The tough editorial decision was behind us; the die had been cast. Pre-prints of the controversial article and its invited rejoinder appeared on the publisher’s web site. The same day, the Nicolas Cage movie Next opened in theaters. Those who believe in eerie coincidences will see one here. Let me explain.
A young researcher had submitted a manuscript to the venerable international journal of which I am Senior Editor. His paper advocated further research into precognition and remote viewing as tools for technology forecasters. Though the CIA and some universities had devoted research effort to precognition in the past (my tenses are already tangled), today’s professional futurists and forecasters are keen to distance themselves from what one of my colleagues calls “woo-woo stuff.”
The Editor-in-Chief and I wanted to balance the undoubted threat to the journal’s credibility, should we publish the piece, against our desire to encourage a new researcher who was presenting a creditable review of (possibly credible) literature, and a valuable historical summary of certain Cold War-era projects. We recognized that he had presented no new research results, no detailed recommendations for applying precognition to technology forecasting, and no successful application cases.
After much discussion we decided to consider publishing the paper as an opinion piece, rather than as a research contribution. All opinion pieces appearing in the journal are clearly labeled as such, but we determined to add an explicit disclaimer stating that the presented opinions were those of the author and not of the journal. We asked the author for a revision that would eliminate some of the manuscript’s special-pleading and cite more opposing views. We invited a distinguished futurist, widely known to be a gentleman with both feet on the ground, to write a rejoinder that we would publish jointly with the article in question.
This cautious plan served us well, until the Table of Contents of Future Issues hit the listservs. The Chief Correspondent of a respected science magazine called, seemingly within the hour, demanding to know not only what we were doing, but what on Earth we were thinking.
The Editor-in-Chief and I directed his attention to the disclaimer, and shared our reasoning with him. He replied, “Even if you run a blistering rejoinder, as I expect you will, why would a learned peer-reviewed journal give this subject any space at all, even for an opinion piece? I thought this had been scientifically discredited. Has it ever been used to successfully predict a single technological development?” Citing a London Sunday Times magazine cover feature based on an article we had earlier (as editors) brought to print , the Chief Correspondent reminded us that the world’s policy makers and media monitor our journal.
Though I wouldn’t care to do this kind of thing often, I am delighted that we published the article. Not – and I hope this is not too cruel – for the reasons the author hoped, but rather for the issues of philosophy and practice of science that the caper stirred up.
Richard Dawkins[i] takes the view that even within “non-scientific” areas like religion, one may find specific questions that are subject to scientific analysis. He is reluctant to conclude that any question, if it can be stated clearly, is intrinsically “non-scientific.” In contrast, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume wrote that beauty “exists merely in the mind which contemplates [it]; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” According to Malcolm Gladwell[ii],
Hume might as well have said that nobody knows anything. But Hume[’s] Scottish counterpart Lord Kames was equally convinced that traits like beauty, sublimity, and grandeur were indeed reducible to a rational system of rules and precepts…. For every Hume, it seems, there has always been a Kames—someone arguing that if nobody knows anything it is only because nobody’s looking hard enough.
The young author of the article, like Dawkins, wants to be a Kamesian, and it’s a respectable tradition. He found some instances of experiments that he thinks did not conclusively discredit the phenomena in which he is interested. On the one hand, he cited prior work in some serious journals; I was surprised to learn the hard-headed engineers of IEEE had staged IEEE Symposia on the Nature of Extrasensory Perception.[iii] On the other hand, he overlooked the statistical fact that of every hundred studies tested at the 97% significance level, three (on average) will show false results.
The center of gravity of our journal’s readership has moved toward Asia, and what we Westerners dismiss as ESP nonsense seems widely accepted in Asia in a matter-of-fact way. I am reminded of ancient Indian literature’s[iv] mysteriously accurate characterization of the speed of light, which must have been arrived at intuitively, as no remnants of applicable machine technologies have been found, and which seems an extreme coincidence even to those well-versed in modern measurement and probability theory. This is not to say that Asian scientists “believe in” or rely on ESP when they are wearing their Western-scientific-tradition hats. I mean only to say that every scientist brings a cultural background to his or her work, and this background includes ideas about the contexts in which certain phenomena occur. The more diverse such ideas are, the better the prospects of scientific progress.
I hoped the article would result in some good dialog with readers. Will readers from other countries suggest different experiments? I wait to find out.
It is now recognized that there are many kinds of intelligence, including intellectual, social, and emotional intelligence. It stands to reason that each kind of intelligence may imply a different kind of “knowledge,” and a different means of arriving at that knowledge. (My colleague down the hall knows that he and Halle Berry were made for each other. He did not arrive at this conclusion through critical thinking or empirical investigation – he has never met the lady – but he knows its truth nonetheless.) This statement, along with the slightly facetious parenthetical example, is neither mushy romanticism nor smarmy New Age-ism. Rather, it simply recognizes that when people are doing good science, each new theory raises new questions.
As committed as I am to the European scientific tradition as a way of knowledge, I recognize that it may not be possible to use this single lens – either because of the implied recursion or because of the limitations of a single perspective – to investigate other possible ways of knowledge.
The continental (European) rationalist philosophy laid the groundwork for this discussion, and it also confuses it. The extreme rationalists Spinoza and Leibniz rejected empiricism in principle, maintaining that knowledge could be worked out logically from axioms. So far so good, but their implication that this knowledge would have any necessary correspondence with the extensive
universe was unjustified, even silly.
String theory, for which there is not a jot of experimental evidence, is very much in the extreme rationalist tradition. It seems to me that if you believe in string theory as a statement about the universe (rather than as the beautiful abstraction that it is) – and many physicists are staking their careers on this belief – you might as well believe in ESP.
Philosophers claim to have distinguished extreme rationalism from divine inspiration, but I find the distinction too thin for comfort. It is also alleged that some have difficulty distinguishing ESP from revelation, a point I will return to below.
Sometimes experiments don’t work because the experimenter asks the wrong question. Clever Hans was a horse with purported mathematical skill. He could, it was claimed, understand human speech, and give correct answers to math problems by tapping his hoof. He amazed audiences of thousands. It was ultimately discovered that Hans kept tapping until a subtle change in his trainer’s expression and posture indicated the right number had been reached. (The trainer had been unaware of this.) Poor Hans was a fraud! The matter was explained away by theorizing that body attitude is a part of social communication among horses. That Hans could apply the reading of body attitude to another species (his trainer) seems to me quite remarkable – indeed, the central question of the Hans affair. It remains unexplored, because at the time (c.1900), intellectual intelligence was considered much more real and important than social and kinesiologic intelligence.
The Clever Hans effect is one strong reason why comparative psychologists normally test animals in isolated apparatus, without interaction with them. However this creates problems of its own, because many of the most interesting phenomena in animal cognition are only likely to be demonstrated in a social context, and in order to train and demonstrate them, it is necessary to build up a social relationship between trainer and animal. This point of view has been strongly argued by Irene Pepperberg in relation to her studies of parrots, and by Alan and Beatrice Gardner in their study of the chimpanzee Washoe.[v]If it exists, ESP may be, like speech itself, social in nature. Detecting it could require new experimental designs that are immune to the Clever Hans effect but allow naturalistic interaction between subject and environment.
Our distinguished futurist wrote an entertaining rejoinder in the materialist/reductionist tradition. He concluded that his own successful experience with water-dowsing had been “nothing paranormal, just an awfully large lot of unconscious knowledge coming to bear on a practical issue in a familiar environment.” Having substituted one magic word for another – “unconscious” for “paranormal” – he seems satisfied that he’s laid the matter to rest. He cannot explain the unconscious (nor can anyone else) any better than our young author can explain remote viewing. Granted, our prospects for discovering a neural or molecular basis of consciousness and the unconscious seem better at this moment than our prospects for understanding similar bases for ESP. Right now, though, there seems not much point in preferring one incantation over the other.
The senior practitioner went on to say, “No responsible futurist says he can see the future, but rather what we do is lay out plausible alternatives in the way the future might develop.” To be sure. Yet recall what the Chief Correspondent asked about precognition: “Has it ever been used to successfully predict a single technological development?” Odd that a higher standard should be brought to bear on extrasensory methods than on professional futurism as it is now practiced (and for which corporations and governments pay top dollar).
We speak of “taking ourselves back,” in memory, to our first kiss or to the births of our children. We do not believe we are viewing the past in the same way we watch a re-run of I Love Lucy. In fact, scientists have demonstrated that memory is usually faulty, no matter how vivid it may seem to us. But we find memory pretty useful anyway. Any schoolchild, playing Whispering Down the Lane, knows communication is faulty too, yet still useful.
Wartime ESP experiments were aimed at an alternative to the error-prone perceptions, memories, and transmissions of field agents. Remote viewing didn’t have to be perfect to be useful. No scientific or military purpose is served by adopting, as a straw target, the notion that precognition must be like watching a television show that hasn’t yet been broadcast, literal and accurate down to the last phosphor dot. If remote viewing exists, maybe it is another kind of experience altogether.
This brings us to the poorly understood difference between statistical significance and managerial significance. Here is an example. Your data warehouse’s neural net program detects a slightly greater preference for red widgets among buyers in the western part of the country, and for blue widgets in the east. The difference is not statistically significant (at the usual 90-95% level) and may be completely ephemeral, but it does involve several thousand customers. At no cost, the neural net triggers another program that routes more red widgets to stores in the west. Revenue is realized that might otherwise have been left on the table. The cost-effectiveness profile of this action means it was managerially significant but not statistically significant. A statistician might habitually apply at least a 90% test. Managerially, 50% significance would justify action.
In the same way, workable remote viewing in wartime might have saved soldiers’ lives while eliminating the risk, cost and time lag of field deployment of intelligence agents. Not only did remote viewing not have to be perfect to be useful, it didn’t even have to be very good.
In times of slow technological change, scientists may feel greater pressure to achieve ‘conventional’ results, and may therefore be more critical of efforts on the fringe. In wartime, we play the wild cards.
(Contrariwise, meditating monks can very reliably control the surface temperature of their skin, within a reasonable range. The statistical significance of this supra-normal trick is undeniable, but its usefulness, and hence its managerial significance, is nearly nil.)
I wonder what the journalist meant when he said, “I thought this had been scientifically discredited.” What exactly does he think has been discredited? What specific kinds of propositions under what kinds of conditions and experimental protocols have been discredited?
Science doesn’t discredit propositions for all time. New experimental technologies may be brought to bear on old questions, legitimately re-opening them. Since the days of Clever Hans, not much research attention had been paid to animal consciousness. The science press recently covered new research on the subject, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Colorado and elsewhere. The coverage won a “bad neuro-journalism” award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation[vi], and the research itself occasioned much hilarity in the blogosphere. (One wag wrote, “Animals just hate it when we anthropomorphize them.”) The point remains, though, that new perspectives, new experiments, or new equipment can be good reasons to re-open old questions.
And just as rigorous protocols must be used in order to claim a positive result, rigor must be key to claims of negative results. Skeptics are quick to say, “You cannot prove a negative,” perhaps to justify their slapdash arguments against the existence of this weird phenomenon or that one. However, standard experimental method, augmented by Fisherian hypothesis testing, never claims to prove anything at all, either positive or negative. In either case, our epistemology calls for making tentative conclusions based on the current preponderance of evidence.
In his rejoinder, our senior futurist called the precognition article “more an ideological tract than a serious advocacy and defense of [its author’s] position.” Again, a fair point. I am left uncomfortable, though, by indications that the skeptics also publish from an ideological viewpoint. G.P. Hansen[vii] writes as a partisan, but his views still disturb:
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has become the most publicly visible institution engaged in the debate on the paranormal. Initially CSICOP was primarily a scholarly body, but soon after its beginning it adopted a popular approach that… actively promoted the formation of local societies with similar aims…. Many members hold religious views that are antagonistic to the paranormal. Despite the name of the organization, …CSICOP instituted a policy against doing research itself.
If we have not left the Salem witch-hunts behind us, we have a bigger problem than whether ESP exists or not. We may again be asking the wrong question.
Yes, science loses credibility when it persists in investigating non-existent things, viz., aether or miasma. But it also loses public credibility when it confines its investigations to regions too far removed from social commonplaces. Why do so many Chinese companies consult geomancers? Why do American murder investigators accept help from “psychics”?
I come to these issues from a management science background. There have been so many instances of management scientists devising an optimizing principle for a business operation only to find that experienced managers had been doing things at or close to the optimal way all along. The lesson: Though experience can be misleading, it shouldn’t be ignored. Even if the hordes of people claiming to have paranormal experiences seem wacky, there might be something in there, some little piece of it, that Dawkins would call a legitimate scientific question.
The techno-thriller Next pits Nicholas Cage, as a Las Vegas performer with the ability to see a few minutes into the future, against terrorists threatening to detonate a nuclear device in Los Angeles. The public’s fascination with unusual mental phenomena is here to stay, and I wonder whether “widespread public misunderstanding of probability” (as the skeptics would have it) fully explains that fascination. Someone ought to look into that question.
[i] Rod Liddle, A man who believes in Darwin as fervently as he hates God. The Spectator. Thursday, December 7, 2006. http://richarddawkins.net/article,397,A-man-who-believes-in-Darwin-as-fervently-as-he-hates-God,Rod-Liddle--The-Spectator
[ii] Malcolm Gladwell, The Formula: What if you built a machine… New Yorker, 2006-10-16, http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/061016fa_fact6
[iv] See e.g. Subhash Kak, "The speed of light and Puranic cosmology" on the Los Alamos Physics Archive eprint arXiv:physics/9804020, April, 1998.