[extropy-chat] Precognition on TV.

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Sat Mar 17 23:37:34 UTC 2007

At 12:02 AM 3/18/2007 +0100, Sondre Bjellås wrote:

>I'm an heartly atheist

Me too.

>and think it's scary how easily people can naivly believe.

Yes, absolutely.

>I'm sure you already know about James Randi's work on the subject:

Randi has done some good things, but in his way 
he's as silly and even scoundrelly as the 
"psychic" frauds and fools he unmasks. Here 
(sorry for the length) is something I wrote years ago about this:

Randi's published works come complete with 
glowing endorsements from such notables as Dr 
Carl Sagan, Dr Isaac Asimov, the late Dr 
Christopher Evans (author of the cruelly 
hilarious Cults of Unreason), Martin Gardner, Dr 
Ray Hyman. Surely no skeptical text bearing 
testimonials from experts of this calibre could contain elementary blunders?

Let's see.

Perhaps one of the most unlikely sidebars to the 
American lunar landing program was a series of 
ESP tests performed by astronaut Dr Edgar D. 
Mitchell while Apollo 14 was on its trip to our 
sister world in January, 1971. Commander Alan 
Shepard and Ed Mitchell explored the uplands 
region north of the Frau Mauro crater before 
returning to Earth, a feat sufficiently 
preposterous to get them into the history books. 
In 1972, Mitchell retired from the Navy and NASA 
to found the Palo Alto Institute of Noetic 
Science, a kind of proto-New Age study centre for 
the paranormal and, as far as I can make out, 
never did anything interesting again.

Now, by a stroke of audacity and with a keen nose 
for controversy, the Amazing Randi's main attack 
on the central methods of parapsychology was 
directed to Mitchell's claims for his space ESP 
experiment. This discussion, Randi asserted, `may 
indicate [that the astronaut's] need to prove 
what he believes to be true overrides his 
scientific discretion.' This is a cry often 
raised against the disturbing results of 
parapsychology but, as we shall see, it is much 
more aptly turned back against the magician.

Dr Mitchell's rather minor experiment, notable 
only for its lunar connections, is fully 
described in the June, 1971 number of the Journal 
of Parapsychology. Strangely enough, Randi seems 
never to have heard of this scholarly document, 
for he relies instead on garbled reports from the 
New York Times and an abbreviated account for the 
lay reader from Mitchell's own 1974 popsci book 
Psychic Exploration: A Challenge for Science.

The first newspaper account Randi presents states 
simply that Mitchell, in cislunar space, worked 
as agent (what we might loosely dub a `psychic 
transmitter') with random sequences of five 
different symbols. `Four persons in the United 
States attempted to guess the order of the 
symbols. They were able to do this with success 
that could be duplicated by chance in one out of 
3000 experiments. This in parapsychology 
experiments is considered reasonably successful.'

Randi's interpretation of this inoffensive 
report--an interpretation endorsed, presumably, 
by Sagan, Asimov, Gardner, and other fine skeptical minds--is astonishing.

`You must be left with the impression that there 
is indeed some significance to the experiment,' 
Randi observes scathingly (but quite correctly, 
as it happens), `since,' he adds, `guessing the 
cards in an ESP deck by chance alone would have 
yielded results of 5 to 1, not a whopping 3000 to 1!'

I thought my eyes were deceiving me when I read 
these words. The statement is simply ridiculous, 
but typical of the free and easy way professional 
skeptics have when it comes to their statistical 
analysis of parapsychological results.

To grasp exactly how ludicrous Randi's remark is, 
let's recall Dr Helmut Schmidt's second automated 
experiment. There, his operators obtained a 
positive deviation of 401 guesses from a mean 
chance expectation of 5000. The odds of such a 
deviation arising by pure coincidence were 
calculated at around one in 10 billion. In 
Mitchell's central core of data there were 175 
guesses (a pretty small database, sadly; I said 
this was a minor experiment). There was a chance 
probability of 4 to 1 of guessing wrongly, or 1 
in 5 of guessing correctly--not 5 to 1, as Randi 
erroneously states. I'm not quibbling in making 
these preliminary points. You get it right, or you don't bother.

Now, since there were 175 guesses, and each guess 
had 1 chance in 5 of being right, the average 
number you'd expect right by chance is one-fifth 
of 175, or 35 right. In fact, the score attained 
by Mitchell's Earth-based percipients deviated 
from this figure by 21 guesses--and the 
likelihood of such a swing occurring by accident 
is indeed 1 in 3000 (it's nearly 4 standard deviations).

Randi's elementary mistake ought to be laughably 
apparent to any scientist. His team of 
pre-publication reviewers were scandalously slack 
in failing to blue-pencil it at once.

All too often, skeptic or believer, we see what 
we wish to see. Might this failure of peer review 
indicate that a heartfelt need to disparage what 
they believed to be pernicious nonsense had 
subverted their scientific discretion?

>I'm having a hard time figuring out the 
>evolutionary basis for remote viewing (or other 
>weird abilities that some people claim to 
>possess). I can't see how it improves the 
>survival or reproduction ability of humans.

I discuss psi in an evolutionary context in my 
forthcoming book. First, though, one looks to see 
if something happens, and then, if it does, one 
tries to philosophize about it. Let's keep the horse before Descartes.


More information about the extropy-chat mailing list