SGU Episode 91

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SGU Episode 91
April 18th 2007
SGU 90 SGU 92
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
SB: Susan Blackmore
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'Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.'
John Adams
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

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Interview with Susan Blackmore (25:43)[edit]

S: So, joining me now is Sue Blackmore. Sue, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

SB: Thank you very much.

S: Susan Blackmore is a psychology researcher. And you did your, you got your degree from Oxford University. And you've written articles and books on many interesting topics; memes, and consciousness, and parapsychology. I wanted to start out tonight just talking about consciousness.

This is – I'm a neurologist, in case you don't know – and this is a very interesting topic. We've had other guests talking about this. And I see this as one of those nebulous areas in science where the science of conscious is not well understood. And that opens the door for a lot of pseudoscience, basically; that people can insert into the unknown whatever they wish. And you have some very interesting ideas on conscious. Maybe if you could just start out by telling us what you think consciousness is.

SB: (Laughs) I haven't a clue what it is. It's (inaudible), whatever you are experiencing now. Nobody has a very clear definition of consciousness; but I think the concensus now is that we need to start from Thomas Nagel's famous question, "What is it like to be a bat?" The idea being if there is something it's like to be a bat, then that's what we mean by consciousness. And if there isn't, then it's not.

So if you ask what would it like to be this pair of glasses I'm holding in my hand. Well, presumably, nothing. So, it's that that we're trying to understand. How can a brain be the source of, or explain, or account for, or give rise to subjective experience? That's the big problem for science.

And my own thoughts about it are that we must have something fundamentally wrong in our conception of consciousness. To me, that's such a difficult problem where it appears scientifically to be completely impossible.

S: Yeah, and I've read a lot of what you've written about it. One of the points you bring up is that there are those who think that it's really a pseudo problem, and I admit that I kind of maybe still fall into this camp, that we may be making more of a problem than it really is. So, my question is, why does consciousness have to be this thing? You know, why does it have to be something? Why isn't just the ongoing activity of the brain sufficient to say that, it's just a label that we're attaching to that neurological process?

SB: Because it's impos – well, it's not impossible – it's very difficult in the way most of us think about what a brain is, what it's made of, how it works. To jump from that to the experience you're having now. I mean, look at something in front of you. What are you looking at now?

S: My computer screen, with your website on it.

SB: (Chuckles) Fine, okay. So, you're looking at that. You're experiencing it in a unique way. Only you know what that experience is like; you can't share that with somebody else. You have subjective qualities, how can that be, as you just said, the ongoing processes of the brain? It doesn't seem to be this same kind of thing. It doesn't seem that we can make the leap between matter and subjective experience.

And then you've got another whole lot of problems. It feels as though you are having those experiences, and there is a you having them, but we don't scientifically know what a you could be! You know, there's a brain, and there's a body, and a person, and there are behaviours. But what is the you that's having the experience? That doesn't seem to make sense either. And then there's another problem that when you think about it that way, there seems to be me having the experience as well. I can experience what I'm looking at, what I'm touching, but I can't experience the digestive process in my tummy. I can't experience most of the processes that lead up to me experiencing a run, being about to see the pink chair over there, and the black television over there.

That's another problem that we don't have. So, what does it mean that some brain processes are conscious, and others aren't? Is there some kind of magic in them? All of these natural ways in which we talk about it make what you said, all that sounds like, and probably is in some sense right. Consciousness is just the ongoing processes of the brain, but we have to solve those problems. And we're not anywhere close, I would say.

Can I just go back to the point you made earlier about people clutching at straws, and so on? It's because we have this extraordinary mystery, you have to do those things to people, say there's all sorts of other ways than, the scientists are getting on with trying to understand the neurophysiology, the neuropsychology, all sorts of other things that we could go into, trying understand consciousness.

And all around are people coming up with things that think are solutions. Quantum theory, spirits and souls, other dimensions, vibrations in a non-existent ether, endless things that people come up with. But I can understand why. Because the mystery is really difficult.

You then said, "Well, lots of people think it's a non-mystery." I think that's right. I think somehow we have to see why it isn't the kind of mystery it appears. But that will mean dismantling a lot of the ways we normally talk about consciousness.

S: I do agree with that. And I admit that my bias is that I'm approaching this as a neurologist. I'm trying understand that as a brain function. And I'm very compelled by a lot of the research, for example, we've pretty much identified a part of the brain that gives us a sense that we are inside our bodies. And when you stop that part of the brain from working, either pharmacologically; and now we can do it electromagnetically; then people have a sense of floating outside their bodies!

SB: I know! Isn't it wonderful, that it can be done!

S: Right! And it's, to me, that says, well this sense that I have that I'm inside my body, which seems to be kind of a critical component of my sense of existing, can be localized to a very specific part of the brain. What if there's just a dozen or so of those kinds of processes that collectively give me this experience that I exist, and have a stream of consciousness? Do you think that at some point we will have some sufficient neurological explanation of all the components that go up, that make up consciousness?

SB: I was about to say, "yes," but when you said the phrase "make up consciousness," then I start to disagree.

S: Okay.

SB: That phrase itself implies that consciousness is a kind of thing composed of components that when we understand them all, put it together, and we'll have understood this thing called "consciousness." And I suspect that there isn't anything called "consciousness." And what will happen when we understand all these things, is that we'll have peeled off all the layers until we see that there isn't anything called consciousness at all.

But that's just my view. That's not really answering your question. Your question about the research in out of bodies experiences. Of course it's particularly interesting to me, because it was a very long out of the body experience – extraordinary experience – that started me off in my career in parapsychology in the first place.

And I've always been interested in it. And now, that we know which parts of the brain are involved, and how to induce the experience, it's fantastic! You know, things that I thought earlier on, that there must be such brain places, and so on, it's fantastic to have found them! That is great if you want to understand the origins of near death experiences, out of body experiences, and so on.

But it leaves the nature of consciousness untouched, in a sence! Yes, we know that doing something to the brain changes the kind of state of consciousness we're in, but how can a little bit of the left temporal lobe, whatever, be what it's like to feel as though you're floating above your body?

Again, we have this kind of mind-body gap, you see, the hard problem.

S: Yeah.

SB: The problem of explaining some of the substantial gap.

S: Yeah, I wonder if it's really the explanatory gap is more of just a gap in having the correct words to express the concepts that we're sort of dancing around.

SB: Exactly, that's exactly what I think

S: And consciousness

SB But we do have to then find a way to have other words, and other ways of thinking about it. And that's really challenging, and fascinating. What are the new words gonna be like? What are we gonna say? I think it takes more than new words. I think actually, it takes new ways of experiencing the world.

So I think that while we're doing all the fantastic neuroscience, or actually, I'm not. Other people are for my benefit, and everyone's benefit, doing all this neuroscience. We must also be looking into our own experience and thinking how the different theories affect the way we're experiencing the world; and try to understand whether our experience itself is coloured by the way we talk about it. And if we start talking about it differently, will our experience change?

S: No, I agree with that. And I think another way that I have approached this is that we have this belief – I know that some people call it an illusion – that we are, that we exist somehow separately from our brain.

SB: Yeah.

S: And I think if you just think about it, this is just the brain experiencing itself.

SB: Yes! What does that mean? What does that mean? Another wonderful thought. The brain experiencing itself. Or an even bigger thought, part of the universe experiencing itself.

S: Right.

SB: Or indeed, ultimately, all of the universe experiencing itself. But what is that? I mean, how can that be? That's also part of the mystery here.

S: And just to be clear, you do not think that there is any metaphysical thing outside of the electrochemical activity in the brain that is consciousness, right? So you reject the ghost in the machine so-called ...

SB: Absolutely, yes. And souls, and spirits, and you know, any kind of self that can exist separately, all of that, yes. I think ... I used to believe in a lot of those things. You know, it was hard knocks and doing experiments and thinking about theories. It knocked it out of me, and made me see that those things aren't really, I don't think they can be.

S: Now, we interviewed Alan Wallace – I don't know if you're familiar with his writings.

SB: Yes, I am.

S: Okay. So he's very interesting. If I understood correctly, his basic conclusion was that the conscious is created by the brain, but it's this other thing that's created by the brain; and it's not matter, but it's something else. And he did invoke, I thought, a lot of quantum mechanics pseudoscience in his reasoning. But ...

SB: I don't think that's the way to go at all. I don't think the brain creates anything, in the sense of being some new thing that's created by the brain that can then go off and do things on its own. No way at all. Somehow, I think we have to understand how what the brain is doing is this experience. And I don't see how that can be! (Laughs) But that's the way I think we have to go.

S: It's interesting. It is the brain struggling to understand itself, and you wonder if there's some ultimate limits there that we cannot get outside of ourselves.

SB: You can become a mysterian and say the problem is impentrable to humans because our brains are designed the way they can't understand it. That could be so, but I'm not gonna give up at this stage. I'd rather assume it's not so, and that we can actually penetrate the mystery and understand the universe.

I think that really means dropping a lot of illusions. You mentioned something, the word illusion, before. It's a problematic word all the time because when I say I think consciousness is an illusion, or I think the self is an illusion, people interpret that as meaning those things don't exist. But that's not what we mean by illusion. If you look it up in the dictionary, illusion means something that's misleading, or not what it appears to be. And that's how I think about consciousness, and about self.

They're not what they appear to be. Consciousness appears to be a kind of force, or a stuff, or something continuous. Self appears to be something that has powers, that continues through life. These aspects are illusory. But there's still something going on. We just are blinkered by the natural dualist way of thinking about it. That, I exist, and I'm experiencing the world. And that mistake, I think, underlies so much of what we get wrong.

P: Susan, you mentioned about new ways of experiencing the world. What did you mean by that?

SB: Well, I had two things in mind, really. I've been meditating now for – regularly – for 25 years. Zen kind of meditation. Very simple, straightforward. You know, stare at the white wall; shut up; sit there; don't think.

P: Okay.

SB: That's just one kind of (inaudible) discipline, which practiced over many years, begins to change, really, everything about experience. It begins to loosen the ideas of free will, ideas about (a continuous self, and so on.

The other is really possibly more controversial; which is as I've gone through my life coming to new theories about the mind, about perception, it seems to me that you start to see the world differently. So, a hundred years ago, well, 150 years ago, before people discovered eye movements, they thought you were just continuously looking at the world, and they were terribly upset by discovering that you have these rapid eye movements around the place.

How can it be that it seems all smooth, when actually, our eyes are jumping about? Well, people sort of gotten used to that. But much more recently, we've realized that perception is probably has to be on sort of an interactive process with the world. And it's a kind of doing, rather than a thought of receiving of the information out there.

So I try to see the world through the eyes of the different theories that I'm trying to understand. And that can have some bizarre effects, I think. Vision can change quite considerably when you starting to think of it in a different way like that.

S: I think another sort of classical way that medicine and neurology has attempted to understand how things work is by seeing what happens when they break down. So, as a neurologist, I've actually personally experienced, in various times, Perry has personally experienced, and I've also examined many, many patients who had some state of consciousness that was imperfect; it was broken down. All the pieces weren't there. And they weren't able to process the information that was coming in, or their own thoughts in the normal way.

And I think it's very instructive because you're basically seeing when the brain creates a flawed, or malfunctional state of consciousness. And I think it tells you a lot about, that there are different components to conscious, because when some of them are missing, you get something sort of less than what we think of as consciousness.

SB: Yes. I just watched my mother descend through the most awful death of vascular dementia. And even a year ago, I went on a little trip with her and my sister, and she wasn't too bad, and was still my mom. And she died last month, and for several months before that, was not my mom. She couldn't speak properly any more. She couldn't recognize people any more. Her world had shrunk to something inprehensible that I couldn't see.

I found the process, as you said, extremely instructive. Painful, heart-rending, you know, driving at the claws at what it means to be human. And one thing that really struck me one day I was sitting there with her, and she was all sort of shrivelled up in her chair, and unable to understand much. And I thought, "I don't understand how people can go on believing in the soul or spirit when the see the reality of human life!" I could have all these deep feelings about my mother dying, while just knowing she is a biological machine, evolved like the rest of us. No reason at all. You know, through natural selection. Lived her life, and is now at the end of it. That makes sense.

And I was really struck by the thought that an awful lot of people – most people in the world – somehow can see that degeneration and still believe there's a soul in there somehow. I don't understand that.

S: Yeah, that's always seemed very inconguous to me as well. Almost like a Q.E.D. kind of moment. It kind of dissolves any sense of the ghost in the machine, that there's a spirit separate from the sophisticated meat that we are.

SB: And I want to use that experience not just to think about neurological breakdown, and so on; but about for me, as a healthy person in the middle of life, doing lots of things, it's the same. It's not, you were implying that there are fully funcitoning states, and broken down states – of course, to some extent there are – but then there's so, so much variety.

And in a sense, they are all based on the same thing that's of a biological machine without a self inhabiting it. And I think it's important to take those kind of experiences, and apply them on your own life while you're still good and healthy, and see that there's nobody in there now, either! There's nobody inside here, this body, speaking now, making this podcast. There's not somebody in here who's doing it.

S: Right. And yet this sense that there is is so compell -

SB: It goes away gradually, I would say it's still there for me. It hasn't completely gone away. But it's certainly weakened. And for me, the sense of free will - which I think is one component of all this - has completely gone away. You know, you keep on with it hard enough, eventually, these illusions will sort of dissipate.

S: And you found that a liberating experience?

SB: Oh, yes. But that doesn't quite do it justice, if you like, because liberating kind of sounds like it's rather dangerous. It might be oh now. You can do any old stupid thing, you know. I didn't quite like that. But liberating in a sense that I think it's liberating from a lot of burdens of confusion and guilt and inner fights about what you should and shouldn't do. So, in that sense, liberating, yes.

P: Can you tell us a little bit about your own out of body experiences?

SB: What, the first out of body experience I had all that time ago?

P: Yes. The one that sent you on your journey into pseudoscience.

SB: Yes, I don't know how much to say. I could go on for hours about it. But it happened in my first term as an undergraduate in Oxford. I was, you know, thrilled, and absolutely loving it at Oxford. Getting up for 9:00 actually, and then staying up half the night and drinking port in colleges, and I running a psychical research society. Smoking dope, generally having a wonderful time.

One night, we'd been doing a Ouija board session for many hours. I was extremely tired. Went back to a friend's room to smoke some dope. And I was sitting there listening to some music – I don't know what it was, but probably Pink Floyd, or Grateful Dead, or something - and going down a tunnel towards a bright light.

And I was really engrossed in this tunnel until one of my friends said to me, "Where are you Sue?" And I sort of thought, "Well, I'm in a tunnel!" I can't say that. They'll think I'm stupid. And where am I? I know I'm in Vicci's room. And as I tried to think about where I was. It was as though everything cleared. Like become the music in a dream, or like waking up, really. Everything became clear, and I was looking down from the ceiling. I'm looking at the three of us sitting in the room.

And I said, "Oh! I'm on the ceiling." And one of my, the other friends said, "Oh! Oh! It's astral projection! Ah!" You know. And from then on, kept talking to me. I think if he hadn't been there talking to me, I would have (inaudible), got frightened, and the experience would have ended straight away. But because he kept asking me things, I kept talking.

And I could watch the mouth down below answering his questions, and saying, "Oh well, I'm going toward the other corner. And I'm going out of the building. And," whatever, while watching this all beyond the distance as I went away.

I went on travels, I went to try and test things. I went to look at things. I became very small. I became a flat sheep floating up on the waves of the sea. I tried to get back into my body, and failed. And that was when weird things began. And I went into a tiny, tiny speck, and got very frightened, and so tried to get bigger. And then I got bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and became the whole universe.

Now, I know that you can laugh and say that sounds silly, but actually, I may have discovered that becoming one with the universe is absolute central, classic part of mystical experiences. And, really, what a ...

S: And there's a part of your brain that makes you feel that. And I think I said recently in one of our shows, I had a patient who would have that kind of sensation whenever they had a seizure. So, there's clearly, and for whatever reason, there's a part of the brain that does that.

SB: I don't think so. I mean, we'll find out more as we go along. But I don't think so much that's a part of the brain thing. The out of the body experience is, and that's why you've got the control of body image, and so on. I think this inside is probably more large parts of the brain, not just a little area that produces it.

I think what is happening is the breaking down of the illusions of separateness of the self, and so on. So it's all the areas that are producing the concept of a self inside the control mechanism, and so on, are breaking down. You can let go of that idea, false idea, of a self inside, and see more clearly what actually is true anyway – that everything is interconnected, and it's all just one stuff, and you are not just a little thing stuck inside your body.

Now, I must be clear about this. I am not saying that you are something else that leaves the body and goes off. I'm saying that it's possible for a human being to, instead of thinking themselves as a little self inside, just to think of the universe as all one. It's a different viewpoint. It's not a very useful viewpoint for getting on with ordinary life. But it is a true viewpoint in the sense that you're seeing everything is just stuff interconnected with other stuff doing things along the way without a self observing them.

P: Do you recall what was the actual time of the experience?

SB: Yes. Off the top of my head, no. Two days later, I wrote memory page, description of everything that had happened including the time of the beginning and ending. I think it was about, it started about 10:30 at night and went on until about 12:30 or 1:00 without, that's just from memory.

P: Okay, several hours.

SB: Oh yes. It was about 2 and a half hours altogether. And by the end I was absolutely exhausted. And I had come to this point of thinking a bit like the barrier in near-death experiences, really. You know, are you gonna die at this point? Or are you gonna go back? And obviously, I'm going to go back. I've now got to do the hard work of sort of going back into the illusion. And I can remember saying to myself, "You have to go back inside the body and look out through the eyes." And that just seemed so hard work.

"And if you want to go anywhere, you've got to take the body with you." I was sort of persuading myself to get back into the illusion; which I did over the next few hours, but I was pretty peculiar for a couple of days.

S: It's interesting. And that led to you focusing your research over the next few years on sort of parapsychological issues. And let's shift to that a little bit.

SB: I love the way you put it there, focusing. I mean, there I was, a first year undergraduate studying physiology and psychology, and it wasn't though I'd focused my research. I just became obsessed with the paranormal! I must have been deeply annoying, and in fact my lecturers were pretty annoyed with me. You know, because I was going on and on and on about, you know, all this physiology stuff; it's irrelevant! We've got to understand the other world, and the astral planes, and that's where it took me to begin with.

It was only when I'd finished my degree, and finished the Master's degree, and was absolutely determined to try and do a PhD on parapsychology that I actually turned it all into ideas for experiments and the research program.

S: The end result of all of that was basically reversing your belief in the paranormal.

SB: Yes, it was. In fact.

S: Because you realized there was nothing there.

SB: Well, no, there's not nothing there. The experiences are there.

S: Right.

SB: And that's what I had to unravel over those years, really. Because the classic thing you get amongst the sceptics – some sceptics – is a sort of - and particularly in the media – they just characterize the stories like this: Take near-death experiences. Take out of the body experiences. Take religions, whatever it is. (Inaudible)

If the experience is really happened, and I'm gonna prove life after death, or Jesus, or astral planes, or whatever you want, or they don't happen, or people are lying, or people inventing them and it's boring, and uninteresting. Those black and white. If neither is right, the right is the truth is much more complicated. There are amazing experiences, and they really do change peoples' lives.

Experiences like the one I had, and many other kinds of strange experiences really do change peoples' lives. They're important, and interesting, and they tell us a lot about the brain. But they don't prove life after death, or heaven or hell, or astral planes, or other vibrations, or whatever. So it's finding a way between those that's interesting, and that kept me occupied for nearly 30 years.

S: Yeah, I agree. I think the, I think that the skeptical movement has matured in the direction of trying to explain this as a psycho-cultural phenomenon, you know. Obviously, you can't just dismiss the experiences. They are experienced. But why people believe these things, and how their experiences lead them to those beliefs is actually an interesting area of study.

SB: It is! But I think it needs a bit more maturing still, because that's still found in kind of, condenscending thing now, where people are, I dont' know, believing in all these things. Well, you do believe in your own experiences. When you have an extraordinary experience like that, you must believe that you had it or that your memory's completely letting you down.

And let's suppose that it's legitimate to remember an extraordinary experience like that. What are you then going to believe? If you don't have the tools at hand to be able to make sense of it, it's very understandable that you'll jump to a conclusion like, "Well, my astral body left my physical," or "I went to heaven."

What we need is better tools for thinking about these things. So, the work we were talking about earlier, that shows which parts of the brain can be stimulated to produce out of body experiences; when people know that, it helps them to understand their own experience. A good example is actually sleep paralysis. I found in some of my research, when you ask people to send you descriptions of weird experiences, a huge proportion of them are actually sleep paralysis.

S: I agree, yeah.

SB: Where, you know you're paralyzed in dreaming sleep any way. But normally, you don't realize that because you're asleep, and it's well, kept separate from waking. But if that separation mechanism goes wrong, you can wake up, and you are paralyzed – literally, you cannot move except for your eyes, and your breathing. And it can be absolutely terrifying.

If you don't know what it is, it's not surprising that you jump to the conclusion that you've been hagged, or the kanishibari got you, or whatever the local sleep paralysis myth in your culture is. Now we've got the science. We can explain to people, this is called sleep paralysis; this is how it works. That then changes their experience; and they can better understand it. And they're not frightened, and it's fantastic! It's really one of the few things I felt has done some good, is helping people to understand sleep paralysis as a natural phenomenon.

But we shouldn't laugh at people for having other beliefs, because if we can't provide a better scientific explanation, people are gonna come up with something else.

S: No, absolutely. And, you know, I've actually, I treat patients who have sleep paralysis. I've actually had it myself. And I explaining to them what it is neurologically, they have a profound sense of relief ...

SB: Yes!

S: that they actually understand what's happening to them now. Because before that, they were perplexed, and grasping for whatever explanation the culture has to offer. So I absolutely agree. And I also agree that we need to not ridicule or make fun of people for having experiences, or for believing.

Although, we do, honestly, reserve criticism. Sometimes you make that criticism satirical, or humorous. For people who aren't just having experiences, or grasping at beliefs, but who are claiming to do science. They are thoroughly positioning themselves within the scientific community.

SB: Oh yes! Oh yes!

S: But are just doing bad science. And I think that bad science deserves to be criticized.

SB: So do I. And please, I'm not a softy when it comes to criticism. I was trying to make a point particularly about people who have powerful experiences. And sometimes the sceptics throw the baby out with the bath water there. But I, if people will go on to me about, "Of course there's a soul! I know there's a soul." You know, you can't experience any other way anyway. I know there's God because I've experienced him personally.

You know, I'm just gonna tell them, "I think that's rubbish! I think that's, you know, illegitimate conclusions to jump to." And, as you say, when people are claiming to do science when they're just leaping illogically from one thing to another and inventing unnecessary theories, let's be as critical as we can! But we'll be better critics if we're more open-minded about the nature of people with weird experiences.

S: Now, what do you think about the field of parapsychology today? So, I mean, they have their own journals, and researchers, and people who are certainly desperate for recognition as being legitimate science. Certainly surround themselves with all the trappings of science. And yet, they're coming to conclusions that the rest of the scientific community just isn't buying.

If you could, why do you think it is that systematically, there is this subset of researchers who are creating what they interpret as positive evidence for say, psi phenomena, example, when the rest of us don't buy it. Why is that?

SB: Well, first of all, I must say, I am not up to date with the state of parapsychology today. I found it very difficult to get out of parapsychology because, in so many ways, I loved it; I had so many friends in the field, and so on; and the media associated me with it; and I had to make a kind of big effort and make a clean break from it. And I've just, I've not kept up with the literature; and I don't really know what's going on now.

So I'm speaking from a, from my knowledge of it 5, 6, 7 years ago. I don't think so much has changed, but I just want to be clear that I am not an expert on parapsychology any more.

I am glad that parapsychology is going on. We must have parapsychology. It's important. It's important because a huge proportion of the population believe in paranormal phenomena. If they were true, they would be of enormous importance to all of science, really, particularly to psychology, physiology, and physics. So it is worth going on doing them, and I'm glad people are.

Now why do they come to the conclusion that there are psi phenomena when the massive science, the rest of science is against them? Well, it's possible because they found something, some peculiar, little quirk that's misbehaving in there, and one day we'll understand it and they'll be proved right. I think it more likely it is as it's always been in parapsychology, a mixture of bad statistics, bad experimental design, bad logical conclusions, a little bit of cheating, and an awful lot of self-deception.

I see all of those things; in my many years in parapsychology I saw all of those. The most depressing by far is the very, very small number of people who actually cheat. And one of my most distressing times that I had in my whole life, really, was revealing cheating going on, and realizing that a whole mass of data were just not reliable. And in a way, that's coloured my whole view of it, because it's such hard work finding that out.

Every time major cheating episodes in parapsychology have been discovered, it's been far more work for the person to uncover them, than it ever was to do the research in the first place. And you don't know without doing that level of deep, hard work whether there's a lot more of it going on, if only you'd put that effort in.

I still think it's relatively rare. But it's enough to colour the whole field; and that's rather depressing.

P: When you were trying to bring more rigor to the studies, Susan, did you find a lot of resistance from the community?

SB: No, no. Generally, I – there was some, obviously. There are always some complete pig-headed types. But the vast majority, I would say, wanted to find out the truth. People want their own theory to be true, of course, but on the whole there was lots of cooperation. Particularly, I remember, after the early Ganzfeld's results, fantastic results. And then the problems that I discovered, and then Ray Hyman and Charles Honorton got together.

Ray Hyman – well known sceptic – and Chuck Onerton - the most successful Ganzfeld researcher – wrote papers together that, totally giving opposite opinions. And then we had a meeting to get together and decide, okay, the sceptic community say, "What is required of you parapsychologists that will convince us?" And the parapsychologists had to come up with a design that the sceptics would say, "This will convince us."

And this was a right way forward, I think. To come to some kind of agreement about both sides as to what would satisfy them. In the end, it didn't work out as well as we'd hoped. The automated Ganzfeld was standard, the problem, but I would say that was one of the most public examples of cooperation. But generally, I would say people were cooperative.

I mean, some hated my attitude, but most of them just said, "That's science, isn't it? You get in there, you argue, you try and clear up arguments, yeah, like any other science."

S: And just for the audience, the Ganzfeld experiments were experiments in remote viewing, where the subjects were trying to guess which of its target images the subject were viewing. And we talked to Ray Hyman about this as well. Very interesting set of data. And it shows a lot of the patterns I think that the scientific community finds compelling as evidence for a lack of an effect, and yet the parapsychology school thinks it's evidence for an effect.

And what you're describing, of two schools of thought, two different ways of interpreting existing data. They come together, they decide, alright, what's a definitive design that we all can agree on? That happens a lot in science. I've seen that happen in my own field. But the difference here is that when the experiment then got done, it still didn't resolve the dispute. So, which tells me that the differences go deeper than can be objectively be resolved by a really good experiment.

SB: I think that's right. You asked me about how people responded, and I would say, generally well. But what you've described there is a reason for doubting the existence of paranormal phenomena. It doesn't prove they don't exist. But if they were there, what would probably happen is that the arguments would go on and on until somebody found some more reliable way of producing paranormal phenomena, and then all the arguments would collapse. People would at last have something to work on. Theorists would (inaudible) ahead, we would start testing things.

The field would expand and grow; and more people would be drawn into it, and all sorts of exciting (inaudible) would be found. That's never happened. And my guess is it never will happen, because there aren't any paranormal phenomena.

S: And yet you say that you're happy the research is ongoing. But how long should it go on then, before we say, "Okay, this avenue is ..."

SB: As long as 60% of the population of the United States of America believe in telepathy! I mean, as long as people are going or believing in it. Just imagine the situation where people who, people all over the world believe in astral bodies, believe in telepathy or whatever, and the scientists say, "We're not even going to look." I mean, that would be preposterous. As long as there are ...

S: But scientists are saying, "We have looked!" Is that different? Saying we have looked, and it's not there, is different than saying we're not going to look?

SB: I wouldn't, if I were a grant giving operation, I would not give lots of money to this. And indeed, they don't. And if I were a scientist, well I am a scientist, I don't think it's worth doing. This is why the field is so tiny, because people like me get in there with all these ideas, try them out, find we were wrong, get out and go and do something more productive. But I still would stand by the few people who want to carry on, and say, "Good for you," you know? There's a ti-ti-ti-teensy chance you're right. Good for you. That's what science should be like.

S: Yeah, so I just want to separate out a couple issues here. I certainly agree that scientists should go in whatever directions they are compelled to go in. And certainly, exploring some unusual low-probability, high-yield areas is reasonable, as long as we're not putting too many resources into it.

But I'm not sure I agree with the popular argument. That well,, 60% of people believe in it, so we should be researching it. Because what I find, you know, I've focused a lot, Perry and I over the years, trying to actually change public opinion, and to try to promote the public understanding of science, and I found that the fact that there are scientists who seem respectable doing research in these fields are what's driving the belief in the first place, or at least it's reinforcing it. So it kind of becomes a self-fulfilling thing where you're researching it because the public believes in it, and the public believes in it because it's being researched. And the media plays off the whole cycle.

So I don't know that we can really break the cycle until we have, the scientific community can say, "Listen, this is a dead end. We need to move on."

SB: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean, and I agree with you. That's what happens. I don't think we break that cycle by not doing the research. I get, like you, so frustrated by the emails I get, and I was dealing with a couple of them today. "Well, John's lab has proved the existence of psychic (inaudible)." Or you know, "science has proved the existence of (inaudible)." No, I can say they didn't. Read this book, and so on, and so on.

But in the end, I don't that the cycle is largely driven by those very, very few apparently serious researchers. I think it's mainly driven by peoples' own experiences they have in their every day life, and the lack of better explanations. So it goes back to what we were talking about before, really. I think when people better understand their own brains, and their own minds, and a bit of science, and generally how things work, the less likely they are to jump to those beliefs, and that should really be our job, rather than stopping a few wacky scientists, you know, carrying on with their odd beliefs.

S: And just to finish up on this issue, I mean, in your experience, and you're pretty unusual in that you're one of the few people within the skeptical movement who was on the other side for a substantial period of time; so you bring, I think, some insight into the field that most of us don't have. We were never on the other side. But what do you think would be, you know, if you could focus our efforts onto one or a few things that would be most effective in promoting the public understanding of science, as you say, what do you think are the key things we need to focus on?

SB: That is a really tough question. I think it's the kind of core understanding of what science is. That science is a method and a way of investigating the universe. And when you investigate the universe, you find that things more and more make sense. One thing leads to another; one thing causes another; there are understandable forces and patterns and so on. And that it's better to understand those than just to make up some kind of, you know, entity to explain things. It's that fundamental way of thinking that I think helps people to think through things themselves.

The emails I most like getting are from people who say they've read the Meme Machine, and there's something that I've written, and it's changed the way they see the world. That they can conceive of a world that is mechanistic – or not entirely mechanistic – but a material world, a modest world; in which there's just stuff interacting with other stuff, and no souls and no sprit, and for the first time in their life, they can actually see, "Ah! It might be like that! And it might be alright."

S: And it's alright. I think that's the last piece that I have to convince people; it's okay.

SB: Exactly!

S: That we're just meat.

SB: Exactly. It's okay to believe that I am a machine. I can be a machine and love, and care about things, and be kind to people, and have some kind of moral standpoint. I can do all of those things while knowing that I am a machine that got here by evolution. Now that's the real step, for me.

S: Susan, this has been a fantastic conversation.

SB: Hey! And I just realized, you made me go on for hours! And it's nearly 11:00.

S: I did.


S: I said I tricked your stream of consciousness into thinking it was less time than it was. But we appreciate it. I know you're staying up late for us because you're over there in England.

SB: Not at all.

S: Thanks again. And I hope we can get you back on The Skeptic's Guide sometime in the ...

SB: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it. Bye bye.

P: Bye bye, Susan.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Question #1: For the first time researchers have reconstructed protein sequences from the fossil remains of a dinosaur - specifically a T-rex. Question #2: Long awaited results from a decade-long neutrino experiment show that the so-called standard model of physics is no longer tenable. Question #3: New research suggests that ethanol, touted as being more eco-friendly than gasoline, would actually create an increased environmental health risk.

Skeptical Puzzle ()[edit]

This Week's Puzzle


Last Week's Puzzle
I wrote 3768 lines of code using 4 different languages to be spread over a thousand years.

Who am I ?

Answer: Nostradamus
Winner: Opcn

Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.'- John Adams

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the 'contact us' page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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