John Walker· September 7, 2013 at 10:48am Ricochet blog
I fully recognise that I may be savaged for discussing parapsychology under a rubric including the word “science”. In 1969, the Parapsychological Association, founded in 1957, was formally affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and this affiliation remains in effect to this date. So, based on membership in the most establishment institution of science, parapsychology is science. But is it really?
We speak of big science: I have even photographed it. Parapsychology is small science. There are only about 50 people in the entire world doing serious laboratory experiments in the field today, and the entire funding for parapsychology research in its first 130 years is about what present-day cancer research expends in about 43 seconds. Some may say “What has parapsychology produced in all that time?”, but then one might ask the same of much cancer research.
Of the fifty or so people actively involved in parapsychology research, I have had the privilege to meet at least eight, including the author of the work reviewed infra, and I have found them all to be hard-headed scientists who approach the curious phenomena they study as carefully as physical scientists in any other field. Their grasp of statistical methods is often much better than their more respectable peers in the mainstream publishing papers in the soft sciences. Publications in parapsychology routinely use double-blind and randomisation procedures which are the exception in clinical trials of drugs.
The effect sizes in parapsychology experiments are small, but they are larger, and their probability of being due to chance is smaller, than the medical experiments which endorsed prescribing aspirin to prevent heart attacks and banning silicone breast implants. What is interesting is that the effect size in parapsychology experiments of all kinds appears to converge upon a level which, while small, is so far above chance to indicate “something is going on”.
Before you reject this out of hand, I'd encourage you to read the book or view the videos linked below. Many people who do this research started out to dismiss such nonsense and were enthralled when they discovered there appeared to be something there.
You don't need a collider to do this research—many of these experiments can be easily done by yourselves at home.
Radin, Dean. Entangled Minds. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4165-1677-4.
If you're looking to read just one book about parapsychology, written from the standpoint of a researcher who judges the accumulated evidence from laboratory investigations overwhelmingly persuasive, this is your book. (The closest runner-up, in my estimation, is the same author's The Conscious Universe from 1997.) The evidence for a broad variety of paranormal (or psi) phenomena is presented, much of it from laboratory studies from the 1990s and 2000s, including functional MRI scans of the brain during psi experiments and the presentiment experiments of Radin and Dick Bierman. The history of parapsychology research is sketched in chapter 4, but the bulk of the text is devoted to recent, well-controlled laboratory work. Anecdotal psi phenomena are mentioned only in passing, and other paranormal mainstays such as UFOs, poltergeists, Bigfoot, and the like are not discussed at all.
For each topic, the author presents a meta-analysis of unimpeached published experimental results, controlling for quality of experimental design and estimating the maximum impact of the “file drawer effect”, calculating how many unpublished experiments with chance results would have to exist to reduce the probability of the reported results to the chance expectation. All of the effects reported are very small, but a meta-meta-analysis across all the 1019 experiments studied yields odds against the results being due to chance of 1.3×10^104 to 1.
For example, the chart above presents a meta-analysis done by the author of 88ganzfeld experiments comprising a total of 3,145 sessions between 1974 and 2004 published by 30 different investigators in laboratories around the world. Each experiment was designed to have a hit rate by chance of 25%, plotted as the dotted line. The individual experiments are plotted by date, with the dark circles giving the cumulative measured average hit rate and one standard errorbars computed from the cumulative number of trials. There were a total of 1,008 hits in the 3,145 sessions for an overall hit rate of 32%, a rate which remained more or less constant over the last decade. The probability of this result being due to chance is one part in 3×10^19. But what about the file drawer effect? Suppose the labs conducting these experiments elected to publish only studies with a significant above-chance result, discarding those whose results were disappointing. From the effect size, one can calculate that there would have had to be 23 unpublished chance-level studies for every published one to reduce the measured effect to chance. This would have required around 72,000 unpublished experiments which, had they been run around the clock every day of the year, would require 36 years to complete. The author concludes “That's not plausible.” (p. 120)
Radin draws attention to the similarities between psi phenomena, where events separated in space and time appear to have a connection which can't be explained by known means of communication, and the entanglement of particles resulting in correlations measured at space-like intervals in quantum mechanics, and speculates that there may be a kind of macroscopic form of entanglement in which the mind is able to perceive information in a shared consciousness field (for lack of a better term) as well as through the senses. The evidence for such a field from the Global Consciousness Project (to which I have contributed software and host two nodes) is presented in chapter 11. Forty pages of end notes provide extensive source citations and technical details. On several occasions I thought the author was heading in the direction of the suggestion I make in my Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena, but he always veered away from it. Perhaps the full implications of the multiverse are weirder than those of psi!
There are a few goofs. On p. 215, a quote from Richard Feynman is dated from 1990, while Feynman died in 1988. Actually, the quote is from Feynman's 1985 book QED, which was reprinted in 1990. The discussion of the Quantum Zeno effect on p. 259 states that “the act of rapidly observing a quantum system forces that system to remain in its wavelike, indeterminate state, rather than to collapse into a particular, determined state.” This is precisely backwards—rapidly repeated observations cause the system's state to repeatedly collapse, preventing its evolution. Consequently, this effect is also called the “quantum watched pot” effect, after the aphorism “a watched pot never boils”. On the other side of the balance, the discussion of Bell's theorem on pp. 227–231 is one of the clearest expositions for the layman I have ever read.
I try to avoid the “Washington read”: picking up a book and immediately checking if my name appears in the index, but in the interest of candour since I am commending this book to your attention, I should note that it does here—I am mentioned on p. 195. If you'd like to experiment with this spooky stuff yourself, try Fourmilab's onlineRetroPsychoKinesis experiments, which celebrated their tenth anniversary on the Web in January of 2007 and to date (September 2013) have recorded 368,115 experiments performed by 33,490 volunteer subjects.
The Kindle edition has a curious copy-editing flaw. It appears that words which were hyphenated in the print edition have been joined, but leaving the hyphen in place. There are dozens of these errors, resulting in jarring mis-hyphenated words. The end notes are a complete mess—words are run together, emboldened without any reason, space omitted after punctuation; the notes clearly did not receive the editorial attention the main text did. On the bright side, the end notes and index are properly linked to the text. Web resources cited in the notes are linked directly to the Web pages, but many of these links are now dead.
Here is a Google Tech Talk, “Science and the Taboo of Psi” by the author in January 2008 discussing the experiments described in the book. To view the following videos in full resolution, display just this article by clicking its title.
And here is a talk by the author in January 2013, describing more recent work: “Men Who Stare at Photons”. Part 1: