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.

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