Oct 01 2008
ESP researcher Dean Radin has a blog called Entangled Minds. Back in January he wrote an entry called Why I’m Not a Skeptic, which I only recently saw, hence the delayed response. In his post Radin specifically addresses two comments that I made in a previous blog entry about ESP.
I was disappointed with Radin’s response – not because they amounted to apologetics for ESP research (I would have expected nothing else), but because they were so unsophisticated and old. It was the type of response I expect from a rank and file believer, not one of the recognized leaders in this field.
He wrote (first quoting me):
“There is no proposed mechanism for ESP that amounts to a reductionist model based upon established physics or biology.”
This is a peculiar complaint, because if we can only accept things in terms of what we already understand, then science is no longer an open system. It collapses into the worst sort of mindless dogma, and no genuinely new discoveries are possible. If you have any inclination to agree with Novella’s comment, please read the history of science.
What a pathetic straw man – really, Radin, is that the best you can do? First, it is important to note that Radin does not object to or counter the factual basis of my statement. It is true that there is no reductionist explanation for how ESP might (even in theory) work (nonsensical ramblings about quantum mechanics aside).
So, without countering my factual statement, he makes false straw-man assumptions about the implications I am attempting to draw from this fact. No one – not the most rigorous skeptic, and certain not I -take the position that science can and should only investigate phenomena that we already understand. Of course science is about discovering new things – even entirely new ways of looking at and explaining nature.
In fact, in that very blog entry I write:
Looking for anomalies is a legitimate part of scientific exploration – but it should be considered only the beginning of the process, not the conclusion. You cannot prove the existence of a specific phenomenon simply by pointing to an anomaly – that would constitute an argument from ignorance logical fallacy. In order to establish that ESP exists researchers would need to find a reliable anomaly and then show that the anomaly has certain features. These features would then suggest possible mechanisms, leading to specific hypotheses that can be tested.
The very context of that blog entry was about how we could discover ESP if it existed. It is absolutely essential to the quest for ESP that we understand that at present there is no known mechanism.
Research to discover a new phenomenon can take one of two paths. The first is to start with a possible mechanism – something that should exist based upon what we already know about nature. The possible mechanism can then be tested to see if it works and what results it produces.
Or – absent a possible mechanism – scientists can look for a reliable phenomenon that cannot be explained with existing mechanisms (a so-called anomaly). Once the new phenomenon is reliably established, possible mechanisms can be sought.
The problem with ESP research is that it has neither a plausible mechanism nor has established a reliable phenomenon.
Because ESP researchers do not have a workable theory of mechanism for ESP, this means they are following the path of first trying to establish that ESP exists as a real phenomenon. I pointed out that such a search is a search for an anomaly (anomaly hunting) because it is a search for a phenomenon without an explanation – which is established practically by ruling out known phenomena. In response, Radin wrote:
I sometimes use the term anomalous cognition as a euphemism, mainly when I want to avoid freaking out academics. But psi research is absolutely not a “hunt for anomalies.” Psi experiments are conducted to test, under rigorously controlled conditions, whether the experiences labeled telepathy, clairvoyance, etc., are what they appear to be (i.e. genuine ESP), or whether they are better understood as coincidence, delusion, or one or more cognitive biases. The anomaly label is valid only in the sense that verifiable effects are unexpected with respect to existing theories. But as I’ve mentioned above, to assume that nothing exists outside of what we already understand, especially when the effect is empirically and repeatable demonstrable (as some psi effects are), is exceedingly bad science.
Radin contradicts himself here. The experiments that he describes are designed to eliminate chance, delusion, bias, or other known causes of the experiences. If they do this, then what are you left with? He says it is ESP but he’s wrong. What you are left with is an anomaly – a phenomenon that is not explained by known mechanisms – whether you call it ESP or anomalous cognition.
He basically admits that I am correct when he writes: “The anomaly label is valid only in the sense that verifiable effects are unexpected with respect to existing theories.” But then he tries to counter this with a non sequitur (and a straw man to boot), when he writes: “But as I’ve mentioned above, to assume that nothing exists outside of what we already understand, especially when the effect is empirically and repeatable demonstrable (as some psi effects are), is exceedingly bad science.”
He just doesn’t get it. Saying a new phenomenon is an anomaly does not imply that there is nothing outside of our current understanding, and mainstream scientists and skeptics do not hold this view.
Dark energy and dark matter were once outside what was known by science, and we still have basically no idea what they are. But we know they exist – because we can observe anomalies in how galaxies behave that cannot be explained by anything known. But astronomers only put forward dark matter and energy after they first showed that the anomalies were reliably there, and then exhaustively ruled out known phenomena as possible explanations. They still have an eye out for something they missed. Meanwhile, they put forward a hypothesis for a new phenomenon to explain the anomaly and set about figuring out what properties it has. Hmmm…dark matter has gravity, but otherwise does not seem to interact with normal matter, etc.
ESP researchers have not established that there is a real ESP effect. They have not adequately ruled out other explanations for apparent ESP. And, all attempts to see what the features of ESP (if it were real) are have failed – it does not diminish with distance, it cannot be shielded against, etc. The only thing they have determined is that it is elusive. It hides from skeptics and rigorous science – the simplest explanation of which is that it doesn’t exist.
Finally, he claims that some psi effects have been “empirically and repeatable demonstrable.” This claim has nothing to do with the question of whether or not ESP research is comprised of anomaly hunting, so it is a non sequitur. It is also a false premise – it’s not true. At least ESP researchers have not been able to convince the mainstream scientific community that they have a repeatable and reliable phenomenon. If they did, we would be on to the next stage, figuring out what it is (like with dark matter). But ESP has not yet risen to the level of dark matter. ESP researchers are still trying to show that they have an anomaly, and so far have failed.
If ESP researchers are going to try to close the gap between their research and mainstream scientists, as they often claim they want to, they are going to have to do a better job than this. Dean Radin’s blog post completely misprepresents the skeptical position, and specifically my blog entry that he was discussing. Any mutual understanding is going to have to start with a search for scientific common ground. Attacking straw men is maximally counter productive to that endeavor.
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