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What I'm reading, Part II

January 18th, 2004

I also dug out some old books on ESP and the paranormal. These were from the 1970s, about the time of Uri Geller and the Bermuda Triangle. It struck me that the debate here seems to have moved on, in the sense that no-one any longer takes seriously the idea that ESP etc might be real in the same sense as (say) radio waves, and was a reasonable subject for scientific investigation. The exposure of Geller as a fraud, his subsequent career in the back pages of the Women’s Day and the derision visited on the scientists he fooled with his conjuring tricks seem to have put an end to all this.

Of course, there are still plenty of believers but the belief is now general recognised as quasi-religious and therefore not subject to refutation by empirical evidence.

At least that’s my impression. I’d be interested to hear whether others see thing shte same way.

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  1. January 19th, 2004 at 11:47 | #1

    I suspect you are generally right that intellectuals expert in paricular fields have learnt to keep schtumm when a journalist comes aphoning.. There have been other gruesome examples which reinforced the lesson – the Hitler Diaries was horrible for historians. Cold fusion didn’t help, or some of the “scientific” fad diets. All reinforcing the fact that the public loves a skewered expert. I wonder how this plays out with the right wing think tanks, people like Keith Windshuttle and the greenhouse debaters?

    At the very least, I guess we would say that the debates now concentrate on unprovable assertions.

  2. Brian Bahnisch
    January 19th, 2004 at 22:42 | #2

    There was a report in the Sunday Mail recently about twins. A woman I worked with who is very sane said her sister had a terrible toothache in Tasmania in sympathy with her in Brisbane. The one in Brisbane had a crook tooth. The one in Tassy’s teeth were fine. But a researcher from the U of Q said all these stories were rubbish.

    I’ve heard similar stories from time to time from seemingly credible people. I’m agnostic about it.

    In the AFR on 22 August 2003 there was an article ‘Spooky action between theory and fact’ by John Gribbin (subscription required) originally published in Prospect Magazine. He reports a phenomenon apparently known in quantum physics for some time as follows:

    “The St John’s team gives a thorough airing to the most puzzling feature of the quantum world: the way in which two quantum entities (such as photons or electrons) that have once interacted with one another later (indeed, ever after) behave as if they were components of a single system even when far apart. Such entities have now been studied in experiments where the two components are separated by several kilometres before one of the “particles” is tweaked, provoking an instantaneous response in its partner: what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance”.

    Just because we have no explanation it does not mean it can’t happen.

    This, of course, is a far cry from the nonsense perpetrated by Uri Geller.

  3. Bill Pritchard
    January 20th, 2004 at 16:03 | #3

    Just arrived at this site and I can assure you that, after spending some time with the in-laws over the recent holiday season, the ideas of Uri Geller, quack health proponents, dream-readers and all the other sort of nonsense peddlers are still very much alive!

  4. John Kozak
    January 21st, 2004 at 07:14 | #4

    There are some academic para-whatever centres: PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomaly Research) and the Koestler chair at Edinburgh.

  5. January 22nd, 2004 at 09:32 | #5

    If JQ really believes that “no-one any longer takes seriously the idea that ESP etc might be real in the same sense as (say) radio waves, and [is] a reasonable subject for scientific investigation”, he might want to look at Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s recent Spectator article at http://www.spectator.co.uk/article.php3?table=old&section=back&issue=2003-12-27&id=3864. Dr. Sheldrake also has his own site, I think at http://www.sheldrake.org (the precise link is in the article).

  6. Lee A.
    January 23rd, 2004 at 01:54 | #6

    There is also the scientific possibility that some of these effects are “state specific”, i.e. do not happen unless a change of being has been incurred by, eg. meditational techniques, and further that the intention to demonstrate them to others only serves to vitiate their power. Scientists could explain it all (without real proof) as hallucination, and the order of the rational world would be be maintained.

  7. January 23rd, 2004 at 11:27 | #7

    Enter Mr Occam, brandishing a razor (which was not invented for several centuries after he died, thus proving that time is just a loop..)

  8. Lee A.
    January 23rd, 2004 at 13:21 | #8

    If only the razor could cut the knot of complex multi-compartment models, where science uses mostly Damocles’ sword!

  9. John
    January 23rd, 2004 at 22:47 | #9

    I remember Sheldrake and “morphic resonance” from the 1980s. I’m not sure if he’s a counterexample to my claim – the fact that he’s now working on anecdotal evidence about psychic pets, and publishing in places like The Spectator does not seem like a promising development to me, in terms of scientific investigation of the paranormal.

  10. January 24th, 2004 at 11:51 | #10

    Sheldrake is a counterexample, in this sense: he is taking scientific investigation of the subject seriously. It doesn’t matter (for the counterexample) whether what he is doing is scientific, it refutes the idea that no-one is taking it seriously. Perhaps the assertion was made in rather too strong terms.

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