Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, February 23, 2007

Can Karnak the Magnificent Find Osama?

In may continuing quest to root out myth and replace it with truth, I now come to the question of psychic ability. Is it real? Can anyone really find lost things using some mysterious mental ability? Can people bend spoons and see the future? And find Osama?

This article in the Daily Mail caught my eye. The title: Psychics 'hired to find Bin Laden.' Britain's Ministry of Defence (yes, they spell it with a "c") "conducted an experiment to see if volunteers could 'see' objects hidden inside and envelope," hoping that positive results would allow them to find the terrorist mastermind and perhaps even elusive WMD. Sadly the experiment proved futile, but did cost the British taxpayers £18,000.

First, let's get a better definition of what we're talking about. According to the Skeptic's Dictionary:
Extrasensory perception (ESP), is "perception occurring independently of sight, hearing, or other sensory processes. People who have extrasensory perception are said to be psychic. It is commonly called ESP, a term popularized by J. B. Rhine, who began investigating the phenomenon at Duke University in 1927. ESP refers to telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and in recent years, remote viewing and clairaudience. The existence of ESP and other paranormal powers such as telekinesis, are disputed, though systematic experimental research on these subjects, known collectively as psi, has been ongoing for over a century in parapsychology."

In an article I wrote earlier titled "Human Gullibility – How Healthy is Your Skeptic?" I spoke of the need to guard the entrance to the pool of ideas you believe. Should this one be in your pool? I think not, and here's how I arrive at that conclusion.

I will only allow an idea into the pool of my beliefs when I am convinced by empirical evidence that it is demonstrably true. It seems to me that to do otherwise, that is, to believe things that are unsupported by evidence is a manifestly debilitating practice. How can I navigate the world successfully if my vision is obscured by ideas that are either untrue or unproven? To live my life I must continually be making decisions and choices. To make the best possible decisions and choices, doesn't it stand to reason that I need the best possible information at hand? And so I choose to stake my life choices upon ideas that I have the strongest reasons to believe are in fact true.

Someone may reply to the above statement by saying, "What's the harm in believing something that makes you happy? Didn't you tell your kids that Santa was the one bringing them presents at Christmas time?" A fair question. Certainly, I have no problem with believing something that is false when there is in fact no harm that can come from it. When children believe in Santa, that's fine. But if one of my kids was about to send a letter containing a $20 bill to the North Pole because Santa needed the money, I would have a problem. My child would be making a relatively consequential choice that was based on a falsehood. Do you see the difference?

When I used to spend 10% of my income, many hours of my time, and quite a few calories of my available energy on church and church-related activities, I was making a very significant investment. If the supernatural claims of the Bible are true, the investment would be a good one. If they are false, then it would not.

But what kinds of evidence should I base my decisions on? There are those who would fault me for using empirical evidence as my standard. But what other standard should I use? The scientific method of verifying the veracity of an idea or theory based on observation and experiment is the only way I know of to have any confidence about that idea's truth or falsehood.

Back to ESP. As far as I have been able to discover, no one has ever demonstrated, by observation and repeatable experiment, the validity of ESP. While there apparently have been tests that showed, for example, that "humans could alter the behavior of random number producing machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000" (Wikipedia), it is also true that "the most compelling and repeatable results are all small to moderate statistical results" (ibid).

All this leads me to the conclusion that there may be some minute effects that are repeatable, but anything significant is most likely non-existent. You can't find Bil Laden by using ESP. If you could, he would have been found by now.