Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review of Outside the Gates of Science


Damien Broderick is an Australian science-fiction author and critic with a PhD in the comparative semiotics of science and literature. A rare and chimeric blend of qualities which make him an engaging and sympathetic commentator on parapsychology- an enterprise which is viewed by establishment science somewhat in the same way that science fiction is viewed by the literary establishment- as a quirky and rather embarrassing enterprise driven by a desire for wish-fulfilment that anyone with respectable academic ambitions ought to have grown out of by the time they hit puberty. However Outside the Gates of Science: Why It's Time for the Paranormal to Come in from the Cold is not a book you’ll feel you have to read surreptitiously under the bedcovers. A fast-moving foray into the fascinating (and sometimes downright bizarre) world of parapsychological research.it’s a good introduction to the controversies of the field for the non-specialist reader.

The first section of the book is a recap of some of the most often cited evidence for ESP and PK starting with the work of Joseph Banks Rhine and his card-guessing experiments at Duke University. Broderick draws a firm line between this and previous research carried out by spiritualists and psychical researchers noting that the key distinction was one of method and perhaps more importantly, cast of mind. He argues that whereas nineteenth century psychical researchers resembled historians or geographical explorers accumulating anecdotes and taking copious notes to construct narratives Rhine’s 20th century laboratory based approach emphasised scientific standards of rigour and repeatability. In short, there are two basic types of parapsychologist- story-tellers and bean-counters. Broderick apologises for this somewhat glib summing up of the paradigm wars but his whimsical and sometimes sardonic sense of humour adds a lot to the book’s charm although the more worthy and serious minded reader may find this off-putting. (Personally speaking, I shrieked with laughter and mentally assigned appropriately-sloganed t-shirts to every parapsychologist I’ve ever met and several more whom I haven’t). Creationist sensibilities may then be shaken with the declaration of support for Evolutionary Theory phrased as “Ancient Ignorant Guess vs. Darwin, Mendel, Crick and Watson, and the Human Genome Project” (p18-19) and then it is swiftly on to the work of the Princeton Anomalies Research Team (PEAR). Emphasis is placed on Jahn and Dunne’s avoidance of what they termed as “ ‘Gee Whiz’ experiments, flashy psychic bombshells of the Uri Geller spoon-bending variety” (p21) and statistical evidence is soberly and concisely presented before moving onto an absorbing account of Targ and Puthoff’s Remote Viewing experiments and the political intrigues of psychic spies, the Stargate Project and the hunt for Saddam Hussein. There is plenty of Gee Whiz to go round here, and the author is clearly enthralled with the topic, having discussed it in depth with key players such as Ed May and Joe McMoneagle. It would appear if ‘psi’ exists that the best evidence and applications might be found in these shadowy realms, but not all the stories can be told, at least in full, and the reader is left somewhat unsatisfied at unaccredited sources and hints at hidden knowledge while Broderick himself admits that the rules of the inner circles operate “rather like the first and second rules in the movie Fight Club (‘Do not talk about Fight Club’)” (p 88).

The shadows are swiftly dispelled with what I found to be a particularly lucid exposition of quantum theories which managed to convince me that I might actually have some notion about what they might mean. No doubt this illusion will vanish the next time I talk to a real physicist, but nevertheless this is a tribute to Broderick’s calibre as a thinker and clarity as a writer as much as a testament to my own vanity. Giving short-shrift to “ the pseudo-quantum song warbled by smiling new age irrationalists” and singling out Lynne McTaggart’s book The Field (2002) as a particularly flawed example of that genre, he tackles the issue of Quantum weirdness, noting that this “looks to some people suspiciously like psychic weirdness: instantaneous nonlocal connections, reversed-time aspects to causality. The most extraordinary aspect of this discussion, for the hardnosed lay realist, is surely that it is taking place at all." (p. 189). Pointing out the similarities between the role of an observer in both ‘psi’ and quantum experimentation he argues that this "must lie at the heart of the solution to the problem of psi phenomena; and, indeed, an understanding of psi phenomena and consciousness must provide the basis for an improved understanding of Quantum Mechanics" (p. 206).

Broderick is indeed persuaded of the reality of at least some ‘psi’ phenomena- but not all, he would rather “keep gods, demons and tricksters at bay as the hypothesis of last resort." (p 272). In what might be read as a rebuke to the novel ambitions of wannabe ‘clinical parapsychologists’, he notes that “we must not allow ourselves to forget that the most powerful paranormal phenomena ever claimed have been reported by schizophrenics and other mentally disordered people” (p 274) and the difference between reports of this sort and the claims of parapsychology research is, he asserts, “the witness of their accumulating evidence and theoretical apparatus, however incomplete, by people who are not mystics or cultists” (p 275). And there’s the rub. I don’t doubt that Broderick is indeed correct in his assertion that “if telepathy, remote viewing, precognition and psychokinesis become repeatably demonstrable, they will enter, at last the realm of regular science...” (p 310). However, given that previous chapters acknowledging the capricious nature of ‘psi effects’ it might be expected that this state of affairs might be difficult, if not impossible to achieve. Furthermore, not all those individuals who have reported miracles can be easily written off as insane and whereas notions of a deity, or an afterlife or esoteric ruminations about consciousness may remain outside the gates of science, they have found well-appointed mansions of their own in departments of theology, philosophy and even anthropology across wide swathes of academia whilst academic parapsychology is still viewed with some suspicion. Perhaps we should not assume that respectability is inextricably wedded to materialism. In 1959 novelist and scientist C.P. Snow famously warned that science and arts were becoming two cultures, more recently Brockman (1995) has promoted the notion of a “third culture” to describe scientists- in particular evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists- who may render visible “the deeper meanings in our lives” and supersede literary artists in their ability to “shape the thoughts of their generation.” So does parapsychology really need to be science and if so, why should it want to be seen as a hard, pure science?

In the last section of Outside the Gates of Science entitled “Tomorrow’s Psi” Broderick muses on the potentials of parapsychology’s future. There may well be those that feel that the here and now of psi is puzzling and fascinating enough, but time marches on and although after all that quantum discussion and talk of retro-causation I’m not entirely sure in which direction that march will proceed, I am rather persuaded that those parapsychologists who concern themselves purely with the here-and-now run the risk of finding themselves swiftly relegated to the realms of the been-and-gone. In this final flight of fabulous speculation, Broderick, as a science fiction writer, really comes into his own with some wide-ranging thoughts about how an acknowledged reality of ‘psi’ in the workaday world might reshape human experience.

An entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Wendy E. Cousins

References

Brockman, J. (1995) The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, Simon & Schuster:

McTaggart L. (2001) The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Snow, C.P. (1993) The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press; New edition.

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Wendy E.Cousins is an Irish University lecturer/psychologist.


6 comments:

nbtruthman said...

Broderick seems to hold on to a restrictive semi-Scientistic mindview, rejecting all the compelling investigations of the early researchers into psychical phenomena, plus all the more recent investigations, that have produced compelling data some of which aren't strictly controlled laboratory experiments.

This includes Richard Hodgson's investigation of Mrs. Leonora Piper, and the investigations over many years of Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard (both Piper and Leonard were the most extensively tested mediums of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and were never found to be fraudulent). To say nothing of Dr. Charles Richet, Dr. William Barrett, Sir William Crookes, Frederick Myers, etc. etc.

Then more recent examples like the Schwartz medium experiments and the Stevenson apparent reincarnation investigations.

Broderick throws out all this as not rigorously scientific enough for his standards. His position clearly implies we have to question the reality of most human experiences and observations, many of which are unduplicable in the laboratory and incapable of the sort of "scientific proof" he is looking for. This way lies a sort of sophisticated madness, because no human experience can then be accepted as a true account of a real event.

Joseph G. Mitzen said...

There's a saying: "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'evidence'". No amount of recounting claims by people adds up to proof for anyone else. That's not madness; that's realism and rationality. If something is real (exists in or affects our world) it can be measured and tested via the scientific method. If it does not exist in or affect our world, it is irrelevant whether it exists or not. Hence, there is nothing restrictive about a scienTIFic worldview, and something suspicious about proponents of any claim that science isn't an adequate test of it.

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nbtruthman said...

"No amount of recounting claims by people adds up to proof for anyone else. That's not madness; that's realism and rationality. If something is real (exists in or affects our world) it can be measured and tested via the scientific method."

The usual scientism. The very notion of "proof" is unscientific. It really applies to mathematics, basic logic, and law. All science can establish is some degree of likelihood based on experiment.

A science that that depends solely on experiments that are repeatable in a lab automatically rules out real but unique or rare events, imposing artificial limits on nature. The believer in scientism says, " We don't believe in eye-witness reports, no matter how many and how credible the witnesses. Bring the phenomenon into the lab." Eyewitness "anecdotal" reports of ESP, PK, and afterlife-suggestive psychical phenomena are often of excellent quality, and would be accepted if the subject were most anything else. It is up to the super-skeptic to show how the witnesses could plausibly have been deluded, or were guilty of fraud.

On top of this, there actually is no experiment that could be designed which would convince closed-minded scientists (especially pathological skeptics). There always is some very implausible, virtually impossible way there could have been fraud, experimental error, misperception or delusion. Then even if some psi phenomenon is replicated, they want to see it replicated again, then they want to see it replicated again, and so on. No amount of evidence is enough to the closed mind.

jgm said...

"A science that that depends solely on experiments that are repeatable in a lab automatically rules out real but unique or rare events, imposing artificial limits on nature."

N.B., I'm having trouble conceptualizing this. Can you cite me an example of one reasonably widely-accepted phenomenon, object, or other thing that can't be tested via the scientific method? I can think of nothing. I stand by my statement. Nothing that exists in or affects our world is above or beyond the scientific method. You really need to cite an example to make this a concrete objection.

"We don't believe in eye-witness reports, no matter how many and how credible the witnesses. Bring the phenomenon into the lab."

I don't what this scientism is, but I know that rationality and the scientific method don't rest on belief. Science doesn't view a personal tale as evidence. Religious people don't regard one person's personal experience as proof for THEM of that person's religious philosophy. Again... if it exists in or affects our world, evidence can be produced for it. When one claims that what they are a proponent of is the first thing in all of reality to be an exception to this fact, don't be surprised when it is met with doubt.



"Eyewitness 'anecdotal' reports of ESP, PK, and afterlife-suggestive psychical phenomena are often of excellent quality, and would be accepted if the subject were most anything else."

No anecdote is accepted as evidence by definition, but you do hit upon something here with the "if it was anything else" part. If the experience in question flies in the face of all previously regarded scientific evidence, then yes, pure anecdotal evidence is going to be met with greater doubt. Think of it as a set of scales. You have a large amount of weight on one side. It's going to take a considerable amount of weight to change the scale to tilt to the other pan. Putting a set of feathers on it won't be enough. Would you treat a story in the Wall Street Journal, say, "Obama meets with Prime Minister", the exact same way you'd treat a Weekly World News headline that read "Obama meets with Elvis?" Of course not. Given the great amount of evidence that Elvis is dead, you'd need more than tales, even if they were several and very sincere-sounding, to convince you otherwise.


"It is up to the super-skeptic to show how the witnesses could plausibly have been deluded, or were guilty of fraud."

Seriously? Um... no. It's not up to anyone else to disprove your claim and you know that. It's up to a proponent of a claim to prove it, especially when that claim involves invalidating several other claims that already have significant evidence for them. Science, and life, doesn't work that way. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the great religious philospher and scientist, once wrote when the Vatican had temporarily banned him from publishing, "Only those who truly believe their faith dare to question it." If you truly believe in the things you do, you should welcome scientific inquiry, not attempt to move the goalposts or prematurely claim you've proved your position through unconvincing stories and lack of evidence. Those advocating a completely biological explanation for consciousness are not engaging in those behaviors and neither should you.