Scientific dogmatism and chance

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Professor Robert Jahn. Source: Princeton University.

Today I was watching an episode of a 1994 series of BBC documentaries called "Heretics of Science," specifically episode 5, about Prof. Robert Jahn, former Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science of Princeton University. Prof. Jahn is the founder of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory, original home of the Global Consciousness Project. The documentary is quite balanced. It gives a fair assessment of Prof. Jahn’s work and his conclusions in favour of the mind-over-matter hypothesis; and then paints a dramatic picture of the nearly religious dogmatism of the scientific orthodoxy when confronted with such paradigm-breaking evidence. I wanted to share some thoughts with you on this, as well as on the relationship between scientific dogmatism and the tricky interpretation of statistical data.

In the documentary, Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg makes an astonishingly dogmatic pronouncement about Prof. Jahn’s work. He does not at all criticize the merits of the data or the analysis in question; he simply states that, were Prof. Jahn to be correct, it would invalidate four centuries of labour on refining our current scientific worldview. The unspoken suggestion here is that, for that reason, Prof. Jahn must be wrong. This is irrational and exudes fear. Science is supposed to be unbiased when confronted with data. Prof. Weinberg should either articulate why the data are invalid or offer a different explanation for them. To state that Prof. Jahn cannot be right simply because his conclusions violate our current worldview is as close to religious dogmatism as it gets.

To be sure, evidence in favour of mind-over-matter effects does not invalidate the scientific edifice built over the last four centuries; it only invalidates certain subjective extrapolations and interpretations of it. For instance, none of our technology would stop working tomorrow if a small mind-over-matter effect were confirmed; after all, presumably the effect has been going on all along, co-existing just fine with technology. Therefore, neither would the scientific underpinnings of this technology suddenly become invalid. But certain scientific prejudices – like the primacy of matter and the epiphenomenal character of consciousness – would have to be revised. Revolutionary indeed, but in no way a requirement for throwing out four centuries of science, as Weinberg suggested in his assessment.

From a psychological viewpoint, Weinberg’s reaction seems to reflect an unconscious but profound phobia of uncertainty. Yet, in all honesty, he is not alone in that: we all fear, at least to some degree, the idea of living in a world without the reassurance of certainties. Four centuries of scientific progress give scientists a strong (even if illusory) sense that they have largely figured nature out, which carries with it a measure of comfort – that warm fuzzy feeling that accompanies the illusion of knowledge. The mere possibility that some of that may have to be revised is terrifying. Indeed, I believe this to be one of the fundamental psychological motivators behind dogmatism in general, both scientific and religious. We tend to cling to our illusory certainties and hold on to them for dear life. Any attempt to take them away from us can be met with the kind of unreasonable, dogmatic, and somewhat desperate reactions we see in the BBC documentary.

We would like to think that the scientific method is immune to this kind of subjective values and behaviours; that the neutrality of data provides us with fail-proof criteria for judging the truth, independent of psychological biases. Yet we know since Thomas Kuhn that, in fact, such idealized picture of how science works is not at all true. In this specific case, the trickiness of interpreting statistical data offers a case in point. You see, all modern science is based on statistics. It’s not enough to observe an effect only once; after all, all kinds of unforeseen, random circumstances could have produced the effect by mere chance. So to tie the effect with a specific cause (or exclude a certain cause), one needs to observe the effect a sufficient number of times, under sufficiently controlled conditions. This is where statistics come in.

The experiments carried out at the Princeton lab are about whether mind can influence the otherwise purely random data produced by data generators – electronic coin flippers – thereby inducing a pattern in the data. Now here is the problem: Random data is defined as data where one cannot find any discernible pattern. Yet, theoretically, there is a chance to find any pattern in truly random data. This contradiction makes the interpretation of statistical results vulnerable to subjective biases and prejudices. Indeed, it impacts nearly all of modern science.

Here is what I mean: If one’s statistical conclusions are in accordance with the reigning scientific paradigm, it is enough to demonstrate that the odds of a certain effect occurring against mere chance are sufficiently small. In particle physics, for instance, odds of a million to one have been sufficient to prove the existence of certain (invisible) sub-atomic particles and secure Nobel prizes. However, if the conclusions contradict the reigning paradigm, critics can always dismiss the evidence on the basis that, theoretically, any pattern can be found in random data. This, obviously, is a double standard that injects bias and prejudices in what should be objective science. For instance, the latest results from the Princeton lab, produced out of the Global Consciousness Project, are claimed to have odds against chance of a thousand million to one. If this claim holds water, then, according to any unbiased scientific standard, this should be enough to prove the effect claimed. Yet, critics still dismiss the results on the basis that any pattern can be found in random data (see segment starting at 2:28 minutes of the video below).

As a human activity, science is as vulnerable to psychological prejudices as any other human endeavour. The tricky and even contradictory definition of randomness, as discussed above, opens a fairly large door for the creeping up of subjective biases into the core of scientific judgement, particularly when it comes to statistical evidence. This renders science conducive to dogmatism and, as such, not as radically distinct from religion as one would hope to assume. Yet, if blame is to be cast for this sorry state of affairs, the blame lies with human nature itself. Though scientists may fancy their art as something above human short-comings, they themselves are still just humans.

It is up to the rest of us to remain cognizant of all this and maintain critical judgement of what we hear from the bastions of science.


  1. ...absolutely brilliant!

  2. Hi Bernardo -- just listened to your skeptiko interview and have you read George P. Hansen's book The Trickster and the Paranormal? -- he has a website, etc.

    I have a book you might want to consider also -- you can download here --

    All the best,