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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

When the Future Whispers to the Present

My previous post discussed experimental evidence suggesting precognition, which is defined as anomalous knowledge of the future not achieved through the normal senses. Experimental evidence gathered in laboratories is only part of the evidence for precognition. There is also episodic evidence from human experiences outside of the laboratory. Larry Dossey's book The Science of Premonitions is an excellent summary of such episodic evidence. Below are some of the very interesting accounts in that book. 
  • A woman awoke at 2:30 AM, having had a nightmare that the chandelier above her baby's crib had fallen, crushing the child. In her dream she saw a clock with the numbers 4:35. She took the child out of the room with the chandelier, and brought the child to sleep with her. At 4:35 that morning, the chandelier did fall into the crib, exactly as in her dream.
  • William Cox researched train accidents between 1950 and 1955, and found that in every case the number of people traveling on the trains was less than the number who rode similar trains that did not crash, suggesting a possible precognitive ability of humans.
  • Quite a few people reported premonitions of the September 11, 2001 disaster before it happened. The four jet planes involved in the disaster had an average of only 21% of their seats filled, as if people had sensed something bad was going to happen.
  • On May 3, 1812, John Williams had the same dream three times in a single night: a very specific dream about someone assassinating Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister. Eight days later Perceval was assassinated, and several of the details matched William's dream.
  • A few days before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln had a dream that he would be assassinated.
  • The famous writer Mark Twain had a dream about the death of his brother that turned out to closely match what happened a few days later.
  • Several people had premonitions that something would go wrong on the Titanic before it sunk. One person who had a ticket on the ill-fated ship had two dreams that the ship would overturn, with passengers in the water.
  • In 1950 a church blew up in Beatrice, Nebraska, at a time when the church normally would have had a choir practice. Amazingly, no one was hurt, because the church was empty. We can only guess at how many of these people felt a premonition of doom, and avoided their regular choir practice.
  • According to research published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, dozens of people had premonitions of disaster before the Aberfan avalanche that killed 144 people. Some had dreams about such a disaster before it happened.
  • During World War II Winston Churchill had two premonitions that may have saved his life or those of others. One premonition led him to switch sides on his staff car. A bomb then went off near the side he moved away from. Another premonition led him to tell his kitchen staff to leave the kitchen and go underground. A bomb then destroyed the kitchen.
  • As reported here, Lawrence Francis Boisseau had a dream that the World Trade Center was collapsing around him. Boisseau was killed in the attack.

On page 263 of the book Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations Into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by journalist Annie Jacobsen, we have an astonishing case of apparent precognition. The book states:

Out of Langford's mouth came a prophecy. “A United States Pentagon official would be kidnapped by terrorists on the evening of 17 December 1981.”....Langford said he saw the terrorists breaking into the Pentagon official's apartment, binding and gagging the man, and then kidnapping him. Even more specifically, Langford saw this high-ranking official being shoved inside a trunk and secreted in the back of a van.

Sure enough, on December 17, 1981 exactly such a thing happened to Brigadier General James L. Dozier, who was kidnapped by a terrorist group called the Red Brigades. The van even had the same color mentioned by Langford.

I was not at all surprised to read about Boisseau's dream of the World Trade Center collapsing, for I had such a dream myself, several months before September 11, 2001. It was a very simple dream. In my dream, first I was standing inside the World Trade Center, and then the floor collapsed underneath my feet. In the dream I saw myself plunging as the whole building seemed to collapse. That day I told my wife that I had dreamed that the World Trade Center had collapsed. Several months later I was in the World Trade Center when a jet plane hit, but I was able to escape before the whole building collapsed. This is the only dream I have ever had about a building collapsing.

This is only one of many cases in which there was an uncanny match between something I dreamed and something that occurred. According to this wikipedia.org list, the most recent major earthquake in California was the Richter 6.0 quake of August 24, 2014, which caused over 300 million dollars of damage. About 4 hours before the earthquake, at about 2:00 AM I had a dream of a trash can mysteriously moving around on the floor, even though no one was touching it. I thought to myself: this might have been a dream of an earthquake tremor. Lying in my bed, I decided to send out a Tweet describing my dream – as soon as I woke up in the morning. When I woke up and checked the news, I saw it was too late – the earthquake had already occurred, a few hours after my dream.

The post here describes quite a few dreams I had that seemed to closely match reality, mostly events in the future or past events I had not yet learned about. The post here describes a case in which I had a dream of a meteor falling. There was an uncanny match between details of the dream and an event that happened a week later.

It has been quite a while since I had any dream experience closely matching reality. So I thought that I was all done with experiences suggesting precognition. But then this year something very astonishing happened.

I was eating dinner with my wife, watching the very entertaining and funny TV show The Carbonaro Effect. In this hidden camera reality TV show, magician Michael Carbonaro performs magic tricks in front of people who do not know that Michael is a magician and do not know that they are on TV.

I was watching the show in my living room, while my TV screen showed Carbonaro sitting with some other person at a table (I had not noticed they were in a room that was an office dining area). I went into my kitchen, where I could not see the show, and suddenly an idea popped into my head. It was an idea for something that would be very funny if it were done on The Carbonaro Effect show. My idea was that Michael Carbonaro could take a frozen fish and put it in a microwave oven, kind of saying, “I'm going to heat up my lunch now” in front of someone. Then when he opened the microwave door, there would be a live, moving fish about the same size as the fish he put in the microwave. I thought to myself: that would be very funny, to see something like that on this TV show.

I returned from my kitchen to the living room, to watch some more of the TV show. About 30 or 40 seconds later I saw Michael doing exactly what I had imagined. He took a frozen fish, and put it into the microwave. We saw the microwave oven apparently running, and then Michael appeared to take a live fish out of the microwave. He was saying something like, “Wow, I guess the fish came back to life,” or something to that effect. They might have done this trick by having a trick back door in the microwave, or maybe Michael had the live fish up his sleeve.

I had never seen the TV episode in question before, nor had I seen anything like it on any TV show. But my mind somehow managed to get the idea of exactly what was going to happen 30 or 40 seconds into the future – a totally weird and unpredictable type of thing. What are the odds of that happening by chance, maybe a million to one, or a billion to one?

I cannot say these things amount to ironclad proof that humans are able to sense the future in some paranormal way. I can merely give you some advice. If you ever have a strong premonition that disaster is about to strike, take that very seriously. So, for example, if you are about to board a bus, and you suddenly see in your mind a very vivid vision of the bus crashing, like in the Final Destination movies, with clear and distinct details, then take that seriously and go on some other bus. And if you have a flight scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, and you have a dream on Tuesday morning that your plane crashes, take that very seriously and change your travel plans.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Mainstream Media Continues to Misinform Us About ESP

The popular website Slate.com just published a long article about research into paranormal phenomena. The piece by Daniel Engber is an example of the unfair and misleading treatment this topic gets in the mainstream press.

The article is entitled “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real” and is subtitled “Which Means Science Is Broken.” It's a kind of a “trojan horse” title, because the article was clearly written to try to debunk Bem's research. The article discusses experimental research by Cornell University emeritus professor Daryl Bem. The research was published in a peer-reviewed scientific publication, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The widely discussed paper was entitled, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.”

In Experiment 1 described in the paper, subjects sat in front of a computer screen that displayed two images of a screen. The 100 subjects were told behind one of the screen was an image, and behind the other screen was nothing. The subjects were asked to guess which screen had the image behind it, during a series of trials running 20 minutes. When an erotic picture was used as the image behind the screen, subjects were able to guess correctly somewhat more often which screen had the image behind it. With erotic pictures, they guessed correctly 53% of the time, much more than the 50% expected by chance. With pictures that were not erotic, the subjects got results very close to the result expected by chance, 49.8%. Other similar experiments reported in the paper also got more statistically significant results. 

 Schematic depiction of ESP

Skeptics were outraged by these results, claiming they would never be replicated. But they were replicated. The meta-analysis here discusses many successful replications of Bem's surprising results. The meta-analysis discusses 90 experiments from 33 laboratories in 14 different countries. The analysis reported an overall effect of p=1.2 X 10-10. Roughly speaking, this means the results had a probability of about 1 in 10 billion. This is a very impressive result, showing statistical significance millions of times stronger than what is shown in typical papers reported by mainstream media. A typical paper that gets covered by the press will have an effect of only about p=.01 or p=.05.

In his article at slate.com mainstream media writer Daniel Engber clearly attempts to disparage and belittle this research finding. He uses some common techniques used by those denying or belittling evidence for the paranormal.

The first technique is to deprive the reader of the most relevant information the reader needs to decide on this manner. Engber makes no mention of the extremely compelling effect of p=1.2 X 10-10 reported in Bem's analysis. And so it almost always is when mainstream media reports on ESP experiments – typically a writer will report that a researcher reported “statistically significant” results without telling us that the degree of statistical significance reported is many times greater than what we find in typical scientific papers (which typically have statistical significance of only about p=0.5 or p=0.01).

The second technique Engber uses is a kind of isolation technique. His long article about ESP research gives no summary of the long history of ESP research dating back to the nineteenth century. The reader is almost kind of left with the impression that Daryl Bem's research was some weird fluke like a green sky appearing one day. But that's the opposite of the real situation. Scientists have been producing experiments showing very convincing evidence for ESP and other inexplicable human abilities for more than 100 years. The research started being done systematically about the time the Society for Psychical Research was founded in the late nineteenth century. One high point of the experimental research were the results of Joseph Rhine at Duke University during the 1930's, which actually produced results far more statistically significant than Bem's research. More recently, very compelling results for ESP were very often produced using a sensory deprivation technique called the ganzfeld technique. At the 2014 Parapsychological Assocation meeting, Diane Hennacy Powell MD presented extremely compelling evidence for ESP in an autistic child. Engber doesn't mention any of these things (see the table at the end of this post for the specifics).

Describing a moment in the past, perhaps about 1980, Engber tells us, very inaccurately, that “the laboratory evidence for ESP had begun to shrivel under careful scrutiny.” That is not at all correct. Classic ESP research such as Joseph Rhine's has never been successfully debunked. Before making this claim, Engber cites an example of what he apparently thinks is something that had discredited ESP research. It is the fact that James Randi hired associates to deceive some paranormal researchers, by acting as “fake psychics.” But while that incident reflected badly on Randi, it did nothing to discredit paranormal researchers, since they weren't the ones who were doing the faking.

Engber also throws in some “poisoning the well” rhetoric. He calls Bem's research results “crazy-land,” which is just vacuous disparagement. I may note that some of the most respected research results in scientific history (such as the double-slit experiments) were originally regarded as “crazy” results. Engber states:

Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions—that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong.

No, experimental results such as Bem's do not demand that we believe that “time can flow in two directions.” And it also is not true that results such as Bem's require people to believe that much of what they understood about the universe is wrong (although it is true that such research may suggest some people making overly dogmatic assumptions about the nature of time, consciousness and matter might need to reassess their assumptions, and admit their ignorance about such eternal questions).

Engber then goes to a long 8-paragraph discussion of a 2011 scientific paper by Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn. It's a paper entitled, “False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant.” Engber refers to this as the “When I'm Sixty Four” paper. Engber then delivers this very inaccurate statement:

But Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn revealed that Bem’s ESP paper was not a matter of poor judgment—or not merely that—but one of flawed mechanics....They’d shown that anyone could be a Daryl Bem, and any study could end up as a smoking pile of debris.

This statement by Engber is hogwash and baloney. In fact, the 2011 paper by Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn made no reference at all to Bem's research and made no reference to ESP or any research on paranormal phenomena. Their paper showed how someone might through dubious methods produce a borderline statistical significance along the lines of p=.05 or p= .01. But the paper did nothing to suggest that such dubious methods were used by Bem or any other ESP researcher. In fact, the level of significance claimed by Bem in his meta-analysis is p=1.2 X 10-10. That's a level of significance a hundred million times greater than merely p= .01.

Engber has made a totally inaccurate claim that Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn debunked Bem's research, when their paper doesn't even mention Bem or ESP research. What he also fails to tell us is that if Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn's paper can be claimed to debunk anything, then it debunks all experimental research claiming results with a significance of around p= .01 or p=.05 – which is basically a large fraction of all research published in neuroscience, medicine, psychology, and physics. 

For Engber to claim some great significance for the paper of Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn is rather absurd, since the paper basically tells us that we can get false alarms when the results have a significance of around p= .01 or p=.05 – which is something everyone already knew before the paper was written.

Engber's next trick is to start talking about replication failures and research fraud. He says this:

A few months later came the revelation that a classic finding in the field of social priming had failed to replicate. Soon after that, it was revealed that the prominent social psychologist Diederik Stapel had engaged in rampant fraud. Further replication failures and new examples of research fraud continued to accumulate through the following year.

Clearly, Engber is trying to bring into his reader's mind the idea of ESP research being fraudulent. But, in fact, all of the examples cited above refer to work that was being done by researchers working on topics other than ESP or paranormal phenomena. Mentioning such things in the middle of an article on ESP research is not literally inaccurate, but it's extremely misleading, something very much prone to create a false idea in the reader's mind. In fact, ESP researchers have an excellent record of honesty, as good as that of any group of scientific experimenters. Engber does not cite any example of dishonesty by an ESP researcher – he simply deviously leaves his readers with an impression of such a thing.

I can imagine a writer writing in an equally misleading manner, giving some web links that do not actually refer to candidate John Doe, but to some other people. It might go like this:

Doubts have been raised about the candidacy of John Doe. There was a drunk driving arrest (Link 1). Then there was a bank robbery arrest (Link 2). Then there was a grand jury indictment (Link 3). Clearly we must question John Doe's fitness for office.

Of course, if none of these links referred to John Doe, but referred to other people, such a paragraph would be very misleading.

Towards the end of his piece, Engber tries to throw doubt on Bem's findings by referring to a replication attempt to repeat one of the several experiments in his original “Feeling the Future” paper. Engber claims that at the most recent meeting of the Parapsychological Association (which at this date would have been the 2016 meeting), Bem presented a “pre-registered analysis” which “showed no evidence at all for ESP.” Engber claims that nonetheless Bem's abstract of this work, after “adding in a new set of statistical tests,” stated that the replication attempt had produced “highly significant” evidence for ESP. Clearly Engber is trying to suggest that maybe some kind of statistical funny business was going on. But he presents no specific facts to back up such a claim, nor does he give a link that would allow us to check out his insinuations. When I go to the web page that lists the abstracts submitted to the 2016 meeting of the Parapsychological Association, I see no abstracts authored by Bem. The experiment referred to is not even the main experiment by Bem that received the most attention in the press (the experiment I described above). All in all, this does nothing to raise doubts about Bem, but may raise further questions about Engber's hatchet tactics when dealing with the paranormal.

In this case Bem is an ace Ivy League psychologist with several decades of statistical research experience, and Engber is neither a mathematician nor a scientist. So if Engber is going to raise doubts on statistical grounds, no one should pay attention to him unless he is very specific in what his precise objections are. A little vague rhetorical doubt-sprinkling does not suffice. In his long article, Engber does not actually provide a single specific well-documented statistical or methodological reason for doubting Bem's research.

Engber's misleading article is typical of the dismal coverage that ESP research gets in mainstream media. A great deal of this coverage is inaccurate. Astonishingly, it has become “politically correct” within today's science culture to make completely false statements about research into the paranormal. It is extremely common for scientists to claim there is no evidence for extrasensory perception, which is entirely false, given the very large body of convincing experimental evidence that has been gathered over more than 100 years, much of it under the auspices of major universities or the US government (see the table below for examples). It is also very common for scientists to say that the experimental evidence for ESP has been debunked or that it was never replicated. Neither of these statements is true. Shockingly, we have a science culture in which highly inaccurate statements on parapsychology research are pretty much the norm. It's rather like the situation we would have if it become popular in American history departments for professors to say that the Americans won the Vietnam War, and that they treated the Vietnamese very nicely while doing it.

Engber's article is entitled “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real” and is subtitled “Which Means Science Is Broken.” A more accurate title for an article would be, “Joseph Rhine and Many Other Researchers Showed ESP Is Very Probably Real, But Science Culture Refused to Accept It, Which Shows Science Culture Is Broken.”

Bem's research was purely experimental. There is an entirely separate reason for thinking that humans can sometimes sense the future in a paranormal way: the large body of episodic accounts supporting such a claim. I will discuss this fascinating evidence in my next post. 

Below is a table showing some high points of research into ESP.

Researcher Procedure Results Link
Professor Bernard F. Riess, Hunter College, 1937 Remote card guessing of 1850 cards with woman in another building 73% accuracy rate with expected accuracy rate of 20% http://futureandcosmos.blogspot.com/2016/02/better-than-smoking-gun-riess-esp-test.html
Professor Joseph Rhine and others, Duke University, 1932 Card guessing experiments with Hubert Pearce, 10300 cards, experimenter and subject in same room 36% accuracy rate with expected accuracy of 20% http://futureandcosmos.blogspot.com/2014/12/when-rhine-and-pearce-got-smoking-gun.html
J.G. Pratt,  Duke University, 1933-1934 Card guessing experiments with Hubert Pearce, 1850 cards, experimenter and subject in different rooms 30% accuracy rate with expected accuracy of 20% http://psychicinvestigator.com/demo/ESPdoc.htm
Ganzfeld ESP tests, 1997-2008 ESP tests under sensory deprivation, various subjects, 1498 trials 32% accuracy rate, with expected accuracy of 25% http://www.deanradin.com/FOC2014/Storm2010MetaFreeResp.pdf
Rupert Sheldrake, PhD, 2014 63 subjects, 570 trials, test of whether subject could correctly guess a phone caller 40% accuracy rate with expected accuracy of 25% http://www.sheldrake.org/files/pdfs/papers/ISLIS_Vol32.pdf
Rupert Sheldrake, PhD, 2014 50 subjects, 552 trials, test of whether subject could correctly guess who sent an e-mail 43% accuracy rate with expected accuracy of 25% http://www.sheldrake.org/files/pdfs/papers/ISLIS_Vol32.pdf
Diane Hennacy Powell MD, 2014, ESP tests with an autistic child 100% accuracy on three out of twenty image descriptions containing up to nine letters each, 60 to 100% accuracy on all three of the five-letter nonsense words, and 100% accuracy on two random numbers: one eight digits and the other nine. Data from the second session with Therapist A includes 100% accuracy on six out of twelve equations with 15 to 19 digits each, 100% accuracy on seven out of 20 image descriptions containing up to six letters, and between 81 to 100% accuracy on sentences of between 18 and 35 letters. Data from the session with Therapist B showed 100% accuracy with five out of twenty random numbers up to six digits in length, and 100% accuracy with five out of twelve image descriptions containing up to six letters. http://dianehennacypowell.com/evidence-telepathy-nonverbal-autistic-child/

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why Are We Such Pushovers for the Dubious Narratives of Mainstream Authorities?

We are suckers for narratives told by mainstream authorities. A large fraction of us will tend to believe any nonsense they pitch, whenever we keep hearing the same story told over and over again.

Let us imagine an alternate history in which suspected presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was not killed by Jack Ruby. Imagine that most of the TV shows and newspapers began telling us the same story: that Lee Harvey Oswald was an innocent patsy set up by some dark conspiracy to assassinate president John Kennedy. Imagine if Lee Harvey Oswald became a popular celebrity, who went on lots of television talk shows, talking about how he had been framed for the murder of John Kennedy. Imagine if the mainstream media had nothing but nice things to say about Lee Harvey Oswald.

Then on one dark and rainy night, you might open the door of your house, and see on your porch Lee Harvey Oswald pointing at you a Mannlicher–Carcano rifle. What would you say? Given all the media brainwashing you had been exposed to, there's a significant chance you would say something like this:

Hi, Lee! Oh, I see you bought me a rifle as a gift. How nice of you! Come in out of the rain, and have a cup of coffee.

Our tendency to believe any nonsense that is spouted by revered authorities was shown in the prelude to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2013. The government began telling us silly scare stories that were false. President George W. Bush asserted again and again that Iraq had terrifying weapons of mass destruction. A study found that Bush made 232 false statements about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, along with 28 false statements about Iraqi links to Al Qaeda. Some of the claims were absurd, such as his February 6, 2003 statement making it sound as if there was a threat of Iraq releasing aerial drones that would spray biological weapons on the United States. The claim was utterly laughable, because at the time the United States had the mightiest air force in the world, and Iraq's air force was almost nonexistent.

Bush's claims on Iraq's weapons were false, and some of his scare stories were downright ridiculous. But the American people were pushovers for the endless narrative repetition. By the time the war was launched, the White House had persuaded most Americans that the toothless Iraq was a terrifying threat. It was further evidence that large fractions of the population will believe false or absurd statements as long as they are dogmatically proclaimed by respected authorities.

It is amazing that most of the American people fell “hook, line and sinker” for the government's false claims about Iraq weapons of mass destruction. We should have learned a lesson from the experience of the Vietnam war, during which administrations (both Democratic and Republican) fed us a steady stream of outrageous lies for more than 8 years. From such an experience we should have learned to have been more distrustful of authorities in high places.

It is interesting to imagine an alternate reality in which astrologers were in charge of astronomy departments at universities. Astrology is a belief system based on the idea that the stars and planets exert some occult mystical influence on human affairs. You might think that if the departments of astronomy at colleges and universities were all controlled by astrologers, that most of us would shake our heads and ask: what has gone wrong with our astronomy departments?

But here is how things would probably work. Having abundant government and university funding, the astrologer professors of astronomy would be able to produce lots of papers trying to back up their claims. Such astrologers would use expensive computers to examine historical data, looking for particular events that were consistent with what astrology predicted on such a date. Having all of human history to search through, and tons of time to spend looking for matches, the professors would no doubt find some matches. Such matches between historical facts and astrological predictions would be described in scientific papers published by the astrologer professors. Such professors would triumphantly describe such evidence as decisive proof of the claims of astrology, that the stars and planets exert a mystical influence on human affairs. Almost any group with enthusiastic adherents and large amounts of funding can produce superficially persuasive evidence to back up its favored doctrines.

If such astrologists controlled the astronomy departments at our colleges and universities, and they were to get all their papers published in the scientific journals, and the mainstream media reported extensively on such papers, then probably most of the American people would believe in astrology. We would be captives of the endlessly repeated official narrative. Similarly, most Americans would believe in homeopathy if homepathy enthusiasts controlled the medical colleges.

When a mainstream authority holds the levers of powers and influence, it can effectively use various ad hominem techniques to marginalize the critics who point out gaps in the logic or evidence presented by that authority. So during the run-up to the start of the Iraq war in 2003, there was a great chorus of establishment voices denouncing critics of the unprovoked invasion as “peaceniks,” “pacifists,” "anti-American," "appeasers,” and “unpatriotic.” Similar tactics are used by modern authorities who try to paint as “enemies of science” anyone who questions some weakly established truth claim of a scientist.

It seems that almost any nonsensical doctrine could achieve large-scale acceptance just as long as it won large funding to push its message and got its adherents to sit in positions of power and influence. If the authorities today told us (as they did around 1500) that witches were a grave peril causing all kinds of social problems, then many an average Joe would now be arguing: hey, let's solve more of our problems, by burning more witches.

Mainstream authorities help to cast a spell on us by talking in dense jargon that may sound very impressive and learned, even if it states ideas that are poorly substantiated. But almost any nonsensical idea may sound impressive if it is stated in very technical language filled with jargon. A scientist would probably convince many that there is a secret world of life inside a hollow planet Earth, if the scientist stated the idea in a paper filled with dense jargon, twelve-letter words, and esoteric mathematical equations.

Authorities prod the sheeple to parrot the official line

Two classic psychology experiments have shown how prone we are to conform with authority, “tow the line” and go with the herd, even when doing such a thing makes no sense or contradicts the evidence of our own eyes. One such experiment is the Asch experiment. In that experiment a group of nine people were asked to judge which of the three lines in a rectangle on the right was a match for the single line in the rectangle on the left.

The Asch Experiment ( credit: Wikipedia Commons)

 The first eight people would always give the same wrong answer, because they were confederates of the experimenter, and had been told beforehand to give such an answer. The only person really being tested was the last of the nine to be asked about which line on the right rectangle matched the line on the left rectangle. Even though it was quite obvious to the eye that the answer by the eight was wrong, about one-third of the participants (the ninth person to be asked) gave the wrong answer, conforming to the other eight. In the control group, in which only a single person was asked without the other 8 present, less than 1% gave the wrong answer. The lesson of the experiment: large fractions of us may judge or state illogically when we feel social pressure to conform to some majority or authoritative opinion.  

Another relevant experiment was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were told to deliver electric shocks to an unseen person in another room, whenever the person failed at some verbal task he was given. The participants were told by a scientist figure in a white coat to deliver progressively more dangerous electric shocks to the unseen person in another room. If the participants objected to delivering such shocks, they were simply told something like, “Please continue” or “It is absolutely essential that you continue” or “You have no other choice but to continue.” Two-thirds (65%) of the participants delivered what they thought was a 450-volt shock to the person in another room, even though on the machinery they were using, that level was marked “Danger – severe shock.” The person in the other room wasn't actually being shocked, and the experiment was purely to test the obedience level of the person who thought he was delivering shocks.

The Milgram experiment is usually described as if it was only dealing with obedience, but it also can be interpreted as telling us that most people are pushovers who will believe something illogical when some scientific authority asserts it. Those who delivered what they thought was a 450-volt shock were apparently thinking things like, “I don't have any choice but to continue,” or “Even the severe shock won't hurt the person,” even though such beliefs made no sense given the circumstances and the labels on the machinery. People who heard about the Milgram experiment thought to themselves things like, “So if there's ever some evil Nazi-like scientist who wants me to do bad things, I shouldn't listen to him.” They should have been making a much more general conclusion, such as, “People are way too trustful of scientific authorities – we should question their claims, and accept nothing on the basis of authority.”

Some may say: but once something gets very popular in the universities and colleges, then surely it is something we can believe in. But that's not necessarily so. The 2016 book Imbeciles by Adam Cohen tells the story of the forced government sterilization of Carrie Buck. Carrie Buck was a woman of normal intelligence who was forcibly sterilized by the government in 1927, on the claimed grounds that she was “feeble-minded.” This was done under a Virginia law passed when eugenics was extremely popular in colleges and universities. Advocates of eugenics argued on Darwinian grounds that those with inferior genes should be sterilized to preserve the survival of the fittest. The book says this on page 4: “Eugenics was taught at 376 universities and colleges, including Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, and Cornell.” The book notes that many professors were ardent supporters of eugenics, which went out of style after its ideas reached a climax under the Nazis.

The case of Carrie Buck went before the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 in 1927 that Carrie Buck (a woman of normal intelligence) should be forcibly sterilized. Citing eugenics with approval, the distinguished justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. wrote in favor of the decision, in a decision that was quoted by a Nazi in the Nuremberg trial, who cited it as a kind of legal inspiration. Thousands were forcibly sterilized under the Virginia law, and the forced sterilizations continued until 1972. The Buck case shows how there can be diverse layers of authority that all are infected with the same false idea (something also shown by the 2003 WMD-lies fiasco, where diverse types of authorities kept feeding us the same falsehoods).

The reason why we should not trust a doctrine purely because it is taught extensively in colleges and universities is that our academic ivory towers are very prone to become ideological enclaves, where sociological effects, tribal enthusiasms and groupthink may cause some dubious doctrine to become enshrined as some “darling of the tribe.” That's what happened with eugenics for decades, and the same thing has happened to quite a few dubious doctrines that continue to enjoy undeserved popularity in academic circles.

Part of the problem is what I might call the “pinnacle perspective.” A person using this perspective will regard our current state as being the pinnacle of human progress. He may think: we can't be too far wrong, because we're at the pinnacle of human progress. The problem with such a perspective is that you could have thought in exactly such a way 500 years ago or 200 years ago. We can imagine someone during the witch-burning craze around 1500 reasoning: we can't be too far off the mark, because we're at the pinnacle of human progress. Such a person would have been very wrong indeed. To help cure yourself of the pinnacle perspective, imagine some human civilization 100,000 years in the future. What will they think about our current ideas about morality, life, and Mind? They will probably think that our ideas are largely primitive foolishness. After taking such a perspective, you may apply the proper scrutiny to the dogmatic claims of today's authorities.

Do not believe anything merely because a president, a preacher or a professor proclaimed it, but subject all of their claims to critical scrutiny.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cosmic Inflation Clique Defends Its Tribal Folklore

Around about 1978, cosmologists (the scientists who study the universe as a whole) were puzzled by a problem of fine-tuning. They had figured out that the expansion rate of the very early universe (at the time of the Big Bang) must have been incredibly fine-tuned, apparently to one part in ten to the sixtieth power. This dilemma was known as the flatness problem.

Around then Alan Guth (an MIT professor) proposed a way to solve the flatness problem. Guth proposed that for a tiny fraction of its first second (for less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second), the universe expanded at an exponential rate. The universe is not expanding at any such rate, but Guth proposed that after a very brief instant of exponential expansion, the universe switched back to the normal, linear expansion that it now has.

Even though there was no evidence for it, and the idea was very far-fetched from the beginning, Guth's idea became very popular among the small tribe of cosmologists. We can call this idea Guthism, and we can call the small tribe of cosmologists who adopted it Guthists. Guthism can also be called the cosmic inflation theory, although Guthism may be better term, to avoid confusion with the broader concept of the expansion of the universe (which does not require the idea of primordial cosmic inflation).

In January of 2017 Scientific American published an article attacking Guthism. The article was written by Princeton professor Paul Steinhardt and Harvard professor Abraham Loeb, along with Anna Iijas. The trio methodically dismantled the Guthist idea of primordial cosmic inflation.

Commenting on a Planck satellite data release that was proclaimed as being in support of Guthism, the article states, “If anything, the Planck data disfavored the simplest inflation models and exacerbated long-standing foundational problems with the theory, providing new reasons to consider competing ideas about the origin and evolution of the universe.”

Here is a quote from the paper:

Two improbable criteria have to be satisfied for inflation to start. First, shortly after the big bang, there has to be a patch of space where the quantum fluctuations of spacetime have died down and the space is well described by Einstein’s classical equations of general relativity; second, the patch of space must be flat enough and have a smooth enough distribution of energy that the inflationary energy can grow to dominate all other forms of energy. Several theoretical estimates of the probability of finding a patch with these characteristics just after the big bang suggest that it is more difficult than finding a snowy mountain equipped with a ski lift and well-maintained ski slopes in the middle of a desert.

A stunning statement – that a theory paraded around as a standard of cosmology is really more implausible than “finding a snowy mountain equipped with a ski lift and well-maintained ski slopes in the middle of a desert.”

The paper then goes on to explain why Guthism is basically worthless in terms of helping to explain the flatness problem. The authors state this:

More important, if it were easy to find a patch emerging from the big bang that is flat and smooth enough to start inflation, then inflation would not be needed in the first place. Recall that the entire motivation for introducing it was to explain how the visible universe came to have these properties; if starting inflation requires those same properties, with the only difference being that a smaller patch of space is needed, that is hardly progress.

The scientists also tell us, “Not only does inflation require starting conditions that are difficult to obtain, it also impossible to stop inflation once it gets going.” They are referring to the “graceful exit” problem. Appealing to an “inflaton field” that has never been discovered, Guthism tells the tale that exponential cosmic inflation lasted for less than a trillionth of a second, and that it both started and stopped during the universe's first second. But getting the stopping to occur requires fine-tuning and vastly improbable circumstances similar to the fine-tuning and vastly improbable circumstances needed to get this exponential cosmic inflation beginning in the first place. It's like trying to explain an elephant appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing in less than a second.

The three scientists suggest a “bouncing universe” theory as an alternative to Guthism, but there are powerful reasons (discussed here) for rejecting such a theory. Our three scientists have done a fine job at showing the low credibility of Guthism, but have not succeeded in presenting some viable alternative. But that's okay, because we can simply say that we do not understand the universe's beginning, rather than pretending to understand primordial mysteries beyond our comprehension and knowledge. Kudos to anyone who shows the weaknesses of a prevailing theory, even if they don't succeed in presenting a viable replacement for such a theory.

What do you call a theory that tells a “once upon a time” story describing unproven and unbelievable narrative details of the universe's first second – a theory hanging around because it has become a verbal story tradition of a little clique of scientists? The best term I can think of is: tribal folklore.

Darwinists have constantly been telling us, “Nature does not make leaps.” But the cosmic inflation theorists want you to believe that nature made two gigantic leaps in its first second. According to them, the first of the leaps when was this exponential period of cosmic inflation started; and the second leap, a fraction of a second later, was when this exponential period of cosmic inflation ended (with the universe returning to the normal, linear expansion rate we now observe).

cosmic inflation

Is there any chance that this folk tale will ever be verified? No, because we can never hope to look back to the beginning and see what happened. The cosmic density preceding the “recombination era” scattered photons from the very beginning of the Big Bang, and prevents us from looking back to a time earlier than about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

If you do a Google search for “cosmic inflation,” you will find quite a few web links proclaiming that observations have confirmed the theory. No such thing has happened. The web links date from 2014, when the BICEP2 team announced observations which it claimed found something (primordial b-modes) that the cosmic inflation theory had predicted. But later in the year, a consensus emerged that the team had done no such thing, and that the observations were just as likely to have been the result of ordinary dust. This was all a great big embarrassment to modern cosmology, since a giant false alarm had been raised. At a time in the spring of 2014 when most major scientific web sites were toasting the supposed glorious success of BICEP2, this blog was one of only a handful of web sites raising doubts about the claim (my 2014 posts on the topic are here). By the end of the year, things had reversed, and the scientific world was pretty much saying this about BICEP2: “Never mind.”

The Scientific American article by the three scientists has provoked an unusual response. The main supporters of Guthism (including Alan Guth and Andrei Linde) along with about 30 other cosmologists have published a rebuttal article called “A Cosmic Controversy.” It is kind of an authoritarian power play, designed to impress the reader by listing authorship by some of the top names in cosmology. The list of authors is very impressive, but the reasoning of the rebuttal is very unimpressive.

The core of the rebuttal is the claim that cosmic inflation theory (Guthism) has made several predictions that have proven true. The predictions listed are that the universe is geometrically flat, that ripples in the cosmic background radiation should be nearly “scale invariant,” that these ripples should be “adiabatic,” and that these ripples should be “Gaussian.”

Let me explain why such things cannot be cited as good evidence that Guthism is correct. First, we must recognize that many a false theory may make a true prediction. Some person may have a false theory that the Freemasons are secretly plotting to take over the world. That theory may predict (among other things) that interest rates will rise, that the stock market will go down, and that real estate prices will not change much. If it then happens that each of these three things happens, it does nothing to prove that such a theory of a Freemason conspiracy is correct. There would be about 1 chance in 10 of such predictions being right accidentally, and a 1 in 10 coincidence is not an impressive one.

In physics the theories of gravitation, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics are regarded very highly because they make very precise predictions that turn out to be exactly correct. For example, a theory of gravitation may predict that a particular small asteroid will crash into the moon at exactly 10:35 PM EST on January 23, 2025. When such exact predictions turn out to be precisely true, it is very impressive, because it's hard to see how the theory could be so precisely right if it were not true. If the theory were not true, such a prediction would seem to require perhaps a 1 in a billion coincidence.

Conversely, there is nothing impressive about a theory being correct with a few predictions that may be coincidentally correct with a likelihood of about 1 in 2 or 1 in 3. The overall unlikelihood of such a level success is only about 1 in 6 or 1 in 9, which is not very unlikely at all.

In the case of the predictions of Guthism (primordial cosmic inflation), the items mentioned by the “A Cosmic Controversy” rebuttal are items that would have not been very unlikely for a false theory to have predicted. There are three possible geometries of space (flat, open, and closed), so you have 1 chance in 3 of being right if you pick one of those. If you guess that primordial ripples were Gaussian, you have about 1 chance in 2 of being correct. If you guess that primordial ripples were scale-invariant, you also have 1 chance in 2 of being correct. If you guess that fluctuations were adiabatic, you also have about 1 chance in 2 of being correct.

We may also note the fact that over the past 35 years there have been many hundreds of papers published presenting different versions of Guthist cosmic inflation theories. The predictions of these models have been “all over the map.” Typically a particular version of the theory will present a model consisting of equations, with lots of free parameters that can be plugged into the equations. A particular model (one version of the cosmic inflation theory) may predict a million different things, depending on what is chosen for the free parameters. And hundreds of such Guthist models have been published, each with slightly different equations.

So even the meager predictive successes mentioned in the “A Cosmic Controversy” rebuttal are not at all something that can be trotted out as some sign that “the predictions of cosmic inflation theory have been verified.” The few predictions mentioned are predictions cherry picked from a large family of models, which made predictions all over the map.

If I advanced some economic theory, and got disciples to grind out hundreds of different flavors of my theory, I would no doubt be able to find among some of these works some successful predictions that each had a chance probability of maybe 1 in 2 or 1 in 3 of being correct. But that would not be evidence that my theory was correct. Similarly, a few successful predictions (none very numerically exact) among the huge number of Guthist cosmic inflation models is not at all impressive, and something we might well expect to occur by chance.

The “successful predictions” cited in the “A Cosmic Controversy” rebuttal are also things that have been produced as the evidence was gradually coming in. It's not too hard to get successful predictions if you are predicting as the evidence is coming in. For example, if it's 2007 and the evidence is starting to come in that the housing market is collapsing, it's not hard to predict in that year that the housing market will collapse.

As Steinhardt, Loeb, and Iijas state in their rebuttal to the “Cosmic Controversy” rebuttal, “Any inflationary model gives an infinite diversity of outcomes with none preferred over any other.”

At this link Steinhardt, Loeb, and Iijas cite various Guthist cosmic inflation models over the years which have made false predictions, including some models predicting an open universe, some models predicting non-guassianity, some models predicting large tilt, some models predicting deviations from isotropy, some models predicting bumps and wiggles in the primordial spectrum, and some models that “predict B-modes with amplitudes that should have been detected by the WMAP and Planck satellites.”

It would actually be a gigantic project probably requiring years of work for someone to analyze whether the predictions of cosmic inflation models have been mainly successful or mainly unsuccessful. You would have to do something like put together an incredibly complex computer program that included thousands of equations that were extracted from more than 500 cosmic inflation papers published in the past 35 years. You would then have to vary the input parameters on all of these models, and see how well the results matched up with a large variety of cosmological observations. No one has ever done such a thing, partially because of the runaway complexity of such a project, which might be thousands of time more difficult than checking the accuracy of IPCC predictions on global warming.

In short, it is not right to claim that predictive successes show some likelihood that Guthist cosmic inflation actually occurred. We must also consider that the Cold Spot in the cosmic background radiation seems to be inconsistent with what such a theory predicts (as discussed here).

Imagine a salesman who knocks on your door and tells you he can make your kitchen look real nice if you spend only a few dollars to do some simple work. You let him in to do some work, thinking it will be a simple affair. Imagine the guy starts fiddling with the pipes and electricity, and then eventually tells you the job is going to cost you many thousands of dollars. You think to yourself: I never would have let this guy in if he had told me that at the beginning.

The tale of Guthism is a similar tale. It was originally pitched as something pretty simple. So cosmologists welcomed it. As time progressed, and the simplest versions kept failing, our Guthists eventually indicated that the theory required a whole multiverse (a huge collection of universes). The theory never would have been initially welcomed if this gargantuan requirement had been confessed at the very beginning. But by the time the multiverse requirements of Guthism had become apparent, the Guthist thought virus had infected so many cosmologists that they were reluctant to say, “This thing has got out of hand – we've been going in the wrong direction.” It's rather like a husband who takes the wrong turn trying to get from New York City to Philadelphia. If you point out his mistake the first few miles, he may turn around. But by the time he's gone a hundred miles down the wrong road, he may never admit he made a wrong turn. And even if he starts seeing signs saying, “Welcome to Massachusetts,” he may still swear he made the right turn. 

Postscript: Scientific American columnist John Horgan writes the following:

Almost 40 years after their inception, inflation and string theory are in worse shape than ever. The persistence of these unfalsifiable and hence unscientific theories is an embarrassment that risks damaging science’s reputation at a time when science can ill afford it. Isn’t it time to pull the plug? 

Here is a relevant previous post of mine, entitled "Let's Keep the Big Bang but Dump the Cosmic Inflation Theory."