Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Science is not the enemy: A Response to "Limits of science, trust and responsibility"

Brian Cox' comments regarding the limits of physics and the supernatural certainly have opened some old wounds in the paranormal community, but let's not pretend that anger and mistrust of science and scientists is anything new. It's especially prevalent in the psi-supporting pockets of said community.

I suspect this is due to some of Psi's leading figures, Rupert Sheldrake especially, making a nice career in book sales and on the lecture circuit presenting science, the modern edifice of academia and scientists in particular as the enemy of psi research. Claims of rejected papers, silenced and ignored researchers and nasty skeptics abound. I will hardly be the first to point out that much of Sheldrake's ire seems a result of his perceived rejection by the scientific community. The truth is amongst the many facets of the scientific method is the concept of replicability. If results of an experiment are to be accepted they should be replicated by independent researchers and yield similar results. Experiments in psi suffer from a huge replicability crisis. Positive results disappear when experiments are conducted by independent teams of researchers, especially when these teams tighten up on the methodology used by the original experimenters. A great example of this would be Daryl Bem's Ganzfield experiments hailed at one time as a breakthrough in psi research, many teams attempted to replicate Bem's results and met with abject failure.

I recently came across an article written by Tom Bulter (above), Co-Director of  ATransC, an organisation which collects various ITC and EVP "studies" and "evidence." Butler also served as an advisor to Michael Keaton horror film "White Noise". The piece, entitled "(An) Open Letter to Paranormalists: Limits of science, trust and responsibility"  couldn't more reflect the mistrust and anger at the scientific establishment that I discussed above. In showing just how wrong the author is, I hope to also show that science isn't the enemy of the "paranormalist" but should be wholeheartedly embraced by anyone with the slightest hope that paranormal research will ever have a shred of credibility.

The letter is directed to "paranormalists" a term Butler uses in much of his material, which he defines as:
"paranormalist(s) are people who experience, study or have a more than casual interest in psychic ability (psi functioning, remote viewing, healing intention), healing intention (biofield healing, distant healing, healing prayer) and the phenomena related to survival of consciousness (mediumship, visual and audible ITC, hauntings)."

Did butler really intend to use "or" here rather than "and" as by his definition, I as someone who has never experienced anything remotely "paranormal" still qualify as a paranormalist because I have more than a casual interest in the same.

Before the letter begins Butler gives us a preamble that contains information that provides context to the letter itself:

"The “science” practiced by parapsychologists is not necessarily good. Much of it is done to prove paranormalists are delusional. You and I know that, to prove we are delusional, they must ignore or falsely represent our evidence...scientists are supposed to be our friends. Some are, but the majority consider the average paranormalist inferior in many ways … as second-class citizens that are not as smart, as well educated or as wise as people with a Ph.D."
The point of any research isn't to ignore or falsely represent evidence, it's to collect data that may eventually be considered evidence. Bulter's letter has barely begun and the antagonistic tone is established. I also get more than a touch of bitterness in Bulter's words. Sorry, but if you don't have a PhD you are less educated than someone that does, in the field that the PhD has been earned at least. This doesn't make you "inferior" but it does mean if you're arguing with a professor of biology about the theory of evolution, you are somewhat deluded. Arrogant even.
"If you want to see these phenomena properly studied, if you want informed scientists to help you understand your experiences, if you want to see this field of study evolve into a well-understood science, then it is important that you know who to trust, who to believe and with whom it is safe to trust your phenomena.... It is for you to be aware of the differences, because many of those who have not been aware of the difference, have regretted ever volunteering to be research subjects."
This is a very worrying and devicise rhetoric. Implying that believers shouldn't trust some scientists, predominantly those who don't pander to their beliefs, is simply a way for people like Butler to push bad ideas like EVP without the intervention of nay-saying skeptics or others who endorse critical thinking. OK, let's agree with Butler but go further. Don't trust scientists blindly, any of them.  And don't trust me or Butler. So check out studies, check that the methodologies used in these studies are sound. Don't trust scientists.

Trust the scientific method.

Butler goes on to discuss the model he uses to describe the paranormal in the letter. I find his use of the word "model" most interesting. Generally speaking, when scientists propose models of reality they use existing theories and data to construct them. The aim being to describe, analyse or quantitfy some complex element of the natural world. In physics models are often over-simplistic, mockingly referred to as "spherical cows" because of a joke frequently told by physicists.* Despite their simplicity, these models have utility. I wonder if Butler's model will meet these criteria?

Early indications in the preamble suggest not:
"The model is based on currently understood mainstream and parapsychological science. Unlike more widely accepted models, it is greatly informed by lessons learned from mediumship and Instrumental TransCommunication (ITC), especially Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)."
Hmm... so Burton's model isn't based on a pre-existing framework of laws and theories, but based on the anecdotal evidence of mediumship and highly subjective and frankly suspicious evidence provided by ITC and EVP.

The first part of Butler's letter divides parapsychologists into three distinct categories. I'm not going to detail this part too much but you can follow the above link and check it out for yourselves. The outcome of the division is clearly stated: Parapsychologists who have a materialistic world view are "debunkers" and presumably the scientists Butler suggests paranormalists should not trust. What Butler fails to grasp, or aims to ensure his audience fail to grasp, is that the scientific method is employed to ensure that experimenters world views don't taint the outcome of experiments. This does fail, but only when the experiment has a methodology that isn't robust enough- that's why transparency in science is so vital. It's also why science has peer review and replicability.

Hey, don't most psi-related studies with positive results fail replicability tests? Funny that.

Butler then gives an account of how "paranormalists" experience paranormal phenomena, involving cartesian duality. I'll be frank what follows is word salad to me. Possibly I'm just a bit thick. Also, Butler's description of our minds becoming entangled with our bodies at birth sounds suspciously like L. Ron Hubbard's crazy "thetans" story upon which Scientology is based.

Here's the full pitch:
"The avatar model seems to best describe what we know about our etheric-physical nature. The idea is that a person is the conscious self of an immortal etheric personality which becomes entangled with a human body at the moment of the human’s birth. The conscious self experiences a lifetime from the perspective of the human....

In a very real sense, you create your world. It only exists as your mostly unconscious perceptual processes assign meaning to sensed environmental psi signals. Those psi signals come from your loved ones, your collective of fellow personalities, thoughtforms, your body’s self-image and your physical body’s five physical senses.

A model that is useful and may as well be correct is that a person is necessary for a psi influence to manifest in the physical. Put differently, you, or an interested observer, provide the channel for trans-etheric influences such as EVP, remote viewing, precipitation and haunting phenomena."
 What we "know" or what Butler believes? It's a vast understatement to say there isn't any evidence of what Butler suggests, it's wild speculation. Don't worry if didn't understand a word of what Butler says here a diagram will clear things up surely?
"Here, I will explain that all the functional areas in the Life Field with Avatar Diagram (below), except the human body itself, are etheric. If you take a little time to contemplate the implications of this point, I think you will see that conscious self has experiences, and by convention, assigns physicality to experiences encountered from the avatar perspective."

I actually think Butler is unnecessarily adding complexity to the idea of Cartesian duality, this too conflicts with one of the core principles of creating a scientific model: elegance. A 2010 paper published in Nature Nanotechnology describes elegance in scientific models as follows:
“When a theory or a model explains a phenomenon clearly, directly and economically, we say it is elegant: one idea, easy to understand, can account for a large amount of data and answer many questions.” (Chris Tourney, Elegance and Empiricism 2010, Nature Nanotechnology)
Butler's model and its description do seem to meet many of the criteria of pseudoscience. Take a look at this description of how to spot pseudoscience taken from website relatively thinking and see how many points I've highlighted in Bulter's model already:

I make it the first five, plus I know this model hasn't been peer reviewed, so that's six. And Cartesian duality is frequently refuted.... full house?

The letter continues.
"Our experience in the ATransC has shown that a person tends to record EVP that confirms mostly unconsciously held beliefs."
Or could it be that a person's unconscious beliefs inform what they think they hear in those EVP responses? Much like paranormal teams that present their EVPs with screen caps, the element of suggestibility is a major factor in visual and audio pareidolia which is often overlooked. Sometimes purposefully. Apparently, key to Butler's model of the paranormal is the placement of the cart before the horse.
"This science is still evolving and these points are still only indicators, but the message to us is that what we experience tends to agree with what we believe. We tend to more often have possibly genuine paranormal experience if we believe in the paranormal. Conversely, if we do not believe in the paranormal, we might not even notice such experiences."
Again, you tend to believe you've had genuine paranormal experiences if you happen to believe in the paranormal. This isn't any form of revelation, believers are less likely to search for a rational explanation for an experience if they preemptively believe that paranormal phenomena exists and therefore IS a rational explanation.
"Research has shown that people who believe in paranormal phenomena are more apt to think a picture is paranormal then those who do not believe. This is true of all forms of phenomena. It does not mean there is no paranormal phenomena, only that some of us are not as discerning as we need to be. 
This tendency to error on the side of paranormal is used by Anomalistic Psychologists to prove that all reported phenomena are errors in perception. It can be difficult to know, when reading Anomalistic Psychology research reports, that the intention is to debunk rather than to understand." 
I'm not trained in psychology, so I can't even begin to speak about the field, but I'm as certain as a layman can be that the aim of anomalistic psychology is not to debunk anything. The aim surely, in the study of the paranormal by anomalistic psychologists and parapsychologists is to understand through study psychological causes for reports and experiences of paranormal phenomena. The fact that this endeavour inadvertently does debunk some reported paranormal phenomena can hardly be held against science. To suggest otherwise smacks of sour grapes.

Speaking of which.
"It is understood that scientists hold a Ph.D. in the field to which they apply the scientific method. Yes, anyone can conduct science, but the system is designed to filter out all but academically trained people. I hold a BSEE and it is acceptable for me to say that I study a subject, but saying that I am researching a subject is not technically acceptable. "

There's a reason that PhDs and those working towards PhDs tend to be considered qualified to perform research because scientific subjects are incredibly dense and complex, so much so that it's necessary to diversify and specialise in a very specific area. A deep understanding of a specialised field of study takes years to achieve. It's this level of knowledge and dedication that is required to perform research in science where new knowledge should conform with existing laws and theories.
"Remember I said that Anomalistic Psychologists deliberately ignore evidence of paranormal phenomena. To make their point, they must find ways to conduct research with practitioners that will show the practitioner is delusional or cheating. From experience, there is a good possibility that, even if you produce phenomena under controlled conditions, the resulting report will be written to suggest that you did not or in some way may have been cheating. For instance, there might be ten words acknowledging the phenomena and a hundred words explaining it away."
It's often claimed by proponants of psi research that methodologies are designed to eliminate positive results, but if the rigorous application of the scientific method eliminates positive results then they were probably an artefact of the poor protocol. This seems to be unfair to Butler, clearly from his letter he takes the application of science personally. He blames scientists for the failure of well-conducted studies to show positive results. They're out to discredit him and other "paranormalists". Or maybe science doesn't hold much stock in EVP and ITC, Butler's personal area of study, because there's nothing scientific about them?

Butler's model of mind/body duality makes one prediction:
"If I did the work correctly, the model should be reasonably close to what you believe..."
Butler has designed a scientific model with the sole purpose of conforming to his own beliefs. Science and scientists will never and should never accept this blatant sophistry.

*There is this dairy with cows and everything. The dairy farmer wants to increase his production of milk. To do this, she hires three consultants – an engineer, a psychologist, and a physicist. After a week, the engineer comes back with a report. He said: “If you want to increase milk production, you need to get bigger milk pumps and bigger tubes to suck the milk through.”

Next came the psychologist. He said: “You nee to make the cows produce more milk. One way to do this is to make them calm and happy. Happy cows produce happy milk. Paint the milking stalls green. This will make the cows think of grass and happy fields. They will be happy.”

Finally, the physicist came to present her ideas. She said: “Assume the cow is a sphere….”