Unconscious Research of Global Consciousness
In this episode we're going to take a look at a project that has captured imaginations for more than 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 website, 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.
As of 2007, 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 important world 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 website 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:
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:
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:
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 replicated 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:
This is a classic straw man argument against the scientific method. 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.
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