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:
A COMPUTATIONAL EXPECTATION BIAS AS REVEALED BY SIMULATIONS OF PRESENTIMENT EXPERIMENTS
ANOMALOUS ANTICIPATORY BRAIN ACTIVATION PRECEDING EXPOSURE OF EMOTIONAL AND NEUTRAL PICTURES
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.