Wednesday, June 27, 2007

This looks good. . .

Edward and Emily Williams Kelly, two of the authors of Irreducible Mind on Skeptiko. . .

Gotta go listen to it now. . .

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Prospective study of Near-Death Experiences

This prospective study of NDEs published in Lancet has been out for a while, but if you haven't read it before you should definitely take a look.

The design of the study, which set it apart from previous NDE studies which were based on surveys, is that it consisted in conducting interviews of all patients treated for cardiac arrect at a series of European hospitals. Each of those patients who survived was asked a series of questions about possible NDE occurring during their heart attack. Afterwards, both NDE and non-NDE patients were followed up at two year and eight year intervals with additional questions about fear of death, the importance of spirituality, and a number of other topics.

The first interesting note is a report of a veridical NDE that occurred during the study:

“During a night shift an ambulance brings in a 44- year-old cyanotic, comatose man into the coronary care unit. He had been found about an hour before in a meadow by passers-by. After admission, he receives artificial respiration without intubation, while heart massage and defibrillation are also applied. When we want to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I remove these upper dentures and put them onto the ‘crash car’. Meanwhile, we continue extensive CPR. After about an hour and a half the patient has sufficient heart rhythm and blood pressure, but he is still ventilated and intubated, and he is still comatose. He is transferred to the intensive care unit to continue the necessary artificial respiration. Only after more than a week do I meet again with the patient, who is by now back on the cardiac ward. I distribute his medication. The moment he sees me he says: ‘Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are’. I am very surprised. Then he elucidates: ‘Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that car, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth.’ I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR. When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself.

The other fascinating finding of the study was a large difference in the beliefs and additudes of NDE experiencers vs. non-experiencers after their heart attacks:

people who had NDE had a significant increase in belief in an afterlife and decrease in fear of death compared with people who had not had this experience. . .Most patients who did not have NDE did not believe in a life after death at 2-year or 8-year follow-up (table 5). People with NDE had a much more complex coping process: they had become more emotionally vulnerable and empathic, and often there was evidence of increased intuitive feelings. Most of this group did not show any fear of death and strongly believed in an afterlife.

More dubious phenomena. . .

As someone who likes to take pictures, I've always cringed at the credulity of some people regarding "orbs" which appear in photographs, which supposedly are images of ghosts, extraterrestrial visitors, angels or the like. Shadowseekers has a nice writeup:

As you look from group to group and encounter orb photo after orb photo, you will encounter a variety of theories and defenses for the "evidence" many groups so ardently defend. Some will claim that no dust or dirt was present when they photographed a particular orb. The truth is, the only dust free environment known to man exists in outer space, and a simple breath is capable of stirring up dirt and debris in the air. Some groups will claim that an orb is a spirit because it looks different form one that they admit is dust. In fact, dust particles look vastly different from snow particles, which look different from rain particles, which look different from dirt molecules. Thus, you can have several orbs in a photo, each looking quite different from the other, yet none being anything paranormal in nature. The color of particles in the air can be altered by atmospheric conditions and moisture, thus helping to explain the varying colors of orbs. Many investigators will claim that because the orb was capture in a reportedly haunted location, it must be evidence of a ghost. By that logic, a picture taken of a man in the same location would mean that the man was also a ghost.

H/T Daily Grail

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Michael Prescott investigates some dubious mediumship

Michael Prescott has written an informative series of posts on some questionable mediumship here, here and here.

He will also be appearing to discuss this topic on Marcel Cairo's Afterlife FM internet radio show next Tuesday at 7:00 PM EDT / 4:00 PDT. Marcel is a mental medium, who himself believes that most or all physical mediums are frauds.

Michael is one of the the world's foremost amateur experts on the history of the scientific investigation of mediumship, the evidential cases, and the many frauds. It should be an entertaining and interesting show.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Good point, Dean

This is an extract from a follow-up comment by Dean Radin on his blog:

. . . He's just echoing what is accepted as common knowledge by many scientists. Science is a social enterprise, and as such one cannot drift too far from the accepted norm and also maintain one's credibility (to say nothing of one's job!). So rather than trying to learn everything yourself, it's easier to simply adopt mainstream prejudices, because they won't get you into trouble by repeating them.

His original post is well worth reading too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Speaking of Alex Tsakiris. . .

I enjoyed the latest Skeptiko podcast with Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Shapiro and Alex discussed the relationship between science and religion, and both of them felt strongly that religion needs to take into account the results of scientific research. Best quote from Shapiro:

If science can disprove some aspect of Judaism, then to hold on to it makes me, I guess, a loyal Jew, but a stupid human being… If my religion says that the world is flat, and I can show a photograph that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the world is round, but as a faithful person I’m going to hold onto the flatness of things, then yeah, I’m a faithful idiot.

Shapiro is interested in nondual spirituality, which is also an interest of mine.

Medium Marcel Cairo hosts Alex Tsakiris

Medium Marcel Cairo, who AMNAP has enjoyed working with, is hosting a new internet radio show: Afterlife FM.

His first guest will also be well-known to AMNAP readers -- Alex Tsakiris of the Skeptiko podcast.

This show is airing Thursday June 14th at 7:00 PM EDT / 4:00 PDT. Sounds like a fascinating initial episode!

Reminder: This show is TOMORROW.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Controversy between Dean Radin and Andrew Endersby

Andrew Endersby has been commenting about Dean Radin's meta-analyses for some time on this blog and elsewhere as well, and I have remarked that I would like Radin to respond.

Endersby's position is that Radin's meta-analyses are not done properly, that he does not provide inclusion criteria, and that he has left out relevant studies.

I felt that Endersby's points needed to be addressed by Radin, and asked him to do so in an email.

Radin did not wish to be drawn into a debate on this topic, but made the following points in his emails to me, which I will paraphrase.

1) Endersby's ganzfeld meta-analysis also shows staggering odds against the null hypothesis, so Radin doesn't understand the large controversy Endersby is stirring up over Radin's ganzfeld meta-analyses.

2) Radin has conducted two formal psi meta-analyses, published in the literature, and in those papers the inclusion criteria were formally outlined. Those meta-analyses covered PK experiments using dice, and PK experiments using RNG.

3) Radin's meta-analysis of the ganzfeld and his other meta-analyses (besided the two mentioned above) relied on earlier meta-analyses published in the literature, updated with data from more recent studies. They were not full, formal meta-analyses. So studies left out of earlier meta-analyses by other authors are also left out of Radin's meta-analysis updates.

4) Radin mentioned that he invited Endersby to submit his paper to a peer reviewed journal, and that if and when it gets published, he will consider the controversy important and relevant and respond. Until that happens, Radin doesn't believe that Endersby's critique rises to the level of a genuine controversy, and lacking such a controversy, Radin feels it would not be the best use of his time to respond formally.

I want to thank Dean Radin for his responses to my emails, and Andrew Endersby for bringing our attention to some important missing studies in the Radin and previous Ganzfeld meta-analyses. Andrew has also occasionally pointed out problems in my own research for AMNAP, and I appreciate his attention to detail and his penchant for rolling up his sleeves and doing his own investigations.

Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge

Dean Radin just posted the abstract for this forthcoming study to his blog.

This study explored the hypothesis that in some cases intuitive knowledge arises from perceptions that are not mediated through the ordinary senses. The possibility of detecting such “nonlocal observation” was investigated in a pilot test based on the effects of observation on a quantum system.

Participants were asked to imagine that they could intuitively perceive a low intensity laser beam in a distant Michelson interferometer. If such observation were possible, it would theoretically perturb the photons’ quantum wave-functions and change the pattern of light produced by the interferometer. The optical apparatus was located inside a light-tight, double steel-walled shielded chamber. Participants sat quietly outside the chamber with eyes closed. The light patterns were recorded by a cooled CCD camera once per second, and average illumination levels of these images were compared in counterbalanced “mental blocking” vs. non-blocking conditions. Interference would produce a lower overall level of illumination, which was predicted to occur during the blocking condition.

Based on a series of planned experimental sessions, the outcome was in accordance with the prediction (z = -2.82, p = 0.002). This result was primarily due to nine sessions involving experienced meditators (combined z = -4.28, p = 9.4 × 10-6); the other nine sessions with non- meditators were not significant (combined z = 0.29, p = 0.61). The same experimental protocol run immediately after 15 of these test sessions, but with no one present, revealed no hardware or protocol artifacts that might have accounted for these results (combined control z = 1.50, p = 0.93). Conventional explanations for these results were considered and judged to be implausible. This pilot study suggests the presence of a nonlocal perturbation effect which is consistent with traditional concepts of intuition as a direct means of gaining knowledge about the world, and with the predicted effects of observation on a quantum system.

Friday, June 1, 2007

"Skepticism" and (dis)confirmation bias

One of my favorite studies shows the insidious way that confirmation bias distorts thinking and causes people to slant all facts towards their preferred theory and away from opposing points of view.

This blog post from The Calladus Blog is an example of how "positional" skeptics tend to approach any new information that might challenge their worldview. I found a particularly large number of errors and irrelevancies in this post, and thought it would be useful to analyze them here. So I will be excerpting from the "Nutty Professor" post and providing commentary on what I found problematic at each point.

The Nutty Professor: Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and Telephone Telephony

We are off to an inauspicious start with the namecalling ad-hominem right out the gate. . .

"However, his sample was small on both trials -- just 63 people for the controlled telephone experiment and 50 for the email -- and only four subjects were actually filmed in the phone study and five in the email, prompting some skepticism.

Undeterred, Sheldrake -- who believes in the interconnectedness of all minds within a social grouping -- said that he was extending his experiments to see if the phenomenon also worked for mobile phone text messages."

Notice that Dr. Sheldrake didn't address the problem of a too small sample size for his experiment, and instead immediately widened the experiment to include different tests. This is not a sign of good science!

Woah, there, pardner!

Just because the "yahoo news" article made a claim of "too small sample size" doesn't make it true. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Sheldrake was studying. If Sheldrake was seeking to demonstrate that everyone has telephone telepathy, then indeed this sample size is much too small. In addition, Sheldrake did not select a random sample of a population -- he actively sought out individuals who felt that they frequently experienced telephone telepathy. Furthermore, Sheldrake only took the most successful participants from the first phase of the experiments for the more detailed and rigorous videotape trials. He was seeking out a very specific population of people with the best possibility of showing strong effects for telephone telepathy -- the exact opposite of What Mark of the Calladus blog is suggesting by complaining about sample size. Sheldrake's sample size was (deliberately) small, and that is not a problem, as long as his effect size and number of trials is sufficiently large, as they certainly are in Sheldrake' experiment.

This isn't the first time Dr. Sheldrake has been accused of making unwarranted claims based on improper methodology. CSICOP took Dr. Sheldrake to task and debunked his Psychic Staring Effect experiment - where he claimed to show that people could tell, better than random chance, when someone was staring at them.

The link Mark provides offers a normal "explanation" for Dr. Sheldrake's results. However Dr. Sheldrake's rebuttal is also found linked to the "debunking" article:

Colwell et al.'s second experiment was designed to test their pattern-detection hypothesis by using "structureless" random sequences. Sure enough, this time there was no significant overall positive score, although in two of the three sessions there was a highly significant excess of correct guesses in the looking trials.
At first sight, the overall non-significant result seems to confirm their hypothesis. But Marks and Colwell (2000) omitted to mention the crucial fact that in Experiment Two there was a different starer, David Sladen. Can we take it for granted that changing the starer made no difference?

Such experimenter effects are not symmetrical. The detection of Schlitz's stares by the participants under conditions that excluded sensory cues implies the existence of an unexplained sensitivity to stares. By contrast, the failure to detect Wiseman's stares implies only that Wiseman was an ineffective starer. Perhaps his negative expectations consciously or unconsciously influenced the way he looked at the subjects.

In Colwell et al.'s Experiment Two, the starer, Sladen, as one of the proponents of the pattern-detection hypothesis, was presumably expecting a nonsignificant result. His negative expectations could well have influenced the way in which he stared at the participants. It would be interesting to know if Sadi Schršder, the graduate student who acted as starer in Experiment One, was more open to the possibility that people really can detect when they are being stared at.

Other Relevant Experiments

Marks and Colwell claimed that their pattern-detection hypothesis invalidated the positive results of staring experiments carried out by myself and others. If these experiments had involved pseudo-random sequences and feedback, as required by their hypothesis, their criticism might have been relevant. But this is not how the tests were done, as they would have seen for themselves if they had read my published papers on the subject.

First, in more than 5,000 of my own trials, the randomization was indeed "structureless," and was carried out by each starer before each trial by tossing a coin (Sheldrake 1999, Tables 1 and 2). The same was true of more than 3,000 trials in German and American schools (Sheldrake 1998). Thus the highly significant positive results in these experiments cannot be "an artifact of pseudo randomization."

Second, when I developed the counterbalanced sequences that Marks and Colwell describe as pseudo-random, I changed the experimental design so that feedback was no longer given to the subjects. Since the pattern-detection hypothesis depends on feedback, it cannot account for the fact that in more than 10,000 trials without feedback there were still highly significant positive results (Sheldrake 1999, Tables 3 and 4).


In spite of their prior assumption that an ability to detect unseen staring must be illusory, both Baker (2000) and Colwell et al. (2000) in their first experiments obtained unexpected positive results consistent with such an ability. They attempted to dismiss these findings with question-begging arguments. In their second experiments, which gave the non-significant results they expected, an investigator with negative expectations acted as the starer. This arrangement provided favorable conditions for experimenter effects, already known to occur in staring experiments (Wiseman and Schlitz 1997). Both Baker and Marks and Colwell also failed to mention a large body of published data that went against their conclusions. In short, their claims were misleading and ill-informed.

To summarize: Sheldrake takes the SI "debunking" and completely shreds it with a devastating recitation of the facts. The hypothesis outlined in the debunking article is completely at variance with the actual data and experimental findings, which Baker and Colwell would have noted if they had carefully read Sheldrake's research before attacking it. I suppose that is the difference between a "debunking", and a scientific investigation. The latter is an attempt to discover the truth, and the former is simply an attempt to win an argument with no particular regard for reality.

In another paper Sheldrake mentions offering to analyze Marks and Colwell's own data in detail and see if it matches their hypothesis of pseudorandom pattern recognition. Not unexpectedly, Marks and Colwell fail to take him up on that offer.

Dr. Sheldrake also wrote a book called, "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals" (Amazon link) In this book he attempts to show that dogs can somehow psychically 'tell' when their owners are coming home. The methodology described by Dr. Sheldrake shows that he didn't even attempt to create a 'double blind' experiment, where neither owners, dogs, nor observers knew when the owner was coming home. Instead he allowed the owners of these dogs to record the observations of their pets. He again used a very small sample size.

Again, Mark displays a lack of understanding of this kind of research and the relevant statistics. Small sample size is a canard here. His is also completely wrong about the experimental design, which involved both "observational" and double-blind and randomized components. The researcher who analyzed the videotape data was blind to the experimental conditions, as was everyone in the house (including the dog). Either Mark hasn't read the studies he is criticizing here, a cardinal sin in science, or he read them sloppily and is misinformed.

Instead of publishing to peer-reviewed media, Dr. Sheldrake writes popular books and makes claims and announcements pitched to the media.

Like many other scientists, Dr. Sheldrake does write popular books in addition to his admirable record of peer reviewed publication credits, including multiple articles in Nature, Planta, and the Journal of Consciousness Studies. I'm sure that Mark is not intending to imply that Francis Crick, Stephen Hawking and John Wheeler are bogus scientists, because of their popular science works, or that Nature, Planta and JCS are bogus journals, right?

His results are based on a small sample size, which is at the very limit of detection of effects.

Again, the relevant statistic here is the number of trials, not "sample size". In the videotaped experiments, there were of 271 trials, and were 122 (45%) correct guesses (p = 10-12). This is astronomically far from being "at the very limit of detection of effects"!

He bases some of his conclusions on anecdotal evidence (for example, allowing a dog's owner to record their observations.)

Any scientist uses anecdotal evidence as a starting point for designing experiments. Sheldrake's experiments absolutely do not rely on "allowing a dog's owner to record their observations", but rather use videotapes, evaluated blindly by a third party, to determine the measured data.

He claims that Quantum Theory can explain psychic phenomena, which is a proposed new law of nature since Quantum Theory describes the subatomic, not macroscopic, universe.

Now Mark is confused. The quantum nature of matter is responsible for many of the properties of the macroscopic world, such as the very most basic fact that atoms take up space. You cannot wall off quantum mechanics and say that it is completely irrelevant to macroscopic reality!

He works in some isolation, well outside the mainstream science community.

Sheldrake works with many other researchers, including avowed "skeptics", and has been published in a large variety of journals as I described above.

What I find most interesting about Dr. Sheldrake's supposed skepticism is his refusal to cooperate with noted skeptic James Randi in Randi's Million Dollar Challenge.

Randi is a showman, not a serious researcher. And he has already established a track-record of distortions trending to outright lies with regards to Rupert Sheldrake's research:

The January 2000 issue of Dog World magazine included an article on a possible sixth sense in dogs, which discussed some of my research. In this article Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, "We at the JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail." No details were given of these tests.

I emailed James Randi to ask for details of this JREF research. He did not reply. He ignored a second request for information too.

I then asked members of the JREF Scientific Advisory Board to help me find out more about this claim. They did indeed help by advising Randi to reply. In an email sent on Februaury 6, 2000 he told me that the tests he referred to were not done at the JREF, but took place "years ago" and were "informal". They involved two dogs belonging to a friend of his that he observed over a two-week period. All records had been lost. He wrote: "I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained. It was rash and improper of me to do so."

Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with the dog Jaytee, a part of which was shown on television. Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home, but did not do so before she set off. In Dog World, Randi stated: "Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by." This is simply not true, and Randi now admits that he has never seen the tape.

And Sheldrake is not the first psi researcher who has uncovered a pattern of untruths from James Randi.

Given Randi's history of distortions and lies, why would any serious psi researcher want to work with him on any experiments?

Psychic Pets - request for information


Researchers at have issued an open call for dogs that know when their owners are coming home.

Many dog owners claim their pets anticipate their arrival by going to wait at a door, window, or driveway. Some claim their dogs do this even when they arrive home unexpectedly, or at odd hours. While some researchers, including Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist, and former Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University have investigated this phenomena, many scientists remain unconvinced that it really occurs. Now, a new website located at is tackling the question through the collaborative efforts of researchers and skeptics.

The researchers are encouraging dog owners who have noticed this behavior in their dogs to take part in the experiments. The original researchers, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman, both support this collaborative re-examination of the experiments, and have called it "the best way forward."

OpenSourceScience is the first scientifically oriented website to bring the power of open source methods to the skeptical examination of controversial areas of science such as telepathy, psi, parapsychology, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and after-life encounters.

Contact OpenSourceScience

The Harp

From Extraordinary Knowing:

The harp that came back. . .

In December of 1991, my daughter's harp was stolen; we got it back. But it came back in a way that irrevocably changed my familiar world of science and rational thinking. It changed the way I go about living in that world. It changed the way I perceive that world and try to make sense out of it. . .

My eleven year old daughter, who'd fallen in love with the harp at age six, had begun performing. She wasn't playing a classic pedal harp but a smaller, extremely valuable instrument built and carved by a master harp maker. After a Christmas concert, her harp was stolen from the theater where she was playing. For two months we went through every conceivable channel trying to locate it: the police, instrument dealers across the country, the American Harp Society newsletters -- even a CBS TV news story. Nothing worked.

Finally, a wise and devoted friend told me: "If you really want that harp back, you should be willing to try anything. Try calling a dowser." The only thing I knew about dowsers was that they were that strange breed who locate underground water with forked sticks. But according to my friend, the "really good" dowsers can locate not just water but lost objects as well.

Finding lost objects with forked sticks? Well, nothing was happening on the police front, and my daughter, spoiled by several years of playing an extraordinary instrument, had found the series of commercial harps we'd rented simply unplayable. So, half-embarrassed but desperate, I decided to take my friend's dare. I asked her if she could locate a really good dowser -- the best, I said. She promptly called the American Society of Dowsers and came back with the phone number of the society's current president: Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville Arkansas.

I called him that day. Harold picked up the phone -- friendly, cheerful, heavy Arkansas accent. I told him I'd heard he could dowse for lost objects and that I'd had a valuable harp stolen in Oakland, California. Could he help locate it?

"Give me a second," he said. "I'll tell you if it's still in Oakland." He paused then: "Well it's still there. Send me a street map of Oakland and I'll locate the harp for you." Skeptical -- but what, after all, did I have to lose? -- I promptly overnighted him a map. Two days later he called back. "Well, I got that harp located," he said. "It's the second house on the right on D__ street, just off L__ avenue."

I'd never heard of either street. But I did like the sound of the man's voice -- whoever he was. And I don't like backing down on a dare. Why not drive to the house he'd identified? At least I'd get the address. I looked on an Oakland map and found the neighborhood. It was miles from anywhere I'd ever been. I got in my car, drove into Oakland, located the house, wrote down the number, called the police, and told them I'd gotten a tip that the harp might be at that house. Not good enough for a search warrant, they said. They were going to close the case -- there was no way this unique, portable and highly marketable item hadn't already been sold; it was gone forever.

But I found I couldn't quite let it go. Was it the dare? Was it my admiration for the friend who'd instigated the whole thing? Was it my devastated daughter? Or was it just that I had genuinely liked the sound of that voice on the other end of the line?

I decided to post flyers in a two-block area around the house, offering a reward for the harp's return. It was a crazy idea, but why not? I put up flyers in those two blocks, and only those two blocks. I was embarrassed enough about what I was doing to tell just a couple of close friends about it.

Three days later, my phone rang. A man's voice told me he'd seen a flyer outside his house describing a stolen harp. He said it was exactly the harp his next-door neighbor had recently obtained and showed him. He wouldn't give me his name or number, but offered to get the harp returned to me. And two weeks later, after a series of circuitous telephone calls, he told me to meet a teenage boy at 10:00 PM, in the rear parking lot of an all-night Safeway. He looked at me and said, "The harp?" I nodded. Within minutes, the harp was in the back of my station wagon and I drove off.

Twenty-five minutes later, as I turned into my driveway, I had the thought, This changes everything.