The Fox Sisters Revisited
Book Review: Signs: A New Approach to Coincidence, Synchronicity, Guidance, Life Purpose, and God's Plan, by Robert Perry.

Psi and Climate Change

Nurse It's tempting to compare psi-sceptics with deniers of climate change, as I was doing all through yesterday's Horizon programme Science Under Attack. But while the parallels are there, trying to tease them out isn't easy. The differences are instructive as well.

The programme was an appeal by Sir Paul Nurse, newly appointed president of the Royal Society, for media sceptics to stop misleading the public about global warming and to focus on the scientific facts. Fat chance, but he made his point well and I was cheering him on.

His main antagonist in this programme was the Telegraph writer James Delingpole, who I gather considers himself responsible for breaking the 'Climategate' emails scandal and is still basking in the glory.

Nurse pointed out that climate scientists have reached a consensus about this and asked Delingpole to consider an analogy. If he had cancer, would he accept his doctors' consensus about treatment or reject it in favour of his own opinion. Delingpole was reduced to stunned silence, then looked shiftily at the camera, and eventually embarked on a petulant rant. A dramatic encounter that will be played in a loop in YouTube, and if he wasn't so hugely pleased with himself I could almost have felt sorry for him.

Delingpole is now fighting back biliously on his blog. Nurse, it appeared, had spent three hours on the interview, and had only picked out the bits that made him look stupid. (The other was where Delingpole complained it wasn't his job as a science writer to read peer-reviewed scientific research).

What upset Delingpole so much was Nurse appearing to compare climate change sceptics to devotees of quack medicine. But it was a fair question, I thought, and might equally have been put to an advocate of psi. Surely one should respect the scientific consensus on such things, and the consensus among mainstream scientists is that psi does not and could never exist.

However in the case of psi, one would then point out that this sceptic consensus, although impressively wide, actually applies to scientists who know very little about psi-research and who do not themselves carry it out. Their view is based on a commitment to the materialist model that rules psi out.

On the other hand there is also a consensus among the people who do seek out psychic phenomena wherever it may be found and try to recreate it in controlled conditions. And this consensus is that psi does exist. It's true that in terms of numbers it's far smaller. But in my view quality counts for as much as quantity in this matter: parapsychologists are the experts in their field, as climate change scientists are in their's, and they are the ones we should be listening to.

When it comes to sceptic behaviour the parallels are more obvious. A reader recently pointed out to me this complaint about climate change sceptics, who typically 'raise a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing ...' Almost equally true of psi-sceptics, he remarks. The article goes on:

There is a fundamental asymmetry of forces at work. It is, in fact, easier to form an allegation than to track down a reasonable explanation of what it means and how it really fits in to the balance of evidence. Also, the skills required to reflect the science are deeper than the ones required to attack it; hence the defenders are outnumbered and outgunned.

Nurse thinks the deniers exploit the complexity and uncertainty of the science to raise doubts, and this too is true of psi-research. Just think how the proper interpretation of the statistics, or entities such as psi-missing and the experimenter effect, are exploited by psi-sceptics to cast doubt on its reality.

Then there's the tone, which personally I pay quite a bit of attention to in these debates. I want to see an objective consideration of the facts. Exaggeration, arm-waving, dark claims of conspiracy, are a turn-off. Even allowing for the considerable advantage a programme maker has over his interviewees, the contrast between the reasonable Nurse and the excitable Delingpole was clear, and is even more on display in his furious blog post. To me, an argument studded with complaints about 'eco-fascists' and followers of the 'warmist faith' is not the reasoned judgement of a dispassionate mind but the ventings of an angry obsessive. And the notion that global warming is a ploy cooked up by leftwingers 'for power and control' makes no sense to me at all.

There are exceptions, but a characteristic of professional parapsychologists like Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin that has always stood out for me is their resigned tolerance of attacks: a patient and detailed rebuttal of misrepresentations together with a general unwillingness to imitate their opponents by getting verbally snarky. If they did, it would erode my confidence in their arguments.

I know quite a lot about parapsychology. I'm as convinced as I can be that psi is real, and that sceptics are wrong. That conviction comes from my own application over the years and conclusions I have reached in the subject on a host of matters.

By contrast I know practically zilch about global warming. I have to admit, the sceptics could be right and I could be completely wrong. But what I have learned along the way tells me whose judgement I can and cannot trust.

Comments

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Robert,
Maybe this wouldn't qualify this as true synchronicity or a real case of psi, but I swear, in the days prior to your posting this, I was about to email you concerning your take on global warming and the CSI-based skeptics.

In any event, here is a link to a recent, interesting Wired Science News story concerning quantum entanglement over time:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/01/timelike-entanglement/

Robert: I too found this Horizon programme interesting. Especially so the distinction Sir Paul Nurse made between a constructive scepticism which engaged properly with its object (and which Sir Paul identified as lying at the heart of all good science), and the sort of condemnatory scepticism aimed at reinforcing existing held positions and belittling/ridiculing (or worse) those who disagreed. The irony, of course, is that while the scientific community is under unreasonable attack from the latter with regards to climate change; large parts of the scientific community itself are guilty of such dismissive scepticism when it comes to parapsychology.

To my mind this is not a healthy state of affairs. As the newly appointed Head of the Royal Society, Sir Paul clearly wants to help science raise its game in communicating with the public and gaining its trust. Complaining about the condemnatory climate change scepticism of those such as James Dellingpole, however, while parapsychology continues to get the treatment it does from within science will undermine that. The resort to Bayesean statistics as a way of undermining Daryl Bem’s work (identified by you in an earlier blog) is a case in point. The introduction of subjective judgements such an approach requires makes it unsuitable, I would have thought, for any scientific study of a phenomena, the existence of which in itself was highly controversial. The views of the conservative statisticians you mentioned have probably been ignored up to now for good reason. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if scientists use Bayesean statistics to undermine the findings of parapsychology, they can’t complain if Bayesean methods are then used against them by those who wish to attack scientific findings on complex and uncertain subjects for ideological reasons. And if they did so complain, to my mind their credibility would be undermined.

In his new role Sir Paul has a huge task in improving the dialogue between science and the public. It was heartening, however, that he came over as so transparently a reasonable, intelligent and decent person with a good grasp of the issues. We can only wish him well.

Robert, I happened to see that program as well, and had pretty much the same impressions as you. It wasn't just the way Delingpole refused to really face the force of Sir Paul's points, but like you say, it was also his demeanor, which struck me as a combination of hyper-caffeinated intensity, anger, and a certain intellectual lawlessness. While watching it, I too wondered how Sir Paul would respond to the cloud of unfair bias that parapsychology exists under. In the show he came off as so reasonable, and really quite likable. But I couldn't help but picture his reason buckling if he were confronted with the parapsychology issue. Of course, I don't know that to be the case, but it would be so incredibly refreshing to see someone in his position willing to fearlessly acknowledge the truth no matter what it was. Presumably, though, that person never rises high enough through the ranks.

'Presumably, though, that person never rises high enough through the ranks.'

Or perhaps its the consequence of having risen to the top that you have to stick to the orthodoxy.

Apparently you have to be a diplomat to head the Royal Society. Nurse's predecessor Martin Rees, although an atheist, was quite tolerant of religious belief. Rees infuriated Richard Dawkins by taking the Templeton Prize seriously (Dawkins called him a 'Quisling'). Nurse calls himself a sceptical agnostic and my guess is he won't be any more militant than Rees on these things.

'Or perhaps its the consequence of having risen to the top that you have to stick to the orthodoxy.'

That I think goes to the nub of it. I agree it is unlikely he will be any more militant that Rees, but even if he was sympathetic to at least the idea of parapsychology being a bone fide science (as the logic of what he said on the programme dictates), given the challenges he faces it is understandable if he considers that the last thing he needs politically at the moment is to open up a front on that subject as well. I've no idea what Dellingpole's views on Psi are - and I fully agree by the way that (given what I've read of his elsewhere) the programme didn't do him an injustice - but even if he was sympathetic, there would be plenty of other Dellingpoles out there ready to seek to undermine Nurse if he did.

That said, to reinforce what I said earlier it seems to me that if Nurse is to achieve his goals he needs to work towards there being greater humility, and less ideology (whether explicit or implicit), within the scientific community (in that regard his predecessor's refusal to be bullied by the likes of Dawkins was an encouraging step in the right direction). If that did happen, then over time parapsychology might find itself getting a fairer hearing, whatever Nurse's own personal views. But I won't be holding my breath.

I am not sure Paul Nurse's analogy with medical opinion holds as much water as at first appears to be the case.

Medical opinion is based on current research and changes often depending on the techniques available and the advancement of science.

As an example, medical advice less than century ago was, in some areas at least, recommending smoking as an effective expectorant if memory serves.

Current Medical consensus appears to reject alternative therapies, or certainly has in the past, most vigorously - and yet many people seem to benefit from it despite this. Who knows what medical opinion will be on a wide range of matters in five or ten years?

It appears to me that the debate is about facts. A scientist can certainly give his or her opinion on the facts and it may carry more weight as a result of their position however any person is surely at liberty to ask questions and challenge the logic whether a scientist or not.

"Trust me, I am a Doctor/Scientist - I have done all the thinking for you" seems to me to be a dangerous recommendation to accept sometimes.

Sorry Robert but I have to disagree. You admit you don't know anything about the controversies over global warming after all. As Dellingpole points out, much (most) of his commentary ended up on the cutting room floor, it was simply not screened for viewers. I fail to see what is 'ranting' about his blog post. Nurse has no competence on climate science whatsoever btw.

Plus Nurse's analogy doesn't hold at all. One there is no consensus among climate scientists: the atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, geophysicists, solar physicists etc are NOT in consensus on AGW (mislabeled climate change, the climate is always changing after all, it's been changing ever since we have had climate ie since the birth of planet earth, no bother though). Nurse is oblivious to all this.

Secondly argument from consensus/argumentum ad numerum is an invalid scientific argument, the consensus in science has often enough been overturned. In fact that's pretty much the history of science, a consensus widely held as unassailable is chucked overboard or seriously modified with new discoveries. Thirdly - as far as cancer is concerned, the evidence is there that one has cancer from biopsies, blood tests etc, whereas with the climate Nurse mistakes the assumption of man-made global warming for proven evidence, that's what is under dispute and debate after all. In a sleight of hand trick Nurse breezingly passes off his assumptions as verified conclusions, that's simply circular reasoning. And if you are going to talk cancer, the consensus on treatments for all kinds of cancers over the last few decades alone (never mind the last century or so) has often been dubious, even harmful and ineffective. On top of this cancer research and treatment itself is deeply corrupted by corporate BigPharma/Biotech profiteering. Cancer treatments are a whole other controversy, a whole other thing...

As far as who is humble and who is snarky and intimidating in this debate - well the leading climate scientists in the UK at East Anglia were caught fudging, cheating and deleting data and bullying and intimidating AGW sceptics in the recent ClimateGate scandal. In fact censorship, misrepresentation and intimidation of AGW SKEPTICAL SCIENTISTS is routine and pervasive by the AGW crowd who call the shots and are in control at the journals and scientific institutions. Sound familiar? Since AGW skeptical scientists are routinely compared to Holocaust Deniers by the AGW believers, just who is engaging in deceitful and insidious ad hominems and associated bullying?

Best not to make your mind up either way here when it comes to this heated debate, there is the need to investigate what both sides are saying, just like with psi. Yet remember the real science is difficult and voluminous, and just as with psi, one can't get to the bottom of things just by reading a few articles. Be careful of pseudo-certainty.

Lawrence, this is interesting. Until now I've been making the best judgement I can, based on the information that comes my way.

If AGW is false, then the psi-analogy is reversed. AGW sceptics are comparable to psi-advocates, frustrated that the real science is being overlooked. Nurse would be the sceptic, like Lewis Wolpert, say, voicing assumptions and prejudices that are widely shared in the scientific community, but which on close examination don't hold up. The analogy also works better for the public, whose suspicions about the mainstream scientific 'consensus' would now be vindicated.

Against this, that consensus is, as far as I can tell, based on extensive research by climate change scientists, and on a sympathetic ear given to their analysis. They are acknowledged to be the experts. That's not at all the case with parapsychologists, whose data and arguments are ignored and ridiculed while sceptics whose research is poor or non-existent are taken at face value.

The rejection of psi is based on prior beliefs about what is and is not possible in the materialist model. Nothing like that operates where climate change is concerned.

As far as making up one's mind goes, this is at least potentially one of the biggest issues of our age, and we can't afford to get it wrong. We need the best information we can get.

A psi-sceptic would need encouragement to revisit his prejudices and look at the data with fresh eyes. With psi I'd be able to recommend particular texts that influenced me. What would change my mind about AGW?


‘What would change my mind about AGW?’

For me, my attitude started to change when I came across this paper from Ralph Abraham a couple of years ago.
http://www.ralph-abraham.org/articles/MS%23127.Climate/climate2.pdf

Abraham is one of the mathematicians who led on the development of complexity theory. He also participated with Terrence McKenna & Rupert Sheldrake in the Trialogues, a number of which have been published (and which I greatly admire). Given his background (and pro-environmentalist credentials), what he had to say on climate change (as well as the responsible scientists like Freeman Dyson, quoted in his paper) gave me real food for thought. His paper and the accompanying references are now a couple of years out of date, but it’s pretty clear there isn’t much that has changed.

To that extent I agree with Lawrence that Nurse was not representing the views of all scientists in the Horizon programme. But for all the controversy and noise I see no reason to believe he wasn’t representing a significant majority view in the scientific community. (Lawrence, the issue for me with Dellingpole is not his viewpoint but one of both tone and lack of substance, the same as with Psi sceptics. I followed his blogs for a while on the Telegraph website, but his personal attack on Crispin Tickell earlier this month was the last straw for me.)

For what it’s worth, where this leaves me personally on this issue is that while there is undoubtedly climate change, the extent to which it is driven by human behaviour – and even more what the future consequences will be of these changes – remains uncertain. Given my scientific education (many years ago I obtained a degree in Chemistry), however, it seems to me that putting the amount of CO2 into the atmosphere we have must have made some sort of impact on the environment. Perhaps I now share the viewpoint (and pessimism) of James Lovelock (whose ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ remains for me a must read on this subject) i.e. we have probably already done a lot of damage to the environment with unforeseeable consequences, and if so it’s almost certainly too late to do anything about this. In other words the game is probably already up. Not an optimistic note to end on, but this is not a subject I find it easy to be optimistic about despite all the uncertainties.

It's amazing how every unpleasant weather phenom is due to 'global' warming (whatever that is). The key question the alarmists can't answer is what could falsify their fantasy projections. All their 1980 and 1990 predictions about 2011 have turned out to be totally false. Sea level may not rise at all this year. Record low temps and winter snow were never part of the AGW scare story, that is until they happened.

Just as an example of alarmists' phony arguments is Kiehl's article in Jan 14 Science, where he says that the Oligocene Earth was much warmer than today and that could only have been due to the high CO2, since 'The paleogeography of this time was not radically different from present-day geography'. What a whopper! With no Panama and no Middle East as barriers, a world-girdling west-going current kept the Earth very warm. When that current reorganized 25Myr ago, the Earth promptly cooled off, which caused CO2 to go down. If the alarmists were right, then 1000ppm should have kept the Earth hot forever, no matter what ocean currents do. Instead, the geological record shows CO2 following temp, not leading it. By itself, 1000ppm can only make 1degC, so weak is CO2.

There's no way it's getting to 1000 ppm anyway. Right now humanity produces 6 ppm per year but only 2 show up. The other 4 are removed by feedback due to the excess over the equilibrium 280ppm. When we get 150 over 280pp then all 6ppm will get absorbed. If humanity gets up to 7 or 8 (doubtful), we'd only go to a temporary 450ppm.

AGW is a nothing but a secular religion of statist salvation via swollen bureaucracy and ruinous taxes, dressed up in scientific drag, with flimsy temp records, sophomoric computer models, and shrill name-calling.

AGW 'deniers' get treated even more uncivilly than parapsychologists, so I'm surprised you're taking the anti-science side in this. Certainly it is anti-science to ignore parapsychology. It is equally so to ignore the wretched state of Establishment climate 'science'

Hello,

First off, you can't compare the state of psychical research with the state of climate research. I know - from your book - that you tend to overestimate the soundness of psi research and maybe you underestimate the soundness of climate research also.

On top of that, I think you misrepresent in this blogpost the consensus in the parapsychological community when you state that the consensus is that psi do exist. First of, psi is just a label that is used to put on anomalies. Anomalies do exist. Statistical anomalies do exist. So what? That doesn't say anything about the underlying processes - if they're really "paranormal" or not. Seems strange to me to have to remind you that a label is just a label, and not an explanation of anything. But even after stating that, there are people in parapsychology that are not convince that real paranormal processes do exist, only that maybe the evidence could point in that direction (Watt, Irwin, and son on). And those are not skeptics doing psi researchs, like Wiseman or French. Those are convince that real paranormal processes don't exist. And whether you like it or not, they also do psi research. So at the end of the day, it would be much more accurate to say that there is no consensus in the psychical field. Of course, you're biais make you think that the field is limted to people like Radin or Sheldrake. But parapsychology is not limited to them, sorry to say. Noetic science is not the only way to look at psychical phenomena.

Take care,

‘First of, psi is just a label that is used to put on anomalies. Anomalies do exist. Statistical anomalies do exist. So what? That doesn't say anything about the underlying processes - if they're really "paranormal" or not.’

There is a lot I could take issue with here, but I do find it frustrating that the output from so much psi research is focussed on the analysis (and meta-analysis) of statistics. It seems such an indirect way of coming at the subject. First person testimony from reliable witnesses, no matter how compelling, is simply dismissed by many as non-scientific, however. So I suppose this is how it has to be until much further progress is made generally in our philosophical and scientific understanding of mental phenomena such as consciousness, perception and memory.

That the statistical output from psi research captures something positive, however, seems to me to be beyond doubt. We can argue about what it precisely means, and the effect may be maddeningly elusive and small, but it looks to be there. If that was not the case why are the results from, say, the work of Bem and Radin, attacked and questioned in the manner and to the extent they are rather than just dismissed as meaningless ‘statistical anomalies’? Yes, some psi researchers do not obtain these results (I would add Susan Blackmore to Venom’s list), but for me that says more about the phenomena itself rather than undermining the results of researchers who do get positive results.

Interstellar Bill, your point about climate change ‘deniers’ suffering even worse insults is for me a fair one. Reading your post reminded me of a thoughtful talk Clive James gave on Radio 4 last year on this subject. I recall him saying that in Australian academia, those who called into question the findings of climate science were openly equated by some with Nazi atrocity deniers. All rather depressing.

I confess to not being up on the climate situation, but I wonder how anyone can credibly believe that we (humans) can have virtually remade a very large proportion of the land surface of the planet and that not have any effect whatsoever. If there's an extremist, unrealistic position, that would seem to be it.

That is, that in this special case, cause and effect don't operate.

'I think you misrepresent in this blogpost the consensus in the parapsychological community when you state that the consensus is that psi do exist... Of course, you're biais make you think that the field is limted to people like Radin or Sheldrake.'

Perhaps I do overstate this. Clearly parapsychologists aren't unanimous in believing the same thing. But to say the opposite, that parapsychologists' are divided about whether or not psi exists would be quite wrong too.

Certainly sceptics carry out research, but they do so with the transparent purpose of discrediting other similar research. I described this in my book - when they get evidence of psi they perform all sorts of post hoc manoevers to try to explain it away. So people like Wiseman are peripheral. Susan Blackmore might be a better example, but she too has made her antipathy to the idea of psi quite plain.

Harvey Irwin is strong on the educational side. It's hard to think he could have written his comprehensive Introduction to Parapsychology about something he didn't think existed. He is of course against survival, but as I recall invokes psi to explain away veridical perception in OBEs.

My sense is that if some figures in the parapsychology community are reticent about whether or not psi exists that has a lot to do with their need to keep in with their psychologist colleagues, who tolerate their eccentricity as long as they are not too open about it. I don't know, but I think this may apply to Watt.

So perhaps 'consensus' is too strong a word, but I'd certainly argue that the majority of serious researchers are convinced about psi. By 'serious' I mean people like Radin and Sheldrake who are leading from the front. If we're talking about survival, then of course it's a quite different matter.

I'm not at all impressed with the 'statistical anomalies so what?' argument. It's an outsider's view, a cheap sceptical trope. It just means: 'if you absolutely insist, I'll concede that you've proved that the anomalies exist, but that's it, I'm not prepared to think about it any further, now please go away'. Psi is not 'just a label', it describes an aspect of consciousness that has been repeatedly observed and documented in different situations, with unifying features and characteristics, and that moreover underpins a certain kind of religious or spiritualist worldview. I think even some sceptics like Paul Kurtz understand this only too well, which is why they want to explain it away.

'I wonder how anyone can credibly believe that we (humans) can have virtually remade a very large proportion of the land surface of the planet and that not have any effect whatsoever.'

Completely agree, Michael, that's my position too.

I have the same concern. I have no way to check the science myself without years of reading and training that I'm not going to do just to argue more competently about it on the Internet.

I'm interested in seeing actual problems with the AGW theory exposed and elaborated, but what I almost always find is the same behavior you see with psi skeptics: demanding perfection, moving goalposts, character assassinations, pretending real data doesn't exist, alluding to non-existent counter-evidence, etc.

It's clear to me that on the whole the skeptics are more concerned with marginalizing the discipline of climatology, the way psi-skeptics marginalized parapsychology, rather than dealing with the actual science.

Now, that has to be placed against the fact that, yes, the AGW camp's self-appointed representatives are often lunatics with a rather disturbed ideology, and yes, the whole "ecological apocalypse" eschatology is looking tired and ridiculous. (But then then the skeptics have their own eschatology, the predicted "economic armageddon" if we cut emissions, that I find equally absurd.)

Meh. It's just frustrating that the issue has become more a clash of religions rather than a discussion of sound public policy.

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