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Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Scientific Evidence for Psi (is most likely stronger than you think)

My goal in this blog is to convince you to read Damien Broderick's book Outside the Gates of Science: Why It's Time for the Paranormal to Come in From the Cold.

Reviewing a host of research done by others over many decades, the book makes a remarkably and excitingly strong case that psi phenomena are worthy of intensive further investigation....

Let me explain why I'm so excited by Broderick's work.

Having grown up on SF, and being a generally open-minded person but also mathematician/scientist with a strong rationalist and empiricist bent, I've never quite known what to make of psi. (Following Broderick, I'm using "psi" as an umbrella term for ESP, precognition, psychokinesis, and the familiar array of suspects...).

Broderick's book is the first I've read that rationally, scientifically, even-handedly and maturely, reviews what it makes sense to think about psi given the available evidence.

(A quick word on my science background, for those who don't know me and may be new to this blog: I have a math PhD and although my main research areas are AI and cognitive science, I've also spent a lot of time working on empirical biological science as a data analyst. I was a professor for a 8 years but have been doing research in the software industry for the last decade.)

My basic attitude on psi has always been curious but ambivalent. One way to summarize it would be via the following three points....

First: Psi seems, on the face of it, is not wildly scientifically implausible after the fashion of, say, perpetual motion machines built out of wheels and pulleys and spinning chanbers filled with ball bearings. Science, at this point, understands the world only very approximately, and there is plenty of room in our current understanding of the physical universe for psi. Quantum theory's notions of nonlocality and resonance are conceptually somewhat harmonious with some aspects of psi, but that's not the main point. The main point is that science does not rule out psi, in the sense that it rules out various sorts of crackpottery.

Second
: Anecdotal evidence for psi is so strong and so prevalent that it's hard to ignore. Yes, people can lie, and they can also be very good at fooling themselves. But the number of serious, self-reflective intelligent people to report various sorts of psi experiences is not something that should be glibly ignored.

Third: There is by now a long history of empirical laboratory work on psi, with results that are complex, perplexing, but in many ways so apparently statistically significant as to indicate that SOMETHING important is almost surely going on in these psi experiments...

Broderick, also being an open-minded rationalist/empiricist, seems to have started out his investigation of psi, as reported in his book, with the same basic intuition as I've described in the above three points. And he covers all three of these points in the book, but the main service he provides is to very carefully address my third point above: the scientific evidence.

His discussion of possible physical mechanisms of psi is competent but not all that complete or imaginative; and he wisely shies away from an extensive treatment of anecdotal evidence (this stuff has been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere). But his treatment of the scientific literature regarding psi is careful, masterful and compellingly presented. And this is no small achievement.

The scientific psi literature is large, complex, multifaceted and subtle -- and in spite of a lifelong peripheral fascination with psi, I have never taken the time to go through all that much it myself. I'm too busy doing other sorts of scientific, mathematical and engineering work. Broderick has read the literature, sifted out the good from the bad, summarized the most important statistical and conceptual results, and presented his conclusions in ordinary English that anyone with a strong high school education should be able to understand.

His reviews of the work on remote viewing and precognition I found particularly fascinating, and convincing. It is hard to see how any fair-minded reader could come away from his treatments of these topics without at least a sharp pang of curiousity regarding what might actually be going on.

Perhaps my most valued discovery, based on Broderick's book, was Edwin May's work on precognition and related phenomena. Anyone with a science background is strongly encouraged to inspect the website of May's Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, which hosts an impressive collection of papers on his team's government-funded psi research.

What is my conclusion about psi after reading Damien's book, and exploring in more depth the work of May's team and others?

Still not definitive -- and indeed, Broderick's own attitude as expressed in the book is not definitive.

I still can't feel absolutely certain whether psi is a real phenomenon; or whether the clearly statistically significant patterns observed across the body of psi experiments bespeak some deep oddities in the scientific method and the statistical paradigm that we don't currently understand.

But after reading Broderick's book, I am much more firmly convinced than before that psi phenomena are worthy of intensive, amply-funded scientific exploration. Psi should not be a fringe topic, it should be a core area of scientific investigation, up there with, say, unified physics, molecular biology, AI and so on and so forth.

Read the book for yourself, and if you're not hopelessly biased in your thinking, I suspect you'll come to a conclusion somewhat similar to mine.

As a bonus, as well as providing a profound intellectual and cultural service, the book is a lot of fun to read, due to Broderick's erudite literary writing style and ironic sense of humor.

My worry -- and I hope it doesn't eventuate -- is that the book is just too far ahead of its time. I wonder if the world is ready for a rational, scientific, even-handed treatment of psi phenomena.

Clearly, Broderick's book is too scientific and even-handed for die-hard psi believers; and too psi-friendly (though in a level-headed, evidence-based way) for the skeptical crowd. My hope is that it will find a market among those who are committed to really understanding the world, apart from the psychological pathologies of dogmatism or excessive skepticism.

I note that Broderick has a history of being ahead of his time as a nonfiction writer. His 1997 book "The Spike" put forth basically the same ideas that Ray Kurzweil later promulgated in his 2005 book "The Singularity Is near." Kurzweil's book is a very good one, but so was Broderick's; yet Kurzweil's got copious media attention whereas Broderick's did not ... for multiple reasons, one of which, however, was simply timing. The world in 1997 wasn't ready to hear about the Singularity. The world in 2006 is.

The question is: is the world in 2008 ready to absorb the complex, fascinating reality of psi research? If so, Broderick's book should strike a powerful chord. It certainly did for me.

7 comments:

LĂșcio said...

Ben, when you talk about "the psychological pathologies of dogmatism or excessive skepticism" I can't help but remember that those "opposites" that are distressingly similar to me. :(

On ocasion I'll read that "Outside the Gates of the Science". In fact I have a long tradition of reading books that would make a hardcore skeptic scream in abject horror (e.g., Sheldrake's "The Sense of Being Stared at" :), so your recommendation is welcome!

Benjamin said...

Lucio ... in fact, in his book, Broderick reviews a bunch of evidence that the "sense of being stared at" is statistically real ... even when the staring takes place over a video camera!! Fascinating possibilities to contemplate....

Robin said...

Is the extremealy powerful effects of our spritual brain taken into account? How we seem to be hardwired for spiritual/religious/supernatural experiences? At least this should make the anecdotal evidence rather weak, even if it comes from intelligent men, becuase history tells us that most intelligent men were also deeply spiritual!

Chris K. Haley said...

Thanks for the review and recommendation. I was interested in paranormal research years ago, but was never sufficiently convinced of the authenticity of any on the reported phenomena. I'm a skeptic, but open-minded, and your recommendation has intrigued me enough to add it to my book queue.

Anonymous said...

it's so funny that the ideas of "psi" would be my inspiration towards this line of research, really any scientific inquiry. As funny as it seems Ghostbusters was a movie that at a young age changed my life, for the first time I saw a group of people dealing with the unknown in an abject scientific way. A while back I came across this document that discussed transportation in a non-sci-fi way, it really considers a wide variety of possible approaches to the question. http://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/teleport.pdf
Section 5 would be the most relevant to the topic although I have no idea if it's real or not.

Tom Dewell said...

I love the idea of being an open-minded rationalist scientist - the ultimate explorer of the unknown!

Another book which goes into the PSI (under the umbr4ella) world is The PK Zone written by Pamela Rae Heath M.D., Psy.D. who has been involved with parapsychology research for a long time.

It is indeed for this area of knowledge to come in from the cold.

LukeStanley said...

haha I just watched Damien Broderick being interviewed by Ghanesh the elephant. Wow.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhiGt9eJ9bw