Mar 10 2014
I love the documentary series, The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke. It’s a follow up to his equally good, Connections (I know, they have their criticisms, but overall they are very good). The former title is a metaphor – when our collective model of reality changes, for us the universe does change. When we believed the earth was motionless at the center of the universe, that was our reality.
But Burke was not arguing that the nature of the universe actually changed, just our conception of it. Thinking alone cannot directly change external reality. That is magical thinking.
Such thinking, however, lies at the center of much new age spiritual claims. The secret of The Secret is that you can change your world by wishing. Proponents of such ideas are desperate for scientific validation of their basic premise. Such evidence does not exist. In fact over a century of such research shows rather conclusively that there is no such effect in operation in our world to any significant degree.
A recent article claiming that there is such evidence has been making the social media rounds – 10 Scientific Studies That Prove Consciousness Can Alter Our Physical Material World. After some flowery Eastern mysticism, and rather gratuitously abusing the memory of Nikola Tesla, the author gives a quick summary of what they believe to be ten lines of evidence supporting the notion that consciousness can alter physical reality. It would take a full-length post to debunk each of these ten claims adequately. I am only going to give an equally quick summary here, but will link to longer articles when possible.
1 – Quantum Double Slit Experiment
You knew this had to be on the list. The claim is that the classic double slit experiments prove that consciousness affects reality at a fundamental level. Light (or other elementary particles, and even small atoms) traveling through one slit will shine as a blob on the other side, as if the particles of light were all piling up after the slit. If two adjacent thin slits are open, however, then we don’t see two blobs but rather an interference pattern, as if the light were travelling like water waves and interfering with each other as they traveled through the slits. This is the core experiment that demonstrates the wave-particle duality of light – it travels like a wave but then interacts like a particle.
These experiments are often distorted into the claim that the experimenter has to be watching, that their consciousness affects the outcome. This is simply not true, however. All that is required is a detector, which physically interacts with the particles. “Detecting” forces the wave function to collapse into a particle. I discuss this further here.
2. Government Sponsored Psychokinesis Experiments
The claim is that government experiments demonstrated the ability to bend spoons and forks with the mind. The links provided as references, however, do not establish such claims. This, of course, is a theme of the article, providing links that give the appearance of evidence, even though they do not establish the claims being referenced. For example, the author links to a government report on teleportation. The “study” is not an experiment, however, just a fact-finding summary. It deals primarily with quantum teleportation, and actually has nothing to do with psychokinesis. But the author tells us it shows that the topic is being taken seriously. The US government has invested millions into studying psychic phenomena, but that does not make it legitimate. Also, their efforts came to nothing.
Spoon bending is a classic magician’s trick. Every skeptic magician I know can do it well. Project Alpha demonstrated that even untrained children can fool scientists with some deceptive spoon bending.
Psychic spoon bending has never been demonstrated under observing conditions that would eliminate the possibility of fraud. If it had, then the author would have linked to the reference. But it doesn’t exist.
3. The Global Consciousness Experiment/Random Number Generators
This research project is an exercise in data mining, p-hacking, and pattern recognition. The researchers at Princeton set up a physical system that generates random numbers. They allow it to run, generating reams of random numbers. Then they hunt for strings in the random numbers that diverge from statistical randomness – in any way – and then correlate that with some world event. The problem here is that this experiment is a setup for data mining and data selection. Also, the criteria are open – any type of world event can be said to correlate with any type of deviation from statistically random. Of course, the data is random when taken as a whole, but if you can look within the data without limit you can find strings of apparent non-randomness. That’s the whole point of data mining.
The results of such experiments are also very tiny, show an inverse relationship to the size of the data set, and are heterogeneous (meaning there is no clear pattern). This has all the features of p-hacking a null set of data. It has also been suggested that a bit of publication bias is all that is necessary to generate such borderline results.
In other words – these experiments are most consistent with there being no effect of consciousness on random number generators. This, however, is the best that supporters can do.
4. NSA/CIA Remote Viewing Experiments In Conjunction With Stanford University
Remote viewing, or clairvoyance, is the ability to see things that are in another location. The author is apparently very impressed with the mere fact that the government funded research into remote viewing and claims that it has been proven and demonstrated many times.
The reality is quite different. Like all research paradigms into alleged psychic phenomena, remote viewing protocols tended to produce initial impressive results, but as the protocols were tightened to eliminate “sensory leakage” or bias, the results diminished all the way down to noise levels.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary has an excellent review of the entire Ganzfeld affair. The short version is that only 55% of the Ganzfeld experiments were positive, and when fatally flawed studies are eliminated only 31% of the remaining studies are positive.
You have to use meta-analysis to get positive statistical results, and these have been ever shrinking. Wiseman et al’s meta-analysis was essentially negative, but even the favorable studies have had a shrinking result down to about 28% (with 25% being chance).
ESP proponents focus on the frequentist analysis, saying how unlikely these results are by chance alone. They are missing the point, however – such a tiny result is down in the procedural noise (if not the statistical noise). It’s difficult to impossible to so thoroughly remove any procedural bias that a tiny systematic effect will not leak through.
Further – meta-analysis is a weak form of data analysis as it introduces new biases and does not correct for procedural limitation. What we do not have are replicable rigorous studies showing a clear significant result.
Also, keep in mind what we are talking about here – guessing which of four targets the “sender” is looking at. The CIA shut down their ESP research because they concluded it was useless. No one can use remote viewing to read a single word. They can only guess slightly better than chance (and only with meta-analysis) multiple choice questions about possible targets.
This is all a long way away from proving anomalous cognition, but it’s the best psi proponents have.
5. Thoughts and Intentions Alter The Physical Structure of Water
The claim here is that exposing water to “good intentions” causes it to form symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing ice crystals when frozen, and water that is exposed to mean intentions result in poorly formed and ugly crystals.
These refer mostly to the experiments of Masaru Emoto, who is an alternative healer who likes to think that “vibrations” are the key to health. Emoto’s research, however, is entirely worthless. He is not blinded to the intentions to which the water in his experiments have been exposed, and so he just looks for whatever crystals will support his conclusion. In fact his pictures of ugly crystals from bad intentions are not even water crystals.
A single woo-friendly researcher producing unbelievable results through dubious protocols is hardly compelling evidence. So the author assures us that the experiments have been replicated by a “real” scientists. He is, of course, referring to Dean Radin.
Radin has produced all sorts of allegedly positive research into psi, but is never quite able to produce results that are taken seriously by the rest of the scientific community, or that can be replicated by objective scientists.
In Radin’s ice crystal study he compared water that was treated with good intentions to a proximal control and distant control. Here are the results:
As you can see the distant control was actually slightly better than the treated water, and both were better than the proximal control. This is the sort of inconsistent data that Radin tends to produce, and then declare as positive, focusing on the statistical unlikelihood of these particular results.
Of course we have no idea how much p-hacking was going on – playing with the researcher degrees of freedom until some results that can be interpreted as positive get massaged out of the data. The results are also heterogeneous, which is consistent with a random scatter of data and then focusing on a subset of the data that can be made to look positive.
The bottom line here is that the data is entirely unconvincing, and has not been independently replicated with rigorous controls by a scientist who is not massively invested in proving psi.
I will have to pause after the first five examples and finish in a part 2. It always takes longer to deconstruct nonsense than it does to articulate it in the first place.
The pattern here should already be obvious, however. Proponents of psi and the notion that thoughts can directly affect external reality like to claim that the basic phenomenon has been demonstrated by scientific research. However, they trot out the same sad list of examples to support their claims.
Under close inspection, each claim turns out to be paper thin. They are based upon poor studies and dubious results.
What does not exist is a single research paradigm that demonstrates all of the following features simultaneously:
1- statistically significant results
2- reasonable signal to noise ratio (meaning a good effect size)
3- rigorous methodology
4- independently reproducible consistent results
You can get one or two at a time, or different features in different experiments, but never all at once. That is because in order to get all at once (without fraud), the phenomenon being studied would have to be real.
What we really see from the proponents is not evidence for the reality of psi, but a demonstration that their thresholds for what they consider adequate evidence are shockingly low or highly selective.
Of course they accuse skeptics of having standards that are too high or are biased against psi, but that is only because they do not understand science. The threshold for acceptance I describe above is the standard within science. The only adjustment is the plausibility of the claim being made. The more extraordinary the claim, the higher the threshold of evidence that would compel the scientific community to take the claims seriously.
Psi researchers are nowhere near that threshold, even if their claims did not break the known laws of physics.
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