Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mind over matter, or mind over mind?

For the past 28 years, in a basement lab of Princeton University's engineering school, a group of researchers have been investigating the power of mind over matter. Physicist Robert Jahn was until recently director of Princeton's Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR). He and his assistants were determined to demonstrate that thought can alter physical reality.

In a typical experiment, a computer spits out random numbers that average 100. A subject stares at the computer screen and wills the machine to produce numbers that fall below 100.
The numbers average 99.86. Then the subject restarts the experiment and wills the machine to go high. This time the average is 101.14. The idea is to show that these results can be obtained consistently, in trial after trial.

In other experiments, a computer controls a beating drum or spouting fountain. The concentrating subject wills the drum to beat faster or the fountain to spout higher.

Jahn believes he has demonstrated that mind can effect the outcome of about two or three in every 10,000 random events. But now, after more than a quarter century of marginal "success," Jahn is shutting the lab down.

Needless to say, most scientists scoff at Jahn's results, attributing apparent deviations from randomness in the experiments to statistical flukes, experimental error, or bad experimental design. In an interview some years ago, Jahn attributed the negative reaction to his work to "scientific stodginess." In other words, the scientific establishment is stuffed with closed minds.

Maybe yes, maybe no. As in all aspects of science, and especially for extraordinary claims, Jahn's work stands or falls depending on whether his results can be consistently replicated by skeptics in carefully-controlled, independent experiments. So far, this has not happened.

Nearly 400 years ago, Francis Bacon wrote: "What a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes." And this is the danger that lurks in every search for truth. Even the most fair-minded observer can be led into error by unconscious or unexamined prejudices. This is particularly true in experiments like those of Jahn and his colleagues where the size of the effect being observed is close to the level of random variation.

That is why all such work should be considered with a large grain of salt. Science may indeed be "stodgy" and slow to accept revolutionary ideas, but it is that way by design. History has taught us how easy it is to see what we want to see.