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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Mechanism of Mediumship

Over the last few days, Mark and I watched many of the speakers online from the Chopra Foundation's 2012 Symposium "Sages and Scientists: The Merging of a New Future." It was really interesting and sparked a lot of conversations in our living room!

Speakers included Stu Hameroff (who had the cajones to actually use the word "afterlife"), Candace Pert, Laura Liswood, Vandana Shiva (I can't even find the right words of awe to put in these parentheses!), Leonard Mlodinow, Henry Stapp, Elissa Epel (who really got me concerned about my telomeres), Rinaldo Brutoco, and the infamous Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

While I expected only nonsense to come out of Shermer's mouth, he did make some logical points (that really almost anyone could have made): just because there is a word for a concept doesn't mean it exists in true reality (e.g., mind); saying we don't know how something works (e.g., local consciousness) doesn't prove an alternative explanation (e.g., nonlocal consciousness); and---the best and most obvious one---there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural; there are only the normal, the natural, and the things we can't explain yet.

And while he lauded speakers who openly reported not knowing the answers to certain questions, he made blanket statements with no objective support about the impossibility of an afterlife: "Where does Aunt Millie's mind go when her brain dies?  Nowhere!"

Now, I get it that if he changes his story, he will lose his job, his reputation, his income, and the drooling adoration of sheep-like followers everywhere, but it surprises me nonetheless when a grown, educated man gets up in front of a crowd and makes claims that clearly refute each other: (1) there are things we can't explain yet and (2) it is a fact that consciousness is created by the brain and cannot survive death.  He can make claim #2 only by ignoring the numerous phenomena demonstrating that responsible scientists need to at least entertain its opposite (e.g., terminal lucidity, out of body experiences, near-death experiences, mediumship, etc.).  I have other thoughts about his presentation, but I didn't transcribe it and I have a point I'd like to get to...

One of the main criticisms lobbed at mediumship, other psi phenomena, homeopathic remedies and the like (collectively called "X" here) is that because we can't define clear mechanisms for X, any laboratory demonstration of X must be the result of fraud, error, chance, statistical manipulation, etc. 

For example, in a debate about the afterlife between Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra from a few years ago, Shermer stated, "If the data shows that there is such a phenomena as psi that needs explaining (and I am not convinced that it does), then we still need a causal mechanism."

This demand is based in faulty logic.  There are numerous "normal" Xs and we can't really explain how or why they happen but we all agree that they exist and are potentially worthy of study.

Some of these Xs are simple things we all have experience with like yawning, dreaming, and blushing and some are diseases and conditions we have at least heard of like multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, eczema, psoriasis, glaucoma, fibromyalgia, and any disease with "idiopathic" in its title.

Because I was trained as a pharmacologist, the Xs that come to my mind are the many drugs on the market that work through mechanisms we don't fully understand.  These include Botox and Fosamax; aspirin for most of its century of use (though now we know how it works); certain drugs that treat Parkinson's (pramipexole), cancer (procarbazine, targretin), tuberculosis (ethambutol), malaria (halofantrine); and epilepsy (levetiracetam); the antibiotics clofazimine and pentamidine; many psychotropic drugs (e.g., lithium); and the general anesthetics that keep patients unconscious during surgery.

So I guess if skeptics need to have surgery, they forego the general anesthesia since the doctors cannot define the precise mechanisms of action of those compounds and they are forced to conclude that any previous loss of consciousness demonstrated in other patients when exposed to these drugs was surely due to error, fraud, chance, or statistical manipulation.

Ouch!

At the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential, we are primarily concerned with the applications of X ("applied" is right in our name!) regardless of the causal mechanisms.  The drugs listed above all work in treating their target conditions and our initial research shows that mediumship readings from credentialed mediums are helpful in the treatment of grief --- each irrespective of known mechanisms.

I think you can see the fallacy in claiming that the absence of an understood mechanism for X is reason to dismiss the possibility of X or the value in its investigation.

PS - For some other things science can't explain thus providing evidence that thinking we understand everything is pompous and ignorant, see:
http://www.virginmedia.com/digital/features/10-things-science-cant-explain.php
http://www.newscientist.com/special/ten-mysteries-of-you
http://www.cracked.com/article_17679_7-awesome-acts-nature-that-science-cant-explain.html
http://www.null-hypothesis.co.uk/science/strange-but-true/item/top_ten_science_cant_explain
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18524911.600-13-things-that-do-not-make-sense.html
http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/photos/5-natural-events-that-science-cant-explain/a-sense-of-myst


Monday, February 6, 2012

Science and the NFL

Mere hours after the Super Bowl, I already miss football.

In addition to the stress-relieving role that watching NFL games plays in my life, there are a surprising number of lessons and truths that come out of the games that I can apply to our research at the Windbridge Institute. Here are a few...

(1)
It usually takes well over three hours to do what on paper should take one. During planning, always overestimate the time it will take to, say, transcribe a reading or write a paper.

(2)
You can have a bad play but you can't have a bad day. I heard a commentator say that once and it really struck home. This same sentiment is conveyed in the football movie The Replacements (one of my guilty favorites) when Falco, the QB, talks about quicksand. The bottom line is accepting that setbacks will happen but knowing that letting them get to you, multiply, and bring you down is not an option.

(3) No matter how mad you are, unsportsmanlike conduct is never okay. I am dealt a lot of situations that feel like holding, tripping, clipping, and facemask yanks with no officials around to call the penalties and no automatic first downs to be found anywhere. During those times, a well-placed cleat to the throat seems appropriate, but keeping my cool and remembering I can't make advances in our understanding of consciousness ejected and from the locker room.

(4) Receivers shouldn't turn and run until they have secured the catch. Don't start a new line of inquiry or try a new methodology until the current one is complete and written up. This is often difficult to do in a field with limited resources and a perceived need to always be doing the next cool, new thing. Our mantra at the Windbridge Institute is "You can do it fast or you can do it right." This is why I haven't written a book yet. I have several studies currently in progress and only when the results of those in will we have a full picture of mediumship. The ball is at my fingertips but I still need to secure it before I can run it into the endzone.

(5) This one may be the most important one: People (let's face it: mostly if not exclusively men)---who don't really have any idea how the game works and all of the decisions that are carefully made prior to and during each game---will continually post comments online about how a game (or a season) should have been coached. This type of cowardly behavior used to get to me (so much so that my husband Mark kindly decreed that I was no longer allowed to read online comments). Then I realized that NFL coaches get slammed repeatedly (and usually ignorantly) and they don't let it upset them or affect the decisions that they make. They just do their jobs the best way they can and often succeed in spite of crabby, snotty public opinion. Remember mere weeks ago when hordes of people wanted World Champion Giants head coach Tom Coughlin's head on a platter? Good thing hordes don't run the show, eh? After opening participant recruitment for a specific study recently, we got a lot of flak from certain vocal keyboards making grand claims about how we were doing our research wrong WHEN THEY DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT THE STUDY'S HYPOTHESIS OR RESEARCH QUESTIONS WERE.

To those online detractors of the way I perform my research, I say (while trying to remember lesson #3) you are more than welcome to: get a PhD in a scientific field that trains you in methodological design; turn your back on a lucrative career in a mainstream science and attempt to pay your mortgage each month; start an independent research organization with no seed money; develop a screening and testing system that selects a team of the best mediums in the world; design and perform studies for several years that eliminate normal explanations for the results WHILE keeping in mind all that you have learned about how mediumship actually works; and repeatedly publish your results in a peer-reviewed journal. Go ahead. I'd welcome more qualified people doing this and similar research. But only then will what you have to say have any impact whatsoever on how I coach my team. Until then, you are but the buzzing of flies to Vigo.

And go Broncos (uh, next year).

PS - If you'd like to know what I was doing to keep me so busy that I haven't posted anything here in months and months (plus info on what I have planned in 2012), please see the Windbridge Institute New Year Note.