Saturday, February 19, 2005

Pseudo-Science Reporting: How to Sell Fakery

This is going to have to be broken into a couple of blog entries, because it's going to be long.

On Red Nova, you can find this story about the "Global Consciousness Project", in which random number generators are believed to be predicting the future:

Today's entry is going to dissect aspects of the story itself; I'll follow it up with another entry drawing the threads together.

I haven't reproduced the story in full, but extracts are followed by my commentary in italics.

DEEP in the basement of a dusty university library in Edinburgh lies a small black box, roughly the size of two cigarette packets side by side, that churns out random numbers in an endless stream.
At first glance it is an unremarkable piece of equipment. Encased in metal, it contains at its heart a microchip no more complex than the ones found in modern pocket calculators.
But, according to a growing band of top scientists, this box has quite extraordinary powers. It is, they claim, the 'eye' of a machine that appears capable of peering into the future and predicting major world events.

Who is the growing band of scientists, other than those directly involved in the project? The author frequently refers to respectable outside opinion, but hasn't found any respectable outsider.

The machine apparently sensed the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre four hours before they happened - but in the fevered mood of conspiracy theories of the time, the claims were swiftly knocked back by sceptics. But last December, it also appeared to forewarn of the Asian tsunami just before the deep sea earthquake that precipitated the epic tragedy.

Note the disconnected connection; that the sceptics knocked back the claim because they were influenced by the mood at the time, rather than any considerations of science. Not only is it near to a conspiracy theory, it's also a reversal of science, in which every experiment should be approached with scepticism.

Now, even the doubters are acknowledging that here is a small box with apparently inexplicable powers.

Are the unnamed doubters the same people as previously debunked the September 11 story? Who are the converts?

'It's Earth-shattering stuff,' says Dr Roger Nelson, emeritus researcher at Princeton University in the United States, who is heading the research project behind the 'black box' phenomenon.

'We're very early on in the process of trying to figure out what's going on here. At the moment we're stabbing in the dark.' Dr Nelson's investigations, called the Global Consciousness Project, were originally hosted by Princeton University and are centred on one of the most extraordinary experiments of all time. Its aim is to detect whether all of humanity shares a single subconscious mind that we can all tap into without realising.
Very early in the process? The GCP has been trying to produce results that other scientists believe for many, many years.

Although many would consider the project's aims to be little more than fools' gold, it has still attracted a roster of 75 respected scientists from 41 different nations. Researchers from Princeton - where Einstein spent much of his career - work alongside scientists from universities in Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. The project is also the most rigorous and longest-running investigation ever into the potential powers of the paranormal.

Note the irrelevant reference to Einstein: there is no relationship between Einstein's cachet and Dr Roger Nelson. Calling the project "rigorous" is meaningless unless we hear what makes it rigorous; the roster of scientists isn't enough. The story then quotes its first outside source, one Dick Bierman in Amsterdam who is cited as a physicist; but the author ignores that Bierman is also a participant in the GCP.

Next, a little of the GCP's basis is explained: a random number generator which is supposed to produce a flat distribution - an equal number of ones and zeroes. The GCP belief is that deviations from that distribution are inexplicable by "ordinary" science, and therefore must be paranormal.

This has many problems as a hypothesis: the journalist goes to no effort at all to find out whether the basic assumption, that the GCP's random number generator is actually random.

During the late 1970s, Prof Jahn decided to investigate whether the power of human thought alone could interfere in some way with the machine's usual readings. He hauled strangers off the street and asked them to concentrate their minds on his number generator. In effect, he was asking them to try to make it flip more heads than tails.

It was a preposterous idea at the time. The results, however, were stunning and have never been satisfactorily explained.

It was not repeated. Even those "in the circle" dismiss it: the experiment was criticised as useless in the Journal of Parasychology as far back as 1992.

But then on September 6, 1997, something quite extraordinary happened: the graph shot upwards, recording a sudden and massive shift in the number sequence as his machines around the world started reporting huge deviations from the norm. The day was of historic importance for another reason, too.

What external evidence have we of correlation? What evidence that the line was usually flat? Did the journalist view the graphs for a large chunk of the relevant year? Did the journalist view anything at all?

For it was the same day that an estimated one billion people around the world watched the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales at Westminster Abbey.

A total of 65 Eggs (as the generators have been named) in 41 countries have now been recruited to act as the 'eyes' of the project.

And the results have been startling and inexplicable in equal measure.

For during the course of the experiment, the Eggs have 'sensed' a whole series of major world events as they were happening, from the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia to the Kursk submarine tragedy to America's hung election of 2000.

All these correlations are applied to the graphs after the event. This is bad science: if you can predict where you're hitting the golf ball, and the prediction works, that's science; if you hit the golf ball and then say "that's where I meant it to go", it's not science.

Also, the journalist has not asked about the periodicity of fluctuations: what is the normal repeat rate of the wave? Where is the proof of correlation between different devices?

This is a particularly important point: if there is some observable "waveform" in the deviation of the random number distribution, it proves only this: the numbers aren't random.

I'll skip the next section, in which the journalist relates claims that the "eggs" predicted September 11; because it adds no new information.

To make matters even more intriguing, Prof Bierman says that other mainstream labs have now produced similar results but are yet to go public.

'They don't want to be ridiculed so they won't release their findings,' he says. 'So I'm trying to persuade all of them to release their results at the same time. That would at least spread the ridicule a little more thinly!' If Prof Bierman is right, though, then the experiments are no laughing matter.

The entry of conspiracy theory always arrives in these kinds of stories: the evidence exists but the mainstream is covering it up.

They might help provide a solid scientific grounding for such strange phenomena as 'deja vu', intuition and a host of other curiosities that we have all experienced from time to time.

They may also open up a far more interesting possibility - that one day we might be able to enhance psychic powers using machines that can 'tune in' to our subconscious mind, machines like the little black box in Edinburgh.

A new premise is introduced as established fact: stating that machines could enhance psychic powers presupposes that such powers really exist. This is a con-artist technique - since the black box exists, things related to the black box exist.

There's nothing in the rest of the text worth discussing. Next, I want to draw out the principles behind this kind of journalism - because it infests much more than pseudo-science writing.

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