Is there objective proof of psychic phenomenon or what??
January 11, 2007 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Is there any scientific evidence to support the existence of psychic phenomenon?

I've been reading Daniel Pinchbecks 2012 and early on in the book he makes the claim that it's a fairly done deal as regards the reality of various psychic phenomenon, linking it in the same sort of way to quantum physics that the movie What The Bleep did. What's the deal? Is there really a large group of scientists who 1) say that these things happen and 2) are not complete nut jobs? Are we really on the verge of accepting that we don't live in a stricly mechanical world? That consciousness might actually be able to affect its surroundings? That consciousness might actually be at the center of everything?

Daniel Pinchbeck is a lucid, enaging writer (his Breaking Open The Head is one of my favorites) so when he says that the scientific proof is out there yet doesn't cite any it gives me some problems as a reader trying to take his work seriously. In fact, a lot of my favorite authors make similiar claims. What's the deal?
posted by my homunculus is drowning to Science & Nature (50 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
In short, no there isn't, by any definition of "scientific evidence".

Read this. IMHO it should be mandatory education for all ;)
posted by jon4009 at 1:44 PM on January 11, 2007

Daniel Pinchbeck may be lucid and engaging, but that doesn't make him scientific or trustworthy. Does the fact that a lot of your favourite authors make similar claims but don't cite anything to back them up not suggest something to you?
posted by chrismear at 1:48 PM on January 11, 2007

(side note: thanks jon4009 - I just found hubby's next gift!)
posted by Sassyfras at 1:49 PM on January 11, 2007

There are numerous challenges that I know of out there to prove psychic abilities. James Randi's Paranormal Challenge is probably the best known and the site linked actually has links to other ones. If someone DID have scientific evidence you would think they would enter these competitions and clean up.
posted by eric-neg at 1:51 PM on January 11, 2007

If evidence was found of psychic abilities, it would be a radical departure from current scientific views and would be wildly publicized.
posted by borkencode at 1:54 PM on January 11, 2007

Response by poster: Chrismear--
Of course it does. If it didn't I wouldn't be asking. I'm not stupid, I'm curious. A lot of people take these things seriously. You wanna know one rather large group who does? Religious people. All of them. I'm interested in finding out why so many authors and film makers are making the assertion that they now have the endorsement of modern physics and many laboratory experiments when they make these claims.

Any idea why I can't find that book on the U.S. site? It looks really interesting, thanks.
posted by my homunculus is drowning at 1:57 PM on January 11, 2007

If evidence was found of psychic abilities, it would be a radical departure from current scientific views and would be wildly publicized.

Or ridiculed completely and ignored for fear of losing precious grant money.

I'd be interested to see some links to actual studies, too. But I also feel that some phenomena are hard to quantify, and, in particular, hard to isolate into a reproducible experimental setting. Also, the default stance of science is skepticism (a popular angle here on MeFi too), which is a good thing, but could quite possibly have a negative influence on the outcome of such experiments.
posted by knave at 1:59 PM on January 11, 2007

My google-fu is failing, but I know I read in the past few months about a study showing that there is a particular type of brain function that's been isolated as explaining the phenomenon of feeling as if you're communicating with spirits/visited by aliens/touched by poltergeists/etc. Basically, researchers found that they could stimulate a specific part of the brain, and the subjects would report a very definite sensation of a "shadow" presence that was interpreted to be a ghost, alien, whatever. So that would be an objective and decidedly non-supernatural explanation for so-called supernatural/psychic experiences.

God, I wish I could find the article. Intrepid Mefites, hope me!
posted by scody at 1:59 PM on January 11, 2007

Of course, a lot of these authors and film producers you're talking about will make wild claims about how, with quantum mechanics, anything is possible. Generally their understanding of quantum mechanics is severely limited and they're applying it in a realm (the macroscopic world) where it just doesn't work that way. Run from these people. :)
posted by knave at 2:01 PM on January 11, 2007

Scody's article
posted by knave at 2:02 PM on January 11, 2007

The Institute of Paranormal Research.
posted by porpoise at 2:04 PM on January 11, 2007

knave: thanks! Somehow I inexplicably (due, perhaps, to supernatural causes?) forgot to do a search on the blue.
posted by scody at 2:09 PM on January 11, 2007

Scody: see also the God helmet
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:09 PM on January 11, 2007

The Global Consciousness Project attempts to measure the effect of world events on random number generators. Kind of a strange idea, but some of their results are interesting.
posted by knave at 2:10 PM on January 11, 2007

Doesn't Amazing Randi still have a standing $10,000.00 offer for this?

Seems like it should be a snap to get your hands on that if any of this crap is true.
posted by Freedomboy at 2:10 PM on January 11, 2007

James Randi Educational Foundation

The Foundation is committed to providing reliable information about paranormal claims. It both supports and conducts original research into such claims.

At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The JREF does not involve itself in the testing procedure, other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which a test will take place. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. Preliminary tests are usually conducted by associates of the JREF at the site where the applicant lives. Upon success in the preliminary testing process, the "applicant" becomes a "claimant."

To date, no one has ever passed the preliminary tests.
posted by toucano at 2:21 PM on January 11, 2007

Freedomboy, Randi's standing offer is actually a million dollars. If you a regular reader of his weekly newsletter, as I once was, you will quickly come to realize that a) the money really is there and he is contractually obligated to give it up, if a test is passed based on conditions mutually agreed upon by testers and claimants, and b) the money is quite safe.

He has tested dowsers, many of whom claim strong abilities, none of whom have done better than chance. He has tested a girl who could read while blindfolded, and discovered during testing that her small face allowed her to see out a gap in the blindfold between her nose and cheek. he has tested psychics and clairvoyants of all types, homeopathic remedies, remote viewers, you name it. All of them agreed upon the conditions they would be tested under - in other words, they believed the test was fair before going into it - and none have passed even preliminary testing. Without exception they were either lying or trying to trick the testers, or they were mistaken about their own abilities.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:24 PM on January 11, 2007

That consciousness might actually be able to affect its surroundings?

Something that kind of ties in here that we've been talking about in my counseling classes is neuroscience, and how our understanding of how the brain works is changing. Basically, the brain changes depending on how you use it (including even growing new neurons, which is something science did not believe could happen), and beliefs actually can change the physical structure of the brain. So "consciousness" does, in some way, affect its surroundings; it physically changes the brain.

What thoughts or theories you generate from that would seem to be a bit up for grabs or murky, but it does start to make a claim for intangible things influencing physical structures.
posted by occhiblu at 2:24 PM on January 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Ganzfeld experiment series is one of the most oft-cited in Parapsychology. You may also be interested in The RetroPsychoKinesis Project. I know little about the merit of either.
posted by MetaMonkey at 2:35 PM on January 11, 2007

>when he says that the scientific proof is out there yet doesn't cite any it gives me some problems as a reader trying to take his work seriously...

I think I can see where you went wrong...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:40 PM on January 11, 2007

Not too much, mhid. The PEAR studies were pretty much shown to be worthless. Even a meta-study of their data didn't show anything.

To second what borkencode said; if there were evidence, it would be HUGE - Nobel Prize, walk on the moon, re-write physics books huge.

Speaking of JREF, I was just checking the boards there, and apparently, there is someone in China offering 1,000,000 yuan for proof of the paranormal. Couldn't find anything further, but after a brief search, I found there are other awards or supplements to the JREF prize.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 2:42 PM on January 11, 2007

(no love for my first answer on the Randi prize and the others.)
posted by eric-neg at 2:46 PM on January 11, 2007

Just to play devil's advocate, wouldn't Randi's test only ferret out strong conscious psychic powers? If I, for the sake of argument, have a subconscious psychic ability to make people feel like eating a bag of Cheetos, I wouldn't be eligible, because I couldn't consciously produce the power under test conditions. I might not even know that I'm producing Cheetos cravings in the population. Wouldn't these low-level non voluntary powers not show up? Please note that I'm not arguing in favor of people with magic powers, I'm just saying that it would seem that there are kinds of subtle things that this particular method wouldn't be able to find. How one would find such things is beyond me.
posted by unreason at 2:47 PM on January 11, 2007

That consciousness might actually be able to affect its surroundings?

Well, the activity of the brain does generate electromagnetic waves that penetrate the skull and radiate out into your surroundings, so consciousness does affect its surroundings by changing the EM radiation present. This is a bit of a stretch to say that these brainwaves "affect" anything in any practical sense though. They won't move objects, or be sensed by other conscious beings as some sort of telepathic link, or do much else besides bounce around and/or get absorbed by matter. At least no documented cases have yet been found to date to suggest that our consciousness affects the outside world (other than the obvious case of our consciousness impelling our bodies to manipulate the world around us.)

Of course there are examples of scientists hooking up sensors to a subjects head that respond to brain activity. In this way, a person can be trained to control a video game or a model train only using their brains. I don't think this is what you're asking though.

It's always been my thought that if there are all of these brain waves floating around, why wouldn't it be possible for some humans to evolve a part of the brain that can sense other people's brain waves? Perhaps the capability is there but we haven't evolved the capability to interpret what is registered on our brains. Of course, in the absence of documented evidence, my idea (and any other "paranormal" ideas) is wild speculation. Science (for the most part) doesn't say that things are impossible, just that there's no reason to believe them without replicable experimental results. So far no results of the type I'm guessing you're asking about have been found.
posted by SBMike at 3:03 PM on January 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Science (for the most part) doesn't say that things are impossible, just that there's no reason to believe them without replicable experimental results.

And due to the incredibly subjective nature of these experiences, and their inconsiderate tendency to not be able to be recreated under full scientific survey, this may not change. What we are talking about trying to define/measure/prove is something that sits at the innermost part of ourself and is incredibly tangled in each individual's personal concept of who they are, whether anything means anything, and what they are compelled to do about it.

That's where religion takes over. The concept of Gnosis, of personal apprehension or contact with the divine, speaks to people on many levels-- but what it ultimately means outside of the scope of their own lives, nobody can say.
posted by hermitosis at 3:23 PM on January 11, 2007

>If I, for the sake of argument, have a subconscious psychic ability to make people feel like eating a bag of Cheetos, I wouldn't be eligible, because I couldn't consciously produce the power under test conditions.

Quite. It's entirely possible that everything I did since I got up this morning has been subtly influenced by someone else's psychic emanations. Marmalade instead of Jam? It could be the guy next door dreaming about oranges.

But if they're not subject to anyone's conscious control and they don't affect anything at the level which can be scientifically measured, then they're not amenable to scientific analysis or any other analysis either. And they're not "powers" because you have no control over them.

So for any practical purposes, it's a pure hypothetical and can't be tested proven, disproven or replicated.

Kind of like String Theory really.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:41 PM on January 11, 2007

Response by poster: Making my way through these links has been a lot of fun--knave's and scody's article relates to a branch of nueroscience which I find to be incredibly fascinating. It reminds me of some studies done of DMT which has been connected to NDE's and experiences of alien life forms. Of course, people wishing to believe in the validity of these experiences might make a comparison to other sections of the brain which govern far more mundane behaviors. For instance, as far as I know, it is possible to stimulate the brain to provoke taste sensations, which we would consider to be artificial because we aren't "really" tasting anything. But we also know that just because we can cause a person to taste cinnamon doesn't imply that cinnamon doesn't exist. To the contrary it might suggest that we have triggable receptors in the brain simply because these flavors, and perhaps experiences, exist in nature, and the brain is hard wired to respond to them in various ways.

As far as the test goes, it seems incredibly reasonable to me that if these psy powers are possible they won't be nearly so practical as Remote Viewing, at least not yet. There's about a billion reasons to believe nobody can do these things aside from the reward, such as why there aren't people out there winning the lottery every day, or stealing and selling national/corporate secrets. The comparison was made (in Pinchbecks book, for one) to electricity when it was first discovered, that it was a barely useful trickle of energy that after much research study we have managed to harness to the point that it has now %100 revolutionized every aspect of society.

and as regards borken-codes comment, unless the proof was dramatic I think the research would be squashed like a bug. The story of the discovery of germs comes to mind. Or the discovery of Earths rotation around the Sun.

Eric-neg, if you want love get a puppy. They're soft, sweet, and reliable.

Thanks for the links everybody, there's a lot of great stuff in here already!
posted by my homunculus is drowning at 3:45 PM on January 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

There have been a few AskMe questions, like this one, that really get to the heart of the question, "What is science?" If a paranormal or psychic activity could be conclusively demonstrated multiple times in a double-blind study (a procedure that is widely accepted by medical and psychological researchers), then that would be a scientific proof of the claim. All the other "vanities" (as JREFers sometimes call them) and explanations, like "sceptics harsh my energy" and "it's an unconscious phenomenon that can't be controlled or measured" are completely irrelevant. Michelson and Morly (along with dozens of other scientists) attempted for years to measure properties of aether. When succeedingly refined experiments couldn't detect it with the most advanced equipment of their day, they didn't wring their hands and talk about the failures of the scientific method. They concluded that it didn't exist.
posted by muddgirl at 3:46 PM on January 11, 2007

...unless the proof was dramatic I think the research would be squashed like a bug. The story of the discovery of germs comes to mind. Or the discovery of Earths rotation around the Sun.

Gah, this is another History of Science myth that I need to squash at least once a week. Here's a wikipedia article on the history of heliocentrism. Read the part about helicentrism in Renaissance Europe.

Scientific theories don't change because of one radical paper that's suppressed until all the evil old dudes die off, they change because of an abundance of evidence that builds and builds, until the old dudes die off or are persuaded by the fitness of the new theory. One contrary result is a fluke. Hundreds of contrary results is a movement. By this, I mean that if you want to prove scientifically that "paranormal" phenomenon are indeed "normal," then one result, however dramatic, won't cut it.
posted by muddgirl at 3:56 PM on January 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

In short, no. I think the Ganzfield stuff sometimes goes above average chance which is interesting, but that's really it. Maybe the pear stuff at princeton too. Ganzfield methodology has its critics of course.

I think anyone who just throws out terms like 'its like quantum physics man' doesnt really understand physics or the paranormal. What the bleep is full of this pseudo-scientific stuff.

on preview
Err, ether doesnt exist. It was a ham-fisted crutch that was thankfully taken away, like epicycles for the 'sun revolves around the earth crowd'. The earth actually revolves around the sun. Thats not a failing, thats the scientific method at work. Self correction, yo.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:00 PM on January 11, 2007

The comparison was made to electricity when it was first discovered, that it was a barely useful trickle of energy

The difference is that there were also naturally occurring cases where electricity could be observed in great amounts: lightning strikes, for instance. So it wasn't such a stretch to imagine that the same phenomenon could occur on a smaller scale.
posted by xil at 4:00 PM on January 11, 2007

Not to mention how people hem-and-hawing over these questions, manage to bring up anything from atlantis to aliens, and change the subject to a criticism of the scientific theory should be a hint that a lot isnt going on here. If there was some real solid and consistant proof it would be all over the streets.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:02 PM on January 11, 2007

You might want to check out "The men who stare at goats." Its an account of the military trying to get into the paranormal for intelligence and warfare. It turns out like you think it would.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:05 PM on January 11, 2007

A more recent example of scientific research getting "squashed like a bug" is Barry Marshall, the guy who discovered that [most] stomach ulcers are caused by a micro-organism.

He had a theory, and he wanted to test it, and he faced considerable "squashing" from his peers and superiors. Everyone knows it can't be true, he was told, because that was the accepted wisdom ... so then he did the science and they had to admit they were wrong.

The actual science would only have been squashed if he'd taken their advice and not done the experiments. Once he'd done the experiments and come up with the results it was unsquashable.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:09 PM on January 11, 2007

I find the posts on the james randi forum fascinating-

james randi forum

Here you can see some of the correspondence of people applying for the million bucks.
posted by phyle at 4:26 PM on January 11, 2007

You can also, as if it needed to be said, see Mr Randi in action on YouTube.
posted by Martin E. at 4:47 PM on January 11, 2007

Not directly related, but relevant: two books were published in 2006 on the search for proof of the afterlife. The first is called Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach (the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.) The second is Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum. I haven't read them, but I heard the authors interviewed on Science Friday and they sound fun.

Science Friday interview with Deborah Blum

Science Friday interview with Mary Roach
posted by granted at 5:03 PM on January 11, 2007

I don't have my copy handy, but I believe that, in Carl Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World, that he only found three groups of phenomena "up for grabs" when it comes to something paranormal, and one of them was PEAR. Can't remember the other two for the life of me.

Sagan was a great skeptic, and fairly ruthless about disassembling things in a fair manner, rather than a kneejerk fashion. So, if there were three areas where he allowed for some room for doubt, I'd probably look there and not a whole heck of a lot further.
posted by adipocere at 5:09 PM on January 11, 2007

Rupert Sheldrake and his experiments with dogs that know when their owner decides to come home.
posted by hortense at 5:31 PM on January 11, 2007

* Hugs eric-neg *

unreason - I think any "tendancy" could be tested. I'm sure a proper protocol could be developed. Even a weak/subtle power could be detected - anything significantly above chance would raise a flag. BTW, have you checked out any of the threads in the challenge section? Very interesting reading.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 6:07 PM on January 11, 2007

"In search of the light" by Susan Blackmore is a good read. She started serious study of the field of parasychology, determined to prove the existence of psychic phenomena. In the end she was forced to conclude that no good results had ever been found, and that where people had good result, the testing had been done very poorly.
posted by tomble at 6:55 PM on January 11, 2007

"and one of them was PEAR" - what does this refer to? First I had heard of it.
posted by vronsky at 9:41 PM on January 11, 2007

Edinburgh University has a dedicated parapsychology unit, the Koestler unit, which investigates psi and other "paranormal" phenomena using proper scientific method. They seem to think that while there have been some experiments showing a psi effect, with results that can't easily be explained away, nobody's been able to replicate them and there's a lot of experiments that don't show any psi effects. So no, no evidence really. Here's an article from The Psychologist magazine on the unit.
posted by terrynutkins at 1:59 AM on January 12, 2007

when he says that the scientific proof is out there yet doesn't cite any it gives me some problems as a reader trying to take his work seriously. In fact, a lot of my favorite authors make similar claims. What's the deal?

There is no "large group of scientists who 1) say that these things happen and 2) are not complete nut jobs" as far as I know. (Except, as I note below, in terms of religious belief.)

The deal is that simply saying that something has been scientifically proved is enough to convince (or at least reinforce the beliefs of) many people. When "a lot of [your] favorite authors make similar claims" they are, if you aren't careful, slowly shifting your belief system to match theirs. So do be careful.

But also watch out for the difference between claiming that some absurd thing has been proved by scientific tests and claiming that some absurd thing is believed by scientists. For example, there are many scientists who believe in one or more powerful invisible beings, but mostly this is a belief they picked up through childhood indoctrination and now cannot shake as adults. A biologist or physicist may believe (after a lifetime of hearing silly claims) that things sometimes occur that are hard to explain without resorting to belief in powerful invisible beings. They may believe that people can influence the real world by thinking messages to invisible beings. They may believe that there is a human essence that carries on after death and floats about in some other world or dimension forever. Weird stuff, but often believed by otherwise perfectly rational scientists. Childhood brainwashing is a very strong force.

But saying that many scientists hold such beliefs is not the same as claiming that there have been scientific tests showing the truth of such things. There have not been such test results and you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for such test results.
posted by pracowity at 4:55 AM on January 12, 2007

Pracowity, it is an extremely presumptuous oversimplification to declare that any religious beliefs held by scientists are due to their inability to overcome their "childhood brainwashing".

Many scientists who have religious beliefs do not feel conflict between the demands of their field and their spirituality, though they certainly may not broadcast the fact. These people have settled the matter within themselves, and owe explanations to no one.

Your generaliztion also excludes any scientists who have converted or discovered their own faith later in life.

Just because someone is a scientist doesn't mean that they live in the same black-and-white world you seem to-- nor that they ought to.
posted by hermitosis at 9:52 AM on January 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

By the way, I am a big fan of Pinchbeck's "Breaking Open the Head", but from what I've heard of how he has personally been affected by all his adventures and discoveries, I would hardly look to him as a provider of exacting and objective source material. The kind of work he's doing isn't for everyone, and the spirit of his work from the beginning has been in performing personal tests of what these drug experiments offer to humans, particularly skeptics-- though he seems to understand the importance of an open mind and a commitment to the experience in order to expect any results whatsoever.

His books have virtually nothing to offer anyone who is still awaiting scientific proof. They include lots of science, to be sure, because there are plenty of scientists working in these areas trying to learn how and why humans experience these plants and drugs the way they do. But basically, as ever, you are either on the bus, or you're not: you can't expect someone with Pinchbeck's angle to bog down in scientific rigor, and if he did, many people would simply not accept what he has to say anyhow.
posted by hermitosis at 10:12 AM on January 12, 2007

An important point from Randi's personal FAQ:

"(9) Scientific papers have been written supporting paranormal events and talents. Therefore, how can you deny them?

Scientists can be wrong — sometimes, very wrong. The history of science is replete with serious errors of judgment, bad research, faked results, and simple mistakes, made by scientists in every field. The beauty of science is that it corrects itself by its own nature and design. By this means, science provides us with increasingly clearer views of how the world works. Unfortunately, though science itself is self-correcting, sometimes the scientists involved do not correct themselves. And there is not a single example of a scientific discovery in the field of parapsychology that has been independently replicated. That makes parapsychology absolutely unique in the world of science." (emphasis mine)
posted by muddgirl at 1:15 PM on January 12, 2007

try googling "remote Viewing"...

Particularly pay attention to Ingo Swann and Harold Sherman... they have worked for the CIA, army, and Nasa ... with some quite startling results.
posted by foodybat at 8:49 AM on January 17, 2007

I'd submit what I feel is an important distinction: that science ultimately doesn't deal in defining what's real or what exists. It deals in generating testable models that are more or less simple, have more or less explanatory value (i.e., consistency with observed results), and have more or less predictive value.

The Michelson-Morley experiment showed that the leading Ether theory of the day was inconsistent with observed results, so it's been thrown out. To this day, you can find apologists for modified Ether theories. They're not taken very seriously, because they're seen to add complication without adding anything in predictive or explanatory value.

With enough epicycles, you can still model planetary motion. But it's extremely complicated, seems very arbitrary, and doesn't have the excellent predictive value that Kepler's model has. So it's dead.

To identify given current theories, no matter how seemingly flawless, as Correct is inherently unscientific. To call for competing theories to demonstrate they're simpler without loss of explanatory or predictive value, or that they're better in explanatory or predictive value before you're willing to consider them better models -- that's scientific thinking.

I have a theory that very few people will read this addition to a 9-days dead thread.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:27 PM on January 26, 2007

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