Saturday, August 18, 2007

What on earth?

Impossible things before breakfast

The American Association for the Advancement of Science usually does a good job of living up to its name. No institution is perfect, of course, which is why Margaret Mead was able during her presidency of the organization to talk her colleagues into trying to take parapsychology seriously. Since 1969, the AAAS has recognized the Parapsychological Association as a formally affiliated organization. Attempts by skeptical scientists to persuade the AAAS to dissolve the link have so far been unsuccessful. I presume this continued affiliation is what prompts the inclusion of reviews like the following in the July/August 2007 issue of SB&F (Science Books & Films: Your review guide to science resources for all ages):
130 Paranormal Phenomena

Mayer, Elizabeth Lloyd. Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. NY: Bantam, 2007. ix+302pp. $32.00. 2006025661. ISBN 978-0-553-80335-8. Index; C.I.P.
C, T, GA **

Extraordinary Knowing is an extraordinary book in which Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer has compiled an incredibly diverse range of sources of evidence for anomalous mental capacities. In succinct prose, she describes her long-standing investigation of these puzzling phenomena that grew from a personal experience with an inexplicable and deeply troubling psychic's finding of a lost harp. In reviewing the history of abroad range of phenomena—telepathy, remote viewing, ESP, and a host of other “paranormal” abilities—Mayer confronts the deep reluctance of many scientists to admit even to the possible existence of such capabilities. She highlights the considerable history of meticulous, peer-reviewed, thoroughly replicated studies that demonstrate these talents, to a greater or lesser extent, in many persons. She notes the intractability of these subjects to standard scientific investigation and discusses how that shows the limitations of this widely cherished methodology. She includes quotations from numerous eminent scientists who have been convinced of the reality of these abilities, but who, for fear of the ability itself or rejection by the broader scientific community, have remained largely silent. Mayer skillfully weaves this web of mysterious phenomena into current studies ranging from Eastern religious philosophies to quantum theory. In the process, she hints at how one might discover and develop such anomalous mental capacities.

Ethan Allen, Center for Nanotechnology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Margaret Mead's argument for admission of the Parapsychological Association to the ranks of AAAS-affiliated organizations leaned heavily on the notion that science would be ill-served if it refused to give a fair hearing to a controversial field of investigation. She exhorted her fellow scientists to cast off the shackles of stodginess and to open their minds: “The whole history of scientific advance is full of scientists investigating phenomena that the Establishment did not believe were there. I submit that we vote in favor of this association's work.”

Nearly forty years later, we can appreciate the results of Mead's intervention on behalf of the psychic researchers:


Mead was right that the history of science is replete with examples of stubborn scientists balking at accepting exciting new theories. Galileo rejected Kepler's theory of elliptical orbits. Agassiz didn't accept evolution. Lord Kelvin resisted the idea that the earth was very old.

It does not follow, however, that everything that is mocked eventually turns out to be right.

Parapsychology has been unable to broaden its acceptance among rank and file scientists because its results are so paltry. The better the experimental controls, the less striking the outcomes. This has led to the lame excuse that there is a problem with the scientific method and that double-blind studies kill the psychic phenomena they are intended to study, but the parsimonious conclusion is that there's nothing there.

Physicists have been able to persuade people during the past century of the existence of protons, electrons, neutrinos, and an entire zoo of subatomic particles. You probably haven't seen one of them, but no one seriously doubts them because physicists have experimentally and theoretically demonstrated their effects.

Parapsychologists should be able to establish the existence of telekinesis just as conclusively by demonstrating, for example, the ability of psychics to tweak a torsion balance in a sealed vacuum chamber. Sorry, no. The results are too small. The evidence dances on the edge of statistical significance before it vanishes in randomness. Oh, come on. Just embrace the null hypothesis and stop chasing after fairies.

I know it's unkind of me to dismiss the work of the late Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer without bothering to read it, but Ethan Allen's soppy review does not stimulate my interest or give me any reason to give parapsychology a new hearing. He says that Professor Mayer “highlights the considerable history of meticulous, peer-reviewed, thoroughly replicated studies that demonstrate these talents, to a greater or lesser extent, in many persons.” Put your money on “lesser extent,” folks, because “thoroughly replicated studies” would overcome skepticism and bring parapsychology into the fold of mainstream science. It hasn't happened, has it? Not even after decades in which the hidebound curmudgeons of science could pass away and be replaced by unbiased youngsters eager and ready to look at the evidence with open minds. What happens instead is that psychic research labs shut down and newer researchers fail to take up the cause. There must not be much evidence.

Mayer was a UC Berkeley psychology professor who was fascinated by coincidence. She saw significance in it, but the problem lies in determining what the appropriate level of coincidence is. How do you know when you have too much coincidence? The answer is not at all obvious. Once you're on the prowl for significance in random occurrences, your filters can supply the significance for you.

Although I'm not a betting man, I can see which side is favored by the odds in the argument over the existence of psychic phenomena. There's a reason the word “just” occurs in the old saying, “It's just a coincidence.”

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