What Gorilla?: Why Some Can't See Psychic Phenomena


Imagine
you're watching a basketball game. Your favorite team is wearing white and the
other team is in black. In the midst of the action, someone in a dark gorilla
suit calmly walks to the center of the court, waves to the crowd, then walks
off the court. Do you think you would notice this peculiar event? Most people might
say yes. Most people would be wrong.

Our
perceptual system unconsciously filters out the vast majority of information
available to us. Because of this filtering process, we actually experience only
a tiny trickle of information, by some estimates a trillionth of what is actually
out there. And yet from that trickle our minds construct what we expect to see.
So when we pay attention to our favorite white-shirted basketball team, the
likelihood of clearly seeing darker objects moving about is substantially
reduced. That includes even obvious objects, like gorillas. Psychologists call
this phenomenon "inattentional blindness," and it's just one of many ways in
which our prior beliefs, interests and expectations shape the way we perceive
the world and cause us to overlook the obvious.

Because
of these blind spots, some common aspects of human experience literally cannot
be seen by those who've spent decades embedded within the Western scientific
worldview. That worldview, like any set of cultural beliefs inculcated from
childhood, acts like the blinders they put on skittish horses to keep them calm. Between
the blinders we see with exceptional clarity, but seeing beyond the blinders is
not only exceedingly difficult, after a while it's easy to forget that your
vision is restricted.

An
important class of human experience that these blinders exclude is psychic
phenomena, those commonly reported spooky experiences, such as telepathy and
clairvoyance, that suggest we are deeply interconnected in ways that transcend the
ordinary senses and our everyday notions of space and time.

Exclusion
of these phenomena creates a Catch 22: Human experiences credibly reported
throughout history, across all cultures, and at all educational levels, repeatedly
tell us that psychic phenomena exist. But Big Science — especially as portrayed
in prominent newspapers and popular magazines like Scientific American — says it doesn't.

Well
then, is this gorilla in the basketball game, or not? One way to find out is to
study the question using the highly effective tools of science while leaving
the worldview assumptions behind. That
way we can study the question without prejudice, like watching a basketball
game without preferring either the white or black team. Neutral observers
are much more likely to spot a gorilla, if one is indeed present.

This form
of investigation has been going on for over a century, and despite official
denials, the jury is in: Some psychic phenomena do exist. But like blindingly
obvious gorillas, not everyone can see them. (Actually, like the majority of
the general public, many scientists do have these experiences, but as in the
parable of the Emperor's New Clothes, fledgling science students quickly learn
in college that it is not politically expedient to talk about it.)

Here's
an example of not seeing. In the July/August 2008 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (the Playboy of the enthusiastic debunker), neuroscientist
Amir Raz and psychologist Ray Hyman describe their impressions of an
invitation-only scientific meeting held on "anomalous cognition" at the
University of British Columbia (UBC) in July 2007. Anomalous cognition is a
neutral euphemism for psychic or "psi" phenomena, one that avoids the connotation
of séances and ghostbusting associated with the touchy p-words. I was a
co-organizer of the UBC meeting. Sixty prominent scientists and physicians were
invited to the meeting, including a couple of Nobel Laureates, representing a
variety of disciplines and perspectives.

Not surprisingly, given the skeptical
focus of the magazine in which their essays appeared, Raz and Hyman both
concluded that they were not persuaded by what they heard at the meeting, that nothing
interesting was going on, and that the scientific pursuit of anomalous
cognition is akin to a misguided search for the Tooth Fairy (Raz's term).

Now, let me preface what I'm
about to say by first noting that I respect Raz's and Hyman's opinions and I'm
glad that they attended the UBC meeting. There is always room for critical
debate in science; as President Dubya once said in another context, "Bring it
on." But what I am concerned about is that sometimes holding a fruitful debate stalls
before it can get off the ground because one side regards the topic as fantasy.
And so to make a point I'll be ruthless in pointing out problems with these two
authors' opinions.

One of Raz's principal
complaints was that he would "be curious to see compelling scientific
demonstrations of psi (i.e., a string of multiple successful experiments by
several independent investigators producing lawful and replicable outcomes). Alas,
I have found none to date."

When I first read that statement
I felt like I increasingly do these days when driving past a gas station. What
did that sign say? A gallon of gas costs what?
Didn't we discuss several classes of repeatable experiments at the UBC meeting?
For example, I presented an overview of "presentiment" experiments, an unconscious
precognitive effect that has been independently and successfully replicated
numerous times. (Nearly all of the 20 experiments I'm aware of to date have produced
results in the predicted direction, and of those 10 were independently
statistically significant.)

And among researchers who have closely
studied the psi literature, the vast majority have little doubt that something
interesting is going on, something not easily attributable to chance or to any known
conventional artifacts. These effects are in principle no more difficult to
demonstrate than the efficacy of new pharmaceutical drugs or medical
procedures. Such effects tend to be small in magnitude, they are highly
reactive to the psychosocial context and other environmental factors, and they
take substantial amounts of careful data collection to overcome the statistical
noise generated by dozens of poorly understood interactive factors. But they
are real, and they are repeatable in the laboratory.

Real and repeatable, and yet what
Raz meant by a "compelling" demonstration does not exist for him, at least not
yet. When one regards evidence from a position where the claimed phenomenon is viewed
as exceedingly unlikely, like a gorilla on a basketball court, then the evidence
required to change one's mind must be super-powerful. Not merely a string of
successful experiments by independent investigators, as Raz calls for, but effects
that are robust enough to be easily repeatable by anyone, anywhere, any time,
and highly stable over long periods of time. And better yet, the effect should
be predicted by a theory that doesn't do much violence to orthodox dogma about
how the world works.

This is what I call the "UFO landing
on the White House lawn" type of evidence. Alas, such robust evidence is rarely
available when dealing with phenomena at the bleeding edge of the known. And
it's true that the evidence for psi today does not quite achieve the status of a
Special News Bulletin interrupting the season finale of Lost by reporting a UFO landing on the White House lawn (would anyone believe such a story, even if it were true?). Instead, the evidence
available today for psi is more like a formation of UFOs repeatedly flying over
the US Capitol, captured on film and spotted simultaneously by radar, jet
pilots, and hundreds of witnesses on the ground. Well, surely that would convince a few people.

Oh, wait. Such a UFO sighting actually
did occur in Washington DC in 1952. All the major newspapers carried the story.
But who remembers that today?

Perhaps Ray Hyman does. Hyman earned
his PhD in 1953 at John Hopkins University, near Washington DC. Today, Hyman is
a retired psychology professor who has been one of the premier academic critics
of parapsychology for over 50 years. In his essay in Skeptical Inquirer, his major complaint was the lack of easy
repeatability of psi effects. To support his claim he cited "a psi proponent
reported a meta-analysis of [a class of telepathy experiments] with an average
effect size that significantly differed from zero with odds of more than a trillion
to one while another meta-analysis … concluded that the average effect size
was consistent with zero." (A
meta-analysis is a quantitative review of many similar experiments.) He
bolstered this assertion by citing a few parapsychologists who have acknowledged
difficulties in producing "UFO on the White House lawn" form of evidence. From
this viewpoint, he concluded that parapsychology does not deserve serious
scientific attention. He's been repeating this opinion for 50 years.

Except there's a small problem.
The parapsychologists mentioned by Hyman were expressing well known
difficulties in producing robust repeatable effects on demand. But none of them
doubt that the preponderance of evidence strongly indicates the presence of
genuine anomalies. Hyman's selective reporting is akin to dismissing as
worthless a clearly visible formation of UFOs flying over the US Capitol, because
of a stubborn insistence that the only acceptable data are UFOs landing on the
White House lawn precisely at high noon, followed by alien pilots emerging from
their crafts, offering tea and biscuits to the President and Vice President of
the United States, and then soberly shooting the VP in the face with a projectile
weapon (due to regarding that act as a sign of diplomatic friendship, having
unfortunately misinterpreted a news story regarding the Vice President's shooting
his friend in the face — but I digress).

There's another problem, one
more substantial. Hyman's damning denouement was that not all meta-analyses of telepathy
experiments were judged to be positive. By mentioning the meta-analysis where
the "average effect size was consistent with zero," he reinforced his contention
that telepathy experiments are slippery and unrepeatable, and not to be trusted.
The study he cited appeared in a 1999 publication by British psychologists
Julie Milton from the University of Edinburgh and Richard Wiseman from the
University of Hertfordshire. They analyzed a selected subset of telepathy experiments,
ended up with a positive but statistically non-significant result, and then
quite reasonably concluded that nothing interesting was going on. Well, as I
said, there's always room for debate. Except when conclusions are based on a
mistake. It turns out that their analysis was miscalculated.

Jessica Utts, a professor of
statistics at the University of California at Irvine, explained at the UBC
meeting that Milton and Wiseman had employed a technique that underestimated
the actual telepathy effect. If they had used the same (simpler and more powerful)
technique employed in all of the other published telepathy meta-analyses, they
would have reached the same conclusion that everyone else did: There is indeed significant
positive and repeatable evidence for telepathy obtained under controlled laboratory
conditions.

Hyman was in the audience
during Utts' presentation. I don't know why he choose to ignore her analysis,
although if he had acknowledged it
that would have neutralized his own arguments. So perhaps its exclusion is not
so puzzling.

Speculations aside, one thing
is crystal clear: It can take a White House lawn party to overcome one's
long-held beliefs, so if nothing obviously wrong can be found in a reported
experiment, skeptics will still worry if the experiment was conducted by "believers,"
because they imagine that believers would not be as rigorously careful as
"non-believers." Indeed, fervent skeptics are quite vocal in asserting that non-believers
cannot get the same results in these experiments. Unfortunately, the fact is
that skeptics hardly ever conduct these studies, and on the scant occasions
when they do, they rarely publish them in sufficient detail to evaluate the
results. So we really don't know whether the suspicion is justified or not.

That is, until recently. In
2005 two keenly skeptical psychologists, Edward Delgado-Romero from the
University of Georgia and George Howard from the University of Notre Dame, conducted
the same type of telepathy experiment under consideration here. To their
chagrin, they not only obtained a significant positive outcome after conducting
a series of eight studies, but their results were perfectly in alignment with
the earlier meta-analytic estimates. That is, based on thousands of previous
trials, it is possible to estimate the "hit rate" one should get when running a
standard telepathy experiment. Delgado-Romero and Howards obtained exactly that value. To their credit,
they published their results.

But their article also included
an astounding twist: They ended up rejecting their own experimental evidence
based on a single additional study they conducted, which they based on an ad hoc, untested design they proposed,
and which ultimately resulted in a statistically significant negative outcome! Strong negative
outcomes are just as important statistically speaking, and just as unlikely to
occur by chance, as strong positive outcomes. Both indicate that something
interesting is going on.

Another way of illustrating the
invisibility of gorillas is by revealing an asymmetry in how psi experiments
are reported in newspapers. In January 2008, newspapers around the world hailed
the first conclusive test for telepathy conducted by two Harvard University
researchers. According to the Boston
Globe
: "Brain scan tests fail to support validity of ESP. Research on
parapsychology is largely taboo in academia, but two Harvard scientists
recently set out to settle, once and for all, the age-old question: Is
extrasensory perception, or ESP, real? Their sophisticated experiment answers:
No, at least, not as far as they can tell using high-tech brain scanners to
detect neural evidence of it."

Finally. Once and for all. A sophisticated
magnetic resonance imaging brainscanner was used (technically, an fMRI), for the first time, to answer this
age-old question. The high-tech "no" answer seems conclusive unless you read
the actual article, which reported that one of 16 tests conducted showed a stupendously
significant outcome exactly in alignment with what was predicted if psi were
real. But the authors then took pains to explain why that result was probably
an artifact, and so the newspapers didn't mention that one intriguing outcome.
(It also makes one question why they employed an experimental design which
allowed positive results to be explained away so easily.)

But the study was conducted at Harvard, for goodness sake, so surely
that's the last word on ESP. After all, for the first time ever Harvard
scientists used one of those expensive and mysterious fMRI brainscanners to
peer deep inside the brain, and they didn't see any psi in there. End of story,
no?

Well, no. Was this really the
first psi study conducted using an fMRI? No, it wasn't even the second such
study. Or the third. Or fourth. Or fifth. It was the sixth. And all of the earlier
experiments, all conducted since 2000, showed significant evidence for psi
effects. Somehow the newspapers overlooked this, despite the fact that most of
those studies are freely available in an instant via PubMed.gov, the National
Institutes of Health massive online bibliography of scientific articles related
to health and healing.

I could continue along the same
vein ad nauseum when it comes to how scientific evidence for psi is often
ignored or distorted beyond recognition. Unfortunately, there are countless other
tales of ignoring other invisible gorillas at the frontiers of knowledge. They
include serious scientific arguments that global warming is not being caused by
human activities, analyses suggesting that HIV does not cause AIDS, repeatable
electrochemical-nuclear reactions once known as "cold-fusion," credible reports
of UFOs, and so on. All of these ideas encounter strong sociopolitical
resistance in academia, so credible counter-arguments are difficult to locate
and even more difficult to discuss in scientific forums unless you have a
phalanx of beefy bodyguards watching your back. One of the best sources of
information about these "frontier" science topics is the Journal
of Scientific Exploration
, a peer-reviewed
multidisciplinary journal published by the Society for Scientific Exploration.

Without belaboring the point,
such tales expose a skeleton in the closet of Big Science. From the popular
perspective, science is portrayed as a flawlessly rational enterprise, where
accumulating evidence slowly but surely overcomes stubborn skepticism. In
reality, science is like any other human activity, and as such, emotions always
trump reason. There is as least as much pig-headedness and motivated
inattention in science as in politics and religion.

Given the non-rational skeleton,
will mainstream science ever be prepared to admit that psychic phenomena warrants
serious investigation? I believe the answer is yes. Acceptance someday is inevitable.
We are dealing with human experiences reported since the dawn of human history,
experiences that do not go away in tightly controlled laboratory tests using
the most sophisticated experimental tools and designs. So some of these phenomena will eventually become integrated into the
mainstream. Exactly when I cannot say. Perhaps one to five decades.

Will this happen because the accumulated
data will overwhelm skepticism? Probably not. As Max Planck, the physicist who dreamt up the
idea of the "quantum" in quantum mechanics, once wrote, "A new scientific truth
does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but
rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that
is familiar with it." Some of the 60 participants at the UBC meeting represented
that younger generation, and while a handful of the older crowd are certain to
remain mulishly skeptical to their deaths, based on the written opinions of many
of the participants collected before, during and after the meeting, it was
clear that the majority were more open to anomalous cognition after the meeting
than they were before. I expect that trend to continue, and then one day a
threshold will be crossed, and on that day some of the invisible gorillas in
our midst will become a bit easier to see. The very next day no one will
remember that this topic was once considered controversial.

 

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Please check out two animated interviews with Dean Radin, "Psychic Scientist" and Scientific Taboos", at www.iclips.net/2012 .  

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Image by WTL, courtesy of Creative Commons license.