Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Science of Spooky - Follow-Up

I mentioned yesterday about the Illinois Science Council event on the Science of Spooky. I actually went to the event to hear the talk by Julia Mossbridge and Dan Hooper.

Before I write something on it, let me first of all declare (if you haven't been following this blog for a considerable period of time already), that I'm extremely skeptical of paranormal phenomena. So that should give you already the frame of mind that I was in when I attended this event. I don't pretend to have an "open mind", whatever that means. I did intend to listen to the presentation and analyze what I heard based on what I know.

Julia Mossbridge started the evening by describing various Psi research and presenting various 'evidence', based on a number of studies, of these Psi phenomena. I wasn't convinced. Many of these are extremely small effects, and these data were never shown with the statistical spread. So most of these masked the "degree of confidence" that one has on the results. But more on my annoyance about this later.

Dan Hooper then presented a very entertaining analysis of the properties of ghosts. I hope that the audience caught on something very important that could have easily been missed. Dan started out by describing ALL that we know about the properties of ghosts (i.e. it can appear out of nowhere, and it can go through walls, tables, etc.). Then using those observations, try to construct the nature of ghost. In other words, now that we now what it can do, can we figure out what is made of? This is extremely important because this is how science works, especially after an experimental discovery. Now that we know a number of things that it can do, can we formulate a theoretical description of what it is from First Principle? So what he did was demonstrate one way on how science works. To me, this demonstration of the methodology is as important as what he was describing. I just hope the audience realized that.

Anyway, back to these ghosts. He talked about all the various forces that we know of today (electromagnetic, strong, weak, and gravity), and none of them, it seems, can be used to describe ghosts, since all of these forces interact with matter, and since ghosts can pass through matter easily without interacting, then they can't be made up of these forces. So then he tries to look at other types of explanation, and he offered 3:

1. neutrino. In fact, neutrino has sometime been referred to as "ghost particles". Can ghosts be made up of neutrino? Nope. First of all, neutrino can't be localized. Since it barely have any mass, it moves extremely close to the speed of light. So to have it somewhere long enough for human to see would be impossible. Furthermore, neutrinos do have weak and gravitational interaction. So at some point, ghosts can only be detected this way, not by human visual observation. So that rules out neutrinos.

2. Dark matter. Can ghosts be made up of dark matter? This again suffers from the same issue as neutrino, where it requires the dark matter particle to actually be localized long enough, and be observed via EM interaction, which can't be done with dark matter.

3. Extra dimensions. Can it be that whatever particle that makes up ghosts actually live out in the extra dimensional space beyond our 3 spatial dimensions? Dan argued that there has to be something that turns itself on and off with these ghosts particles that will allow it to appear and then disappear from our 3D universe. That is a mechanism that is very hard to explain and be convincing.

In the end, he claimed that Physics cannot explain ghosts, which isn't a surprise to everyone who attended.

What was interesting was the Q&A session that follows. There were of course, a lot of entertaining questions and answers, but I was kicking myself (and I still am) about the response that Julia gave to a question on whether there was any explanation to what causes the Psi phenomena. Her response was that there's no explanation for gravity either!

Now, at that point, I was ready to say something, but since she was still going on with her answer, and other people also chimed in with other related questions, I didn't try to force myself into the middle of it and then at the end, simply let it go. DRAT! Now I'm regretting not responding to that type of response. So I will now vent my response here.

While it is true that at the very fundamental level, we do not know what gravity is, it doesn't mean that we do not understand it or have no clue on what it is. There is a HUGE difference between our understanding of gravity, and our understanding (or lack thereof) of psi. We understand gravity well enough to be able to describe it not just qualitatively, but also QUANTITATIVELY! That's very important, because when you can predict something by putting numbers, it implies that you have understood its behavior very well. However, the most important difference between psi and gravity is the FACT that our knowledge of gravity has continue to GROW. The boundary of our knowledge on gravity, ever since mankind first realize what it is, and ever since Newton and Kepler formulated it, have continued to expand. Einstein's description of gravity via his General Relativity is one prime example of how we know MORE and MORE about gravity, and the fact that we can send space craft to meet up with various celestial bodies and objects is ample proof that we know A LOT about gravity and continue to refine our knowledge of it.

The same can't be said about psi phenomena, and paranormal phenomena in general. After hundreds of years since its purported "discovery" and years and years of study, the field is trying to prove the existence of these phenomena. It is still stuck in first base in trying to show that these things truly are there. All that have been done (and this is certainly the message that I got out of the evening) is that there are now more varied and different ways to try to find it. That's it. After so many years, it is still trying to show that these phenomena truly are there and valid. They still are stuck in the "discovery" phase. This is not even remotely close to resembling what we know about gravity!

One can start to understand why it prompted physicists such as Bob Park to label the whole enterprise as "voodoo science" in his book.

So I regretted not being able to say that as a response. I'm glad that I can get my frustration out by writing it on here, but it is not the same. Still, I had an enjoyable evening, and I hope the Illinois Science Council does more of these things in my neighborhood more often.

Edit: My friend Ben over at Peculiar Velocity has written his version of this fun event.


1 comment:

Julia Mossbridge said...

Hello there,

I enjoyed your post about this event -- just found it today, a few months after the fact.

Thanks for writing your response to my "we don't understand gravity, either" quip. Yes, it was flip. And yes, I know we understand gravity quantitatively, albeit not mechanistically -- and that psi research lags there.

I thought I'd give you an update about my research, and not argue with you about the veracity of the effects I showed.

The reason I got into psi research is that I have studied perception most of my life, and if there is a form of perception that is not covered by the 5 known senses, I think it's important to understand that form. I was convinced by some of the data, especially the physiology work that I showed at that talk.

So I've undertaken my own set of experiments exploring physiological changes that occur either preceding an emotional event (usually called "precognition" by those in the field), or during the time when someone is being stared at through a remote video camera with a monitor located in another room (usually called, creatively or perhaps not so creatively, "the sense of being stared at").

Both are showing statistically significant effects with relatively few number of subjects, at least so far. The most impressive effect was in the "sense of being stared at" condition. The subjects were not able to guess (above chance) when I was staring at them, but when I wrote an algorithm that uses their physiological data to determine when I was staring at them, the performance was statistically significant (p=0.001). This was not the case when I used the same algorithm applied to a control data set consisting of physiological responses recorded when the same subjects thought they were being stared at, but were not (p=0.550). A paired t-test comparing the algorithm's performance between the two conditions was also significant (p=0.004, effect size d=0.85). If these results are replicable, I'm hoping to repeat the experiment using a Faraday cage, in an attempt to get at mechanism. I'll be presenting these data in Seattle this August, at the annual meeting of the Parapsychology Association, a group of dedicated psi researchers associated with the AAAS.

I understand your skepticism, but I also think you are under-informed about the psi field, a situation that is also understandable. People don't generally investigate phenomena that they don't think are real.

However, there's a lot of discounting of the psi field from people who don't know the data. Meanwhile, there's a group of excellent, well-educated, and rigorous researchers hoping to eventually provide producing replicable results, especially in the physiology domain.

Yes, we are working on basic questions around paradigm and mechanism. However, I don't think the slow progress of the field is a reason to discount it. If I and other researchers didn't have to risk our reputations to examine these phenomena, and if we could receive NIH or NSF funding on a regular basis, then I do think the many decades of slow progress would say something about the field.

I think it's important to be collegial and non-dismissive. It's better to assume that I (and other researchers in the field) are misguided than to assume we want to somehow pull the wool over anyone's eyes, or that we're under-informed about reality or the data.

I also think Dan did a great job that was a fun night with a good crowd.


Julia Mossbridge, M.A., Ph.D.
Visiting Scholar, Visual Perception, Attention, and Cognition Laboratory
Department of Psychology
Northwestern University
Evanston, IL 60208