Thursday, May 18, 2017

She Blinded Me With Science!

Funny what the morning news brings.  This:

Is not Donald Trump "changing reality."  This is Donald Trump whining.  But it isn't the sound of a sui generis man-child, it is the sound of Trump's supporters who still think there is nothing to the allegations made against Trump.  And they think that because they, too, are whiners.  They think their privileges have been taken from them, that life has not been fair to them, that they deserve better than they've gotten, and many of them probably dream of living the way Trump lives:  loudly, ostentatiously, gaudily, bragging about his sexual conquests and parading a small army of blond wives around, each younger than the last, each more "pneumatic" than a blow-up doll.  I'll put it bluntly and you can read the article at Slate to get my context:  Trump isn't "reshaping reality" with his language (he's hardly one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world; he deals in toddler-speak).  He is simply giving voice to a minority who put him in office because of the quirks of the electoral college and low voter turnout in 2016.  They aren't trying to change reality; this is how they see the world.  The "consensus" view of politics, law, international relations, government, is not their view.  If there is a danger in Trump, it is in not recognizing who he speaks for, however inadvertently.  But are they going to rise up through Trump and take over America?  Is their view going to prevail?  In some sense, they have, and it does:  the GOP is the dominant political party throughout the country, despite the fact it is numerically the "minority" party.  But will that last?

Only the future will tell, and no one can predict that.  Which brings us to the other interesting story in the news:  Slate also tells me that ESP is real, and that fact has broken science.

Well, the headline says that; the article says otherwise.  A 10 year study by Daryl Bem concluded that replicable evidence of ESP had been produced, based on results above statistical expectations (albeit barely, as best I can tell).  What interests me is not the assertion, but the reaction to the assertion; and I don't mean the reaction the article focusses on.  The thesis of the article is that Bem instigated a review of standards regarding the scientific method which may reverberate throughout not just psychology and the social (or "soft") sciences, but reach ultimately to chemistry, physics, etc. I don't think that would be a bad thing, especially considering how much blind faith (yes, I said it!) is given to science today, based on the fact that it's science!, and therefore must be true!  Oh, sorry:  True!

No, what interested me was the connection between that article and this argument about proofs of the existence of God (a philosophy of religion issue, by the way, not a theological one. I always feel constrained to clarify that point, now.  Anyway....).  You see, the interesting reaction to the publication of Bem's results was not:  "Gee, is that possible?  Should we conduct some experiments to find out?", but:

 “I was shocked,” he says. “The paper made it clear that just by doing things the regular way, you could find just about anything.”

The paper, you see, had to be wrong.  Mind, the methodology was impeccable:

“Clearly by the normal rules that we [used] in evaluating research, we would accept this paper,” said Lee Ross, a noted social psychologist at Stanford who served as one of Bem’s peer reviewers. “The level of proof here was ordinary. I mean that positively as well as negatively. I mean it was exactly the kind of conventional psychology analysis that [one often sees], with the same failings and concerns that most research has.”

But it couldn't be right.  The results were unacceptable, so clearly something was wrong.  But is that conclusion the result of the scientific method; or the result of a refusal to let paradigms shift?

The article moves to other concerns with how scientists actually follow the scientific method (spoiler alert:  badly!), and I'm not making a case for the reality of ESP.  But if you can read a peer-reviewed paper published in a scientific journal and conclude immediately it must be false, then how do you ever accept a proof of God's existence?

Not that you have to, but what is the purpose of such a proof except to overcome doubt?  That isn't the purpose, actually.  If you read the excerpt at Thought Criminal outlining the argument of Duns Scotus, you'll note the argument is more theological than philosophical (do I contradict myself?  No.) because it is aimed at establishing the nature of God, not at overcoming modern atheism (anachronisms abound, and again I choose my words carefully).  Even if it is taken as a proof of God on par with Berm's "proof" of ESP, I can see many a philosophical atheist concluding "With logic you can find just about anything."

Or, as Kierkegaard put it:  if you do believe, what proof do you need?  And if you don't, what proof is possible?  A point illuminated by the Slate article:  Berm has not convinced "skeptics" that ESP is real, but he himself remains convinced it is.  How would you dissuade him?  How could he convince you?

And is anyone ever going to convince Trump, or his most ardent supporters, that reality is not centered around them?


  1. That Slate article is full to the top with errors and misinformation, the author obviously didn't read or consult people who were familiar with the research, to start with Daryl Bem's research is a replication of a large number of studies by other researchers going back quite a ways and there are other lines of research he's obviously unfamiliar with, as well. He not only apparently hasn't read the scientific literature, he also hasn't read the scientific criticism, internal and external of the research.

    As to Bem's research setting off the replications crisis, that's been an ongoing criticism of the literature of conventional psychology. Rupert Sheldrake, not long ago noted there have even been previous replication crises in psychology. As I recall he said something about one coming around every few decades.

    I don't think anyone who mentions Wagenmakers' criticism of Bem's paper without mentioning Jessica Utt's rebuttal, one of the most eminent statisticians and critics of methodology in the world, can't have done their research.

    And, since the entire, formal research into the topic is, like Bem's experiments, controlled with almost unprecedented rigor and analyzed with the most rigorous statistical methods, to say it destroys science is ridiculous. You would have to reject the use of statistics as a valid scientific tool to claim that it destroyed science - rejecting statistics would, in fact, pretty much send things in science back to its beginnings and even some of that would have to go.

    It's funny, this morning I was thinking of the dean of professional skeptics in the United States, psychology prof. emeritus Ray Hyman not twenty minutes before seeing your post, I was thinking about something I'd said before, that the research he rejects is done with far more rigor than easily just about everything published in peer-reviewed journals in his own field and that, as Utts has pointed out, the research into these phenomena are some of the most rigorous research ever carried out. Dean Radin, who was publishing the kind of research Bem conducted before Bem was, has pointed out that the demonstrated reality of what they're finding has a statistical verification that is far higher than that which was accepted as verifying the Higgs boson.

    Anyway, I think it's entirely reasonable to take a good hard look at the science done, especially that done under conditions in which subject fraud would have been impossible and researcher fraud obvious, and to accept that their results are conclusively positive. Radin's demonstration of both unconsious telepathic communication and precognitive, presentiment is, I would assert, conclusively positive.

  2. I think science was "broken" by the conviction that what Bem concluded could not possibly be right. So there had to be some kind of abuse of the system of reasoning. Rather like concluding there is an error in logic that produces a conclusion not accepted as logical. Kurt Godel, lauded as probably the greatest logician since Aristotle, reportedly (I've only read about it in accounts, Godel never published a paper on it) proved time does not exist, using flawless logic.

    Admittedly, I'm probably mis-stating Godel's conclusion, but unless his reasoning is seriously flawed, or based on seriously flawed data (reportedly Einstein was impressed with the argument, so.....), then his conclusion has to be right. Even though it seems impossible.

    Then again, his Proof of Incompleteness was impossible until it was accepted.

    What intrigued me in the article (not to challenge your criticisms of it; I have some of my own, because it is clearly slanted away from Bem) was the immediate rejection of Berm's conclusions, meaning he'd done something wrong because science could not support such a result.

    To which I have to ask: why not? At one point science could not support Copernicus' conclusions, either. Yes, science was controlled by the church at that time, but Copernicus's theory (rather like Einstein's, later) had precious little empirical support when it was announced. Today the church doesn't control science, but someone in science still plays the part of the Vatican.....