The Science of the Impossible
When the sun, moon and earth all fall into alignment, something improbable happens – a solar eclipse. A solar eclipse in improbable but it is not impossible, because it actually can happen. Not very often, of course, but on a few rare, predictable occasions. On average a solar eclipse occurs in any particular location only once every 375 years.
This example indicates the need to keep an open mind because there are phenomena in Nature that are rare and some that were once thought impossible, but have later been observed or made to happen. French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote about the stars that: “We can never learn their internal constitution, nor, in regard to some of them, how heat is absorbed by their atmosphere.” Comte said of the planets: “We can never know anything of their chemical or mineralogical structure; and, much less, that of organized beings living on their surface.”
Yet William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer independently discovered that the spectrum of the Sun contained a great many dark lines which, by 1859 had been shown to be atomic absorption lines. Each chemical element present in the Sun could be identified by analysing the lines, making it possible to discover what a star is made of.
Another example is teleportation.
This word was coined by Charles Fort in his book Lo! and was subsequently copied by legions of science fiction writers including the “transporter” in Star Trek. Thanks to entanglement, physicists have achieved teleportation Particles that are entangled behave as if they are linked together no matter how wide the distance is between them. If you change the “spin” of one entangled electron, the spin of the twin electron will also change.
Entangled particles therefore “teleport” information. In 2002 a theoretical way of entangling large molecules, was described. “Classical teleportation” even occurs when a beam of rubidium atoms disappear in one place and reappear in another. This method transmits all the information about the atoms through a fibre optic cable so that they can be “reconstructed” elsewhere.
Yet entangled particles, it can be argued, are part and parcel of ‘one thing’ and teleportation may not be valid in this context. If by unfortunate accident somebody severs a finger from their hand, the finger is still a part of their hand. A severed finger can survive for 12 hours or more in a warm environment and up to a couple of days if refrigerated. It can be re-attached to the hand by reconnecting the arteries and restoring the blood flow. So the finger and the hand remain a part of one body.
Julia Mossbridge and Dean Radin (2018) review the evidence for precognition or ‘prospection’ in a recent paper http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cns0000121 As they point out, scientists generally consider prospection involving influences from the future to be ‘flatly impossible’. They present empirical evidence challenging the assumption. If this evidence can be replicated using preregistered designs and analyses, then the consequences would be profound. Such replication studies are keenly awaited.
My review of the literature shortly to be published suggests that we may be waiting in vain if we are looking for evidence inside the laboratory.
Impossible Today, Possible Tomorrow?
The paranormal is the investigation of phenomena that are thought, on current knowledge, to be IMPOSSIBLE. Yet some of those very things may be possible in the future. The question is which ones?
The field of the paranormal has changed enormously in the last half-century with a massive growth in numbers of investigators and publications on extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis, precognition and homeopathic medicine (Figure 1).
FIGURE 1. Growth in numbers of research publications about specific topics within the paranormal in 20-year periods, 1960-2019.
What is Here
The ‘Anomalist Psychology’, ‘Paranormal’ and ‘Coincidence’ sections of this blog site present authentic, first-person accounts of anomalistic phenomena and their often compelling nature along with laboratory studies, research syntheses, and critical analyses.
This blog site covers the entire field of Anomalistic Psychology – ESP, psychokinesis, precognition, ganzfeld, dissociative states, out-of-the-body experiences, near-death experiences, hypnotic trance, and their relevance to theories of consciousness. Many of the same psychological processes are involved in these different areas, i.e. the will to believe, magical thinking, subjective validation, confirmation bias, expectation and placebo effects, and many more.
The blog site is supported by a new book, Psychology and the Paranormal, to be published in 2020.
Some of the most common obstacles in teaching students in this field are: readiness to believe almost anything without sound reasons, misunderstanding of laws of chance and probability, lack of statistical sophistication or understanding of scientific methodology. The critical tools necessary for scientific appraisal of the paranormal are not generally available.
On the surface paranormal phenomena all appear to defy rational explanation. The blog encourages readers to acquire the critical skills to appraise scientific claims for the paranormal. After reading both ‘sides of the story’, readers should be in a position to express informed opinions and have the tools and methods for critical thinking about the paranormal and scientific claims more generally.
The blog is geared to the needs of teachers, researchers and students interested in Anomalistic Experience, Parapsychology and Consciousness. These are exciting, challenging and fun areas on the fringes of mainstream science.
The Requirement of Impartiality
Here I do not take a fixed believing, sceptical or disbelieving stance on the paranormal. I offer a neutral gaze which seeks the evidence both pro and con. This approach keeps the door open to whatever conclusions the evidence leads.
The best evidence from studies and meta-analyses across a wide range of areas are reviewed. A particular focus will be studies from the post-2000 period up to and including 2019 as other books adequately review the history of the field (e.g. Caroline Watt: Parapsychology. A Beginner’s Guide).
There are instances where the evidence is so strong that I have changed my own position over recent years. For half of my life I was a dyed-in-the-wool ‘skeptic’ or, to put it more plainly, a disbeliever. That situation changed. I steadfastly maintain the neutrality of the dispassionate scientist, neither believing nor disbelieving, attending to the evidence. I hope that other ‘skeptics’ will strive to keep their minds untainted by prejudice and show the moral courage to go where the evidence takes them.
I humbly encourage every reader to avoid being ‘intellectually whipped’ into any fixed view of the truth. Comfortable though it may be to have a fixed view, that view could well be misplaced, and, unwittingly, lead into a cul-de-sac.
Be aware of the streetlight effect or drunkard’s search principle, the bias that occurs when we search only where it is easiest to look:
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.
Looking where it is easiest to look
We must learn to look where the evidence is, not where it is easiest to look.
This blog provides critical analysis and motivation to challenge, defend and justify scientific claims of the paranormal.
If the evidence is there to guide you, changing your mind is a strength not a weakness.
Let’s stop acting like the drunk who is looking where the light is brightest; let’s look with sobriety in the cold daylight where there might be something significant to be discovered.