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Gorillas In The Midst

Dean Radin, PhD, has written an article entitled: What Gorilla?: Why Some Can’t See Psychic Phenomena. Because I fall into the category of people who apparently cannot see “psychic phenomena”, I read the article to see if he had me pegged, because I am quite confident I know the reason why I can’t see “psychic phenomena”.

To summarize his main point, Radin suggests that people only perceive a very small fraction of reality (“by some estimates a trillionth of what is actually out there”, according to Radin.) The rest of what people perceive to be true is built by “filling in the blanks” with their mind. As a result, human beings have a tendency to “overlook the obvious”, or to put it another way, humans have “blind spots” to certain aspects of reality, such as “psychic phenomena”. Apparently, folks that are steeped in a “Western scientific worldview” are blinded to realities that do not conform to their parochial scope. And according to Radin, skeptics fall squarely into that category.

Radin writes:

“Exclusion of (psychic) phenomena creates a Catch 22: Human experiences credibly reported throughout history, across all cultures, and at all educational levels, repeatedly tell us that psychic phenomena exist. But Big Science — especially as portrayed in prominent newspapers and popular magazines like Scientific American — says it doesn’t.”

I would retort that what transcends the collective history of humans is that humans have an innate lack of understanding of the laws that govern the physical universe. Sometimes, these misinterpretations become interpreted, as Radin terms, “psychic phenomena”, largely based on cultural influences. Further, the idea of “Big Science” telling people that psychic phenomena does not exist is a very lame scare tactic, much the same the way people liberally wield terms like “Big Pharma” or “Big Oil”. “Big Anything” is pure cliché with no substance, and a red flag for personal or non-scientific biases. Radin continues:

“This form of investigation (scientific inquiry to paranormal claims) has been going on for over a century, and despite official denials, the jury is in: Some psychic phenomena do exist. But like blindingly obvious gorillas, not everyone can see them. (Actually, like the majority of the general public, many scientists do have these experiences, but as in the parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, fledgling science students quickly learn in college that it is not politically expedient to talk about it.)”

Just what “jury” is Radin referring to? I am unaware of any generally accepted scientific evidence that any “psychic phenomena” has been shown to ever exist. This is about as vacuous a statement as a true-believer can muster. No wait, I take that back, his next sentence perhaps qualifies for being more devoid of fact. Fledgling science students in college are being silenced? I guess that’s one way of putting it. Perhaps a more accurate way of stating it is that science professors are not giving a platform to purely anti-scientific notions such as “psychic phenomena”, much the same way that history professors would not devote class time to discuss the notion that, perhaps, it was Germany that attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. More from Radin:

“Researchers who have closely studied the psi literature, the vast majority have little doubt that something interesting is going on, something not easily attributable to chance or to any known conventional artifacts. These effects are in principle no more difficult to demonstrate than the efficacy of new pharmaceutical drugs or medical procedures. Such effects tend to be small in magnitude, they are highly reactive to the psychosocial context and other environmental factors, and they take substantial amounts of careful data collection to overcome the statistical noise generated by dozens of poorly understood interactive factors. But they are real, and they are repeatable in the laboratory.”

I would wager that the vast majority of psi researchers have a predisposition to their belief that “psi” actually exists. On the other hand, scientists such as Ray Hyman and Amir Raz, who have no disposition or vested interest in the existence of “psi”, correctly identify the “small effects” of psi experiments as noise or chance. “Psi” is an extraordinary claim, and it requires extraordinary evidence to be accepted as probably existing. Anything else falls short. Radin would have the measuring stick of science lowered down to levels that “psi” could possibly touch. And more:

“These (psi) effects are in principle no more difficult to demonstrate than the efficacy of new pharmaceutical drugs or medical procedures.”

Right. And guess what? Science identifies the drugs and procedures that work and the ones that do not. The same measuring stick goes for “psi”, and under the rigid discipline of proper double-blinded science experiments, “psi” comes up empty. Radin claims that there are several “psi” experiments and tests that have met this criteria, but perhaps he’s not familiar with the fact that when you tighten the controls (such as properly double-blinding the experiments), any positive “psi” effects disappear.

A good remaining rest of Radin’s article is an attack on Ray Hyman to reinforce his notion that scientists and skeptics are too immersed in a “Western worldview” to see all the wonderful “psi” going on around us. But here is one more bit of the article I found interesting:

“Unfortunately, there are countless other tales of ignoring other invisible gorillas at the frontiers of knowledge. They include serious scientific arguments that global warming is not being caused by human activities, analyses suggesting that HIV does not cause AIDS, repeatable electrochemical-nuclear reactions once known as “cold-fusion,” credible reports of UFOs, and so on. All of these ideas encounter strong sociopolitical resistance in academia, so credible counter-arguments are difficult to locate and even more difficult to discuss in scientific forums unless you have a phalanx of beefy bodyguards watching your back. “Will mainstream science ever be prepared to admit that psychic phenomena warrants serious investigation? I believe the answer is yes. Acceptance someday is inevitable. We are dealing with human experiences reported since the dawn of human history, experiences that do not go away in tightly controlled laboratory tests using the most sophisticated experimental tools and designs. So some of these phenomena will eventually become integrated into the mainstream. Exactly when I cannot say. Perhaps one to five decades.”

Actually, “Psychic phenomena” has been seriously investigated for decades by lots of different people all over the world. The highest quality data is derived from studies and tests that were well designed, properly randomized and blinded, and critically reviewed for the purpose of eliminating human biases and interferences. The sum of data from the high quality scientific studies suggest there is no positive data to support the existence of “psi”. Despite this, Radin suggests that scientists should continue to dedicate precious limited resources to chase “gorillas” that only exist to those that believe they exist in the first place. Oh, yes, just incase you didn’t catch the undertones of Radin’s article, you must BELIEVE that there is a gorilla to be found, otherwise you will never be able to find it. That’s all well and good, if you’re doing anything other than science.

And that is the real crux of Radin’s article, and the answer as to why I can’t see “psychic phenomena”, which Radin failed to peg. I can not see it because there is nothing to be seen. Radin would have me believe that his analogy of the reader being a basketball fan, watching the game, and not noticing a person in a gorilla suit walking across the middle of the court is a good example of psychological science experiment that supports the reality of “psi.” It might make sense to the 95% of the world population that is scientifically illiterate, but fortunately in my case, I’m in the vast minority of people who can often distinguish science from non-science.

Perhaps Doctor Radin should come over to my house and have a look at Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon that now lives in my garage. Sagan’s invisible dragon and Radin’s gorilla could possibly get along very well together.

17 comments to Gorillas In The Midst

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    Dean Radin – the gift that keeps on giving. Maybe he should shut up and eat some of his chocolate.

  • LBB

    Invisible Gorillas vs. Invisible Dragons! I think this is a great opportunity to update the Birds vs. Monkeys debate.

    Dragons have the obvious advantages of flight and fire breath, but gorillas are a lot easier to house, feed and clean up after. If you’re going to be scooping invisible poop, I should think that gorilla-sized droppings would be a lot more manageable.

  • durnett

    Belief? Non-belief? Aside from Dean Radin, who cares?

    The scientific method is intended to cut out “world view” and philosophy so that we can concentrate on what actually effects our lives. If Radin and Big Woo want to talk about a gorilla that is invisible and doesn’t change its environment in any way, go talk to the meta-physicists and leave the physicists alone to figure out how the world works.

  • Drum Billet

    You’re obviously just jealous that you can’t see all this cool psychic phenomena.

  • Jim Shaver

    Exclusion of (psychic) phenomena creates a Catch 22: Human experiences credibly reported throughout history, across all cultures, and at all educational levels, repeatedly tell us that psychic phenomena exist. But Big Science — especially as portrayed in prominent newspapers and popular magazines like Scientific American — says it doesn’t.

    Uh, Mr. Radin, how exactly is that a “Catch 22″? A Catch 22 is a rule that is inherently unfair, or a game that inherently cannot be won. Example:

    Person A: “You are in violation of Law 22 and must pay a fine.”

    Person B: “What is Law 22?”

    Person A: “You have no right to that information.”

    Person B: “Why not?”

    Person A: “Because Law 22 forbids you to know.”

    Throughout human history, humans have been superstitious. The discipline of science now provides a means of correcting those mistakes. Where is the dilema? Where is the unfair rule? When you are a crybaby, many normal things seem unfair to you.

    Thanks, Evan! Speaking of not seeing gorillas, did you hear about the estimated 125,000 Western lowland gorillas found recently in the Congo? That’s more than twice the number thought to exist elsewhere in the world, so this is good news for the critically endangered species.

    http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/africa/08/05/congo.gorillas/index.html

  • Niobe

    He has balls using the Emperors new clothes parable. I guess it’s not just creationists that are irony deficient.

  • Read the comments to the article. Oh my. One of them ironically speculates that the earth is occupied by two species – psi sensitive and the insensitive drones (i.e skeptics). This is ironic because we has speculated that there are two distinct sub-cultures: reality-based and reality-challenged. Reading the comments certainly reinforces the notion that there is a reality-challenged subculture.

    It is an interesting question if they also represent a genetic subpopulation – perhaps their brains are truly wired differently.

  • Scotty B

    science professors are not giving a platform to purely anti-scientific notions such as “psychic phenomena”, much the same way that history professors would not devote class time to discuss the notion that, perhaps, it was Germany that attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941

    Been watching Animal House again Evan?

    “Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!” – John “Bluto” Blutarsky

    /Forget it, he’s rolling.

  • thethyme

    Oh, yes, just incase you didn’t catch the undertones of Radin’s article, you must BELIEVE that there is a gorilla to be found, otherwise you will never be able to find it.

    Hmm I wonder what his research on Santa would show?

  • Human experiences credibly reported throughout history, across all cultures, and at all educational levels, repeatedly tell us that psychic phenomena exist.

    Well, there we go. “Credibly reported”? He bases his whole argument on a flimsy assertion. For the main part, as we know, ‘psychic’ phenomena are rarely credibly reported.

    It is an interesting question if they also represent a genetic subpopulation – perhaps their brains are truly wired differently.

    And Steve, curious you should say that. I’ve recently been wondering the very same thing. Maybe there is some kind of adaptive advantage to being impressionable? I’m thinking about the way that our society tends to be divided into leaders and followers and remembering a New Scientist article where some researchers advanced the hypothesis that certain traits arise in populations to encourage that division. From the article, about Leaders:

    In humans these would have included specialised mental mechanisms for planning, communication, group decision-making, competence recognition, social learning and conflict management. Although such traits are generally associated with higher reasoning, cognitive pre-adaptations for leadership probably evolved long before modern humans ever appeared on the scene.

    It would help explain the puzzling phenomenon of charismatic cults, at least.

    It’s not to say that Leaders are necessarily ‘smart’ or ‘skeptical’ of course, just that they have an intellectual edge. Certainly, the mental processes we typically associate with higher thinking would be at play in Leaders, for whatever advantage they might perceive. Mark van Vugt, one of the researchers, points out that:

    The relationship between followers and leaders is inherently ambivalent because there is always a risk that leaders will try to coerce or exploit their followers, and that followers will plot to depose their leaders.

    (Sorry, a longer comment than I intended).

  • dwroach

    Evan, interesting post–thanks. Never heard of this guy, so I’ll have to check into his other woo claims.

    On a more ‘literary’ note: did you mean to title the post as “Gorillas in the MIST”? This would have seemed a bit more appropriate given it’s allusion to Mr. Radin’s idea of ‘gorillas’ being about as dense, opaque, and disorienting as a mass of the old white stuff. Anyway, just wondering.

    random p.s.–maybe Radin is the Randi’s alter-ego in the Bizarro World

    Regards.

  • MachineElf

    Evan wrote:

    “Radin claims that there are several “psi” experiments and tests that have met this criteria, but perhaps he’s not familiar with the fact that when you tighten the controls (such as properly double-blinding the experiments), any positive “psi” effects disappears.”

    If you really think that, then I would submit that you haven’t read any of Radin’s research at all. Probably a good idea to do that before critiquing the guy?

    Kind regards,
    Greg

  • Scott R.

    “The rest of what people perceive to be true is built by “filling in the blanks” with their mind. As a result, human beings have a tendency to “overlook the obvious”, or to put it another way, humans have “blind spots” to certain aspects of reality, such as “psychic phenomena”.”

    Hmmm. Radin seems to overlook a glaring error in his metal process. If the vast majority of the population are not able to see these so called Psychic Phenonmena, isn’t it more likely that the small percentage who do are the ones “filling in the blanks” in a way that caused these people to perceive them? Since the majority who can not see them have a world view that is supported by science, it’s far more likely that it’s the small minority who are in error.

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    MachineElf,

    I’ve read some of Radin’s research, and one of his answers to why tightening controls removes the psi effect is that skeptical thinking – even FUTURE skeptical thinking – can ruin the results of an experiment.

    So anyone thinking skeptically about a psi experiment, at any time, past, present, or future, can cause th experiment to fail. Therefore no psi experiment has ever really failed, its just those pesky skeptics with their backwards causality screwing them up. Nice. A great explanation, fits any situation.

  • MachineElf,

    True, I have not read Radin’s studies to any great extent. That is inconsequential.

    I did read THIS article by Radin with great interest, and it disgusted me. This article is a slurry of misinformation and mischaracterizations. And it is being blindly consumed by a growing population of reality-challenged people (just read the comments after the article.)

    Radin needs to be challenged, and not just by his peers that have studied him closely, but equally importantly, by the people he is attempting to feed, like you and me.

    Evan

  • He’s right about one thing: With ambiguous stimuli, people see what they want to see. He doesn’t seem to understand that science seeks to reduce this bias. There is no “Big Science,” and using that phrase is nothing more than conspiracy fantasy. If a phenomenon truly is real, then it should be replicable by experiment regardless of bias. Psi research consistently fails this most basic test.

    This guy seems to take a few basic findings of research in perception, and then draws ridiculous and unsupported conclusions from them. These conclusions are also probably untestable. It’s true that we only see a fraction of the physical universe (only a fraction of electromagnetic radiation is visible, only a fraction of mechanical vibration is audible, etc.), and it’s also true that perception operates by filling in the blanks in imperfect data. But the rest of this is some pretty twisted reasoning indeed. Something doesn’t become invisible just because you don’t want to see it–not if it’s real. I’ve heard the same kind of idea in the terrible movie “What The Bleep Do We Know?” and it’s just as false here.

  • [...] was disapointed this week to see Dean Radin taking the ufologist side on the ufo phenomena debate: The Rogues Gallery

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