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7/24/2005

Weird science

Some researchers at Princeton claim to have shown that people can mentally will machines into action. From Wired News:
For 26 years, strange conversations have been taking place in a basement lab at Princeton University.

No one can hear them, but they can see their apparent effect: balls that go in certain directions on command, water fountains that seem to rise higher with a wish and drums that quicken their beat.

Yet no one hears the conversations because they occur between the minds of experimenters and the machines they will to action.

Researchers at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program, or Pear, have been attempting to measure the effect of human consciousness on machines since 1979.

Using random event generators -- computers that spew random output -- they have participants focus their intent on controlling the machines' output. Out of several million trials, they've detected small but "statistically significant" signs that minds may be able to interact with machines. However, researchers are careful not to claim that minds cause an effect or that they know the nature of the communication.

The lab is led by Princeton professor emeritus Robert Jahn, a physicist and former dean of the university's engineering school ... Although the lab is housed at Princeton, the university doesn't support it financially. Instead, the lab has relied on private donors like James S. McDonnell, founder of McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas and now part of Boeing), Laurance Rockefeller and John Fetzer, former owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team and CEO of Fetzer broadcasting.

Jahn said McDonnell was concerned with how critical electronic systems could be vulnerable to the mindset of human operators under stress.

"McDonnell said he couldn't in good conscience put a young man in the cockpit of an F-18 and assume that all of the highly sophisticated equipment was totally invulnerable to the stress that the pilot would be under in combat or other emergencies," Jahn recalled. "He wanted some research to judge how much he needed to harden that equipment to make it invulnerable to that influence."

Government intelligence, defense and space agencies also have shown interest in the lab's research, which Jahn said he has freely shared.

...

Radin said the phenomenon could be similar to quantum entanglement -- what Einstein referred to as "spooky action at a distance" -- in which two particles separated from each other appear to connect without any apparent form of communication.

...

Radin, who is not affiliated with Pear, dismisses critics who say the group isn't practicing solid science.

"This field has received far more scrutiny and criticism than many other ordinary fields," Radin said. "The people who do this kind of research are well aware that their research has to be done better. The Pear lab has taken the best principles of rigorous science and applied it to extremely difficult questions and come up with some pretty interesting answers."

Jahn thinks that critics err in expecting the phenomena to follow the usual rules of cause and effect. Instead, he thinks they belong in the category of what Carl Jung called "acausal phenomena," which include things like synchronicity.

"They play by more complicated, almost whimsical, elusive rules," Jahn said, "but they play."

Jeffers is skeptical.

"They can't have it both ways -- say (they're) reputable scientists and have claims for a particular effect under controlled conditions, and then when the results don't work out say rigorous scientific methods don't apply," Jeffers said.

But Jahn said that just because scientists can't explain the phenomena yet, doesn't mean they aren't real.

"If these things are real," he said, "I think our society has a right to demand of science that it pay attention to them and come up with some mechanics to deal with them constructively."
I confess I am a bit worried that "government intelligence" is looking into this. Hey - maybe the Plame leak was like a mental telepathy-thing.

Ever notice that when someone wants to give something kooky some credibility, they always make reference to quantum mechanics? Quantum mechanics is weird, but it's real science - and our stuff is weird, so it must be real science too!

An attempt at a debunking can be found here.

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