Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
TED talks is actually pretty cool. Although I’ve been talking nonstop about the TED censorship for the past couple of weeks, I don’t hold a grudge against that organization. Truth is, they’ve been pretty good to me. They’ve helped me increase my site views by 500% over this past month and pushed my blog into the top 5% of internet blogs in general, by views. What’s not to like? They have picked sides in a growing controversy, which has galvanized the pro-psi camp in ways that have never been seen before. Indeed, a lot is happening that has never been seen before and I’m delighted to be in the middle of it. My battle was never with TED, it’s with the skeptics pulling the strings behind the scenes at TED.
Which brings me to my point. The loud and clear message that has been sent is that there IS a major scientific controversy brewing and institutions, from TED to all of academia and the media need to stop taking sides. They need to step out of the way and let the controversy play itself out or suffer huge PR damage as a consequence. The new thing that is happening is that change isn’t coming from within the hallowed, starched halls of academia and within the confines of scientific conferences, but from the outside. The ideas that skeptics so quickly dismiss are gaining mass acceptance and are starting to redefine the power structure. From what I can see, this is very confusing to everyone on the skeptical side of the debate.
(For those not familiar with the debate, it can be oversimplified thusly: On the one side we have materialists/reductionists/skeptics who see the universe as a lifeless machine that can be understood by figuring out its mechanics. On the other side we have Biocentrists, for lack of a better term, who see consciousness and life as being fundamental to the universe. In other words, they see the universe as a giant thought. You generally won’t hear much about the second theory, but the evidence is much better than most people realize. Mainstream science does not acknowledge this which is pretty much why there’s a big controversy.)
Science, after all, is decided by scientists, right? What gives the ordinary rabble the right to intrude on discussions about the fundamental nature of the universe? This needs to be decided by people with advanced degrees who have studied these matters their whole adult lives. Surely only they have the requisite knowledge to decide? That certainly holds true for most areas of science; the public is more than willing to just accept what they are told. What makes the psi debate so different? What the heck is happening?
In a word, this particular area of science is being crowdsourced. While people obviously aren’t out conducting experiments en mass and publishing them in scientific journals, they are able to substantially verify scientific claims such as “there is no evidence for psychic phenomena.” If this phrase is uttered by a scientist and turns up in a mainstream news article it is a relatively simple matter to browse the comment section to find more substantial sources of information. Often these days, links with real scientific information will be shared by a knowledgeable person effectively demonstrating that the statement was false. This scenario has gotten pretty common.
It’s precisely this kind of thing that has sent TED reeling these past couple of weeks. Just a few short years ago, this problem with Sheldrake and Hancock would have been easily managed. Drop the speakers, ignore the few protest emails and proceed as if nothing had happened. It would have been over before most of the public even knew what was happening. What happened a few weeks ago however, is something that will play out more and more in the future. The two videos were taken down for the usual skeptical reason of being unscientific. People who were well informed about this topic showed up for the debate, but it also started to draw attention largely due to the fact that word spread about what had happened. Someone mentioned it on the parapsychology forum I hang out on and I blogged about it. I sent a link to parapsychologist Dean Radin, he posted a link on his blog, it got picked up by The Daily Grail and took off from there.
Now, all eyes were on TED and they were forced to back down from their original position due not only to the outcry, but also the obviously well informed logic behind it. Anyone who saw that comment thread objectively could see the weakness of skeptical arguments, the irritating nature of paternalistic drive-by comments by TED staff and, well, everything. This is the new reality; everyone gets to share and see what everyone else is sharing.
One outcome of this is that skeptics are being forced into the intellectual debates which expose the weakness of their arguments and more importantly, their arrogant attitudes. One of the hardest things to convey to other people not familiar with the debate is the unreasonableness of skeptics, but in these comment threads it’s there for everyone to see. TED and it’s skeptics have not recognized the impact of this yet and do not understand how much this is changing things. This crowdsourcing is going to increasingly force intellectually honest discussions which will ultimately force change that companies and institutions like TED and its skeptics would rather not deal with. They are operating according to an old paradigm in which they believe that they can make whatever decisions they please, irrespective of pesky comments. That era though, is fast coming to a close. The tail is wagging the dog.
Academia will surely be the last bastion to fall under the new order, but it ultimately answers to the public and if that public is well informed and communicating constantly with each other, as they now do, then fall it will. The basic problem, -that they are ignoring important evidence- is exactly the sort of thing that will put a target on their back. An energized public can award power and prestige to some while taking it away from others. Universities aren’t blind, deaf and dumb. If they start losing money and grants because their skeptics are putting people off, they’ll do something about it. I’m fairly sure that’s what it would take.
I’ve been following the psi wars for a number of years and I can see two things: First of all, this is not a debate over science, despite what skeptics claim. The body of evidence supporting the marriage of consciousness and physics is simply enormous and utterly convincing by any sane scientific standard. (and here) The science, in other words, is settled. The TED controversy deeply underscores this point: TED has never clearly defined their reasons for censorship; they have never taken Rupert Sheldrake up on his offer to debate the TED science board; the reasons for axing TEDxWestHollywood have never been convincingly laid out; Jerry Coyne, in his blog, (which unwittingly helped raise the profile of the censorship issue considerably) has never scientifically spelled out his objections either. They all pretend as if it’s a problem with a solution so obviously in their favor that it doesn’t need discussion. Thus, they never engage the evidence in any meaningful way. The lack of meaningful discussion highlights a very significant point. The controversy isn’t a scientific one; it’s a social one.
Second: The internet has given the opposing side two tools it has never had before; we now have an easy way to find each other and we have a way to spread scientific information that skirts the normal walls that science builds around ideas it doesn’t like. Typically, the mass media goes along with this wall and tends to avoid publishing controversial topics as truths because they are far too technical and it’s easier to trust mainstream scientists than to go out on a limb. But the internet skirts around mass media as well. A community has developed that spreads the information through an informal chain of blogs that together have the reach of lesser forms of mass media. It’s hard to judge exactly, but I would guess, based on the interest that this topic has generated, that news of the axing of TEDxWestHollywood has probably reached 100,000 people with no mass media intervention. (My blog post alone would account for about 12% of that traffic.)
This community contains parapsychology scientists and other people with advanced degrees; as well as a very large number of well read individuals, such as myself, who can see the evidence and decide for themselves. These scientists, by the way, no longer need rely on academic and scientific institutions to forward their ideas and evidence and make rebuttals to obvious smears: They can take to to the streets, so to speak. It has taken several years for this community to form because much of the information has not been on line and people needed to get used to this new format of communicating. People, such as myself, needed time to develop a portfolio of work and build a reputation, which is just now coming to good use. As these blogs have developed, people needed to find them and set the groundwork for this loose connected network of like minded people. There have always been far more of us, than skeptics, so the issue hasn’t been persuading people, but merely getting them together and getting them properly informed.
Now that the network is in place and this group has had time to settle in and grow in numbers, an attitude change has taken place. With the scientific evidence on its side and a firm sense of being right, this group has gone increasingly on the offensive, pushing back at empty skeptical claims and denouncing obvious lies and half truths. The message is fairly simple and straightforward: “Don’t suppress this stuff.” This is where we are now; pushing back. The controversy, which is social, is getting a social solution and it’s starting to have a pronounced effect.
The effect has been to cause the skeptics to polarize the debate and send them into a furious campaign to put the genie back into the bottle. There is no longer any pretense of being nice about it and in the near future it is this frenzied activity by the skeptics that will create the change more than anything we do. The skeptics are to science, what the Tea party is to Republicans. They’re on the same side, but their radicalized attitude, just as with the Tea Party, presents both a solid base of support and sends moderates running in the other direction. You can see what has happened to TED as the skeptics have gained control. Their heavy handed attitude is having an impact on the TED brand (it’s too soon to tell just how much), and they are so consumed with their small battles that they are losing sight of the war they are losing.
The parapsychological sciences that are shunned by mainstream science have always been very popular with the public. This huge gap has always existed and it has led to a sort of running 140 year battle between the mainstream sciences and parapsychology. The skeptics in academia have always succeeded by simply shutting out both the scientists and the public interest, but they can’t do that anymore. Their main tool, control over information, has been taken away from them. As the TED drama has shown, they have no ability to fight on open ground. It is just the beginning of an ideological clash that will spread all over the world and eventually force a change.
The wall that the skeptics have put up is like a shaky dam with a rapidly growing river behind it. They will hold sway for awhile, and it will look as though they are succeeding because so little gets past them, but it is an illusion. The broad network of people supporting an alternative view of the universe, backed by solid evidence, is still growing and getting increasingly aware of its power. Everything will be fine in Camp Skeptic until it isn’t. Once institutions realize that taking sides in the debate is harming them more than helping, then, change will come swiftly and the sciences will be fundamentally altered forever.