I was reading back, this morning, over my discourse with Man on the Bus in the comments on my post Gene Bunk, and realised that to many late-comers in my life I probably sound like a crotchetty and disagreeable old codger when it comes to matters of, shall we say ‘fringe’ science. People who know me in real life understand that, while I may be curmudgeonly on occasion, I am in fact a pretty tolerant person in a general sense. So why do things like homeopathy, UFOs, ESP research, ShooTag, ‘energized’ water, free energy and so many other pseudoscientific claims tick me off quite so much? It is certainly true that these days I have virtually no indulgence for these non-mainstream ideas. It wasn’t always like that, though.

Just to recap: Man on the Bus took exception to my impatience (via a reference in the Footnotes) with the so-called ‘precognition’ experiments recently published by Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem. I gave Man on the Bus rather shorter shrift than he deserved – he was, after all, making the very reasonable point that the results of Bem’s experiments will stand or fall on replication of the results by other researchers. So what, exactly, is wrong with ‘waiting for the jury to come back in’, as MotB puts it?

At the end of our discourse, he snippily bid me return to my scatological poems (in which I had been indulging with Atlanski and others) and I jokingly replied that:

Scatological limericks have longevity. ESP research doesn’t. It’s a matter of how one’s time is best invested.

Probably rude and flippant, but it is, for me, essentially the pivot of the matter.

When I was a teenager, I was absolutely enthralled by all things ESP. I made myself a hand-drawn deck of Zener Cards and conducted experiments on my friends.

I spent many a long hour tabulating the results of those experiments, and sometimes even thought I’d discovered trends that just couldn’t be coincidence!1 I also had an ad-hoc UFO watcher’s group and even experimented with Tarot cards and the I-Ching. In short, ‘I wanted to believe’. There was no question that I had that very thing which I’m often accused of not having these days: an open mind.

So why did these things not ‘stick’ for me? Why is it that I don’t still default to the belief (like so many millions of other people) that there is ‘something to it’ – this weird world that seems always hovering just outside the laws of reality as we have come to understand them?

Well, it turns out that that’s what happens when you actually do keep an open mind; you begin to entertain arguments that are not merely the appendages of ‘belief’. Indeed, I started to realize that the earnestness of my desire to believe had exactly no bearing on how likely something was to be true.

In essence, my change of position on fringe beliefs came down to a huge amount of open-minded reading and the realization of three things:

1. How easily I (and by inference, anyone else) could be deceived.2
2. That people actually want unusual things to be true, even if3 belief in them breaks all the laws of common logic.
3. The completely unimpressive nature of the accumulated data, considering how much of it there was.

I remember roughly the time that my mind started ‘closing’. Or opening, depending on which way you want to look at it. It was 1975. I was in my teens, and Israeli psychic Uri Geller was in all the news media. Geller is such an obvious and audacious fraud when you look back on him these days,4 but in 1975 he was something of a phenomenon. To see him perform on television – his charisma alone casting a kind of magical spell over talk-show hosts – was to think that maybe here, at last, was the ‘proof’ we’d all been waiting for that there really might be something to this ‘psi’ thing. I bought Andrija Puharich’s book, Uri – a scientist’s account of Uri Geller’s powers and, although the bits about aliens from Spectra (a talking spaceship from Hoova) sounded a little wacky to even my teenage science-fiction-loving brain, it seemed that here at last was the possibility of some scientific substantiation for this stuff that in my heart-of-hearts I believed was true.

My friends and I were convinced that we, too, should be able to teach ourselves to bend spoons like Uri could – indeed, Uri himself encouraged everybody to believe they could do anything he did, if they only could harness the power of their minds! So to that end, we sat around rubbing spoons into the late hours, willing them to bend… and… they never did, of course. And then, one night on television, I saw an interview with a bearded chap who was saying (Heresy!) that Geller’s powers were nothing more than tricks! You have no idea how much I wanted to disbelieve that bearded man. But then he did an impressive thing – he bent a spoon exactly like Uri had done! And then showed us how he did it. My teenage brain was doing a flip-flop. ‘Maybe,’ I thought, ‘this guy is doing a trick but Uri is real!’ But then, I had another thought, and it was a very, very profound one: ‘If that’s the case, though, how could I tell for sure that Uri was NOT doing a trick?’

And I decided, that, all things being equal, I simply couldn’t. If the bearded guy who I’d never heard of could fool me with a trick, then it was equally likely that Uri Geller could fool me with a trick. And, really, why should I believe Uri Geller, a person I didn’t know, over the bearded guy? Just because I wanted to? It didn’t seem like a good enough reason.

Well, it turns out (as I’m sure you’ve guessed) that the bearded chap was James Randi, and Randi was more than just some guy – he was forming a bit of a history with Uri Geller, and, dammit, he was putting forward a convincing case that Geller was pulling everybody’s legs. The striking thing was that it was very apparent that not many people wanted to hear what Randi had to say, which I found MOST peculiar. He was making good points – why were the talk-show hosts and interviewers giving him such a hard time? That’s when I first started getting an idea of how strongly a personal conviction can influence the way someone can view their world. You will see that both observations 1 & 2 that I made above, were starting to form in my mind.5

Now it’s pretty damn hard to hold a belief and then abandon it in the face of a rational argument. A belief is part of your personality – you formed it for a reason, and letting it go is admitting that you made bad decisions. No-one wants to admit to having made bad decisions. And yet, that ‘letting go’ is exactly what anyone must do to achieve any kind of intellectual rigour. The thing is, once you’ve made this kind of step once, it’s a lot easier the second time, and easier still the third time. And so I found myself revisiting a lot of the stuff that I’d previously had an inclination to take at face value. UFOs? What was the evidence? Eyewitness reports? Well, it was becoming plain that that wasn’t a good way of getting accuracy. There was a lot of data about UFO sightings, but it all amounted to the same kind of thing – personal testimony that was at best vague and rarely corroborated, and at worst contradictory, inaccurate and fanciful. In the UFO business, hard facts were, as my father used to say, ‘as rare as hen’s teeth’.

Tarot card readings? I-Ching? Well, if I looked at it truthfully, it seemed that the cards and the coins, although colourful in pedigree, were really just another way of making vague predictions that could mean anything at all, depending on how ambiguous you wanted to be. And I’d already found from experience that people would agree with mostly anything I said, as long as I didn’t get too specific. It was getting harder to convince myself it was because I was a brilliant psychic.

And then there was the ‘science’ associated with all these things. Through the 60s, 70s and into the early 80s it seemed that there were thousands of experiments running with the sole aim of providing some small statistical indication that precognition, telepathy, telekinesis, remote viewing and a dozen other fringe ‘sciences’ had some validity. For many years I figured that here, at least, was a firm basis for rooting out some solid evidence for these strange phenomena, and so I kept a hopeful eye on this kind of research. I still wanted to believe. And yet, time after time, the kind of evidence these experiments offered up just seemed vague, diffuse, inconclusive, speculative and always conditional. Anyone viewing these kinds of experiments dispassionately was forced to conclude one of two things:

1. There really was nothing there.
2. If there was something there, it behaved in a way that put it outside the way science seemed to work when examining everything else in the world.

What was impossible to conclude was that there definitely was something there. There were NEVER unequivocal results from experiments in the psi field. You know the kind of result I mean. One that says: ‘Yup. That apple always falls to the ground when it leaves the branch. No doubt about it. Every time.’ The kind of result that proper science delivers, in other words.

It started seeming to me, in fact, that psi research was more like the human consciousness sciences of psychology and cognition, where results are subjective and rules are more like guidelines.6 Annoyingly, though, a whole army of psi researchers continued to insist that their results do reflect the physical world, even though they actually couldn’t bring forward any evidence to add weight to that assertion. They stacked tiny variations from chance on top of tiny deviations from the norm, conducted experiment after experiment and returned, always, the same ambiguous outcomes. This has been the state of psi research for decades now.

Eventually, trying to maintain an ongoing interest in this process merely becomes tiring.

Which brings us all the way back to the experiments of Daryl Bem.7 On the face of it, what Bem claims to have discovered is actually intriguing. But as soon as you dive into the mechanics of it, all the same old hallmarks of psi research appear: conditional results, small (so small they are conceivably illusory) variations away from chance, protocol that has uncomfortable facets of subjectivity rolled up in it8 and so forth.

When Man on the Bus exhorts me to wait till the jury is in, therefore, my patience to do so is mitigated by the many times I’ve waited for them to return in the past. This doesn’t mean that Bem’s experiments have no value – just that, given my experience with this subject, the likelihood that they do is well below my threshold to want to give them the scientific time-of-day. In other words, I don’t see that my investment in them is any more likely to pay off than my investment in the results of thousands of Ganzfield experiments and remote viewing sessions and telepathy tests has done in the past.

To quote a great man, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Bem is claiming extraordinary things. His experimental results, on the other hand, are no more persuasive than those from a mountain of other ESP research that has come before, all of which have been demonstrated to be questionable at best. Man on the Bus is appealing to my spirit of scientific fairness, and technically he is right to do so. I should wait for more evidence.

In my view though, when it comes to experiments with psi (or homeopathy or free energy or UFOs or a dozen other fringe belief systems that purport to be based on science) a body is entitled to ask to be given, along with any supposed results of the experiments, some good reasons why this particular case deserves any special attention. Reasons that set it apart from the already understood one that ‘it would be so COOOOL if it was true!’ Bem is not advancing any new framework for his supposed results. There is no proposed mechanism by which they might be occurring, nor is there any promising thread of scientific discourse that leads to them. The results are curious, sure, but no more than that.

It’s like trying to apply a scientific process to the photographing of a unicorn. The fact is that most sensible people eventually get to a point where it becomes plain, as they set up their camera just one more time on a magical moonlit night (because, after all, no-one can prove that the unicorn won’t come tonight…), that maybe, just maybe, they are wasting their time. If that unicorn doesn’t actually exist, it doesn’t matter what kind of lens you use, or how carefully you make your exposure, or how many shots you take – no amount of belief is going to imprint its image onto your film. And while the hundreds of shadowy blurs, smears of light and odd sparkles that you’ve captured over the years might be worthy of some bull sessions in the pub, they still don’t amount to the only thing that is really needed to shut everybody up once and for all:

  1. I hadn’t. In those days I really had no idea of experimental protocol, and it has to be said that it is probable that I was just finding patterns I wanted to find… []
  2. Either by self-deceit, or by someone who had a suitable agenda. The combination of these two is especially powerful. []
  3. Perhaps ‘especially if’… []
  4. Unbelievably, even after his tricks have been exposed time and time gain, there are still people today who continue to think Geller’s ‘powers’ are real. There truly is no dissuading someone who wants to believe. []
  5. In addition to this, I became quite interested in Uri Geller’s attempts to take legal action against James Randi. This was quite confusing to me – I had seen Randi on numerous occasions challenging Geller to demonstrate his powers under controlled situations which he and Randi would agree on beforehand. This seemed extremely reasonable behaviour to me. If Uri Geller really did have extraordinary powers, how could he possibly object to this? All he had to do was demonstrate that Randi was wrong. Unless… he couldn’t…. It seemed to me that there was only one logical explanation for Geller attempting to silence Randi legally: because he was hiding something. []
  6. For very good reason, I submit. Belief in parapsychology in my view IS an area of cognitive science. It’s about how we view the world, with all the self deception and illusion that entails – not how the world behaves physically. []
  7. You can read Bem’s experiment here. []
  8. Bem, has noted in his paper, for instance, that the outcomes of psi experiments tend to vary according to who is involved with the experiment. Believers are more likely to produce positive results than skeptics. Even though he makes efforts to exclude this influence, should it exist, from his own experiments, it’s hard to see how it can be taken seriously as a conjecture. Quite logically this kind of influence, if there’s any substance in it, should be at work in ALL scientific experiments and it doesn’t seem to be of any consequence in other branches of science… Psi researcher are therefore setting a ‘special condition’ upon their experiments – one that applies specifically to their field. That kind of conditionality is very un science-like. Indeed, it undermines one of the very cornerstones of scientific belief; an experiment should reliably return results no matter who is carrying it out. Aside from all that, the very idea itself smacks of absurdity. Believers get positive results and skeptics get chance? Those with a vested interest get what they want to see, and proper scientists get what proper science predicts? Come on! How terribly convenient! []