At least he was curious and open-minded - an example for others to follow.
A few years later Einstein corresponded with Jan Ehrenwald, a psychiatrist who was writing about psi experiences emerging in therapeutic interactions, and wanted his endorsement. Naturally he flagged up the work of JB Rhine at Duke on ESP in card-guessing and psychokinesis in dice-throwing. What did Einstein think?
Einstein said he could find no explanation whatsoever for Rhine's results, but made his scepticism clear. He was alienated by the lack of any attenuation with distance, that it didn't seem to make any difference how far separated the subject was from the agent or the experimenter. In his belief this indicated the presence of a "systematic error".
He went on:
I wrote the introductory notes for Upton Sinclair's book owing to [our] personal friendship in such a way that it did not express my lack of conviction without compelling me to sacrifice my honesty in doing so. I must openly confess to you my scepticism due not so much to a close acquaintance with the relevant empirical observations and experiences but to my lifelong activity in the field of physics. I must also confess that I have not had any experiences in my own life that would point to interpersonal relationships that were not occasioned by sensory cues. When I add that the public tends to attribute more weight to my utterances than would be justified in view of my ignorance in so many things, I feel all the more duty bound to exercise utmost caution in reserve in these areas.
Having now read Ehrenwald's book Einstein wrote a second letter as follows:
I can judge as a layman only, and cannot state that I arrived at an affirmative or negative conclusion. In any case, it appears to me that from the physicist's point of view, we have no right to rule out a priori the possibility of telepathy. For that the foundations of our science are too uncertain and incomplete...
On the one hand I have no objection to the reliability of the method. Yet I find suspicious that clairvoyance [tests] yield the same probability as telepathy, and that the subject distance from the target cards i.e. from the agent, should have no influence upon results. This is improbable to the highest degree and consequently the result is suspicious.
He adds that he attaches more weight to tests with gifted subjects such as Craig Sinclair than to large-scale statistical experiments in which the discovery of a minute systematic error may upset everything.
In any case, your book was very stimulating to me and has somewhat "softened up" my attitude which from the onset was distinctly negative towards the whole problem. One should not go through this world with blinders...
It was a put-down, however tactfully expressed. Ehrenwald was "stunned" by it, as he later described in a belated reply written after Einstein's death and sent to "the Elysian Fields, please forward". However he noted that the scientist was open to the more obviously impressive "macro" experiments, and ventured to suggest that Rhine's experiments were simply indications of the same thing on the "micro" level. By now, too, Einstein's deep discomfort with "spooky action at a distance" had become evident in his rejection of quantum mechanics.
All of this seems perfectly reasonable to me. Many people would agree that the actual experience of ESP is far more persuasive than statistical indications of it. As a physicist Einstein had particular reasons for doubting claims about psi, but he conceded he didn't know much about it and wasn't prepared to go further than stating a general opinion in private.
Martin Gardner makes a similar point in an article about the correspondence (republished in Science Good Bad and Bogus), praising Einstein's "great tact and politeness" and "characteristic humility" - qualities which were comically absent from Gardner's own responses to parapsychology. Of course the snarky sceptic has simple explanations for what so mightily puzzled the great scientist. Recording errors by experimenters in Rhine's psi experiments would have neatly accounted for the distance paradox, as it wouldn't have made any difference where the subject was situated, two feet away or on another planet. And "spelling out" Einstein's suggestions about the Sinclairs, perhaps they were "unconsciously suggesting" to each other what they should draw.
Neither of which would remotely explain the experiments as they were actually described. Gardner would not have cared about that, but one feels that Einstein might have seen the point, if he'd engaged with them more closely.
'And so it begins,' tweets psychologist Richard Wiseman. He means the publicity campaign for his new book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, which is out on March 4 and which I wrote about here. The Guardian magazine section ran some excerpts yesterday: a big one on precognitive dreams, plus smaller ones on seeing patterns and out-of-body experiences. Let's have a look to see what he says about dreams.
Wiseman starts with the Aberfan mining disaster of October 1966, when a small mountain of coal slurry collapsed onto a Welsh school, killing 139 children and five teachers. This tragic incident impressed itself on the national psyche, and some 30 people subsequently reported having dreamed of the event before it occurred. He then points out that precognitive dreams are commonly experienced, at least once by a third of the population, according to recent surveys. He also mentions some well-known celebrity examples, for instance Abraham Lincoln foretelling his own assassination.
However since we dream about four times a night, an explanation rather readily offers itself, he goes on. Let's suppose over a period of three nights you have a variety of jumbled up dreams: auditioning for a part in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, chatting to your favourite rock star Eric Chuggers while driving along a country lane, swerving to avoid a purple frog and crashing into a tree, falling into a vat of ice-cream, and so on. After waking on the third morning you turn on the radio and are shocked to hear that Chuggers has been killed in a car crash. Naturally you connect it with the dream about him - all the other dreams are forgotten.
It doesn't stop there, he adds: the creative imagination may get to work to create a whole edifice of meaning.
Because dreams tend to be somewhat surreal they have the potential to be twisted to match the events that actually transpired. In reality, Chuggers was not driving along a country lane, did not hit a tree and the accident didn't involve a giant purple frog. However, a country lane is similar to a city road, and a lamp-post looks a bit like a tree. And what about the giant purple frog? Well, maybe that symbolised something unexpected, such as the car that drifted on to the wrong side of the road. Or maybe it turns out that Chuggers was on hallucinogenic drugs and so might have thought that the oncoming car was indeed a giant purple frog. Or maybe Chuggers's next album was going to have a frog on the cover. Or maybe Chuggers was wearing a purple shirt at the time of the collision. You get the point. Provided that you are creative and want to believe that you have a psychic link with the recently deceased Mr Chuggers, the possibilities for matches are limited only by your imagination.
The rest of the extract mainly covers mainly the familiar 'chance coincidence' argument, the fact that since disasters (air crashes, earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, etc), happen somewhere in the world on a regular basis, and since billions of people are dreaming billions of dreams, it would be quite surprising if they didn't sometimes match up.
It's hard to argue with this as far as it goes. The Aberfan claims attracted a good deal of attention, but are vulnerable on a number of grounds and perhaps not worth placing too much emphasis on as evidence of precognition. To be fair, the psychiatrist John Barker who carried out the investigation and published his report in the Society for Psychical Research's Journal - Wiseman's source - makes this point himself. Where there is no record of a dream having been dreamed before the event that it apparently prophesies he can argue that it was selected from lots of other unconnected dreams, or distorted to make the match a better fit. Where there is such a record, which applies to 21 instances in the Aberfan data, this is harder to do. However, for these cases one can invoke the 'chance coincidence' argument, that the match between the dream and the event was real, but purely fortuitous.
I don't think that seemingly precognitive dreams are necessarily good evidence, but unlike Wiseman I'm prepared to take seriously the possibility of them being real. That's because I have come to accept that ESP is real, on a variety of grounds, backed by evidence from a large variety of sources.
I'd point out two things that are rather glaringly absent from Wiseman's analysis: the high degree of specific detail that can often be present, both in the dream and the event it appears to precognize, and any reference to credible scientific research that appears to verify anecdotal claims.
Taking the first point, I'm impressed by the high degree of specificity that can occur. A dream of an aircrash, matched with an actual aircrash the dreamer hears about the following day, is not interesting at all. However a dream in which the dreamer is impressed by an odd red and green symbol, overlaid on a scene of fire and destruction, is potentially interesting if this symbol turns out to be the airline logo on the side of a broken fuselage which the dreamer sees in a newspaper photo the following day. This is what I associate with such claims, and where several such details are involved it puts some strain on the chance-coincidence explanation theory.
JW Dunne, a pioneering aeronautical engineer, has several examples of this type in his 1930s best-seller An Experiment With Time, in which he described the process as he himself experienced it. For example he has a nightmare of being on an island which is about to blow up, and desperately trying to warn the French authorities that four thousand people will die unless they start an evacuation. The next time he sees a paper it carries headlines about a volcano eruption in Martinique, with the loss of 40,000 lives. He remarks that he initially read the headline number as 4000, which gives him the clue that the dream is precognizing his experience, not the event itself. The actual number of dead was quite different to both his idea and the one in the news report.
Dunne got friends to experiment, recording their dreams as soon as they woke up and being alert to anything that might match up with real world experiences in the following two days. These are usually trivial, but detailed enough to be noteworthy.
One woman dreamed of walking up a path and coming upon a gate, when a man passed on the other side, driving three brown cows in front of him and holding a stick over them in a peculiar fashion 'like a fishing rod'. While waiting for a train the following day she walked up to the end of the platform which gave onto a road, barred by a gate similar to the one she had seen in the dream. At that moment the scene she had dreamed about took place: three cows passed by on the other side, driven by a man holding his stick just as she had visualized it.
Another example: Dunne's cousin dreamed of meeting a German woman dressed in a black skirt, with a black-and-white striped blouse, and her hair scraped back in a bun at the back of her head. They were in a public garden. She suspected the woman of being a spy. Two days later she visits a country house, where she is told about an odd person staying there who is suspected of being a German spy. In the hotel grounds (that look like a public garden), she shortly afterwards meets the woman, who is dressed in a black skirt, with a black-and-white striped blouse, and her hair scraped back in a bun.
If it's true that these dreams were recorded before the experience of the matching event, I don't see how either of Wiseman's arguments could apply. It might indeed be the case that the dreamers had had other dreams that didn't match with anything that subsequently occurred. But if the time-lapse is merely a day or two then so what? And the odds of matches like this happening by chance are surely off the scale.
Then there's the scientific research. This tends to be a variation of experimental approaches aimed at finding evidence of ESP. In this case, instead of the target being selected before the experiment, in order to demonstrate telepathy or clairvoyance, it is selected afterwards. At the time the subject is recording his or her impressions, the target does not yet exist.
In the 1969 Maimonides series of ESP dream experiments, the subject sleeper, Malcolm Bessent, was woken at intervals one night and his dream impressions recorded. These revolved around a hospital building, a patient escaping and doctors in white coats arguing. A target word corridor was then selected by means of a elaborate protocol involving random number tables, by someone not involved with the dream side of the experiment. An image suggested by this word was then selected, a picture by Van Gogh Hospital Corridor at St. Remy. Bessant was then subjected to an 'experience' suggested by the image.
Judges subsequently matched the imagery Bessent described upon being woken with the word corridor, chosen from a total of eight target words. Five nights out of eight were similarly direct hits. The odds against are 5000-1, meaning that more than 5000 such experiments would have to be carried out before a similar coincidence could be expected.
These and other similar experiments are vulnerable to criticism, from psi-researchers as well as from sceptics. The sense is not that precognition has been proved or conclusively demonstrated, but that there are indications it might be real, and that these indications are worth continuing to investigate.
So where does all this leave Richard Wiseman's book? As I mentioned when I first heard about it, I wondered whether he would focus mainly on psychological generalisations or write also about his own debunking activity. I guessed the former, that he'd want to be positive and upbeat, stressing the achievement of science in unravelling the mystery, but without getting into arguments. That would seem to be the case, at least in this excerpt.
Yet it's an oddly distorted picture, achieved by glossing over or ignoring credible data that contradicts his argument. Precognitive dreaming could be illusory: it's an open question. The really interesting illusion being created here, I'd say, is the perception that such things have been explained away by the pitiless scrutiny of science, and therefore merit no particular attention.
There's a new book of essays out, by prominent names on both sides of the debate. It's called Debating
Psychic Experience: Human potential or human illusion, edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman, with contributions by, among others, Dean Radin, James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Chris Carter.
I'm going to review it for a journal but it's been sitting around for a while. Truth is, I wasn't looking forward to it - I've read these sorts of 'debate' books before (eg Psi Wars edited by Alcock) - and I'm not sure how much good they do. The sceptics are better read in their natural habitat, like the Skeptical Inquirer, than being all polite and condescending in the presence of the opposition.
The parapsychologists meanwhile are often like the nerds sucking up to the bullies in the playground. Bob Morris, late head of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh, bent over backwards to see the sceptics' point of view, as did his predecessor John Beloff. Fair enough, but I thought Beloff trying to convince sceptics about Eusapia Palladino was a bit optimistic, and they just seemed bemused (who is this person?). I especially objected when Beloff wanted the rest of us to be nice to sceptics. He reviewed Nicolas Humphrey's Soul Searching - a travesty even by sceptics' standards - in the SPR Journal, and conceded that many readers might find it a bit ripe, but sternly advised them to "swallow their resentment". Gaah.
This book's good though, and I can recommend it. I snoozed gently through the essays by Alcock and Hyman, who reprised their positions. Alcock kicked off with that quotation from Alice about ' six impossible things before breakfast' - also used by sceptic Lewis Wolpert as the title for his recent-ish book - which tells us what we already know about where they are coming from: this stuff can't happen, so it probably doesn't. Criticism of lack of repeatability and methodological weaknesses seemed to Alcock to be 'very reasonable', and if parapsychologists were truly interested in pursuing the truth then they should at least acknowledge this. 'It reflects a triumph of hope over experience', he says, 'that so many have continued to devote themselves to parapsychological research over such long periods of time despite both the absence of theoretical or empirical progress and the continuing rejection by mainstream science'.
Then Hyman ditto: methodological flaws, meta-analyses unreliable, inconsistencies in data, etc, etc... Then Chris French, who actually was quite interesting in defence of his moderate brand of scepticism (I'll come back to that another time). Then Michael Shermer, describing his experience of pretending to be psychic for a day.
It was when Chris Carter came on that I woke up. Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics is the first book in recent times that I can recall that tackles hardline disbelief head on, and is a bracing read. He has a new book out on near-death experiences, which I'm halfway through, and which is also excellent. This essay is a forceful statement of the problems with the claims made by Hyman, Alcock and Wiseman - the three most vocal and articulate sceptics of parapsychology. He provided direct evidence that negates their claims, for instance that consistent replicable evidence has been provided, but also pointing out the historical dimension to this (with which I wholeheartedly agree) - the critics can't accept the data because it interferes so seriously with the prevailing materialist paradigm.
Then the rebuttals. Alcock and Hyman seemed affronted by Carter. They hated the idea that anyone might for one moment consider them biased. Sceptics were prepared to consider that psi might exist, but parapsychologists were not so open-minded, Alcock claimed: they were not even prepared to entertain the possibility that it might not exist. But really, why on earth should they? Why would anyone investigate something they weren't really sure existed? It's the sceptics who have a problem with this.
Hyman was peeved at Carter's 'unfounded accusations' (Carter had criticised him for his role in the notorious 1987 National Research Council investigation into techniques of enhancing human performance, in which he gave parapsychology the thumbs down, and for his attempts to nix the ganzfeld data). What's wrong with materialism, or wanting to defend it, he demanded. When Hyman gets rattled he blathers. Given that his time and space were not unlimited, he said, he would restrict his comments to Carter's provocative opinions, rather than also try to address Dean Radin's, but he didn't restrict himself all that much. He devoted a lot of space to defending his role with the NRC, and in particular to defending Alcock, who he had appointed to help him. Alcock's conscientiousness in checking the data surely made him the ideal man for the job.
There's an odd lack of self-awareness here. Can Hyman really not see that a judgment about parapsychology delivered by two CSICOP stalwarts, personally dedicated to denying psi's existence - Hyman had recently helped get a Pentagon funded parapsychology project at Stanford cancelled - would not be universally recognised as fair and impartial? It astonishes me that he seems surprised about this.
In fact it's difficult to read about the NRC report without gasping at the sheer chicanery of it. A psychologist, Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University, a world-renowned expert in evaluating controversial research claims in the social sciences, should have been a valued member of the investigation. He concluded that of the five areas under discussion, only the ganzfeld ESP studies met the basic requirements of sound experimental design. He concluded that the studies under review had demonstrated a 1 in 3 result where 1 in four would be expected by chance (as has generally been demonstrated ever since). Yet Rosenthal was pressured to withdraw these findings, and although he refused they were left out anyway.
Dean Radin made an elegant reply to Hyman and Alcock, demolishing their claims of lack of repeatability with a summary of the research. (He provided a handy update and clarification of the meta-analysis controversy, which I might come back to in another post). Radin pointed out, as did Carter, that the worldview that the critics seemed intent on trying to protect had long disappeared. Far from there being something "horribly and fundamentally in error in physics and biology and in neuroscience" (Alcock's phrase), the reality predicated by quantum mechanics seems positively to demand the kind of anomalies that psi throws up.
Michael Shermer. What to say? He bamboozled five women by pretending to be psychic. He finds it "insidiously insulting" to think that charlatans are routinely duping people into thinking their deceased loved ones have survived death. I don't think anyone seriously denies that people can be duped by clever charlatans, but it doesn't prove anything. This sort of stunt reinforces prejudices, but has nothing to do with scientific investigation.
As I say, I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm glad to see that there's a contribution by Damien Broderick, whose Outside the Gates of Science I reviewed here a year or two back, plus essays by other people I haven't come across before. A bit pricey (£31.95), but a readable and engaging update on the debate, and a good resource, so definitely worth trying to get hold of. I'll be sure to mention it again.
What to make of the comprehensive failure of Patricia Putt in psychic testing recently?
I hadn't heard of Putt before, but she is apparently well established as a professional psychic, aka Ankhara. She has had media exposure, turns up at hauntings, exorcises, and does readings for £25 a go. She decided to go in for Randi's million-dollar challenge, and Richard Wiseman and Chris French were deputed to carry out the preliminary tests.
The experiment involved ten young women in turns sitting in front of her for a reading. They were all white, same gender and age-group to keep any identifying characteristics to a minimum, uniformly dressed in gowns, features concealed by wrap-around dark glasses and ski-masks, and facing away from her. There was no verbal interaction; Putt wrote her thoughts down. The ten transcripts were then handed to the subjects who each attempted to identify the reading that applied to her. Not a single one did so correctly.
This is a pretty comprehensive failure. One can make various excuses: the test doesn't prove that Putt isn't psychic (she might just have been having a bad day, and it doesn't prove that nobody is psychic. But although both these are logically true, it doesn't look good.
You can also argue that people who go for readings aren't heavily disguised, as the subjects were here, so Putt wasn't working in the conditions she was used to. But this is exactly what tests like this aim to do, to prevent any opening for cold reading. And, just as important, Putt was quite happy to go ahead on that basis. According to French, she felt that she had been treated fairly, and it was only afterwards, having scored zero, and having thought about it a bit, that she identified that as the problem.
It interests me that although this comes under the heading of Randi's million dollar challenge, it wasn't actually Randi who carried out this preliminary test, but French and Wiseman, who unlike him take a moderate approach to debunking parapsychology, and can't really be accused of setting Putt up for a fail. Curiously - and correct me if I'm wrong - there are rather few well-documented cases of psychics actually failing the challenge - we're just told that they are all kooks who never got past the preliminaries. The only other one I can think of was also quite recent, the case of Derek Ogilvie, whose failure in tests by both French and Randi was pretty total. But if it's so easy to demonstrate that psychism is a mirage, one wonders why, in the many years the challenge has been going, there aren't many more cases like Putt and Ogilvie.
One possibility is that psychics are too canny to let themselves be tested in highly unnatural circumstances, ie giving readings to people facing in the opposite direction and swaddled up like mummies. But apparently some of them, like Putt and Ogilvie, are naïve. They have boundless confidence in their own abilities and willingly walk into what others might see as a trap, agreeing to work in circumstances that they have never tried before.
Randi's million dollar challenge has always been vulnerable to the argument that there isn't any proper testing going on at all - it's just an opportunistic debunking ploy. But when people like Wiseman and French start to carry out very public and transparent testing like this, it can start to be taken seriously by people who might otherwise have given psychics the benefit of the doubt. It's difficult to think of anything more helpful for the sceptics' cause, and it's interesting that this should only happen when the challenge itself is about to be withdrawn.
Apart from the matter of influencing public perceptions, I'm interested in the science here. I take psychism to be real not on the basis of single tests like this, but on the accumulated data of psychical research. So I'm wondering why Putt failed. Some possibilities: she's not psychic at all, but just thinks she is; she is psychic, but needs to have a normal interaction with her sitters; as Greg Taylor at the Daily Grail suggests, the sitters might be sceptics who deliberately chose the wrong reading (unlikely, as Greg acknowledges, but potentially an experimental flaw); or that somehow French and Wiseman inhibited psi from manifesting - the experimenter effect.
If any of these, or a combination of them, is correct, it's worth following up. I'm thinking of the famous remote viewing experiments in which Marilyn Schlitz got significant results while Wiseman, using exactly the same setup and subjects, did not. So let's get Putt back and have her work in the same circumstances with sceptics and parapsychologists, and compare the results. Or get them working with mediums of the first rank, like Colin Fry, for instance, or John Edward, who worked under controlled conditions in Gary Schwartz's first experiments, with sitters concealed behind a curtain and not speaking.
I suppose the conclusion is that we can't rule out psi unless we at least give it a chance to appear. Once we've seen it in action, we can fiddle with the parameters and see what's required to make it appear or disappear. Then we can argue about it. One-off tests aren't a way of establishing anything conclusively.
Could this sort of co-operation ever occur? I think both French and Wiseman might be up for it, if there was the organisation and the funds. But that's a big 'if'. I can't see it happening unless someone has the incentive to make it happen, and there's not much of that around at the moment.