Sunday, February 11, 2007

Princeton ESP lab closes

Believe it or not, Princeton University has had a lab that has studied paranormal phenomena for 28 years.
There are nice people behind this work - Robert G. Jahn, a former jet propulsion expert, who founded it and Brenda Dunne who has been the manager.

The lab has studied various unusual interactions between humans and machines induced by telepathy, telekinesis, and other cool phenomena. However, some journals didn't publish the results. For example, an editor was only ready to publish those papers that Jahn would telepathically communicate directly to the editor's brain. It hasn't worked so far.

In one of the experiments, a person could "think low" or "think high" and influence a random generator. This effect, if true, could have applications in the stock market. The investors could "think high" after they buy a stock and "think low" after they sell it. If I have ever tried this method, let me admit that I would have to hide this fact. ;-) Jahn claims that in an analogous controllable experiment, people can influence the numbers in 2-3 out of 10,000 events. ;-)

Sociologically, I know that many sane people believe all these fascinating paranormal phenomena. For example, my father is quite sane but several years ago, he has tried so many methods e.g. to remain in shape that don't quite seem compatible with the currently known laws of physics that the Princeton lab could probably be blamed for a lack of imagination. ;-)

I remember how shocked he was around 1995 when I told him that most physicists didn't consider the existence of geopathogenic zones to be a scientific fact. Recently, he became a real athlete and the importance of the magic recipes has plummeted.

Many really smart people are known to have believed Uri Geller that he could bend forks by pure thought, i.e. from the first principles. :-) The list included David Bohm and a person whom I consider much smarter than David Bohm, namely Michael Crichton.

Well, I think that the people obviously have/had rights to pursue their research if it can/could be made compatible with the laws that control the university (the funding for these highly unusual things always has to come from private sources, as in Jahn's case). I think that it is equally obvious that such extraordinary statements would face opposition.

But even if you forget about the actual physics in these experiments - that I don't believe at all - something is defeatist and unscientific about Prof Jahn's sad conclusions:
  • “For 28 years, we’ve done what we wanted to do, and there’s no reason to stay and generate more of the same data,” said the laboratory’s founder, Robert G. Jahn, 76, former dean of Princeton’s engineering school and an emeritus professor. “If people don’t believe us after all the results we’ve produced, then they never will.”
I just don't think that this is how a scientist should deal with a problem. First of all, it is not important whether other people believe something. The first thing the scientist must decide is whether he should believe these things himself: whether they're really true. And I think that the answer to this question must be uncertain even for Prof Jahn if he looks carefully.

Second of all, if the lab would keep on generating "the same data" that have been inconclusive, to say the least, it would indeed be a waste of time. I think that this comment is true regardless of the actual character of the research. In science, however, things can always be made more conclusive by producing "different data" or "better data" or "more accurate data". An incomplete scientific hypothesis can always be made more accurate and concrete. If it can't, it's not science.

Some people have said that in some of my comments, I have assumed the existence of a final theory of everything or the complete truth. In that context, it wasn't quite true that the assumption was needed but now it is: indeed, the only way how I can justify the statement above - that incomplete scientific hypotheses can always be refined - is to use the assumption that a complete theory (or at least a quasi-complete theory of a class of phenomena) exists.

If a complete theory didn't exist, it would indeed become possible to have perfectly scientific but inherently vague, ill-defined, and inconclusive hypotheses.

If you agree with me that is should always be possible to make the previous scientific arguments more accurate or more concrete by improving the theory or the technology or the capacity of the experiment, you will also agree that the scientific character of the anthropic principle is questionable, to say the least, because its assertions can't be evaluated quantitatively with an ever increasing accuracy. The principle simply doesn't predict any sharp numbers that could be measured accurately and whether or not some qualitative predictions of the principle are confirmed may always be a subject of bias and it may be influenced by modifications of the rules during the game.

Many great people in the past have proposed many theories that were difficult for their contemporaries even though these theories were often correct. In many cases, the other people were slow in accepting the new insights simply because they were stubborn, stupid, biased, dogmatic, or some combination of these and other adjectives. In other situations, they may have had some good reasons not to accept a new theory too quickly.

Alfred Wegener discovered the continental drift and he had an amazingly diverse spectrum of evidence supporting his claims. In his case, the "scientific consensus" that was rejecting the theory was clearly composed of relatively stupid, irrational, and stubborn scientists. Nevertheless, they (incorrectly) argued that the main problem with Wegener's theory was a lack of an actual plausible mechanism. The reasons that others use to justify their disbelief must be given special attention in the research even though this extra attention is an artifact of sociological pressures, not pure science.

But after some time, when new creative people develop new tools to approach the mysteries and to extend the evidence, theories often become "obviously" true. The ability to develop new methods to settle questions that were inconclusive in the past is undoubtedly a major part of the scientists' job. Presenting a vision - such as the existence of unusual causal relations between humans and machines - just can't be the whole story. After all, many people have believed magical things for millenia so this vision wouldn't be quite original.

If we imagine that Prof Jahn is right, there will be other experimenters in the future who will find better evidence for these stunning statements. Better evidence that Prof Jahn could have found or should have found during those 28 years. These future researchers will take most of the credit for the actual discovery of the new shocking physical phenomena. I think it's obvious that this is how it must work even though it's not clear to me whether Prof Jahn would agree.

We have many examples of a similar situation. String theory is almost obviously the right description of reality. Nevertheless, there still exist people who are irrational or weird enough that they want to argue that all of string theory is on a completely wrong track. Even though most of us think that they're crackpots, it's clear that we couldn't be just "producing the same data as in the last 28 years". The field is dynamic and it is producing completely new ways to look at the old good phenomena and new ways to become sure about things that used to be uncertain. New methods to see that certain things are inevitable or equivalent emerge all the time. A theory must be making some progress.

Indeed, if our knowledge about string theory looked exactly like what it was 28 years ago, I would have to concede that the critics could hypothetically have an infinitesimal amount of intelligence. But it's not the case: during the last 28 years, huge progress has occurred which has made string theory more likely than it was before - while the lack of progress in ESP has made paranormal phenomena even less likely than they were decades ago. The progress may occur in different directions than what you may expect or want at the beginning. For example, some people could have hoped for more progress in high-energy experiments. But there has to be some progress if a theory is more than a short-lived illusion.

And that's the memo.

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