Missing Both the Forest and the Trees

April 12, 2016
Dean Radin, IONS Chief Scientist

If there’s one thing we can learn from Presidential election cycles, especially the strange one in 2016, it’s that people believe what they want to believe. It doesn’t matter if the beliefs are objectively true or false, as fact-checking websites demonstrate. Prejudices shape our reality and determine what we pay attention to and what we ignore. Because biases are inescapable, I constantly strive to be mindful and adjust my evaluation of evidence accordingly. That sort of self-reflection is not evident in a review of my 2013 book, Supernormal, published in 2014 in the magazine, Skeptical Inquirer.

The author of the review, Dale DeBakcsy, accuses me of misrepresenting the outcomes of meta-analyses, of presenting “showy results over responsible ones,” and of presenting examples of experiments that he does not find persuasive. After considering his comments, I couldn’t shake the impression that he flipped through the book looking for miracles, then went away disappointed because he didn’t find any that he could readily understand.

Most of DeBakcsy’s complaints revolve around his concern that I didn’t present every bit of available evidence in gory detail. It’s true that I did not delve into all possible details, but for two good reasons. First, I could not possibly do justice to all of the nuances discussed in the hundreds of articles and books that I drew upon. And, second, I was obliged to simplify matters because I wrote Supernormal for the general public. Still, knowing that some readers may have wanted to see the details, I included 384 references to the original source material. To his credit, DeBakcsy says he read one of those articles. That’s a good start. Now what about the other 383 articles and books?

Given DeBakcsy’s critique asserting misrepresentations on my part, ironically he begins his review by hoisting his own petard. He writes,
“… the first third of the book is primarily a drawn out lament about parapsychology’s lack of recognition by the academic community and its rejection by skeptics. We are offered a hundred pages of Radin saying that skeptics are wrong rather than showing that they are …. Had he retitled the book Dozens of Pages of Bitching about Michael Shermer, and Then Some Evidence about Yoga he could have saved us all a great deal of time.”

The fact is that Supernormal is 369 pages in length. Of those the last 46 pages consist of notes, references, and an index. I mention Shermer (publisher of Skeptic magazine) on a mere 6 pages, and I devote a portion of one of 16 chapters to distortions promulgated by skeptics. DeBakcsy’s eager inflation of perhaps 20 pages into “a third of the book” is a good example why it is necessary to closely examine what skeptics proclaim. Consider what I actually wrote in Supernormal:

“I agree that beliefs distort what we can perceive, beliefs are inevitable, and that science is the best method devised so far to slice through the distortions generated by our beliefs. But given [the two skeptics I take to task and their] mistakes, we are obliged to reconsider the plight of the poor professional skeptic. They understand, intellectually at least, that beliefs bias perception. But they are incapable of transcending their own beliefs when confronted by discomforting data.

What happens when I turn the glare of this analysis onto my own position? The power of belief is such that I too am undoubtedly blind to some things that I prefer not to see. But there’s a difference between where I stand and the hard-bitten skeptic. I claim that the cumulative experimental evidence is strong enough to make a case that genuine connections do exist between people, and between people and objects at a distance.

If my belief based on evidence is true, even to a slight degree, then the skeptical house of cards falls apart. Their position, after all, is that absolutely nothing interesting is going on, despite admissions [by some lifelong skeptics] that the cumulative evidence actually is persuasive. Given this asymmetry, the professional skeptic must deny or ignore all positive evidence because otherwise the “sunk cost” of an entire career is at stake. That’s a heavy burden to bear when the evidence just keeps on getting stronger.”

After his opening salvo, DeBakcsy protests that yogic lore prohibits skilled practitioners from demonstrating their superpowers. Remarkably, he calls these yogis “selfish jerks”. As a scientist interested in the siddhis (yogic powers), I’m not all that fond of the prohibition either because it makes my job more difficult. But I do understand the reason for it. Yoga is about personal enlightenment; it’s not about impressing skeptics with miracles on-demand, or about saving the world. Yogis learned long ago that with great power comes great responsibility, and we all know what happens when one ignores that responsibility (hint: Darth Vader). It is probably fair to say that many Westerners attracted to superpowers are mainly interested in gaining power, money, and fame. And those egotistical desires, the very same vices that cause one to call yogis selfish jerks, are antithetical to yoga. Thus, the prohibition.

DeBakcsy then takes me to task for not mentioning all of the results of a meta-analysis of forced-choice precognition tests. It is true that I don’t repeat everything described in every original journal article I refer to, but only for the pragmatic reality that books are finite in length. Also, I used that particular article as a way to ease into a discussion on what a meta-analysis is, why we are interested in measures called “effect sizes,” the origin and influence of the “filedrawer problem,” the effect of variations in experimental quality, and so on. I could have written an entire book on just those topics, but if I had attempted to comprehensively cover everything my book would have become the world’s most effective cure for insomnia.

The next of DeBakcsy’s complaints is that he is not impressed by an example of a remote viewing trial performed by the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Lab. He writes, “This is not an average example chosen at random from the study—this is the single best piece of data that Radin could find from a study extending over two decades, and it is a mess.”  Not so.  Nowhere did I say this was the best of the best. I described a typical remote viewing trial to illustrate the kind of data produced in that type of experiment. If I had wanted to present a series of eye-popping examples, I could have done so. But then I’m sure I’d be accused of stacking the deck. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

What did the remote viewer actually report in the example I selected? Keep in mind that the target person, called the “agent” in this type of remote viewing experiment, could have been located literally anywhere a person can go on Earth. The remote viewer said:
“Rather strange yet persistent image of [agent] inside a large bowl – a hemispheric indentation in the ground of some smooth man-made materials like concrete or cement.  No color.  Possibly covered with a glass dome.  Unusual sense of inside/outside simultaneity.  That’s all.  It’s a large bowl.  If it was full of soup [the agent] would be the size of a large dumpling!”

And here is a portion of DeBakcsy’s reaction:
“Radin reports the actual location of the agent as ‘the radio telescope at Kitt Peak.’ The problem being that there is more than one radio telescope at Kitt Peak, and they look rather different. The most significant is the VLBA radio telescope run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and is in no regard similar to anything that the subject mentioned. If you decide to keep digging until you get the result you want, you stumble upon the much smaller KP12m radio telescope run by the Arizona Radio Observatory, which is as close as Radin is going to get… The subject’s response, then, is a mixture of plainly wrong positive statements, an absence of the most significant feature of the observatory (namely, its telescope), and a somewhat correct statement about the rough shape of the building (it isn’t technically a hemisphere, but we can let that go).”

Here DeBakcsy completely misses the forest for the trees. Anyone who knows even a modicum about remote viewing understands that it is not like looking at a photograph. What is perceived is impressionist, a flash of insight involving symbols, shapes, forms and colors. Truly talented experts can occasionally perceive bits of veridical imagery, but even for them it is rare. DeBakcsy’s response also indicates that he does not understand how this kind of imagery is evaluated, or why repeated trials showing this level of correspondence to the actual target site, as compared to correspondences to very different decoy sites, would over the long run provide astoundingly strong evidence for remote viewing. As indeed they do.

I could go on, but the pattern of complaints in DeBakcsy’s review is clear. He is looking for consistent, in-your-face, stunning evidence that does not require any interpretation. I’m sure we would all like to see miracles produced on demand. But the evidence that is realistically available through carefully controlled experiments requires some thought and statistical sophistication to appreciate. For those who may be interested in the source material, many original journal articles can be found at my website or on the IONS website.

DeBakcsy ends his review with “Radin’s intention with this book is to convince us average folks of the existence of supernormal abilities.” Well, no. I learned long ago that it is a waste of time to try to persuade anyone of anything.  Inform, yes.  Convince, no. As I wrote in the Introduction:

Our goal is to discuss these topics without acquiescing to the social pressure in science that encourages a careless dismissal, but also to avoid collapsing into an uncritical, starry-eyed acceptance of any miracle. The approach we’ll take is to examine one of the better known transformative paths – yoga – to see if any of the guideposts to enlightenment in that tradition have been scientifically confirmed. If it turns out that there are rational reasons to accept any of the claims of supernormal abilities, even one, even a tiny smidgen [emphasis added], then perhaps the mystics were not just spinning tall tales and we would be justified in reconsidering ancient wisdom on these matters.

Then I added, with hardcore skeptics in mind,

This topic is not for everyone. Some people have neither the disposition nor the patience to seriously consider phenomena that are not overwhelmingly self-evident. As Woody Allen once quipped, “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”

In sum, by peevishly focusing on a few details DeBakcsy failed to appreciate the trees (the scientific evidence), and then by deciding that yogis are selfish jerks he overlooked the forest (the overarching question about yogic superpowers). So, are there any valid reasons to take the yogic lore about superpowers seriously? After reviewing the evidence I concluded that the answer for some of the lore is yes. Others are free to make up their own minds. In the process of evaluating the arguments, however, I recommend that one pay careful attention to both the forest and the trees.

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