Friday, December 19, 2008

The Will to Disbelieve

The Los Angeles Times carried an article recently by Chris Woolston, entitled "Holiday Hokum? The lowdown on 5 supposedly healthy gifts." One of those gifts was Intentional Chocolate, which readers of this blog know that I was involved in testing. That experiment employed a randomized, placebo-controlled double-blind protocol, which is the gold-standard in medical testing, to see whether chocolate exposed to the good intentions of advanced meditators would make a difference in the mood of people who ate that chocolate, as compared to the same chocolate not exposed to such intentions. The study, a pilot test involving 62 participants, showed that it did indeed make a statistically significant difference.

I admit that I was surprised at the outcome of this test, but data are what they are. The whole purpose of conducting an experiment is to ask questions about how the world works, regardless of our prejudices. And the strength of empiricism is that data always trumps preconceived ideas. If this weren't so, then we'd all still be living in damp caves eating grubs for dinner.

I published the results of this experiment in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, a peer-reviewed medical journal from Elsevier, one of the world's top publishers of scientific journals. Explore focuses on complementary and alternative medicine, therapy, practices and theories.

The LATimes journalist apparently didn't know or care about any of this. Instead he took the cynical party line:

"It would take far more than a small study in an obscure journal to convince Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. 'There's nothing in the way that we understand the universe that would explain how a group of people could influence the well-being of others by blessing their chocolate,' he says. 'Besides, he adds, if chocolate could be blessed, it could also be cursed.' Think about that before you bite into your chocolate Santa."

Sloan is well known for his negative opinions about alternative medicine. The problem is that Sloan's opinion on this matter displays a tendency unfortunately common among some scientists -- he can only believe something if he already knows how to explain it. This attitude is unfortunate because cognitive and perceptual psychology has clearly shown that the old saying, "I'll believe it when it see it," is actually backwards. The saying should be, "I'll see it when I believe it," because we are all biased not to see if we don't believe, or at least have a reason to believe based on theory or prior experience.

Scientists have to continually strive to counter this kneejerk tendency to disbelieve, otherwise existing knowledge quickly collapses into dogma. Unfortunately, existing knowledge almost always congeals into comfortable habits, which is what led physicist Max Planck to lament that despite the scientific ideal, in reality knowledge advances by funerals, and not by the appearance of new evidence or theories.

But besides dismissing results of an empirical test, Sloan's remark (assuming he is quoted correctly) might betray an underlying reason why he'd rather avoid the whole topic. It is quite true that if intention can influence something positively, then it undoubtedly can also influence something negatively. And that is indeed a scary thought. But does that mean it isn't true? Do some scientists strongly resist these ideas because they don't like the implications?

To be fair, this was a pilot test, and long-held beliefs probably shouldn't change based on a pilot test. But this is not the only such experiment indicating that intention influences the physical world; there are many others (I refer readers to my books for details). There are two ways to respond to surprising outcomes of pilot tests. One way is to say, hmmm, that's curious, let's try it again. The other way is to say, that can't possibly be true because the universe doesn't allow for such things.

In another article reporting an experiment studying mental influence of a distant person's nervous system, I responded to Sloan's failure of imagination as follows:

Sloan and Ramakrishnan have asserted that “Nothing in our contemporary scientific views of the universe or consciousness can account for how the ‘healing intentions’ or prayers of distant intercessors could possibly influence the [physiology] of patients even nearby let alone at a great distance.” Is it really true that nothing in science suggests the presence of connections between apparently isolated objects? Quantum entanglement, a far from common sense effect predicted by quantum theory and later demonstrated as fact in the laboratory, shows that under certain conditions, elementary particles that were once connected appear to remain connected after they separate, regardless of distance in space or time. If this property is truly as fundamental as it appears to be, then in principle everything in the universe might be entangled.

And from that arises the concept of entangled minds and matter, which I need not go into here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008

How skeptics work

This is a wonderful talk by Rupert Sheldrake on the tactics, rhetoric, and in many cases, the hypocrisy, of prominent skeptics.

Download the mp3 audio file here. Or a higher quality version here. Both are on Rupert Sheldrake's website.

Neuropsychology of Paranormal Experiences and Beliefs

Here is a special online issue of the journal Cortex (Volume 44, Issue 10, Pages 1291-1396, November-December 2008), on the neuropsychology of paranormal experiences and beliefs.

The issue addresses the problem of why do apparently normal people, with normally functioning brains, persist in accepting paranormal (and thus, according to conventional neuroscience, delusional) beliefs.

I think this line of research is interesting in that it is useful to understand the origins of cognitive biases and mistakes of attribution, including the neuropsychology of such origins. But the mechanistic worldview of classical physics and the brain-as-computer metaphor assumed by many neuroscientists makes it too easy to dismiss the possibility that some of those beliefs are based on experiences which are not mistaken or delusional, but rather, quite real.