Unconscious Research of Global Consciousness

Some say that the collective emotions of humans can influence electronic hardware.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Paranormal

Skeptoid #49
June 10, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

In this episode we're going to take a look at a project that has captured imaginations for nearly a decade, the Global Consciousness Project, which posits that events that emotionally affect large numbers of people cause measurable changes in the output of random number generators.

The principal public face of the Global Consciousness Project is Dr. Dean Radin, an electrical engineer and Ph.D. in psychology. Supporters like to say that the project is part of Princeton University, but this is not so. The project director, Roger Nelson, is in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department there, but that's about the whole depth of the connection. Some of Nelson's resources, like the web site, are hosted by Princeton. The project is funded by private donations through the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California.

It is worthy to note that I cannot, in good conscience, criticize Dean Radin. He is said to be an awesome fiddle and banjo player, and the world needs more fiddle and banjo music. So, Dr. Radin, when you hear this podcast, know that I am at heart a supporter; and when you put down your random number generator, and pick up your banjo, I'll be in the front row. If you want to do some good in the world, stick with what works. Now let's talk about this Global Consciousness project of yours.

65 people at various locations around the world have a small hardware random number generator, which they call an egg, connected to a computer. All day, every day, each one spits out random numbers, which are regularly transmitted through the Internet to Nelson's server in Princeton, New Jersey. When the researchers choose an event, they pull the data from that time and put it through a series of filters and analyses and find patterns they say are improbably less random. I'm not going to go into all the details of how they do this, it's really boring and confusing if you're not a statistician, but they do openly publish all their methodology on Nelson's web site at noosphere.princeton.edu. Their theory is that somehow, the collective consciousness of all the emotional or psychological energy of people focused on the chosen event, somehow affects the random number generators. They do not presume to have any hypothesis for how or why this might be possible, or what the mechanism might be, or really any satisfactory answers to any questions that mainstream scientists have asked them. They simply put forth their findings for what they're worth, and they urge you and and I and everyone else to look at their results and hopefully conclude, as they have, that there's something to all of this, and that it's worthy of further research.

The problem is that people outside their lab either fail to reach the same conclusions or find their methodology so flawed that it's pointless to even review the findings. They do publish what they call criticism on their web site, but it's mainly comments and suggestions from their associates. There is not a lot of published criticism of Global Consciousness out there to cite, and one reason is that their theory lacks consistent claims that are specific enough to be tested. Here are two fundamental questions that they must answer and have not:

  1. What type of event qualifies as "significant"? They pick events themselves, without any defined criteria. When they choose an event, they fail to test if there are any other simultaneous events in other parts of the world that might override any effect. What happened in Ghana during the OJ Simpson trial? There are no controls over what types of event triggers an examination of the data, and no controls to eliminate prospective events due to conflicting events.
  2. What type of effect in the data constitutes a result? Again, no criteria. They maintain no standards for what constitutes a correlation: whether it's a trough or a spike or some other type of anomaly; whether it should happen before, during, or after the event; how long before or after the event it should be found, or what the duration should be. In fact, their "results" are all over the map.

So, as they look for undefined results from undefined events, they still manage to make additional errors in their methodology. Here are some of the most flagrant:

  1. The analysis is not blinded in any way. When something happens, they look at their data until they find patterns. Proper analysis would come from isolated statisticians with no reference indicating a timeline on the data, knowledge of what to look for, or knowledge of what world event is being matched.
  2. They do not look for alternate causes of their data anomalies. Sunspots? Cell phone calls?
  3. They make claims of specific numbers for how they beat chance. Clearly, it's impossible to have any meaningful metrics, given the lack of standards for scoring or choosing events.
  4. They make no attempts to falsify their theory. They should be looking for alternate causes of the anomalies they claim to find in the output from their eggs, such as sunspots or electromagnetic interference from other devices. They should be looking for alternate or additional effects caused by human emotions, like errors in calculators or digital watches. Why not cell phones or toasters? If this effect is real, their eggs would not be the only things affected. Whenever a Global Consciousness event happens, there should be well known and well established failures of, or anomalies in, electric and/or computerized devices worldwide. It's improbable that these supposed effects would seek out and affect only one specific application of common hardware components used in many other devices. They do not look at other species besides humans whose emotions might be responsible for the effects. Why not dolphins or whales, or for that matter ants? Most of the living matter on earth is ants, and ants certainly have collective behavior. If collective consciousness did have a measurable affect on hardware, ants are the first place I would look.

One of their biggest claims to fame is the finding of a massive data anomaly, stronger than any other found, at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Radin calculated that it was 6000:1 that this spike in the data was due to chance. Such a finding would make sense if the theory were true (although 9/11 probably didn't bother very many ants). You'll hear this result time and time again if you listen to one of Radin's lectures or read their materials. But you will have to go out on your own to find a dissenting opinion, which can be heard from anyone else who has actually looked at their data. One such person is Jeffrey Scargle of the NASA Ames Research Center, who undertook an analysis on his own time. Scargle's finding on the 9/11 data was "I personally disagree with the conclusion that anomalous effects have been unequivocally established" and "I judge the degree of cogency of all of the results in both (Radin's and Nelson's) papers as low." Scargle attributes their positive findings to the questionable application of an XOR filter to the raw data, the use of a discredited "p-value" test, the lack of blinding, limited choice of likely effects, and a suspicious process that he describes as "data fiddling".

Dr. Edwin May and James Spottiswoode also performed an independent analysis of Radin's 9/11 results. Their conclusion states in part:

We show that the choice was fortuitous in that had the analysis window been a few minutes shorter or 30 minutes longer, the formal test would not have achieved significance... We differ markedly with regard to the posted conclusions. Using Radin’s analysis, we do not find significant evidence that the GCP network’s EGG’s responded to the New York City attacks in real time. Radin’s computation of 6000:1 odds against chance during the events are accounted for by a not-unexpected local deviation that occurred approximately 3 hours before the attacks. We conclude that the network random number generators produced data consistent with mean chance.

Now let's talk about the elephant in the room. To any reasonable person, the whole concept of global consciousness is ridiculous at face value. This is true of many pseudosciences. But all that should raise is a red flag; people used to think flight was ridiculous too. But when you find red flags everywhere, they start to add up. Let's look back at Skeptoid episode 37, How to Spot Pseudoscience, and see if there are any other warning signs. Here's one: They make their announcements through mass media, rather than through scientific journals. When respected journals won't touch research, it's a pretty good indicator that there's something wrong. But radio shows like Coast to Coast AM, that promote pseudoscience, are all over it. Another warning is that their claim is based on some unknown form of energy or force. Also, the claim fails the Occam's Razor test. Again, this doesn't prove anything, it's just another red flag. Which is more likely to be true: That there's nothing to the idea of global consciousness, which is what the consensus of mainstream science maintains; or that these few people using tremendously flawed methodology have uncovered something so profound it would change the way we view everything, and is based on some mystical force unknown to science? Another problem is that the claim comes only from one source that's dedicated to supporting that cause. Legitimate research is always successfully repeated by independent labs. When it's not, you have good reason to be skeptical. Global consciousness does pass a few of these tests, but legitimate research and facts always pass all of them.

Now, Dr. Radin, I know I said I wouldn't criticize you, but I do have to take issue with one of your quotes. You said:

There is no kind way to say this, but the most stubborn skeptics do not understand scientific methods or the use of statistical inference, nor do they appreciate the history, philosophy or sociology of science. Their emotional rejection of the evidence seems to be motivated by fundamentalist beliefs of the scientific or religious kind.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

This is a classic straw man argument. You're dismissing the rejection of your questionable evidence by calling it emotional and suggesting that it's motivated by a quasi-religious fundamentalist belief in science. OK, whatever. But when you declare that the people who fail to use your methods to find your same results "do not understand scientific methods," you're really pushing credibility. You're not the only person in the world who understands the scientific process. In fact, you don't appear to understand it very well at all. Please, do us all a favor. Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Go.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Haahr, M. "Introduction to Randomness and Random Numbers." Random.org. Random.org, 7 Apr. 2007. Web. 17 Oct. 2009. <http://www.random.org/randomness/>

May, E., Spottiswoode, J. "Global Consciousness Project: An Independent Analysis of The 11 September 2001 Events." The Laboratories for Fundamental Research Innovative Interdisciplinary Research. LFR, 15 Sep. 2006. Web. 1 May. 2007. <http://www.lfr.org/LFR/csl/library/Sep1101.pdf>

Park, Robert L. Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008. 139-141.

Radin, D., Nelson, R. "Meaningful Correlations in Random Data." Global Consciousness Project. Global Consciousness Project, 1 Jun. 2009. Web. 29 Jan. 2010. <http://noosphere.princeton.edu/>

Scargle, Jeffrey. "Was There Evidence of Global Consciousness on September 11, 2001?" Journal of Scientific Exploration. 1 Oct. 2002, Volume 16, Number 4: 571-577.

Webb, G.I. "Discovering significant patterns." Machine Learning. 1 Jul. 2007, Volume 68 , Issue 1: 1-33.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Unconscious Research of Global Consciousness." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 10 Jun 2007. Web. 22 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4049>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 37 comments

I am no scientist...I'm not even a college graduate but I do know that many great discoveries have been made on ridiculed research and theory. Often I recall reading of scientists exploring their ideas for years, even decades in the wrong direction. Some of them threw in the towel, some of them arrested or imprisoned, and some of them eventually cracked a kernal of truth. In this modern age of free thinking and liberties to expand our knowledge base, why criticize someone for going out on a tangent? Valid or not, I don't see how this type of research could hurt anything. Perhaps I am naive, but I'm choosing to remain open minded to all avenues of great discovery, for that is the birth of any science.

Rebecca, Florida, USA
September 9, 2011 11:02am

By the 'discredited p-value' test I presume you are referring to the T-test, used for statistical analysis by scientists worldwide? Since when was this discredited? Certainly not when I trained as a biochemist, from 2001-2005. Reference please. If it has indeed been discredited the what do we now do about the tens of thousands of scientific papers which rely on this test to prove their results, and all the medications which we take on the basis of the fact that this test has shown them to be beneficial over placebo? Start from scratch?

Jon, Cambridge
September 21, 2011 8:59am

There is indeed a global conscious network. Whether it is affected by an effort of localized 'intent' by a few is missing the point entirely - it is about the homeostatic controls of an entire planetary organism. The global consciousness could better be monitored over greater periods of time to reflect intent - take population control: I find it more than interesting that the younger generations are embracing gender neutrality, exhibiting more independence, are less likely to start families young - are more supportive of or participate in a gay lifestyle. It is the mother Earth, saying, 'there is way too many of you.' Now change.

Ariel, St. Paul, Mn
April 4, 2012 9:35am

I preferred Captain Sensible.

Mud, Sin City, Oz
April 4, 2012 6:45pm

@ Ariel:

Huh?

Your observations are ones from the 'west' not the world in general.

Speak to young folks today and many will say that childbirth looks painful and bringing up kids cramps your hedonistic style.

Now more than ever in history we have numerous 'diversions' to compete with the boring thing that life can be.

In the west we 'know' that we don't have to stick to the limited stereotype of our social structures. A few centuries back we thought it OK to ship fellow humans from Africa as livestock, and to send 10 year old children into mines. The world changes, and for sure my parents wanted me to have a better life than they had in post-war UK, I was 'free' to be what I wanted, I was not expected to work 'Down 't pit' and HAVE to get married and have kids.

Your world consciousness doesn't seem to have effected the huge Chinese population or even much limited human growth.

What woo folks see as a global consciousness is really just the complexity of many systems operating on - and off - this planet that eventually lead to extinction level events. For sure at some stage in human future a crisis will hit and the woo of the day will cry out 'See!!! we told you mother Earth was calling....crying out for help....' I know folks will be saying this - I was woo myself once.....hey, I used to go into the woods and convene with all the 'elementals' now I go into the woods and just get over-whelmed with the mathematical complexity and beauty of it all...

David "sheeple" Healey, Maidenhead, UK
October 3, 2012 9:31am

What do you say to a relatively skeptical guy, never believed in "psychics" or paranormal etc., who thinks Kreskin's a kook...who at 5am EST on 9/11 had a clear and vivid (and uninvited) dream about commercial jet planes flying into buildings?

I guess you may say "coincidence" (if its true I even had the dream). That's what I would have said too.

So from where I sit your analysis is flawed...not in its content but in its initial premise and thesis...namely that GCP should have to provide real, tangible evidence. But you see...I'm already there. I did not ask for it, but here I am.... knowing - not guessing or postulating or analyzing or proposing - but knowing, that there is "something" going on.

Explaining it...well there's a speculative play indeed.

I personally feel the spike that GCP shows around the time I had my dream has meaning. But exactly what meaning, who knows? Do we as individuals connect in some way subconsciously? The Buddhists certainly think so (and BTW look at the way modern neuroscience and Buddhism are forging connections vis-a-vis neuro-plasticity). Surely a few (or thousands?) were aware of the plans for the terrorist attack. How did that seep into my unconscious? How the hell should I know.

But I do think that skepticism, when an ideal onto itself, can be as misleading as bogus science.

But whatever... we are like Kindergarten class when it comes to our real understanding consciousness as well as the physical world

Stymie, Vancouver/BC
February 25, 2013 1:51pm

so Stymie, how did you go with the disasters and heinous crimes since?

Mud, Greenacres by the sea Oz
April 24, 2013 1:43am

I think there's a bit of information in the experimental setup that the critics have missed:

The events for analysis (the predictions) are picked before analyzing the data during that event. No matter of the outcome of that analysis that data is included in the validity of the overall results.

The experiment can crudely be compared with predicting the flip of a coin and getting it right 290 times out of 450 tries. (about a billion to 1 odds for that)

Martin, Montreal
April 25, 2013 11:17am

The first episodes of the television show "Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman" were interesting, discussing frontiers in physics and astronomy. It had potential. But by episode 13, they were promoting global consciousness without any dissenting viewpoints, almost as if it was accepted theory. I don't mind if they want to show us alternative ideas, but without a scientific discussion, it gives the ideas an imprimatur they don't deserve. I am very disappointed in the show. Not surprised, but disappointed.

Paul Ellner, Louisville, CO
October 20, 2013 8:00pm

We pride our self believing we are masters of the universe yet we know nothing. The deeper we dive the deeper the ocean. We are either too small or too big to understand.

Eric J Hope, Norway
January 9, 2014 3:30pm

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