We live in a time when interest in science
is at its highest, but trust in science is at its lowest. Polls and other
investigations show that the public is aware of the important role that science
has taken upon itself, but that they are concerned about its increasing
commercialisation, the way it is presented in the media, and they would also
like to have more influence on what the scientific endeavour chooses to
research. The question arises: to what extent should we place our trust in
To explore this issue, I intend to take us on a brief diversion into the fringe sciences – those places where there is little agreement among scientists. One of the most vehemently disputed areas is that of psi research – psi being the new name for telepathy, ESP and so forth. Psi is a catch-all phrase intended to describe unexplainable phenomena related to mind. I have no desire to argue the case for or against psi – I merely wish to draw attention to a particularly interesting experiment, known as the Ganzfeld, and its implications for science as a whole.
The Ganzfeld is a rather silly experiment.
I say this not to refute its scientific credentials, as I personally believe
the Ganzfeld is a perfectly legitimate experiment, but rather to draw attention
to the fact that this is an experiment in which the test subject sits in a
chair with half a ping pong ball over each eye, while they are played white
noise and sat in front of a red light source (see the opening image to appreciate how ridiculous this looks). The purpose of all this is to induce
a state of sensory deprivation in the subject.
The experiment then consists of another subject (the sender) viewing a picture or video clip (randomly selected from a large pool), and then attempting to project this message mentally to the receiver in the Ganzfeld (i.e. under the ping pong balls). The receiver describes the visions they experience in their sensory deprived state, which are recorded. This recording is then played back to an independent panel that compare the transcript with the original picture or video clip, and three others chosen at random, ranking each in order of how accurately they deem the transcript describes them.
A hit is scored if the panel assigns the
top rank to the correct source image. Otherwise, a miss is scored. Obviously by
chance one would expect a 25% hit rate. However, the hit rate that is actually
reported is around 35%. Of course, the number varies from study to study, and
some studies report no significant finding. However, this is the gist of the
Ganzfeld experiment, and any further details are left for the interested party
to dig into in their own time.
The interesting thing about this experiment, at least in terms of what we are discussing here, is the response from the scientific community at large. Initially, responses began by pointing to possible experimental flaws that might be the source of the effect. One by one, these experimental errors were addressed by experimenters and the procedure repeated. The reported results have not changed. The number of experimental revisions the Ganzfeld has undergone appears to have exceeded any previous experiment in scientific history, making it the most rigorously refined experiment to date.
Now let us put aside the Ganzfeld
experiment, it’s results, and any criticisms. I do not claim to know how to
interpret the experiment, nor is its interpretation material to the matter at
hand. Let us focus solely on the behaviour of the two sides involved.
One side, the experimenters, keeps repeating its experiments eliminating any and all systematic flaws that are suggested. They keep reporting the same results. The other side, the critics, keeps proceeding from the assumption that the source of the effect is an experimental error. When all possible sources of experimental errors have been eliminated, the critics conclude that the experimenters have behaved fraudulently.
Consider this comment by psychologist Mark
Hansel from the
If the result could have been through a trick, the experiment must be considered unsatisfactory proof of ESP, whether or not it is finally decided that such a trick was, in fact, used… [As a result,] it is wise to adopt initially the assumption that ESP is impossible, since there is a great weight of knowledge supporting this point of view.
This is an odd state of affairs! We appear to have a scientist suggesting that it is better to believe that these results are a consequence of experimenter fraud than to change beliefs in respect of the published results. Neither is Mark Hansel alone in expressing such views. G.R. Price (another psychologist) suggested that since psi was clearly impossible, fraud was the only remaining explanation for psi effects. Donald O. Hebb (another psychologist) was troubled by the fact that the experimenters had presented sufficient evidence to convince the scientific community on any other issue, and admitted that his own rejection of the research was “in a literal sense prejudice.”
The claim that science is an objective process is apparently falsified by the Ganzfeld experiment. From examining the experiments and the scientists that conduct them, I can state confidently that there is no scientific evidence of fraud at this time, and consequently any decision to impugn the results must draw upon either prior metaphysical beliefs, or a subjective decision to distrust the experimenters. Either way, if the meaning of a scientific experiment depends upon subjective elements (such as metaphysics, or a value judgement) then the entire scientific endeavour has lost its claim to objectivity.
Robert Anton Wilson suggested that every
study that had set off with the goal of proving that telepathy existed had
succeeded, and that every study that had set off with the goal of proving that
telepathy did not exist had also succeeded. This was very close to the actual
state of affairs! It just overlooks that there are many more studies of the
former kind than the latter, because those who believe that telepathy does not
exist have little motivation to conduct an experiment about which they believe
the result is already known.
Neither is the Ganzfeld the only example of
a scientific experiment being left open to subjective interpretation, although
I suggest it is as clear an indication of this phenomenon as we could hope to
find. In fact, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions cites many
similar examples from more conventional positions, some of which we examined
earlier. Scientists do not change their views in the light of new evidence as
readily as Popper presumed, and this is only natural because science is not an
objective process at all.
Science is a subjective process with an objective goal. Genuine objectivity is beyond the reach of any individual scientist, or any community of scientists, as we are all human and subject to biases of many different kinds. The scientific endeavour achieves something that approximates to objectivity only over time. Scientific theories receive popular validation when they result in technology, or when sufficient time has passed for the most effective explanations to prove their worth (as we saw previously in the case of continental drift).
Trust in science is a metaphysical belief.
I place a certain amount of trust in science, in so much as I believe that over
time the scientific process approximates to its goals. But excessive trust in
science is probably misplaced, because science is simply the name we place on
the activities and knowledge of scientists. And scientists are people – hence
the interpretation of the results reported by any scientist depends on how much
people trust the scientists concerned.
For science to win back the trust of the general populace may require the adoption of a more modern model for how science functions. Individual scientists must work harder to keep their metaphysics (and hence ideology) out of their scientific writings if they want to win back public trust – that is, scientists must strive to adopt an ideologically neutral stance, or at least to accurately report the sources of their potential bias so that this can be taken into account.
Furthermore they must work on positioning science in its proper social context. Science has no absolute right to pursue its goals – scientists are granted that right by societies that choose to invest in the work of scientists. And to earn that right, scientists must gain and maintain the trust of the general public, something which is better achieved by open discourse than by individual scientists pugnaciously insisting that they are right. This is the challenge that science faces at the start of the 21st century – to convince people that scientists can be trusted. It is a trial that I hope and believe that scientists are ready to take on.