Mar 27 2009

Magic in the Huffington Post

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In the Huffington Post yesterday Srinivasan Pillay informs readers about the Science of Distant Healing. Although Orac professed some (perhaps for dramatic effect) surprise that the HuffPo has sunk to such pseudoscientific depths, I confess I was not surprised. This is on a par with the antivaccinationist crankery that has found a home at HuffPo and the occasional Chopra nonsense. Any publication with the lax journalistic standards that would allow such rabid antivaccinationist nonsense to be published under its banner is capable of almost anything.

What Pilly is now offering is the claim that distant healing effects are real based upon poorly referenced and cherry picked data, abject naivete as to the nature of research, and the usual handwaving explanations invoking (or course) quantum mechanics.

The Claim

Pillay claims there is good evidence that distant healing effects are real. The effect, he claims, is due to “intention” – which is a euphamism for “wishing”, which means he is talking about magic. If everyone in the audience says they believe in faires, then Tinkerbell will come back to life.

For evidence Pillay cites a study alleging to show that one member of a couple can influence the autonomic function of their partner in a separate room. Unbelievably Pillay did not give the reference, and had to be brow  beat in the comments to do so. I found the study abtract online.  (Orac was sent the full version by a reader, so had access to more details). It turns out the study was performed by Dean Radin, which might explain Pillay’s reluctance to give the reference.

Radin has a reputation for creatively massaging data, and other researchers have a hard time replicating his claims for positive results. From the abtract of this study he write:

Planned differences in skin conductance among the three groups were not significant, but a post hoc analysis showed that peak deviations were largest and most sustained in the trained group, followed by more moderate effects in the wait group, and still smaller effects in the control group.

If we take a skeptical eye toward any study such as this there are two basic questions that need to be answered – was their adequate blinding, and is the signal in the data real or the result of fudging, cherry picking or bias. Regarding blinding, Orac brings up excellent points – the person receiving the intention was being watched by a remote camera during periods of intention, so perhaps the little red light on the camera came on and clued them in. No attempt was made to verify that the recipient was properly blinded.

But the quote above from the abstract is perhaps even more of a problem. I interpret that to mean – the agreed upon outcome measures were negative, so I went back and looked at the data again (post hoc) and was able to massage an apparent effect out of the noise. Radin is known for doing multiple fancy statistical manipulations of the data, as he did in this case, and spinning gold out of straw. He also discarded a few bits of data as “artifacts” which is further suspect.

The bottom line is that this is a dubious study by a researcher with a dedicated ideology and a poor history. I would not even begin to take this research seriously until it was independently replicated by more respected and skeptical researchers.

Pillay, however, is ready to rewrite the physics textbooks.

Quantum Woo

Having prematurely concluded that intention magic is real, Pillay offers these possibilities as to mechanism:

(1) that intention is transmitted by an as yet unknown energy signal;

(2) that intention warps space-time much like gravity, creating pathways for connection;

(3) that people, like particles are described in quantum physics, have instantaneous correlations across distance;

(4) that intention is much like measurement in quantum physics. It organizes random possibilities much like how wave functions can be collapsed into a single function.

The first option – an unknown energy signal – is almost the equivalent of saying “by magic.”  First, the room in which the receiver sat was extensively shielded. So this unknown energy must have some unusual properties – it can go through heavy shielding but will interact with soft biology. It also, apparently, can be generated by the human brain. Until such a candidate energy is detected and something is known about its characteristics, and it is plausibly tied to biological creation and effects – this option does not deserve to be taken seriously.

This is the equivalent of  Larry Arnold inventing the new subatomic particle he dubbed the “pyron” to explain spontaneous human combustion. First, he failed to demonstrate the phenomenon is real, and second you just can’t make up the physics as you go along.

The second choice is intention warps space-time. Wow – that is some serious woo. Well, I guess if Hiro can do it on the Heroes, it makes sense.

And then he goes into the typical quantum woo, completely misunderstanding quantum mechanics. There are two basic reasons that quantum weird effects do not apply to people (and for all those physics majors out there, forgive my oversimplification, but these are the key concepts as I understand them). The first is that as particles interact with other particles any quantum non-locality or entanglement is effectively lost. This is called decoherence. For that reason quantum effects just don’t apply to people. Or (as Michio Kaku said when I interviewed him on the SGU) it does, but you would have to wait longer than the age of the universe for any quantum effects to manifest. In fact I specifically asked Michio if quantum mechanics allows for any new age woo, and he said unequivocally no.

The second reason quantum effects do not apply to people is the de Broglie wavelength. Louis de Broglie won the Nobel prize in 1929 for his work in quantum mechanics deriving the formula for calculating the effective wavelength of an electron. His equation actually applies to any physical object, including a person. The de Broglie wavelength of anything is equal to Planck’s constant (6.626 x10^-34) divided by the object’s momentum. For electrons, this gives a sizable wavelength. The bigger an object the smaller the de Broglie wavelength, and for macroscopic objects it is insignificantly small. This determines in essence the degree of quantum uncertainty, which is so tiny we can ignore it for macroscopic objects.

Bottom line – quantum effects cannot be invoked to explain the magic of intention. Sorry, Pillay.


Once again we see a pattern of a believer who credulously accepts the reality of a phenomenon based upon cherry picked, flawed, and vastly insufficient evidence. They then prematurely propose mechanisms for the alleged phenomenon which turn out to be just fancy ways of saying “magic” or butchering existing science. The science butchered is usually cutting edge stuff poorly understood by the public – and today, hands down, that is quantum mechanics.

This is an epic science failure for Pillay and the Huffington Post.

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