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Author of the Month

Robert Schoch Ph.D., Author of the Month for April 2008

Thoughts on Parapsychology and Paranormal Phenomena (cont.)
By Robert Schoch Ph.D.

For many people a phenomenon is not "real" unless it can be duplicated in a laboratory setting under controlled conditions. Being a natural scientist and field geologist, I have never agreed with this contention. After all, can we create a genuine volcanic eruption in the laboratory or even on command in the field? Until about two centuries ago the scientific community routinely rejected the concept of rocks falling from the sky (meteorites). Still, attempting to induce, capture, observe, and experiment with apparent telepathy under controlled conditions is a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, however, to this day it is fraught with problems and though numerous experiments have tested positive for apparent telepathy, others have had negative results and replication is a persistent problem. The bottom line is that we really do not know exactly what parameters or variables make for good telepathic transfer (or the elicitation of other types of paranormal phenomena), much less how to control for them.

There are major issues that remain unresolved concerning paranormal and psychical phenomena. We don't fully understand what conditions are best to elicit paranormal phenomena and thus these phenomena are not easily replicated on command (such as in a laboratory setting). There is often a very low signal to noise ratio when it comes to psychical phenomena; there is no single physical theory to account for paranormal phenomena; and there is the issue of fraud and charlatans. Fraud is a very real and persistent problem in the field of psychical research, and one reason to undertake large statistical studies of average persons (as opposed to so-called psychic superstars) and search for the regularities and patterns one would expect among any genuine natural phenomena. Also, paranormal studies have extended to animals (and in some cases, even plants). One of the strengths of non-human studies is that it is less likely that animals will cheat and lie. It can also be noted that many "powerful mediums" who appear to have genuine paranormal abilities also apparently have low moral values and will cheat and commit fraud, perhaps unconsciously, at times, especially when their genuine paranormal powers fail. This is a pattern that has been noted over and over among parapsychologists working with human subjects. All of these topics are discussed in The Parapsychology Revolution.

A popular approach to possible paranormal phenomena is simply to dismiss such as impossible, impossible either in an absolute sense, or as being of such a "low probability" as to be unworthy of consideration. For example, Sean Carroll (Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology) has posted on his blog at Cosmic Variance a diatribe against parapsychologists and the very idea of studying possible paranormal phenomena (http://cosmicvariance.com/2008/02/18/telekinesis-and-quantum-field-theory). The core of his argument is as follows:

"The main point here is that, while there are certainly many things that modern science does not understand, there are also many things that it does understand, and those things simply do not allow for telekinesis, telepathy, etc. Which is not to say that we can prove those things aren't real. We can't, but that is a completely worthless statement, as science never proves anything; that's simply not how science works. Rather, it accumulates empirical evidence for or against various hypotheses." [Italics in the original.]

I am classically trained in the sciences and I understand where Carroll is coming from philosophically when he states that "science never proves anything" (and I agree that, epistemologically at a deep level, proof is not the domain of science). However, Carroll contradicts himself when he states:

"The crucial concept here is that, in the modern framework of fundamental physics, not only do we know certain things, but we have a very precise understanding of the limits of our reliable knowledge. We understand, in other words, that while surprises will undoubtedly arise (as scientists, that's what we all hope for), there are certain classes of experiments that are guaranteed not to give exciting results - essentially because the same or equivalent experiments have already been performed." [Italics in the original.]

Here Carroll is clearly, and for all practical purposes, arguing that certain things have been "proven" when he asserts that "we know certain things." This strikes me as a modern version of the famous (famously wrong) 1894 pronouncement by Albert A. Michelson (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1907):

"The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote. . . . Future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals." (Quoted in Neil deGrasse Tyson, "The Beginning of Science." Natural History, March 2001.)

Michelson made this statement before the elucidation of X-rays and the structure of the atom, and before the discovery of radioactivity and the development of quantum physics and relativity theory. Despite his scientific brilliance, Michelson did not prove himself a very good diviner of the future.

Returning to the quotation from Sean Carroll, he states:

"The main point here is that, while there are certainly many things that modern science does not understand, there are also many things that it does understand, and those things simply do not allow for telekinesis, telepathy, etc."

If in place of "telekinesis, telepathy, etc." we substitute "continental drift," I could easily imagine this statement being made in the early 20th century. The very concept of moving continents was lambasted from some quarters, despite the strong evidence in support of the theory, because it was deemed "impossible" and utterly "inconceivable," based on the science of the time, that continents could move. There was no known mechanism, until, that is, the development of plate tectonic theory. (Yes, as a geologist, I am aware of the various criticisms and possible shortcomings of tectonic theory, but that is not the point or issue here.)

Analyzing further the selected quotations from Sean Carroll, they actually expose the weaknesses of like-minded individuals who insist that science in its modern Western guise should have the last word or, to put it another way, be the final arbiter of truth (even if only a provisional truth). Again, the Carroll quotation is:

"The main point here is that, while there are certainly many things that modern science does not understand, there are also many things that it does understand, and those things simply do not allow for telekinesis, telepathy, etc. Which is not to say that we can prove those things aren't real. We can't, but that is a completely worthless statement, as science never proves anything; that's simply not how science works. Rather, it accumulates empirical evidence for or against various hypotheses."

To say that something is "worthless" is a value judgment, and in an ultimate sense, one can argue, value judgments are outside of the realm of science and dependent on an emotional investment and context, among other factors. I would argue that the fact that "science never proves anything" is quite valuable as it precludes the "sleight-of-hand" dismissal of the very possibility of any supposed paranormal phenomena ever being genuine.

As far as empirical evidence is concerned, for many people this is the heart of the issue when it comes to alleged paranormal phenomena. Exactly what is evidence? Are anecdotal case studies evidence? Are card-guessing experiments in one lab (with good controls and taking all precautions against possible fraud) which give positive results for telepathy not "evidence," whereas similar experiments in a comparable lab (whatever "comparable" is in this case, given how poorly we understand the aspects that influence paranormal phenomena) which give negative results "solid evidence" against the telepathic hypothesis, as some critics and debunkers would contend? In fact, what is and is not "empirical evidence" is not a black and white matter, either in parapsychology or in many other scientific disciplines. Rather evidence, any evidence, is a matter of degree and also carries a subjective and value-based component. The criteria that make for convincing evidence on the part of one person are not necessarily the same as the criteria for another person. Precluding obvious fraud and the like, there is no single magical scientific way to determine "objectively" the ultimate value of any particular alleged evidence. Science, any science, is not quite as "objective" as some would assert.

Acknowledgments: I thank John Anthony West for reading and critiquing an earlier draft of this piece. In part this article developed from correspondence with Greg Taylor of The Daily Grail (www.dailygrail.com). I thank Greg for his perceptive questions. I thank Graham Hancock for inviting me to be Author of the Month on his website.

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