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Psi Not?
February 20, 2008 8:14 PM   Subscribe

"You bend your words like Uri Geller's spoons", sang Toad. But how is it that science can dismiss Geller as the fraud he is without experimenting on every psychic claimant? Surely someone claiming telekinetic powers might be telling the truth? Quantum physics to the rescue.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll (80 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
That blog post is incredibly clear and its author should be proud.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:33 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
--Arthur C. Clarke


That said, Geller is a twat. But lots of skeptics are twats too.
posted by unSane at 8:33 PM on February 20, 2008


That said, Geller is a twat. But lots of skeptics are twats too.

It has been said that the amount of information a statement contains is inversely proportionate to its predictability. By that principle, this comment contained no information.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:35 PM on February 20, 2008 [6 favorites]


I'm sorry - did you just refer to Toad the Wet motherfucking Sprocket by an affectionate nickname on the front page?

Geller's still a fraud, though.
posted by item at 8:36 PM on February 20, 2008


Thanks, this contributes something new to the debate here at MetaFilter. Almost.
posted by hermitosis at 8:38 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


By that principle, this comment contained no information.

You mean I'm right. Thanks.
posted by unSane at 8:44 PM on February 20, 2008


From the comments section on the QM blog:

Just a matter of time with new tech before we see sht move with the mind. If you could would you let anyone know. Being a lab rat would really suck. We’ve all had it happen to us and laughed it off as being strange. Now think of generations of people thinking and practicing with the mind. Research the spells of the Vatican. The History channel said they have real SHT and real spells said to work, to call on angels. Micheal…
Need moor brain power see what science says to do on Livingwithoutcancer.org!


"Need moor brain power", indeed.
posted by Avenger at 8:46 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


You mean I'm right. Thanks.

No, just that "OMG SKEPTICS ARE JERKS" is a very common reaction to anything that falls short of "Psychic powers are totally real and the secret masters are coming to take us into the Age of Aquarius!" and can be expected to show up very soon after anything even vaguely pro-skeptic is posted pretty much anywhere.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:46 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


No, just that "OMG SKEPTICS ARE JERKS" is a very common reaction

A hundred years ago they'd be swinging from a gallow's pole, put in front of a firing squad or thrown into an oven. Empirically, calling skeptics jerks is progress.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:54 PM on February 20, 2008 [5 favorites]


One of the things he didn't discuss is the caloric energy the human body burns and it's relationship to the amount of energy you'd need to create an effect at a distance. Clearly the human body doesn't put out the power you'd need to run a laser capable of deforming the spoon, for example. I wonder if there are some sort of limits there, too?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:59 PM on February 20, 2008


One of the things he didn't discuss is the caloric energy the human body burns and it's relationship to the amount of energy you'd need to create an effect at a distance.

Thats because everyone knows that psychic energy isn't created by burning food calories -- telepaths, psychic healers, astral projectors and the like are actually fueled by the enormous heat of burning money.
posted by Avenger at 9:06 PM on February 20, 2008 [15 favorites]


Empirically, lots of skeptics are jerks. They use horrible circular reasoning to dismiss anomalous phenomena ('it violates the laws of physics, so it must be a hoax'). Fortunately for them, they are almost always (possibly always always) right. It doesn't make them any less jerks.
posted by unSane at 9:09 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


how is it that science that science can dismiss Geller as the fraud he is?

Ummm..we don't have to prove a negative.
posted by sourwookie at 9:11 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Needs more Fry/Laurie. (Link goes to Skepchick blog with the Uri Geller parody as embedded YouTube video. I was going to link to the video directly, but the YouTube comments made my brain lose any and all spoon-bending powers it might once have possessed.)
posted by easternblot at 9:15 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


One of the things he didn't discuss is the caloric energy the human body burns and it's relationship to the amount of energy you'd need to create an effect at a distance. Clearly the human body doesn't put out the power you'd need to run a laser capable of deforming the spoon, for example. I wonder if there are some sort of limits there, too?

One of the things I like about Terry Pratchett's Discworld is that magic, on the Disc, is treated as just another force, no different from gravity or electromagnetism or whatever, and fully subject to conservation of energy/matter/etc.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:16 PM on February 20, 2008


I can’t prove that the Sun will rise tomorrow [...] But I’m as sure as I am about any empirical statement that these are true.

*sigh*, I'm getting the sense that Sean is a scientific zealot. I hesitate to mention that the sun does not always rise.

Here's Richard Feynman explaining it how well we "understand" the universe... (fast forward to around 21:20)
posted by kuatto at 9:16 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


They use horrible circular reasoning to dismiss anomalous phenomena ('it violates the laws of physics, so it must be a hoax').

The blog post that was the last link in the FPP goes into this, and how it's not circular, but you were, tragically, more interested in calling skeptics jerks than reading.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:18 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let me also say that believing "the sun always rises" is a perfect example of how empirical reasoning can be as deceptive as spoon-bending.
posted by kuatto at 9:24 PM on February 20, 2008


Tragically, I've read Feynman from beginning to end and the blog post is bullshit.
posted by unSane at 9:24 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let's see if I can summarize this guy's argument.

The evidence we've collected can best be explained by theory x.
Theory x does not allow for psychic forces.
Ergo, there are no psychic forces nor could there possibly be such.

Brilliant.

Is anyone in their right minds arguing that psychic phenomena, if it existed, would be easily compatible with the laws of physics as they are currently known -- that there would have to be no revision or addition, and that this is a good argument for their existence? This is truly jousting against windmills.

And lots of skeptics do make skepticism and scientism their religion, and are as narrowminded, petty, and hostile -- or worse -- to new and threatening ideas as is the believer.
posted by shivohum at 9:25 PM on February 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


They use horrible circular reasoning to dismiss anomalous phenomena

The weakness in this skeptic's argument is not circular reasoning, but the use of probability — Bayesian priors — to make conclusive statements of fact. You, the scientifically-informed skeptic, assume the sun will come up tomorrow because the sun rose this morning, and all those other days prior in your life. Likewise, you assume telekinesis is impossible based on what constitutes empirically-derived, prior knowledge of physical "laws".

At some point, the assumptions of what "laws" are reasonable based on prior experience are translated from Popperian induction to dogma — which is what happens in this blog article. The larger and, to me, the more interesting question is what it is about how the universe is put together, as well as our senses and reasoning tools at hand, that lets us get away with approximating at "Truth", and whether the skeptic can adjust his biases when we do get surprised by new phenomena. Because that's not always a given, either.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:28 PM on February 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


In other words, skeptics may not be jerks, but some of them can be dogmatic, and knowing how and why that is true is important for any critical reading of the links in this post. (Which is neither here nor there, in that it does not dispute ample evidence that Uri Geller is a fraud.)
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:34 PM on February 20, 2008


shivohum: Is anyone in their right minds arguing that psychic phenomena, if it existed, would be easily compatible with the laws of physics as they are currently known -- that there would have to be no revision or addition, and that this is a good argument for their existence? This is truly jousting against windmills.

I've heard that argument before, that psychic forces could operate using undiscovered forms of energy or such but be ruled by the physical laws we know now. It's a pretty reasonable viewpoint right up until conventional physics pretty much eradicates it.

There just isn't much hope for telekinesis at this point. Bending spoons aside, modern scientific detectors are so powerful that you could noticeably influence them with a force that wouldn't move a mote of dust in the air. If you could roll around a single atom with your brain, we could see it in an electron micrograph. It'd be easy to prove beyond any doubt. You'd get instant fame, tenure, and money. A whole new field would be born!

Somehow it still doesn't happen.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:44 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let's see if I can summarize this guy's argument.

The evidence we've collected can best be explained by theory x.
Theory x does not allow for psychic forces.
Ergo, there are no psychic forces nor could there possibly be such.


Nope, you couldn't summarize his argument.

You left out the part where the evidence we've collected also rules out any as-yet undescribed forces or appropriate range (i.e., distance scale upon which they can act) and strengths which could explain telekinetic effects. That's the crux of it--it's not that anything as of now unexplained must be possible, but that along with the things science doesn't yet explain, many things are strictly ruled out.
posted by stevis23 at 9:49 PM on February 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


ESP is our birthright. I love Uri Geller, and I love James Randi, too. Yin and yang and shit.
posted by Curry at 9:59 PM on February 20, 2008


The data speak.

Household pets could be space aliens, animals could have secret languages we don't understand, and body thetans may control people's behavior. There's no way for science to disprove any of this. Not our department. Now, studying why people believe wacky things: that's interesting.
posted by cogneuro at 10:50 PM on February 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Likewise, studying those who study why people believe wacky things is interesting. It's illustrative of the air-gap that separates science from the unknown.
posted by kuatto at 11:09 PM on February 20, 2008


No stones can fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 11:31 PM on February 20, 2008


Speaking of skeptics, the New Yorker had a great article on Joe Nickell a few years ago.

In the article, Nickell, a noted paranormal investigator and skeptic, said that, while attending a skeptics conference, he happened to break his leg while walking down some stairs. However, none of the skeptics he was with could believe he had actually broken his leg. Much confusion, and pain, ensued.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:40 PM on February 20, 2008


How come nobody ever bends sporks? Completely unrelated to that comment is this link to Science and the Taboo of Psi, a recent Google Tech Talk given by Dean Radin. Feel free to dispute his presentation of decades worth of carefully designed, double-blind, placebo controlled, reproducible psi experiments published in peer-reviewed journals over at his blog. He talks with people quite a lot over there.

I'm not aware of any proof of spoon bending but there certainly seems to be some freaky shit in the statistics that has not yet been reliably accounted for even by the most determined of skeptics. Let the mockery commence!
posted by well_balanced at 11:41 PM on February 20, 2008


This is all a red herring. Skeptics don't need to disprove psychic or other supernatural phenomena. The onus is on those who believe in them to prove them.

Want us to believe that telekinesis exists? Move something with your mind.
posted by moonbiter at 11:47 PM on February 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


kuatto: if you keep watching that video of Feynman, you'll come to the point where he says "That's the way nature works. You don't like it? Go somewhere else. To another universe, where the rules are simpler," and "I'm going to tell you how it really is, and if you don't like it, too bad." I doubt he'd have much patience with psychics.

I enjoyed your second link, though. ("What I Believe But Cannot Prove").
posted by alexei at 11:48 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


That said, yes, some skeptics and atheists are pricks. But so are some of all humans, no matter their turn of mind.
posted by moonbiter at 11:49 PM on February 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


The burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim. He also needs to show it's worth investigating.
posted by jeblis at 11:54 PM on February 20, 2008


Would someone just bend a spoon for me? Just once?

I don't mean break it. Or tie it into a knot. Or turn it into a maglite. Just bend it. Seriously. Just alter the angle of the handle just a little bit. A teensy-tiny bit.

No?

Not a spoon? Then bend something else. Like some rebar. Or a pipe-cleaner. To stout? How about some dental floss?

No?

Well perhaps you are the one that should get bent.
posted by sourwookie at 12:00 AM on February 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


Think of a vegetable.
It's a carrot.
amirite?

That blog post is nonsense.
posted by seanyboy at 12:08 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is all a red herring. Skeptics don't need to disprove psychic or other supernatural phenomena. The onus is on those who believe in them to prove them.

I agree completely and so does Radin. That is precisely the point. Psi researchers have indeed demonstrated this stuff in the lab using the same standards of scientific investigation applied to every other field in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled, independently reproducible experiments and have demonstrated that there are strong statistical anomalies that are not accounted for by present theory. The point Radin makes is that this proves that proof of psi phenomena or stuff that looks like psi is not being held to the same standard applied to every other scientific endeavor. It is being held to a different standard because it is a scientific taboo.
posted by well_balanced at 12:14 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


No stones can fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky.

Like a moth to a flame.
posted by Wolof at 12:15 AM on February 21, 2008


No Kuatto, you're wrong: scientists are in the business of studying the unknown. Everything that has been discovered was previously unknown. You need a list? What they don't study is things that are unknowable using scientific methods. These methods are not guaranteed to address every question, although the upper limits on what can be known by using them aren't themselves known.

There are many people (probably more than there are scientists in the world) who like to think about what could be, might be, should be, would be exciting if it were to be, etc etc etc even though the only evidence for such things is self-generated, i.e., their own thoughts and feelings. If that's what you enjoy, have fun. You could have a future as a great science fiction writer. Or better, invent a lucrative religion. Or spend lots of pleasant time in fantasyland. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I strongly endorse the idea of an "air gap" between science and non-science. Keep em as far apart as possible. Doesn't mean everyone has to be a scientist, though.

Your posts will be clearer if you include unambiguous referents for pronouns such as "it".
posted by cogneuro at 12:19 AM on February 21, 2008


Surely someone claiming telekinetic powers might be telling the truth?

I'm glad you said might, but really: no.
posted by nthdegx at 12:20 AM on February 21, 2008


Psi researchers have indeed demonstrated this stuff in the lab using the same standards of scientific investigation applied to every other field in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled, independently reproducible experiments and have demonstrated that there are strong statistical anomalies that are not accounted for by present theory.


Well..no. Unless of course, you can double-blind, placebo-control, and independently reproduce this for us.

Hell, I'll make it easy. With a newspaper and on youtube. Have at it. We're waiting.

.The point Radin makes is that this proves that proof of psi phenomena or stuff that looks like psi is not being held to the same standard applied to every other scientific endeavor. It is being held to a different standard because it is a scientific taboo

No. People want to hold it to a LESSER standard.
posted by sourwookie at 12:23 AM on February 21, 2008


It is being held to a different standard because it is a scientific taboo.

Well,hell. Why don't you just walk up to a sub-particle physicist and punch him in the balls because you think his photon paths are not parallel enough? A standard is called a standard for a reason. Seriously? A statistical anomaly for those that wish to change the path of a photon? Have at it, I say! There are those that can measure it.
posted by sourwookie at 12:32 AM on February 21, 2008


Hell, I'll make it easy. With a newspaper and on youtube. Have at it. We're waiting.

You do realize I'm not talking about spoon bending. I'm primarily talking about the autoganzfeld and random number generator experiments. I already posted a youtube link in my first post. It's worth watching. Usually the way these arguments end up is somebody accepting that there are statistical anomalies there but then deciding the goal posts need to be moved and demanding somebody levitate a brick on demand.
posted by well_balanced at 12:35 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


You're the one calling them statistical anomolies. Anomolies. Look it up.
posted by sourwookie at 12:38 AM on February 21, 2008


Feel free to dispute his presentation of decades worth of carefully designed, double-blind, placebo controlled, reproducible psi experiments published in peer-reviewed journals over at his blog. [...] Psi researchers have indeed demonstrated this stuff in the lab using the same standards of scientific investigation applied to every other field in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled, independently reproducible experiments and have demonstrated that there are strong statistical anomalies that are not accounted for by present theory.

Two things.

One: I looked at his webpage to see what kind of "peer-reviewed" journals he's been writing in: "Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine", "Healing, Intention and Energy Medicine", "Journal of Parapsychology", "Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine" and even the sort-of normal sounding "Journal of Scientific Exploration", which, upon further investigation, turns out to be a UFO/alternative health magazine.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking The Cabal (there is no Cabal) is brutally repressing these brave freethinkers and keeping them from writing in actual scientific journals because.... well.......because The Cabal has a vaguely nefarious agenda which somehow includes supressing paranormal studies. However, out here in the real world, we know that he probably can't publish articles titled "The sense of being stared at: A preliminary meta-analysis." in journals like Science because it would be so full of crap as to be virtually unprintable.

Second: You know what would be a really good test of psi-powers? A really, really good one? Here's my experiment: We gather together people who have self-proclaimed telekenetic or psychic powers in Hanford, Washington. We set them up in a camp a few miles from the LIGO facility. Over the course of a few days, we instruct them to unleash their psychic powers upon the laser interferometer and see if they can distort the length of one of the tubes. If they can physically distort or otherwise alter the actual distance between the mirrors more than the width of an atom, it should light up the LIGO control center like a Christmas tree. In fact, it would be absoutely unmistakable. And thats really all it would take: just an atom's breadth or more. Could 100 psychics move a mirror one atom to the left?

My money is on "No".
posted by Avenger at 12:43 AM on February 21, 2008 [9 favorites]


Anomolies. Look it up.

Shit. I'm embearassed. I hate it when I confidently misspell.
posted by well_balanced at 12:45 AM on February 21, 2008


Ah, Radin. Not Very Dodgy At All. Really.
posted by Sparx at 3:13 AM on February 21, 2008


Marginal Revolution has a good post about statistical studies, publication bias and metastudies that goes a goodly way to explaining the 'findings' of 'woo' researchers. As a conclusion, the author suggests several good practices for studies of any type. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide how many of these practices are generally applied by the 'woo' school.

1) In evaluating any study try to take into account the amount of background noise. That is, remember that the more hypotheses which are tested and the less selection which goes into choosing hypotheses the more likely it is that you are looking at noise.

2) Bigger samples are better. (But note that even big samples won't help to solve the problems of observational studies which is a whole other problem).

3) Small effects are to be distrusted.

4) Multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable.

5) Evaluate literatures not individual papers.

6) Trust empirical papers which test other people's theories more than empirical papers which test the author's theory.

7) As an editor or referee, don't reject papers that fail to reject the null.

posted by Jakey at 3:16 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


> Anomolies. Look it up.

Shit. I'm embearassed. I hate it when I confidently misspell.


Like an eel in a swimming pool of snot, you seem to have trouble attending to the matter at hand.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 3:19 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Blazecock Pileon said: At some point, the assumptions of what "laws" are reasonable based on prior experience are translated from Popperian induction to dogma — which is what happens in this blog article. The larger and, to me, the more interesting question is what it is about how the universe is put together, as well as our senses and reasoning tools at hand, that lets us get away with approximating at "Truth", and whether the skeptic can adjust his biases when we do get surprised by new phenomena. Because that's not always a given, either.

I think you misunderstood his argument. He's not arguing just from logic; he's arguing from experimental evidence. There can't be a spoon-bending force. We know enough to categorically state that it's impossible.

There can be new forces, but they have to either operate at distances so short, or with forces so weak, that they couldn't possibly bend spoons.

We understand the Universe well enough now to say that some things are impossible, at least in our local space. If the same laws don't apply everywhere, that may not be true everywhere, but here on Earth, there simply cannot be a spoon-bending power. End of report. No argument possible. We have too much evidence to the contrary.

We're used to thinking like Clarke, that 'impossible' is just a temporary phenomenon... but it's extraordinarily unlikely at this point that all of physics will be upended. We just have too much experimental evidence, at precisions higher than humans can even really understand.

Now, he's also dismissive of telepathy, but it strikes me that a very weak force could carry information, so I don't think that can be categorically ruled out just yet. Unlikely? Sure. Impossible? I'm not comfortable making that claim yet.
posted by Malor at 3:26 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


(At this point, in other words, arguing for telekinesis is very similar to arguing for creationism. We have enough evidence to be that sure.)
posted by Malor at 3:27 AM on February 21, 2008


"Anomaly" is the correct spelling. And I'm not even psychic.
posted by biscotti at 4:38 AM on February 21, 2008


Look, assholes, just bend the fucking spoon in a controlled environment without touching it or shut the fuck up already. And pretending to do that and "publishing" the results in a fucking "peer-reviewed journal" that's nothing more than a mimeo'd fucking 'zine from some dude's mom's basement's laser printer doesn't count.

I know that you think you're all being open-minded and wise and zen and shit, but the rest of us find you embarrassing; it's why you're avoided at parties.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:30 AM on February 21, 2008 [8 favorites]


"Anomaly" is the correct spelling.

I know and I guess I failed at attempting sarcasm. Maybe I missed his point? Anomaly being a deviation from the norm as a definition perhaps and therefore worth discarding?

The main point I was trying to get across is that to people who have never directly looked at any of the pro/con data for psi may have the impression that someone like Uri Geller is representative of the entire field. I just wanted to try and raise the point that a lot of serious, controlled studies have been done by serious scientists and from what I have read there still exists room for debate and further serious study. The discussion in the comments over at cosmicvariance.com linked in the OP is pretty good I think and valid points are raised by both sides.

By all means read the skeptical examinations of things like the ganzfeld experiments. They should give you some sense as to how much effort has been expended by both sides. Experimental error? Perhaps. Poor handling of statistics? Perhaps, but from what I have read this is a much more complex topic than can be dismissed through guilt by association with stage magicians. CautionToTheWind's link on statistical studies also raises a lot of good points that would seem to be an indictment against medical studies commonly accepted as fact without raising an eyebrow. When the same standards are applied to psi however anyone who dares consider the topic is accused of magical thinking. Maybe these methods are not appropriate for examination of reported psi effects but it certainly seems to me to be a double standard.

And then there is always the experiential data that I can't prove or reproduce. As a fairly mundane example, on two separate occasions I have had strong premonitions as to who was calling me on the telephone a few seconds before the phone rang. This would be pretty unremarkable except that the callers were people who I had lost contact with many years prior, had absolutely no communication with since and as far as I can recall, hadn't even thought about in years. Still, suddenly their memory pops into my head for no discernible reason and a few moments later I'm talking to them on the phone. This isn't scientific proof of anything. I can't reproduce it. But it still happened and I'll be damned if that doesn't fit the definition of an anomaly not adequately explained by current theory.
posted by well_balanced at 5:50 AM on February 21, 2008


arguing for telekinesis is very similar to arguing for creationism

To be absolutely clear on this point, I'm not arguing for telekinesis.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:50 AM on February 21, 2008


Actually, it's the psi-believers that have been moving the goalposts all these years. We went from levitating tables to bending spoons to creating microstresses in metals to causing random number generators to ever so slightly give spurious results...the amazing power of psi seems to get less amazing as time goes on, the point now where even if it does exist, who the hell cares, because it can't seem to DO anything worthwhile.
posted by Legomancer at 6:34 AM on February 21, 2008 [5 favorites]


His argument is a little backwards. He's essentially saying that because a set of phenomena don't fit in with the known laws of physics, those phenomena must, in fact, not exist.

But wouldn't it make more sense to start with the phenomena themselves, rather than the theoretical structure we're trying to fit them into ("the known laws of physics")? Observations are primary; theory is secondary. Discredit the phenomena themselves by showing that we're mistaken about what they really are, or that we're being lied to -- not by dismissing them out-of-hand because the current paradigm rules them out. That's not terribly good science.

Mind you I'm not saying that parapsychological phemomena are 'real,' or even that physicists are obligated to debunk every claim by exposing them for what they are. Just that Sean's argument strikes me as a bit, well, dishonest.
posted by decoherence at 6:46 AM on February 21, 2008


As a fairly mundane example, on two separate occasions I have had strong premonitions as to who was calling me on the telephone a few seconds before the phone rang. This would be pretty unremarkable except that the callers were people who I had lost contact with many years prior, had absolutely no communication with since and as far as I can recall, hadn't even thought about in years.

Yes, the argument from coincidence to "anything is possible". I've had people argue to me that an afterlife could easily exist "there are things science can't explain" and then go on to talk about coincidences.

Given 1) how often you think about people, and 2) how often people call, it's probably quite likely that you will occasionally think about people right before they call. You say you hadn't spoken or thought about them in years -- okay, so we need to adjust our factors a bit. How many people have you met in your life who you don't think about or talk to that often? Hundreds? Thousands? In high school, college, through various jobs, playing basketball with them, etc... Call this the b-list of people in your life. So you don't think about each particular b-person very often, but it's quite possible that you think about a b-person every day (and your mind wanders more than you think it does, and you don't keep track of every passing reminiscence). So the question is: 1) how often do you think about someone from the b-list, and 2) how often does someone from the b-list call? And if we could calculate this then it might not turn out to be unlikely at all that you just thought about one of these people and then they call. And even if it did turn out to be unlikely -- let's say there's a .5 % chance of it happening to you twice -- still, if we widen our sample size to include a few thousand people, then this will be likely to happen to one of them, and it just happened to be you.

This is the nature of coincidences -- the particular connection of events is unlikely and unpredictable, but that something of that sort happens is not at all unlikely. If I bought my first lottery ticket tomorrow and won the jackpot, that'd be amazing; yet probably every day thousands of people buy their first lottery tickets, and eventually one of them is going to win on their first try. And if your DNA matches DNA taken from a crime scene and the prosecutor says it's a 1-in-one-million chance of a false match, this is impressive if they already have independent evidence to suspect you -- but if they just ran the DNA against a databank of millions of samples, then a false match isn't at all unlikely, it's just shit luck if it happens to you. This is called the "prosecutor's fallacy". Actually, Wikipedia explains it much better than I do, so I'll stop -- suffice to say that it's ruined lives, as in the English law about multiple cot deaths stating "One is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder unless there is proof to the contrary."

Anyway, it's not even clear what "current theory" is supposed to explain this or what it would mean to "adequately explain" it. It sounds like something unlikely happened to you. But unlikely things happen all the time.
posted by creasy boy at 6:47 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


But wouldn't it make more sense to start with the phenomena themselves, rather than the theoretical structure we're trying to fit them into ("the known laws of physics")? Observations are primary; theory is secondary. Discredit the phenomena themselves by showing that we're mistaken about what they really are, or that we're being lied to -- not by dismissing them out-of-hand because the current paradigm rules them out. That's not terribly good science.

No, what you're suggesting would be bad scientific procedure.

The phenomena have come first, the laws of physics came later. And at this point the laws of physics explain the phenomena. No-one's ignoring the phenomena. At this point physicists have seen and tested thousands and thousands of disparate examples of phenomena. And against this massive pile of phenomena that the laws of physics account for, we have some lone voices claiming -- usually for self-promotion -- to have found exceptions, flagrant exceptions. But "starting with the phenomena" doesn't mean stopping what we're doing to look at every single purported phenomenon that some guy somewhere claims to have found. What the author here is saying is in essence: "We did start with the phenomena, and at this point we're done with some regimes of the phenomena. Stop interrupting us unless you have very compelling evidence of a big surprise."
posted by creasy boy at 6:56 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


But it still happened and I'll be damned if that doesn't fit the definition of an anomaly not adequately explained by current theory.

Then you're damned because it doesn't. Look up the terms 'coincidence' and 'selection bias'. If something happens at a rate of once every five second, then a 'one in a million' thing happens every three months.
posted by Sparx at 7:00 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


But it still happened and I'll be damned if that doesn't fit the definition of an anomaly not adequately explained by current theory.

Uhmmm... Sure. You just go on and believe that.

Meanwhile, those of us in the reality-based collective realize that it's quite unlikely you kept track of all the times you thought of people you lost contact with and nothing happened, and that after all the plural of "anecdote" isn't "data".
posted by splice at 8:37 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's always fun to see the MeFi Skeptic Squad suck their own dicks and congratulate themselves on making the lives of others as lame as theirs are.
posted by solistrato at 9:00 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


His argument is a little backwards. He's essentially saying that because a set of phenomena don't fit in with the known laws of physics, those phenomena must, in fact, not exist.

No, he's saying that for this specific phenomenon to be possible, certain things would have to be true. Since those things are not, in fact, true, said phenomenon is not possible as far as we can tell- and for all that scientists emphasize that science never really proves anything and the whole thing could be upended tomorrow, the odds, given how tightly the theories mesh with the evidence, are as close to nil as possible.

But wouldn't it make more sense to start with the phenomena themselves, rather than the theoretical structure we're trying to fit them into ("the known laws of physics")? Observations are primary; theory is secondary. Discredit the phenomena themselves by showing that we're mistaken about what they really are, or that we're being lied to -- not by dismissing them out-of-hand because the current paradigm rules them out.

James Randi has made a career out of demonstrating, one psychic at a time, one "power" at a time, that the phenomena in question are not, in fact, real. His reward has been the admiration of a small number of people and the seething hate of a much larger group of people.

This really does gall me, though; whenever this sort of thing comes up, people go on about how psi really should be investigated scientifically instead of being dismissed out of hand. Millions upon millions of dollars were poured down the psychic rathole. The CIA and the Army spent years trying to train their people to use psychic powers- and there's a reason they aren't still at it. Folks, the scientific community has been investigating psi for decades and found nothing but self-delusion and fraud. I understand that your intentions are good- and indeed, if mainstream science did, in fact dismiss psi out of hand, then that would be quite wrong and unscientific- but it's based on a false premise.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:13 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's always fun to see the MeFi Skeptic Squad suck their own dicks and congratulate themselves on making the lives of others as lame as theirs are.

I'd call being fucked out of thousands of dollars by John Edward and his ilk a lot more lame than understanding how they operate and not being fucked out of thousands of dollars, but as a nerd I admit that I'm not really in tune with what other people consider to be cool. Please, take a moment to have pity on this poor, uncool nerd, and explain to me what's cool about being fucked out of your money by conmen and fraud artists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:16 AM on February 21, 2008 [5 favorites]


solistrato:
Yeah, those skeptics suck. By the way, I have a really cool levitating perpetual motion alchemy machine that I bet you'd love. Only $50!
posted by boubelium at 10:34 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


I can do one better than boubelium; anyone that PayPals me $100 will be rendered immortal.

That's right, immortal. You will exist until the universe ends.

Surely a shot at immortality is worth $100? It'll be done remotely, so you don't even need to take time out from your busy day. Even better, I'll let you choose who gets immortality -- perhaps you have a child? Revered elder? Favorite pet?

...for with strange currencies, even death may die.

$100.
posted by aramaic at 10:56 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


SWM, ns/nd, ISO SF20-40 any race who can bend like a Uri Geller spoon. Must be able to perform repeatedly under controlled conditions. Photo nec! No ESP types please!
posted by cogneuro at 12:26 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's one of the neglected arguments against, uh, 'psi phenomena'. If the human brain could be constructed in such a way that it could move objects at a distance, we would all be able to do it.

Think about it. In pre-historic times, the ability to affect anything at a distance in any way would be such a massive advantage that inheritance of that ability would effectively put right at the top of the survival/mating ladder. You would presumably pass that structure on to a majority of your offspring who would have the same massive advantage, and so on.

Unless of course you're positing something other than the brain involved, in which case I have nothing really to say to you.

(Of course, I'm apparently a jerk, and a twat, so whatever.)
posted by lumpenprole at 2:02 PM on February 21, 2008


Oh, and in response to Solistrato's oh-so-fabulous contribution to this discussion:

I get angry about pathetic arguments on the Internets that go nowhere, change no one's mind, and are just an excuse for all involved to feel better about themselves, as if they actually accomplished something rather than shouting with their fingertips into an electronic void.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:09 PM on February 21, 2008


'Kay, all models are wrong, but some models are useful. How to define useful? How well does it predict behavior in new circumstances. Thus, the bar is set pretty high for models, because showing this type of utility takes a long time. I'm pretty sure that models that include magic, gods, fairies, unicorns, or flying spaghetti monsters are piss-poor at this. Ditto those that include things we cannot detect.

Now, if you believe in such things, I'm pretty sure your goals are orthogonal to those of science (see above).

Can't we all just get along?
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:04 PM on February 21, 2008


Many things are possible that have not and likely will not ever be observed. Perfectly true and this seems to be the pro-psychic position.

It is entirely possible for all the air molecules in Shea Stadium to shift suddenly into one small corner. Very unlikely. In fact so unlikely that the matter is not worth investigating or attempting to observe.
That, I believe, is an analogue to what is being posited by the skeptic position.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 3:07 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


That's the crux of it--it's not that anything as of now unexplained must be possible, but that along with the things science doesn't yet explain, many things are strictly ruled out.

Please re-read the second prong of my summary of this guy's argument.

Could 100 psychics move a mirror one atom to the left?

Not exactly what you're looking for, but see here and here.
posted by shivohum at 3:11 PM on February 21, 2008


I wasn't really suggesting that these phenomena should be investigated any more than they already have. As far as I'm concerned, they've all been sufficiently demonstrated as frauds or illusions, which in itself is good enough reason not to take psi phenomena seriously.

I was more just quibbling with the particular line of reasoning. Dismiss the evidence because it's been investigated countless times before and thoroughly debunked, not because the evidence doesn't fit with our known laws of physics.
posted by decoherence at 5:18 PM on February 21, 2008


I was more just quibbling with the particular line of reasoning. Dismiss the evidence because it's been investigated countless times before and thoroughly debunked, not because the evidence doesn't fit with our known laws of physics.

And my point is that that's exactly what we do. "You're just dismissing psi because it threatens/doesn't fit with your scientific models!" is a canard.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:23 PM on February 21, 2008


Christ, I wish the self-labeled skeptics in this thread weren't so pissy. Does it really hurt your feelings so much that a few people think that some skeptics are assholes? I mean, some are. James Randi might be obnoxious, but he's done good work. On the pther hand, Philip Klass was an supercilious asshole and contributed little of value, certainly less than someone with a more inquisitive mind, less of a hobby-horse theroy, and less of an "destroy the heretic" personality. Jerome Clark has done good, skeptical, investigative work, (and has no problem criticising the work of other "skeptics", not being constrained by a "my side, your side" mentality,) without being a total cock.
posted by Snyder at 8:27 PM on February 21, 2008


>. Psi researchers have indeed demonstrated this stuff in the lab using the same standards of scientific investigation applied to every other field in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled,

I have seen some data and I've read Radin's book. A percentage point or two over chance isnt "OMG THETANS IS REALZ!" its nothing. Its most likely bad science, like leaving thumbprints on the photo that was handled by the lab assistant too many times and scoring more wins in a ganzfeld experiment. Sorry, but this grasping for straws attempt to bring back a magical world has failed. Its all boring physics from now on, I'm afraid. Or when it all gets rewritten it wont be Radin and Geller who do it. It'll be some geek youve never heard of proposing ideas you've never imagined. None of which will make your place in the universe seem any more special than it is right now.

Oh and your followup post shows me that you absolutely do not begin to understand confirmation bias. Your pals called you on a day you were thinking of them? So? You say you never think of them? Bullshit, youre always thinking of them but you simply forget you were thinking of them. Youre a flawed human like the rest of us. Call me when we have the technology to record all your thoughts and we'll see for sure how often you think of Jane or whomever. In the meantime, I suggest you look into confirmation bias before claiming the phone/thought connection is proof that spacetime is totally warped, yo!
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:57 PM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


>Christ, I wish the self-labeled skeptics in this thread weren't so pissy.

Yeah maybe Im a little pissy. Its because this exact song and dance gets played out every few months here and everywhere else in the world. You know what bothers me? Its not the predictable back and forth, its the incredible and pathetic transpercy of the psi-crowd. Its pretty damn obvious the paranormal believers are just latching onto something that will make them stop believing the fact that they are slowing dying through aging, that life has no magic powers, that life is harsh, that life is unfair, that people dont see the future, and that a generation or two after you die no one will care who you were or what youve done.

You know, its just so transparent. More wish-fulfillment, more fear, more conspiracy theories (science is out to get dean radin!), etc. I just wish these people would suck it up and accept that scientifc cosmology isnt going to validate this stuff and to drop it all and find a religion that pleases them. I have a lot of respect for those who move towards a faith-based approach instead of trying to shoehorn scientific cosmology into their wish fulfillment system and explaining any contradictions through conspiracy theories "CSICOP is burying all the proof!" or "I thought of someone and they called!!!!"
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:06 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also isnt it just so convenient that if these claims are true than it just happens to make human life so much more incredible and interesting. It also removes death and uncertainty from the equation.

If Geller can bends spoons so can I. Life is magical.

If so-and-so can talk to the dead then no one dies. Life is eternal.

If telepathy is real then I can talk to animals. Life is amazing.

If dreams are prophetic then life is predictable and meaningful. Life has a plan.

etc. I mean, we have all these people who are just in love with these ideas and have no proof for them and these ideas just happen to turn your ordinary existance into this incredible magical and amazing thing. If true then you life is special and eternal. Heh, right. Big coincidence. Something tells me, but im not psychic so I may be wrong, that the want for these things fuels the belief not spending 100 hours paging through the data of the PEAR project or meta-analysis about card guessing games through the ages.

Funny coincidence that. Even funnier the people who believe this stuff and come up with all the conspiracy theories arent even usually scientists. They just happened to run into 8 terabytes of random studies and discovered that the paranormal is suddenly real? Yeah right.

What selfless superscientists you guys are! I mean, come on people, youre barely fooling yourselves let alone others!
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:19 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another thing to remember about coincidences especially in regard to the 'thought of a person and they called scenario': Coincidences are normal and natural. They dont betray some kind of magical underpining to the universe. How many thoughts do you get in a lifetime? How many phone calls? Do you think that these two things will never intersect in interesting ways without any casual relationship? That its a simple coincidence? Is that so hard to accept?

These anecdotes remind me of reading a nonfiction book by an author who usually writes fiction. He wrote that nonfiction frees him up to bring in lots of unbelievable coincidences that fiction readers would just dismiss as shoddy writing in a fictional story. Randomly meeting people you havent seen in a few years in a bar, remembering somenes birthday on their birthday and hurrying to get a card or present, etc. In fiction the story would sound contrived and forced. It goes against our ideas of normalcy which ironically are wrong. In real life you get lots of coincidences. Expecting the random intersection of events to be part of some magic force or master plan is really being kinda crazy.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:41 PM on February 21, 2008


Perhaps the sun shall rise tomorrow.
posted by kuatto at 3:46 PM on February 24, 2008


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