Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Mind Over Matter

Here's something else that you could find in the Seventies that is forbidden nowadays: an open minded documentary on the paranormal and its relationship to mainstream science, featuring respected scientists, and broadcast during peak time.

Nowadays this kind of subject matter is basically forbidden on the tamely materialist BBC. The likes of Channel 4 will occasionally investigate it, but only to pooh-pooh it with a familiar array of sceptics.

And so what appeared at the time to be a new frontier of knowledge has effectively been closed off, and we're stuck with materialism whether it offers any answers or not.

Not that this matters in the long run, as one of the major casualties of the perilous economic decline of the Western world will be scientific progress itself. What we don't know now, we will never know, as the capital to hollow out more and more Swiss mountains to chase ever more elusive phantom particles simply won't be available.


James said...

Oh poor baby! Some nasty "materialists" took away your half-baked wish-fulfilment fantasies of pixies and goblins and magical powers. They unweaved all those pretty rainbows!

Seriously though, who could be more "capitalist" than the cranks pedalling this bunk? Never mind selling the "aura around a product" you can dispense with the product and flog the aura itself.

And if you do really believe any of this stuff is true, then surely you think it belongs in the realm of materialistic, mainstream science anyway? All it needs is a fair hearing to be considered and proven. Funny how that's never come to pass.

Phil Knight said...

Well, they're Nobel prize-winning cranks in this instance.

Ultimately though, all the arguments about psi come down to temperament. People like Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake do expermients/statistical analyses to prove it exists, then people like Ray Hyman and Richard Wisemen analyse the experiments and statistical results and debunk them. They all make money from their books, as far as I can tell.

No layman has the time to pore over the details, so we all come to basically temperament-based (i.e. biased) conclusions.

I don't think psi or the paranormal can be proved or disproved, but I do find the speculation fascinating. That said, pre-cog is the only way I can explain my more spectacular shots in Call Of Duty.

But as I say, this is all academic now, as science will be so deprived of funds moving forwards, that speculation will be all that we have left.

Keep watching that tunnel in Switzerland.....

W. Kasper said...

When I was a kid, the paranormal was common currency - we were all 'mystery buffs' in one way or another. It seems subsequent generations don't give as much of a shit (anecdotally, they seem relatively unconcerned with anything 'natural' or 'scientific' too). It's not so much whether it's 'true' or 'false' as much as the weird lack of curiosity or magic that's encouraged in developing minds these days. Maybe our exam-fixated education system has pushed daydreaming out of the playground too?

Phil Knight said...

Well, personally, I was *metaphorically* rolling up my sleeves for a bit of face-a-face confrontation, and the guy was just hit-and-running.

(you know, I hate hit-and-runs)

But, yeah, one of us ought to do a piece on James Burke, who was the official Ambassador Of The Weird at the time.

Not that he was "right", but as you say, we were all open minded and just wanted to figure out how the world worked. Appeals to the super-ego of "official" science were pointless, as everything adult was part of the super-ego, so anyone sensible just chose the narrative they liked most.

The likes of James Burke wouldn't be tolerated now, any more than Kit Pedlar or Tony Bastable or Lawrence LeShan.

But the idea of science being presented rather than being something that you are expected to believe, is an aspect of Seventies TV that is way ahead of (or behind) what we're accustomed to seeing now.

W. Kasper said...

Nowadays science TV treats it like sport (Dawkins vs. religion) or a cop show (autopsies of neanderthal head wounds etc.). And dinosaurs are OK cos you can throw in CGI. The main thing is selling an 'identity politics' of Jolly Sensible Materialist Reason - as with our friend above. Superstition or mystery is for scary foreigners Who Hate Our Way of Life.

Matt said...

"One consequence of the Occidental obsession with transcendence, logicized negation, the purity of distinction, and with ‘truth’, is a physics that is forever pompously asserting that it is on the verge of completion. The contempt for reality manifested by such pronouncements is unfathomable. What kind of libidinal catastrophe must have occurred in order for a physicist to smile when he says that nature’s secrets are almost exhausted? If these comments were not such obvious examples of megalomaniac derangement, and thus themselves laughable, it would be impossible to imagine a more gruesome vision than that of the cosmos stretched out beneath the impertinently probing fingers of grinning apes."

- Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation

Phil Knight said...


If I can write reasonably coherent posts while off my tits at 3.30 a.m., why can't I stay out of kebab shops?

W. Kasper said...

Only Magnus Pike could answer that.

Anonymous said...

James said...

"The main thing is selling an 'identity politics' of Jolly Sensible Materialist Reason - as with our friend above. Superstition or mystery is for scary foreigners Who Hate Our Way of Life."

I hate "our" way of life, tbh. Not nearly rational enough for me.

Matt Moore said...

1. I'm not sure that the presentation of the paranormal has disappeared. There seem to be a proliferation of programmes featuring would-be psychics, mediums, ghost hunters, etc. The paranormal is big business and commonplace in the mediascape.

2. Science advocates like Simon Singh & Ben Goldacre would be bemused to hear that "materialist" skepticism now dominates British mainstream media approaches to science. The print media in particular seems full of people who don't understand basic science and whose gullibility (or perhaps cynicism) knows no bounds.

3. Interest in "psi" dropped significantly in the global psychology community after the 70s. The evidence for it was simply too weak.

BTW Kit Pedler was the science advisor for Doctor Who in the late 60s and was co-creator of the Cybermen. But I suspect I'm not telling you anything new there.

Phil Knight said...

Well, the paranormal isn't as big a business as Dawkins' & Co.s anti-God industry. I think the likes of Sheldrake sell only a fraction of the number of books as the big D.

The presentation of the paranormal in the mediascape is generally not from a scientific perspective, yes there's plenty of "Ghost Watch" type stuff, but no really objective investigations of the type I posted.

Finally, this kind of "people who actually understand science" appeal to the authority of the super-ego just pisses me off. Are you suggesting that Ben Goldacre knows more about science than Brian Josephson or David Bohm?

Matt Moore said...

>Are you suggesting that Ben Goldacre knows more about science than Brian Josephson or David Bohm?<

I would hope that Ben Goldacre would know more about medicine than Josephson or Bohm. And I would hope that Bohm and Josephson would know more about physics than Goldacre. "Science" is not some homogeneous block of knowledge & practice. So no, I am not suggesting that.

>this kind of "people who actually understand science" appeal to the authority of the super-ego just pisses me of<

I don't recall making an appeal to authority. I mentioned Goldacre as reference point regarding the media coverage of science in general, not because I think that he's a "better" scientist than David Bohm.

You seem to be making appeals to authority ("they have Nobel prizes therefore everything they say must be right"). N.B. Josephson got his Nobel prize for research into superconductivity - not parapsychology. Other physicists have been highly critical of his parapsychological work.

>No layman has the time to pore over the details, so we all come to basically temperament-based (i.e. biased) conclusions.<

Now statements like that piss *me* off. Doesn't that just boil down to: "I believe what pleases me, regardless of the evidence"? Isn't that just intellectual laziness?

>Well, the paranormal isn't as big a business as Dawkins' & Co.s anti-God industry. I think the likes of Sheldrake sell only a fraction of the number of books as the big D.<

The paranormal business is huge. It's just that most consumers of this stuff don't require Sheldrake's work as the science of it is at best window dressing. People desperately want to believe in psychic powers and life after death.

Matt Moore said...

All this is unfortunately confrontational because I really like the three blogs and find the writing to be of a consistently high standard.

Phil Knight said...

Well, according to Radin, Sheldrake etc. there's masses of evidence of the paranormal, and it's dismissed on the most flimsy pretexts by organised sceptics.

The sceptics say otherwise and that Radin etc.s experiments are flawed, statistically invalid etc.

Now, I don't think you have gone through the evidence personally any more than I have - all you have done is taken the likes of Goldacre and Singh as trusted mediators, and formed your opinion from their interpretation, as thought they are completely neutral and unbiased.

I don't think they are unbiased, any more than science is any more unbiased than any other socio-cultural activity - no matter how much it may congratulate itself that it is somehow uniquely rational and objective. And no, peer review is no miraculous guarantor of objectivity.

I mean T.S. Kuhn pointed all this out decades ago - science advances in paradigm shifts, and dominant paradigms are usually enormously resistant to change.

Matt Moore said...

- I do not see science as "unbiased".
- But neither do I choose to adopt into purely relativist view of knowledge. There are more true and less true statements to be made about the world. And just because mainstream science rejects something, it doesn't mean that the something in question is always right.
- To my knowledge, Goldacre & Singh have not written about the work of Sheldrake, Josephson or Bohm. I was not quoting them as parapsychology skeptics but rather commentators on coverage of science by the UK media (Goldacre in particular). Ironically Goldacre actually had some nice things to say about a recent paper providing evidence of pre-cognition.
- However I am skeptical of much of parapsychology because a. it mostly seems to rely on very small statistic differences in populations and b. the mechanisms proposed seem very hazy. It really needs to raise its game.
- As a reviewer for an academic journal, I am well aware of the limitations of peer review.

We seem to be having at least two different arguments here:
1. A general discussion about the epistemological status of the sciences.
2. A particular discussion as to whether the lack of parapsychological coverage (if there is such a lack, I have no data one way or the other) by the BBC Science unit is a result of a materialist bias that has emerged since the 70s.

I'm not especially interested in 1. I suspect that my view of science is less relativistic than yours but someone like Lewis Wolpert would still view me as insufficiently "pro-science" as I do not view it as value-free.

I don't have any first hand experience of 2 (if you do then please lay it out) but I have a different reading of the historical context around the Thames doco you posted. In the 60s & 70s, mainstream scientists were part of a general interest in imported Eastern mysticism (Josephson's ideas were influenced by his Transcendental Meditation practice). Some of this seem to have been fruitful: (this isn't out yet but it looks kinda interesting). Some ideas seem to have either been disproved or moved farther away from the mainstream (e.g. a lot of the "quantum mind" work is looking dodgy). The sciences (and their practitioners) have changed since the 70s. I don't think that the BBC is actively suppressing acres of cutting-edge, world-changing parapsychological research. But that's just my hypothesis and I am willing to have it disproved by evidence.

If you want to have a discussion about the future viability of "big science" projects such as CERN then we can but I suspect that we'll probably agree. And how dull would that be.

Martin Wisse said...

Much, much too naive this post.

For a start, there's nobody so inclided to kookery as yer average physics Nobel Prize laurate -- Linus Pauling and vitamin c makes you immortal is but the first example to spring to mind.

Then there's the fact that all this sort of ESP and praphysical nonsense hasn't disappeared off the telly. The BBC might not do much with it, but on the commercial channels here in *.nl there are plenty of mediums (media?) et all plying their trade. What has changed is what pseudoscience is being peddled, but that's a matter of fashion.

You needn't invoke the bogeymen of Goldacre and Singh either to explain why "science" doesn't take this stuff seriously. This has all been disproven over and over and over again, long before any of the modern day skeptics were even born, long before even this documentary was made.

No, "a new frontier of knowledge" has not "effectively been closed off", it just turned out that there never was any new land to discover.

W. Kasper said...

I find it strange that you would say there's no 'new land to discover'. Some examples off the top of my (admittedly ignorant) head:

Neuroscience - what the non-verbal may actually understand (or not), levels of cognition, emotional faculties etc. It's quite recent that they've discovered how babies - and animals, no matter how 'simple' - have a lot more going on upstairs than we assumed.

Cosmoglogy - 90% of it still in the 'haven't got a clue' catergory. Dark matter? Superstrings etc?

Origins of life - perpetually controversial.

And then there's the many diseases or disorders (autism) etc that they're still at a loss to prevent or understand the cause of.

Some would claim to know how the universe 'works', but we're still not fully aware of what's going on in our own oceans. There's huge gaping holes in every scientific discipline. It definitely is trial and error and paradigm shifts. To assume ourselves as the generation with all necessary knowledge is a remnant of the Enlightenment, itself picked apart by the scientific discoveries made since.

Matt Moore said...

Kasper - I don't think that Martin was saying that science is done - just that parapsychology ain't going anywhere interesting at the moment.

From what I recall, some pronounced that physics was "nearly complete" at the end of the 19th century - just before quantum mechanics and relativity shook everything up.

We are profoundly ignorant about many things. There will always be heaps of new things to explore - just whether we have the material and intellectual resources to do so.

Lars S said...

There's loads of evidence of the existence of Psi, such as this recent article by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, published in the journal of the American Psychological Association:

All that happens is that as the evidence accumulates the sceptics attempt to move from attacking individual researchers to attacking the institutions that publish them (first Stanford, and now no doubt Cornell). Otherwise it comes down to statistical nit-picking.

The simple fact is that psi is real, the statistical evidence for it is accumulating, but what really needs to happen is for us to find an adequate physical explanation for its effects. This work is also ongoing.

Those who deny the reality of psi are of course welcome to do so, but will find themselves increasingly marginalised as the scientific investigation work goes on without them.

Bill H. said...

It's fine to demonstrate how paranormal phenomenon 'might' occur, but it states nothing at all about whether it "does" occur.

I know of no verifiable, reproducible, solid evidence for the paranormal claims of men. If it's not verifiable and reproducible, and, in particular, if there are other explanations for the phenomenon (statistical coincidence, cheating, etc.) then it really doesn't make sense to claim paranormal phenomenon because it cannot be known to exist.

The very idea of positing how something might happen when the "something" isn't observed, seems weird to me. Sure, they could be right, but show me the paranormal phenomenon first. I haven't seen it.