5X5 Episode 88

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5X5 Episode 88
PSI - Part 2
19th May 2010

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5X5 87 5X5 89
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Psi - Part 2[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and this is our second installment on psi or parapsychology research and today we are going to talk about the putative mechanisms for how psi, like ESP, could possibly work and how plausible those mechanisms are.

R: Well, you know, first of all it has to be said that in order for it to be plausible you have to, first of all, have peer-reviewed studies showing that an experiment involving psi is reproducible. And also, you need to have a decent number of them in order to combat the huge amount of evidence we have that shows that psi doesn't exist. Because you're basically talking about overturning laws of physics and whatnot. So, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

B: That is true. The other side of that coin, though, is that the experiments might not be there to show that psi exists, but also from a pure plausibility in physics it's really not there as well. For example, if psi depended on a fundamental force of nature, then there must be a new fundamental force that has eluded scientists until now, since none of the known forces right now can account for psi. Certain psi claims require that information be transmitted through time without violating causality. That's not an easy thing to do. And again, no evidence that's actually happening. The signal itself—if psi consists of some sort of carrier signal that itself would have to behave like other information carriers in nature, like electromagnetism, for example, that attenuates over distance through the inverse square law—that doesn't seem to apply to psi. You would also need unknown structures that would need to exist in the brain or elsewhere that can produce these signals. If the psi signals are coming from the human brain, it's got to come from somewhere in there. Also, you would need biological structures to actually receive and interpret these signals, and yet again, no such structures have been found. I think it's clear that these structures would be kinda obvious. Structures that do something that we don't know what they do, that are just hanging out there, would jump out pretty easily to doctors. If these structures could receive these signals, then artificial devices should be able to be constructed that could detect these signals as well. Again, nothing has ever detected any type of signal like this. Some people resort to exotic physics, like quantum mechanics, to explain psi effects. And quantum mechanisms is very appealing, because it's so counter-intuitive, like entangled particles communicating over light years instantly. This is often used to explain psi, but this won't work because entangled information, by definition, would have to be random; you cannot communicate any sort of information this way. Finally, even if exotic energies that are unfathomable to us are responsible for psi, they would still have to induce some sort of neuro-chemical change in the human brain for us to notice these signals and thus, this should be noticeable by other means—other mechanical means that we could create. So a few postulate some undetectable carrier for psi—information then would sail right through the brain unnoticed.

J: So if we took ESP as an example. How would the process of ESP actually work? We have to ask the question, "is it physically possible that a biological process could occur, where say for example, a radio wave could be generated by some type of biology—let's say it's a human brain—and then also be received by another human brain?" And then ESP could physically exist and we could actually explain it in the physical world that we know today. So, we're not breaking any rules of physics or anything like that, so there's no reason why we wouldn't think it's possible. But if we to switch topics to, say, speaking to dead people, that implies a great deal more. That implies that there is a life after death and that the dead can somehow communicate with the living through means that we can't explain with any way that we know in the physical world.

S: So, just to follow up a bit also on what Jay and Bob were saying about the ability of the brain to generate electromagnetic waves. The brain actually does create electromagnetic waves, and we can detect them with either an EEG (an electroencephalogram) or an MEG (a magnetoencephalogram). However, these signals require large populations of brain cells to all be firing in synchrony and they are attenuated—they are decreased significantly by the skull and we can only pick them up with very sensitive detectors, either on the surface of the scalp or very near it. They would not really be able to get very far, let alone penetrate the skull of another person and induce any kind of electromagnetic wave in the brains of another person. So, transmitting a signal or reading someone else's mind really has no plausibility for electromagnetic waves. And of course, since we've been looking at EEGs and MEGs for decades, we would have detected any signals of that type of energy. Gravity doesn't really make any sense. Nuclear forces don't make any sense.

E: So, what do we have in the end here? If psi does not meet any of the criteria of plausibility, then should psi be researched? It's a fair question to ask. In the past, governments have put a lot of money into this sort of research. In the 1970s, there was a research program on remote viewing by the US government and over the course of the life of this particular program, there was $20 million worth of federal funds that were sunk into this. And the end result after the final analysis were done in the 1980s is that there was nothing to be had; there was no psi activity, none that they could come up with. And of course, universities also put resources and money behind the study of psi and we have yet to see any results. There's really been about 100 years of data that we have collected concerning psi and we've yet to come up with anything. So, should we fund it? Should governments fund it? No. I don't think its a good use of funds. Should private universities and programs and grants be funding it? Well, that's up to them, and if they want to allocate private money for those purposes, I suppose you could make an argument that they have the right to do that. But at what point are you wasting researchers' time, other people's time and effort to continue to chase something that apparently just does not exist.

S: So there isn't really any known force of nature that could account for it. And as Bob said, we would have to invent an entirely new, unknown force of nature that is not predicted by the standard model of physics and that has evaded all attempts at detection. So, while you could never prove a negative—you can never prove that something does not exist or is impossible, we could say that it is extremely unluckily that we are missing something that big in how the universe is put together at this point in time. And unless and until someone can come up with very convincing evidence that there is actually something happening, it doesn't seem likely or worth further exploration to figure out how ESP or psi phenomenon could work. There just really are no leads at this time.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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