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,
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:
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.
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:
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.
They do not look for alternate causes of their data anomalies. Sunspots?
Cell phone calls?
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.
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".
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
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.
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.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Unconscious Research of Global Consciousness." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
10 Jun 2007. Web.
13 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4049>
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.