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?

1 comment:

apostate said...

Hey you -- great blog! I've been lurking, but wanted to let you know your writing is appreciated and very much needed.