Friday, June 29, 2007

The Ig Nobel Deepak Chopra

My readers have been reminding me about Deepak's newest blog post, The Woo Woo Factor, and Anders Rasmussen reminds how Deepak Chopra won the Ig Nobel prize a few years back. Sorry about not keeping up, but keeping up with Deepak gets dull and repetitive. Luckily PZ Myers and Orac have picked up the slack for all you readers who want your regular dose of Chopra bashing.

Here, thanks to Anders Rasmussen, are a few old Chopra quotations that illustrate Deepak's abuse of quantum physics:

(1) "The most important routine to follow is transcending: the act of getting in touch with the quantum level of yourself"

(2) "Quantum health is based on the idea that we are always, forever, in transition."

(3) "The universe consists of a "field of all possibilities" called the "field of pure potentiality", and also the "quantum soup"

It's the old quantum mysticism and quantum quackery that's been with us since Fritjof Capra wrote the "The Tao of Physics" back in the 1970s.

Deepak writes:
I would much rather talk to ten people who believe that they have heard from their dead Aunt Minnie than a hundred who shout in my ear that only idiots believe in the afterlife.

Of course Deepak would prefer those who hear the voices of the dead, they're more likely to buy his "quantum nutrition" advice from his American academy of quantum medicine.

Monday, June 25, 2007

I got tagged: Random Facts

The Barefoot Bum has tagged me with the Random Facts Meme. The meme rules are:

1. All right, here are the rules.
2. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
3. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
4. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
5. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Here are my 8 facts:

1. I was a stripper. Yes, I'm male so that makes me a one time male stripper. But it's not what you think, a stripper was a job position printers once needed. A stripper was a person who "striped negatives," that means I assembled negatives on orange sheets in preparation for making printing plates. I think the job is obsolete now.

2. I wrote some articles for UFO magazine. Some of the articles were RAELIAN REALITY: CLONES AT HOME! and Time Travel Paradoxes (A ride through the hypnotic matrix of time-space conundrums).

3. I like Nine-inch Nails and The Doors.

4. I worked for Steve Jackson's Games as an artist. My work can be found in Autoduel, Undead, Magic...

5. I eat meat. I think I eat too much meat. Steak, hamburgers, ostrich meat, lobster and crab are my favorites.

6. I've been working on a science fiction novel since I was in high school.

7. I think I understood and enjoyed "The Fountain" and "AI." Many reviewers I read were saying those movies were "incomprehensible" and boring. I think those reviewers are dumb.

8. I had cancer. Now I've got a dent-like scar on my back where the surgeon cut it out of me.

I'll tag:

1) Chris Mooney

2) Sheril R. Kirshenbaum

3) Russell Blackford

4) Tara C. Smith

5) Mark Chu-Carroll

6) Carl Zimmer

7) Mike, the Mad Biologist

8) Bob Aho

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Numbers: I've got good news and bad

According to this 2006 Newsweek article, "The New Naysayers," before the 9/11 attacks a 1999 Gallup poll had showed 49 percent of the American public would have been willing to vote for an atheist, by 2006 it had dropped to 37 percent. Now, according to the latest Newsweek poll, it's down to 29 percent. (It would have been interesting to see if “agnostic” or “secularist” or "humanist" produced a different percentage.)

Those results seem to contradict this Feb. 9-11, 2007 Gallup poll where atheists score 45 percent, only dropping 3 points, which is still the lowest rating.

If the Newsweek numbers are the accurate ones it suggests to me that Chris Mooney is on to something with his framing argument. In a column in the Washington Post Mooney and Matthew Nisbet suggested that atheists who want to support better science education should stop defending atheism and just promote the idea that science and religious faith are compatible in order to appease a mostly religious public. So what is the connection between science education and not voting for an atheist presidential candidate?

It's the reason's why an increasing number of people are saying they wouldn't vote for an atheist. From the naked bigotry of Chuck Norris to the veiled bigotry of Mitt Romney saying "We need to have a person of faith lead the country," (and he received a standing ovation from his audience for saying it) religious folk are finding atheism as increasingly threatening as atheists find the irrationalities of religion to be.

Mooney and Nisbet said things like:
Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public's beliefs? Can't science and religion just get along? A "science and religion coexistence" message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.
There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the "mechanisms and evidence" of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

That article and others created a huge web debate, here's a link catalog of all the back and forth, because Mooney and Nisbet seemed to be recommending that atheists should shut up about our convictions, or say things we did not really believe. I don't think that's what they meant. Rather, sometimes the subject of religion is brought up when it's neither appropriate or useful to do so. And often it's broached in a way where we choose to be threatening.

Atheism is not the solution to all problems. I can't see that subject being appropriate or useful when talking about global warming, tax policy, immigration reform or most science subjects. The only thing that might make it appropriate is if someone started using their religion to justify a position on those issues in the same way they use it to justify a position on evolution and abortion. Unfortunately groups like the Discovery Institute were framing their attack on evolution in terms of its effect of promoting "atheism" and then attacking atheism long before Richard Dawkins wrote "The God Delusion," and before Sam Harris wrote "The End of Faith." The only proper response to such attacks on atheism has always been to defend atheism itself.

While there certainly are scientists, like Francis Collins, who can harmonize their knowledge of science and evolution with their evangelical Christianity, I don't find their arguments for this any good. Neither does Sam Harris who reviews Collins' book here. And people like Collins might even join in the attack against atheism and just deny evolution or science should lead to such a conclusion.

Obviously, telling people they are deluding themselves with a dangerous and outdated superstition is not a good way to get them to agree with you or vote for you. I don't doubt that the sinking support for atheists in politics is in part due to the increasingly negative view of religion modern atheists are expressing in books like Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" and Christopher Hitchens' "God in not Great." This attitude is not really all that new, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken were saying similar things long ago. What's new is its popularity. I was writing similar things over a decade ago and no one cared. Neither were George H. Smith and Douglas E. Krueger selling as well as Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are today and one could argue the older books are better.

At the same time that more people are disinclined to vote for an atheist, the numbers of atheists in America are increasing, if only slightly. In this article linked here there are links to polls showing a drop in God belief:
The latest study found that 86 percent of American adults believe in God which is a drop from 90 percent in 2004 and in 2001.

The Barna group gets somewhat different numbers than Newsweek, because they ask different questions, and they show atheists/agnostics/no-faith at 9 percent of the population. Look again at where the latest Newsweek poll asked "Do you believe in God?" and 91 percent, supposedly, say yes and then you add Barna group's 9 to that to get 100. On the Newsweek poll you have to call yourself and atheist to be one of the 3 percent of atheists on their poll.

Are these numbers accurate? Something that might not be taken into account by polls that uses landline telephones exclusively is that many younger, high tech savvy, atheists drop off landlines and opt to use cell phones only.

This article, "How Serious the Cell Phone Only Problem," suggests that standard polling techniques might be skewing against atheists. It does affect polling data by enough to affect landline only polls. Cell-phone-only users are markedly different than landline users. They're younger, less likely to be married, and less likely to be a homeowner than adults with landline telephones. More than 25% of those under age 30 use only a cell phone. An analysis of young people ages 18-25 in one of the Pew polls found that the exclusion of the cell-only respondents resulted in significantly lower estimates of this age group's approval of alcohol consumption and marijuana use.

It could possibly also result in an under-estimation of atheism. And I also wonder if atheists might not want to waste time on a 20 minute survey using up valuable cell phone minutes?

This kind of result: Poll: 56% of atheists find radical Christianity as threatening as radical Islam might be attributed to the books by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Also from that blog:
We’re 9% of the overall population — but 14% of 23-41-year-olds and 19% of 18-22-year-olds. And contrary to popular wisdom, those numbers don’t appear to decline significantly as people age. They’ve held relatively constant over the past 15 years.

Or, as expressed here, on the site:

One of the most fascinating insights from the research is the increasing size of the no-faith segment with each successive generation. The proportion of atheists and agnostics increases from 6% of Elders (ages 61+) and 9% of Boomers (ages 42-60), to 14% of Busters (23-41) and 19% of adult Mosaics (18-22). When adjusted for age and compared to 15 years ago, each generation has changed surprisingly little over the past decade and a half. Each new generation entered adulthood with a certain degree of secular fervor, which appears to stay relatively constant within that generation over time. This contradicts the popular notion that such generational differences are simply a product of people becoming more faith-oriented as they age.

What seems to be happening is an increasing polarization of American society along religious lines.

The forces of reason are winning at present. Atheist books are climbing the bestseller lists. Intelligent design was beaten down in the courts. Creationists and their allies have been routed on all fronts. The religious right was trounced in the last elections and Rick Santorum was cast out. The Republican party is now in a state of disarray.

Another aspect of the growing atheism that might be negative:
One of the most significant differences between active-faith and no-faith Americans is the cultural disengagement and sense of independence exhibited by atheists and agnostics in many areas of life. They are less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%), to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20% versus 30%), to describe themselves as “active in the community” (41% versus 68%), and to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41% versus 61%). They are also more likely to be registered to vote as an independent or with a non-mainstream political party.

I don't think the cultural disengagement reported here is a good thing, voting, volunteer to help non-profit organizations, being “active in the community” and personally helping people around you are important forms of social capital and social capital matters.

This is where we form social networks and how a community establishes the norms of reciprocity associated with life in the community. It's a measure of the quality of collective life, people getting together and trying to improve the communities where they live.

Is this who we really are, socially disengaged loners? Or is that just what it takes to stand up to the social pressures imposed by religious communities? Will it change as our numbers grow? Maybe the impression this survey wants to leave us with isn't correct? A commentator reminded me that the Barna Group, whose goal is "to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States" toward fundamentalist Christianity, were comparing atheists/agnostics/no-faiths with "active faith" Christians. The key word here is "active." "Active faith" was defined as simply having gone to church, read the Bible and prayed during the week preceding the survey. There were 20 million no-faith adults and 58 million active-faith Christians and that leaves a big gap full of "non-active" Christians. That means that there's a strong selection bias working here, those who go to church are more engaged in the community than are others who call themselves Christian.

If a survey were to compare atheists who are actively engaged in with groups like "American Atheists" to all those who call themself Christian they might have gotten similar but opposite results. This might represent an element of dishonesty in the design and analysis of their survey.

But if it's not a design flaw, one way to check on whether atheists remain these supposedly socially disengaged loners is to see if the pattern continues in countries where atheism is more common, like Sweden, where atheists don't have to stand up against the social pressures.

I'll have to look into this in future posts, but in the meantime I found this site, a Book Summary of Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society. Here's what they say about Sweden:
Sweden is at least a partial exception to this trend. While many forms of traditional social capital are declining in Sweden, there is little evidence of damage to Swedish democracy. Indeed, Sweden seems to be on the cutting edge of new forms of social capital, and in some cases (such as unions) it has experienced virtually no drop in traditional forms. This has been attributed, in part, to its strong welfare state as "Sweden (along with its Scandinavian neighbors) leads the world not only in many measures of social capital, but also in public spending and taxation." Japan is another exception, with stable and in some cases rising civic engagement. Even more surprising, unlike all the other countries studied here, and in opposition to most literature on social capital, in Japan social participation is higher among less-educated groups.

I offer you no answers, no speculation, just a question: Where are we really going?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Deepak Chopra stops to complain about me!

Deepak Chopra almost acknowledged I exist, but I'm still just "one of those skeptics."

In a post called "The Common-Sense World" Deepak Chopra put aside his mind-out-of-body series to attempt a complaint about me, or so it seems. Also, when I tried to comment on his blog it never showed up. It seems I'm censored now. (Perhaps some reader out there will try linking this post on the comments section of Deepak's blog? You'd have my thanks.)

Here's some of what Deepak wrote:

I've been offering evidence of the possibility that the mind exists outside the brain. This isn't a concept that pleases materialists and skeptics of various stripes. The cruder ones complain that this is all "woo woo." The ad hominem ones deride my inability to understand basic science...

Hey, I'm one of the people calling Chopra's views woo-woo and I've also been saying he doesn't understand some basic science, like what a field is. This is not entirely an "ad hominem" attack because science is what Chopra is writing about and I offer evidence that he doesn't understand some very basic concepts. This time around he botches it on describing neurons.

(this isn't to be taken personally--I assume anyone who thinks outside their rigid parameters would be equally scorned).

Rigid parameters? Are logic, reason and common sense rigid parameters? Apparently, yes, that common sense thing is bothering Deepak, so are logic and reason.

The sophisticated ones invoke statistical errors and dubious research methods.

That's me too -- I am legion! Or at least a member of three of the groups that Deepak tries to criticize here.

But in essence the basis of skepticism comes down to a single claim that must be true and can never be violated. This is the claim that we live in a common-sense world.

Now take that statement and sip it slowly, savor it and roll it around your tongue and palate for a while until you've grasped its full flavor. I told you he had a problem with common sense. Now, lets parse and ponder the claim that lies underneath, which is: "we don't live in the common sense world those skeptics think we do."

It's not entirely wrong to say that we don't live in a "common sense" world, but the essence of Deepak's complaint is his attempt to read the minds of the skeptics who find fault with his solipsist views. Common sense is more of a tool than a description of the world. It's less about what the world is than how we should approach it.

Common sense if viewed as a description of the world is a moving target. In past ages it was common sense to think the sun moved around the Earth because that's what our senses told us. Today common sense has the Earth orbiting the sun because science has proved this.

The rules of the common-sense world are reassuring, and if skeptics are right, it is the role of science not to overturn such a world but to reinforce it.

Wrong! Science has overturned the common-sense world of our ancestors several times. Anyone aware of science's history expects more such revolutions. This is not why we dump on Deepak.

In the common-sense world things have to make sense, obviously. So what makes sense? If you can see something, it makes sense. If you can touch, smell, taste, or hear it, it makes sense. Time runs by the clock, not in some corkscrew Alice-in-Wonderland fashion. Space is mere emptiness, like the space inside the walls of a pickle jar.

Chopra is claiming that the skeptics who argue against him live with some 18th century view of the world. It's a straw-man. None of his critics I've seen has argued for that. I admit that the universe described by modern physics is weird and complex.

Modern science and skepticism are not trying to reinforce some old and dated notion of "common sense." It's more a case of Chopra attempting to confirm his own pre-conceived notions of Hindu mysticism and this can be demonstrated by taking Chopra's writings apart.

Deepak then goes on and on about the weirdest elements of quantum physics saying things like:

In the quantum domain the entire universe winks in and out of existence thousands of times per second.

Well, I guess Deepak read some sort of book on Quantum theory.

But Deepak plunges into the weirdness of quantum physics not to explain or add clarity to it but to intimidate and bullshit you. He's not trying to explain quantum theory. He's trying to use it as an excuse for believing what it is he wants to believe. In essence he's saying "see how weird this stuff is, you shouldn't poo-poo my ideas because they're weird." It's not the weirdness Deepak, it's the ignorance of your subject: what is intelligence and consciousness.

Quantum physics and Einstein's relativity would have never come into existence without the approaches Deepak dismisses, including skepticism, argument, observations and experiments which were all employed before these theories were accepted. Add to that also mathematical models, because that's what quantum mechanics is, a detailed mathematical model and description of what appears to be happening in the subatomic realm. And that's what Deepak's ideas are not, for there is no real math, no model and no sensible explanation.

None of this matters to the common-sense skeptic, who is blindly certain that an iron wall separates the quantum domain form ordinary existence.

No. Not exactly an iron wall, but there is something called "levels of explanation" that separates different fields of science. Quantum mechanics is the appropriate level of explanation for the behavior of subatomic particles and radiation but it is not the appropriate level of explanation for explaining intelligence or consciousness.

Consider what it is we're talking about when we talk of intelligence and consciousness. To be intelligent means you have knowledge, memory, and certain mental abilities that allow you to use this information to solve problems. To be conscious means to be aware, to understand yourself to some extent, to know you know -- or think you know something about yourself, which would be self-awareness.

We do not create systems that have such intelligence capabilities with explanations designed to handle subatomic particles. Subatomic particles, however weird, exhibit no signs of the problem solving or self awareness we see in people and animals.

The abilities we want are information processing abilities and that's what computers do, not what subatomic particles do.

There is a sense in which the different levels of explanation can be in conflict. For example, Brian Greene in his book, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory described the conflict between quantum mechanics and general relativity saying, "as they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right." Each is accurate in its own domain. General relativity described the universe at very large scales, while quantum mechanics describes the behavior of subatomic particles. But the theories came into conflict in extreme conditions, such as with black holes or at the big bang. To reconcile the theories a new theory, superstring theory, then later M theory, was needed.

Different levels of explanation do not always imply conflict though. Consider how differently neurophysiologists and neuropharmachologists would think about neural nets when compared to a programmer working on artificial intelligence. A neuropharmachologists is going to deal with chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin when describing how human neural nets work, but an AI programmer working on arificial neural nets doesn't need that level of explanation. The programmer can say what French physicist Pierre Simon de Laplace said to Napoleon, after Napoleon asked, "Where does God fit into your theory?" to which Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

"Where does serotonin fit into your theory, programmer?"

"I have no need of that hypothesis. My theory is a functionalist theory. The computer takes care of those details and I am free to work with a much simpler model."

And such functionalist theories will also free the programmer from quantum mechanics probably even after we have quantum computers.

Over the years it has shocked me how many renowned skeptics, up to and including the highly publicized Richard Dawkins, evince a complete lack of interest in science post Einstein.

Science post Einstein still isn't Chopra woo-woo. In spite of Deepak's attempt to equate his views with those of Einstein and quantum mechanics, Deepak's position is distinctly different, it's not a mathematical model like Einstein's theory or quantum mechanics and it's not science. It is religion and mysticism decked out in pseudo-scientific terminology.

... the brain is made of atoms, atoms are quantum mechanisms, and therefore the existence of any thought--even a skeptical one--is a quantum operation planted firmly in quantum spacetime.

Yes, but let's get back to the concept of levels of explanation to see why this is both an irrelevant and invalid criticism. As I stated above, when it comes to AI the level of explanation is functional. Computers and brains are two very different systems, the brain is made of cells and proteins and works through a flow of complex chemicals, the computer is made of silicon chips and magnetic memories, and yet computers are learning to do what humans do. We don't have to model every aspect of how the brain works to get a functional equivalent.

Neuroscientists and neuropharmacologists might eventually model the quantum mechanical aspect of drug interactions but it need not bother the AI programmer unless some new ability of brains is discovered.

Now we come to the point where Deepak reveals he knows nothing of neurons, for he says:

The ability of two brain cells to "talk" to each other from opposite sides of the cortex involves the same enigma as two electrons talking at opposite sides of the cosmos.

This statement is where Deepak reveals his ignorance most profoundly. Neurons are connected by dendrites. Dendritic connections are the basic receiving stations by which neurons form the signaling networks that constitute the brain's circuitry. There is no enigma or mystery here. Our neurons are as connected as we are through our social net works, that's why Marvin Minsky calls the brain a society of mind. While the dendrite of one neuron may not connect directly to a dendrite on a neuron on the other side of the cortex it will connect to neurons that do ultimately reach it. It's much like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon trivia game.

This isn't some counter theory to Chopra, it's an established fact that Chopra knows nothing about. We know how to store information in live neurons.

Deepak simply isn't scientifically literate in the field he needs to know in order to speculate on such things. He has only an illusion of understanding.

This irrefutable fact gets ignored by skeptics all the way up the ladder.

That "fact" above is not only quite refutable, Deepak is just dead wrong. Just look at a neuron and its intricate tracery of branches called dendrites. Read up on how neurons connect and communicate with other neurons. You don't need the spooky quantum connection.

It seems to me that skepticism isn't a viable response to quantum reality.

But it is a viable response to Chopra's woo-woo. What you're getting from Deepak isn't really quantum mechanics, it's his Hindu religious mysticism dressed up in pseudo-scientific terms that he looted from some pop science book on quantum physics.

Ultimately Deepak's is a kind of "god of the gaps" argument. But in this case the gap is more in Deepak's knowledge of what is already known than in science's current understanding.

There is merit in attacking bogus science and holding researchers to high standards of truth. (Thanks to the common practice of peer review, we don't really need professional skeptics for this purpose, but let that pass.)

Peer review journals do not protect the public from charlatans like Deepak. Deepak isn't here to solve scientific problems, he's here to sell his books and lectures.

Neuropharmachologists do things like design drugs to manage schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses. Computer programmers are creating AI systems that can drive cars and learn to recognize human faces. Deepak wants to sell you bogus miraculous promises in books like "Creating Affluence: Wealth Consciousness in the Field of All Possibilities" and "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success."

His goal appears to be to create the illusion in the minds of Huffpo readers that he sounds like he knows what he's talking about, so maybe he's right. But he doesn't know. Think about what he is saying -- there is a mind outside the body, or at least part of one. What exactly does this "mind outside the body" do? What does it explain? Does it contain your memories? Does it know your name? Does it want to have sex? Does it have the ability to solve problems? If these things are explained by something outside the brain then why do people with brain damage lose some of these functions?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Yet more of Chopra's woo-woo

Deepak Chopra's The Mind Outside the Body (Part 3) is up.

This time Deepak stars off complaining about the highly skeptical responses he got to his first two posts saying:

Skeptics are people who demand that you believe them when they don't believe in anything.

Actually, skeptics believe a lot of different things. For example, Martin Gardner was a Christian and Dr. Bierman, who debunked some of Rupert Sheldrake's claims, is a parapsychologist that Deepak noted in the first part to his series. It's just that those beliefs usually don't matter when acting as a skeptic.

Deepak's claim here is as dishonest as Ann Coulter calling liberals Godless.

Going further, Deepak writes:
Science is an approved method of explaining Nature, but that doesn't mean that science owns nature. If the mind field exists, we are all inside it, and there is validity in personal experiences beyond what happens in a laboratory.

That is nothing but a weasely way to justify anecdotal evidence.

Anecdotal tales are notoriously untrustworthy. They are subject to selective recall, so that after a death, say, the deceased's dog is recalled to have "acted oddly" sometime before while other instances of strange behavior, that did not coincide with the event, are conveniently forgotten. Other problems with anecdotal evidence include the narrator's ego, bias, memory distortion, etc..

The concept of a field sounds technical,...

Deepak gives himself way too much credit. If the "mind field" concept were technical it would involve technical details and a structured theoretical foundation, of which Chopra has none. If the "mind field" concept were technical Deepak could layout some theory as to how his "mind field" managed to interact with the brain's neurons, like the way magnetic fields interact with metals to induce an electric current.

This is how one can sound technical:
In physics, a magnetic field is an axial vector field that traces out solenoidal lines of force in and around closed electric circuits and bar magnets. You can see these lines of magnetism if you put small shavings of iron around a bar magnet. These lines of force pull unlike magnetic poles together and hence cause a compass needle to align in the axial direction of the magnetic field. A lateral repulsion between adjacent magnetic lines of force causes like magnet poles to repel each other...

This is how one can sound like a newagey moonbat woo-woo nut:
So far, this suggests something intriguing, that the bond between a pet and its owner could be the result of a subtle connection at the level of thought. Polls show that about 60% of Americans believe they have had a telepathic experience, so this result is not completely startling.

If Deepak can't tell the difference between sounding like a moonbat and sounding technical he can only be a moonbat because he's as ignorant as a moonbat.

Let's assume the existence of the paranormal phenomena Deepak has described in his posts just for the sake of argument. Deepak and his parapsychologists still have no way of including these new phenomena in a rational and coherent way into the present framework of modern physics, including quantum mechanics and relativity, nor of modern neuroscience which uses quite different tools and levels of description than physics. In Deepak's case he can't do this because he apparently has no clue as to what the present framework of modern physics and neuroscience is. It would require a new approach to physics and neuroscience in which something associated with the human mind actually did play a role in influencing or sensing physical phenomena through some unknown mechanism not presently described by science.

Deepak claims to describe such a mechanism this way:
Science is about to realize that intelligence is a field effect and that this "mind field" surrounds us on all sides, like the earth's magnetic field.

The so called "theory" of a "mind field" Deepak espouses is not a rational theory, if it were it would have measurable vectors, or at least pseudovectors or axial vectors, because that's what fields are about.

And theories about such a field would lead to results where such measured forces could be tested in the laboratory.

Also, intelligence is well described by very complex theories already, there is less mystery there than Deepak realizes. We have neural nets and neural net theory, and artificial intelligence programs which you are using everytime you do a search on Google. If intelligence were described by something outside the brain, then what happens to people with brain damage, like Phineas P. Gage?

Field theories are useless for that.

Also the actual results described by these parapsychologists where people are taken miles from their pet, where it doesn't matter where a person is in space relative to the random number generator, no matter the distance, actually defy the concept of a field and Deepak doesn't seem to know that. Fields are physical things that exist in space and time and you can draw pictures of them. For example, here's the magnetic field of your average bar magnet:

Here's a picture of Earth's magnetic field:

If this sensory/influence ability of the mind really were a field effect it would get weaker as distance increased, just like the attractive effects of a magnet get weaker with distance.

None of Deepak's parapsychologists have even made preliminary attempts in describing any possible mechanism for the supposed phenomena they think they are measuring, nor have they got any kind of field to measure. In espousing this theory Deepak seems to display a lot of ignorance about what a field, like a magnetic field, is.

What Deepak seems to have latched onto is that in physics, a field can be said to extend throughout all of infinite space, (but we only know it extends through a large region of space). A magnetic field's influence can be called all-pervading. However, the strength of a field usually varies over a region and it does approach zero and it can be undetectable at its extreme edges. These kind of descriptions of a field are not a description of the field but of the mathematics we use to describe a field and the math includes something akin to Zeno's paradox.

The essence of the paradox is this, you want to run a certain distance, say 100 yards. But to reach the hundred-yard mark, you must first reach the fifty-yard mark, and to reach that, you must first run 25 yards. But to do that, you must first run 12.5 yards. And since space is infinitely divisible, we can repeat these 'requirements' forever. Thus you have to reach an infinite number of 'midpoints' and that is impossible, so you can never reach your goal.

Saying a magnetic field is infinite is akin to saying you can't run 100 yards because of Zeno's paradox.

But let's get back to the current Deepak post. This time he is introducing his third installment's parapsychologist, Rupert Sheldrake.

If you've read my first post on Deepak's "Mind Outside the Body" series you'll have already encountered Rupert Sheldrake's name because Dr. Bierman was one of the people who debunked Sheldrake. Bierman had tried to replicate Sheldrake's experiments on the feeling of being stared at and he failed to get Sheldrake's results. So he investigated Sheldrake's methodology and found it flawed.

Dr. Sheldrake once taught biology at Cambridge University before going to India and falling under the influence of a Hindu mystic, Swami Dayananda. Sheldrake's book, "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals" attempts to show that dogs can telepathically sense when their owners are coming home.

I don't know if Sheldrake used a 'double blind' experiment here, where none of the owners, dogs, or observers knew when the owner was coming home. Instead he probably allowed the owners of the dogs to record their own observations of their pets and he probably used a very small sample size even if he says otherwise.

Just because pet owners attest to the ability of their dog or cat to know what they're thinking doesn't imply telepathy, it implies knowledge and communication.

If a dog knows its owner is coming home before the owner has gotten out of the car it is more likely due to the pet's ability to recognize the sound of its owner's car engine, know its owners schedule, or some other normal sensory or mental ability.

With pets, all communication is non-verbal and not having a verbal language might mean they're probably better at body language than people. A dog more likely knows you're going to take it for a walk, and get excited and restless, because it knows your routine from past experiences. You might be giving the dog a lot of cues, like a certain "you need a walk" look. Possibly it's the dog that's signaling its owner that it wants a walk and the owner is unconscious of this and thinks it's his own idea.

Here's how Deepak describes some of Sheldrake's research:
Sheldrake phoned up 65 vets in the London area and asked them if it was common for cat owners to cancel appointments because their cats had disappeared that day. Sixty-four vets responded that it was very common, and the sixty-fifth had given up making appointments for cats because too many couldn't be located when they were supposed to come in.

This is hardly good scientific methodology for jumping to the conclusion that cats are telepathic. A cat more likely knows you're going to take it to the vet because you're giving it some kind of cue. You're probably all anxious and concerned and giving the cat an unusual amont of attention. The cat would also know if it felt bad and had problems you could recognize.

Here's how Deepak describes a dog experiment:
When Sheldrake placed dogs in outbuildings completely isolated form their owners; he then asked the owner, at randomly selected times, to think about walking the dog for five minutes before going to fetch it. In the meantime the dog was constantly videotaped in its isolated location.

Sheldrake found that more than half the dogs ran to the door, wagging their tails, circling restlessly, or otherwise showing anticipation of going for a walk, and they kept up this behavior until their owners appeared. No dog showed anticipatory behavior, however, when their owners were not thinking about taking them for a walk. So far, this suggests something intriguing, that the bond between a pet and its owner could be the result of a subtle connection at the level of thought. Polls show that about 60% of Americans believe they have had a telepathic experience, so this result is not completely startling.

I've had dogs before and this isn't my experience. I've never decided I wanted to take a dog for a walk, it's always the dog who tells me they want a walk and I give in. The dog will go get its leash in its mouth and then start nudging my hand or leg. If I don't do what it wants it will whimper or bark at me. And if I don't do what it wants after that, I'm likely to find a dog turd or piss pool on the carpet.

If dogs are so telepathic, then why are the so easy to fool with simple magic tricks? For example, if you play fetch with a dog you can easily fool the dumb beast by acting like you're going to throw the ball, going through the full set of motions and expressions, but keep holding onto the ball instead of letting go. The dog will turn around expecting to see a ball flying through the air before you have reached the letting go position. The dog reads your body language and anticipates rather than waits for you to let go of the ball.

Now, don't just stand there holding the ball when the dog turns to chase it, quickly tuck it into the back of your pants, act like you did throw it, and stand there with empty hands when the dog turns back around. Point to a place out there where the ball could have landed, say "go get it boy" and when the dog doesn't get it, then you go out and, always keeping the ball hidden from the dog, and act like you're picking up the ball.

Then go back to playing fetch normally while randomly playing the trick. The dog shouldn't be able to anticipate when you're going to fool it and when you're not. If the dog were really telepathic, then how is it we can fool them?

In my first comment on this Chopra series I noted Dr. Robert Park's "The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science" and these apply in spades to Sheldrake.

He writes popular books and makes claims and announcements pitched to the media instead of publishing to peer-reviewed journals. His results are based on small sample sizes at the very limit of detection. He comes to conclusions based on anecdotal evidence. He uses Quantum Theory to explain psychic phenomena but really proposes whole new laws of nature because Quantum Theory only applies to the subatomic realm.

And like every other parapsychologist Deepak has noted, they've refused to cooperate with James Randi in Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. Instead of cooperation, Dr. Sheldrake, like the others, instead belittles Randi and the Challenge.

In addition to that, Richard Wiseman checked up on Sheldrake's claims about animal psi. Of course, they got into an argument that is still online, but this is what Richard Wiseman's group said:

In short, we strongly disagree with the arguments presented in RS’s [Rupert Sheldrake's] commentary. We believe that our experiments were properly designed and that the results did not support the notion that Jaytee could psychically detect when PS was returning home. Moreover, we are not convinced otherwise by RS’s reanalysis of our data and reserve judgment about his own experiments until they are published in a peer reviewed journal. We also believe that our comments to the media were responsible and accurate, and that the description of our experiments presented in RS’s book is misleading.

Deepak ends this post with this ominous hint of reanalysis:
As it happens, some intriguing animal studies about a phenomenon called "mirror neurons" is beginning to make this notion far more plausible.

Oh no, I've just had some kind of pre-cognitive sense that Deepak will next give us a woo-woo explanation for "mirror neurons." Will Deepak even know what a neuron is?

Friday, June 8, 2007

More Chopra woo-woo

Deepak Chopra's next entry, "The Mind Outside The Brain (Part 2)," is up. This time his evidence for his "mind field" is Helmut Schmidt.

Dr. Schmidt, a physicist and parapsychologist, did psychokinesis experiments in the 1960s. According to his wikipedia entry Schmidt only reported success rates of 1–2% above what would be expected at random over a large number of trials, and similar results have been replicated in many other labs.

One of those labs would be the PEAR group which supposedly replicated Schmidt's work. But others claim that of all the studies done after 1969 and before 1987 that attempted to replicate Schmidt’s work the data says that 71 experiments gave a result supporting Schmidt’s findings and 261 experiments failed to do so.

1–2% above what random chance predicts is potentially significant, but still a small effect and one that could possibly be arrived at by unconscious data altering and/or data mining. I would like to remind readers here of Stephen Jay Gould's book, "The Mismeasure of Man."

In that book Gould looked at the craniometric work of Samuel Morton, a 19th-century scientist with preconcieved notions of racial differences that were common and almost unquestioned in his own day. Morton had a mania for ordering and ranking and he had collected a huge set of skulls from different races. He'd poured filler into the skulls to measure their cranial volume. Morton believed that larger skulls meant a large brain and a smarter person, while a smaller skull indicated decreased intellectual capacity. Morton's data fit the absolute conviction in white supremacy rampant in the mid-1800s perfectly. It help justify the pro-slavery forces and it was still around 80 years later to help justify Nazi thinking. Whites had by far the largest brains. Malays and American Indians were next, then the Chinese and last were the African and Australian natives. Morton left full records of his work behind and Gould was able to study them. Gould showed how Morton had unconsciously fudged data to justify his belief in racial differences.

So how can Morton's supposedly objective measuring techniques get dishonest data? Gould found that Morton threw out some of the skulls that didn't seem normal. Sometimes he overpacked the skulls with the filler he used to measure brain volumne. Sometimes he even worked backward and used skull size to determine the race of the skull. Morton made selective errors in his arithmetic as well as in his sampling. He didn't try to hide any of this. He wasn't trying to fool anyone. He simply let his subconscious mind lead him where he wanted to be taken. Parapsychology researchers could very well be letting the subconscious mind lead them, and in fact, some advocate it.

Today we know that minor variations in skull size have nothing to do with intelligence. Morton's data was worthless. All the fudging Morton did could still happen with modern parapsychology experiements and skeptical researchers have detected it in labs reporting positive results in parapsychology.

We can fool ourselves with would-be science in lots of ways, another example I've used before is N-rays. It's another case of a researcher's perceived evidence that wasn't there. Here's a short list of problematic physics experiments. Too bad they don't include all the parapsychology experiments that have become questionable.

They might include: The Soal Affair, where one of the highest-profile parapsychology researchers of his day, Samuel G. Soal (1889-1975), was caught cheating. Uri Geller, Geller was caught cheating after government funded, project Stargate, scientists, Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ, had accepted Geller as a real psychic and helped promote him. And perhaps some examples from Robert Todd Carroll's article, "A Short History of Psi Research."

When Deepak tells you about all these "wow" parapsychology experimental results just keep in mind how far these results are from the claims of the psychics who inspired all this research. No more bending keys on command, no more communication with dead at a seance, instead the results of parapsychology experiments are slowly sinking into a black hole of ever diminishing results and experimental claims that are so tiny they only exist on the quantum scale.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Chris Hedges: The new face of anti-atheism?

One can only hope, because with enemies like Chris Hedges you don't need friends.

Not that Chris Hedges is doing himself a disservice; he'll sell books because of what he's doing. One good way for a writer to get attention is to get themselves onto the coat-tails of other writers who are getting attention. And getting attention is something that Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have done. The God Delusion is #1 on the Sunday Times non-fiction paperback bestseller list. Christopher Hitchens' book, "God is not Great," is the #5 bestseller on Amazon and #1 in the New York Times Bestseller list where The God Delusion is #18 in its 35th week on the list. Sam Harris was a little-known graduate student in neuroscience until he wrote “The End of Faith” and then “Letter to a Christian Nation” which are still selling well but slipping as more writers jump on the atheist bandwagon and out atheist him.

Chris Hedges, a man with a new book to sell, is making that smart move and he has now debated both Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and I expect he'll get around to Richard Dawkins eventually. It would be smart for both men to debate. Debating Chris Hedges, no matter how vicious Hedges gets, he is ultimately playing good cop in another good-cop/bad-cop tactic where the real loser is fundamentalist religion.

Chris Hedges is the author of “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America” which is a book that is even more stridently opposed to James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell than Harris' or Hitchens' books have been. According to Chris Hedges' book, Christian dominionists (also called "Christianists" and "Reconstructionists") want absolute power over a Christian state and their political movement is similar to Hitler's early fascist movement in Germany.

If you thought Sam Harris was over the top, you need to read Chris Hedges “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America.”

Chris Hedges debated Christopher Hitchens at the King Middle School auditorium in Berkeley, California, not long ago. The topic of the debate was "Is God...Great?" It plays on the title of Hitchens' book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

Christopher Hitchens' and Chris Hedges' very existence exposes the lies told on the far right about the radical left's rejection of religion. Hitchens is a "semi-neocon" pundit who is loathed by the far left because he does not toe the party line over the Iraq War. And Hedges is a far-left progressive journalist with a kind of hippy-dippy neo-Socialist, radical outlook.

To anyone on the far right, like say Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly or Future Toddler Chopper Vox Day, walking into the debate would have seemed like stepping into some topsy-turvy bizarro world where the defender of religion and the existence of God was a far left Democrat and the atheist was a pro-war neo-con. (Not to say that Hitchens is a neo-con, just that he came off like one this time.)

It would have been interesting to throw Ann Coulter into the middle of that debate and watch her brain melt while everything she thought she knew about the world was proven wrong. This is not a recent re-alignment, it has always been this way. Many atheists have been pro-Iraq war and a lot of Christians have opposed the war for religious reasons.

Chris Hedges has more experience with the Middle East than Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins combined. He was a New York Times Middle East bureau chief, a foreign correspondent and winner of a Pulitzer Prize. He has reported from more than 50 countries over the last 20 years. He speaks Arabic, French and Spanish and knows Latin and ancient Greek. He has a Master's degree in theology from Harvard and is the son of a Presbyterian minister. He is also author of "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" where he described war as "the most potent narcotic invented by humankind." He was an early and vocal critic of the Iraq war and he questioned the rationale for war put forth by the Bush administration and was critical of the early press coverage, calling it "shameful cheerleading."

And I agree with a lot of what Hedges has written. But still, both Hitchens and Harris ripped Hedges' arguments to shreds and left him exposed and bleeding on the floor after their debates. No, no… it's not so much that Hitchens and Harris whipped Hedges in their debates as it is the fact that Hedges arguments self-destructed, crumbling under the weight of their own contradictions as soon as he made his openning statements, long before Hitchens and Harris could say anything and then all they had to do was point this out.

Consider this simple claim made by Hedges during his debate with Hitchens: "biblical literalists do not exist." Doesn't that contradict the premise of Hedges own book, “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America”? Isn't the Christian Right that Hedges reports on, with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, made up of literal creationists? Does he not report that the very name for the Dominist movement comes from Genesis and God telling Adam you shall have dominion over the Earth?

Hedges also said things like “to argue whether or not God exists is futile,” but that was why Hedges was supposedly there to debate these guys. He had to change the rules because he knew he couldn't win that debate.

And Hedges also said “Jesus never talks about starting a church”, as if churches were just an invention of Constantine. Most atheists know the Bible better than Hedges. Didn't Jesus tell Peter, "and on this rock I shall build my church..." in Matthew 16:18? Aren't the later books of the New Testament Paul's letters to the churches?

Maybe in some context Hedges' claims are not a self-destructing pile of mistakes and contradictions, but I have no idea what that context is and neither do most people I know. It looks to me like a guy who keeps shooting himself in the foot until he hasn't got a leg to stand on.

So, how can a smart guy like Chris Hedges get ripped to shreds by these simple minded atheists? It's because reason and debate work. Hedges' problem is that he essentially agrees that the Christian Right is poisoning everything very much like Hitchens and Harris claim and he has to defend the religion that the Christian Fascist movement sprang out of. It's an untenable position. Hedges' religious stance is rather Orwellian. He cherry-picks his beliefs and thinks that not taking the Bible at face value makes him a smarter person. But if you read Hitchens’ book, you know he thinks that people who do what Hedges does aren’t really thinking that deeply about the Bible and that it is mere egoism to think that your take on “God’s Word” is the one and only take. And as Sam Harris would add, Hedges take isn't necessarily better than the literalists.

When Hedges debated Harris he shot himself in the foot with his opening statement saying:
Sam Harris has conflated faith with tribalism. His book is an attack not on faith but on a system of being and believing that is dangerous and incompatible with the open society.

Both the words faith and tribalism, when coming out of Hedges mouth, are nothing but Orwellian euphemisms, they're a kind of Doublespeak that attempts to confuse and conceal the truth. The very source of the tribalism that Hedges objects to is the holy books themselves, the Bible and the Koran, the core documents of two major religions. The tribalism and the religion cannot really be separated. Moses and Jesus were tribal leaders.

Hedges isn't wrong to say that Harris' book "is an attack not on faith but on a system of being and believing that is dangerous and incompatible with the open society," but he is very misleading because both Hedges and Harris are also continually using Faith as a euphemism for some kind of religious belief. If we think of having faith in non-religious things, like a friend or an institution, like government, then Harris has no attack on that. Harris means by Faith; a faith in the dogmas of some ancient religion. But Hedges later, in the same opening remarks, redefines Faith to mean "... not faith in magic, not faith in church doctrine or church hierarchy, but faith in simple human kindness."

What an Orwellian redefinition of faith! That's certainly not what Sam meant, it's not what the word faith actually means, it's not any kind of common usage for faith, it's some euphemism Hedges either invented on the spot or picked up in his reading. But it's Sam Harris' own fault for adopting Christian euphemisms, and even using one for the title of his book, and expecting them to have any kind of consistent meaning, especially the word "faith." Religious language is designed for emotional manipulation and evasion, not communication. The word faith actually means a lot of different things to different people. It's not supposed to communicate anything, it's suppose to hide your meaning. In my post, Brownback Mountain, I showed how Sam Brownback turned faith into a synonym for logical preposterism. Christians like faith, but would they like logical preposterism?

One person can make faith mean different things in the same paragraph and it can get comic, such as when a Christian claims that it takes more faith to be an atheist and then goes on to praise faith rapturously. Hedges himself uses the word faith a lot, and he obviously doesn't always mean the same thing every time he uses it.

Hedges next says:
He [Sam Harris] attacks superstition, a belief in magic and the childish notion of an anthropomorphic God that is characteristic of the tribe, of the closed society. He calls this religion. I do not.

But a belief in magic and the childish notion of an anthropomorphic God is a characteristic of the Religious Right Hedges himself railed against. Again, the Bible is about superstitious people who sacrifice animals, it's about magic and miracles and an anthropomorphic God who talks to Moses, gets angry, orders people to kill other people, drowns the world in a great flood, and smashes towers that get too close to heaven because he feels threatened apparently.

If religion isn't that then what is it -- atheism and humanism? Has Hedges redefined religion as atheistic humanism?

I really don't know. I can't make much sense of it. So, here are Chris Hedges opening remarks and you tell me if you can make any sense of it, and if you can explain it in the comments section of this post.

But before I leave you with that task, here's another bit of Hedges openning I want to tell you something about:
the supreme importance of the monotheistic traditions in creating the concept of the individual. This individualism—the belief that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe, or the crowd, and that we are called on as individuals to make moral decisions that at times defy the clamor of the tribe or the nation—is a gift of the Abrahamic faiths.

Now, if individualism—the belief that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe, is a gift of the Abrahamic faiths, then why does the Bible have passages like this, Acts.4.32: "Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common." Is that individualism? Is Islam's (an Abrahamic faith) call for submission individualism? Is any of it it more individualistic than what we see in Roman writers before Christ? Say Titus Lucretius Carus?

Is Chris Hedges dressing up atheistic humanism in religious language and selling it to people who can't stomache blatant atheism?

I wish I had an enemy like Chris Hedges to debate. Even if you lose, you win. If Chris Hedges didn't exist, Christopher Hitchens would have had to invent him -- and one day he'll probably be accused of doing just that.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Brownback Mountain

Doing my weekly blog reading awhile back I discovered a mountain of criticism on scienceblogs aimed at Kansas Senator and presidential candidate Sam Brownback's New York Times Op-Ed, "What I Think About Evolution."

Josh Rosenau made an important point in a humorous aside that I think needs more emphasis and explanation. Brownback had written this:

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Josh Rosenau responded:

This is roughly how we got to war with Iraq. We looked under a bunch of stones, found no evidence of ongoing WMD programs, concluded that any evidence which undermined the truth President Bush already knew "should be firmly rejected," and now our troops are stuck in the middle of a civil war.

Yes, Josh, Brownback has displayed exactly the style of thinking that leds people into the kind errors of the Bush administration has been making for years, and not just in Iraq. Every distortion of science Chris Mooney wrote about in "The Republican War on Science," from lying about embryonic stem cells lines to denying climate change, has it's origin in this style of thinking. Chris Mooney even touched on this style of thinking in his book and he called it Lysekoism, which is attempting to distort science in order to bring it into line with political orthodoxy.

It's only rough because it hasn't been given sufficient analysis yet. Fundamentalism isn't just an unjustified belief; it's a style of thinking that supports unjustified belief. It's more general form has been called "logical preposterism."

This is where you start with your conclusion and evaluate evidence depending on whether it supports your predetermined conclusion. Brownback is putting what is supposed to come last, the conclusion, first.

The most remarkable thing about Brownback's Op-Ed is how nakedly the logical preposterism shines through with statements like "we know with certainty at least part of the outcome," and "Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science."

Usually the Republicans try to veil and obscure their war on science so people don’t see the logical preposterism that underlies all their arguments. But in Brownback's Op-Ed logical preposterism and faith are synonymous.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Weird Science: More Chopra woo-woo

Deepak Chopra is back with another one of those Huffington Post blogs I can't resist tearing apart. This one is called "The Mind Outside the Body (Part 1)."

Chopra found an article in London's Daily Mail that reported on a psychologist, Dr. Dick Bierman, using brain scans to see if people sense things before they happen.

Bierman is trying to prove "presentiment," the physical or emotional feeling that something unusual is about to happen. Presentiment is a less conscious form of precognition. Both terms are considered special cases of the more general term clairvoyance. Presentiment is information about future events that is perceived at a somewhat less than conscious level.

I gave the article a read and looked for The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.

The first warning sign is that the discovery is pitched directly to the media. The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Scientists expect their colleagues to reveal new findings to them initially. An attempt to bypass peer review by taking a new result directly to the media, to the public, suggests that the work is unlikely to stand up to critical examination.

And what do we find in the article? This brief paragraph:
For the results - released exclusively to the Daily Mail - suggest that ordinary people really do have a sixth sense that can help them 'see' the future.

The third sign is that the effect being measured is always at the edge of detection. All scientific measurements must contend with some level of background noise or statistical fluctuation. But if the signal-to-noise ratio cannot be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real.

Thousands of published papers in parapsychology claim to report verified instances of telepathy, psychokinesis, or precognition. But those effects show up only in tortured analyses of statistics. The researchers can find no way to boost the signal, which suggests that it isn't really there.

This sign is also there in the article:

Bierman looked inside the brains of volunteers using a hospital MRI scanner while he repeated Dr Radin's experiments….
Although extremely complex, and with each analysis taking weeks of computing time, he has run the experiments twice involving more than 20 volunteers.

The forth sign is the use of anecdotal evidence. If modern science has learned anything in the last century, it is to distrust anecdotal evidence. Anecdotes have a strong emotional impact, they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of science. They are prone to Confirmation bias and Cognitive bias. The most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by means of which we know what works and what doesn't.

And indeed the article that Chopra linked is loaded with anecdotal evidence and it never mentions the known problems there are with this kind of evidence.

There are also signs that aren't the list of seven, for example, Bierman was following up on an experiment done by Dr Dean Radin, a former researcher on the military project Stargate.

Nowhere in the article is the history and fate of project Stargate mentioned. Project Stargate was the U.S. military's attempt to exploit 'remote viewing' and psychic premonition. It was considered a failure and shut down.

Project Stargate began in 1969 and 1971 when it was reported that the Soviet Union was engaged in psychic research, spending million of rubles a year on it. This seemed to indicate to some CIA watchers that the Russians had obtained positive results. So, a budget was raised and CIA research began in 1970, the project was given in 1972 to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, and was headed up by laser physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff. Dr. Puthoff was a high-ranking Scientologist at the time. Many of the psychics used were also Scientologists.

Targ and Puthoff were the guys who had introduced the world to spoon-bender Uri Geller who James Randi exposed as a fraud.

In 1984 the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council evaluated Stargate's remote viewing program and reported that its results were "unfavorable" and Army funding ended in late 1985. In 1991 it was yet again reborn and renamed as "Stargate" and came under the management of physicist Edwin May, a fervent believer in woo-woo not unlike Depak Chopra.

Over more than two decades, some $20 million were spent on Stargate and related activities. The program was sustained through the support of Senator Claiborne Pell and Representative Charles Rose, two devout believers in the powers of Uri Geller and other such woo-woo. But, by the early 1990s, investigations showed few accurate results. The program was tossed back to the CIA, with instructions to conduct a review of the program. In 1995 the American Institutes for Research (AIR) evaluated it for the CIA, and their final report pointed out the many blatant faults. The final recommendation was to terminate Stargate, and it was abandoned.

The CIA officially concluded that there was no case in which ESP had provided data used to guide intelligence operations. Stargate was shut down in 1995 after the end of the cold war.

For those who want to know more about our government's involvement in woo-woo science, which is still going on, I suggest "The Men Who Stare at Goats," by Jon Ronson.

Dr. Dean Radin's early papers, published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, were reviewed and found to be riddled with methodological and statistical errors. One example of a serious methodological problem, Radin used an optional stopping rule where subjects could declare a run of trials over whenever they felt like it and that was coupled with feedback on performance. Under those conditions it would be a stupid "psychic" who couldn't keep mental track of hits and misses and quit when he/she was ahead. Knowing you would get paid as a government psychic could even motivate cheating.

The phenomenon Bierman investigated had happened when Radin hooked ordinary subjects to a lie detector in order to measure changes in galvanic skin response after looking at emotionally provocative pictures. Radin flashed a random series of photos, some violent or erotic, others calm or boring. You would expect a galvanic skin response to spike after a violent or erotic picture was seen and interpreted by the subject, but Radin claimed that his subjects tended to respond a few seconds before the actual image flashed on the screen. In other words, according to Radin, they sensed an event before it occurred.

I still doubt this really happened. It could be that the experiment was not a proper double blind and his subjects were seeing the facial expression of someone who knew which picture was coming next. Such details about how the experiment was conducted and interpreted are not yet available to me.

Bierman, instead of using galvanic skin response, used fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging. The science here is still relatively new and fMRI is getting used for a lot of questionable and controversial tasks. Some people think they can turn fMRI into a lie detector others think they can read minds and detect criminal intent while others are using it for Neuromarketing. It's basically being used to study everything.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging really is the most promising new brain scanning technology in decades and it has provided an extraordinary new ability for scientists to peer into the inner workings of the human brain. It lets scientists begin to answer some of the most central questions of human experience. The enthusiasm with which the neuroscientific community has embraced the use of fMRI is certainly warranted, but the filtering out of which new promises will be kept and which won't hasn't happened yet. After all the courts aren't yet using fMRI to replace the polygraph and airports aren't installing MRI machines to look for terrorist intensions in your brain. These things have yet to be proven but they all have as much, or more, evidence going for them than Dr. Dick Bierman's presentiment.

Not everything in this explosion of brain imaging studies with MRI scanners is going to stand up to a long term critical examination. Some of these claims are going to go the way of Phrenology. Nor, apparently, has the use of fMRI made this presentiment phenomenon that Bierman wants to establish easier to detect. Bierman went from something easy to analyse, galvanic skin response, to something difficult to analyze, something that is "...extremely complex, and with each analysis taking weeks of computing time."

Yet, in spite of all this evidence against this, like being promoted by Chopra and the very woo-woo way the research was written about in the Daily Mail article, I had some positive presentiment of my own about that name "Dr. Dick Bierman." Nothing supernatural, it was some vague memory I had of encountering that name before.

So, I went to a forum where I could find skeptics who paid more attention to paranormal research than I do, I went to James Randi's website and started this thread: "Anyone know about Dr. Dick Bierman?"

What a surprise it was to find that the hardcore skeptics on Randi's forum actually had some solid respect for Dr. Dick Bierman. He was one of the good guys in their minds.

What I almost remembered, but had to get forum help and do a Google search to find was that Bierman was one of the people who had debunked Sheldrake. Bierman had tried to replicate Sheldrake's experiments on the feeling of being stared at and he failed to get Sheldrake's results. So he investigated Sheldrake's methodology and found it flawed. That was evidence that Dr. Dick Bierman wasn't one of the frauds or true believers and that he had some real understanding of scientific methodology and how people could fool themselves.

On the thread I started two people, davidsmith73 and Ersby, provided me with links I wouldn't have even guessed to look for if I rushed this post through without their help. Here they are:



For now, I'll leave those papers there for you, dear readers, to judge and explore on your own. Please comment here. I'll comment later. There may yet be something to Bierman's research. It's too early for me to tell. But that doesn't mean there is anything to Deepak Chopra's use of Bierman's research. Deepak Chopra's claims about the research are still bogus and reflect a deep misunderstanding about this kind of research.

Deepak talks about "locating the mind outside the brain" and he claims that "Science" is going to discover that intelligence is a field effect and that this "mind field" surrounds us on all sides, like the earth's magnetic field. Here's a sample of Deepak's claims in his own words:

Much less known are advances in locating the mind outside the brain. Long considered paranormal and therefore easy to dismiss, the reality of many phenomena is being verified. For a long time there has been a popular belief in ESP, clairvoyance, and related abilities. I thought it would be interesting to devote a series of posts to some intriguing studies, but more importantly, there is a major discovery waiting around the corner. Science is about to realize that intelligence is a field effect and that this "mind field" surrounds us on all sides, like the earth's magnetic field. It is thanks to the mind field that our brains are able to think and also to connect with other minds, not by physical means but invisibly, the way one magnet is connected to every other on earth.

Contrast Deepak's claims with these claims from Patricia Churchland's textbook, Brain-Wise:

The weight of evidence now implies that it is the brain, rather than some nonphysical stuff, that feels, thinks, and decides. That means there is no soul to fall in love. We do fall in love, certainly, and passion is as real as it ever was. The difference is that now we understand those important feelings to be events happening in the physical brain. It means that there is no soul to spend its postmortem eternity blissful in Heaven or miserable in Hell.

The theological implications of neuroscience will become a new battleground in the ongoing conflict between science and religion. Arguments over evolution versus intelligent design, (and intelligent design is something else Deepak has argued for), are a minor theological issue compared with the consensus view in neuroscience about the material nature of the mind. Evolution does not really pose a serious problem for many religious people, like Ken Miller and Francis Collins, because they have no problem fitting evolution with the existence of a non-material God with a non-material mind. But the consensus view in the neuroscience community that the mind is entirely the product of the brain is going to be a bigger problem for many religious views of the mind and soul.

Most of what has been discovered in modern neurophysiology is evidence of the opposite of what Deepak claims. The mind is located solidly inside the brain and intelligence is NOT a field effect that surrounds us on all sides, like the earth's magnetic field. The mind depends completely on the brain. Brain damage can completely alter personality and cognitive abilities, how could that be if the mind were some field outside the brain? The mind is not some unitary thing, it's a vast collection of cognitive abilities, a "society of mind" as Marvin Minsky would say.

Today we have the Blue Brain project which is the first comprehensive attempt to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain. This project intends to create a biologically accurate, functional model of the brain using IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer. In 2006 the Blue Brain project reached an important milestone, a proof of principle that the brain can be simulated at the cellular level. None of this knowledge uses anything like Deepak's metaphoric notion of the mind being like a magnetic field.

If there really is evidence of presentiment it will not be as big a problem for a materialist view of the mind as Deepak thinks. It will be a radical discovery for sure, but not a destruction of modern materialism. Deepak wants to conflate modern materialism with some ancient 18th century notion of materialism, but when our conception of matter changes, so does our conception of materialism and Einstein and quantum mechanics have already altered our conception of time and matter.

In Einstein's universe we get the non-intuitive idea that simultaneity is relative. Whether or not two things are simultaneous depends upon your frame of reference. Events that are simultaneous to one observer need not be simultaneous to another. Indeed, the time order may be reversed. Events that are close together in time but distant in space can happen in a different order in different frames. In quantum mechanics there is a great puzzle about when things actually happen, such as the collapse of the wave function.

We've lived with these Alice in Wonderland ideas in physics for many decades. It's been over eighty years since J.B. Rhine started taking parapsychology research seriously trying to get the evidence and we're still waiting for it. The longer I wait, the more I doubt it. It's not a conceptual or paradigm barrier that keeps me from acknowledging the existence of psychic, paranormal phenomena; it's the utter lack of good scientific evidence. That evidence has not yet arrived because of Dr. Dick Bierman. But who knows, maybe something might come of this, but the history of paranormal research makes me doubt anything will.