Atheist Religions
In the Green Room

Trust in Science

Ganzfeld 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 science?  

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 University of Wales:

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.


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"science is simply the name we place on the activities and knowledge of scientists"

Ah. Then I don't think we've been playing the same language game, Chris. The names I place on the activities and knowledge of scientists are "grant-getting" and "empire building". The name I place on rigorously tested falsifiable hypotheses that have not yet been falsified is "the state of science as it presently stands". The two are sharply distinct, in my own view; and the state of science changes hourly.

Insofar as I need to, I trust science - but remember I am a skeptic, so I keep in mind that the present set of hypotheses have different levels of reliability: they may be accidentally incorrect or incomplete, will have been incompletely criticised and tested because the way modern scientific research is funded does not lend itself to critical evaluation of the outputs (and does lend itself to systematic fraud among peers working in a field), and will undoubtedly contain hypotheses that will later be falsified. I trust science as far as I need to in order to function - Newtonian mechanics is "good enough" while I'm playing pool, for example.

To sum up: you headline your article "trust in science" and end it with "trust in scientists". In my own world-view, confounding the two is a mistake; but I accept that my world-view is mine alone.

to clarify: I'm not sure we disagree over substance, although we may disagree over some names. Also, as a skeptic, I would remind anyone who states or accepts a statement that "[x] is clearly impossible" of Clarke's First and Second Laws.

Peter: I agree that we don't appear to disagree over substance. I lost 40 minutes of blog time this morning running my wife into work, and didn't have enough time left to convince myself of what I thought science was today. :) In the end, I thought that for the purpose of this post I would assign this term to the activities of scientists. On another day, another answer. :)

I am the author of five books, two novels and three non-fiction. I have written an biography of George Adamski, and my biograph of Charles Fort, "Politics of the Imagination" won the Anomalist Prize for Best Biography in 2001. My latest book, "An American Demonology" has been well received.
I am the author of the site Combat Diaries, a satirical look at a wide range of contemporary interests.
I think this site of yours is absolutely fascinating.
Colin Bennett

I agree with you. This is really evident in the UFO field. Where a scientist will offer an explanation and it is refuted scientifically but disregarded because. UFO can't be solid bodies that land and takeoff therefore, and evidence to the contrary is faked. James Mcdonald over and over again throught published papers refuted Menzel, Klass and others only to be called "beleives in little green men type scientist." It eventually drove in to take his life So much for pure science.
Joe Capp
Brooklyn, NY

Colin: thanks for the kind words, and the sideways plug for your book. And why not, I say. ;D

Joe: sorry to hear about this sad tale. So many of these stories from the corners of science become lost, alas; it's good that people remember and recount them.

Thanks for your comments!

I write a blog about scientific evidence for psi phenomena:

While it's interesting that a majority in the UK want more influence over research, who says they are going to get it? I was drawn into writing some about the irrationality of those in the US who oppose dissociating in vitro human embryos into stem cells, but always in the back of my mind when I did that was the certainty that no matter what happened with this in the US, there is an entire world where somewhere such research will be done. Convincing the public of reality is not critical unless one is a nationalist who wants his or her country to do good research. Even then maybe it's just as well sometimes to let others make the early mistakes. In today's world, promising research will get done, no matter what the public as a whole thinks.

That's one reason why I think the genetics revolution will go much farther than some want it to go. Concerned people can draw up their ideas about how bad it is to manipulate genes or otherwise enhance normal intellectual or physical function. I'm sure they'll be legal bans in some countries, but not all of them. So then when the research has been done elsewhere, and the benefits are a fait accompli, the discussion isn't so much about uncertainty and trust any more.

Take heart transplants. Research in the US was proceeding carefully and responsibly on that. Then a surgeon in South Africa just starts doing them, showing everyone, "Hey, this is easy." Of course results were bad for a while, but research continued, and results got better. That's real science. It's not the steady responsible progress many would want. Tough.

David: while I agree that global science is currently a 'free for all', and that therefore the wishes of individual nations do not really enter into the equation, this does not rule out the possibility of a global makeover to how the scientific endeavour functions.

Your comment presupposes that the output of science is a priori beneficial. But in the general populace, this view is arguably waning - certainly from the mindless optimism of (say) the 1950s.

Take for instance the utter rejection of genetically modified ingredients in food in the UK and elsewhere. It makes little difference that some countries still use GM ingredients, since any country that does not see GM as a benefit will not use it. (And incidentally, the reaction against GM was so insanely irrational we are lucky no-one was killed. But this response was the only option the people felt they had to what they percieved as an unacceptible threat).

All it takes is a shift of perspective at a generational boundry to change the rules of the game significantly. I suggest it would be better for scientists to plan for a responsible future rather than having stiffling restrictions forced upon them by a disgruntled future world.

The metaphysical belief that progress is more important than people could eventually cut off science from its funding. I suggest making a change sooner rather than later.

Thanks for sharing your view!

"see the opening image to appreciate how ridiculous this looks"

Looks like David Jason experiencing explosive decompression on Mars

This sounded about right:

"Acceptance without proof is the
fundamental characteristic of Western
religion, rejection without proof is the
fundamental characteristic of Western
Gary Zukav, "The Dancing Wu Li Masters"

Finally, we need to develop a much keener sense of what a scientist is qualified to talk about and what he is not qualified to talk about. Climatologists, for example, are qualified to talk about the science of climatology . They are not qualified to say, however, that “we must act now” by imposing government “solutions” of some imagined sort. They are not professionally knowledgeable about what degree of risk is better or worse for people to take; only the individuals who bear the risk can make that decision, because it’s a matter of personal preference, not a matter of science.

Steven: I agree with what you say here, but on the other hand I'm not sure that most government officials are particularly good at imposing "government solutions". :) The problem is, nobody is very good at predicting the future except in very vague terms, which makes the State's role in preparing for it very difficult indeed.

Thanks for the comment!

"If the result could have been through a trick, the experiment must be considered unsatisfactory...". Spot on! if it is possible the result is a trick, then the controls need to be tightened.

When the Ganzfeld (and any other psi experiments I am aware of) reached the point of being reproduced (independently or not) and having stricter controls put in place, any apparent effect disappears.

The 'researches' response to this has been to invent the 'decline effect', which states that any psi phenomenon once scrutinised enough will stop working (now THAT is a strange state of affairs).

If any research / testing showed a testable reproducible psi effect science would be all over it, it would be a whole new area of legitimate research to draw grant money from!

The claim that science is an objective process is most certainly NOT falsified by the Ganzfeld experiment.

Paul: this post was written quite a while back. I don't think the case for the Ganzfeld has got stronger since then, but I don't think science's claim to objectivity has either. The psychology of scientific research has only become more interesting with recent findings in respect of cognitive bias.

I should note that although the term "the decline effect" was coined by a psi researcher, this was in 1930 - long before most of the details described here. So it is not an accurate summary of the history to suggest this was invented in response to increasing scrutiny of the Ganzfeld; this scrutiny came after the decline effect was proposed. I'm not sure this has any bearing on the issue, really, and as far as I know contemporary psi researchers defend their claims via meta-analysis, not via appeal to decline effect arguments. I've not stayed abreast of the field, however, as my interests have gone elsewhere.

My position remains unchanged. What is most interesting about the Ganzfeld experiment is what it revealed about the research community, not its purported subject matter. I may slightly overstate matters in saying this experiment falsifies science's claim to objectivity, but it is one of the clearest cases of how cognitive bias distorts the purportedly pure objective nature of the research community.

The way forward on this is unlikely to be defending older notions of objectivity, but rather reconstituting our conceptions of what objective research entails. Donna Harraway, for instance, moved in this direction with her "situated knowledges". Helen Longino has also written constructively on this topic, particularly in "Science as Social Knowledge" (1990).

Thanks for commenting!

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