Freeman Dyson, Miracles,
and the Belief in the Paranormal
by Michael Shermer
In the last issue of the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviewed a book entitled simply “Debunked!” by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch (Johns Hopkins University, 136 pages, $25), in which he ends by saying he concludes that despite over a century of failed experiments and lack of empirical evidence, there are valid reasons to believe in the paranormal. This, despite his cogent summary of Littlewood’s Law of Miracles—defined as: “In the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month.” Dyson explains:
During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.
Jim Holt, in the New York Times (“Throw Away That Astrological Chart” April 29, 2004; Page D10) offered another calculation on miracles:
Have you ever had a premonition? Did you once have, say, a passing thought about an uncle, only to receive a phone call five minutes later informing you that the beloved relative had suddenly dropped dead? If so, this probably struck you as eerie. You might have vaguely believed it was ESP.
Was it? Let’s see. Suppose you know of 10 people who die each year. Furthermore, suppose you think of each of them once annually. There are 105,120 five-minute intervals in a year. A simple probability calculation shows that there is a 10 in 105,120 likelihood that you will, as a matter of chance, have a thought about one of these people in the five minutes before you hear of his death. Multiply this likelihood by the population of the U.S. (about a quarter of a billion people) and you find that roughly 25,000 people each year–about 70 a day — will have a “psychic” experience of this sort. In fact, it’s pure coincidence.
Despite this cogent explanation of miracles, Dyson concludes his review:
The question of the proper limits of science has a strong connection with the possible existence of paranormal phenomena. Charpak and Broch and I agree that attempts to study extrasensory perception and telepathy using the methods of science have failed. Charpak and Broch say that since extrasensory perception and telepathy cannot be studied scientifically, they do not exist. Their conclusion is clear and logical, but I do not accept it because I am not a reductionist. I claim that paranormal phenomena may really exist but may not be accessible to scientific investigation. This is a hypothesis. I am not saying that it is true, only that it is tenable, and to my mind plausible.
The hypothesis that paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science is supported by a great mass of evidence. The evidence has been collected by the Society for Psychical Research in Britain and by similar organizations in other countries. The journal of the London society is full of stories of remarkable events in which ordinary people appear to possess paranormal abilities. The evidence is entirely anecdotal. It has nothing to do with science, since it cannot be reproduced under controlled conditions. But the evidence is there. The members of the society took great trouble to interview first-hand witnesses as soon as possible after the events, and to document the stories carefully. One fact that emerges clearly from the stories is that paranormal events occur, if they occur at all, only when people are under stress and experiencing strong emotion. This fact would immediately explain why paranormal phenomena are not observable under the conditions of a well-controlled scientific experiment. Strong emotion and stress are inherently incompatible with controlled scientific procedures. In a typical card-guessing experiment, the participants may begin the session in a high state of excitement and record a few high scores, but as the hours pass, and boredom replaces excitement, the scores decline to the 20 percent expected from random chance.
I am suggesting that paranormal mental abilities and scientific method may be complementary. The word “complementary” is a technical term introduced into physics by Niels Bohr. It means that two descriptions of nature may both be valid but cannot be observed simultaneously. The classic example of complementarity is the dual nature of light. In one experiment light is seen to behave as a continuous wave, in another experiment it behaves as a swarm of particles, but we cannot see the wave and the particles in the same experiment. Complementarity in physics is an established fact. The extension of the idea of complementarity to mental phenomena is pure speculation. But I find it plausible that a world of mental phenomena should exist, too fluid and evanescent to be grasped with the cumbersome tools of science.
I should here declare my personal interest in the matter. One of my grandmothers was a notorious and successful faith healer. One of my cousins was for many years the editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Both these ladies were well educated, highly intelligent, and fervent believers in paranormal phenomena. They may have been deluded, but neither of them was a fool. Their beliefs were based on personal experience and careful scrutiny of evidence. Nothing that they believed was incompatible with science.
Here is the letter I sent to the New York Review of Books in response to Dyson:
To the editor:
In his otherwise well-crafted review of Georges Charpak and Henri Broch’s Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, Other Pseudoscience (“One in a Million,” Volume 51, Number 5), after reviewing the century-long history of failed attempts to build a scientific case for the paranormal, Freeman Dyson ends with a risibly ridiculous plea for openness to the paranormal because he is not a reductionist, because his grandmother was a faith healer and his cousin edits the Journal of Psychical Review, and because anecdotal evidence gathered by the Society for Psychical Research and other such organizations convinces him that under certain conditions (e.g., stress), some people sometimes exhibit some paranormal powers, unless they are placed in controlled scientific conditions, in which case the powers mysteriously disappear. I expected more from a scientist of Dyson’s caliber. He should know that anecdotes do not make a science, and that ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten. Anecdotes may lead us to a research program, but the only way to find out if the anecdotes represent a real phenomenon or not is controlled experimental tests. Psi phenomena have now been subjected to rigorous scientific experiments for over a century (as Dyson notes), and the results are unequivocal: psychic power is a chimera.
So whence does Dyson’s plea come? I suspect it is the same place that leads him to make statements like this, from his 1979 book Disturbing the Universe: “As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.” His quasi-scientific attempts to reconcile science and religion, and to bring a form of nonmaterialistic transcendency into science, in fact, even earned him in 1997 a $964,000 Templeton Prize. Mind you, lots of people hold conflicting and often contradictory beliefs in their logic-tight compartments, primarily, I think, because they have not thought long and hard about the incompatibility problem. Dyson, however, does recognize the problem, but he wiggles around it by invoking Bohr’s principle of complementarity where, for example, light can be both wave and particle. I’m sorry, but the principle does not apply to the paranormal (or to politics either, where Bohr tried to apply it). Either people can read other people’s minds (or the backs of ESP cards), or they can’t. Science has more than adequately demonstrated that they can’t. That’s the end of the story. And being a holist instead of a reductionist, being related to psychics, or reading about weird things that happen to people, does not change this simple scientific fact.
—Michael Shermer Publisher, Skeptic magazine, columnist, Scientific American
Exposing the Errors of ABC’s Primetime Thursday
Two weeks ago ABC’s Primetime Thursday aired a one-hour special on the paranormal, on which I appeared as a token skeptic for all of about 12 seconds. This taping came about somewhat by a chance occurrence when I was in the same ABC location in New York taping a John Stossel special, so they simply asked me to comment generally on psychic detectives, and I was never given the details of the cases discussed. Thankfully one of their viewers, a skeptic named Curtis Cameron (firstname.lastname@example.org), took the time to track down the facts of some of their stories, and despite the huge budget ABC allocates for research, Curtis was able to come up with far more probable explanations than the ABC researchers (unless, of course, we opt for the more obvious explanation of selective reportage on ABC’s part). Here is Curtis’ very insightful letter.
Exposing the Errors of
ABC’s Primetime Thursday
by Curtis Cameron
Dear Primetime Thursday:
I was severely disappointed in your paranormal stories from April 15 about the boy who is allegedly reincarnated, and the “Psychic Sherlock” Carla Baron. I had seen your teaser commercial a couple of days before, which said something like “if you’re a skeptic, we dare you to watch,” so I was expecting something quite a bit better.
It took me about ten minutes of researching on the Internet to conclude that the reporters either didn’t check their facts, or they intentionally left out key details which would cast doubt on the stories as presented. What happened to the maxim “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out”? The PT reporters didn’t even find basic evidence to question their stories.
For example, the story about the reincarnated boy differed from the account offered in the Pittsburgh Daily Courier from April 15. That article specifically said that the boy was taken to the Cavanaugh Flight Museum when he was 18 months old, and that his fantasies and nightmares started *after* that time. I don’t recall your TV show clearly stating this timeline – I had the impression after watching the show that the “memories” happened by themselves, without an incident to prompt them.
Then in the interview with the mother, she tells the astonishing story about how her son knew what a “drop tank” is, and she had never heard of one. It didn’t take me too long to visit the web site of the Cavanaugh Flight Museum and see, among the few items exhibited that are not actual airplanes, a drop tank! This isn’t some obscure museum piece that wouldn’t be noticed, there are not that many of them there, others being an ejection seat and some guns. Why did you not mention this in your program? Was it because the reporter didn’t even do very basic research, or was it intentionally hidden?
In the segment about Carla Baron’s psychic detective work, you mentioned two of the other cases which she claims demonstrate her ability. The first was the case of Rafael Tello, who killed his wife and daughter. Your story said that Ms. Baron’s psychic predictions about an incinerator led the police to find some victim body parts near an industrial building almost 40 miles away, right? However, according to articles in The Desert Sun by Christine Mahr, these body parts were found by hikers, not by police. Also, you tried to make it appear that Ms. Baron got a “hit” by describing the smokestacks and saying that the body parts were incinerated. In the pictures you showed, the building didn’t appear to have incinerator smokestacks, but things on the roof that looked like they could be ventilation, or possibly chimneys. And you glossed over the fact that the body parts weren’t incinerated. So in light of this, how does this case support her abilities?
In her second case that she supposedly got right, teenage boy Lloyd Israel disappeared and Ms. Baron correctly predicted where the body would be found—in some corn fields. What your reporter neglected to tell the audience in this case was that his car was discovered at the time of his disappearance, abandoned on a road among corn fields, and his body was discovered not far from where his car was found. This little fact would completely destroy any claim to a psychic “hit” of Ms. Baron, yet you conveniently left it out.
The case she was trying to solve during the segment was the disappearance of Cindy Song. Even though she completely struck out, you close with the frustratingly vague “a source tells Primetime that an informant has given details possibly linking Song’s disappearance and the area where Baron says she got the strongest vibes.” I’ve never taken a journalism course, but I can’t imagine this kind of work would receive passing grades in any of them.
Then of course you had Michael Shermer and Paul Kurtz as skeptics, for “balance.” Both of these guys are quite capable of debunking what you’re peddling, but they would have needed more than the four or five seconds that you gave them.
ABC’s own John Stossel has recently made the claim that no psychic has ever actually helped solve a missing persons case (using psychic ability). As far as I’m aware, this is true. Do you think your cases here show how he’s wrong?
Humorous Scientific American Letter
Most people only write Scientific American in response to my column when they disagree with me, have a new “theory of everything,” or think I should be fired for stupidity or inanity. I do receive a few “attaboys,” and once in awhile I even get a letter from someone with a sense of humor, such as the following letter. —Michael Shermer
Re: Michael Shermer’s
“Magic Water and Mencken’s Maxim”
Skeptic, Scientific American, April 2004
by Earl Ragsdale, Greenwood, Indiana
Having actually purchased Lithium-activated water, I deeply resemble Shermer’s remarks on the type of person who would do so. I’ll have you know this water not only cleans my environment, but its ionic rays also expel negative energy from both my Edsel and my Pinto, making oil changes unneccesary. No doubt the beneficial emanations penetrate the metal walls of a crankcase by a process scientists call “quantum tunneling.” Unfortunately, these same rays seem to be canceling out all the benefits of my magnetic wristbands, my therapeutic ear-candles, and the invisible pyramid in which I store my razor blades and half-eaten apples.
Letter to Skeptic
I found this letter thoughtful and interesting in response to our most recent issue that includes an article on myths about learning disorders. —Michael Shermer.
Smart People with Learning Disabilities
by Katharine Christie, Lake Forest, IL
What great timing! I received the current issue of Skeptic with Marlin Thomas’s piece on claims about Einstein’s “learning disabilities.” (We should all be so disabled!) This article was of special interest because I had just read the issue of US News and World Report all about adult ADD and ADHD that claimed Einstein probably had ADD. I did a web search and found this: http://add.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.oneaddplace.com%2Ffamous.htm
I can’t for the life of me understand how claiming that innumerable, famous, successful individuals from the distant past had learning disabilities could be of comfort to those believed to have disabilities today—especially considering the be all and end all of treatments advocated currently for ADD/ADHD: drugs. Gee, if anything, if I actually believed Galileo had ADD and prevailed without medication I’d wonder why anyone else would consider that as an effective treatment. On the other hand, if I believed Galileo and all the others listed did not have ADD but merely a few symptoms I’d wonder why on earth their names would be listed at an ADD/ADHD web site. The choice seems to be: “Hey! Here are a bunch of really accomplished people with your disability and they ALL made it without being on Ritalin!!” or “Hey! Here are a bunch of successful people who aren’t really like you!! They were weird, arty types who thought outside of the box and they sometimes had problems: go, be inspired!!”
Thanks for another terrific, timely issue.