on 24 July 2007
Damien Broderick: Outside the Gates of Science
This is THE book for those seriously interested in the current status and future of the scientific study of what has variously been known as "psi", "parapsychology", "esp", "psychokinesis" etc. and more recently by the blander, more "neutral" terms "anomalous cognition (AC)" or "anomalous perturbation" (AP).
Broderick's basic proposition is that psi (to stick with the more familiar term) has as much or more experimental support as many other areas within the mainstream of science, and that phenomena of such challenging potential should be subjected to the full rigours of scientific examination, not relegated "outside the gates of science" because of past prejudices, poor theory, and association with shonky practices.
This is not, as Broderick points out, a textbook of psi. It is written by an author who has spent decades exploring the subject and getting to know the people and projects on the inside. Broderick takes a basically skeptical stance, but that of an intelligent and informed skeptic. His position is essentially a materialistic one, in the sense of dismissing simple-minded dualistic or "spiritual" views, but even these are presented fairly and the arguments against them clearly spelled out.
He passes lightly and quickly over the early history of the study of parapsychology (there are several good sources of this material), and spends a good part of the book in a detailed look at more recent and scientifically rigorous research, such as the "Star Gate" remote viewing program run by the CIA (if you think that that alone removes this research from contention, be prepared to be surprised or amazed!), the PEAR program carried out by Princeton University, May's Decision Augmentation Theory, and others.
If your acquaintance with the field is limited to popular works on "psychic powers" you might want to consider a crash course in the basics of scientific method and current research and thinking in neurophysiology, human genetics and physics (especially quantum theory) before embarking on this review. This is not an easy read, but written by a skilled writer who has done the hard work of coming to grips with what current science actually has to say about such topics as quantum entanglement, the role of consciousness in the collapse of the wave function, problems of backward causality, and other difficult to grasp topics, rather than taking the easy road of the handwavers and "quantobabblers" whose logic seems to be that "psi is mysterious; quantum mechanics is mysterious; therefore psi must be connected with quantum mechanics".
Broderick's style is what you would expect of one of today's best science fiction writers - erudite, captivating and witty (two chapter headings, for example- "the half-truths are out there" and "quantum leaps and pratfalls").
The most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, is the section on theories of psi. Broderick comprehensively and critically examines currently extant theories and finds most of them wanting. He is especially good in his critique of theories linking quantum phenomena and psi (real quantum phenomena, that is, not the "quantobabble" of some popularisers).
Broderick's conclusion? Basically, that psi has been repeatedly shown to exist under carefully controlled conditions, and the continual repetition of such studies to try to replicate this basic finding is pretty pointless. If psi exists, as seems virtually undeniable, it must serve an evolutionary function and can be properly ubderstood only within the framework of science and not as something spooky or supernatural. He echoes the words of Richard S. Broughton,: "If you want to know how it works, first find out what it's for." We need a comprehensive research program WITHIN the gates of science, driven by sound and rigorously tested theory, to increase our understanding of the nature of the beast, to develop methods of pinning down the phenomena and finding ways to amplify or make them more useful.
If you have a serious interest in understanding these strange phenomena, whether as a "believer" or a skeptic, this is one book you MUST read.