[extropy-chat] Precognition on TV.
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
>and think it's scary how easily people can naivly believe.
>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?
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.
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