So I Go To See This Movie With Nostradamus…

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New at Reason: Ron Bailey is rapping tables, channeling the dead, bending your spoons, and cleaning the ectoplasm out of his ears with joss sticks. Our man of science puts parapsychology to the test.

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  1. Can someone post a H&R item about Sanchez’s facile piece on Spanish politics already? I need Julian Sanchez to kick around.

  2. Why the sudden hostility to statistical analysis of large amounts of data? Bailey considers it a legitimate tool when faced with charges of cancer clusters.

  3. Joe: I’m not sure what you mean–I certainly go after the statistical shenanigans that a lot of cancer epidemiologists use to find cancer clusters. For example, a good rule of thumb for epidemiological studies is that studies reporting relative risks on the order of 3.0 and less are generally not reliable.

  4. Anybody else disturbed that the Gallop poll shows that:

    (1) With the exception of possession-by-the-devil belief in all the phenomenon has increased in the last ten years?

    (2) Belief in many of the phenomenon increases as education increases?

  5. I meant this Ron: “Until experimental replication without a lot of fancy statistical massaging occurs regularly, research on the paranormal will and should remain on the fringes of science.” Which, upon rereading, can mean 1) I don’t believe statistical analysis is a valid method of investigation, or 2) I believe statistical analysis is a valid method, but must be done right.

  6. Ron, what do you mean by “reporting relative risks on the order of 3.0”? thanks..

  7. I was reading the article hoping to come upon a reference to James Randi’s million dollar challenge… but strangely, it wasn’t there. Randi offers $1 million to anyone who can scientifically demonstrate any sort of paranormal phenomenon. The fact that nobody has yet been able to pass even a preliminary test suggests to me that all paranormal theory is bunk.

    You can check it all out at: http://www.randi.org

    As for the tests that show statistically significant results… I’d attribute it to type II error and/or faulty methodology. If I’m wrong… well, it’s worth a million dollars to anyone who can prove me wrong:)

  8. It must be like pouring the ocean down a hole…

  9. There may be a “law of large numbers” effect at work in psychic experiments. If 100,000 experiments a year on psychic abilities are run, we should expect one of them to produce results which have a 1 / 100,000 probability of being produced by random chance.

  10. You think Randi is going to give the evidence a fair hearing either? Might be an axe to grind there perhaps?

    I can’t comment on these statistical studies, but I have experienced phenomena which are not explainable by materialism, except by postulating that my experience is itself not reliable. Which is, in the end, begging the question.

    Perhaps large numbers of people believe in the possibility of some of these phenonema because they have, however occasionally and non-repeatedly, experienced some kind of similar occurrence that doesn’t match with the materialist “explanation” of the world?

  11. Matthew Comer asks: “You think Randi is going to give the evidence a fair hearing either? Might be an axe to grind there perhaps?”

    His protocols are public; you can read them for yourself at Randi’s site. Some have declined his test with much huffing and puffing about the purported unfairness of the straightforward rules. Some have taken it; none has passed.

    If I could read minds, find water with a dowsing stick, perform psychic surgery…any of that… I’d pony right up to the James Randi Educational Foundation and collect my million. Odd, that no one has done so yet, unless, maybe, there are no such abilities? (Hey, if the gifted are non-materialists and too spiritual to be interested in $$ for themselves, the winner could donate to cancer research or the homeless shelter. But no one — NO ONE — has collected this escrowed money that is JUST SITTING THERE.)

    Call me a materialist, but I require compelling evidence before I believe an extraordinary claim. And when those making the claim have a huge pecuniary interest in demonstrating it, but do not do so, I take that as evidence they are full of doo doo.

    –Mona–

  12. It’s pretty clear that one has to claim special powers to bend spoons or other such nonsense and demonstrate it in order to collect.

    I don’t see how one could win the prize by showing research on very small statistical anomalies.

    Unless I am reading incorrectly, Randi and his team get to decide what is evidence and what is not, this is not judged by some sort of third parties.

    Bottom line, it’s a PR stunt instead of a serious challenge open to real research into things not explainable by materialist theory. Randi’s challenge is for the Gellers and other hucksters of the world.

  13. Matthew Cromer, I’m not sure what sort of claim you believe there might be some statistical evidence for, but the million dollar challenge is open to studies with involved statistical analyses too. I think it’s extremely unfair of you to criticize James Randi like this unless you have some real evidence that he has rejected applicants because he was afraid they might get the money. The rules clearly state that he’s willing to consider protocols on a case-by-case basis, the only real criterion being that the test is scientifically valid. Most paranormal claims would be *easy* to prove scientifically.

    As for experiences that “don’t match the materlialist explantion of the world”, I’d chalk it up to misunderstandings and lack of knowledge. Everyone has had experiences they can’t explain; it’s foolish to attribute this sort of thing to the paranormal.

  14. Andy,

    I looked at the web site, and it seemed clear that you basically had to let Randi write his protocol to suit him. How is this anything other than a PR stunt? The rules aren’t defined in advance — we are just supposed to assume he is fair and impartial? I’m afraid my understanding of human nature leads me to be a bit — shall we say — “skeptical”.

    As for the word “paranormal” I think it’s an idiotic term and I’d prefer to let folks like Yuri Geller and the UFO people own it. I think a naive materialism is not any more self-evident than other interpretations of this reality we find ourself participating in.

    I’m very curious — what are these experiences that you have had that you “cannot explain” but would be very foolish to attribute to the “paranormal”?

  15. SM,

    How would you explain spontaneously “remembering” what a couple in a restaurant are about to say to each other over a span of a minute, dozens of words, and then they say, word for word, intonation for intonation, what you spontaneously knew they were about to say?

    The materialist would say that the person experiencing this was deluded, that in fact their brain signals were scrambled up for a while and that they never actually knew what would be said before it was actually said. And of course that is the explanation, because after all we know it’s impossible to know what someone else is going to say who is a complete stranger, word for word, one sentence to the next. That is the materialist “explanation” and it is a question-begging argument — the person having the experience is deluded because the occurrence is mathematically impossible. Instead the materialists label this experience as a mental malfunction (obviously!) and come up with the pocketknife of a story to whittle away this square peg to fit in their round hole.

    Someone not fettered with a strict materialist outlook might interpret the event entirely differently. They might wonder how it is possible to, however briefly and accidentally, leave behind the world of normal cause and effect and have the effect of remembering the words happen before the cause of speaking them.

    This is one event of several that one person experienced. Millions of people have had experiences that intimate similar possibilities — that the “real world” we live in of space and time is only one plane of a much larger reality — that we are the flatlanders who do not understand the three dimensionality of the world we actually live in (great book, BTW).

    Yes, the scientistic “orthodoxy” (there’s a great word, borrowed from the clergy! Think about it!) has no room for a non-materialist interpretation for these experiences. While a few open-minded scientists aren’t dead set on the materialist doctrine, the majority are, and you are very likely to be performing a “career limiting decision” if you start to question accepted “truths” of the materialist credo.

    My own theory? Well if materialists believe that the mind is like the playing of music from a CD, I tend to suspect the mind is more like the listening to music on a radio. You can change or destroy the signal by changing or breaking the radio, but the music signal goes beyond the physical radio and has its own reality apart from it.

  16. Matthew Cromer.

    First, I don’t like the use of the term non-materialist because it can point to the non-material nature of thought and feeling as well as the paranormal. And if you object to the term paranormal, maybe you just don’t understand what sort of claims the challenge is aimed at. Anyway… what sort of non-materialist stuff do you believe to be legitimate? Are all “real” non-materialist events simply untestable?

    And I think your skepticism of James Randi is understandable but ultimately unfounded. He allows for applicants to create their own protocols because a decent generalized protocol would be impossible to create.

    As for unexplainable stuff… well there’re all sorts of silly directions to take this. One time I was driving, stopped at a stoplight next to a friend of mine. We both seemed to be ready to race off as soon as the light changed, but neither of us went… and some fool ran the red right in front of us… if we’d taken off quickly, he probably would have hit me… and I don’t know why I didn’t race off. The other day I woke up and my stomach hurt… the pain went away by early morning… I have no idea why it hurt or why the pain subsided. One time when I was playing blackjack I was feeling really lucky and I started making really big bets… and I lost all my money. Ok, that’s engouh of that. Many things remain unexplained. There are no legitimate explanations for certain things…. but that doesn’t stop fools from inventing explanations.

  17. Andy,

    I’m sure Randi is entirely fair-minded and only has the truth at heart. And no bias against anything that seems beyond the known lays of physics and chemistry. Well, once upon a time, we believed people could actually be unbiased, but sadly studies of how science actually works disabused us of that notion.

    Science can be a search for truth, but individual scientists are typically as fallable as the next guy. And that’s probably giving Randi a bit too much credit — he’s a professional performer and professional skeptic, not a scientist.

  18. Matthew Cromer,

    All I would like is a shred of evidence. Not a testimonial… some evidence. Maybe if you could write down a conversation I will have tomorrow and post it up here for all to see… well, at least for someone somewhere to do something like that even once… that would be nice. We “materialists” as you call us, don’t necessarily reject this sort of claim simply by circular logic… we reject it primarily due to lack of evidence. I would call that person who thinks he knew an entire conversation before it occured delusional… not simply because it’s an impossible trick, but because it flies in the face of every experience I’ve ever had and nothing like it has even been demonstrated under controlled conditions.

    Paranormal pumpers are worse than theists; it might be true that even if God existed, he would be imposssible to prove. But paranormal phenomena are, in general, easily testable. The fact that there aren’t thousands of confirming tests out there serves as the last nail in the coffin.

  19. Andy,

    If you have read Randi extensively (as I have) you will notice his profound contempt for just about anyone he disagrees with.

    I’ve also corresponded with a scientist (Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist) who has done extensive research into non-materialist science, an eminently reasonable fellow based on his books and papers I have read as well as my personal emails from him, and his description of his interactions with Randi and SCICOP do not shed the magician nor organization in a good light.

    So I am skeptical of Randi’s ability to examine phenomenon that he doesn’t believe are real in a fair-minded manner. That does not mean that I think Uri Geller can bend spoons, or that those guys in the Philippines with chicken guts who fake surgery can cure cancer.

    Lastly, if you think thought and feeling are not ultimately explainable as material phenomena, you aren’t a hard-core reductionist / materialist anyway, I wouldn’t think.

  20. Well Andy clearly if you haven’t experienced something, it doesn’t exist, and anyone who claims they have is delusional.

    I suppose now I understand those skeptics who claim the US never landed on the moon. At least someone can try to convince you with rocks, heat shields, video, etc. It’s awfully hard to show physical evidence of a memory.

    And there are a lot of studies out there that indicate some kind of non-materialist phenomena. Perhaps they are all flawed in some way — but perhaps they are not.

  21. Matthew Cromer

    “How would you explain spontaneously “remembering” what a couple in a restaurant are about to say to each other over a span of a minute, dozens of words, and then they say, word for word, intonation for intonation, what you spontaneously knew they were about to say?”

    I would not try to explain it, I would not believe it had ever happened.:)

  22. This demonstrates such a poor understanding of evolutionary biology that I don’t know why anyone would bother discussing science with you, much less scientific methodology. Why do so many ignorant people think they’ve something to say?

    Are you prepared to say why you think so, or are you just content to be a smug, dismissive prick? I should think the latter — you appear to have mastered the skill.

    Are you denying that there would be a selective advantage of opposable-thumb proportions in being able to read the thoughts of those around you? Or to easily find fresh water? Or to predict the future?

  23. I tend to suspect the mind is more like the listening to music on a radio. You can change or destroy the signal by changing or breaking the radio, but the music signal goes beyond the physical radio and has its own reality apart from it.

    If this “signal” or its analogue exists, surely somebody can prove its existence somehow. Whatever our brains are, they are made of physical material and operate via certain chemical and electrical processes, and nothing is getting in there without, at some level, translating to that physical level. At they very least, someone should be able to point to the brain areas that receive this “signal” and demonstrate how they would work.

    Randi has a lot to say about Sheldrake, including the following: “My experience with Rupert Sheldrake has all been by e-mail, and my attempts to test his wonders have been refused. In describing his “dog” tests some years back, I made an error, promptly admitted it, and seemed at that point to have been written off his list as an incompetent, a condition that’s remained ever since.” So I’m sure Mr. Sheldrake is being completely honest and unbiased.

  24. Also, it’s worth noting that Randi’s protocols boil down to essentially two things. JREF and the subject to be tested have to agree:

    1 — What specific skill is to be tested. Nothing vague like “I have ESP”; they have to say they will demonstrate something specific — “I can find hidden water,” “I can remotely view pictures,” etc.

    2 — What will constitute a successful demonstration of that skill. What constitutes a “hit” or a positive trial, and so forth. The results have to be better than random chance.

    Every single subject who has gone through the preliminaries and agreed to be tested has failed, based on their own criteria, to demonstrate what they said they would. There are generally two types; those that simply fail, and those caught trying to cheat. The latter are usually frauds, or children manipulated by glory-seeking parents. The former usually really believe they have these skills and don’t understand why they failed.

    Finally, it should be understood that the abilities to read other people’s thoughts, or predict their futures, or to view objects from afar, or to find hidden water, confer such obvious and enormous evolutionary benefits that natural selection would long ago have determined that we all have them if they existed at all.

  25. “it should be understood that the abilities to read other people’s thoughts, or predict their futures, or to view objects from afar, or to find hidden water, confer such obvious and enormous evolutionary benefits that natural selection would long ago have determined that we all have them if they existed at all.”

    This demonstrates such a poor understanding of evolutionary biology that I don’t know why anyone would bother discussing science with you, much less scientific methodology. Why do so many many ignorant people think they’ve something to say?

  26. “it should be understood that the abilities to read other people’s thoughts, or predict their futures, or to view objects from afar, or to find hidden water, confer such obvious and enormous evolutionary benefits that natural selection would long ago have determined that we all have them if they existed at all.”

    This demonstrates such a poor understanding of evolutionary biology that I don’t know why anyone would bother discussing science with you, much less scientific methodology. Why do so many ignorant people think they’ve something to say?

  27. Gee, if I noticed something paranormal about myself, it would be worth the cost of a plane trip out there to see if the phenomenon really is what it looks like. Gotta be cheaper than psychotherapy, and potentially much more lucrative.

  28. W:

    What if Phil had posited that these abilities would be widespread in the population, rather than universal? Would that me more in accord with evolutionary theory? Just curious.

  29. VV,

    I think it’s perfectly fair to say that if there were a mechanism for psychic powers, and it had been chanced upon by human evolution, it’s selective advantage would almost certainly make it become very widespread very quickly. So unless you suppose that psychic powers first arose in the last hundred years or something, they should be widespread (and easily accecessible) if they exist at all.

  30. Matthew Cromer:
    To repeat the question you haven’t answered yet, what do you mean by “materialism”? The term is generally used to mean that thought is an illusion (what’s experiencing the illusion, we aren’t told), or that our minds are run by strict determinism. It isn’t necessary to hold either of those positions to hold that there is no convincing evidence for mind-reading, precognition, or telekinesis.

    Materialism is also sometimes taken to mean the rejection of non-material spirits, ghosts and gods wandering around the world. In this sense, I’m a “materialist”; and even if there were evidence for mind-reading, I wouldn’t posit telepathic demons as an explanation for the process. I’d consider it another phenomenon to be explained by science, in ways not yet known. In this sense, I’d still be a “materialist” even if such “paranormal” claims were shown to be true.

  31. Matthew, I’d say that Randi is often curmudgeony and sometime just a plain old jerk; but you would be stand-offish too if you had to deal with the same old bullshit (spoon benders and divining rodders et al) over and over again.

    Whatever your skepticism of Randi might be, it seems clear that all one has to do is figure out a way to test a paranormal phenomenon and demonstrate its validity. Such a test would be easy to design if these phenomena were legitimate… but people who believe in such things tend to make up phenomena that can’t be tested or make excuses for why they failed their own tests.

    As for whether I’m a materialist/reductionist or not… well, not that it’s relevant, but I am. My point was that this isn’t what Randi wants to test. He wouldn’t accept an applicant who sought to prove something like “thoughts are immaterial” or “emotions are distinctly separate from the physical phenomena with which they are associated”. No, he wants to test paranormalism… which you could say is a subset of non-materialism.

    As for my not believing in things I haven’t experienced myself. My credulity is dependent on how well a claim jibes with everything else I know about reality. I’m far more ready to believe that someone landed on the moon than that someone moved a penny with the power of their mind. Landing on the moon is accomplishable by the same physics I understand…. but mental “powers” would suggest a re-working of physics, biology, chemistry, etc. It’s always odd to me that paranormal believers never seem to realize how radically their beliefs would change the world if they were true. I’m *eager* for evidence that all scientific theory needs to be reworked… but I won’t believe it until I see substantial evidence for it.

    As for “all the studies” that demonstrate non-materialism… from Ron’s article, it seems that the “good” ones show very slight affects. In any case, what’s so difficult to prove? Is all paranormal activity too vague and/or unpredictable? Are all psychics necessarily hit or miss? Do psychic abilities arise in pristine form only when you’re not really trying?… or when nobody’s looking? Well, what sort of test do you believe could conclusively prove “non-materialism”? If you can’t think of something, but still cling to the idea that people can, say, know someone elses’ conversation before it happens… tell me why anyone should lend you any credulity.

  32. “I’m very curious — what are these experiences that you have had that you “cannot explain” but would be very foolish to attribute to the “paranormal”?”

    Not Andrew – but i would say that attributing just about any strange experience to the paranormal (as that word is commonly understood) is foolish. Unless you want to redefine “paranormal” to mean “something that causes difficult-to-explain phenomena”. It is not just “naive materialism” to be skeptical about tall claims. You can’t do science if your answer to everything is that understanding it falls beyond “human ken”. Sure, we may be lacking in tools to explain all kinds of things just now but there was a time when common natural phenomena were believed to have a supernaturnal cause.

  33. Matthew Comer writes: “Unless I am reading incorrectly, Randi and his team get to decide what is evidence and what is not, this is not judged by some sort of third parties.”

    There are third parties, and the definition of what would be evidence is decided on in advance by all concerned. There has to be some control here, because $1 million is at stake. If someone passed under agreed conditions, and Randi failed to pay as agreed, the “true psychic” could sue for breach of contract and win. You might not take that seriously, but Randi is not stupid and neither are his lawyers.

    But no, the prize does not apply to statistical meta-studies. A person must do a live demonstration of their claimed ability.

    And of course it is, in part, a publicity stunt. A highly successful one; because it is also a contract the Randi people would have to pay on if anyone took them up on it and won. How odd that no one has. What great publicity for reason that they have not.

    But if you think Randi has a rigged test, how would you, if you were putting $1 million on the line, design the protocols? National Enquirer standards?

    –Mona–

  34. Andy D. writes: “but the million dollar challenge is open to studies with involved statistical analyses too.”

    Is it? You could be right, but I thought Randi required an on-site demonstration of some sort.

    –Mona–

  35. Mona,

    from the descriptions I’ve read on the site, it’s not exactly clear how more involved studies might be handled… but from what I’ve seen, Randi can be accomodating. He was on a 20/20 special a short while back where he put his million on the line for a homeopathy study.

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