American Association for the Advancement of PseudoScience

By Sean Carroll | February 14, 2008 5:41 pm

What’s wrong with this list?

Seems at first glance like a list of scientific professional organizations, or at least the subset of such a list beginning with the letter “P.” And indeed it is — it’s an excerpt from the list of Affiliates of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But take a look at that second entry — the Parapsychological Association? Is that what it sounds like? Indeed it is — “the international professional organization of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of ‘psi’’ (or ‘psychic’) experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition (“parapsychology”).”

The only problem is, parapsychology is not science. It’s pseudoscience. From a completely blank-slate perspective, one can certainly pose scientific questions about whether the human mind can tell the future or read minds or move objects around without touching them. The thing is, we know the answer: no. The possibilities have been investigated and found wanting; more straightforwardly, they would violate the known laws of physics. Alchemy was science once, but it’s not any more. Not all hypotheses are equally worthy of our respect and attention; sometimes we learn that a particular idea doesn’t work, and move on with our lives.

So what in the world is the Parapsychological Association doing as part of the AAAS? Benefiting from the implication of respectability, is the obvious answer. Note that “Affiliate of the AAAS” is displayed prominently on the PA homepage — an endorsement that, say, the Paleontological Society or the Phycological Society of America (not misspelled, I swear) didn’t deem worth of such prominent display.

Apparently the PA was founded by J.B. Rhine in 1957, and became affiliated with the AAAS in 1969 thanks to the advocacy of then-AAAS-president Margaret Mead. In 1979 John Wheeler campaigned to have it kicked out, but his effort failed.

The AAAS is a useful organization, and it’s a shame to see them associate their good name with pseudoscience. Their annual meeting begins to day in Boston, and it’s always a fun event, a great way to catch up with some of the major themes in all areas of science. None of those themes should involve reading people’s thoughts or bending spoons with one’s mind. I hope the AAAS can gently extract itself from this relationship.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • Matt

    I’m willing to go out on a limb here and brand myself a lunatic on my very, very favorite science blog. Which is hard for me to do. But come on! Show a little human curiosity here, or at least some willingness to be wrong. I’d bet the vast majority of people have had some experience that they have no way to understand apart from some framework you would label “para”. I’ll even go ahead and tell you mine: I have, on at least 5 different occasions that I know of, shared dreams with family members – identical dreams, identical nights, sometimes with people I hadn’t spoken to in months. I even inherited a recurring nightmare (porcupine climbing in my crib) from my mother.

    My point is this: to dismiss even the possibility out of hand of human esp abilities, to dismiss all those experiences of all those people, based solely on a handful of weak attempts at clinical trials in a field that has always been underfunded and mocked, never given serious attention or serious research dollars, is, in my opinion, arrogant and dogmatic. And try to separate this from the god issue. Allowing for the possibility of mild telepathy in humans doesn’t weaken your stance there at all.

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    Wait a sec…. isn’t “science” defined more as a method of inquiry, and not solely according to the subject being investigated?

    Why couldn’t there be an organization studying “parapsychology” using legitimate scientific procedure? You may believe that such an organization would see their hypotheses disproved time and again (and you may be right on that, or then again, you may not be…) but that doesn’t qualify the study as “psuedoscience” just because they’re looking for something that might not be there.

    To my understanding, that’s what science is all about: hypothesis, experimentation, data collection, data analysis, reevaluation of hypothesis. Nowhere in there is “get it right the first time” or “only study things we already know are true.”

  • Matt

    Damn.

    I wish I’d said what Ali said. Then I wouldn’t have had to look like on a lunatic on my very very favorite science blog. :)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Matt:

    I have, on at least 5 different occasions that I know of, shared dreams with family members – identical dreams, identical nights, sometimes with people I hadn’t spoken to in months. I even inherited a recurring nightmare (porcupine climbing in my crib) from my mother.

    Still, you, your mother and everyone else has a brain that computes these dreams. No one will ever postulate a paranormal explanation if their computer behaves strangely. The human brain is billions of times more complex, so there is much more room for freak effects caused by ordinary down to earth physics.

    My point is this: to dismiss even the possibility out of hand of human esp abilities, to dismiss all those experiences of all those people, based solely on a handful of weak attempts at clinical trials in a field that has always been underfunded and mocked, never given serious attention or serious research dollars, is, in my opinion, arrogant and dogmatic

    The problem is that such esp abilities would violate the known well established laws of physics. So, such effects are not at all dismissed out of hand. They are merely dismissed because it is very reasonable to assume that the human brain is a physical system subject to the known laws of physics.

  • http://wbmh.blogspot.com wolfgang

    > I even inherited a recurring nightmare (porcupine climbing in my crib)
    what’s so bad about porcupine climbing in your crib ? oh i get it …

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Matt and Ali — I tried to address this issue in the post. If we knew nothing about how the world works, the question of whether parapsychological phenomena were real would be a perfectly scientific one. But we do know something! Including, for example, a complete inventory of long-range forces strong enough to have detectable influences on macroscopic objects. (Gravity and electromagnetism.) There is no room there for telekinesis etc. So, in the real world, it’s not science.

  • Lord

    “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

    Thank you Lord Kelvin

  • Hag

    “I have, on at least 5 different occasions that I know of, shared dreams with family members – identical dreams, identical nights, sometimes with people I hadn’t spoken to in months.”
    This can be explained as a simple matter of statistics and confirmation bias- imagine all of the people you know – most of the times their dreams don’t coincide with yours, and we never ever count those times, because obviously they shouldn’t coincide (even in some weak sense of “coinciding”).
    But over the years, over the quite large number of acquaintances people usually have, with the common themes present in human psychology and with the afore mentioned weak sense of coincidence, you are bound, or someone you know is bound (more times or less depending on the times one remembers and shares dreams), to have these coincidences.

    Regarding funding you are quite mistaken. Many, many, esoteric, profitable institutions (even though probably the more lucrative ones aren’t that naive) provide funding for such experiments. Look up Ryman Roth, he has seriously analysed many a claim for psy activity. Or Susan Blackmore. Unfortunately, there is nothing there so far. And like Sean said, we looked, found nothing, there are many, many more promising lines of research in need of attention, so why spend time and money on this?? It is not like we can spare the resources to look for Atlantis or something similarly implausible.

  • slide2112

    The real problem with Sean’s position is that he is calling for the suppression the discipline. And don’t go on about the fakes and frauds in this field. If that were the only measure of a disciplines value, what would be left? But what about results you say? I am sure you kind find your own examples of pursuits that have not yet produced anything of ‘real’ value.

  • Chaz

    The FAQ on the parapsycology page is great. Apparently, they don’t believe in ghosts! According to the FAQ, that would be “clearly nonsense.” Clearly!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    They don’t believe in ghosts? What, do they think science already knows everything? Are they trying to suppress investigation into unconventional ideas?

    Fascists.

  • http://www.website.com Yahoo

    My reaction to the question about the list:

    What the phi upsilon kappa is phi beta kappa doing in there?

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    What’s wrong with this list? Oh, I thought it was a list of pseudoscience organisations (whether or not the subjects they study may be studied scientifically) and the correct answer is that Physics is notably missing.

  • Brian Mingus

    Parapsychology is not a science so long as their journals report findings other than null results. I fully agree that they need to be ejected from the AAAS, tactfully (as Sean suggested) or not.

  • John Merryman

    Extra dimensions? Alternate universes? Inflation? Time as a physical dimension? There are many models that cannot be conclusively proven.

    We can build twenty dollar radios that can interpret electromagnetic waves. Why can’t our brains learn to do the same, since they function as electric fields? I find when I zen out around other people, I pick up far more emotional feedback and the verbalizations that pop through the consciousness seem to merge with them. In fact, as a small child, I had to make a conscious effort to tune out my siblings when they were not even around. Our brains function as a process of connection between neurons and society functions as a process of connections between people. Is this is as far as we go in our perceptive abilities? Or is there a whole range we have spent the last few millenia shutting out in order to develop a stronger sense of autonomy and are evolved enough to open the connections back up. We think we are so advanced because our technologies have been going through major advances, yet they are still very primitive in relation to the biological functions that developed millions of years ago. This might just be one small step to developing the larger organism and we are simply the current generation of cellular structure manifesting it. Generation is a constant process of shedding those layer of cells which have grown old and hard, so a fresh generation can expand a little further. It’s clear that certain elements of even the scientific community have become set in their assumptions, just as they presume other elements of society to be. As the old saying goes; “Progress happens one funeral at a time.”

  • John Merryman

    Matt,

    They let you get away with being a lunatic here, if you’re reasonably polite about it. That I haven’t been blocked is proof of that.

  • Joseph Brant

    There has been a lot of money thrown at this garbage. Lots of experiments. No results ever replicated by independent scientists.

    Susan Blackmore started out a believer but ended up a skeptic because of the inability to obtain results (she ran good experiments unlike many other “scientists” in this “field”).

    Psychic woo woo powers do not exist, and James Randi still has his million dollars.

  • Ryan

    This is the only cosmic variance post I’ve ever read where I enjoyed the comments more than the post itself! (Sorry Sean). It is always fascinating to think about fringe science because it forces us to think about the definition of science.

    Ali is completely correct in saying science is a method of inquiry. However, Sean is also correct in noting that such a hypothesis has been falsified (with a very high probability). Thus, we must follow the method of inquiry by throwing out the “para” hypothesis.

  • John Merryman

    Joseph,

    We haven’t exactly explained consciousness either, or even a clear description of it. Does that mean it really doesn’t exist? Too woo woo?

    Yes there are a lot of charlatans out there and many of them are quite convincing. You haven’t studied the field of economics lately have you? They do much better then Randi.

  • http://www.smbc-comics.com/ Zach

    I agree with Sean.

    Why not have a Phlogiston Association? It (like ESP) is a concept that’s been discredited by every scientific test ever put to it. It’s never been observed, and the idea of its existence doesn’t make sense in any scientific framework.

    Now, you could study its potential existence in a scientific way, thereby technically making your field a science in the sense of falsifiability. However, if you’re running an organization that needs respect, including on your roster a phlogiston society (or Phrenology Society or Poltergeist Society or Phoenix Phinding Society) is not a good way to earn it. Why not have a creationism society on the list? Why not have a geocentrist society? Why not a flat earth society?

    Descartes wrote about the possibility that math might all be wrong. It may be the case that 2+2 actually equals 5, but that every time anyone ever worked the problem, a demon messed him up. Since this is a possibility, should we all make sure to keep an open mind that 2+2=5?

    Come on, guys. Pointing out the fact that almost anything could be done in a scientific way is a cheap trick that should be reserved for people like Kent Hovind and Kirk Cameron.

  • Elliot

    Maybe I’m in left field but I think the Pychological Society is potentially the most interesting link in the post. I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more about algae as it pertains to cost effective ways of migrating away from fossil fuels. I’ll leave it at that for now.

    Elliot

  • Elliot

    see I misspelled it that’s phychological…

    sorry.

  • John Merryman

    The scientific method is inherently reductionistic, but reality isn’t.

  • Brian Mingus

    I just read the article linked to over at Preposterous Universe. Near the end he writes:

    There is no way for the human brain to send out a signal that would read a mind or bend a spoon, nor is there any way for the planet Venus to influence your love life. Any such influence would have to be communicated by one of the forces of nature, and there are only two possibilities: gravitation and electromagnetism. In either case the size of the force would be easily detectable, and we haven’t detected it.

    Is it not true that we have never detected gravitational waves, either? Not exactly a bulletproof argument.

  • Lord

    It is sad testament that such narrowmindedness is considered scientific. I can see science has become a dessicated rotting corpse for you. Isn’t it long past time to do something else?

  • Matt

    Damn, I step out of the fray to get dinner and miss all the snark.

    Hag said:

    This can be explained as a simple matter of statistics and confirmation bias- imagine all of the people you know – most of the times their dreams don’t coincide with yours, and we never ever count those times, because obviously they shouldn’t coincide (even in some weak sense of “coinciding”).

    Yeah, I’m usually the first person to point out confirmation bias. But remembering a dream is not an everyday occurrence for me. Finding the dream interesting enough to relate it to another party is far far less common. Then having that person respond with, “Holy Shit, I had the same dream last night” certainly qualifies as confirmation, but I bring myself to write that off as simply bias, especially when I’m talking about a recent dream where I’m in high school marching band trying unsuccessfully to play the oboe (my sister’s high school instrument) the very same night my sister had a dream of trying unsuccessfully to play the french horn (my high school instrument) in marching band.

    I know an anecdote on a freaking blog comment page is not going to convince anyone, especially not here, I’m just trying to explain why “we know all the physical forces that could explain ESP, and nothing we know of is capable of doing it” isn’t a good enough argument for people like me, with personal experiences to the contrary, to dismiss what we’ve seen. And I for one hope that legitimate scientists have the opportunity to continue to look into the possibility, without being subject to ridicule.

    I know there have been some well executed studies providing evidence against ESP, but I seem to recall a study on remote viewers that left open the possibility of something legitimately weird going on in certain cases? That ring a bell to anyone else? Maybe I, ah, dreamed it. :)

  • Matt

    Crap. Put my end blockquote in the wrong place. Here it is formatted correctly.

    Hag said:

    This can be explained as a simple matter of statistics and confirmation bias- imagine all of the people you know – most of the times their dreams don’t coincide with yours, and we never ever count those times, because obviously they shouldn’t coincide (even in some weak sense of “coinciding”).

    Yeah, I’m usually the first person to point out confirmation bias. But remembering a dream is not an everyday occurrence for me. Finding the dream interesting enough to relate it to another party is far far less common. Then having that person respond with, “Holy Shit, I had the same dream last night” certainly qualifies as confirmation, but I bring myself to write that off as simply bias, especially when I’m talking about a recent dream where I’m in high school marching band trying unsuccessfully to play the oboe (my sister’s high school instrument) the very same night my sister had a dream of trying unsuccessfully to play the french horn (my high school instrument) in marching band.

    I know an anecdote on a freaking blog comment page is not going to convince anyone, especially not here, I’m just trying to explain why “we know all the physical forces that could explain ESP, and nothing we know of is capable of doing it” isn’t a good enough argument for people like me, with personal experiences to the contrary, to dismiss what we’ve seen. And I for one hope that legitimate scientists have the opportunity to continue to look into the possibility, without being subject to ridicule.

    I know there have been some well executed studies providing evidence against ESP, but I seem to recall a study on remote viewers that left open the possibility of something legitimately weird going on in certain cases? That ring a bell to anyone else? Maybe I, ah, dreamed it.

  • Matt

    Zach writes:

    Come on, guys. Pointing out the fact that almost anything could be done in a scientific way is a cheap trick that should be reserved for people like Kent Hovind and Kirk Cameron.

    I think this calls for our own equivalent to Godwin’s Law: When someone in the comments on a science blog compares a commenter to Kent Hovind, the real discussion is effectively over.

  • Rien

    Brian Mingus wrote:

    Is it not true that we have never detected gravitational waves, either? Not exactly a bulletproof argument.

    No, but have you seen the size of the detectors that are too small to detect gravitational waves? And you hope to do it with your brain? And processes that emit gravitational waves are ridiculously violent. Are you going to do that with your brain too?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Here is what we know:

    1. Gravity has been detected. Like, every day!

    2. Gravity is too weak to account for psychic phenomena.

    3. Any unknown force with range greater than a millimeter would have to be much weaker than gravity to have escaped detection.

    You do the math.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    Venus is a bright, shiny thing. Why would it be any less useful as a love life enhancement tool than any other similarly pretty object?*

    *Aside from the fact that it is currently only visible at 6 in the morning.

  • klien4g

    Sean,

    Concerning: “Any unknown force with range greater than a millimeter would have to be much weaker than gravity to have escaped detection.”

    How do we go about detecting an ‘unknown’ force?
    I apologize for my ignorance, but there is a caricature in my head of a scientist waving around a measuring instrument set to “Detect Unknown Forces”

  • klien4g

    My last post might make me out to be a supporter of such woo as ESP etc. So I felt the need to write this:

    One can find a convincing argument against Psychokinesis with an information theoretic flavour:
    Say one wants to move a rock around with her mind and there are ways to ‘transmit’ such a want. How does a simple thing like a rock ‘decode’ such a command?

    In fact, how does one transmit such a want in the first place?
    When a person wants to pick up a pen, she just picks up the pen. The process is not like: A wants to pick up a pen followed by A thinks her hand into picking up the pen. This is an unfortunate consequence of having a dualist worldview.
    We initiate a co-ordinated firing of motor neurons that results in a co-ordinated constriction of muscle cells, which we call ‘picking up a pen’.

    Lastly, we do read other people’s mind and can even control them with ours. Its by using this deeply interesting thing called ‘Language’. Its unfortunate that Parapsychologists take it for granted and don’t find it worth their while.

  • John Merryman

    As a younger child in a large and combative family, I found that people think by focusing. Often on the same things, thus leading to conflict. So it has been my default mechanism to unfocus. What I’ve found over the years is that other organisms perceptive area of concentration can be visually detected. There are a range of ways this manifests, from ripples in the space around them, to those spots that weave across your vision, like light reflecting off a lens. One of the most dependable times for this to be apparent is driving, because the people coming toward you are externally focused, especially on you, since your vehicle is a potential threat. So it is the opposite of walking along a sidewalk, where people naturally avoid concentrating on others space. Since it has become such a habit for me, I try not to read others and tune it out, but this tends to make me more sensitive to it, so I resort to mirroring effects and reflect others back at them. I’m putting this out there, because I don’t have a professional scientific rep to preserve. I ride horses for a living and it’s a job requirement for me to get inside other animals heads. I don’t bend spoons and I don’t teleport.

    Why are other dimensions, alternate universes and branes qualitively different from spirit worlds, given consciousness inhabits these few dimensions, why not any others?

  • Hag

    John, peripheral vision is actually more sensitive to light than direct vision. But if you really believe you can sense stuff, why not devise a suitable, as objective as possible experiment and check out your success rate?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Parapsychology?! The intended field is based on the notion that mind is a form of “substance” in the world which can be studied. Fair enough, at least at first. Yet science has indicated that such things are at best problematic. In biology there persisted an idea of an “elan vitale,” or a life force which made living things fundamentally distinct from inanimate objects. We know quite a lot about biology today, genetic codes, polypeptide function of kinases, phosphatases, transferases, and the grand scheme of evolution which binds together living species in an interrelated web. In spite of this science has found no elan vitale.

    The vital force (elan vitale) and some related concepts are based on Aristotle’s scheme that distinct categories of objects hold their properties by an aether-like substance that was a metaphysical substance which conferred ontological properties to a physical body. Alchemy was based on idea of this sort. Different substances were thought to change their properties by how they contained this “aether,” called phlogiston. Lavoissier falsified this idea. The vital force in biology is a similar concept, a bio-phlogiston of sorts, which while it has not been exactly falsified it has been reduced to irrelevance.

    We then get to this property called consciousness. We really know very little about this. We can only so far identify certain brain states as measured by PET and other methods in association with a subject’s reported inner experiences. There is a fair amount of data which indicates that physiological processes can be associated with mental states, but as yet the connection between how this “generates” the inner conscious state is unknown. The idea of mind as some substance or entity which inhabits a physical body, such as Descarte’s mind-body dualism, can be argued against pretty easily. While not falsified, it is ineffective. There was last decade a spate of interest in an idea of quantum consciousness, but this has fallen into irrelevance. Large scale quantum entanglements, particularly with states in a warm body with lots of thermal decoherence, are not likely to exist.

    So mind as a substance which is exists in the world but is somehow independent of properties of physical bodies is not a scientifically credible idea. Parapsychology has as one of its main conjectures the idea that mind operates on the physical world, and can do so directly. This is whether it be Descarte’s dualism idea of a mind that functions on the body internally, or as an entity which can operate outside the body. Uri Geller made a bit of a spurious career on the idea he can move objects and bend spoons by pure thought or will. Yet so far none of these claims has passed the criterion set down by James Randi as credible.

    Thus parapsychology is at best an idea of a science. All the putative science has is a set of loose and inexactly stated conjectures and no observational or experimental body of data. As such parapsychology can not be regarded as a scientific subject. Maybe in the future data might come to support its basic tenents, yet from a Bayesian perspective this appears to involve “unkown unknowns,” to use a Rumfeldism, where no Bayesian prior exists. Parapsychology as its stands exists as little more than one of many puerile notions upheld in popular society.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Count Iblis

    One can also approach this topic from the other end, i.e. assume that there does exist parapsychological phenomena and yet the laws of physics as observed in experiments are not violated (except possibly when doing parapsychology experiments). Then try to think of a universe in which this could be possible.

    One possibility would be if our universe is implemented as computer simulation in another universe. We live in that other universe and access the simulation via virtual reality. Then, we would observe the laws of physics of the simulated universe, but we could still violate them ourselves.

  • andy.s

    Folks, no one is saying that the Psychies shouldn’t have their own society. But Sean is correct to point out that it has no place in the AAAS.

    I’d be willing to entertain for the sake of argument that they might have some solid results that are worth studying, maybe, someday. But the fact remains that as of now, they haven’t come up with anything, ever.

    If you include psi as a science, by what right would you exclude creationism? Or Vedic Quantum Mechanics?

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    There is no spoon.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The idea we exist in a computer simulation seems to have a measure of popularity these days. With Newton the universe was a clock, and today it is a computer. I am a bit of a partisan of the idea that quantum gravity is fundamentally about error correction gauged algebraic codes which perserve Q-bits, so there is a computer-like aspect to the universe I think.

    I have this definition of three types of God. The first is a metaphysical God, which is a sort of metaphysical “mind force” which confers a reality on to existence. John Wheeler questioned what it was that made the “equations fly,” and this God is what does that. The second type of God is the Deist God which set things up and then let the clockwork run. This is the God of Newton, thought Newton would himself deny this, but it is the clockwork universe God. The third form is the MUG-God (MUG = Multi-User Game), who has set the universe up as His own little game. We are the little characters or self-actualized avatars in this simulation, or in a digital version of what the late 70’s post-punk existentially angstish band “Joy Division” called “God’s Colony.” If we were to pick people’s brains we would probably find that the MUG-God is most popularly believed. The fundamentalist notion of God with a 6-day creation and the whole Biblical literalist hook-line-sinker is a MUG-God. Curiously this notion has crept into some cosmology speculation as well.

    We might then in part think of science as a form of Turing test, where here we are doing a sort of virtual reality Turing test analogous to an AI T-test. If we were to find that there are violations in the game, or where the physical rules we observe don’t apply in certain circumstances we might then conclude that the universe has failed the Turing test. If mind is found to circumvent physics, say in the way to players on “Second Life” might communicate by a channel outside the simulation, then we would be confronted by evidence of a most disturbing nature.

    The idea of a computer basis for the universe is something I find interesting. There is a thread on this blog on this idea, but it appears to have died before I was aware of it. Yet with quantum information and quantum cosmology the “game” is a bit different. What we call classical information occurs because conditional entropy for EPR pairs is made inaccessible. This might occur for EPR pairs sent through a very noisy channel, such as a black hole. Yet this “computer” is self-emergent, computes itself and is not something that is “designed” from the outside. The MUG-God running a computer simulation is a cosmological version of the Intelligent Design thesis, which is not a theory but a statement on the falsifiability of biological evolution. A statement on the falsification of a theory can’t itself be a theory. Fortunately the irreducible complexity and ID concept has failed to be observed and it has so far been rejected as a scientific theory. The computer simulation as an algorithm established or designed from the outside is something which might stand as a falsification statement of a quantum cosmology which has quantum gravity bits in a self-assembled or selected algorithm. So we keep doing a “Turing test” on reality to determine if reality is somehow a virtually designed process, always trying to falsify our theories, which is what we call science.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Reginald Selkirk

    1. Matt “in a field that has always been underfunded and mocked”

    Underfunded? I would argue that parapsychology has been over-funded when one looks at the resources put into it vs. the reliable, replicable results obtained. In the 1970s, James S. McDonnell (of McDonnell-Douglas) gave enough money $$$ to Washington University in St. Louis to convince them to start up a department of parapsychology. The eventual result was Project Alpha, in which two young men made fools of the department’s researchers. Those clowns deserved to be mocked. There is a whole lot in the field of parapsychology that is mock-worthy. And there is, to this day, not a single reliable, replicable result from the entire field.

  • Matt

    andy.s wrote:

    If you include psi as a science, by what right would you exclude creationism?

    Creationism doesn’t even make an attempt at falsification or lab study. How bout that for a pretty reasonable criterion?

    Sean, Zach, Hag, you all are most likely right, that these para-shrinks are wasting their time testing for something that has never been found, and can’t be theoretically accommodated. But damn, they’re doing it in the framework of science, hoping against hope for the one result that could turn our understanding of life completely on its head. Juvenile? Maybe. But it’s also beautifully fucking human, and it earns my admiration, not my scorn. I’m glad these people are out there. Looking for something crazy, even futilely, even when doomed to utter failure before you’re out of the starting gate – that’s not the same thing as claiming to have found something crazy, against all evidence to the contrary.

    Clearly, as already demonstrated, I have a bit of the crackpot in me. But damn, I love me a doomed enterprise. Failure is probably my favorite part of the great human enterprise (of course I have less romantic feelings about personal failure). But is there a more sympathetic character in all of mythology than Sisyphus?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    We haven’t exactly explained consciousness either, or even a clear description of it. Does that mean it really doesn’t exist? Too woo woo?

    Explained No. detected? Yes. (although if you wanted a serious discussion about it, you’d have to define your terms first, and then things would get very messy.) Parapsychology has not even demonstrated, in a reliable and replicable way, that its subject of study exists.

    J.B. Rhine offered, in his book Reach of the Mind to have any other researcher “replicate” his result of a particular experiment using the data Rhine had already collected. I submit this as an indicator of how seriously the field deserves to be taken.

  • oxo

    Tell the CIA, tell the US Army. Both those organisations had Operational Remote Viewing Units for over 20 years.

    Just because you don’t understand something, doen’t make it non-existent.

  • Anon

    Sean said:

    > The possibilities have been investigated and found wanting;
    > more straightforwardly, they would violate the known laws of physics.

    I am as much against pseudoscience as the next physicist, but I have to point out that the above statement is a prime example of the practice, based as it is on logical fallacies. The first line is a case of argumentum ad ignorantiam (since some possibilities have not been proven true, all possibilities are therefore false). The second line is an example of a false dilemma (I do not know how to describe *some* purported parapsychological phenomena using the *known* laws of Physics; therefore *all* possible parapsychological phenomena violate the laws of Physics).

    I think it is unfair to paint those who would investigate certain phenomena using the scientific method with the same brush as the admittedly plentiful cranks.

  • chethan

    >Just because you don’t understand something, doen’t make it non-existent.

    But it is STILL bad science to invest in something merely because it is possible.

    Willingness to accept a non-standard idea if and when there is evidence is one thing, but it is NOT the same thing as encouraging every weird idea because it is *possible*. There is something called scientific judgement, and being scientific about USING it.

    The question is not one of possibility, but of probability.

    Absolutely anything is *possible*.

  • chethan

    I meant:

    “…and being scientific _is_ about using it.”

  • John Merryman

    Hag,

    It’s not a question of whether I can devise a test to convince myself, but that would prove it to others. Since what happens is often visual, it would require an extremely sensitive camera with a gas based lens. Nikon just isn’t there yet.
    On the other hand, I think the logic of it is quite reasonable. We all inhabit these bubbles of awareness that are constantly bumping into one another and have been evolving for hundreds of millions of years. I find the level of communication is like an iceburg. Much of it is under the surface and we subconsciously block out most of what our subconscious doesn’t want to consider.
    As Lawrence points out, “So mind as a substance which is exists in the world but is somehow independent of properties of physical bodies is not a scientifically credible idea.” It seems that if consciousness manifests itself as a physical property, it would be an electric field of sorts and it would shape itself to ones general area of concentration, just as light passing through a magnifying glass is concentrated to a point. Such as a focused cone out in front, or more unfocused area of attention, or any variety of such interactions. An example was that several weeks ago, I was riding out on my motorcycle and sensed this blurring/cross hatching as I was approaching a blind turn. Since the road in the other direction, before the turn, was visible from the direction I was coming, I hadn’t seen a car, but just as I went around the turn, there was someone on a bicycle. These sort of occurances happen to me on a daily basis, with probably half the cars I’ll pass driving down the road, if they are not in lines of traffic, in which case they are likely just focused on the car in front of them. It’s not like I can read their minds as to what their stream of consciousness is thinking, it’s just as though we bump into each other in passing. It doesn’t usually occur in face to face conversation, because that requires me to already be focused on them and following the subtle mannerisms such situations dictate.
    It has been this way for much of my life. I can recall walking out in a field and having these spots appear in my vision, as the herd of horses looked up at me. It’s not like it’s overwhelming, just an undertone that is very persistant.
    Obviously it would be difficult to put this into the sort of airtight box to which science aspires, but reality doesn’t always do boxes.

  • John Merryman

    Another problem with concentrating on any old spot that appears in your vision, is that they are visual clues to previous thoughts you were just having and if you try following them as they disappear, it gums up the whole thought/vision process and you have to refocus. Push the reset button, so to speak.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The issue comes down to standards. The other day I got slightly pilloried for writing on how a lattice gauge physics was similar to a Bloch waves in a lattice in solid state physics, but where the “phonons” were massive. I got some flak for talking about “massive phonons” in the context of condensed matter physics. Maybe I was a bit “loose” with things. I fell below someone’s standards, a solid stater in fact.

    We might imagine that somebody around 1860 came up with this idea that particles of matter were waves. The person might cite the planes of constant action in Hamiltonian mechanics as real parts of a wave front. They might even work through some exhaustive stuff to try to show that physics was fundamentally wave mechanics. Today we know that fundamentally this is close to the mark, but by the standards of the mid-19th century this would have been a questionable hypothesis which had no experimental contact. It really could not have been easily accepted into physics.

    Now is this similar to parapsychology today? Is parapsychology a science waiting to germinate? Maybe, but in the above somebody advancing this might have contacts with known physics of the day. The idea might be premature, indeed Poincare almost literally had QM in his hand, but it is not completely out of line. This might be where string theory exists today. Parapsychology in contrast has no contact with theory, and it lacks any confirmation experimentally. So parapsychology falls to a lower standard than some suggestion of a theory that is premature or just wrong.

    Of course science has to be open to new ideas, but just so much. We had after all cold fusion, and before then there were ideas of N-rays, and UFOs got some play, and there was a goofy idea of polywater, and … . After sufficient review these were either falsified or found to not produce any data above the signal to noise ratio. Parapsychology had its heyday as a scientific possibility in the late 60 to early 70s, particularly after B. Josephson went chasing after it. But with time, now over 4 decades, and nothing to show the idea is scientifically moribund.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Reginald Selkirk

    44. oxo “Tell the CIA, tell the US Army. Both those organisations had Operational Remote Viewing Units for over 20 years.”

    That depends on how one defines “operational.” Drawing a paycheck? Yes. Productive? No. If you have evidence to the contrary, please present it. Oh wait, I can read your mind: “that information is classified.” Why should we take you seriously?

    And seriously, if our military could do remote viewing, would Osama bin Laden still be on the loose? “Remote Viewing” company PsiTech did a real bang-up up job on the Elizabeth Smart case, didn’t they? And how about Ingo Swann remote viewing a mountain range on the planet Jupiter?

  • Raymond

    Perhaps this has been mentioned in the above comments, but the “known laws of physics” are interpretations of a reality based on individual alterations to existing theories describing the external world, its properties, etc. As a scientist, I think it is a mistake to consider “results” anything but a particular interpretation of a specific instance/event, so to act as though the “laws of physics” are sacrosanct is somewhat ridiculous considering the only reason they exist is because people still buy into them. I agree that in comparison to physics or chemistry, which is my field of study, psychology of any kind is not technically considered actual “science,” at least with how they “design” and test their experiments most of the time (Feynman talked about this a bunch). But then again, this does not exclude such fields from being scientific, but simply limits the application of their results to given situations. Although, don’t we do this already with such things as math, the language of science? For instance, a common misconception is that 2+2=4, which is obviously not true if discussing droplets of water. This brings up the idea of approaching each case as unique or being able to generalize with concepts, which brings me back to the laws of physics. These “laws” have taken how many years to be developed, worked through, thought out, refined? Approaching new or unchartered territory will also require such refinement and patience, but to cast out such studies as ridiculous so soon is to essentially cast it out in its entirety, which is quite a mistake in my opinion.

  • Wayne

    I simply want to leave a few notes to ponder.

    1. When we all speak of ‘moving objects at a distance with our minds,’ lovably called ‘telekinesis,’ aren’t we, at a distance, making a conscious decision that we wish to move an object, then, if we have made the decision to move the object, we remove that distance by collapsing all possibility that we will not approach the object and move it, by approaching the object and moving it?

    2. “Heisenberg – locating a particle in a small region of space makes the momentum of the particle uncertain; and conversely, that measuring the momentum of a particle precisely makes the position uncertain.” As I read this, the mind has a direct influence over how it is we perceive the quantum state. If the macroscopic world is believed to be constructed statistically by the accumulations of quantum states, are not our minds directly influencing our perceptions of the macroscopic world? Is the way you will interact with and observe the 9th Symphony of Beethoven the same way I/ will interact with and observe it?

    3. Sean wrote: (and by the way I love this site and appreciate your all’s work. This is for all our benefits in challenging, as someone said before, our inquiring the fringes of science)

    3. Any unknown force with range greater than a millimeter would have to be much weaker than gravity to have escaped detection.

    Aren’t our brains themselves the ones attempting to, in an external sense (ie. invoking instruments tailored by the brain, fashioned from elements arising in ‘the cosmos’), to measure these ‘waves’ or ‘interactions’? Perhaps it isn’t measurable in an ‘external sense,’ just as gravitational waves are yet immeasurable in an ‘external sense,’ but we know they are there from an intuitive or ‘internal sense’ based on other external measurements. Perhaps just as consciousness is yet immeasurable, but we know it is there from an ‘internal sense.’ Perhaps as the Big Bang is yet unseen, but from deduction (again, an ‘internal sense’) based on external observation, we know that is what observation seems to be pointing to. Perhaps some day our intuition will lead to external instruments to measure these things, but at that time, wont we still have plenty we cannot measure externally? I mean to say that the cycle of knowing externally or internally will always continue, you cannot explain the universe in terms of one without remainder in the other. One may then assume you must use both.

    I only want to give a few unbiased points of note on the matter, as this is hot stuff right here. I just want to see scientists holding closely on to that feeling the scientist within them arose from to begin with, curiosity. Inquiry. Open minds, eh?

    My major point is this, we deduce much of our laws and knowledge through inner reflection on measurements based in the external world. We use a consciousness that we cannot externally measure in the bounds of the scientific method to deduce laws which we can externally measure.

    The other point is this, if you assume science is the end-all explanation, the one explanation, of course you aren’t going to believe in immeasurable phenomena, or internally experienced phenomena. However, if you openly consider both, and that certain phenomena cannot be externally measured in the realm of the scientific method (and we ourselves use those immeasurable phenomena to perceive the external world), then you may become aware of a richer, more dynamic cosmos, and find more whole answers this way.

    Science should stick to measuring what science can measure, it does so very well. The two camps should stay out of each other’s lunch until such a time arises that they may translate their findings into the other’s language. I agree with Sean that Parapsychology does not belong in the AAAS. I believe using the scientific method to research phenomena that cannot be measured by any scientific instrument anyways is inefficient and unfounded. I do, however, believe there are phenomena that cannot be measured scientifically.

    If we see the universe as an entity that is ‘remembering’ what has unfolded (truly, we wouldn’t be here if processes leading to atoms to molecules to proteins enzymes RNA DNA, etc, were not ‘remembered,’ or ‘solidified in time’ in some way), then we can see the universe as ‘knowing’ all parts of itself, including us. Then, perhaps we will come to understand all of the universe some day through science (our ‘external sense’) and through our ‘internal sense’ together, and on that day, if we believe the universe ‘knows’ all parts of itself, won’t we ourselves become the universe?

    It is believed we are formed from the universe, the universe is not formed from us. Or is it?

    I will leave you with that. I hope it wasn’t too nutty. Best wishes to your Inquiries! Please, find some answers for either side so we all can enjoy them. Or, at the very least, open up your noggin a bit to include a bit more of this intricate weave of existence we share.

    Happy hunting,

    Wayne

  • Carl

    While I suspect this organization does not belong in the AAAS (I have not looked at it at all) I find it interesting that so many people in these comments insist that no one should waste their time and money studying such a dead field. I think people should always have the curiosity and be encouraged to go off and study what interests them. I see nothing wrong with believing there is something there and approaching it in a scientific manner even though I personally think they aren’t going to find anything there. That said, I would not condone spending large amounts of common (government) money on fields that are generally considered dead by the scientific community.

  • Lord

    We (presumably) live in a universe of dark matter/dark energy about which we know less than nothing. To assume all we know is all there is to know is not scientific. It is the prescription for arrogance and ignorance.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The problem with parapsychology is that it leads to all types of hockum. Dean Radin at UNLV claimed all sorts of paranormal events by statistics. It was later learned he conveniently circular filed a lot of data, the file drawer effect, to make his case. The subject lends itself easily to fraud, as in the case of seances and other related claims.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    It seems to me that the people most strongly against considering “parapsychology” a “real science” (regardless of its methods, in which they seem not remotely interested) are those concerned about the respect and dignity of the AAAS and of Science (capital S) in general. It’s “ridiculous” and a “waste of time” to study such a thing, apparently.

    Forgive me for saying so, but I think that’s just pride talking, i.e. the need to feel like one’s own field of expertise happens to be more respectable than others, somehow more immune to mistakes, misdirection and embarrassing foibles. It seems to me that when scientists start worrying about their respectability, especially in the eyes of society in general, they’re speaking not as scientists, but as a group that has enjoyed a certain amount of prestige and privilege that they’re reluctant to relinquish by allowing silly people in the club. If science is a method, than any old nutjob can use it to study whatever he likes (and, god forbid, he might just learn something of value, even if it’s not what he intended to learn). But if Science is a set of pre-approved ideas and theories, then the nutjobs can be laughed aside and excluded, and so the respectability and dignity of scientists can be maintained in the eyes of the general public. (This, of course, ignores that fact that throughout history plenty of ground-breaking scientists have been silly ol’ nutjobs with harebrained ideas.)

    Which leads me to the question: what does “the advancement of science” really mean?

    If it means working to apply a useful and fruitful method of inquiry to a wider variety of problems and questions, including areas that might not currently be considered part of the canon of “hard science”, then parapsychology has its right to claim that goal. The hard fact is, reality does not proceed from theory; rather, theory is only relevant if it describes reality. If parapsychologists use scientific methods to find repeatable, consistent and statistically significant results (as some of them claim to have done), then it doesn’t really matter if current theories of electromagnetism, etc. say that’s impossible–theory has to be revisited and refined until it can explain observable reality, not the other way around.

    If, on the other hand, the advancement of Science is about consolidating the respect (i.e. the power and influence) of a particular set of ideas about how the world works, to the exclusion of possible alternatives, then Sean and those who agree with him are right to complain that parapsychology is not generally interested in advancing those pre-approved ideas over those considered “already dead.”

  • http://sgeier.net Sven Geier

    I’m surprised nobody has posted this link yet:

    http://xkcd.com/373/

    In the end, it’s all about the data. What’s the data and to how many digits. Everything else is woo woo.

  • http://meadowsweet-myrrh.blogspot.com/ Ali

    The AAAS website states:

    The objectives of the AAAS are: “to further the work of scientists, to facilitate cooperation among them, to foster scientific freedom and responsibility, to improve the effectiveness of science in the promotion of human welfare, and to increase public understanding and appreciation of the importance and promise of the methods of science in human progress.” [emphasis added]

    So I think that answers my previous question.

    Sean,

    I remember when that cartoon first came out. Personally, I’ve never seen so many scientists so gleefully cite a satirical graph devoid of any kind of actual data as if it were “proof” of their point. It’s a shame, since xkcd is usually quite amusing and insightful, that they didn’t bother to find the actual figures for studies of “superpowers.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single study that conclusively refuted ESP, for instance (insofar as showing one person to be blind doesn’t prove everyone is).

  • Rien

    I’m pretty surprised here: this is a blog about science, and all the comments here are from peddlers of woo-woo? What’s going on?

  • John Merryman

    I agree with Sean that some things just don’t belong in the box. But I think science has to accept that it is never going to close the box and start looking at the big picture. If anyone here has been thinking through the possible consequences of this thirty year debt bubble imploding, they will realize that quite a few tenure track positions are going the way of quite a few corporate livelihoods, so safety isn’t going to be guaranteed by defending your little piece of turf. Rational minds are going to have to come together around some form of Gaia hypothesis and work toward developing and promoting it. Otherwise the fundamentalists and the politicians are going to be the ones providing the answers that give meaning to this mess. Does anyone here want that? Does anyone think I’m wrong? Think Yugoslavia. Those ivory towers are just so many dominos.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2008/02/in-todays-media-has-soul-taken-hiatus.html Plato

    This type of blog entry is always a hit.:)

    All it takes is one experience “out of the normal,” that is outside our everyday lives, for one to realize that there is something we are not quite getting.

    You can say all you like about science’s requirements and it will not change that experience. You know what is required. Will you lie to yourself, all the while knowing that one experience is not enough?

    Intuitive leaps, are they “jumps of faith” or is there some organizing principal that we had failed to understand after giving the situation it’s all, knowing, that these aha moments actually arise from things that have been reduce to what is self evident.

    But that is not the experience I am talking about.

    Good Nobel winning scientists gone bad? You had to have a portfolio that is consistent with atheism? Humanistic principals, in order to put this one last topic up to round it off?:) Is there such a study?:)

  • Anon

    Sean said:

    > The possibilities have been investigated and found wanting…

    Presumably, as a scientist, you are basing this statement on published results of experiments in parapsychology. Since you argue that parapsychologists are pseodoscientists, may I ask why you believe these results of theirs so firmly that you base the remainder of your arguments on them? Do you not see inconsistency in arguing for using the results of studies in support of dismissing the very field that supposedly gave rise to those studies?

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2008/02/in-todays-media-has-soul-taken-hiatus.html Plato

    Alchemy was science once, but it’s not any more.

    Alchemy was also about the “internal psychological structure” to perfect oneself. Whether you weight the value of that approach in this context is irrelevant, since one may have not understood it? :)

    The Errors & Animadversions of Honest Isaac Newton by Sheldon Lee Glashow

    Isaac Newton was not only a physicist and a mathematician. He devoted at least as much of his time to alchemical experimentation, religious scholarship, and the study of mythology as history, especially biblical chronology. Wisely, Newton never published most of this nonsense.Pg. 9

    This is supporting evidence to add finality to that aspect?

    This new compound of thought is difficult to understand and apply in our everyday affairs. The Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung went perhaps further than any other researcher to extract the psychological wisdom embedded in alchemy and make it available to the modern world. Through his work we learn how alchemy can be used as a powerful means of psychological transformation, personal empowerment and spiritual adventure. Individuation is the real gold sought by true alchemists. Yet, for all his genius, Jung’s writings are complex and oftentimes as difficult to read as the alchemical literature. A thorough knowledge of analytic psychology, theology, symbolism and mythology is required to appreciate the depth of Jung’s insights. Adding to this challenge is the rapid rate that science and technology have advanced since Jung’s death. We live in a New World. Especially with the findings of quantum physics -many of which validate old philosophical truths- the time is ripe for a fresh interpretation of alchemy and how we can apply its powerful recipes to the challenges of contemporary life.

    Okay you think this is where is started? I don’t think so.

    Newton’s Translation of the Emerald Tablet

    It is true without lying, certain and most true. That which is Below is like that which is Above and that which is Above is like that which is Below to do the miracles of the Only Thing.

    Hmmm……..:)

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    I think some of the commenters near the beginning had good points, that it isn’t fair to judge a subject matter “pseudoscience” because you don’t think the phenomena are likely – it’s approach that makes it science more than anything. One claim that isn’t really true – that all psi would have to violate laws of physics. In some gross cases like levitation, probably (if there was no weight left of the object, and if the equivalence principle is true – then the levitating body could equivalently be accelerated with ever increasing kinetic energy without expending the “cost” in work (as force dot v.) But other presumptions are wrong. For example, correlative effects (that can “hide” under quantum uncertainty and therefore not violate any deterministic rules) that would allow brain processes to indicate distant or even future events wouldn’t violate laws unless information was sent faster than c.

    One other presumption that is popular and taken for granted about causal interference is probably false, unless I am mistaken here: the idea that some outside influence can’t interfere in causality without breaking laws in those cases where randomness is not the issue. Sometimes the argument is used against concepts of psychophysical dualism, as e.g. by Daniel Dennett in the presumptuously titled Consciousness Explained. The argument is, to interfere in causality factor X would have to make particles deviate from the paths determined by conservation of energy and momentum. That idea is naively appealing, but it is not true. There are at least two ways to meddle in what happens without AFAIK breaking any basic physical rules:
    (1.) To effect a delay in particle interactions, e.g. for colliding particles to be held up for a tiny interval before taking the same paths they would normally take.
    (2.) In the center-of-momentum frame, the paths particles take can be rotated together without any violation: e.g., rotate the activity by say 30 degrees etc. The energy and linear and angular momentum stay the same in that frame (and therefore should in all frames.)

    Sure, minor other principles would be tweaked by such maneuvers, but the idea that fiddling with causality entails breaking conservation laws is a myth, FWIW.

  • chemicalscum

    About 25 years ago I attended a lecture on parapsychology by J.B. Hastead, professor of experimental physics at Birkbeck College University of London (my alma mater). He related as an example of teleportation that he had personally experienced that one day he went into his office, which had been locked overnight, and fount a small pre-columbian statue on his desk.

    I of course attribute it to a graduate student with a sense of humour and some of Dick Feynman’s skill in opening locks. Hasted had been fooled by Uri Geller and his gullibility was well known.

    I had been a graduate student in the crystallography department (the head of our department was a professor of biophysics) and had little connection with the physics department. At that time David Bohm was professor of theoretical physics there and I occasionally wondered if his concept of the “implicate order” allowed for parapsychological phenomena. As a convert to the relative state interpretation of QM I don’t really worry about that now. Decoherence would scramble everything anyway.

  • FileNotFound

    Sean, aren’t there some invisible and completely hypothetical strings somewhere that need your attention? Perhaps some math that you should be doing?

    Leave the real frontiers of science to the professionals. We promise not to bother you with any results that might make you uncomfortable. ;)

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    If you want to kick the Parapsychological Association out of the AAAS, I think it sets a better precedent to kick them out for publishing research that doesn’t follow good scientific methodology — not for studying a phenomenon that seems incredibly unlikely to exist given what we believe about the world.

    Has anyone here checked out the abstracts from the Parapsychological Association’s last annual conference? Or better, some of the actual papers? If all these papers follow good scientific procedure, I see no reason for the AAAS to kick out the Parapsychological Association. But if most of them follow crappy methodology… kick ‘em out!

  • Rien

    Thank you John, finally someone makes sense!

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    Ditto what John Baez said.

  • Farhat

    I was at the AAAS meeting in Boston today. While overall the booths were nice it seemed Templeton Fund had a huge stall. It seemed about 20% of the floor space was outright given to organizations promoting religion rather than having anything to do with science.

  • Farhat

    I should clarify the ‘given’ part above. Maybe they just paid for it and it wasn’t given. There was a fair bit of space given to Subaru as well.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    57> Ali: “It’s “ridiculous” and a “waste of time” to study such a thing, apparently.”

    59. “Ali: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single study that conclusively refuted ESP, for instance (insofar as showing one person to be blind doesn’t prove everyone is).”

    It’s been studied. No replicable results. Ever. How long can the search for fairies be considered legitimate, respectable inquiry, worthy of public support and funding? Fairies and leprechauns. I’ve never seen a single study conclusively refuting leprechauns either. Is it unfair to keep the Association of Leprechaunology out of the AAAS?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I agree with Baez on “methods,” but there is a tendency for bad science to lean on bad methods. It is like creationism, where the idea “must be true,” and its exponents then employ bad methods to “make it so.”

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Raymond

    Reginald, you state that, “It’s been studied. No replicable results. Ever. How long can the search for fairies be considered legitimate, respectable inquiry, worthy of public support funding?” I find it very amusing to hear somebody claim this, especially when you have so many areas of physics that have been investigated (for how long?) that never actually lead to anything but dead end theories about explaining the world using “string theory” or “ether.” Yet, people all over the place repeatedly get funding for silly studies that, at least at the time, are considered “respectable” (whatever that word really means). Also, along the lines of Feynman, how exactly have these phenomena been studied? Most of the studies performed “debunking” them are specifically designed to find fault or description using physically “understood” phenomena to “explain” them, yet as science often does, certain questions of how/why that go beyond our simple powers of observation are left behind. An experiment/test is a delicate thing and must be treated as such, otherwise you end up inserting extra variables that are not included in someone else’s study, therefore affecting the results/data obtained from the experiment. So, until the day strolls on by where we have investigated such occurrences thoroughly enough using proper experimentation, which is much more difficult when people are complaining about the fields “right” to being included in the scientific community, I think shouting from the rooftops about the lack of data the field suffers from is similar to what would happen if I challenged a small child to run from one end of a field to another, all along beating the child with a stick to keep him/her from finishing the race. It’s an unreasonable request because I have made it so. Not to mention, what are you actually afraid of with these studies? As Neil Postman puts it, I think you suffer from Columbusity because you are so overwhelmed by hubris/fear/whatever, that you are neglecting/overlooking the wonderful situation you have before you. “Good science has nothing to fear from bad science, and by putting one next to the other, the education of our youth is served exceedingly well” (Postman). So, as in this case, we have a situation where a field of study is “in question” about whether it should be considered science. What better way to help students apply the scientific method and teach them to be analytical about things could there possibly be? If you are a teacher, pose a question to your students asking them consider a case of ESP and then ask them how they could design experiments to test such claims. What variables should be tested and how? What are the condition of the experiment and can they be reproduced so that others may also investigate a separate case or cases? Once you open the doors for these types of investigations, though, which seems to be what people performing such studies want, you allow the thoroughly studied fields like physics, chemistry, and biology to take a crack at things and see what comes out. Even if the result is that the case can be described with a combination of previously developed theories, or by newly created ones that neatly fit into science, think of the gains that are enjoyed! Perhaps there is some unique physical process associated with such events that may not be evident in other studies or situations. Or perhaps, there is some chemical input or change in the brain that can be studied further experienced by individuals claiming to have ESP. So, I urge people, particularly scientists, to stop looking at the world through the eyes of Columbus, never have too much confidence in your own view of the world/actions that it causes you to overlook the great finds/chances before you. Not to mention, for those dedicated to the idea that parapsychology is a false idol, keep in mind Mr. Napoleon Bonaparte who warned his troops never to interrupt an enemy in the process of committing suicide. This would certainly be the case here considering a field is asking for science to help investigate claims that they feel deserves its own name.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Re my comment #65, point (2.) To clarify, I meant that the post-collision vector-pair of the trajectories of exiting particles can be rotated without violating laws of physics. Of course, that looks the same in the center of momentum frame, but different in other frames. It would influence what happened later, without “cheating” in terms of physical laws. Whether that happens or not in real life, it is still false to state that non-statistical interference in causality has to violate laws of physics.

    As for the claim that there aren’t any results demonstrating ESP: First of all, it may happen sometimes and not others (and some phenomena are like that, we can’t ensure that something is conveniently replicable just because it is, well, convenient if it is.) Our wanting that doesn’t constrain the universe (but of course it does make it harder to find reasons to believe.) Second, how does a person find out that there aren’t any such successful results, in principle and in practice? If you want to find evidence (credible claims, actually) you can search for citations of work demonstrating that. But how do you survey adequately to see that there *isn’t* any such finding? What kind of process can lead to that? I have looked at reports of studies showing better than average “hits” in ganzfeld studies, etc. I don’t know if that’s what happened, but what makes it appropriate for me to claim “no evidence” instead of “I don’t know of any, I am waiting for some good claims before I am impressed” etc?

  • Jeeves

    From one of the first abstracts in last year’s conference linked by prof Baez:

    IS LONG-DISTANCE PSYCHOKINESIS POSSIBLE IN OUTER SPACE?

    It is shown that the results of different experiments on both long-range psychokinesis and Mrs.
    Kulagina’s influencing targets can be explained on the basis of a model of superfluid physical
    vacuum if one assumes that the psychic’s effort is ‘transmitted’ to the target by means of spin
    processes in the vacuum. Spin processes can propagate through the superfluid physical vacuum
    provided the vacuum is in a perturbed state. The excitation of the vacuum is performed by
    quantum entities such as elementary particles or photons. If the concentration of the quantum
    entities in the vacuum is insufficient, the psychic’s effort will not be transmitted through the
    vacuum. This can account for the fact that Mrs. Kulagina was able only to mentally move the
    target placed in a vessel while the air pressure in the vessel exceeded ca. 10-3
    mm Hg. Provided
    that the long distance psychokinesis and the phenomena produced by the Russian psychic Mrs.
    Kulagina have the same physical nature and the model of the superfluid physical vacuum
    describes these phenomena, it is reasonable to suppose the following. If the concentration of
    quantum objects, such as photons or elementary particles, is sufficiently small in outer space (the
    pressure is

  • Ghiret

    I know probably that no one will ever read that, but anyway I think it is still worth telling it:

    There is no evicence(battle tested, as Wheeler says) of anything more than what Physics textbooks says. If there were some, then you could do real lab test to see what is it.

  • Coin

    We need to remember that what we call parapsychology today has a history that is far older than the scientific method we demand to verify it. The elements of parapsychology have been interlaced with our consciousness since the first homo sapiens and the attempt to oust it from true knowledge is logically doomed to fail.

  • Abelian

    I fail to see what’s wrong with a organisation dedicated to study Algae… they are a fascinating organisms

  • John Merryman

    More on those spots in the vision;

    We need to remember that what we call parapsychology today has a history that is far older than the scientific method we demand to verify it. The elements of parapsychology have been interlaced with our consciousness since the first homo sapiens and the attempt to oust it from true knowledge is logically doomed to fail.

    In highschool, there was this girl…. One morning there was this large spot in my vision and I sensed it was her. There was a line running through it, drawing it toward me. The result was a classic Valentine heart.

  • Coin

    Yeah, that’s the problem with a lot of modern parapsychological manifestations. They’re icky and feely and rather useless for making money.

    That said, testing this in a controlled university environment runs counter to the regular facilitation of parapsychological phenomena. Rather, these scientists should set up information channels to pick up when anybody on campus experienced parapsychology. Get out in the field, it’s the only way.

  • http://samthornton.blogspot.com Sam Thornton

    Thank you for this ammunition. I’ve been fighting for years to have my own scientific specialty recognized (ExoPodiatry) and this will allow me to make the equivalent treatment argument.

  • John Merryman

    Coin,

    Yeah, that’s the problem with a lot of modern parapsychological manifestations. They’re icky and feely and rather useless for making money.

    Money isn’t god. It’s a tool. We create it and we define it.

    http://www.exterminatingangel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=203&Itemid=118

  • Coin

    Sam, excuse my ignorance: What is ExoPodiatry and how does it manifest?

  • Ignacio

    I am personally highly skeptical of parapsychological claims. However, my intellectual integrity humbles me. The results of the Innsbruck Quantum Teleportation experiments (http://physicist.org/png/html/teleport.htm) ought to make us a bit more tentative in pronouncing the inviolability of physical “laws” and a bit more circumspect about our certainty vis-a-vis the known effects of these forces.

    That said, what is important about scientific inquiry into any field, is not to be found in what subject we choose to study, what is vital about the scientific enterprise is the methodology used in our inquiry. In any case, we must be ever vigilant not to compromise the rigor of that inquiry in the service of a preexisting prejudice or wish for a predetermined outcome. Science history is littered with the bad results of imposing on the human mind “premature curiosity satisfaction” by means other than rigorous scientific inquiry.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    75. Raymond: Yet, people all over the place repeatedly get funding for silly studies that, at least at the time, are considered “respectable” (whatever that word really means).

    Parapsychology included. It’s been funded. Experiments have been performed. As someone mentioned, the CIA and Army are among those who have sponsored research. Why did they drop their programs? The current debate is not over whether poorly-informed and misguided individuals should be allowed to throw their money away funding further studies, but whether AAAS should lend their respect to such an unproductive field.

    I find it very amusing to hear somebody claim this, especially when you have so many areas of physics that have been investigated (for how long?) that never actually lead to anything but dead end theories about explaining the world using “string theory” or “ether.”

    String theory has been harshly criticized on precisely those grounds, so to appeal to string theory to escape criticism is counterproductive. There is a noticable difference: string theory is very difficult to test experimentally. In parapsychology, the experiments have been done, and replicable results have failed to appear.

    Also, along the lines of Feynman, how exactly have these phenomena been studied?

    In parapsychology, typically someone performs an informal, poorly-controlled exploratory study. They find something that interests them. When the experimental controls are tightened sufficiently to eliminate sources of error, including cheating, the results fail to continue. Frequently the proponents continue to insist that the early, poorly-controlled results still count.

    So, until the day strolls on by where we have investigated such occurrences thoroughly enough using proper experimentation,

    Which in parapsychology was decades ago.

    Perhaps there is some unique physical process associated with such events that may not be evident in other studies or situations. Or perhaps,…

    Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Perhaps porcine aeronauts will emanate from one of your bodily orifices. I suggest you establish the existence of the phenomenon before you explore the causes of it.

    Not to mention, what are you actually afraid of with these studies?

    Raymond is out of rational arguments, and thus is reduced to making erroneous appeals to the emotional state of his opponents. Raymond needs to grow up.

    Something to chew on: The End of PEAR

  • Hag

    I have one thing to say to Reginald Selkirk: Bravo!!

  • Pingback: Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory | Cosmic Variance()

  • Ian B Gibson

    Leave the real frontiers of science to the professionals. We promise not to bother you with any results that might make you uncomfortable.

    Of course not; you don’t have any.

    What a depressing comment thread. I can only suggest to these people that they get out more if their lives are so empty that they need to live in a fantasy world.

    Maybe the burden of proof is too much to bear?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I generally second what Reginald Selkirk wrote above.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://msm.grumpybumpers.com Coin

    Another Coin wrote:

    We need to remember that what we call parapsychology today has a history that is far older than the scientific method we demand to verify it. The elements of parapsychology have been interlaced with our consciousness since the first homo sapiens and the attempt to oust it from true knowledge is logically doomed to fail.

    Whether or not an argument like this might mean anything in another discussion, you might want to notice that this discussion is not about whether parapsychology is “True Knowledge”, but whether a particular parapsychology association should be given endorsement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Your attempt to depict parapsychology as something somehow outside and superior to “the scientific method”, and your vague apparent connection between parapsychology and some kind of unspecified older [mystical/religious?] concept outside science, therefore doesn’t seem very helpful in this context since you seem to implicitly grant that parapsychology, “True Knowledge” or not, is not science.

    If we accept what you say at face value then this seems then to be an argument that the AAAS shouldn’t endorse the PA– if accepting parapsychology means taking sides between the scientific method and [something “far older”], then the AAAS, given who and what they are, are obliged to side with the scientific method.

    That said, testing this in a controlled university environment runs counter to the regular facilitation of parapsychological phenomena.

    Normally a statement like this is interpreted as evidence parapsychological phenomena don’t exist. If the effect disappears when you try to study it in a rigorous manner, this is a point against the effect, not against the idea of studying things in a controlled setting.

  • Coin

    Hi, real Coin (I didn’t know I took your name),

    My point was exactly that AAAS shouldn’t endorse the PA, because they are incompatible in a number of ways.

    But what standards do you apply to ‘normal’ psychology? What laboratory tests have been made that can prove what makes a person do something? Rigorous, objective testing of a person’s psyche is impossible – you need to do it without the subject knowing about it.

    Statements about parapsychology being real have been controversial for about 100 years (discounting religion entirely), but the experiences are too valuable and too personal to rest on the scientific method.
    You have to call a _lot_ of people, and even peoples, basically insane if you claim their experiences are not real. Which is fine with me, btw.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »