May 01 2023

Problems with the Institute Of Noetic Sciences

I was interviewed recently for a Daily Beast article on recent research involving the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). Overall the article is very good, and author Maddie Bender was fair and reasonable in how I was quoted. I can’t always take that as a given. No matter how careful you are, a lot can be done with the edit and perfectly reasonable statements can be framed in a positive or negative light. It all depends on what story the author is writing.

In this case the story was about how fringe science and even pseudoscience can infiltrate mainstream academic institutions. There is a lot of nuance to this topic, because as with many such things there is a demarcation problem. As I have discussed many times before, for example, there is a demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience. There is no sharp line between the two, but a smooth transition. Much mainstream science can fall short in terms of rigorous methodology, and not all pseudoscience gets everything wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t pseudoscience (that would be the false continuum logical fallacy) – get far enough to one end of the spectrum and you are in the realm of pseudoscience.

Academic institutions have another demarcation problem to deal with – academic freedom. This one is perhaps even trickier, because it is critically important that academics have the intellectual freedom to explore new and unpopular ideas, even ones that may be considered “dangerous”. As I have also written before, I have no problem with researchers exploring new ideas, fringe ideas, even weird ideas, as long as they are being true to scientific philosophy and methodology, and not making claims that go beyond the evidence. Further, this means that pseudoscience is not an area of study, but a set of behaviors. You can be doing pseudoscience when studying mainstream claims, or rigorous science when studying the paranormal. It’s the method and logic that matter. For example, Richard Wiseman has done rigorous investigations of the paranormal. I would never call him a pseudoscientist.

One of the core features of doing pseudoscience is assuming that your claim (paranormal or otherwise) is true and then working backwards from that assumption. This leads to performing research to show that the phenomenon is true, or perhaps how it works, but not doing research capable of determine if it is true. This brings us back to IONS and the Daily Beast article. The article focuses on neuroscientist Spiro Pantazatos and his collaboration with IONS, looking for brain regions that might correlate with specific paranormal phenomena. My problem with this research is that is assumes various paranormal phenomena are real, when that has not been scientifically established. In fact, as I point out in the article, we have over a century of research which has failed to demonstrate psi phenomena (ESP, clairvoyance, telekenesis, etc.) to point to. This is not some new idea that has never been explored.

There is also the not-insignificant factor of a complete lack of scientific plausibility. Sure, it’s always possible there is something going on beyond the known laws of physics. To be philosophically pure one should never say “impossible” in science. But if a claim does violate the known laws of physics at a fundamental level, that should give any proponent significant pause. It does raise the bar for evidence dramatically. We should not accept marginal or subjective evidence in order to overturn centuries of established physical laws. That would never be a good bet (so far skeptics have a really good track record always betting on the laws of physics).

Also, assuming that psi phenomena are real based on current evidence amounts to being dismissive of proposed (and much more plausible) neuropsychological explanations for such alleged experiences. It is also dismissive of the very fair and often fatal criticism of poor scientific methodology. It is likely no coincidence that those who believe in very unlikely phenomena tend to rely upon very poor quality evidence. IONS makes this fallacy explicit, stating on their website:

Nonlocal consciousness effects have been objectively demonstrated, by the IONS research team and by our many colleagues worldwide over the past 140 years, to a level of confidence such that further proof-oriented experiments are no longer necessary. The next research advancement, as reflected by most studies that are being conducted today, are process-oriented experiments, which are interested in what factors modulate these effects.

And that is why they are doing pseudoscience. It’s not because they are studying psi phenomena, it’s because they falsely believe existing evidence proves it exists. It doesn’t. They don’t even come close to the threshold of evidence necessary to demonstrate a new physical phenomenon, let alone one that breaks existing laws of physics. But IONS is dismissive of skeptical criticism, relying upon tired old tropes about skeptics. Helané Wahbeh, director of research at IONS, is quoted in the article:

Wahbeh said she is surprised by the passion that some critics of the noetic sciences bring to discussions about it. She argued their skepticism might come from a number of places, such as an unwillingness to question established scientific paradigms and a history of religious persecution for those reporting psychic experiences.

Or perhaps, she said, those critics fear a world in which psychic abilities exist.

“They’re afraid of their own potential, and they’re afraid of what it would mean if humanity actually fully expressed these potentials,” Wahbeh said. “Let’s say I’m just fully telepathic, and I know exactly what you’re thinking right now. That would make you feel really uncomfortable.”

Spoken like someone who hasn’t the slightest clue what scientific skepticism is all about, and probably never had a real conversation with a knowledgeable skeptic. It’s also transparently self serving. “They are just afraid of our new and powerful ideas.” No. You are just doing bad science and massively overstating your claims. Scientists are not afraid of new ideas – we live for new ideas. The “fear” trope is especially annoying, because it makes zero sense. Skeptics are all about dealing with reality as it is. We would rather accept that we are mortal (all crawling toward oblivion, as one poet put it), rather than believe in the supernatural without justification. If psi were real, that would be awesome. It would point toward a deeper understanding of reality. It would be a new phenomenon to exploit, and we certainly would not want to be on the wrong side of that revolution.

But every pseudoscientist pulls the fear card, because it is easy and intellectually lazy (see a pattern here). Apparently skeptics are afraid that aliens might exist, we fear that true healing might exist, we fear Bigfoot, and we stay up at night worrying that someone might actually have ESP.

Or – we have cogent arguments about the relationship between scientific rigor, levels of evidence, prior plausibility, and scientific claims. Just putting that out there.

In the end IONS is an organization that is, in my opinion, dedicated to pseudoscience. They state it openly – they believe the current evidence supports psi phenomena tsuch a degree that they no longer even have to ask the question. They further have to dismiss the whole of mainstream scientists who do not share their enthusiasm. I guess we’re all just afraid. o

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