Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Atheism Bias


[the crystal ball at work]

Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell University, has written a paper claiming that people may be capable of intuitively sensing future events.

Apparently, most other scientists are outraged.

What's interesting to me is not the topic of psychic abilities in themselves. What I find interesting is the anger that this paper is arousing in other scientists. Why the emotion? What is it so horrifying? There is plenty of bad science being done (think of Margret Mead for example, or Freud) without any immediate, great outrage.

My impression is that scientists realize that psychic powers would imply the existence of a soul. A soul would imply the existence of a God who created it. God would imply that possibly God has spoken to people, that He wants something from us, that prophesy may be valid, that the clergy could therefore be more important than scientists. This article therefore strikes at the entire foundation of scientific prestige and power. Belief in God and the Bible, for example, would reduce scientists to being mere plumbers and mechanics, not the most prestigious intellectuals in society. (Consider how Charles Darwin, whose father was a freethinker, studied for the clergy in 1827 not because he had any particular interest in the subject, but his father felt that this would be at least an honorable vocation for him, thus avoiding the scandal of becoming an idle rake.)

It's a bit reminiscent of the horror that the Big Bang aroused for many years until the evidence could no longer be ignored.

21 comments:

SJ said...

I can tell the future. Anywhere from now to two years, the shit is going to go down with the Iran situation. * shrugs *

NC said...

I'll explain a little, although I have not personally read the article.

In biological research there is something called Type I error. This error occurs if the statistical analysis of the results of the experiment reveal a positive finding (such as a difference between 2 groups), when in reality there is no finding. The probability of this happening is determined by various factors, but in most research it is set at 5%. In some experiments it is 1%.

This is why most scientists don't accept the results of one experiment alone, particularly if it goes against previous research or common sense. We usually demand confirmation by another researcher who can duplicate the results.

I'm not emotional about it at all. I am simply skeptical, since it contradicts many previous well run experiments, and also goes against what we know about human physiology. However, the results can't be ignored, and another experimenter should try to reproduce the results.

If you've ever read or heard James Randi, you'll understand the pitfalls of this kind of research.

As a general comment: The general trend in the history and philosophy of science has been towards giving MORE naturalistic explanations for phenomena. It is unlikely that this experiment will change that. In quantum mechanics there are many concepts(for example, spin) that are counterintuitive and could be interpreted to imply god, but mathematical models exist to explain them.

jewish philosopher said...

I think it's difficult to find anything which Judaism once considered to be supernatural and science has now found a natural explanation.

For example, illness was always regarded by Jews are having natural causes. Look at all the remedies in the Talmud. It's well known that Maimonides was a physician. Pre-modern medicine may not have been too good, but whose to say how doctors two thousand years from now will laugh at our medicine?

NC said...

"I think it's difficult to find anything which Judaism once considered to be supernatural and science has now found a natural explanation."

How can you say that?

"It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could
endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the
ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten
thousand on his right hand.2 Raba says: The crushing in the Kallah3 lectures comes from them.4
Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their
rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them,5 let
him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the
footprints of a cock. If one wishes to see them, let him take the after-birth of a black she-cat, the
offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it in fire and grind it to
powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an
iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they6 should not steal it from him. Let him also close his
mouth, lest he come to harm. R. Bibi b. Abaye did so,7 saw them and came to harm. The scholars,
however, prayed for him and he recovered."
(Berachot 6a, Soncino translation).

Regarding a 'mad dog' (rabies), from Yoma 83b:

"Where does it [rabies] come from? Rav said witches toyed with it [the dog], and Samuel said an evil spirit is upon it... If a man rubs against it he is endangered, and if he is bitten by it, he will surely die. If he rubs against it he is endangered. What can he do? Throw off his clothing and run, as did Rav Huna the son of Rav Joshua. One who is bitten will surely die. What can be done? Take the skin of a male hyena and write upon it: "I, so-and-so, son of so-and-so, have written about you on the skin of a male hyena. Kanti, kanti, kliros," and some say, "Qandi, qandi, kliros. Yah, yah, the Lord of Hosts, Amen, Selah." One should take off his clothing and bury it [in the graves by the crossroads]; after a twelve-month he should unearth them and burn them in an oven, throwing the ashes at the crossroads. During the twelve-month he should drink water only through a straw made of brass, lest he see the demon [who jumped from the dog to him] reflected in the water and be endangered."

The Talmud is full of references to magic, demons, amulets and angels. That was the 'world' they lived in.

I'm not poking fun at the rabbis. This is what they believed in in their day, because of ignorance and lack of a natural or scientific explanation.

The Rambam of course was much later and most probably did not believe in these things.

NC said...

"I think it's difficult to find anything which Judaism once considered to be supernatural and science has now found a natural explanation."

Really? The Talmud is full of references to demons, amulets, magic and angels. A little sampling:

Regarding rabies: "Where does it come from? — Rab said: Witches are having their fun with it [the dog]. Samuel said: An evil spirit rests upon it. What is the practical difference between these two views? — This is the difference: as to killing it by throwing1 something at it. It was taught in accordance with Samuel: When one kills it, one does so only with something thrown against it. One against whom it rubs itself is endangered; one whom it bites, dies. (Yoma 83b)

Various other phenomena caused by demons: "It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the
ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten
thousand on his right hand. Raba says: The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them.
Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock. If one wishes to see them, let him take the after-birth of a black she-cat, the offspring of a black she-cat, the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them." (barachot 6a)

jewish philosopher said...

These comments are not Judaism, they are the science of that time. The most ultra-orthodox rabbi today would tell to get a rabies vaccine if a dog bites you.

Let's say someday our present day understanding of gravity is found to be profoundly erroneous and some writing of a present day rabbi contains some references to our understanding of gravity. Two thousand years from now would it be fair to reject Judaism because "look what nonsense that rabbi wrote in 2011".

jewish philosopher said...

The truth is you could argue the opposite way: look at how completely wrong science was in the past. Things like bloodletting which were taken for granted in previous centuries are now known to be wrong. Therefore, how seriously should any present day science be taken? Today's unquestionable theory may be tomorrow's joke.

NC said...

"These comments are not Judaism, they are the science of that time."

Agreed. So why is "creationism" and "souls" and "hell" not just the "science of the time"? What makes them core to you?

If you restrict the definition of "judiasm" to ethics, philosophy and halacha, we have no disagreement. What are we arguing about?

"Today's unquestionable theory may be tomorrow's joke."

This is parallel process of self-correction and revision in religion, which evolved over time. Note that we don't execute adulters or keep ritually impure people outside the camp any more. Mind you that when science was wrong, it was NEVER corrected by religion, but by the scientific process itself.

jewish philosopher said...

Based upon prophesy is Torah, based upon contemporary opinion is not.

If a rabbi says " smoking is bad for your health. The Torah prohibits endangering your health. Therefore don't smoke."
The first sentence is not torah, the second is.

Saying science is self correcting is sort of like saying business is self correcting, because eventually a scammer like Madoff gets caught. I guess, but that still doesn't prove every businessman is honest or that every scientist is.

Anonymous said...

Hey,

How's your lawsuit against that nursing school coming along?
Has your wife thrown you out of your home yet?
Are your daughters still the butt of the jokes in the school that their father is psycho ?

jewish philosopher said...

Hey,

Good.
No.
No.

Anonymous said...

"I think it's difficult to find anything which Judaism once considered to be supernatural and science has now found a natural explanation... [I]llness was always regarded by Jews are having natural causes."

"These comments are not Judaism, they are the science of that time. The most ultra-orthodox rabbi today would tell to get a rabies vaccine if a dog bites you."

I'll let this contradiction stand on its own.

"Based upon prophesy is Torah, based upon contemporary opinion is not."

That's sounding very Karite...note that the Talmud wasn't based on prophecy, but rather was contemporary opinion utilizing Torah.

Anonymous said...

The outrage comes from the fact that a study with yet irreproducible results which are counterintuitive and fall within the margin of error was published as valuable research in a respected journal.

Anonymous said...

"I can tell the future. Anywhere from now to two years, the shit is going to go down with the Iran situation. * shrugs *"

I'm going to have to go with the classic "within the next twenty to fifty years" of political science predictions. If it happens, I'm going to be interviewed on Fox! If it doesn't, nobody's going to remember in 50 years that I predicted it.

jewish philosopher said...

"That's sounding very Karite"

The Talmudic sages comments about science are not part of the Oral Law and are not necessarily correct.

Maimonides wrote in the Guide to the Perplexed part 3 chapter 14: "You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science."

http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp150.htm

Also, many Talmudic teachings are allegorical, not literal.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggadah#Literal-allegorical_teachings

"The outrage comes from the fact that a study with yet irreproducible results which are counterintuitive and fall within the margin of error was published as valuable research in a respected journal."

OK, but bear in mind that the author is a highly respected scientist, publishing in a respected peer reviewed journal. This isn't the National Enquirer.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_National_Enquirer

I can understand skepticism, disagreement, but why outrage?

NC said...

"OK, but bear in mind that the author is a highly respected scientist, publishing in a respected peer reviewed journal. This isn't the National Enquirer."

Good point. But this is precisely why there is such a strong reaction. Not because of the claim itself, but because such an extraordinary claim is being made, very strict standards should apply.

jewish philosopher said...

What makes it necessarily so extraordinary, except from a fundamentalist atheist point of view?

jewish philosopher said...

To me this sounds like the reaction of a religious orthodoxy trying to quash any possible heresy. Think of the trial of Galileo.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair

Anonymous said...

Its extraordinary because it flies in the face of decades of research by other very respected scientists doing all sorts of studies. Hell, the CIA even tried and failed. If no one yet has gotten results like yours and no one can reproduce your study's results, it doesn't matter how respected you are. The burden of proof lies on you. He did not adequately meet that burden, yet the journal published his results anyway. If a respected scientist published a study showing that Jews have more neurons and synaptic connections in their brains than non-Jews, yet their results were within the margin of error and anyone who tried to reproduce their results failed to do so, there would be outrage if it was published in a scientific journal and everyone would agree that it was outrageous. Imagine your outrage if a study was published that showed Jewish men to have lower testosterone levels than non-Jewish men under similar circumstances.

jewish philosopher said...

"Imagine your outrage if a study was published that showed Jewish men to have lower testosterone levels than non-Jewish men under similar circumstances."

You see, that's exactly my point. A study about Jewish testosterone or African American IQ or the high level of pedophilia among gay men or other similar topics causes outrage for EMOTIONAL NOT SCIENTIFIC reasons.

If someone has read Bem's study, attempted to reproduce it and reached contrary conclusions, then he could correctly be skeptical of the paper. However when people who probably haven't even read or understood the study become outraged, then there is something fishy going on. That's not science, that's the reaction of a religious orthodoxy trying to quash any possible heresy.

jewish philosopher said...

And just by the way, my testosterone is fine thank you.