Tuesday, February 13, 2007

When research goes PEAR-shaped

I’ve got a muse@nature.com column up today about the closure of the lab at Princeton that was investigating paranormal phenomena. Inevitably these things have to be chopped and changed before they appear, but here’s the pre-edited version. I feel scientists have no need to get too heavy about this kind of thing – if nothing else, it could serve as an interesting discussion point for students learning about how science is, and should be, done. To judge from the descriptions I’ve read of the PEAR lab and its ethos, we could probably do with a bit more of that in the scientific community. But why, oh why, do these people feel the need to come up with a ‘theory’ that is just a tangle of words? It is, in the time-honoured phrase, not even wrong. Sometimes you can’t help feeling that quantum theory has a lot to answer for.

There should be room for a bit of fringe science – but it's liable to suck you in.

It can't do a great deal for your self-esteem when media interest in your research project seems to catch fire only in response to the project's demise. But Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory probably aren't too bothered by that. For the attention generated by the closure of the PEAR lab – or rather, by the suggestion in the New York Times that this removes a source of ongoing embarrassment to the university – can surely only enhance the profile of Jahn and Dunne's longer-term vision of exploring "consciousness-related anomalies".

What "anomalies", exactly? With meticulous care, Jahn and Dunne avoid describing the phenomena they've studied using the more familiar words: telekinesis and telepathy. They have been studying people's ability to control machines and to transmit images from remote locations using only the power of the human mind. According to your perspective, that choice of language is a way of either promoting the paranormal by stealth or avoiding knee-jerk criticism.

The affair has inevitably ignited debates about the limits of academic freedom and responsibility. The NY Times quotes physicist Robert Park, a noted debunker of pseudo-science, as saying "It’s been an embarrassment to science, and I think an embarrassment for Princeton", while physicist Will Happer at Princeton says "I don’t believe in anything [Jahn] is doing, but I support his right to do it."

The university itself is trying to keep out of the fray. While stressing that the work done at PEAR was, like most other research at the university, privately funded, Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt says that the lab's closure "was not a university decision". She adds that "the work at the lab was always understood by the university to be a personal interest of Professor Jahn's." Jahn, now an emeritus professor, was former dean of the engineering school and is an expert on electric propulsion.

Jahn and Dunne, a developmental psychologist, confirm that the decision was theirs. "We have accomplished what we originally set out to do 28 years ago, namely to determine whether these effects are real and to identify their major correlates", they say. With Jahn about to retire, "it is time for the next generation of scholars to take over." They hope that their work will be continued through the International Consciousness Research Laboratories, a network established in 1996 and now boasting members from 20 countries.

Some will surely share Park's view that this sort of thing gives science a bad name. But they'd be wrong to let the matter rest there, because PEAR's research reveals some interesting things about the practice and sociology of science.

The PEAR project offers a glimpse of what scientists can expect if they decide to dabble in what is conventionally termed the paranormal. Reasonable scientists cannot rule out the possibility of telekinesis, telepathy and other such 'anomalies' of the mind, simply because there are still such huge gaps in our understanding of consciousness and the brain. But most will say, again reasonably enough, that because all previous attempts to study these putative phenomena have failed to establish anything like a consistent, reproducible and unequivocal body of data, the chances of doing any serious science on the subject are minimal. As John Webster said of witchcraft in the seventeenth century, "There is no greater folly than to be very inquisitive and laborious to find out the causes of such a phenomenon as never had any existence."

In short, they regard effects like these as examples of what American chemist Irving Langmuir famously called pathological science. Experience teaches us that these things, from N-rays to cold fusion and homeopathy, are will 'o' the wispshttp://www2.blogger.com/img/gl.italic.gif: too elusive for fruitful research, and probably imaginary if not downright fraudulent.

At least, this is the standard positivist position. But perhaps a stronger reason why scientists usually steer clear of such things is that it would be professional suicide not to. In a paper called 'The PEAR Proposition'1, published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (a journal produced by the Society for Scientific Exploration, of which Jahn and Dunne are both officers), the PEAR duo describe the hostility they experienced at Princeton when the lab was set up. They found "covert ridicule,… grudging concession of academic freedom, and… uneasiness in public discussion of the subject." Most scientists find this sort of work not outrageous but simply embarrassing.

Predictably, Jahn and Dunne found it virtually impossible to publish their findings. Their papers, many of which reported the effects of subjects' mental and emotional states on a computerized random number generator, were returned with the comment that they treated an "inappropriate topic". One journal editor said that he would consider the text only when the authors were able to transmit it telepathically.

It is no wonder, then, that those from the academic community who swim in these murky waters are older and already established in their mainstream disciplines. The 'leaders emeritus' of the Society for Scientific Exploration are Peter Sturrock and Laurence Fredrick, emeritus professors at Stanford and Virginia respectively, both with secure reputations in space physics. Not only have such people earned themselves a bit of academic slack (as well as the ability to attract funding) but they cannot simply be cold-shouldered in the way that younger researchers would be. For the same reason, Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson has been permitted for years to pursue research on 'mind-matter unification' at Cambridge University amid what one senses to be a mixture of unease and resignation from his colleagues.

'The PEAR Proposition' contains many poignant notes. It shows how awkwardly the habits of academia sit with discussion of the everyday world of human interactions – an unavoidable issue in this line of work. The authors' talk of the "superficial jocularities" of their lab celebrations and the "spontaneous repartee therein" evoke a deeply uncool avuncularity, while Jahn and Dunne hardly do justice to their evidently relaxed working relationship by saying that it "constituted a virtual complementarity of strategic judgment that has triangulated our operational implementation in a particularly productive fashion." It's hard to doubt that the PEAR lab, with its artwork on the walls, its parties and its stuffed animals, was a lot more fun than most research labs. That the attempts to capture this atmosphere in the language of academese are so stilted says a lot about how routinely successful this language is in stripping the research literature of its humanity.

But in the end, this fascinating document undermines itself. When Jahn and Dunne talk about "the tendency of the desired effects to hide within the underlying random data-substructures", and the way their volunteers would often produce "better scores" in their first series of tests, they echo the way that other researchers of pathological science, such as cold fusion and the 'memory of water', betrayed their lack of objectivity with talk of "good runs" and "bad runs".

And perhaps that is the real worry in looking for marginal and unreliable phenomena. Jahn and Dunne are commendably honest about the "bemusing" and "capricious" nature of their measurements, but that only adds to the impression that they decided they were engaged in a battle of wits with nature, who did her darnedest to hide the truth of the matter.

It would be a poorer world that castigates and shuns any researcher who dabbles in unorthodox or even positively weird ideas. But the PEAR experience should be sobering reading for anyone thinking of doing that: it suggests that these things suck you in. You start off with random number generators and unimpeachable experimental technique, and before long you are talking about "an ongoing two-way exchange between a primordial Source and an organizing Consciousness." You have been warned.

1. Jahn, R. G. & Dunne, B. J. J. Sci. Explor. 19, 195 - 245 (2005).


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