[ExI] psi yet again

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Tue Jun 29 01:07:27 UTC 2010

On 6/28/2010 3:47 PM, Rafal Smigrodzki wrote:

> When I say I am 99% sure I haven't seen
> convincing evidence of a phenomenon it doesn't mean that something
> swayed me into disbelief but rather that my initial 99.999 disbelief
> wasn't yet crushed by a force my mind (or toes) cannot resist. With
> psi there are faint inkllings, enough to push the needle on my
> existence-meter from -99.999% all the way to -99% but not any farther.
> To go from "99% didn't happen" to "99% happened" I need a lot more
> stubbing. Did the dry PEAR numbers sway you towards "99% happened"
> from a position of disbelief, or did you set out from a certain
> position of longing and eagerness towards psi?

Here's what I wrote 20 years ago in THE LOTTO EFFECT:

<In 1970, I chanced upon an article by two scientists in the magazine 
Analog—which not many years earlier, I'm sorry to say, had rejoiced in 
the nerdish title Astounding Science Fiction. This piece was astounding 
science fact, or at least it claimed to be. It was called `Telepathy—Did 
It Happen?' and the damned thing changed the course of my life.
	I'd been open-minded about the reality of paranormal phenomena since I 
was a kid in the late 1950s. One time when I was home sick with asthma 
or the black death or whatever it was, my pious Catholic mother fetched 
back from the library (to her lasting chagrin) Dr J. B. Rhine's classic 
study of extrasensory perception, The Reach of the Mind. With every 
appearance of sober sanity, Rhine claimed that careful scientific study 
had demonstrated the reality of mind-over-matter, telepathy, even 
	To a young science fiction enthusiast, devoted to Theodore Sturgeon and 
Alfred Bester with their spectacular tales of `wild talents', these 
ideas were hardly unheralded. Telepathy and telekinesis, not to mention 
time travel and teleportation, were as much a staple of 1950s science 
fiction as `television' (that utterly unbelievable futuristic device) 
had been in the SF of the 1920s.
	Rhine's popular treatise shocked me for all that. It had never occurred 
to me that these fanciful powers might be anything more than what a 
literary critic might dub a `narrative device', a simple story-telling 
invention. While I'd been raised to swallow without question such 
unlikely propositions as a Three-in-One God and a Virgin Birth (good 
training for a later enthusiasm for quantum theory), in most other 
respects I was a sturdy working class empiricist. You believe it if it 
smacks you in the ear, and not before. So the shock didn't last long. 
Fine—maybe psi was real. And maybe not. Either way, it seemed pretty 
irrelevant to ordinary life in the twentieth century.
	But by the time I chanced on this popular article more than a decade 
later, detailing ways in which signal detection theory might be used to 
study ESP, I knew enough to see that effective, controlled psi was a 
real paradigm challenge to our hard-won scientific world-view. Psi 
didn't seem compatible with the basic picture of the universe I shared 
with most other grown-ups (even though most of us were, and are, 
horribly ignorant of most of the details and principles involved in 
physics, mathematics, the whole vast construct of this century's 
theoretical and experimental sciences). My hair abruptly stood on end.
	`It is difficult for the authors to restrain their enthusiasm for the 
apparent success of these tests,' the article stated, fairly well 
capturing the wild gleam that had entered my own eye, `but they know 
full well that only after the experiment has been repeated a number of 
times by different investigators under very carefully controlled 
conditions will the concept be validated.'
	James B. Reswick and Lojze Vodovnik had run an experiment to test the 
transmission of information in real time between two young students. 
`The authors feel they have presented an experimental technique which 
can "amplify" the effect of ESP—if it exists—to a level where 
controversy over the significance of small shifts in statistically 
determined means [that is, averages] can be settled,' Reswick and 
Vodovnik concluded. `Also possible is a technique for communication by 
means of ESP.'
	This was impressive, if true, but to be glib (in the fashion of a 
hard-nosed economic rationalist) who really needs ESP when the telephone 
is so reliable? Who needs the power to levitate a matchbox when machines 
lift tonnes without human effort?
	Actually, this line of thought collapses after a moment's reflection. 
What's impressive about psychokinesis, if it occurs, is the lack of any 
detectable force or energy linking human mind and external object. 
Telepathy is not just a cheap form of radio, if it exists—it's a totally 
radical `nonlocal' correlation between one mind and another, an exchange 
of information that simply exceeds the boundaries of current scientific 
	What's more, it's notable that many people with a keen interest in the 
paranormal link its phenomena with transpersonal or spiritual goals and 
growth: the bond between mother and child, say, or between lovers. If 
this view is correct, nothing could be more contemptible (it's claimed) 
than to seek squalid material advantage from psychic bonds. It would 
debase the ineffable. On the other hand, Mesmerists spoke in that 
mystical and mystified way about a strange phenomenon they dubbed 
`animal magnetism', which we now know confuses two entirely different 
things: hypnosis and electromagnetism. We employ the one for medical 
purposes, and base almost the whole of our industrial civilisation upon 
the other.
	Indeed, we live and have our being in a world of regularity and order, 
a world that has come increasingly within the grasp of keen-eyed 
understanding. If what we dub `paranormal phenomena' do have their 
effect on this external, law-abiding world, it might not be beyond the 
reach of scientific method to replicate or harness them. This, at any 
rate, is the assumption that motivates parapsychology research, which 
has not been without its successes in laboratory and life alike 
(skittish though they are).
	And the crude fact remains that the sole paranormal phenomenon which 
can't (yet) be equalled by science or technological cunning is 
precognition—accurate insight into a future still unborn. Scientific 
models are indeed defined by their power to predict future states, but 
only in a general way. Heat chemical A with chemical B for precisely 15 
seconds and you'll get the compound C, plus 28 percent water vapour. 
Instant prediction, right every time. Paranormal precognition, on the 
other hand, purports to deal in events that are strictly one-off: my 
child will be maimed by a red car unless I get to the intersection in 
time, the Titanic will hit an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sink. If 
this kind of fore-telling could be made as routine and reliable as 
scientific generalisations, we would step into a new era (for good or ill).
	Of course, maybe there was no such thing as precognition. Maybe it was 
just a story-telling device from myth, religion and fantasy. But the 
archives of well-bred Societies for Psychical Research around the world 
are stacked with reports of vivid dreams later startlingly confirmed by 
reality. The pages of The Journal of Parapsychology list hundreds of 
experiments in laboratory future-telling. Not all of them worked. 
Sometimes people got results that were worse than you'd expect by 
chance. Still, the idea was not necessarily lunatic.
	Deeply unfashionable, yes, in the halls of science.
	Academic suicide, in fact.
	I didn't care about that. I was a writer of speculative fiction, a 
philosophical anarchist (in a mild sort of way), and I sat on the edge 
of my bed after I finished reading the article and my brain buzzed with 
ideas and implications. It was a moment of total intellectual 
intoxication. My heart, as a Clive James creation would put it many 
years later, palpitated with trepidation like a poodle in heat in a 
monastery of mastiffs.
	If I'd known it would take a good part of the next 20 years before I'd 
pinned down that intuition in solid numbers, perhaps I would have gone 
off sensibly like everyone else and joined a rock band. >

Rafal, you invoke Bayes--but how does Bayes accommodate the experience 
of those Victorian scientists who went pretty much in one enormous, 
grudging jump from unquestioned Divine Creation of each individual and 
unchanging species to Darwinian evolution? Huxley famously commented 
something like, "I couldn't believe I'd been stupid enough not to see 
this myself." I suppose in Kuhnian terms it was a paradigm transition, 
but how does Bayes account for a jump from priors set at 99.999999% for 
God, then in a flash switch to, say, 86% for evolution?

I'm not claiming that "conversion" to the psi hypothesis is anything 
like that--the evidence is impressive when you take the trouble to look, 
but usually not *that* overwhelming. I'm just querying the universal 
applicability of Bayes. But I don't know enough about that to judge the 
issue. Do please inform me.

Damien Broderick

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