From CNN's Belief Blog: One fifth of the American population reports that it has no "religious affiliation," according to a newly released Pew research poll. Of this group, 88 percent are happy with their current status and not looking for a religious group to join. Check out other findings here.
Hot on the heels of the BMJ's verdict comes this story from the New York Times, describing the publication of a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that seems to support the idea of the existence of clairvoyance.
One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events....The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.[link omitted]
Charles Judd, the outgoing editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is a publication affiliated with the American Psychological Association, explained to the NYT that “Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript and these are very trusted people.” But one critic says that the standards reviewers use when critiquing articles that challenge accepted science ought to be different from those they use when they examine articles that are building on accepted scientific concepts. "Several top journals publish results only when these appear to support a hypothesis that is counterintuitive or attention-grabbing,” Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, wrote by e-mail. “But such a hypothesis probably constitutes an extraordinary claim, and it should undergo more scrutiny before it is allowed to enter the field.” Dr. Wagenmakers writes a response to Dr. Bem's study in the same issue of the Journal. Here's a link to a draft of the study; the text notes that it is "not the copy of record."
Putting aside questions about the validity of the study, what would happen if ESP were to be shown to be a certainable ability? Suppose we could demonstrate that certain individuals had it, and could harness it predictably? Would we enter the world of Philip K. Dick's "minority report"? What would be the implications for free will? For the law?
Currently, we do not arrest people for crimes they are going to or might commit, although in certain cases, prosecutors and legislators try to create situations in which people can be detained or jailed for prospective actions. Consider the situation of an individual who is pleasantly buzzed and sitting behind the wheel of a parked car. Should he be arrested for driving while intoxicated? No, because he's not driving. Can he be arrested for being drunk in public, for example, under California Penal Code section 647(f)? Possibly, even if he isn't completely under the influence, and the arresting officer may also be concerned that the individual might put the keys in the ignition and drive away under the influence, so the officer might arrest for public drunkeness to prevent the greater, potential harm.
Consider an even more interesting problem that has been in the headlines recently. Prosecutors have been attempting to commit sex offenders to a term of civil commitment after they have served their prison terms under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (18 U.S.C. § 4248). In U.S. v. Comstock, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether such an extended term is constitutional and held that Congress had the power to allow extend such terms on the theory that Congress has the right, as guardian of federal prisoners, to extend their care as long as necessary until it (or its appointed caretakers) deem that they are no longer a danger to society. Thus, these particular offenders serve not simply their mandated criminal sentences, but additional civil terms, and these civil terms seem to be open-ended.
If some individuals (let's call them ESPers) had the ability (clairvoyance) to discern who was likely to commit a murder, or a rape, or a kidnapping, or a robbery, and alert the police (or more benignly) the victim in order to avoid those circumstances that would avoid the tragedy, then we might applaud those outcomes. But we would need a 100 percent success rate. And how would we measure that success rate? Life is not a scientific experiment. We have no way of detecting whether, all things being equal, things might have turned out differently without the ESPer's alerts. If we didn't have a 100 percent success rate, then we would run into all sorts of other problems, some of them legal. For example, suppose the standard operating procedure in a non-100 percent success rate environment for an ESPer is to alert the police that a murder will or might occur. Suppose the police, for whatever reason, don't act immediately to prevent the murder, and the ESPer becomes concerned and notifies the possible victim. The victim acts by killing the identified killer, not moments before the identified killer tries to kill the victim (that is, not in self-defense) but an hour before, or days before, because the victim is certain, based on the advice of the ESPer that the victim will be killed by the killer. Now we have a murder, all right, but the victim is the killer. Do we have self-defense, albeit days before? How far can we stretch the self-defense category? Should we stretch it at all in these circumstances? Does the fact that the police do nothing allow the victim to protect herself more than if they had done anything at all? Suppose the victim can show that the (now dead) killer was preparing an attack on her and that the ESPer was in fact correct about the vision of murder? Suppose the victim can show that the ESPer's visions are 95 percent accurate? What if they are only 50 percent accurate? Should testimony about ESPer accuracy be allowed at trial? What about testimony about reasonableness concerning the victim/defendant's reliance on ESPer accuracy?
I'll stop here, because I could go on and on. However, in terms of proof of the existence of ESP--we aren't there yet. We are not anywhere near there. We are in a world in which some people accept that the paranormal exists, some don't, and some wonder, and find the question very interesting. And the courts do not take judicial notice of ESP.
CNN's Jeannie Moos has this "bewitching" montage about Christine O'Donnell's "I am not a witch" comment. If you have to deny you're a witch, sweetie, you've lost the battle. The question is, are you a good witch or a baaaad witch? Meanwhile, a political opponent has no doubts about Nancy Pelosi. He's depicting her as The Wicked Witch of the West.
Now, what I think is really interesting is the gender of the people who are getting tagged with the "witch" appellation. Notice that they're not men. And they're not of one political party. They run the gamut, but they're all perceived as powerful in some way and they've done something unacceptable in the eyes of some part of the electorate. They've stepped out of the shadows and dared to assert themselves. They've taken a stand. Apparently this behavior is considered unfeminine, so they are tagged with the word that rhymes with another word that assertive women are often called. What do some opponents do when these women seem to be too powerful? They label them "witches." They claim, or at least intimate, slyly, that they have supernatural, unnatural powers. Whether they believe this claim, or expect us to believe it, I think this suggestion is ugly and mean.
If we don't like what Christine O'Donnell, or Sarah Palin, or Nancy Pelosi stands for, let's confront their platforms and their work on a rational basis. Let's leave the name calling on the playground, with the little kids. They still haven't outgrown it. But one would think they have time on their side. We are adults. Let's act like it. (Or I'll just have to get out my eye of newt and come after some of you).
Oh, you knew I couldn't pass this item up. Willie Geist highlights this story about a fellow in Kansas City who wants $15,000 (you pick it up) for this door in which you might discern either the face of Jesus or the ghost of Albert Einstein. My pick: Uncle Albert, although I have to say that the image really reminds me of one of those sixteenth or seventeenth century historical figures--maybe Philip II of Spain or Cardinal Mazarin on a bad day. eBay allows sellers to advertise objects that are purported to be "haunted." The theory: the buyer pays for the object and actually has something left if the ghost decides to wander off before the chosen delivery service drops off the package.
If you like this example of pareidolia, check out this image discussed in the Telegraph. It's supposed to be Jesus seen in a map of the planet taken from outer space.
The Scholarly Kitchen Blog discusses why one needs to understand statistics and such--or at least have a trusted acquaintance who can explain the field. In his post Reference List Length and Citations: A Spurious Relationship, blogger Philip Davis investigates the findings published in a recent study that the more references one tacks onto one's publication, the more references one generates to one's own work. One of the researchers told Nature, the prestigious science mag, "There is a ridiculously strong relationship between the number of citations a paper receives and its number of references. If you want to get more cited, the answer could be to cite more people."
Mr. Davis questions that conclusion and he uses an interesting law-related analogy to demonstrate the problem.
For instance, ice cream sales are highly correlated with the U.S. murder rate, but no one in their right mind would suggest that ice cream is responsible for violent behavior — that would give real meaning to “death by chocolate.” The underlying cause that connects murder with ice cream sales is heat. Heat makes people irritable and irrational, and given the right conditions, may lead to violent behavior. There is no theoretical basis of (sic) ice cream leading to violent behavior — this relationship is merely spurious (link omitted--Ed.)
Mr. Webster, the principal investigator, responds to Mr. Davis here, in the comments section; others also weigh in. Interesting debate.
We do need to look out for those logical fallacies, of course--finding two events that coincide conveniently, looking for links, and then thinking we find them because we've overlooked other, more likely possibilities. We are pattern seeking creatures and we do like narrative. It orders the world.
For more about logical fallacies, I recommend David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies (Harper Torchbooks, 1970), which is wonderfully readable, and not just for historians.
The brilliant Martin Gardner has left us. Here's a New York Times obit, published online the 23rd and in print yesterday. Mr. Gardner wrote many, many wonderful books and articles. From the time I first discovered his work, he kept me enthralled, even though at that time I couldn't understand much of what he was saying. He led me and so many other readers patiently and amusingly through so much of the world of science and critical thought, though he had other interests, such as literature (G. K. Chesterton and Lewis Carroll) and magic. And he helped found CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), now CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), in 1976.
Here's another appreciation from The Guardian's Chris French. Lawyers can practice their critical thinking and debating skills by checking out his work, like Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover, 1957), which includes discussions of reincarnation (the Bridey Murphy case) and Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Prometheus Books, reprint 1990), as well as a number of books on magic, including Mathematics, Magic, and Mystery (Dover, 1956) which explains "mind reading" performances. His is a great legacy.
Psych is back for its fifth season this summer. Join Shawn, Gus, Henry, the Chief, Juliet, Lassie, and whoever else shows up for all the fun Wednesday, July 21st at 10/9 Central time (ignore the typo on the website: "it's fifth season premiere"? Doesn't anybody proof these things?)
There's also a link to the season four final episode, in case you missed it.
Given the increasing shrillness of debates about religion in the public square and in the schools, and over what children should be taught about evolution in the public schools, last night's Nightline debate among several leading thinkers (including Deepak Chopra and Michael Shermer) on religion, philosophy, and science was of interest. Here's a link to the debate if you'd like to hear it again or if you'd like to hear it for the first time.
Back in July 2008 MSNBC.com covered this angel image that appeared at night in the window of a carpet store in Porterville, California. Some people believed it was a sign from above. Others said it was merely the reflection of the lights from the gas station across the street. The gas station owner was annoyed because sightseers wanting to see the angel were blocking customers at his place of business. He tried turning off his lights to show visitors that the image was the result of reflections and glare from his nighttime lighting, but got so many threats he turned the lights back on. The store owners noted that since the angel's appearance vandalism in the area started to decease (and I guess, so did the threats to their neighbor when his lights came back on). Here's more.
I couldn't find any updated stories on the angel. Did it disappear?