Oct 01 2008

Entangled Logic

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Comments: 14

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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14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Entangled Logic”

  1. superdaveon 01 Oct 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Once again, I completely agree with you Steve. I just want to add, that the public perception of scientists researching unexplained phenomena in science is a little misleading. It is rare for scientists to have absolutely no explanation for something because science is an iterative process and builds on previously discovered information.

    I think a good example is the discovery of the constancy of the speed of light. The Michelson Morley experiment did surprise a lot of people but the concept that the speed of light was constant can be derived from Maxwell’s equations and in fact was correctly estimated by Maxwell many years before the experiment was carried out.

  2. cuervoon 01 Oct 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Well said. I found his blog a while ago, my comment was lost in the ‘ether’, mysteriously enough.

  3. sonicon 01 Oct 2008 at 1:54 pm

    “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. ”

    “Any mutual understanding is going to have to start with a search for scientific common ground. ”

    It seems the common ground would have to include whether or not the effects have been demonstrated.

    Otherwise there is nothing but-
    “See what I found?”
    “No, I don’t see it.”

    That discussion isn’t going anywhere.

  4. Chris Nobleon 01 Oct 2008 at 5:20 pm

    The beauty of anomaly hunting without an underlying explanatory theory is that it is impossible to design an experiment that would falsify your pet idea.

    If your experiment shows an anomaly then you count that s evidence for “psi” if it doesn’t then it doesn’t matter because “psi” obviously doesn’t work that way.

  5. RBHon 01 Oct 2008 at 8:36 pm

    Decades ago, at the urging of a student, I wrote a critique of a paper Radin published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research that purported to show that people could remotely sense the state of a computer’s memory and sent it to JASPR. Radin’s paper was shot through with the usual psi research mistakes — optional stopping, arbitrary elimination of runs, etc. To its credit, JASPR published my critique along with a response by Radin and my rejoinder. The main result of that exchange was that I came to view Radin as a less-than-reliable source.

    Later I was asked to review a textbook on parapsychology for American Psychologist. The main message of my review was what you’ve identified above: Absent a reliably reproducible phenomenon, there’s nothing to look at.

  6. DevilsAdvocateon 01 Oct 2008 at 10:56 pm

    The history of psychical research, going back to the days of the British (1882) and then American Society For Psychical Research, has collectively always struck me as a speedboat without a rudder, spinning in circles all over the harbor at 90 mph. It seems to follow the typical pseudoscientific track:
    1) Draw conclusions
    2) Now go find evidence for it.
    3) Creat evidence if you have to
    4) It’s OK, because we know it exists

  7. papon 02 Oct 2008 at 12:35 am

    I have been involved in an online debate with a professor at a religious university over creation/evolution. He detracts from points he seems uncomfortable with and begins his victory laps after soundly defeating a whole platoon of delicate, hand-crafted straw men.

    Being involved with these debates (and seeing them in action) is good training though.

    Also, taking on an iconic figure, however deluded, really adds leverage in the fight for skepticism since he or she may hold a bit of cultural weight.

    Nicely done.

  8. [...] Why Psi is not recognized by mainstream science – Steve Novella addresses ESP researcher Dean Radin’s response to one of Novella’s earlier blogs. Specifically, he points out that mainstream science’s acceptance of dark matter and dark energy, both phenomena that were once outside of what was known by science and which are still a mysterious, debunks the classic straw man argument from true believers that skeptical scientists just refuse to accept that anything outside of current scientific understanding. [...]

  9. Eric Thomsonon 03 Oct 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Who cares what you call it? Anomaly or ESP or whatever? They are free to use whatever terms they want to describe their research. This seems like a silly argument, like a philosopher would get into.

    If they actually found credible evidence that people could foresee the future, or predict random numbers, that sort of thing, it would be impressive no matter what you called it. Our ignorance of mechanism is obviously unimportant if the behavioral data are sound (if).

    QM (and QED) does give mechanisms for two things being connected simultaneously across long distances, so the claims about QM are probably not nonsensical, but merely empirically false.

  10. daedalus2uon 03 Oct 2008 at 7:34 pm

    You don’t need to invoke quantum mechanics for things to be connected across long distances. Electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio does quite well.

    The timing issue (even if the results were positive) has to be pretty precise to throw out causality. Even if there were “simultaneous” data transfer, if there needed to be local processing, 25 milliseconds processing delay (on either end) would obscure any issues of simultaneity and non-causality (at least for all communication between points on Earth).

    The argument about language and semantics relates to precision of communication. Simply by naming something some people make the presumption that it exists and that it has certain properties.

    Anomalies exist only in the context of a certain theoretical model of reality. The religious person prays and receives the winning lottery number from God. The religious person considers this to not be an anomaly because knowing the winning lottery ticket and bestowing it to someone who prays is certainly within the powers the religious person ascribes to God. The skeptic finds the receipt of the winning lottery number via praying to be an anomaly because there is no otherwise demonstrated evidence of a God or gods with such properties or efficacy of prayer to achieve such results. If the religious person prays and does not receive the winning lottery number, this is an anomaly because in their view or reality God grants such things to people who pray. The skeptic sees the non-receipt of the winning lottery number as a non-anomaly.

    The question then is how to resolve the anomaly. When a million people pray and only one receives the winning lottery number, 999,999 religious people say “obviously I am not worthy and must pray harder”, the winner says (with great piety), “obviously the Lord works in mysterious ways, who am I to question the Lord’s will, and for $100 I will teach you my prayer techniques”. The skeptic says “what anomaly?”

  11. davidsmithon 09 Apr 2009 at 12:46 pm

    A few comments on your interesting blog entry.

    >

    I’m no physicist, but I understand from your own admission that neither are you. On these grounds I wonder why, as a sceptic, you are so sure that any association between ESP and quantum mechanics amount to ‘nonsensical ramblings’? Are you simply trusting the majority view?

    I guess that a percentage of physicists and mathematicians would agree with your sentiments but there are others who seem to take the association seriously. For example, physicist Guy Vandegrift has written explicity on this topic –

    Vandergrift, G. (1995). Bell’s theorem and psychic phenomena. The Philosophical Quarterly, 45 (181), 471-476.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the background to fully understand this issue but I have to say that I am sceptical of comments made by non-physicists, like yourself, that denounce the possibility of such a connection just as much as I am sceptical of non-physicists who claim such an association.

    On ‘anomaly hunting’,

    >

    I would generally agree with you here, although it is not a blind search by any means. We know roughly where to look because we already have primary phenomena in the form of verbally reported experiences.

    So when Radin said,

    >

    I think he is refering to ‘genuine ESP’ in terms of a genuine anomaly that carries the characteristics of the original verbal reports, i.e., it a cognitive anomaly. You seem to object to the term ESP but If ESP experiments rule out known forms of perception then, by definition, the anomalous effect can be appropriately labelled as ‘extra-sensory perception’. It’s my understanding that ‘ESP’ is only used as a label for an anomalous effect and is not meant to imply any underlying mechanism. It is a term, just like ‘anomalous cognition’, that refers to the conditions under which the anomaly is observed.

    In this sense, it is logically consistent to demonstrate the reality of ESP/anomalous cognition by repeatedly producing the cognitive effects that should not happen according to what we currently know about how cognition should work. Which is what you were saying anyway.

    At the end of the day, I don’t see much of a disagreement between what you and Radin are saying. Apart from arguing about the reliability of the ESP effect, which is a different discussion altogether…

  12. davidsmithon 09 Apr 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Sorry, messed up the format of my post. Re-posted!

    A few comments on your interesting blog entry.

    “It is true that there is no reductionist explanation for how ESP might (even in theory) work (nonsensical ramblings about quantum mechanics aside).”

    I’m no physicist, but I understand from your own admission that neither are you. On these grounds I wonder why, as a sceptic, you are so sure that any association between ESP and quantum mechanics amount to ‘nonsensical ramblings’? Are you simply trusting the majority view?

    I guess that a percentage of physicists and mathematicians would agree with your sentiments but there are others who seem to take the association seriously. For example, physicist Guy Vandegrift has written explicity on this topic –

    Vandergrift, G. (1995). Bell’s theorem and psychic phenomena. The Philosophical Quarterly, 45 (181), 471-476.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the background to fully understand this issue but I have to say that I am sceptical of comments made by non-physicists, like yourself, that denounce the possibility of such a connection just as much as I am sceptical of non-physicists who claim such an association.

    On ‘anomaly hunting’,

    “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.”

    I would generally agree with you here, although it is not a blind search by any means. We know roughly where to look because we already have primary phenomena in the form of verbally reported experiences.

    So when Radin said,

    “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)”

    I think he is refering to ‘genuine ESP’ in terms of a genuine anomaly that carries the characteristics of the original verbal reports, i.e., it a cognitive anomaly. You seem to object to the term ESP but If ESP experiments rule out known forms of perception then, by definition, the anomalous effect can be appropriately labelled as ‘extra-sensory perception’. It’s my understanding that ‘ESP’ is only used as a label for an anomalous effect and is not meant to imply any underlying mechanism. It is a term, just like ‘anomalous cognition’, that refers to the conditions under which the anomaly is observed.

    In this sense, it is logically consistent to demonstrate the reality of ESP/anomalous cognition by repeatedly producing the cognitive effects that should not happen according to what we currently know about how cognition should work. Which is what you were saying anyway.

    At the end of the day, I don’t see much of a disagreement between what you and Radin are saying. Apart from arguing about the reliability of the ESP effect, which is a different discussion altogether…

  13. straightgodlesson 09 May 2009 at 5:07 pm

    To Steve-

    This paper gives references to all experiments testing presentiment to date.

    http://publicparapsychology.blogspot.com/2007/11/brain-response-to-future-event.html

  14. HHCon 09 May 2009 at 7:45 pm

    If Radin’s research is undisputable, he should try investing his research monies at the casinos. Let’s say he and his confederates sit in on blackjack or poker, using their skills at prediciting cards he should quadruple his research money in no time. However, if casino security stops him before he leaves with his “winnings” he’ll have to explain how he didn’t cheat.

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