January 16th, 2011

More on parapsychology and the skeptics — and the two Ray Hymans…

This was an op-ed I submitted to the New York Times last week — and by now I think it’s safe to say they won’t run it:

Here in the 21st century Western world, we are apt to look back with smug disapproval at the Church’s crude suppression of Galileo and his relatively modern astronomical ideas, four centuries ago.  Even the early-1900s attempts by certain US states to outlaw the teaching of evolutionary theory already seem part of a bygone, benighted era – in contrast to our present enlightened era of free scientific inquiry.

But how shall we account for the Inquisitional outbursts from scientists that appeared in the Times earlier this month?  I mean the calls by prominent academic researchers to effectively suppress the findings of a scientific colleague, the eminent experimental psychologist Daryl Bem, essentially because his findings threatened their reality.

“If any of [Bem’s] claims were true, then all of the bases underlying contemporary science would be toppled, and we would have to rethink everything about the nature of the universe,” complained the physicist and cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University.  David Helfand, an astronomer at Columbia University, called Bem’s findings “an assault on science and rationality.”  Ray Hyman, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, condemned Bem’s work and its imminent publication as “craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in.”

Note the absence of scientific reasoning in these statements, and its replacement by fear and loathing.  When the Church dismissed Galileo’s ideas as “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical…” it arguably behaved more rationally.  According to the logic of the day, the Church was indeed empowered to find ideas contra-Scriptural, and thus heretical, and thus suppressable.

Modern science is not so empowered.  Its ideals prohibit it from rejecting ideas just because its elites find them threatening or ontologically untidy.  Science is supposed to let the chips fall where they may.  But can it?  As historians and sociologists of science have been pointing out for decades now, it appears to be human nature to want a relatively stable reality, and even scientists will defend their reality instinctively, by fair means or foul.

That defense can be accomplished easily, and usually quietly nowadays, by denying funds and prominent publication to unwanted findings.  Certainly parapsychology has been ghettoized in this manner, despite its long affiliation with the AAAS.  But even disciplines whose object of study is undeniably real have been starved of sustenance.  Consciousness, for example, hits us all between the eyes every waking hour of every day.  Yet it is essentially paranormal, because there is nothing in biology or physics that can explain it; and so — until very recently — consciousness research has been considered flaky, and has received very little funding.  If you don’t believe me, ask a consciousness researcher.

This begs the question of whether academic science is even the place for truly innovative, reality-disturbing research.  In fact, from the early 1970s, while academic parapsychology was languishing, the CIA, the Pentagon and other government agencies sponsored their own, classified ESP research and applications program.  The program was aimed at developing practical espionage techniques, not at convincing outside scientists, but it still generated a number of sensational results.  In one case, according to President Carter himself, it enabled the U.S. to recover a downed Soviet bomber in Africa.  It also repeatedly passed muster with scientific review boards whose members were sworn to secrecy.

The program had its vociferous opponents, just as Daryl Bem has now, and in the end it wasn’t consistently useful enough to survive their efforts to kill it.  But when the program was terminated in 1995, the official conclusion wasn’t that ESP – or “remote viewing” as they termed it – was illusory, but that it wasn’t ready to be used routinely for espionage.  The UC-Davis statistician Jessica Utts, one of the two experts hired by the CIA to provide an epitaph for the program, concluded that it had definitely demonstrated that ESP was real.  Among other things, she wrote, “Precognition, in which the answer is known to no one until a future time, appears to work quite well.”

The other expert, Ray Hyman, a long-time skeptic and one of those quoted by the Times above, was not prepared to go that far.  But – in remarkable contrast to his comments today – Hyman then felt obliged to admit that the scientific side of the program, then run at SAIC, was methodologically sound, and was generating interesting results:  “The statistical departures from chance appear to be too large and consistent to attribute to statistical flukes of any sort,” he wrote.  “Although I cannot dismiss the possibility that these rejections of the null hypothesis might reflect limitations in the statistical model as an approximation of the experimental situation, I tend to agree with Professor Utts that real effects are occurring in these experiments.  Something other than chance departures from the null hypothesis has occurred in these experiments.”

So even Hyman indicated that ESP deserved further scientific study.  How naïve people were to think that that was what he really wanted!

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