Friday, August 31, 2007

Interesting stuff. . .

Eteponge has a promising new blog with a fascinating overview of the accuracy of psychic detection. An area I have not personally done much investigation into, but worthy of study.

A perfect example. . .

This article is an absolutely perfect example of my thesis.

Atrociously awful, biased materialist propaganda masquerading as "science writing".


The primacy of observation over theory

If I had to summarize what AMNAP is about, it is that observations are more important than theories. The great failing of all dogmatisms, is that they develop theories about the nature of the world, what is possible, and what is not, and then filter through the facts in order to fit them to whatever theory is currently popular.

Stephen Braude writes quite eloquently about that here:

As far as parapsychology is concerned, some would say, “I can’t accept that a table levitated (or that someone received information directly from a remote location, or influenced a random number generator by thought alone). It simply makes no sense (or is overwhelmingly improbable) in terms of our scientific knowledge. . .

Besides (and even more to the point), it’s completely obvious that we can know that something is the case without knowing why it’s the case. . .

Many critics, then, seem to have it backwards. Theoretical speculation requires, from the beginning, careful and systematic observation. Without the initial accumulation and systematization of observed facts, scientists won’t even begin to know what they’re theorizing about. Moreover, as the history of science demonstrates, we often think we know how to explain observed facts until better explanations come along. So obviously, our currently preferred explanations never provided much (if anything) in the way of additional assurance that the phenomena were real. On the contrary, no matter what science eventually takes the phenomena to be, their reality was our starting point, the source of our puzzlement and our urge to find an explanation.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Off Topic. . .

One of the things I enjoy doing is landscape photography. I've put up a "real" website for the photography, if you are interested in that sort of thing. . .

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Greatest obstacle. . .

"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge." - Daniel Boorstin

Pathologies in investigating borderlands phenomena

Michael Prescott has just written a masterful essay on the pathologies that some "investigators" display when examining phenomena on the borderlands of what is known. . .

Go read it.

Avoiding Messiness

According to M. Szlazak on the Skeptiko Forum, clinicians are now running away from meta-analyses in favor of single large-scale experiments to test and make a "final resolution" on questions of clinical effectiveness. He cites this paper and this open letter in support of his position.

Frankly, this does not surprise me at all. After all, the desire to have a simple worldview with black and white answers to every question is very tempting for human beings. And when different researchers conduct the same kinds of experiment, they often get contradictory results, or wildly different effect sizes, eg:

So it is not at all surprising that many people, especially a self-selected group of people who tend towards systematizing and simplifying reality, want to use methods that avoid raising difficult questions.

If the psi hypothesis is true, then the beliefs of experimenters can have a strong result on the results of their experiments, even when the experiments are conducted double-blind, most particularly when the overall experiment is statistical in nature and the experimental subjects are extremely complex and non-deterministic. Medical clinical trials certainly fall into this realm. Given the demonstrated reality that the beliefs of experimenters do effect the results of their experiments, it is certainly possible that psi correlations might help account for this (as opposed to experimenter fraud, biased errors, biased conclusions, etc. which materialists believe account for funding effects on experimental outcome).

Given the inevitable messiness of real science and the often varying results of experimental trials, it should be expected that some people want to avoid all those questions being raised by setting "rules" for science along the lines of what Topher Cooper suggested, tongue in cheek:

1) Don't reach a conclusion.
2) Completely ignore the data and just go with your faith.
3) Kill anyone who ever looks like they might ever do a second test of any hypothesis of interest.

But, of course, a committment to truth and reality demands that we face all of the facts, not just those that confirm our world-view. So long live multiple independent labs and experimenters. Long live meta-analysis!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Materialism as Meme

As I've discussed before, many people assume that materialism is essentially the same thing as a scientific world view. In fact, materialism is only one possible belief system about the world, and one that definitely struggles with certain findings and observations. Like other conceptual memes, materialism continuously seeks to propagate itself at the expense of competing mental frameworks. In reality, much of what purports to be "science reporting" is instead just "materialism meme reporting". Here's a great example of such (H/T TDG):

New virtual-reality experiments show the brain can be tricked into believing it's outside the body, lending credence to the strange claims of some patients and shedding light on how the brain might generate its "self-image."

Notice two things. The first is that these experiments are supposed to be about tricking "the brain". The clear implication is that "the brain" and "the person" are identical and interchangable concepts. This is practically de rigueur for science reporting and is considered much more scientific than talking about people or selves (presumably in imitation of the Churchlands). The second is that this experiment somehow explains the "strange claims of some patients" that they believe they are "outside the body". That is an obvious reference to out-of-body experiences associated with the Near-Death Experience. Clearly the "science writer" is assuming the materialist metaphysics here without the least bit of question.

The point of this kind of science article is not really to discover the truth about near-death experiences, but rather to attack other interpretations of the NDE and to proselytize the materialistic one. It doesn't really matter to materialists that this research actually does not address the most important fact about near-death experiences -- that they often result in veridical perception. The point is not to actually address that kind of evidence, but instead to come up with some kind of nice-sounding way explain away the NDE while completely ignoring those aspects of the NDE that contradict materialism, to defend the materialism meme from alternative concepts, allow materialists to feel smarter and better-informed than those 'superstitious and backwards' people who think that the NDE has a non-materialist explanation, and in effect to "twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones".

Next time you read an popular media article about any kind of psychology or consciousness research, look for the key words indicating an unquestioning assumption of materialism and mind = brain. You are almost certain to find it.

Marcel Cairo and Alex Tsakiris team up again. . .

Definitely worth tuning in to, and calling in to the show. This time Alex is interviewing Marcel. Call in with your tough questions!

Tuesday August 28, 4PM PDT / 7PM EDT.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the show will not be aired live because of scheduling conflicts. So you can't call in. Darn! However you can certainly email Marcel or Alex with your questions this weekend before they record the show.

Great interview with Deborah Blum

The Daily Grail has an extremely informative interview with Ghost Hunters author and Pulitzer prize-winning author Deborah Blum. Here are a few extracts:

TDG: . . .I'm interested to know why you concentrated on the 'William James era' of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Were you lead into the topic accidentally when originally researching James, or is there something about this period of psychical research which made it stand out to you as a writer?

DB: First by accident, then by plan. I was researching the history of psychology for an earlier book (on the science of affection) and I stumbled across some references to William James losing his mind and getting caught up in spiritualism. Other psychologists were just furious with him, angry enough, that I began to wonder why.

As it turned out, they were angry because he was such a leader in the field, they were afraid he would lead the field astray. And was what led me to concentrate on the Victorian period. Because it turned out to be the one time when some of the best scientists in the world - James, Charles Richet and John Strutt (both Nobel Prize winners), Oliver Lodge, a pioneer in wireless communication - were willing to risk their careers to explore supernatural science.

They were so smart, such good researchers, I wanted to know what they found. . .

DB: Here's the blessing and curse of mainstream science. It's the most powerful investigative tool ever invented. It has succeeded by following a very strict set of rules for "proof" of a phenomenon. That phenomenon, for instance, must be predictable, testable, replicable, confirmable. An example of this is the freezing temperature of water (phase change from liquid to solid at 32 degrees fahrenheit.) I can predict this and I (and you and the entire population of the world) can repeat and confirm it ad infinitum.

So far, paranormal phenomena don't follow those rules. They're not predictable in any consistent sense, and rarely perfectly replicable. So - and this William James complained about bitterly - mainstream science has responded by declaring them nonsense and the scientists who pursue them as pseudo-scientists. The problem with that is that our scientific rules may prevent us from trying new approaches, considering alternative ways to measure reality - in other words, box us into a very limited world.

Bottom line, science plays it safe and ruthlessly defends its limits. Totally human and - here's the scandalous part - punishes those who try to make the universe a little more open. . .

TDG: A number of those 'skeptical' reviews of Ghost Hunters have suggested that your 'balanced position' shows that you did not read up on the techniques of fraudulent mediumship, and hence your account was overly credulous (James Randi himself made this point in his newsletter). Can you clarify as to whether you researched things like cold reading, and the other methods used by conjurors and charlatans?

DB: Yes, I knew I was going to get that reaction and, candidly, I thought I could live with it. I'm an obsessive over-researcher so I looked at cold readings, muscle readings, the wonderful fraudulent devices used by mediums, the works. But what made the story interesting, worthwhile, wasn't the fraud. Do we need another book debunking dead mediums?

The whole point of my book - the one I knew would get me in trouble with the Randis of the world - was that possibility exists, that some things remain genuinely fascinatingly explicable, and that there are still questions that deserve to be answered in the realms of the supernatural. Even if we only learn that "supernatural" is the wrong word, that the real answer is that we simply haven't found the limits of the natural world yet.
. . .

TDG: To finish, the tough question - but you can keep your answer extremely short, no need for an explanation. In light of your experience in writing Ghost Hunters, if you (personally) had to answer the question with only a yes or a no: is there something beyond death?

DB: I don't know. But I will tell you that before I researched the book, my answer would have been No. So I'm glad I took the time and trouble - it's made the world a more interesting place for me. . .

This interview is very much worth reading in full.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Irrational beliefs

Religion is a popular target for self-identified "rationalists". This essay by George Mason economist Bryan Caplan attacks religious beliefs as being arrived at through particularly irrational processes. But I think we will find that Caplan's criteria are equally applicable to the non-religious belief of reductionistic materialism and the non-existence of psi phenomena. Let's take a look at the first part of his essay:

To tell people that their non-religious beliefs are just a religion is an insult. Why is it an insult? There isn't any nice way to answer, so I'll be blunt. It is an insult because the way that people form religious beliefs is so intellectually irresponsible that their conclusions are almost guaranteed to be false. People:

· accept their religious beliefs with little or no evidence

· accept religious beliefs that are contrary to the evidence

· accept religious beliefs without studying competing views

· are certain about religious beliefs that are dubious at best, and

· accept their religious beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting.

Forming non-religious beliefs in a religious way is irrational because forming any beliefs in a religious way is irrational.

Now let's examine these criticisms in detail and see if they apply to reductionistic materialism and the denial of psi phenomena:

1) Do most reductionistic materialists "accept their . . . beliefs with little or no evidence" or "accept . . . beliefs that are contrary to the evidence"? I think that is the case. Reductionist materialists who deny psi phenomena are real discard a large body of research pointing towards a non-material aspect of mind and consciousness. They also ignore a vast body of anecdotal evidence to this effect, often extremely well corroborated.

2) Do most reductionistic materialists "accept . . . beliefs without studying competing views"? I think the answer to that could easily be "yes". There are certainly exceptions, like Andrew Endersby, but even the designated skeptics in debates about psi are often poorly read on the research they are attacking. I see no evidence that the run-of-the-mill reductionistic materialist has read books like Entangled Minds, Best Evidence or Irreducible Mind, nor that they have read the studies from researchers like Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake, Ian Stevenson and the like.

3) Are reductionistic materialists "certain about . . .beliefs that are dubious at best"? I think so. I've discussed many topics with reductionistic materialists on a number of blogs and fora. These kinds of statements are typical: "ghosts are nonsense", "of course mind is reducible to brain states", "death is the end, extinction, annihilation". Very well documented psi phenomena suggests that at least some doubt is warranted about these positions, but instead many materialists express absolute certitude in their uninformed position.

4) Do reductionistic materialists "accept their . . . beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting"? For this question we have to look beyond the surface of the question. Certainly there are discomforting aspects to materialism, such as the nihilism that many of its adherents seem to feel is the ultimate truth of reality. However, looking through a sociological lens, a straightforward answer appears. Materialism provides the opportunity to distance oneself from the beliefs of the masses of "deluded" people and join the club of the wise, intelligent, culturally powerful and unquestioned leaders of academia. So from that perspective it is clear that materialism is quite a comfortable position indeed. I think B. Alan Wallace stated it quite nicely in his Skeptiko interview:

So this is what bothers me about many of the so-called skeptics. What they're doing is defending the status quo, which doesn't take a whole lot of guts, frankly. The status quo, where so much money, power and status is, of materialism. And so no skepticism is required there at all, and so standing up in front with a whole team of scientists behind one all agreeing on the same metaphysical worldview, and then saying "we're skeptics", they're about as skeptical as Pat Robertson or Billy Graham. . .

In short, I think I have demonstrated that the criticisms that Caplan made against religious beliefs apply quite nicely to the unquestioned metaphysical materialism which holds sway in academia. However denunciations of religion are very popular within that circle, while questioning materialism is practically never done. And that's really too bad. . .

Materialism as a reaction to religion

Much of what is labelled as "science" or "scientific" today is actually simply materialism. In many minds materialism and science are believed to be the same thing, but of course they are not. Materialism is a philosophical belief system that all of reality can be reduced to the physically measurable while science is a methodology for unearthing correlations and relationships between observables. My own definition of the "spirit of science" is that it is to systematically place observations above beliefs, while materialists attempt to make all observations fit onto the procrustean bed of their pre-existing beliefs, discarding those facts which refuse to be cut down to size.

One of the most relevant and historically obvious observations about materialism (and have no doubt, materialism is the unofficial doctrine of most official institutions of science) is that its prevalence today owes a great deal to the historical relationship of conflict between scientists and the religious institution of the Catholic church at the dawn of the Enlightenment. It is not difficult to see that today, the identity of a great many of the most influential materialists is caught up in a conflict with religion and religious beliefs.

This blog barely discusses religion, but if you read prominent and high-traffic science blogs written by materialists, religion is very often front and center on the agenda. On the one hand, you have blogs like GNXP, where Razib continually pokes and prods at religious beliefs as an odd curiosity of the human mind (although of course never subjecting his own materialism to the same kind of analysis). But even more common (and much more popular according to site traffic) is a "demonology" approach to religion, as displayed by P.Z. Myers antipathic Pharyngula blog (by far the highest traffic blog for Seed's scienceblogs). This is also the kind of analysis of religion we see in books like Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, and Stengers's God: the failed hypothesis. Religious belief as a toxic mental delusion and pathology.

This same kind of combatative attitude is very easily seen in many articles on science written in mainstream publications. For example, there is an incessant parade of articles meant to bash religious beliefs like the soul, free will and God.

All of this attention on religion by materialists serves a very obvious purpose of maintaining group identity by praising the in-group beliefs (these things don't exist, only atoms in motion and the void) and poking fun at the out-group beliefs (religion). After all, materialists already disbelieve in these things, so why the constant harping on them? It is a way to construct a sociological identity of the praiseworthy against the intellectually condemned. A very clear and obvious reaction to religious beliefs.

Here is an invitation from AMNAP to all the religion-obsessed. Move on. Get over it. Start constructing your beliefs based on the observations, instead of constantly reacting to mythologies from hundreds or thousands of years ago. . .

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Volume 1, Issue 1 of Antimatters published

Congratulations to Ulrich Mohrhoff and his collaborators for publishing the first issue of AntiMatters.

This journal looks to be of significant interest to readers of AMNAP. . .

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

New Skeptiko forum

Jacob of has created an official forum for the Skeptiko podcast. He also has other forums for discussion of psi-related topics.

Thanks Jacob for providing this service!

UPDATE: Jacob brought to my attention that the second link was incorrect. Fixed now.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"As skeptical as Pat Robertson or Billy Graham". . .

I really enjoyed listening to this Skeptiko podcast with B. Alan Wallace. Here's a brief quotation from Alan (emphasis added by me):

The author of "The Discovers" wrote: "The greatest impediment in the whole history of science to progress is not ignorance, but the illusions of knowledge". Thinking that we know something that we've actually assumed. Susan Blackmore's words there, I think in many respects. . . have expressed illusions of knowledge rather than actual knowledge. . . In this regard her statements are enormous impediments to knowledge rather than knowledge. She said we must start with what we know of reality, and then she goes on to this whole sequence of things she says we know [but don't]. . .

What do we know about what happens to consciousness at death?. . . Do we have any means of measuring the presence of consciousness? The answer is no. . . Is there any scientific definition . . .of consciousness? The answer is no. We don't know whether insect-eating plants are conscious. We don't know whether coral are conscious. What are the causes of consciousness? We don't know. . . This is a massive amount of ignorance. . . If we take that as a starting point. . . how on earth with confidence can we say we know anything about what happens to consciousness at death with all that ignorance? And so to start off and say any spiritual practice has to take place in terms of what we know, very good. But why don't we be a bit skeptical about what people think they know as opposed to what has actually been demonstrated in a rigorous scientific fashion? So this is what bothers me about many of the so-called skeptics. What they're doing is defending the status quo, which doesn't take a whole lot of guts, frankly. The status quo, where so much money, power and status is, of materialism. And so no skepticism is required there at all, and so standing up in front with a whole team of scientists behind one all agreeing on the same metaphysical worldview, and then saying "we're skeptics", they're about as skeptical as Pat Robertson or Billy Graham. . . I just don't see much difference in the skepticism of a religious fundamentalist and the skepticism of a hard-core committed scientific materialist. . .

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Coal-colored glasses?

Watch Michael Prescott go to town on a positional skeptic's review of Blum's seminal Ghost Hunters.

Remote Viewing study

This remote viewing study was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration 14.1. Here is the abstract:

Abstract—Remote viewing (RV) is a perceptual ability whereby individuals are able to describe and experience objects, pictures, and locations that are blocked from ordinary perception, either by distance, shielding, or time. RV is usually carried out as a team effort, consisting of a viewer who is attempting to describe a target, and an interviewer who assists the viewer in exacting images and sensations from his of her subconscious process. We report a RV experiment carried out at a conference in Arco, Northern Italy, with a class of 24 participants, many of whom were healers and “energy workers.” Based on previous work of the authors, great attention was given to creating a feeling of community and coherence of intention within the group during the threeday class. In the fourth of the five sessions of the class, a formal, RV experiment was conducted with class members working in pairs, wherein each person served alternately as viewer and interviewer. Viewers were asked to describe a picture of an outdoor scene, encased in an opaque, sealed envelope, which they would be shown immediately after the session. The interviewer then was directed to take the viewer’s sketches and written impressions to the front of the room and rank order the material (from 1 to 4) against the four possible pictures from a preset target package. In this blind-ranking protocol, 6 first-place matches would be expected by chance from the 24 viewers. Instead, 14 first-place matches were achieved. The binomial probability of this outcome is 5 ´ 10- 4, with an effect size Z/(N)1/2= 0.64

Below are photographs of two of the remote viewing session drawings that were blindly matched with the correct target, and the target and decoy photos.

Parapsychology dispute

Looks like two of George Hansen's initial blog posts amount to swipes at Dean Radin's statistical credibility.

Disputes in academia are nothing new, but thanks to the internet, and the fact that both Radin and Hansen are bloggers, this one has the potential to be a lot more public than many previous dust-ups in parapsychology. . .

UPDATE: Radin has addressed Hansen's critique here. H/T Book Surgeon, in the comments. . .

Monday, August 6, 2007

O/T Rant about obnoxious website behavior. . .

If you are distributing prerecorded audio content online for people to listen to, you need to distribute MP3 files. End of story. Not any of the myriads of protected formats like Real, various flash-based players, etc.

When I want to listen to internet content, I want to download it and listen to it later, usually while driving home from the office. And many people like to listen to audio programs on their iPods or other MP3 players. The protected / streaming formats do not allow this.

I consider seeing a site with audio content where MP3 files are not provided as evidence that that site is completely clueless about how people wish to use the internet. For a media organization like Wisconsin Public Radio to offend in this manner is simply beyond acceptable.

Get with the program, folks!

A real treat. . .

Tomorrow (Tuesday August 7th), Marcel Cairo has a real treat for us: parapsychology researcher and author of The Trickster and the Paranormal, George Hansen.

Hansen's book is a must-read for those interested in psi phenomena and why they inhabit the murky and ill-defined edges of our knowledge and institutions. Don't miss it.

As always, this show will begin at 4:00 PM PDT, 7:00 PM EDT.

UPDATE: The show is now scheduled for tomorrow, August 7th.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Remote Viewing

Remote Viewing is a psi technique where some people claim to be able to perceive aspects or features of some location through some kind of non-physical perceptual process. Of currently living Remote Viewers, Joe McMoneagle is probably the most famous.

In 1994 the ABC news show "Put to the Test" created an informal test for McMoneagle.

Skeptoicriticized McMoneagle's interpretations of the scene, but I found their critisms rather strained. McMoneagle's drawing was of a river with straight sides, and a bridge, which were obvious matches for the target site and not the other three sites. A few of their criticisms were very misleading. . .

She's looking up at it. This would apply best to the treehouse, the waterslide, or the Water Wall. There was really nothing to look up at at the dock.

Did the skeptoid commentor actually watch the entire video? First of all, McMoneagle said "There's something tall at the target. She keeps looking up at it". The video footage clearly shows her repeatedly looking up at the bridge, which looks to be over 100 feet tall. For the skeptoid commentor to make this misleading comment is ridiculous. Of course, he is correct that the other sites also have something tall at the target site, and if they were chosen it is likely that the individual at the target site would have looked up at them as well.

She's standing on an incline. She was not standing on an incline, and there were no apparent inclines at any of the four locations.

McMoneagle never said this. He said "the actual target itself is more on an incline". And the bridge, the most prominent visual feature of the target site and target photo, is certainly on an incline up from ground level to high above the river, curving back down to an incline on the opposite bank.

There's a river or something riverlike nearby, with manmade improvements.
Houston is a famous river town, so this was a pretty good bet. It applies equally well to the waterslide and to the dock.

I saw no evidence in the photographs or video footage that the other two sites fit nearly as well with this description. Perhaps they were near a river, but the target photo and video footage from ABC made it clear that the important aspects of the other potential targets was something completely different. Certainly the dock is the best possible fit for the illustrations and commentary McMoneagle provided during the program.

I argue that the target person could have been at any one of the four locations, and Joe's psychic predictions would have seemed equally impressive. Joe made numerous sketches, but the only two that they showed were a sketch of a squiggly river (the river at the dock is between straight cement seawalls) and a vague triangular shape, which they interpreted as similar to a crane on a barge when seen from a certain angle.

The river McMoneagle drew was clearly squiggly in the distance, but the part in the foreground was drawn with completely straight banks, which fit the manmade straight lines of the dock area perfectly.

In addition, ABC news showed many more than two sketches. Again I find myself questioning whether Skeptoid bothered to watch the entire video carefully?

An interesting video, certainly not a scientific test, and not proof of anything, but I found it intriguing and entertaining.

I'll address a more formal study of remote viewing soon here on AMNAP.

UPDATE: Brian in the comments questions whether the woman was looking up or not.

Based on these stills from the video, I would say it appears to me that she was looking "up" at the bridge, which is very large and a hundred feet or more high. Now if Joe had suggested that she was looking "straight up" that would be obviously inaccurate.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Interesting test of mediumship. . .

Michael Tymn writes about the "Newspaper Tests". . .

H/T Michael Prescott, who also writes about the same tests. . .