So I showed up and was directed to a computer in a small room where I answered a few questions about how sleepy/alert I felt. On the computer monitor, there was a dark see-through plastic extension with two circles made of faint light dots, not unlike a modern electronic stove look. I was told this was an eye-tracking device and after allowing it to align to my eyes I was told my task. There was a 4x4 row of colored squares that reminded me of the game "Memory" where you flip over two cards at once and look for pairs. I was told that one of the squares would randomly turn into a pot of gold or a lump of coal. I was supposed to look towards the pot of gold and away from the lump of coal. Randomly images would flash on the screen that we were instructed to ignore. The images flashed rather quickly, and I couldn't identify a lot of them but I was able to make out a shark, a huge spider on a shoulder, and what I think was a scary tree. I figured the study was about how well we would do on our search task after a distraction, and perhaps looking for a difference if that distraction was positive or negative.
While my last post was about how researchers have been terrible at deception, this study's true purpose blew me out of the water.
Here is the text of the debriefing form I was handed:
"Thank you for participating in this experiment. This experiment is part of a larger research study aimed at advancing our scientific grasp of what has been termed "transcendent cognition," or consciousness that may transcend currently understood physical laws. In particular this experiment involved novel tests of precognition; the idea that you can have access to information about some event before it actually occurs. In one experiment we were interested in whether correctly guessing the identity of an image will influence the time to respond to happy vs. angry faces. Another experiment was testing whether you were faster at responding to circles on the left or right side of the screen depending on whether or not the
I was confused because everything in the first half screamed, "pseudoscience!" but then the explanations of the experiments seemed normal at first glance. After reading it over again, I decided to send the professor in change an email:
"It states, "this experiment is part of a larger research study aimed at advancing our scientific grasp of what has been termed "transcendent cognition," or consciousness that may transcend currently understood physical laws", and that you are testing precognition, "the idea that you can have access to information about some event before it actually occurs". And why do you think that precognition exists? Where would we be getting this information from?
It sounds like this is a parapsychology study about psychic premonitions. Is this an accurate assessment, or am I misreading the debriefing? If it is accurate, I am curious what sorts of mechanism you think it works on (that is, how humans would detect future events). I am also unclear how the study I participated in would figure into demonstrating paranormal activity. I participated in the visual seeking experiment that involved target points, opposite side target points and flashed negative images. What result would you think demonstrate psychic results? The debrief said, "testing whether you were faster at responding to circles on the left or right side of the screen, depending on whether or not the subsequent negative image appeared on the left or right side." This was where I was confused because I did not see the parapsychology angle here; it seems to just be testing if a negative image will cause you to avert your eyes or be distracted from seeking the target. I don't see the connection to parapsychology/precognition.
Thank you in advance for your answers, and I appreciate you making yourself available for questions. I am always curious!"
(As you can see, somehow the word "subsequent" had not sunk in yet.) I tried to be as polite as possible, after all, a UCSB professor couldn't really be studying this, could he? I really didn't want to make assumptions, but I also wanted to point out the improbability of para phenomena.
Here was the reply he sent:
"I'm happy to field your questions. So, yeah this research would be considered to be in the domain of parapsychology. We really don't have an idea as to the mechanism by which precognition could occur. However, one hypothesis is that it doesn't require any extra senses per se, but is more of function of time not being linear and flowing forward (which actually is not an assumption of modern physics).
The particular experiment you participated in was an eye-tracking experiment in which we are interested in knowing whether you move your eyes towards or away from negative vs. neutral stimuli BEFORE they actually appear. If so, this would be an example of precognition because you should have no way of knowing when these pictures appear, and whether the picture is negative or neutral, or whether it is on the left or right side because this is randomly determined. If you are interested in reading more about similar experiments i would recommend dean radin's book "the conscious universe".
Anyway, I hope that answers some of your questions. Feel free to let me know if you have any more question."
So the experiment was testing if I would look away from the bad images before they would happen.
After reading this, I just felt sad, and sorry for him. It seems like he really wants to believe in this and that he really believes that there is psychic phenomena. He believe it so much that he has no idea how it might work, no idea why it might work, and no good data to back it up - just a hope and a book of bad science that preys on the hopefulness of others.
Also I realized that his experiment had a great potential for manipulative abuse. There were questions about my alertness at the beginning. Students who were too sleepy and uninterested could be thrown out - without any evidence that alertness would influence paranormal signals. Or he could even throw out those whose attention was too focused - those who were not in touch enough with their subconscious cues. Then of course there is the variability to what degree people look away from the negative images. The criteria for what counts as looking away could easily be altered until a random, expected anomaly was found at a specific distance, say 5.5 centimeters.
Parapsychology researchers in the past have often manipulated their data thus because they believe it is justified because the phenomena exists and they are just tweaking their results, but other people have had results too, so it has to be true. It's not unlike a Ouija board, where everyone makes small movements and tweaks to spell out what they want to be true, and despite knowing that they themselves are cheating just a little, believe everyone else is getting genuine results so the phenomena is true. The most dangerous parapsychology researchers are those ones who truly believe and are desperate for evidence because they will vastly lower their standards and then what they end up with is not science.
Even for those who do not cheat and get null results, they still continue to believe. There is no amount of null results that will convince them that the phenomena is not real, and that is not scientific either. A lot of dumbasses have been spouting a link between autism and vaccine shots. The original study this is based on was performed sloppily, and the conclusions were disagreeable. Multiple studies since this original have show no connection, a null result, between autism and vaccines. And yet for those who truly believe vaccines are linked to autism, no amount of null evidence will persuade them. They will ignore real scientific research that says nothing is there, and they will trust any shoddy "research" or rational that confirms their faith. Parapsychology research is about the same.
Another thing to look for is the poor rational for how these things would work. This professor claims that perhaps time is not linear and we are conscious of things before they happen. I am an amateur when it comes to understanding physics, but I am rather certain non-linear time, if it exists, would require extremes that are not even possible for us to experience. As wikipedia did not have an article on non-linear time, and the pages I could find on the subject looked like the typical crackpot layout, I am going to assume it is another psuedoscience pipedream, unless someone can point out how it would work. The big question is, indeed if it time does hop around why do we experience a linear flow, and if we experience a linear flow then it doesn't matter if time hops around because that is imperceptible to us, so how could we be conscious of it enough to experience precognition? Why can we only faintly pick up signals from the future?
But even assuming that time was not linear... how would that help us see into the future? How would this psychic phenomena manifest? Would photons of non-linear time-light hit our eyes and send us flashes of the future? How could we determine how far into the future these were from? If it was non-linear, we'd be getting photons from all different times in the future, and the "message" would become garbled (imagine clips from a song being played together at the same time). Our eyes have noise signals being fired all the time, just being part of the random nature of being a biological system, and these noise signals are weeded out by the brain. Even if we were getting extra bits of information from the future, it would be ignored as trash information, and rightfully so, or else our perception would be filled with noise (imagine random light/dark splotches appearing and disappearing, shapes wobbling).
I would imagine most monistic believers in psychic phenomena believe that there is some system in the brain that picks up on stuff about to happen in the future, but that is even sillier. Even if signals were coming in from the future, there's no way a patch in our brain could interpret it. We have these eyes, ears, noses, skin because the brain needs some way to access this information and pre-interpret it before further processing. There's no way that sound waves or photons or pressure signals would mean anything to neurons in the brain. They need an interpreter. It's not really any different from asking a person to listen to radio signals without a radio to receive them.
The only real hope, of course, is for something in soul-land to be whispering to you what is going to happen in the future. While anything impossible is always made to be probable in soul-land, I have to say this is stretching it far past what can be considered rational, and just grasping for straws. While this is possible, it's also possible to test and see if psychic phenomena manifests. It doesn't. At least, not with any scientific study that eliminates the possibilities of cheating. So soul-land can't even save precognition because it doesn't happen.
And what of this book he referred me to? The top google result for "the conscious universe review" was this on SkepticReport. It seems this guy is claiming that scientists know that psychic phenomena exists but that there's some sort of conspiracy to hush up anything that doesn't agree with the norm. It reminds me of arguments for creationism. Then of course there's the slew of misquotes, the promotion of people who have been demonstrable frauds, the cherrypicking of the few anomalous studies that have somehow never been reproduced, and a general slandering of the scientific community and process, according to this SkepticReport review.
The whole experience reminded me of these scenes from Ghostbusters (3:45 - 6:03), with my professor being played by the true-believing Dan Aykroyd, only my professor seems to be gambling with his reputation instead of his house. Gullible Aykroid is buying into the business promises of a manipulative jerk who has just been exposed as an unscientific fraud by proper professionals, and who doesn't care about science but just wants to make money. Of course Ghostbusters worked out because it's a movie. In real life, Aykroyd would be out of a house.
I sent him an email back, and while this email was probably much harsher, it is nowhere near as harsh as his peers would be if he tried to publish.
"That certainly sounds like a very thorough criteria for tracking precognition, I applaud such an honest and rigorous method. All too often I am used to seeing lax standards when it comes to qualifying "paranormal" activities, and even research practices amplifying noise (cutting participants, dismissing skeptics with negative energies, changing the parameters, etc etc). It seems many psi researchers so desperately want to find a result that they will loosen their standards and cheat just a little, just this time, because besides everyone else is getting that same sort of result. I have seen the dismissal and of null results, logical explanations, the lack of searching for contradictory or negative explanations, all in the desperation for something they hope, they want to be there. I look forward to seeing the results, and what, if any, deviation from the null there was. (Assuming a significant and repeatable result, have you heard of the JREF million dollar prize? It's been around for decades now, and I've heard that they're going to stop offering it to free up funds, but according to their criteria if your results were replicable for the JREF, you'd qualify.)
While I would love to read more about this sort of thing, I am not a fan of books by single authors. Books, I feel, lack a certain scientific standard as the author has the freedom to quote mine, ignore data problems, promote shady research. Whenever I've read a book on a subject I have actually studied in depth (which, given my youth, have been very few) I seem to always pick out a few errors, which has frightened me away from trusting books on subjects I have not studied in depth. I much prefer reading research reports or summaries about scientific topics, things that have been peer-reviewed and have had may objectionable standards ironed out. Do you have any of these sources, scientific journal articles? I am sure that you have some already, as part of normal preliminary research (although I admit I've often put off that research myself till later, so no biggie if you don't yet!). "
I am still waiting on a response, and I will let it be known if one does arise. While I feel mostly pity, I am also upset. This man has power over students, he is in a position of authority. Who knows what he is teaching in his classes? Furthermore, he is using what I would guess to be university funding to test for something that has been disproven for decades. I would rather the funds go to something that would better humanity or expand our knowledge. The purpose of science, if it has one, is to expand our knowledge. It does not serve us to keep re-testing things that have been reliably shown to not exist. He might as well be looking for leprechaun bones, or spending time calculating if the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa.
Edit: He sent me an email response literally minutes after I posted this. Here is his response, and it just makes me feel worse for the guy. The disdain for mainstream scientists, the belief that somehow he will find results where others have failed for decades, the belief that gut feelings and personal experiences are more important than studies, and no research into text that might contradict the book's conclusions. It's an odd feeling, being sorry for a professor, someone obviously my superior. I hope he doesn't lose his reputation and his life on this dream. Here was his response:
"Yeah, i've heard of the JREF prize, but you are correct in that it actually expires at the end of 2009. We are really committed to approaching this in as rigorous a way as possible, and the plan is to have any result scrutinized and replicated in other mainstream psychology labs by well respected scientists before publishing anything. So likely, we won't have any conclusive results by the end of the year...
I agree w/your thoughts regarding books...any one book will be biased but if it's well written there should at least be references to the actual studies so that you can take a look for yourself. I attached a few articles that will give you a feel for some of the studies out there. Unfortunately since mainstream psychology journals don't publish any of these findings, the review process isn't quite as rigorous. So, even though i believe in the possibility of these phenomena enough to be studying them -- it is based more on my reading of the entire literature and findings from studies i've run, rather than any one particular article."