Attempt to put Paranormal discussion in context

From: Richard Loosemore (
Date: Sun Jan 01 2006 - 09:49:04 MST


The following three remarks are designed to step back and offer a little
perspective on the recent debate.

1) The way that skeptics use the word "parapsychology," and the way that
parapsycholgists use it, can sometimes be so different that 90% of any
dispute between the two can depend on this misunderstanding.

What you have to understand is that there is an *enormous* lunatic
fringe (the TV psychics, astrologists, fakers, etc) hanging around the
edges of parapsychology, but they have almost nothing to do with the
core science whatsoever. To outsiders, this distinction is often lost,
but it is tremendously, overwhelmingly important.

To understand the depth of it, imagine that someone criticised a modern
day chemistry researcher as an "alchemist". Imagine that the critic
hurled insults at this chemist, accusing them of dabbling in black arts,
trying to transmute lead into gold, sacrificing chickens in obscure
cabbalistic rituals and hoodwinking gullible people into funding their
research in the hope that they would become rich or divine the secret of
eternal life. Imagine a critic who sincerely believed that chemistry
and old-fashioned pre-biblical alchemy were exactly the same thing.

I know it is difficult to separate the lunatic fringe from the core
science in the case of parapsychology, but it is important to try.

2) There are some people who say that experimenter fraud is a sufficient
explanation for *all* parapsychological data. In other words, it does
not matter how well the science is done, these people will reject it
using the simple explanation that the scientist who did the work is an
outright liar and cheat. This explanation can be applied to all the
data, without exception.

It only takes a moment's thought to realise that even if paranormal
phenomena are real and completely valid, there is nothing that could
possibly shake a person who takes this attitude. If a person takes a
point of view on a subject that is completely immune to any empirical
data, then this person is not a scientist: this is a complete
abnegation of the most basic standards of scientific research. This is
a regression to the Dark Ages.

Sadly, this attitude is extremely widespread. It is used, quite
shamelessly, to attack and condemn parapsycholgists. There are serious
and honest scientists who live in constant fear of being witch-hunted
out of their jobs by other academics who adopt this attitude, and who
use every means at their disposal (including sabotage) to try to stop
this kind of science from being published in mainstream journals.

So when people try to understand why it is that paranormal phenomena
have not been accepted by mainstream science, they have to bear in mind
that science is not a logical process, it is more of a social process,
subject to the whims of real people who have beliefs, preconceptions and
biasses. One of those biasses is this attitude I have just described,
and so long as it exists it will be perfectly capable of shutting out
perfectly valid experimental data and making it appear that there are no
such data in existence. If you look at the history of science you will
see that this has always been so (I refer, once again, to the treatment
afforded Wegener), but it is sad that some people argue as if Science
had no subjective, social component in it whatsoever.

3) On the question of using psi to win the lottery, thus proving
conclusively that it is valid.

Consider, as a hypothetical, the possibility that the phenomenon *does*
exist: suppose that human minds sometimes try to guess the outcome of a
process that they cannot possibly know (according to the normal laws of
physics), and that their guesses differ signifcantly from what they
should have gotten by chance.

Now, if psi were valid, it would mean there was some kind of connection
between the "thoughts" or "intentions" or "desires" of an individual and
the outside world. But wait: thinking is an extremely complex process,
with many layers to it. We know that there is a lot of stuff going on a
human mind, many layers of wishing and wanting and thinking, so it makes
sense to ask which *part* of this complex process is connected to the
world? Could it possibly depend on things like the level of interest of
the subject? Their motivation? Their belief system (whether they
accept that esp is possible or whether they find the idea repugnant)?
Could it be that unconscious thoughts are involved?

In other words, if you get as far as second base, it turns out that
there are many, many other factors that might affect the way the
phenomena occur. One of the most important of those is the possibility
that "freshness" or "spontaneity" or "lability" of the thought processes
are quite important for getting an effect. In fact, there is some
empirical evidence that relaxation and a carefree attitude are a
necessary condition for the effect to occur.

And the most frustrating part of this is that the mental state of the
*experimenter* would also be expected to play a role in the outcome of
any experiment. Is this not too be expected? After all, if the
thoughts of the subject can cause an experiment to work, why would there
be any reason to believe that the thoughts of the experimenter would
*not* also play a role? We simply have no pretheoretical reason to
assert that just because the poor experimenter *wants* to be objective
and independent of what the subject is doing, that therefore the *will*
be so detached. The very nature of the phenomena dictate that
accidental experimenter effects are probably going to happen!

So here is a problem. You ask for a repeatable result, and say that IF
the effect exists, THEN it MUST be possible to go straight out and
harness it to compound some results and win the lottery. That inference
is simply not valid: the nature of the phenomena is such that it could
easily be sensitive to the anxieties and subconscious wishes of those
involved in an experiment, and the high-stakes nature of a money-making
psi experiment (with all the anticipation and commitment to a positive
result) would seem to indicate that the experimenter and others might
have an effect on the appearance of the effect.

And since we have suspected for a long time, from other results, that
the more a person strives to get the effect to work, and the more they
care about the result, the less it manifests itself, we would in that
case tentatively predict that lottery winning experiments would be
extremely difficult, not straightforward.

This is not to say the effect will always be impossible, just that it is
completely invalid to suggest that BECAUSE parapsychologists cannot
produce a lottery application, THEREFORE the existence of paranormal
phenomena is suspect. Isn't there some kind of 2500-year-old rule of
logical reasoning that says that if A implies B you cannot deduce that
not-B implies not-A?

I have actually taken part in an experiment to do this. A colleague of
mine collected a huge quantity of experimental data, from dozens of
subjects, over a period of several months (using the same experimental
design that I mentioned I used, earlier). He, one other person and I
then went to a casino with fifty pounds sterling (a lot of money for a
penniless student to invest in an experiment, I can assure you) and then
used the distilled essence of all the collected data to bet on a
roulette wheel. That was all we did in the casino, mind: walk in with
the money, go straight to the roulette wheel and make the bet using the
numbers he had written down. It took just a few seconds for the wheel
to turn and the money to get flushed into the croupier's stash. Months
of effort, hundreds of hours of tediously collecting data, and all gone
in a couple of seconds.

I really do hope that with these meditations we can put the discussion
to bed. I stopped doing this kind of research a long time ago, and I
personally want to concentrate all my energies this year on positive
efforts to promote AGI and singularity research.

Richard Loosemore.

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