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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, May 1, 2016

You Can't Spoon-feed This Guy Your Shaky Explanatory Dogmas

Given its subtitle, you might not expect too much from John Hands' 2015 tome entitled Cosmo Sapiens: Human Evolution From the Origin of the Universe. In my mind the subtitle suggests the idea that humans have been around from the time of the origin of the universe, which is not at all an idea that Hands actually advances. But despite its unfortunate subtitle, and despite a few analytic missteps here and there, this large volume is overall a first-rate work offering an astounding breadth of learning, combined with some penetrating insights that puncture the explanatory pretensions of quite a few contemporary scientists.

The task that Hands takes upon himself in writing this book is an enormous one: that of considering all of the great origin questions (such as the origin of the universe, cosmic structure, life, and the human mind), without taking any stock assertions for granted, trying to accept nothing on the basis of authority. Hands basically tries to take an approach like this: don't trust any of the generalizations of scientists, but always attempt to probe into the evidence claimed to support such generalizations, and attempt to see whether this evidence justifies such claims. Hands also seems to take an approach like this: always thoroughly examine alternative explanations besides the explanations generally recommended by scientific orthodoxy. This is a very refreshing approach, much better than the standard science-writer approach of trustingly regurgitating whatever “official party line” is fashionable among a particular group of scientists.

Hands first looks at the question of the universe's origin. He looks critically at the Big Bang theory and the supplementary "cosmic inflation theory" created later mainly to try to explain enormous fine-tuning of the universe's expansion rate at the very beginning of time. Quite rightly, Hands punctures the case for this cosmic inflation theory, pointing out that there is no adequate evidence for it. Hands seems to suggest that various problems with the Big Bang mean that it is not a solid theory of the universe's origin. But I think as long as we are willing to accept fine-tuning at the very beginning, and keep things as theoretically simple as possible, without cluttering things up with ornate speculations like the cosmic inflation theory, then the Big Bang idea works pretty well as a basic description of the universe's beginning – just a description, not an explanation. Hands is correct, however, when he says this on page 102: “Neither science nor reasoning offers a convincing explanation of the origin and form of the universe, and hence of the origin of the matter and energy of which we consist.”

Hands then has a chapter entitled “The Evolution of Matter on a Large Scale.” Hands punctures some holes in claims that modern cosmology can explain the large scale structure of the universe. He notes that while cosmologists claim that gravitation caused density inhomogeneities to grow into galaxies, the cosmic background radiation indicates that 300,000 years after the Big Bang, matter was uniform to one part in 100,000, “which is far too little density variation for gravitational instability to cause any structures to form,” says Hands (page 117). Hands concludes on page 126 that “neither cosmology's orthodox...model nor any alternative model currently provides a scientifically robust explanation of the evolution of matter on a large scale.” 

How did we go from the Big Bang to something this ordered?
On page 156 Hands makes this complaint:

Cosmologists often make assertions that have little scientific justification. Their language frequently reflects that of a belief system rather than that of a science, and the response of institutional cosmology to reputable scientists who have different interpretations of data or who advance alternative conjectures is too often reminiscent of a Church dealing with dissenters.

Hands later notes, “The way in which the biology establishment treats dissenters from within and questioners from without is all too reminiscent of that shown by the cosmology establishment.”

Turning to the origin of life, Hands shows how weak are all current conjectures as to how life first appeared. He concludes on page 245, “It is very probably beyond the ability of science to explain the origin of life.” On page 411 he notes, “No scientific hypothesis explains why proteins..form from combinations of up to only 20 different amino acids out of some 500 known amino acids.” He also notes, “Biochemistry's orthodox account of how life emerged from a primordial soup of such chemicals lacks experimental support and is invalid because, among other reasons, there is an overwhelming statistical improbability that random reactions in an aqueous solution could have produced self-replicating RNA molecules.”

On pages 344 to 349, Hands discusses a rather long list of things that NeoDarwinism orthodoxy fails to explain. The items listed by Hands include these (among others):
  1. Stasis and rapid speciation (the fact that species tend to appear quite suddenly in the fossil record, and then often show no signs of evolution for very many millions of years).
  2. Speciation (Hands says “No studies of living species show the evolution of new species according to the NeoDarwinian mechanism.”)
  3. Organismal enbryology and development. Hands notes that the orthodox model does not explain the mystery of morphogenesis, how a very tiny fertilized ovum at the moment of conception is able to progress into a human embryo and then into a human baby.
  4. Progressive complexification. Hands notes that NeoDarwinists often find themselves claiming that there is no arrow of progress in evolution, despite dramatic evidence of exactly such a thing, most notably in the origin of humans.
This phrase “progressive complexification” is one that we might actually use as a two-word summary of the history of the universe. But our scientists have no unifying principle to explain such a thing. They have a unifying principle to explain how a universe might gradually fall apart (the idea of entropy), but no unifying principle to explain how the universe could go from super-dense particle soup to civilized beings. Isn't it time they started to suspect that the same thing driving the complexification of lifeless matter may be driving the complexification of biological organisms?

Hands draws little in the way of original new conclusions, but that's no problem. His main job seems to be to show that our scientists know much less than they often claim to know, and that the great origins questions are mainly unanswered and still deeply mysterious. At this job he has succeeded admirably.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Does the New York Times Have the World's Worst Coverage of the Paranormal?

On August 25, 1984 there appeared in the New York Times a story entitled “Strange Sights Brighten the Night Skies Upstate.” The story actually did a fairly good job of reporting dramatic UFO sightings that were very common in the Hudson Valley of New York State around this time. The story noted, “Throughout northern Westchester County, Dutchess and Putnam Counties and western Connecticut this summer, thousands of residents have reported strange objects in the sky - each usually in a V-shape or a circle, about the size of a football field, absolutely noiseless and outlined in brilliant lights of white, red or green.”

But this isn't how the New York Times has been handling the paranormal during the past 30 years. During the past 30 years, the New York Times seems to have had the worst coverage of the paranormal given by any major newspaper. While it has outstanding coverage of politics, world affairs, sports, and entertainment, the paper will typically not cover important news about the paranormal. In the very rare cases when it does provide coverage of the paranormal, the New York Times almost always gives us coverage that is heavily biased, inaccurate, or uninformative.

Let's look at some paranormal stories of recent years, and how the New York Times covered them. One very dramatic case of UFO sightings was the March 13, 1997 UFO sightings in Phoenix, Arizona. According to an article on the National Geographic web site, “Thousands of people in Nevada and Arizona reportedly saw what many described as an immense, V-shaped object outlined by seven lights.”

Judging from the Google query below, the New York Times had no coverage at all of this dramatic story in 1997, the year it occurred.  The search returns only one result, which is not coverage of the Phoenix sightings.

Another very dramatic UFO news story was the spectacular UFO sightings that occurred in Stephenville, Texas in January 2008. The ABC News story here gives some of the astonishing details of the story: “More than 30 residents of Stephenville, Texas, claim to have seen a UFO, described as a mile-wide, silent object with bright lights, flying low and fast.” A witness named Allen said the object moved with amazing speed without making a sound. “It was so fast I couldn't track it with my binoculars,” said another witness. Another witness (an Air Force technician) said it was a UFO.

Now surely a sighting this spectacular deserved significant coverage in the New York Times – but it apparently did not get any real coverage. Because when I do the Google query below (limiting the search time between 1/1/2008 and 12/1/2008), it shows no signs of any coverage that appeared in the regular edition of the New York Times.

The query produces only one hit, and that is for some blog post that appeared in the online edition of the New York Times. The post is a dismissive one, with the title “F-16s at Site of UFO Sightings in Texas.” The idea seemed to be to make people think that the UFO's were just jets (which is pretty ridiculous considering the mile-wide length reported).

Let's look at some other types of paranormal stories, and the dismal or nonexistent coverage they received in the New York Times. One of the more dramatic scientific studies in recent years was the “Feeling the Future” study done by Cornell professor Daryl J. Bem. Published in a scientific journal in 2011, the study produced evidence of precognition, a paranormal human ability to have knowledge of the near future. Later Bem published a meta-analysis of 80 studies, showing that the effect had been well replicated by other researchers. 

Surely such research deserved coverage in the New York Times, but it apparently didn't get any real coverage. I tried the search below:

Other than an article on animal precognition, the only story or article I get on precognition is an utterly hostile opinion piece entitled “ESP and the Assault on Rationality,” which refers disparagingly to Bem's results (without giving any substantive critique), but does not describe them in any detail, nor contain a link to them. Similar queries using Bem's name fail to produce any coverage of Bem's results. Again, the New York Times failed to cover an important paranormal news story. 

In 2014 an important piece of paranormal news was the scientific paper presented at the annual Parapsychological Association conference by Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell. She reported ESP experiments with an autistic child that had spectacular levels of success, including 100% accuracy on two random numbers of 8 or 9 digits, and between 81 to 100% accuracy on sentences of between 18 and 35 letters, along with numerous similar results.. Did the New York Times ever give this important news to its readers? Apparently not. The following Google query returns no results.

"Diane Hennacy Powell" site:nytimes.com

I then found out that in the past six years the New York Times has had no coverage whatsoever of the research of the Parapsychological Association, currently the main organization for paranormal research (and an organization with annual conferences that present research). The query below gives only one result, which is merely a passing reference to a street fair.

Then there was the Lily Groesbeck story, one of the most dramatic paranormal stories in recent memory. About 10:30 PM on March 6, 2015, a car carrying Lynn Groesbeck and her 18-month-old daughter Lily flipped over and crashed into the bottom of a small river. Apparently the mother was killed by the impact, but her daughter survived. Strapped into her toddler car seat, the toddler hung upside down in the overturned car, only inches from icy water below her. About 14 hours later an angler noticed the car, and called the police. Three police officers and a fireman arrived, and tried to flip over the car. All four of them reported a voice coming from the car – a car containing no one but a long-dead woman and an unconscious baby. Their exact statements are recorded here. Somehow 4 men flipped over an upside-down car, and then extracted the baby, who astonishingly survived the incident without serious injury. Shortly thereafter a dramatic “chest cam” video of the incident was published on youtube.com. It corroborated the men's story, because in the video you can hear one of the men loudly and clearly yelling “we're helping, we're coming,” just the type of thing someone might say if a voice was coming from inside the car.

Did the New York Times cover this remarkable story? Yes they did. But no paranormal aspect of the story was mentioned, and no mention was made of the four reports that a voice came from inside the car. No further article in the New York Times mentioned any account of the paranormal voice coming from the car.  A Soviet censor might say, "Good work."

Another extremely interesting paranormal story is that of the Global Consciousness Project. Over the past 16 years the project has gathered evidence for a paranormal effect of human consciousness on random number generators. The cumulative evidence gets better every year, as the effect keeps showing up.

I searched for the New York Times coverage of the project by using this query:

"global consciousness project" site:nytimes.com

The query reveals that the last story the Times had on the project was in 2003. That was a dismissive “worse-than-censorship” type of story that inaccurately describes the effect as “small,” although by 2003 the effect documented by the Global Consciousness Project was already very dramatic indeed, having a p-value of less than .000001. The cumulative effect has increased every year, as the effect has continued. The effect now has a p-value of about 1 in 10 trillion, as discussed here, an effect billions of times greater than the p-value in countless other studies reported by the New York Times. But although the results have grown ever more dramatic since 2003, there hasn't been a New York Times story on this in 13 years, and there has been no New York Times story that accurately reported the results produced by this project.

Another important paranormal news item during recent years has been the phenomenon of orbs, unexplained balls of light which photographers all over the globe have been photographing in great abundance since about 1990. Photos often show them moving at extremely fast speeds, and in a variety of bright colors, in quite normal clean air, indoors and outdoors. Not only do mysterious orbs appear abundantly in photos and youtube.com videos, but they are often seen visually by people who report seeing them in the sky (there have been 12,000 such reports in the past 3 years, as discussed here). But the only coverage the New York Times seems to have given this topic in the past 11 years is a 2005 story of orbs at one particular person's house, with no mention of anyone else observing them (and the story made sure to trot out a completely unworkable explanation for the phenomena it described). Ironically, the orbs news story the Times has been completely ignoring for a decade is abundantly evident in its own backyard, because this link shows photos of hundreds of orbs (often fast-moving, colorful and bright) taken at Grand Central Terminal, a rather short distance from the New York Times building.

Another important paranormal news item was the release of the AWARE study, a study on near death experiences. The study (discussed here)  was authored by a large team of scientists and physicians. The study told the astonishing case of a 57-year old man who reported floating out of his body and witnessing his operation from the top of his hospital room. The man said that a woman appeared in a high corner of the room, beckoning him to come up to her. He said that despite thinking that was impossible, he found himself up in the high corner of the room, looking down on the medical team trying to revive him. The man described specific details of the revival efforts, including the presence of a bald fat man with a blue hat, a nurse saying, “Dial 444 cardiac arrest,” his blood pressure being taken, a nurse pumping on his chest, a doctor sticking something down his throat, and blood gases and blood sugar levels being taken.

Here is what the scientific paper said in regard to the accuracy of these recollections:

He accurately described people, sounds, and activities from his resuscitation...His medical records corroborated his accounts and specifically supported his descriptions and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). Based on current AED algorithms, this likely corresponded with up to 3 minutes of conscious awareness during CA [cardiac arrest] and CPR.

This is a most newsworthy story of a near-death experience in which a person's “out-of-body” observations during surgery were verified. It's reported in a scientific paper. But did the New York Times cover this study this after the study was released? Apparently not. When I do a Google search using “AWARE study site:nytimes.com” and “Sam Parnia site:nytimes.com” (using the study's lead author) I get no results referring to the study. 

It is hard to resist the conclusion that for the past 30 years the New York Times has been following a policy of censoring the paranormal or describing it in an unfair, inaccurate or uninformative way, in the rare times the paper covers the paranormal. In this matter it rather seems the New York Times wants you to keep wearing horse blinders that keep you from seeing strange things on your left and your right. Apparently the New York Times wants its readers to believe they live in a bland James Randi/Richard Dawkins type of world in which big UFOs don't appear, people don't see ghosts, anomalous things don't appear in photos, no one has weird psychic experiences, and strange inexplicable things don't happen. The world we actually live in is a totally different type of place.

Let us imagine if extraterrestrial visitors were to arrive, and to start a gradual year-long program of gradually revealing their existence to humans. Imagine that in January they sent their vehicles over many cities in the US. Suppose that in March they caused gigantic crop circles to appear all over the Midwest US. Suppose that in June they burnt giant alien symbols in the sides of many mountains. Imagine that in September their ships were seen in the sky by 50,000 people. Imagine that in November giant moon-sized UFO's were seen in huge triangle formations over every large US city. Finally let us suppose that in December a giant UFO the size of a football stadium appeared hovering directly over the White House.

You would never read about any of this in the New York Times, except until December, when the New York Times would report (in small print in its back pages) that the giant UFO seen over the White House was just a cloud with an unusual shape.

new york times
It's pretty much like this at the New York Times

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Firing Squads and Habitable Universes: The Fallacy of Appealing to an Observer Selection Effect

There exist numerous cases of what look like very strong fine-tuning in our universe. Both fundamental constants and natural laws are arranged in a way that allows for us to exist. It seems that the probability of all of these favorable conditions existing by chance is incredibly low. It has been argued that the probability of you existing in a universe as fine-tuned as ours is like the chance of you surviving a firing squad (having 10 or more soldiers firing their rifles at you at close range). If you survived a firing squad, it is argued, you should assume there was some purpose involved in this, and that it wasn't just a lucky accident.

But there is a line of reasoning which attempts to remove any philosophical implications from such a situation, a line of reasoning used by those who prefer to believe that our universe is just an accident. The person who uses this line of reasoning claims that the fine-tuning of our universe can by explained by an “observer selection effect.” The reasoning goes like this:

What type of universe should we expect to observe? Why, of course, it is only a universe as fit-for-life as our universe, because that is the only type of universe that could have observers. So there is an “observer selection effect” such that all observers find themselves in universes like ours, and it is not surprising that we exist in a universe like this.

The same type of reasoning can be used in regard to the analogy of the firing squad. The reasoning goes like this:

In regard to that firing squad analogy, you should not be surprised to find yourself alive after facing a firing squad. This is because there is an “observer selection effect” which guarantees that all people who make observations after facing a firing squad are those who survived the firing bullets.

Let's examine such reasoning in detail, first examining the simpler case of the firing squad.

The Case of the Firing Squad

When reasoning involving an observer selection effect is used in regard to firing squads, this “observer selection effect” is an example of what is called a red herring. A red herring is an argumentative device in which a person introduces some irrelevant or less relevant consideration, perhaps to distract you from considering a more relevant consideration. It may be true that only alive persons could observe themselves as survivors of a firing squad, but such a fact doesn't make you the slightest bit more likely to survive a firing squad. So this “observer selection effect” claim is just a red herring.

But in regard to statements such as, “You should not be surprised to find yourself surviving a firing squad, because that's the only thing you could observe,” is there any validity to such reasoning? No, there isn't. In this case, it must be remembered that the case of a non-observation (no observation of anything, because you're instantly killed) is both a distinct possibility and a high likelihood. So we should not make the mistake of assuming that some observation must necessarily occur.

Here are some examples of correct statements and incorrect statements.

Incorrect statement: Of course, after you finish high school, you'll end up in Harvard with a nice dorm. Everyone knows a school like Harvard can afford nice dorms.
Correct statement: No, I almost certainly will not get such a dorm, because I almost certainly won't get into Harvard.

Incorrect statement: You can look forward to marrying a gorgeous starlet, because pretty much the only type of people who get to be movie starlets are gorgeous people.
Correct statement: No, I almost certainly won't marry such a starlet, because its way too improbable that I would marry anyone who is a starlet.

Incorrect statement: You shouldn't be surprised to survive a firing squad, because the only observation you could have after facing such a squad would be to observe that you survived.
Correct statement: No, I should be supremely surprised to survive a firing squad, because if I faced such a squad, it would be almost certain that I should be instantly killed and have no further observations.

The most persuasive (but devious) way to appeal to an observer selection effect is to present a loaded question, a type of question that makes an unfair assumption, as in the famous question asking: when did you stop beating your wife? The loaded question in the case of the firing squad might be: what should you see around you after facing a firing squad? Such a question is trickily phrased in a way so that the answer of survival is already answered. But such trick questions can always be answered though careful replies, as below.

Incorrect statement: What should you expect to observe after facing a firing squad? Only that you had survived, because otherwise you could make no observation.
Correct statement: You should not expect to observe anything at all after facing a firing squad, because you should be immediately killed by its bullets.

Another way to clarify the situation of the firing squad is to do what we may call an exhaustive possibility analysis. When we do such an analysis, rather than just considering two possibilities, we will try to consider every possibility. We can then consider the likelihood of each possibility.

Exhaustive Possibility Analysis for Firing Squad Situation
Possibility Likelihood
Possibility 1: You immediately die when the bullets kill you, and have no further observations. Very, very likely (unless your soul survives your death).
Possibility 2: You survive for a while, with light wounds Very unlikely
Possibility 3: You survive for a while, with very heavy wounds that will very soon cause you to die. Unlikely, but much more likely than Possibility 2.
Possibility 4: You survive with no wounds, because all of the bullets luckily missed by pure chance. Incredibly unlikely
Possibility 5: You die quickly, but observe your dead body when your soul floats out of your body. Debatable likelihood, but probably far more likely than possibility 4

When we consider all of these possibilities, it becomes clear that any type of “you should not be surprised to find yourself surviving a firing squad” reasoning (based on an observer selection effect) is utterly invalid, particularly if “survive the firing squad” means to end up in pretty good shape when the firing squad is finished. The most likely possibility is that you should instantly be killed by the firing squad, and have no observations after hearing the firing of the guns. The second most likely possibility is that you should be very heavily wounded after facing the firing squad, and have only a pitifully short observation before dying. Possibility 4 (being alive and not wounded) is extremely unlikely both in the full group of possibilities and also in the subset of possibilities that include some type of observations by you after facing the firing squad. It is not at all correct to suggest that some type of observer selection effect will make it likely that you will observe yourself in a good state after facing the firing squad. 


The Case of Habitable Universes

Now let's look at the case of habitable universes. The reason why I spent so much time discussing firing squads is that the situation in regard to habitable universes has a strong similarity to the firing squad situation. Here are the similarities: dying instantly in the firing squad is similar to a universe that is uninhabitable; being heavily wounded by the firing squad is similar to a universe that is just barely habitable; and surviving the firing squad without any wounds is similar to a universe that has no shortfalls in regard to habitability, which is the type of universe we find ourselves in.

Before trying to do an exhaustive possibility analysis, let us consider the type of “observer selection effect” arguments made in regard to habitable universes. Below are some examples, along with corrections.

Incorrect statement: We should not be surprised to find ourselves living in a finely tuned habitable universe, because the only type of universes that have observers are finely tuned universes.
Correct statement: We should be very surprised to find ourselves living in a finely tuned habitable universe (under assumptions of randomness), because it is vastly more likely that our universe should have been uninhabitable and not allowed us to exist as observers.

Incorrect statement: The fine-tuned nature of our universe is just as we should expect, because such conditions are prerequisites of our existence.
Correct statement: Under the assumption of randomness, the fine-tuned nature of our universe is incredibly surprising and improbable, given that there is nothing necessary about our existence.

Now let's try to do an exhaustive possibility analysis regarding types of universes and what type of observers (if any) they might have. This will include some interesting possibilities that are often overlooked.

Exhaustive Possibility Analysis for Observers in Random Universes
Possibility Likelihood
Possibility 1: The possibility of a random universe that is uninhabitable, and has no observers because life is impossible for one reason or another. Very likely under assumptions of randomness
Possibility 2: The possibility of a universe such as ours, with no serious shortfall in regard to habitability Very unlikely under assumptions of randomness
Possibility 3: The possibility of a barely habitable universe having some serious shortfalls in regard to habitability, but one in which observers are just barely possible. Very unlikely, but much more likely than Possibility 2, because the list of conditions that must be met for a barely habitable universe is much shorter than the list of conditions that must be met for a universe such as ours (as argued here). 
Possibility 4: The possibility of a universe in which biological observers cannot appear, but some other types of observers exist – perhaps souls or spirits, or minds of pure energy. Hard to estimate this likelihood
Possibility 5: The possibility of a universe in which biological observers cannot naturally appear, but one that might be observed by visitors from other universes

Hard to estimate this likelihood, but it might be allowed by exotic “wormhole” possibilities

`When we consider all of these possibilities, it becomes clear that any type of “you should not be surprised that our universe is like this” reasoning (based on an observer selection effect) is utterly invalid, particularly if “a universe like this” means a universe about as habitable and life-friendly as our universe. Under assumptions of randomness, the most likely possibility is that a universe should be uninhabitable and lifeless. The second most likely possibility is a universe that is just barely habitable, with conditions much harsher than ours (such as a universe with no stars or very few stars or a universe in which either carbon or oxygen was rare). Such a universe is probably at least a thousand times easier to achieve by chance than a universe such as ours (for reasons explained here).  Possibility 2 (a universe as hospitable to life as ours) is extremely unlikely both in the full group of possibilities and also in the subset of possibilities that include some type of observers. It is not at all correct to suggest that some type of observer selection effect will guarantee that observers only exist in a universe with a level of fine-tuning as great or almost as great as ours. 

habitable universes

The most devious trick of those who evoke an observer selection effect is to phrase questions such as “What type of universe should we expect to be living in?” This is a loaded question, one that has a particular assumption built in to it (like the famous loaded question which asks when did you stop beating your wife). The very phrase “should we expect to be living in” presupposes a universe with an observer.

Incorrect statement: What type of universe should we expect to be living in? A universe like the one we do live in, for in no other universe can there be observers.
Correct statement: You are asking a loaded question if you ask what type of universe should we expect to be living in, because the phrase “to be living in” presupposes habitability. Avoiding such a loaded question, we should ask: what type of universe should we expect our universe to be? Under the assumption of randomness, the answer is: an uninhabitable universe in which no observers ever existed. And in the very unlikely case that our universe happened to be habitable, the most likely case by far would be that it should be just barely habitable, since the requirement list for such a universe is much shorter. Such a barely habitable universe would be much less life-friendly than ours.

Observer Selection Effect” Reasoning at the Casino

Let's imagine a hotel casino where there's a special room called the Big Gamble. You have to pay $10 to get into the room, where you find a giant laser above your head. There's a lever you pull to try your luck. After you pull the lever, there is a 99.9999% chance that the laser will instantly incinerate you, reducing you to a charred cinder. But there's one chance in a million that you'll get a jackpot of 5 million dollars. Let's imagine a conversation between a gambler and a casino employee who gets a commission on all the people who try the Big Gamble.

Gambler: I was thinking of trying the Big Gamble, but I'm afraid it will probably just get kill me.
Casino Employee: Go ahead, take a chance!
Gambler: But I just can't see myself winning the 5 million dollars. That would be too surprising.
Casino Employee: Well, I can see you're just ignoring the “observer selection effect” here.
Gambler: What's that?
Casino Employee: Well, it works like this. If you don't get incinerated, and win the 5 million dollars, it won't be surprising at all. Because the only person who could have an observation after pulling the lever is a person who survived, and won the 5 million dollars. So you won't be surprised to have survived, because it's the only kind of observation you could have after pulling the lever.
Gambler: So it's not such a long shot that I'll win the 5 million?
Casino Employee: No, when you look at it as I just discussed, it won't be surprising at all.
Gambler: Okay, I'll make the bet.

The casino employee has used the classic argumentative technique of the red herring, something that distracts you from concentrating on what you should be concentrating on, and diverts you into thinking about some irrelevant distraction. In this case, whether or not you will be surprised by still being there after trying the Big Gamble is irrelevant. What is the relevant consideration is the probability of you winning. The reasoning of the casino employee is utterly sophistical and fallacious, and when similar “observer selection effect” reasoning is used on a cosmic scale when arguing about universes, it is just as irrelevant and misleading as this casino employee's sales pitch.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Goofy "Return From the Dead" TV Show Yields No Insights on Near-Death Experiences

Near death experiences (NDE) first came to public light in the 1970's with the publication of Raymond Moody's book Life After Life. Patching together elements from different accounts, Moody described an archetypal typical near-death experience, while noting that most accounts include only some elements in the described archetype. The archetype NDE included elements such as a sensation of floating out of the body, feelings of peace and joy, a life-review that occurs very quickly or in some altered type of time, a passage through a tunnel, an encounter with a being of light, and seeing deceased relatives.

A previous study on near-death experiences was published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 2001. The study interviewed 344 patients who had a close encounter with death, generally through cardiac arrest. 62 of those reported some kind of near-death experience. 15 reported an out-of-body experience, 19 reported moving through a tunnel, 18 reported observation of a celestial landscape, 20 reported meeting with deceased persons, and 35 reported positive emotions. More recently the AWARE study found some fascinating similar results, discussed here.

Last Sunday night the National Geographic television channel offered us a special on near-death experiences, entitled “Return From the Dead.” It was the silliest treatment of the topic I've ever seen on TV. It showed a Belgian professor Stephen Laureys as he tried various attempts to get insights about near-death experiences.

Laureys first attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was truly laughable. He went to one of those fancy expensive centrifuge machines like they use to train astronauts to handle high g-forces during rocket launches. He went round and round in the machine, until he got a little tunnel vision. This, Laureys insinuated, is something that helps to explain the part of near-death experiences in which people often report traveling through a tunnel.

Such an insinuation is quite ridiculous for two reasons. First, the people who have near-death experiences are not being subjected to anything like high g-forces, so experiments with high g-forces tell us nothing about near-death experiences. Second, having an experience in which you seem to speed through a tunnel is a perceptual event very different from tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is simply where your vision is blocked or blurry except for a clear hole in the middle of your field of view. Tunnel vision is an example of perceptual restriction, but those who have near-death experiences rarely report such a thing. Instead, they often report quite the opposite, an effect of floating out of their bodies and having their visual perceptions enhanced, as if they could see more clearly than ever before.

Laureys next attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was just as silly. He consumed some hallucinogenic substances called magic mushrooms. Then he had some trippy experience which he compared to the transcendental flavor of a near-death experience. Does this do anything at all to help explain near-death experiences? No, because people who have near-death experiences are not people who have used hallucinogenic drugs before having the near-death experience.

Laureys next attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was an exercise in irrelevancy. He went into a sensory deprivation chamber which he said caused him to hear some voices that weren't there. This tells us nothing about near-death experiences, because such experiences are not preceded by periods of conscious sensory deprivation. Also, the type of hallucinations produced by such sensory deprivation chambers (described in this Wired story) do not resemble near-death experiences.

Laureys next attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was as goofy as his first try. To try to help understand the component of near-death experiences in which people report floating out of their bodies, Laureys fooled around with some very elaborate high-tech virtual reality setup that includes a plastic dummy arm. This somehow produces some kind of perceptual anomaly that Laureys compares to floating out of your body. Does this do anything at all to help explain near-death experiences? Not at all. The first reason is that Laureys is exaggerating like crazy, because the minor perceptual weirdness he reports is something vastly different from an experience in which someone reports floating above their body and viewing their body from above. The second reason is that the people who have near-death experiences do not have them under any conditions even slightly comparable to the condition of being hooked up to some elaborate virtual reality machine.

Laureys approach is as silly as someone trying to explain ghosts by filling up a room with steam blasts and then taking pictures of steam blasts that look a little like ghosts. That would be batty, because people who report seeing ghosts don't see them under any such “steam rich” conditions. Similarly, no one reports out-of-body experiences under any conditions like the high-tech virtual reality conditions Laureys was playing around with.

At this point in the show Laureys waxes triumphantly about all the “insights” he is gaining into near-death experiences from his goofy excursions into the irrelevant.

The show ended with kind of a “mad scientist” moment, as we see some experiments in which subjects are walloped with oxygen deprivation. The goal is clearly to try to show that near-death experiences are caused by oxygen deprivation.

mad scientist

The oxygen-starved people are then questioned. We have some cherry-picked clips of a handful of people mentioning something that might be relevant to near-death experiences. There was no clip of anyone reporting something like a full-blown near-death experience, or even a clip of anyone reporting two different aspects of a near-death experience, nor did the narrator mention any such person. But one woman said it was kind of like floating around.  Does this do anything to support the idea that near-death experiences may be caused by oxygen deprivation?

Not at all, when you consider the suggestibility factor. Previous studies have shown that people are astonishing suggestible to figures in white coats conducting experiments. A classic example was the Milgram experiment which showed that people would turn a knob that they thought was producing an almost lethal dose of electricity to someone, as long as there was an authority figure in a white coat telling them to “please continue.” Now let's imagine a scientist who asks for volunteers for an experiment on whether oxygen deprivation will cause something like a near-death experience. This will create a kind of feeling in the volunteer's mind that the scientist hopes or expects that the volunteer will report something a little like some part of a near-death experience. Even if the scientist makes no mention of near-death experiences when asking for volunteers, but merely asks for volunteers for an experiment on oxygen deprivation, it is all too likely that some of the volunteers would realize or suspect that the experiment is really about whether oxygen deprivation causes near-death experiences. In fact, there may be a selection effect in which the people who sign up for such experiments tend to be people wanting to help debunk near-death experiences.

So even if leading questions were not asked to the volunteers, it would be all too possible that we would get some answers that are largely the result of suggestibility or an “expectation effect” in which the volunteer slants his answers to match what he thinks are the expectations of the scientist. And if leading questions were answered, there would be a near certainty of some response matching what the scientist was looking for. Suppose a scientist deprives a volunteer of oxygen, and then asks something like, “Was it kind of like floating about?” Regardless of what they experienced, it will then be likely that some of the volunteers will answer something, “Yes, it was kind of like that.”

You can do your own research similar to that shown at the end of the National Geographic show. Get some volunteers, blindfold them, and spin each of them around 30 times. Then give them a questionnaire asking questions like this:

Did you experience any of these?
__ A white light in front of you?
__ A feeling of joy?
__ Recall of previous experiences?
__ A sense of floating?
__ A kind of mystical feeling?
__ A feeling like traveling through a tunnel?
__ Seeing one of your relatives?

Of course, your volunteers will sense that you really want them to check one of these boxes, so almost certainly you will find a few of the questionnaire items are checked off. But you will not be entitled to claim any insight about near-death experiences from such an experiment. You will have merely shown human suggestibility.

Given the practical impossibility of randomly selecting people and subjecting them to oxygen deprivation without warning (the only way to avoid suggestibility issues and bias issues), the soundest way to determine whether oxygen deprivation produces something like near-death experiences is to check the unsolicited accounts of people who suffered oxygen deprivation while flying, mountain climbing, or diving. Such accounts (which have been written for centuries) will provide no support for the claim that oxygen deprivation can explain near-death experiences.  

This scientific paper reviews the effects of oxygen deprivation (called hypoxia) and makes no mention of any effects resembling that of a near-death experience. Far from reporting the type of ecstasy often reported in such experiences, the paper reports that there was no change in the reported feelings of subjects undergoing oxygen deprivation: "self-reported feelings did not differ between the hypoxic and normoxic sessions." So the insinuation of the National Geographic TV show that oxygen deprivation can explain near-death experiences is bunk.

Laureys once co-authored a good paper on near-death experiences, one finding that the memories from them are kind of "realer than real." But judging from Sunday's TV show, his current approach to the topic seems to be to engage in various types of irrelevant busy work, and claim that these provide "insights" into near-death experiences. Acting in a similar way, you might do some experiments involving illegal aliens from Mexico, and then claim that these provided insights on aliens in distant solar systems.