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What if Dean Radin is right?
by Robert Todd Carroll
Dean Radin, author of The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (HarperSanFrancisco 1997), says that "psi researchers have resolved a century of skeptical doubts through thousands of replicated laboratory studies" (289) regarding the reality of psychic phenomena such as ESP (extrasensory perception) and PK (psychokinesis). Of course, Radin also considers meta-analysis as the most widely accepted method of measuring replication in science (51). Few scientists would agree with either of these claims. In any case, most American adults—about 75%, according to a 2005 Gallup poll—believe in at least one paranormal phenomenon. Forty-one percent believe in ESP. Fifty-five percent believe in the power of the mind to heal the body. One doesn't need to be psychic to know that the majority of believers in psi have come to their beliefs through experience or anecdotes, rather than through studying the scientific evidence Radin puts forth in his book.
Radin doesn't claim that the scientific evidence is going to make more believers. He realizes that the kind of evidence psi researchers have put forth hasn't persuaded most scientists that there is anything of value in parapsychology. He thinks there is “a general uneasiness about parapsychology" and that because of the "insular nature of scientific disciplines, the vast majority of psi experiments are unknown to most scientists.” He also dismisses critics as skeptics who’ve conducted “superficial reviews.” Anyone familiar with the entire body of research, he says, would recognize he is correct and would see that there are “fantastic theoretical implications” (129) to psi research. Nevertheless, in 2005 the Nobel Committee once again passed over the psi scientists when handing out awards to those who have made significant contributions to our scientific knowledge.
The evidence Radin presents, however, is little more than a hodgepodge of occult statistics. Unable to find a single person who can correctly guess a three-letter word or move a pencil an inch without trickery, the psi researchers have resorted to doing complex statistical analyses of data. In well-designed studies they assume that whenever they have data that, by some statistical formula, is not likely due to chance, they attribute the outcome to psi. A well-designed study is one that carefully controls for such things as cheating, sensory leakage (unintentional transfer of information by non-psychic means), inadequate randomization, and other factors that might lead to an artifact (something that looks like it's due to psi when it's actually due to something else).
The result of this enormous data that Radin cites is that there is statistical evidence (for what it's worth) that indicates (however tentatively) that some very weak psi effects are present (so weak that not a single individual who participates in a successful study has any inkling of possessing psychic power). Nevertheless, Radin thinks it is appropriate to speculate about the enormous implications of psi for biology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, religion, medicine, technology, warfare, police work, business, and politics. Never mind that nobody has any idea as to how psi might work. That is a minor detail to someone who can write with a straight face (apparently) that:
lots of independent, simple glimpses of the future may one day innocently crash the future. It's not clear what it means to "crash the future," but it doesn't sound good. (297)
No, it certainly doesn't sound good. But, as somebody once said, "the future will be better tomorrow."
According to Radin, we may look forward to a future with "psychic garage-door openers" and the ability to "push atoms around" with our minds (292). Radin is not the least bit put off by the criticism that all the other sciences have led us away from superstition and magical thinking, while parapsychology tries to lead us into those pre-scientific modes. Radin notes that “the concept that mind is primary over matter is deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy and ancient beliefs about magic.” However, instead of saying that it is now time to move forward, he rebuffs “Western science” for rejecting such beliefs as “mere superstition.” Magical thinking, he says, "lies close beneath the veneer of the sophisticated modern mind" (293). He even claims that “the fundamental issues [of consciousness] remain as mysterious today as they did five thousand years ago.” We may not have arrived at a final theory of the mind, but a lot of the mystery has evaporated with the progress made in the neurosciences over the past century. None of our advancing knowledge of the mind, however, has been due to contributions from parapsychologists. (Cf. Blackmore 2001).
Radin doesn't grasp the fact that the concept of mind can be an illusion without being a "meaningless illusion" (294). He seems to have read David Chalmers, but I suggest he and his followers read Daniel Dennett. I'd begin with Sweet Dreams (2005). Consciousness is not "a complete mystery," as Radin claims (294). The best that Radin can come up with as evidence that psi research has something to offer consciousness studies is the claim that "information can be obtained in ways that bypass the ordinary sensory system altogether" (295). Let's ignore the fact that this claim begs the question. What neuroscience has uncovered is just how interesting and complex this "ordinary sensory system" turns out to be.
Radin would have us believe that magical thinking is essential to our psychological well being (293). If he's right, we'll one day be able to solve all social problems by "mass-mind healings." And religious claims will get new meaning as people come to understand the psychic forces behind miracles and talking to the dead. According to Radin, when a medium today talks to a spirit "perhaps he is in contact with someone who is alive in the past. From the 'departed' person's perspective, she may find herself communicating with someone from the future, although it is not clear that she would know that" (295). Yes, I don't think that would be clear, either.
In medicine, Radin expects distant mental healing (which he argues has been scientifically established) to expand to something that "might be called techno-shamanism" (296). He describes this new development as "an exotic, yet rigorously schooled combination of ancient magical principles and future technologies" (296). He expects psi to join magnetic resonance imaging and blood tests as common stock in the world of medicine. "This would translate into huge savings and improved quality of life for millions of people" (192) as "untold billions of dollars in medical costs could be saved" (193).
Then, of course, there will be the very useful developments that include the ability to telepathically "call a friend in a distant spacecraft, or someone in a deeply submerged submarine" (296). On the other hand, the use of psychic power by the military and by police investigators will depend, Radin says, on "the mood of the times." If what is popular on television is an indicator of the mood of the times, I predict that there will be full employment for psychic detectives and remote viewers in the future.
Radin looks forward to the day when psi technology "might allow thought control of prosthetics for paraplegics" and "mind-melding techniques to provide people with vast, computer-enhanced memories, lightning-fast mathematical capabilities, and supersensitive perceptions" (197). He even suggests we employ remote viewer Joe McMoneagle to reveal future technological devices he "has sensed in his remote-viewing sessions" (100).
Radin considers a few other benefits that will come from our increased ability to use psi powers: "to guide archeological digs and treasure-hunting expeditions, enhance gambling profits, and provide insight into historical events" (202). However, he does not consider some of the obvious problems and benefits that would occur should psychic ability become common. Imagine the difficulties for the junior high teacher in a room full of adolescents trained in PK. Teachers and parents would be spending most of their psychic energy controlling the hormones of their charges. The female garment and beauty industries would be destroyed as many attractive females would be driven to try to make themselves look ugly to avoid having their clothes being constantly removed by psychic perverts and pranksters.
Ben Radford has noted the potential for "gross and unethical violations of privacy," as people would be peeping into each other's minds. On the other hand, infidelity and all forms of deception might die out, since nobody could deceive anyone about anything if we were all psychic. Magic would become pointless and "professions that involve deception would be worthless" (Radford 2000). There wouldn't be any need for undercover work or spies. Every child molester would be identified immediately. No double agent could ever get away with it. There wouldn't be any more lotteries, since everybody could predict the winning numbers. We wouldn't need trials of accused persons and the polygraph would be a thing of the past.
Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and other signs of intelligent design will become things of the past as billions of humans unite to focus their thoughts on predicting and controlling the forces of nature. We won't need to build elaborate systems to turn away errant asteroids or comets heading for our planet: billons of us will unite to will the objects on their merry way toward some other oblivion. It is unlikely that human nature will change as we become more psychically able, so warfare will continue but will be significantly changed. Weapons won't be needed because we'll be able to rearrange our enemies' atoms and turn them into mush from the comfort of our living rooms. (Who knows? It might only take a few folks with super psi powers to find Osama bin Laden and turn him into a puddle of irradiated meat.) Disease and old age will become things of the past as we learn to use our thoughts to kill cancer cells and control our DNA.
Space travel will become trivial and heavy lifting will be eliminated as we will be able to teleport anything to anywhere at anytime through global consciousness. We'll be able to transport all the benefits of earthly consciousness to every planet in the universe. There are many other likely effects of global psychic ability that Radin has overlooked but this is understandable given his heavy workload as Senior Scientist at IONS (The Institute of Noetic Sciences) and as a blogger.
Radin notes only one problem should psi ability become common: we'll all be dipping into the future and we might "crash the future," whatever that means. The bright side of crashing the future will be the realization of "true freedom" as we will no longer be doomed to our predestined fate. We will all have the power "to create the future as we wish, rather than blindly follow a predetermined course through our ignorance" (297). That should make even the most cynical Islamic fundamentalist or doomsday Christian take heed. This psi stuff could be dangerous to one's delusions even as it tickles one's funny bone and stimulates one's imagination to aspire to the power of gods and demons.
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update: Radin has a follow-up book out called Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. Like The Conscious Universe, this one lays out the scientific evidence for psi as seen from the eyes of a true believer. As noted above, in The Conscious Universe, Radin uses statistics and meta-analysis to prove that psychic phenomena really do exist even if those who have the experiences in the labs are unaware of them. Statistical data show that the world has gone psychic, according to the latest generation of parapsychologists. You may be unconscious of it, but your mind is affecting random number generators all over the world as you read this. The old psychic stuff—thinking about aunt Hildie moments before she calls to tell you to bugger off—is now demonstrated to be true by statistical methods that were validated in 1937 by Burton Camp and meta-validated by Radin 60 years later when he asserted that meta-analysis was the replication parapsychologists had been looking for. The only difference is that now when you think of aunt Hildie it might be moments before she calls her car mechanic and that, too, may be linked to activity in your mind that you are unaware of.
Radin's second book sees entanglement as a key to understanding extrasensory phenomena. Entanglement is a concept from quantum physics that refers to connections between subatomic particles that persist regardless of being separated by various distances. He notes that some physicists have speculated that the entire universe might be entangled and that the Eastern mystics of old might have been on to something cosmic. His speculations are rather wild but his assertions are rather modest. For example: "I believe that entanglement suggests a scenario that may ultimately lead to a vastly improved understanding of psi" (p. 14) and "I propose that the fabric of reality is comprised [sic] of 'entangled threads' that are consistent with the core of psi experience" (p. 19). Skeptics might suggest that studying self-deception and wishful thinking would lead to a vastly improved understanding of psi research and that being consistent with a model is a minimal, necessary condition for taking any model seriously, but hardly sufficient to warrant much faith.
Readers of The Conscious Universe will be pleased to know that Radin has outdone himself on the meta-analysis front. In his second book, he provides a meta-meta-analysis of over 1,000 studies on dream psi, ganzfeld psi, staring, distant intention, dice PK, and RNG PK. He concludes that the odds against chance of getting these results are 10104 against 1 (p. 276). As Radin says, "there can be little doubt that something interesting is going on" (p. 275). Yes, but I'm afraid it may be going on only in some entangled minds.
On the bright side, Radin continues to ignore Gary Schwartz and self-proclaimed psychics like Jon Edward, Sylvia Browne, Uri Geller, and Ted Owens. He still has a fondness for remote viewers like Joe McMoneagle, however, who seems impressive if you don't understand subjective validation, are willing to ignore the vast majority of his visions, and aren't bothered by vagueness in the criteria as to what counts as a "hit" in remote viewing. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Radin predicts that some day "psi research will be taught in universities with the same aplomb as today's elementary economics and biology" (p. 295). Perhaps psi research will be taught in the same classroom as intelligent design, though this seems unlikely as parapsychology attempts to reduce all supernatural and paranormal phenomena to physics. Maybe they could both be taught in the same curriculum: things that explain everything but illuminate nothing.
note: If the reader wants to see a more complete review of Radin's work, please read my reviews of his books. Links are given below.
book reviews by Robert T. Carroll
The Conscious Universe:
The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena
by Dean Radin (HarperOne 1997)
Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality
by Dean Radin (Paraview Pocket Books 2006)
The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together by Charles T. Tart, Ph.D. (New Harbinger 2009)
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton 2005).
The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death
by Gary Schwartz (Atria 2003)
Ghost Hunters -
William James and the Hunt for Scientific
Proof of Life After Death
by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press 2006).
books and articles