PK and ERNIE (Psychokinesis and Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment)


Ever find yourself in a conversation with, say, 10 or so people where somebody brings up astrology? This happened during my recent trip to Poland and I noted how the group reaction is always pretty much the same (so long as you’re among a reasonably average cross-section of people and not, say, hanging out at a Renaissance fair): there are always 1 or 2 kindred spirits who brighten up and immediately join in the astrologizing, and then 2 or 3 people who seem palpably disgusted and even seem to feel sort of personally implicated by the topic, like Oh no: I was enjoying this discussion and now they’re talking about THIS… does that make me an idiot too? The rest become completely neutral and blank and wait for the conversation to fade into another topic (which it must be said takes a long time when astrology is involved, something I guess you have to hold against it slightly).

I count myself in the blank group: on the one hand, I find the personality archetypes astrology describes – be they true or fictional – to be really interesting and persuasive as character descriptions, and have observed enough anecdotal evidence (mainly, an astrology-obsessed friend who can guess random celebrities’ birth months with eerie precision) to believe that there’s something going on. On the other hand, it’s all pretty tiresome, self-absorbed and annoyingly deterministic, such that I get depressed if I try to imagine someone who actually treats it as a predicative science and allows it to influence their feelings about who they’re dating or whatever. In short, I’m maddeningly agnostic, a personality trait that I’m also aware of whenever I talk with somebody who swears they saw a ghost or describes some other kind of supernatural experience first-hand: I often find myself simultaneously believing them and not believing in a way that seems like it should be impossible to experience at the same time.

Where this issue gets really maddening is when you read about the attempts of scientists to either prove or disprove paranormal things one way or the other and find that such paranormal things basically refuse to either (a) quietly go away and be proven non-existent or (b) manifest themselves in a way that’s strong enough to justify adjusting your world view taking them seriously. Consider, for example, one phenomenon that’s been observed over and over: if you take a random binary number generator that spits out 0s and 1s and place a subject in front of it and ask the subject to will it to produce a certain number, over time you will observe a tiny but statistically-significant effect. Think about this: person… concentrating on box… statistically-significant effect, over and over again.

The first tests done along these lines were conducted in the 1930s with dice throws and a subject who tried to will a certain roll to come up. The ‘father of Parapsychology’, J.B. Rhine, conducted an experiment over several years that involved 651,216 rolls and produced an effect that he calculated would have a 1 in 10,115 chance of occurring by coincidence. Still, there were many problems with the methodology, mostly associated with the vagaries of rolling dice– first, special rolling cups and, later, electronic dice-rollers had to be introduced to rule out the possibility of cheating. Later, ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) was brought in to spit out 1s and 0s. While this controls for the problem of cheating, I wonder if it didn’t introduce another possible methodological flaw: APATHY. How do you rest assured that subjects aren’t just zoning out and not trying, given that you’ve given them the task of staring at a box and willing it to produce more 1s than 0s (or vice versa). Another problem that is both more serious and extremely silly is the problem of differentiating between psychokinesis (controlling objects through your mind) versus precognition (predicting the future). If you allow that both skills could exist, then how do you know that the subject isn’t psychically anticipating the number that is going to come up more often rather than willing it to come up? You can get around this by having the experimenter indicate the number that the subject is supposed to will to come up… but then what if the experimenter is exhibiting precognition in his or her choice of number?

I guess I don’t have a concluding point except to say that all of this psychokinesis business seems too silly and obscure to merit serious study, and yet too striking and weirdly probable to ignore altogether. Have a nice day!

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