Bad Data

My friend Marco steered me to a critique of Dean Radin’s book The Conscious Universe, and I have to admit that the critique (though at times very silly) scored a few direct hits. Not having a degree in statistical analysis and not, moreover, having access to any of the original data Radin cites, I’m in no position to say yea or nay with respect to whether telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition exist. Radin seems to make a strong case, but the accusation he levels at skeptics — that they’re only seeing what they want to see — applies equally to him.

The statistical data is provocative, first because there seems to be quite a lot of it and second because none of it is very persuasive. That is, if telepathy is real, it seems odd that it would be so difficult to demonstrate in a clear way. The statistics pile up, but even if they mean what Radin thinks they mean, they all show a very slight effect.

This may be because the scientists are designing their studies badly. The telepathy experiments Radin describes uniformly use senders and receivers who have no special bonds to one another, and the data they’re supposed to send and receive is of no special emotional significance. If telepathy exists, those are not the conditions under which we would expect it to show up! Quite the contrary. Indeed, most of the anecdotal material about supposed telepathic communication, which of course we can’t duplicate in the laboratory because it’s anecdotal, concerns people who are closely bonded and are sending and receiving messages of vital importance.

At the very least, scientists ought to be testing telepathy between identical twins, parents and children, and spouses who have been happily married for 30 years.

What’s more, the people who are being used in the tests have no special mental training. The mystical traditions that have developed over the centuries in Asia are reputed to produce individuals with high levels of psychic ability. Why aren’t these people being used as test subjects?

If everything taught in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition were entirely true (and I’m not saying I believe it is), then the fact that ordinary Americans and Europeans have almost no telepathic, clairvoyant, or precognitive ability would not be even remotely surprising. We’re all too mired in mundane ego-consciousness. Making telepathic contact would be, for us, like trying to observe the stars through a telescope whose lenses are caked with mud.

When the investigators turn to the study of psychokinesis (the reputed ability to control physical objects with the mind), what do they study? The rolling of dice and the output of random number generators! Why would it be surprising that only extremely small effects, if any, can be observed? Designing a test in which the ability to use psychokinesis was of vital importance to the test subject would of course be difficult, but that’s where the effort needs to be made. If the phenomenon is real, it would show up most clearly under extreme test conditions.

Last week my friend Bryon was taking an off-ramp, and slowed down to switch on his Bluetooth receiver so he could take a call from my friend Harlan. If the phone hadn’t rung, Bryon would be dead, because an out-of-control car would have smacked directly into his truck instead of missing him by a few feet. Did Harlan have a moment of precognition that caused him to phone Bryon just at that moment? That’s not the kind of question you can answer in the laboratory, because you can’t duplicate the test conditions. But if precognition exists, those are precisely the conditions under which we would expect it to operate.

I’ll be scouting around to see if I can find any good studies of psi phenomena under such conditions. But I’m not optimistic. I doubt any studies have been done. And I kind of wonder why.

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