Small Streams

I Saw This One Coming
February 10, 2007, 11:36 am
Filed under: education, research

Princeton’s ESP Lab is closing after 28 years of research. Or as the NY Times story poignantly puts it . . .

. . . the staff worked amid boxes, piles of paper, and a roll of bubble wrap as big as an oil drum. The random-event machines are headed for storage.

The lab has been described as an embarrassment. I, myself, have a strong belief in classical mechanics. Telekinesis, mental telepathy, and clairvoyance don’t work for me. I do, however, think that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (I’m not saying you’re backwards. Just a little bit fusty. Perhaps one of Madama Blavatsky‘s fuzzy balls of light might perk you up.)

In one of PEAR’s standard experiments, the study participant would sit in front of an electronic box the size of a toaster oven, which flashed a random series of numbers just above and just below 100. Staff members instructed the person to simply “think high” or “think low” and watch the display. After thousands of repetitions — the equivalent of coin flips — the researchers looked for differences between the machine’s output and random chance.

Analyzing data from such trials, the PEAR team concluded that people could alter the behavior of these machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000. If the human mind could alter the behavior of such a machine, Dr. Jahn argued, then thought could bring about changes in many other areas of life — helping to heal disease, for instance, in oneself and others.

Two or three flips out of 10,000 is hardly enough to make me want to change the machine’s numbers. Say the electronic box was a roulette wheel, there’d hardly be any incentive for thinking high or low. If I have to work that hard, let the ball pick its own number. The house’s take is two orders of magnitude higher than most people’s telekinetic abilities. I think there might be a system out there that will beat the house, but until you find it, keep betting with the house,

One final quote from Benedict Carey’s ably and wonderfully written story.

The culture of science, at its purest, is one of freedom in which any idea can be tested regardless of how far-fetched it might seem.

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