Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes the fundamental obligation of human beings to acquire knowledge with their “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.” . . . . God has given each human being a mind and the capacity to differentiate truth from falsehood. If individuals fail to use their reasoning capacities and choose instead to accept without question certain opinions and ideas, either out of admiration for or fear of those who hold them, then they are neglecting their basic moral responsibility as human beings. Moreover, when people act in this way, they often become attached to some particular opinion or tradition and thus intolerant of those who do not share it.
(Quoted from the official Bahá’í website)
This sequence from two years ago still seems relevant.
My recent post on psi, as well as a positive reference to it in Irreducible Mind, triggered me to go back to a book I read many years ago before I started blogging. It is Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe.
It deals in depth with the wealth of research that had been undertaken until that point on the vexed issue of psi. It reveals how meticulously those involved in this research had taken on board the criticisms of the sceptics and refined their methodology until it had reached the point where its replicated confirmation of the reality of psi could not be explained away by any serious scientist who bothered to examine dispassionately the work that had been done.
I won’t review the whole of his book, which I am convinced will amply reward anyone prepared to read it. It covers the whole area, including methodology, from telepathy through remote viewing to field theories of consciousness.
I will instead confine myself to one example of how carefully considered his treatment is of this issue, then I’ll focus on his chapters exploring the reasons for the prevailing scepticism – endemic then in 1997 and still a common response within the scientific mainstream – before outlining briefly in a second post the sources of some of the distortions of thinking operating here and elsewhere.
The Point of Detail
When I recently published a post on psi I noted that I was doubtful that everyone could demonstrate the level of remote viewing skill Jeffrey Iverson quotes in his book. I concluded:
I am not at all sure . . . that everyone is currently capable of psi: however, I am hopeful that over a long period of time humanity will evolve to a point at which this could well be so.
Radin has helped me refine that view in the light of two pieces of research. In terms of remote viewing (page 102), he states:
. . . . . mass screening to find talented remote viewers revealed that about 1% of those tested were consistently successful. This says that first class remote-viewing ability is relatively rare, but it probably varies across the general population much like athletic ability and musical talent.
Neither practice nor training seems to do much to improve upon someone’s starting level of ability.
However, micropsychokinesis, tested by means of random number generators (RNGs) tells a different story, perhaps because influencing electronically generated numbers is a less demanding skill (page 143):
Roger Nelson and his colleagues found that the main RNG effect . . . . [contained] no “star” performers – this means that the overall effect reflected an accumulation of small effects from each person rather than a few outstanding results from “special people.”
This is just one example among thousands of what has been revealed by decades of painstaking research.
So, do scientists irrationally persist in not taking the reality of psi seriously?
Radin demonstrates that this is very much the case before tackling head on the question of why that might be so.
A Field Guide to Scepticism
There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
We can start by considering how well-informed scepticism was at the time of Radin’s writing this book. He quotes Paul Churchland as a not untypical example (page 207):
‘… There is not a single parapsychological effect that can be repeatedly or reliably produced in any laboratory suitably equipped to perform and control the experiment. Not one.’
Radin’s reposte, which his book proves is completely warranted is (ibid.):
Wrong. As we’ve seen, there are a half dozen psi effects that have been replicated dozens to hundreds of times in laboratories around the world.
Radin goes onto explain that such sceptics as Churchland have not even bothered to find out what the tiny handful of well-informed sceptics had come to accept (page 209):
Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.
Part of this resistance to the clearly proven stems from something I have explored at length already on this blog: the a priori assumption that psi is impossible, no respectable scientist need therefore investigate it and any evidence that claims to support the idea must be flawed. That this can lead to wildly unsubstantiable claims almost beggars belief (page 211):
. . . . in 1983 the well-known sceptic Martin Gardner wrote: “How can the public know that for 50 years sceptical psychologist been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]?”
Radin confirms that Gardner made no attempt to support his assertion, which was in any case pure fiction. There was no such body of careful experimentation by sceptics.
Radin quotes Honorton as defining this whole approach as (page 212) ‘counteradvocacy masquerading as scepticism.’ In other words, not the cautious mindset of a true scientist, but convinced and intransigent disbelief.
Another tactic, given the weight of evidence (ibid.), was to claim that the effect of psi was too weak to be interesting, a claim that conveniently forgets the history of electricity, whose initial manifestations (page 213) were decidedly weak and ‘erratic.’
In the end it is hard not to disagree with an early sceptic, Donald O. Hebb’s own description of his inability to accept the overwhelming evidence (page 214): ‘My own rejection of [Rhine’s] views is in a literal sense prejudice.’
It was hardly surprising that the popular press followed suit (page 219), when the National Research Council (page 215) and introductory psychology textbooks (page 223) danced to the same mocking music, even when they could and should have known better.
In the end, one of the most fruitful ways of looking at this tendency to discount, distort or completely ignore the evidence for psi is to see it as the mirror image of what sceptics accuse believers in psi of doing – warping what they see to confirm what they believe and then, consciously or unconsciously, faking the evidence to prove it (page 224-25).
This paves the way for his more detailed examination of the processes that reinforce this very human tendency. More of that tomorrow.