Mar 10 2014

Can Thinking Change Reality

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.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Can Thinking Change Reality”

  1. Bronze Dog says:

    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.

    Certainly a point worth attention. Psychic powers only seem to be hard to study because promoters typically don’t appreciate the hard work scientists go through as a matter of routine. For double the fun, they want to have it both ways: a lot of the claims for psychic power involve it being “obvious” to casual observers, with science just being a tool to verify their perception, rather than something to remove self-deception. It’s “obvious” at first, but when the experiments don’t produce positive results, they make excuses.

  2. NNM says:

    About 1…
    MWI is a bit more than just a wild hypothesis…
    It’s a consequence of “believing” in Schrödinger’s math and applying it slavishly…
    AKA, it’s a mathematical theory.
    (Just like when Einstein loked at Maxwell’s math and said we have to believe what the math is telling us)
    I think it deserves the title of Theory, even if it’s not my favorite. It’s not even clear if the particles are real, or just a consequence of observation and wave interactions. But MWI is, until proven otherwise, a GOOD mathematical theory.
    But clearly, people who have no clue what they are talking about should not use it to go into crazy philosophical debates or invent ideas.
    Particles may just be our limited way of interacting with the world. But you cannot say they are fixed objects with a position and momentum: that’s physically impossible, no matter how pleasing to our minds.
    Give it some more time, a lot of people are working on it; but it’s still a THEORY. I’m almost angry to see it called a hypothesis!!

  3. NNM says:

    Hate to double post, but it’s WAY better than string theory in explaining the constants of nature (something string theory doesn’t seem to ever come close to).

  4. BillyJoe7 says:


    MWI is not a theory.
    It is not even an hypothesis.
    It is an interpretation of QM.

    It is merely an attempt at explaining in macroscopic terms what’s happening at the microscopic level.

    Maybe you can explain better what you mean.

  5. Bill Openthalt says:

    NNM —

    The constants of nature are observed, not explained. Speculating why they are what they are is just that – speculation.

  6. Bruce says:

    Sorry, massively off topic, but NNM, I really hate it when people trot off TLA (Three Letter Acronyms) without at least in the first instance actually stating what that TLA stands for. This goes for MTTLA (More Than Three Letter Acronyms) too.

    You can get away with well known ones like CIA and ESP, but what does MWI mean? To me it just makes the writern look overly pompous. If I google MWI I get:

    Mad Wae It – to be totally steamin (pissed) or buzzin on sumthin.
    Media With Impact – Which is a london marketing agency.
    It is also the country code for Malawi.
    Many Worlds Interpretation – Which I assume you are meaning.
    Mobile Web Initiative
    And Wikipedia tells me it might mean Media Wear-Out Indicator.

    It helps people to understand your point of view more readily if you expand the acronym at least in the first instance, otherwise it just comes across as jargon and you risk losing your audience.

    /rant over

  7. Bill Openthalt says:

    I had a quick gander at the “CE – Collective Evolution” website. It ranges from free energy (and the conspiracies to suppress it) to vaccination fear mongering (and, of course, the conspiracies to impose it on the vulgum pecus) via the dangers of fluoridation (and the associated conspiracies) and Google conspiring with Obama to monitor all households. And I’ve forgotten the souls from the universe, with higher vibration than Earthly souls, re-incarnating betwixt us.

    Some people have truly weird beliefs, not to mention remarkable amounts of energy and perseverance to spend on the patently ludicrous.

  8. BillyJoe7 says:


    “All that is required is a detector, which physically interacts with the particles. “Detecting” forces the wave function to collapse into a particle”

    It’s actually a little weirder than that.
    The system merely needs to “know” which slit the particle goes through.
    The detector doesn’t necessarily have to actually physically interact with every particle particle.

    For example…
    In the double slit experiment with a detector at both slits, only one of them needs to be switched on. In this case the detector physically interacts with only half of the particles. The other half go through the slit with the detector switched off. No physical interaction occurs with these particles. Yet the same pattern results as when both detectors are switched on.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    Hi steve,

    Just wondering if you had any comment about my last post.
    I wouldn’t like to see someone like DC pull you up on this.

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