Category Archives: Michael Shermer

Sheldrake VS Shermer – Live debate on science from How The Light Gets In 2023

Rupert Sheldrake and professional skeptic Michael Shermer engage in a spirited debate over the scope and limitations of scientific inquiry. While Shermer champions the scientific method as our best path to truth, Sheldrake argues for broadening the field to include phenomena often sidelined by mainstream science. Though both prioritize evidence, they diverge on what qualifies as strong enough to shake existing paradigms.

Michael Shermer’s Attacks, Updated

 

Michael Shermer’s Attacks, Updated

 

by Rupert Sheldrake

 


From:   Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.


 
Michael Shermer is a professional skeptic rather than a scientist, although he often claims to speak for science. He is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Director of the Skeptic Society, the host of the Skeptics’ Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology, and the author of a regular column in Scientific American called “Skeptic”.

Shermer started out as a Christian fundamentalist as well as being an enthusiast for pyramid power and other New Age fads.

In his own words, “My academic background is embarrassing compared to that of most successful intellectuals… I scraped together a master’s degree… and finally gave up hope for an intellectual life and raced bikes for a decade. By the time I earned a Ph.D. [in history of science] … I discovered there were next to no jobs, especially for someone with an intellectual pedigree such as mine. Since teaching as an adjunct professor is no way to make a living (literally), I founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine.”


One of Shermer’s favourite sayings is that “Skepticism is a method, not a position.” However, I soon discovered that he does not practice what he preaches. In 2003, USA Today published an article about my book The Sense of Being Stared At, describing my research on telepathy and the sense of being stared at. Shermer was asked for his comments and was quoted as saying. “{Sheldrake] has never met a goofy idea he didn’t like. The events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means”.



I emailed Shermer to ask him what his normal explanations were. But he was unable to substantiate his claim, and admitted he had not even seen my book. I challenged him to an online debate. He accepted the challenge, but said he was too busy to look at the experimental evidence and said he would “get to it soon”. Several months later he confessed, “I have not gotten to your book yet”. Despite repeated reminders, he has still failed to do so.

It only takes a few minutes to make an evidence-free claim to a journalist. Dogmatism is easy. It is harder work to consider the evidence, and Shermer is too busy to look at facts that go against his beliefs.

In November 2005, Shermer attacked me in his Scientific American “Skeptic” column in a piece called “Rupert’s Resonance.” He ridiculed the idea of morphic resonance by claiming that I proposed a “universal life force”, a phrase I have never used. He also referred to fallacious, partisan claims by other skeptics about my experimental work, which had already been refuted in peer-reviewed journals, and even in the Skeptical Inquirer itself.

I wrote a brief letter to Scientific American to set the record straight, but it was not published, nor even acknowledged, and Shermer himself ignored it. Other scientists whom Shermer has misrepresented have had the same experience. The disciplines of science do not apply to media skeptics.

The readers of Scientific American would be better served by a fair and truthful presentation of the facts than by Michael Shermer’s misleading skepticism.

Meanwhile, Shermer continues to flatter himself with fine sounding words. In 2010, he contrasted his kind of skepticism with denialism, as in climate change denial or holocaust denial or evolution denial:

“When I call myself a skeptic, I mean I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims… A climate denier has a position staked out in advance, and sorts through the data employing ‘confirmation bias’ – the tendency to look for and find confirmatory evidence for pre-existing beliefs and ignore or dismiss the rest… Thus one practical way to distinguish between a skeptic and a denier is the extent to which they are willing to update their positions in response to new information. Skeptics change their minds. Deniers just keep on denying.”

By Shermer’s own criteria, he is a perfect example of a denier.

 
Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer’s Quantum Quackery

 

Michael Shermer’s Quantum Quackery

 

Quantum Consciousness: What Do We Know?

by Stuart Hameroff

 


Stuart Hameroff, M.D. is a Professor
in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology
and the Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies
at the University of Arizona


 
I read with interest Michael Shermer’s skeptical criticism of the surprise hit film What the #$*! Do We Know? (“Whatthebleep?” to its fans) in which I appear.1 The film attempts to link consciousness with the weirdness of quantum mechanics. As the best candidate for such a connection, Shermer cites (then attempts to refute) a theory put forth a decade ago by British physicist Sir Roger Penrose and me. 2

We attribute consciousness to quantum computation in structural proteins within the brain’s neurons called microtubules. Though Shermer correctly describes microtubules — part of the cell’s cytoskeleton — as scaffolding, they also actively organize intra-cellular movement, transport and neuronal synaptic plasticity (the apparent cornerstone of learning and memory). How are such activities organized?

Pondering the amazing feats of unicellular protozoa which swim, avoid predators, learn, find food and mates and have sex — all without benefit of a single synapse — the famed neuroscientist Charles Sherrington surmised a half century ago “of nerve there is no trace, but the cytoskeleton might serve”. Indeed, cytoskeletal microtubules’ periodic lattice structure (resembling switching circuits in computers) seems ideally suited to molecular-scale computation.

The states of microtubule protein subunits (bits in a microtubule computer) are regulated by quantum mechanical (van der Waals London) forces in intra-protein non-polar pockets, suggesting that microtubule subunits could act not only like classical bits, but also like quantum bits (qubits) in quantum computers.

To debunk our theory Shermer cites an assertion in a book by Victor Stenger that the product of mass, velocity and distance of a quantum system cannot exceed Planck’s constant. I’ve not seen this proposal in a peer reviewed journal, nor listed anywhere as a serious interpretation of quantum mechanics. But in any case Stenger’s assertion is disproved by Anton Zeilinger’s experimental demonstration of quantum wave behavior in fullerenes and biological porphyrin proteins. (Skepticism should cut both ways, Mr. Shermer.) Nonetheless I agree with Stenger that synaptic chemical transmission between neurons is completely classical. The quantum computations we propose are isolated in microtubules within neurons. Classical neurotransmission provides inputs to, and outputs from, microtubule quantum computations mediating consciousness in neuronal dendrites.

But the brain seems far too warm for significant quantum states, apparently running into the problem of decoherence. (Shermer conflates the strong Copenhagen interpretation of the measurement problem—that conscious observation causes wave function collapse, with decoherence—in which any exchange of energy or information with the environment erodes a quantum system.) But recent evidence shows that quantum processes in biological molecules are actually enhanced at higher temperatures. Moreover biological mechanisms within neurons (actin gelation, laser-like metabolic pumping, plasma layer shielding and topological quantum error correction in/around microtubules) may preserve quantum states in microtubules for hundreds of milliseconds or longer at brain temperature.

Is there any evidence for the relevance of quantum states/processes to consciousness? Well, general anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness while nonconscious brain activities continue (e.g. evoked potentials, control of autonomic function, EEG). The anesthetic gases act in the same intra-protein non-polar pockets in which quantum London forces control protein conformation. This occurs in a class of receptors, channels and other brain proteins including cytoskeletal structures. And the anesthetics do so by forming only quantum mechanical interactions, presumably interfering only with physiological quantum effects. It is logical to conclude that consciousness occurs in quantum pockets within proteins throughout the brain.

Shermer also conflates the Copenhagen interpretation with the dualist quantum mind proposal of Sir John Eccles. Suffice to say that in the Penrose-Hameroff model, consciousness does not cause collapse of the quantum wave function (a la Copenhagen). Rather, consciousness is collapse. More precisely, consciousness is a particular type of self-collapse proposed by Penrose involving quantum gravity (currently being tested). Pre-conscious (unconscious/subconscious) information exists as quantum superpositions—multiple coexisting possible actions or experiences—which, upon reaching a specified threshold at the moment of consciousness/self-collapse, choose a particular action or experience. Such conscious moments are calculated to occur roughly 40 times per second.

Shermer closes by advising researchers to look for emergence of consciousness at the neural level and higher. This has been precisely the tack taken by armies of scientists and philosophers for decades, and the result is nil. Consciousness is ever more elusive. The prevalent paradigm—that axonal action potentials and chemical synaptic transmissions are fundamental units of computation from which consciousness emerges at a higher-order network level—force-fits consciousness into an illusory, out-of-the-loop epiphenomenon. While this might be true, the prevalent paradigm is also incompatible with the best electrophysiological correlate of consciousness—synchronized gamma EEG (“coherent 40 Hz” oscillations). The latter, it turns out, is mediated by coherent activities of neuronal dendrites linked by electrotonic gap junctions, windows which link adjacent neurons (and glia) into large-scale syncytia, or “hyper-neurons”.

In 1998 I published a list of twenty testable predictions of our model (which, unlike prevalent emergence theories, is falsifiable). Several predictions have proven true (e.g. signaling and action of psychoactive drugs in microtubules). To explain the extension of quantum states among many neurons throughout the brain, I also predicted that neurons connected by gap junctions mediate consciousness, subsequently validated by gamma EEG studies. That doesn’t prove that quantum states extend among neurons (e.g. by tunneling through gap junctions), but it casts serious doubt on conventional approaches (which have yet to generate a testable prediction). Skeptics like Shermer should apply their craft to conventional dogma as well as to upstart hypotheses.

Regarding the film, I stand by my statements (Shermer didn’t criticize anything I said). But Whatthebleep? is entertainment. Lighten up! The early animations of Jules Verne’s moon landings were crude by later standards, but planted the seed of a wonderful idea in popular culture.

 
References:

1. Shermer M (2005) Quantum Quackery, Scientific American 292(1):34.

2. Penrose Sir R Shadows of the Mind Oxford University Press, 1994.

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer in “The Skeptic’s Cage” on Coast to Coast AM

 

Michael Shermer in “The Skeptic’s Cage”
on Coast to Coast AM

 

A Review of the Debate

by Matthew Cromer

 


On January 23, 2006 the “Coast to Coast AM by George Noory”
radio program hosted held its first “Skeptic’s Cage”
debate between skeptic Dr. Michael Shermer and
three scientists engaged in psi research.


 
The debate began in hour two of Coast to Coast AM.

The first researcher introduced was Dr. Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona. Schwartz received an impressive introduction which mentioned his 400 published research papers and 11 books edited. Schwartz began his long career with conventional research into psychiatry and psychology, but almost ten years ago began to conduct research into professional mediumship and whether mediums are able to contact the dead. Here’s Schwartz introducing this research:

I began this work, certainly as a questioner … I had been raised to believe “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – case closed. As a scientist my job is to explore phenomena and design experiments as carefully as possible and then let the data speak. Over the past now almost ten years, the research has just continued to reveal positive findings under ever more stringent conditions that could not be explained by the conventional ways of approaching this including what is called cold reading or warm reading or hot reading or rater bias or experimenter error or any of the things that any good scientist would want to remove.

Shermer replied that the evidence for mediumship is:

“…pretty slim and fraught with experimental design problems. . . the lack of any kind of viable theory that would explain how our neural memories are downloaded into some other platform that lasts longer than the protein meat that we’re are made out of, our DNA patterns, our memories, how do they get passed on, there is no good theory for how it would work even if the data were there to support it which in my opinion it isn’t.”

Schwartz retorted that Shermer hadn’t even read the research he was criticizing:

“First of all it would be nice if Michael was actually up to date with regard to the research. . . In this kind of research we handle that concern of yours very explicitly, meaning who does the rating. The way this is done which is absolutely definitive is that the sitter. . is not present at the time the reading is done. At a later point in time the sitter is given two readings, one is their reading and the other is a control reading, meaning it is a reading of somebody else. And they have to rate each item and they’re doing it blindly, because they don’t know which is theirs and which is the control [reading]. And under those circumstances whatever bias a given rater might have they’re going to apply it equally to their reading and the control reading. And if under those circumstances the degree of accuracy is scored significantly higher when it’s for their reading than when it’s the control reading. . . it eliminates all of the concerns of the subjectivity which has been of course a legitimate question to ask. And this kind of research – by the way- has not only been done in our laboratory, it’s also been done independently in Scotland with very similar results. So when you look at the actual experiments that have been done, it addresses Michael’s concern and quite effectively.”

Then Noory asked Schwartz how he could ever convince Michael Shermer of the validity of his research. Schwartz responds vigorously:

“Well in order to convince someone like Michael he’d have to first of all actually read the experiments, and when he would make a comment like he just did, he would base it actually on knowledge as opposed to merely opinion. . . If he was basing it on actually knowing the experiments and experimental designs, he wouldn’t make the statements that he makes.”

Shermer was forced to admit he was not up to date with Schwartz’s latest research, then stated that he would like to come to Schwartz’s lab and watch the experiments being done so he can make sure this is not a repeat of the recent cloning fraud. Schwartz responds with an invitation to come observe and look at the raw data.

Next Shermer brought his trump card to the table:

“What I’d really like to see from your superstar psychics is . . . tell us where Jimmy Hoffa’s body is buried … [and] where is Osama [bin Laden]?”

Interestingly enough, we did get to hear both Schwartz and Shermer agree wholeheartedly about something. George Noory played an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) and asked Schwartz and Shermer what they thought of it. In this case, both Shermer and Schwartz agreed: they did not know anything about the conditions the tape was recorded, people tend to hear patterns in random noise, and so it doesn’t prove anything.

The third hour of the program brought Dr. Russell Targ to the debate.

Dr. Targ was introduced as a pioneer in laser research and later ESP research and remote viewing with the government at SRI (Stanford Research Institute).

Russell began by talking about those discontinued government programs right out of the gate:

“I’ve done laser work all my life as well. . . It’s very hard to get three years continuous funding to do anything. If you had three years funding to put lasers on airplanes [to detect windshear], you’ve done something really fantastic. The fact that we had more than 20 years continuous support from the government is actually a paranormal event by itself.”

Targ then began to describe some of the more notable successes during his government psi work:

“One of the most remarkable ones that I’ve seen. . . One of our great psychics was a retired police commissioner named Pat Price. . . This was the time when the heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from the city of Berkeley [by the Symbionese Liberation Army]. A day after the kidnapping the police in Berkeley had no idea what to do, they were still looking for Symbia on the map. . . They had heard about our work and came to the director of Stanford Research Institute and said “do you think these psychic guys working for the CIA can help us”?. . .

Price said, “I want to see a mug book, I want to see the usual subjects”. . . Price was turning the pages, and he went through about a dozen pages, fifty different groups of four pictures, then he put his finger on one of these pictures and said “that’s the man.” … We read the name under it, and it was Donald DeFreeze, known as Cinque. That was the first anyone had ever heard of him, and Price had pulled the name right out of the air in front of us …”

Targ then recalled how Pat Price had then described the exact location of the getaway car, which the Berkeley police then found with spent cartridges matching bullets found at the Hearst apartment crime scene.

Noory queried Shermer’s opinion of this story. Instead of addressing the question, Shermer repeated a skeptic mantra from the previous hour: “Well, I’ll tell you what would be astounding is if Russell and his remote viewers could tell us where Osama Bin Laden is.”

Targ responds to the taunt coolly: “I think it’s more useful for Michael to talk about the things we have done rather than the infinite number of things that we have not done.” He went on to describe how his team precisely located the kidnapped general Dozier in Italy and guided the U.S. military to a downed Soviet bomber with nuclear bombs on it intact – a feat that so impressed President Jimmy Carter that he accidentally revealed the code name of the psychic spy program at a press conference.

Shermer then accused Targ of only reporting hits and ignoring misses. Targ responded with a story of an experiment testing six neophyte army officers being trained as remote viewers: Six trials for each officer, six officers, thirty six trials, half first-place matches, with odds of less than 1 in a million by chance.

Shermer’s responded again with his main objection to psychic phenomena: “Where’s Jimmy Hoffa, where’s Osama?”

The final segment brought Dr. Dean Radin to the debate to discuss his work performing parapsychology experiments and his meta-analyses of psi research.

In the opening segment, Dr. Radin introduced how he came to become involved with parapsychology research. After reading the work of Dr. Helmut Schmidt on mental effects on random number generators, Radin decided to try and replicate these results. He found to his great surprise that he was able to replicate them. Then George Noory asked Radin about the Global Consciousness Project. Radin outlined the basics of the program, describing the network of more than sixty random number generators, and that a pattern of deviations from expected randomness seems to occur at the time of events of worldwide attention and significance, such as major earthquakes and the September 11th [2001] attacks [on the World Trade Center, New York].

Shermer’s response was entirely predictable by this point:

“This really sounds absurd, sorry. . . Ridiculous. . . Tell us where Osama Bin Laden is. Not after the fact, post-hoc data analysis.

Radin replied that Shermer was misinformed:

“The analyses we use are pre-planned hypotheses. We’re not looking for interesting patterns in data.”

Later on, the two sparred over the question of why skeptics do not accept the results of parapsychology experiments:

“With quantum mechanics despite the fact that it’s hard to understand and really weird. . . it’s true and everybody accepts it. . . the data is so overwhelming. . . they have the data and you don’t.

Radin’s response:

“You’re equating a physics experiment against a psychological experiment. As you’re probably well aware there are very few psychological experiments which will give you an arbritrary level of probability. . .You’re dealing with a hyper-complex system. . . When you look at the meta-analyses, it’s amazing that you do get overall very strong effects.”

The whole quantum question came up again when Radin mentioned quantum entanglement as a possible model or mechanism for telepathy. Shermer replied that neurons in brain are much too large to show quantum effects.

Radin responded that the determining factor in neural activity was found in nano-sized microchannels within the synaptic cleft, where individual sodium and potassium ions can determine nerve responses, and that those ions absolutely are of the right scale to respond to quantum fluctuations.

The bottom line of the debate? Somebody should locate Bin Laden using remote viewing, or at least find Jimmy Hoffa’s unmarked grave.

Then parapsychologists can count on convincing Michael Shermer of the reality of psi phenomena.

In that case, perhaps the next skeptic debate will even feature a skeptic who actually bothers to read the research they are attacking.

 
Dr. Schwartz’s research on mediums is outlined at the VERITAS website at the University of Arizona

You can read more about Dr. Targ’s work on remote viewing at ESPResearch.com

Dr. Dean Radin’s website is at DeanRadin.com

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer Distorts the Meaning of the Word “Skepticism”

 

Michael Shermer Distorts the Meaning
of the Word “Skepticism”

 

Letter to Scientific American

by Professor John Poynton
President of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)

 


“It is disappointing to see a journal of science
harbouring entrenched ignorance.”


 
The classical meaning of the word ‘skeptic’ is inquiring, reflective.

Regrettably the word has taken on the meaning of debunking, generally without open-minded inquiry or reflection; this is the meaning displayed by Michael Shermer in his wholly uninformed comments about the literature of parapsychology or psychical research.

The major journals in this field conform to the standard peer review system, which among other requirements insists on controls in any test or experiment, and protocols that allow adequate statistics. Shermer demonstrates ignorance of positive results reported in this literature in his statement that ‘Science has unequivocally demonstrated’ that people cannot exhibit telepathy and clairvoyance.

What brand of ‘science’ is he writing about? It is disappointing to see a journal of science harbouring entrenched ignorance. For information, he and your readers might consult the website of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), where abstracts of papers published in its journal can be found.

Professor John Poynton
President of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer’s Unscientific Statement on the Non-Existence of Telepathy

 

Michael Shermer’s Unscientific Statement
on the Non-Existence of Telepathy

 

Communication to the Editors of Scientific American

by Dr. Petrus Pennanen

 


“To claim a proof of non-existence is only possible by overriding the scientific method with a set of beliefs taken as facts. That is called religion.

If you want continue to publish promotion of a religion as a regular column please replace ‘scientific’ with ‘religious’ in the name of your magazine to avoid misguiding your readers.”


 
Dear Editors,

I was surprised to find an extremely unscientific statement in the August 2004 issue of your otherwise great magazine.

Michael Shermer stated that “Science has unequivocally demonstrated that [people] can’t [read each other’s minds] – QED”. A fundamental fact of natural science (as opposed to mathematics) is that it is impossible to prove that some phenomenon never exists. A phenomenon can only be studied through experiments and attempted to be predicted through theory. Maybe all performed experiments did not find the phenomenon, but that in no way proves that it never exists outside these experiments. That is plain common sense and a statement that such a proof has been made should never get published by a magazine calling itself “scientific”.

In this case the statement is even more intellectually challenged as there is no physical theory available to describe and predict the phenomenon (consciousness and its thoughts). Even if such a theory would be found there and it would fit perfectly with all done experiments, there would be no way to be certain that it would fit the results of the next experiment. That’s a big part of why science is exciting.

To claim a proof of non-existence is only possible by overriding the scientific method with a set of beliefs taken as facts. That is called religion. If you want continue to publish promotion of a religion as a regular column please replace “scientific” with “religious” in the name of your magazine to avoid misguiding your readers.

Kind regards,

Petrus Pennanen, Ph.D. (theor. physics)
Helsinki, Finland

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer Misrepresents Pim Van Lommel’s NDE Research

 

Michael Shermer Misrepresents
Pim Van Lommel’s NDE Research

 

The Medical Evidence for Near Death Experiences

by Pim van Lommel

 


In his “Skeptic” column in Scientific American in March 2003, Michael Shermer cited a research study published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal, by Pim van Lommel and colleagues.

Shermer asserted that van Lommel’s study “delivered a blow” to the idea that the mind and the brain could separate. Yet the researchers argued the exact opposite, and showed that conscious experience outside the body took place during a period of clinical death when the brain was flatlined.

As Jay Ingram, of the Canadian Discovery Channel commented: “His use of this study to bolster his point is bogus. He could have said, ‘The authors think there’s a mystery, but I choose to interpret their findings differently’. But he didn’t. I find that very disappointing” (Toronto Star, March 16, 2003).

Here, Pim van Lommel sets out the evidence that Shermer misrepresented.


 
Only recently someone showed me the “Skeptic” column article by Michael Shermer.* From a well respected and, in my opinion, scientific journal like the Scientific American I always expect a well documented and scientific article, and I don’t know how thoroughly peer-reviewed the article from Shermer was by the editorial staff before publication.

My reaction to this article by Shermer is because I am the main author of the study published in The Lancet, December 2001, entitled: “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest; a prospective study in the Netherlands”. About what he writes about the conclusions from our study, as well as from the effect of magnetic and electrical “stimulation” of the brain, forces me to write this paper, because I disagree with his theories as well as with his conclusions.

We performed our prospective study in 344 survivors of cardiac arrest to study the frequency, the cause and the content of near-death experience (NDE).

A near-death experience is the reported memory of all impressions during a special state of consciousness, including specific elements such as out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings, and seeing a tunnel, a light, deceased relatives, or a life review. In our study 282 patients (82%) did not have any memory of the period of unconsciousness, 62 patients (18%) however reported a NDE with all the “classical” elements.

Between the two groups there was no difference in the duration of cardiac arrest or unconsciousness, intubation, medication, fear of death before cardiac arrest, gender, religion, education or foreknowledge about NDE.

More frequent NDE was reported at age younger than 60 years, more than one cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) during hospital stay, and previous NDE. Patients with memory defects after lengthy and complicated CPR reported less frequent NDE.

There are several theories that should explain the cause and content of NDE. The physiologic explanation: the NDE is experienced as a result of anoxia in the brain, possibly also caused by release of endomorphines, or NMDA receptor blockade.

In our study all patients had a cardiac arrest, they were clinically dead, unconscious, caused by insufficient blood supply to the brain because of inadequate blood circulation, breathing, or both. If in this situation CPR is not started within 5-10 minutes, irreparable damage is done to the brain and the patient will die. According to this theory, all patients in our study should have had an NDE, they all were clinical dead due to anoxia of the brain caused by inadequate blood circulation to the brain, but only 18% reported NDE.

The psychological explanation: NDE is caused by fear of death. But in our study only a very small percentage of patients said they had been afraid the seconds preceding the cardiac arrest, it happened too suddenly to realize what occurred to them. However, 18 % of the patients reported NDE. And also the given medication made no difference.

We know that patients with cardiac arrest are unconscious within seconds, but how do we know that the electro-encephalogram (EEG) is flat-lined in those patients, and how can we study this?

Complete cessation of cerebral circulation is found in cardiac arrest due to ventricular fibrillation (VF) during threshold testing at implantation of internal defibrillators. This complete cerebral ischaemic model can be used to study the result of anoxia of the brain.

In VF complete cardiac arrest occurs, with complete cessation of cerebral flow, and resulting in acute pancerebral anoxia. The Vmca, the middle cerebral artery blood flow, which is a reliable trend monitor of the cerebral blood flow, decreases to 0 cm/sec immediately after the induction of VF (2).

Through many studies in human, as well as in animal models, cerebral function has been shown to be severely compromised during cardiac arrest and electric activity in both cerebral cortex and the deeper structures of the brain has been shown to be absent after a very short period of time. Monitoring of the electric activity of the cortex (EEG) has shown ischaemic changes consisting of a decrease of fast high amplitude waves and an increase of slow delta waves, and sometimes also an increase in amplitude of theta activity, progressively and ultimately declining to isoelectricity. More often initial slowing (attenuation) of the EEG waves is the first sign of cerebral ischaemia. The first ischaemic changes in the EEG are detected an average of 6.5 seconds after circulatory arrest. With prolongation of the cerebral ischaemia always a progress to an isoelectric (flat) line is monitored within 10 to 20 (mean 15) seconds from the onset of the cardiac arrest (3-6).

In case of a prolonged cardiac arrest of more than 37 seconds the EEG activity may not return for many minutes to hours after cardiac arrest has been restored, depending of the duration of cardiac arrest, in spite of the maintenance of adequate blood pressure during the recovery phase. After defibrillation the middle cerebral artery flow velocity recurred rapidly within 1-5 seconds regardless the arrest duration. However, the EEG recovery takes more time, depending of the duration of cardiac arrest. EEG recovery underestimates metabolic recovery of the brain, and cerebral oxygen uptake may be depressed for a considerable time after restoration of circulation because the initial overshoot on reperfusion (hyperoxia) is followed by a significant decrease in cerebral blood flow. (7)

Anoxia causes loss of function of our cell systems. However, in anoxia of only some minute’s duration this loss may be transient, in prolonged anoxia cell death occurs with permanent functional loss. During an embolic event a small clot obstructs the blood flow in a small vessel of the cortex, resulting in anoxia of that part of the brain with loss of electrical activity. This results in a functional loss of the cortex like hemiplegia or aphasia. When the clot is resolved or broken down within several minutes the lost cortical function is restored. This is called a transient ischaemic attack (TIA). However, when the clot obstructs the cerebral vessel for minutes to hours it will result in neuronal cell death with a permanent loss of function of this part of the brain, with persistent hemiplegia or aphasia, and the diagnosis of cerebro vascular accident (CVA) is made. So transient anoxia results in transient loss of functions.

In cardiac arrest global anoxia of the brain occurs within seconds. Timely and adequate CPR reverses this functional loss of the brain because definitive damage of the brain cells, resulting in cell death, has been prevented. Long lasting anoxia, caused by cessation of blood flow to the brain for more than 5-10 minutes, results in irreversable damage and extensive cell death in the brain. This is called brain death, and most patients will ultimately die.

In acute myocardial infarction the duration of cardiac arrest (VF) on the CCU is usually 60-120 seconds, on the cardiac ward 2-5 minutes, and in out-of-hospital arrest it usually exceeds 5-10 minutes. Only during threshold testing of internal defibrillators or during electro physiologic stimulation studies will the duration of cardiac arrest hardly exceed 30-60 seconds.

From these studies we know that in our prospective study of patients that have been clinically dead (VF on the ECG) no electric activity of the cortex of the brain (flat EEG) must have been possible, but also the abolition of brain stem activity like the loss of the corneareflex, fixed dilated pupils and the loss of the gag reflex is a clinical finding in those patients. However, patients with an NDE can report a clear consciousness, in which cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity, and memory from early childhood was possible, as well as perception from a position out and above their “dead” body. Because of the sometimes reported and verifiable out-of -body experiences, like the case of the dentures reported in our study, we know that the NDE must happen during the period of unconsciousness, and not in the first or last second of this period.

So we have to conclude that NDE in our study was experienced during a transient functional loss of all functions of the cortex and of the brainstem. It is important to mention that there is a well documented report of a patient with constant registration of the EEG during cerebral surgery for an gigantic cerebral aneurysm at the base of the brain, operated with a body temperature between 10 and 15 degrees, she was put on the heart-lung machine, with VF, with all blood drained from her head, with a flat line EEG, with clicking devices in both ears, with eyes taped shut, and this patient experienced an NDE with an out-of-body experience, and all details she perceived and heard could later be verified. (8)

There is also a theory that consciousness can be experienced independently from the normal body-linked waking consciousness. The current concept in medical science states that consciousness is the product of the brain. This concept, however, has never been scientifically proven. Research on NDE pushes us at the limits of our medical concepts of the range of human consciousness and the relationship between consciousness and memories with the brain.

For decades, extensive research has been done to localize memories inside the brain, so far without success. In connection with the hypothesis that consciousness and memories are stored inside the brain the question also arises how a non-material activity such as concentrated attention or thinking can correspond with a visible (material) reaction in the form of a measurable electrical, magnetic and chemical activity at a certain place in the brain. Different mental activities give rise to changing patterns of activity in different parts of the brain. This has been shown in neurophysiology through EEG, magneto-encephalogram (MEG) and at present also through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET-scan). (9-11) Also an increase in cerebral blood flow is observed during such a non-material activity like thinking (12). It is also not well understood how it is to be explained that in a sensory experiment following a physical sensation the person involved in the test stated that he was aware (conscious) of the sensation a few thousands of a second following the stimulation, while the subject’s brain showed that neuronal adequacy wasn’t achieved until after a full 500 msec. following the sensation. This experiment has led to the so-called delay-and-antedating hypothesis (13).

Most body cells, and especially all neurons, show an electrical potential across cell membranes, formed by the presence of a metabolic Na/K pump. Transportation of information along neurons happens by means of action potentials, differences in membrane potential caused by synaptic depolarisation (excitatory) and hyperpolarisation (inhibitory). The sum total of changes along neurons causes transient electric fields, and therefore also transient magnetic fields, along the synchronously activated dendrites. Not the number of neurons, the precise shape of the dendrites (dendritic tree), nor the accurate position of synapses, neither the firing of individual neurons is crucial, but the derivative, the fleeting electric and/or magnetic fields generated along the dendrites. These should be shaped as optimally as possible into short-lasting meaningful patterns, constantly changing in four-dimensional shape and intensity (self-organization), and constantly mutually interacting between all neurons. This process can be considered as a biological quantum coherence phenomenon.

The influence of external localized magnetic and electric fields on these constant changing electric and/or magnetic fields during normal function of the brain should now be mentioned.

Neurophysiological research is being performed using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in the course of which a localized magnetic field (photons) is produced. TMS can excite or inhibit different parts of the brain, depending of the amount of energy given, allowing functional mapping of cortical regions, and creation of transient functional lesions. It allows assessing the function in focal brain regions on a millisecond scale, and it can study the contribution of cortical networks to specific cognitive functions. TMS is a non-invasive research tool to study aspects of human brain physiology including motor function, vision, language, and the pathophysiology of brain disorders as well as mood disorders like depression, and it even may be useful for therapy. In studies TMS can interfere with visual and motion perception, it gives an interruption of cortical processing with an interval of 80-100 milliseconds. Intracortical inhibition and facilitation are obtained by paired-pulse studies with TMS, and reflect the activity of interneurons in the cortex. Also TMS can alter the functioning of the brain beyond the time of stimulation, but it does not appear to leave any lasting effect. (14)

Interrupting the electrical fields of local neuronal networks in parts of the cortex also disturbs the normal function of the brain, because by localized electrical stimulation of the temporal and parietal lobe during surgery for epilepsy the neurosurgeon and Nobel prize winner W. Penfield could sometimes induce flashes of recollection of the past (never a complete life review), experiences of light, sound or music, and rarely a kind of out-of-body experience. These experiences did not produce any transformation.(15-16) After many years of research he finally reached the conclusion that it is not possible to localize memories inside the brain. Olaf Blanke also recently described in Nature a patient with induced OBE by inhibition of cortical activity caused by more intense external electrical stimulation of the gyrus angularis in a patient with epilepsy. (17)

The effect of the external magnetic or electrical stimulation is dependent of the amount of energy given. There may be no clinical effect or sometimes stimulation is seen when only a small amount of energy is given, for instance during stimulation of the motoric cortex. But during “stimulation” with higher energy inhibition of local cortical functions occurs by extinction of the electrical and magnetic fields resulting in inhibition of local neuronal networks (personal communication Blanke). Also in the patient described by Blanke in Nature stimulation with higher electric energy was given, resulting in inhibition of the function of the local neuronal networks in the gyrus angularis.

And when for instance the occipital visual cortex is stimulated by TMS, this results not in a better sight, but instead it causes temporary blindness by inhibition of this part of the cortex. We have to conclude that localized artificial stimulation with real photons (electrical or magnetic energy) disturb and also inhibit the constant changing electrical and magnetic fields of our neuronal networks, and so influence and inhibit the normal function of our brain.

In trying to understand this concept of mutual interaction between the “invisible and not measurable” consciousness, with its enormous amount of information, and our visible, material body it seems wise to compare it with modern worldwide communication.

There is a continuous exchange of objective information by means of electromagnetic fields (real photons) for radio, TV, mobile telephone, or laptop computer. We are unaware of the innumerable amounts of electromagnetic fields that constantly, day and night, exist around us and through us as well as through structures like walls and buildings. We only become aware of these electromagnetic informational fields the moment we use our mobile telephone or by switching on our radio, TV or laptop. What we receive is not inside the instrument, nor in the components, but thanks to the receiver the information from the electromagnetic fields becomes observable to our senses and hence perception occurs in our consciousness.

The voice we hear in our telephone is not inside the telephone. The concert we hear in our radio is transmitted to our radio. The images and music we hear and see on TV is transmitted to our TV set. The internet is not located inside our laptop. We can receive at about the same time what is transmitted with the speed of light from a distance of some hundreds or thousands of miles. And if we switch off the TV set, the reception disappears, but the transmission continues. The information transmitted remains present within the electromagnetic fields. The connection has been interrupted, but it has not vanished and can still be received elsewhere by using another TV set. Again, we do not realize the thousands of telephone calls, the hundreds of radio and TV transmissions, as well as the internet, coded as electromagnetic fields, that exist around us and through us.

Could our brain be compared with the TV set that electromagnetic waves (photons) receives and transforms into image and sound, as well as with the TV camera that image and sound transforms into electromagnetic waves (photons)? This electromagnetic radiation holds the essence of all information, but is only conceivable to our senses by suited instruments like camera and TV set.

The informational fields of our consciousness and of our memories, both evaluating by our experiences and by the informational imput from our sense organs during our lifetime, are present around us as electrical and/or magnetic fields [possible virtual photons? (18)], and these fields only become available to our waking consciousness through our functioning brain and other cells of our body.

So we need a functioning brain to receive our consciousness into our waking consciousness. And as soon as the function of brain has been lost, like in clinical death or in brain death, with iso-electricity on the EEG, memories and consciousness do still exist, but the reception ability is lost. People can experience their consciousness outside their body, with the possibility of perception out and above their body, with identity, and with heightened awareness, attention, well-structured thought processes, memories and emotions. And they also can experience their consciousness in a dimension where past, present and future exist at the same moment, without time and space, and can be experienced as soon as attention has been directed to it (life review and preview), and even sometimes they come in contact with the “fields of consciousness” of deceased relatives. And later they can experience their conscious return into their body.

Michael Shermer states that, in reality, all experience is mediated and produced by the brain, and that so-called paranormal phenomena like out-of body experiences are nothing more than neuronal events. The study of patients with NDE, however, clearly shows us that consciousness with memories, cognition, with emotion, self-identity, and perception out and above a life-less body is experienced during a period of a non-functioning brain (transient pancerebral anoxia). And focal functional loss by inhibition of local cortical regions happens by “stimulation” of those regions with electricity (photons) or with magnetic fields (photons), resulting sometimes in out-of-body states.

To quote Michael Shermer: It is the job of science to solve those puzzles with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations. But one has to be aware of the progress of science, and to study recent literature, to know what is going on in current science. For me science is asking questions with an open mind, and not being afraid to reconsider widely accepted but scientifically not proven concepts like the concept that consciousness and memories are a product of the brain. But also we should realize that we need a functioning brain to receive our consciousness into our waking consciousness. There are still a lot of mysteries to solve, but one has not to talk about paranormal, supernatural or pseudoscience to look for scientific answers on the intriguing relation between consciousness and memories with the brain.

* Michael Shermer, “Demon-Haunted Brain” Scientific American, March 2003, p. 25.

 
References:

1. Van Lommel W., Van Wees R., Meyers V., Elfferich I. Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet 2001; 358: 2039-2045.

2. Gopalan KT, Lee J, Ikeda S, Burch CM. Cerebral blood flow velocity during repeatedly induced ventricular fibrillation. J. Clin. Anesth. 1999 Jun; 11 (4): 290-5.

3. De Vries JW, Bakker PFA, Visser GH, Diephuis JC, Van Huffelen AC Changes in cerebral oxygen uptake and cerebral electrical activity during defibrillation threshold testing. Anesth. Analg. 1998; 87: 16-20.

4. Clute H, Levy WJ. Elecroencephalographic changes during brief cardiac arrest in humans. Anesthesiology 1990; 73 : 821-825.

5. Losasso TJ, Muzzi DA, Meyer FB, Sharbrough FW. Electroencephalographic monitoring of cerebral function during asystole and successful cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Anesth. Analg. 1992; 75: 1021-4.

6. Parnia S, Fenwick P. Near death experiences in cardiac arrest: visions of a dying brain or visions of a new science of consciousness. Review article. Resuscitation 2002; 52: 5-11.

7. Smith DS, Levy W, Maris M, Chance B Reperfusion hyperoxia in brain after circulatory arrest in humans . Anesthesiology 1990; 73 : 12-19.

8. Sabom M.B. Light and Death: One Doctors Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences. “The Case of Pam Reynolds” in chapter 3: Death: the Final Frontier, (37-52), Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. 1998.

9. Desmedt J.E., Robertson D. Differential enhancement of early and late components of the cerebral somatosensory evoked potentials during forced-paced cognitive tasks in man. Journal of Physiology 1977; 271: 761-782.

10. Roland P.E., Friberg L. Localization in cortical areas activated by thinking. Journal of Neurophysiology 1985; 53: 1219-1243.

11. Eccles J.C. The effect of silent thinking on the cerebral cortex. Truth Journal, International Interdisciplinary Journal of Christian Thought. 1988; Vol 2.

12. Roland P.E. Somatotopical tuning of postcentral gyrus during focal attention in man. A regional cerebral blood flow study. Journal of Neurophysiology 1981; 46: 744-754.

13. Libet B. Subjective antedating of a sensory experience and mind-brain theories: Reply to Honderich (1984). Journal of Theoretical Biology 1985; 144: 563-570.

14. Hallett M. Transcranial magnetic stimulation and the human brain. Nature 2000; 406: 147-150.

15. Penfield W. The Excitable Cortex in Conscious Man. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1958.

16. Penfield W. The Mystery of the Mind. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 1975.

17. Blanke O., Ortigue S., Landis Th., Seeck M. Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions. The part of the brain that can induce out-of-body experiences has been located. Nature 2002, 419: 269-270.

18. Romijn, H. Are virtual photons the elementary carriers of consciousness? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2002; 9: 61-81.

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer, Do Skeptics Play Fair?

 

Do Skeptics Play Fair?

 

Letter submitted to Scientific American on 31 October 2005

by Rupert Sheldrake

 


Who is the believer and who is the skeptic?


 
Skeptics spoil their own mission by following personal prejudice and hiding their agenda, which is to block the way for anyone who is a speculative or innovative thinker. As a case in point, it’s interesting to read this column in Scientific American by their house skeptic, Michael Shermer, and compare it to the response from the scientist he so openly derides.

In his attack on my work (“Rupert’s Resonance,” Scientific American, November 2005), Michael Shermer asserted that “Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.” But who is the believer and who is the skeptic?

I am skeptical of people who believe they know what is possible and what is not. This belief leads to dogmatism, and to the dismissal of ideas and evidence that do not fit in. Genuine skepticism involves an attitude of open-minded enquiry into what we do not understand, and this is the approach I try to follow.

Shermer ridiculed the hypothesis of morphic resonance by claiming I proposed a “universal life force,” a concept I have never used. He also misrepresented the evidence for the sense of being stared at. Experiments showing that people can detect when they are being stared at from behind have been widely replicated, with results that an independent meta-analysis has shown to be highly significant, as summarized in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (June, 2005), to which Shermer referred. He tried to give the impression that the case rested on unsupervised tests by people using the experimental protocol on my Website, but this is not true. My own summary of the evidence and the independent meta-analysis by Dean Radin did not include the data from these unsupervised tests, but relied instead on the results of many thousands of trials already published in peer-reviewed journals.

Shermer also referred to data from a staring experiment by Colwell et al., of Middlesex University, London, which showed a significant positive effect that could not be explained in terms of sensory clues. He mentioned that Colwell et al. suggested that this effect might be attributable to non-random features of the randomization sequences used in their experiment, but he omitted to mention that their suggestion has already been refuted by thousands of trials with different randomization methods, including coin-tossing. The results were positive and highly significant statistically, whatever the randomization method.

Shermer’s partisan approach is like that of a politician trying to win an election. Readers of Scientific American would be better served by a fair and truthful presentation of the facts.

Rupert Sheldrake
London, England

 
Article at Sheldrake.org

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer’s Sense and Nonsense

 

Michael Shermer’s Sense and Nonsense

 

Review of Michael Shermer’s
“The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense”

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


Confirmation Bias and Exquisite Balance


 
Michael Shermer’s The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense (Oxford University Press, 2001) contains a good deal of sense. The author is founder-editor of The Skeptic, director of the Skeptics Society, writer of a column on skeptical matters for Scientific American and organiser of skeptical lectures at California Institute of Technology. He also co-produces and presents his own skeptical TV programme. In short, he could be described as a professional skeptic. He is also an excellent writer who understands the true meaning of skepticism – examination and questioning rather than the debased form of blanket rejection of anything considered politically incorrect favoured by CSICOP, of which, incidentally, there is no mention in this book.

Subjects he examines and questions after thorough study of primary sources range from evolution, ecology, cloning, genius, sport and music to Holocaust denial and the Piltdown Man hoax. He is particularly good on the joint discovery by Wallace and Darwin of natural selection, giving Wallace long overdue credit as an equal partner in the historic breakthrough.

The book does however contain a chapter that comes closer to nonsense than to sense. When skeptics turn their attention to areas of parapsychology they tend to throw all their objectivity, balance and meticulous research out of the window and revert to blanket rejection mode. Shermer, as his chapter on Remote Viewing (RV) shows, is no exception.

He makes elementary mistakes, describing physicists Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ on page 2 as among “some of the world’s leading ‘psychics’ ” On the same page he dismisses Jim Schnabel’s well researched and documented Remote Viewers (Dell, 1997) as follows: “Schnabel’s tome recounts endless anecdotes, usually confirmed with additional anecdotes by believing eyewitnesses who were themselves in remote viewing” – as if obtaining first-hand testimony from primary sources were somehow unscientific.

One ‘anecdote’ of Schnabel’s describes how CSICOP member Ray Hyman was “effectively shut out of the remote viewing program” and “given no access to classified data” when attempting to gather material for the Army Research Institute’s highly negative report on RV. Shermer spins this into describing Hyman as “the only outside observer allowed to review the raw data” (p.3). In fact, Hyman reached his conclusions after seeing none of the classified material, which we can assume to be the best, and interviewing none of the military viewers.

Shermer then decides to have a go at RV himself, yet instead of seeking one of the recognised Stargate experts such as Ingo Swann (with whom Schnabel did a very successful test), Shermer chats for an hour or so with Courtney Brown, a civilian amateur RVer specialising in extraterrestrials, remote galaxies, and encounters with the likes of Jesus and Buddha, then attends a weekend seminar given by another civilian amateur whose name does not appear in any of the basic RV books. That seems to have been the total extent of his research. It is as if he wrote about natural selection without quoting anything from Wallace or Darwin or even mentioning them except perhaps as ‘famous psychics’.

Even so, for a first time viewer he does rather well, describing impressions of “people at a monument of some kind” in an English park. The target photo was of Stonehenge, where there are usually people to be found looking at the monumental stones. Not bad, you might think. However, Shermer then commits one of the basic errors of RV procedure and starts guessing instead of simply recording his impressions for others to interpret and evaluate. Since his guess (Rodin’s The Kiss) was wrong, Shermer concludes on the basis of minimal research and two brief encounters with amateur ‘experts’ that RV is ‘pseudoscience’.

“The confirmation bias,” Shermer writes (p.89), “holds that we have a tendency to seek confirmatory data to support our already-held beliefs, and ignore disconfirmatory evidence that might counter those beliefs.” Among the disconfirmatory evidence ignored by Shermer is the award to Joe McMoneagle of the Legion of Merit for his role as “one of the original planners and movers of a unique intelligence project” and for ”producing critical intelligence unavailable from any other source”. Also ignored were the authoritative writings of those most closely associated with the Stargate programme, from Puthoff, Targ , Ingo Swann and Edwin May to Joe McMoneagle, Paul Smith, Dale Graff, Jessica Utts and Skip Atwater, to name but nine.

Shermer quotes approvingly Carl Sagan’s appeal for “an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you” (p.235). And Shermer admits with typical disarming candour that “all of us are biased” (p.22), adding that “all scientists… hold social, political and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant their interpretation of the data”. This is not a problem in science, he explains, where the peer review system ensures that such biases and beliefs are weeded out. It is a problem, however, with skeptical literature which is peer reviewed, if at all, by other skeptics. Again and again one reads references in books and articles by skeptics to books and articles by other skeptics, with no questioning of the writers’ skeptical biases and beliefs. All too often we also read, as here, accounts of a paranormal phenomenon that are strong on skeptical scrutiny but wholly lacking in openness to any nonskeptical view.

How come this sharp contrast between Shermer the critical historian of science and Shermer the paranormal-basher? The former obeys all the rules of academic scholarship – thorough knowledge of the relevant literature, careful selection of material for discussion, and full disclosure of sources, whenever possible, primary sources. The latter has no time for the niceties of academic debate. He has a demolition job to do and will let nothing get in the way of his ball and chain.

Shermer himself provides the answer. In a word, it is television. His brief encounter with remote viewing was filmed for an episode in his ‘Exploring the Unknown’ programme on the very down-market Fox channel, as were a couple of other brief and unmemorable forays into paranormal areas. The show, he admits, could well be called ‘Debunking the Unknown’ were it not for possible difficulties in persuading people to take part in a programme with such an uncompromising title. You really have to give the man full marks for honesty.

Television at this level does not do scientific investigation, critical analysis, or anything like that. It does dumb-down entertainment with minimal factual information, zero peer-reviewing, but plenty of spooky background music and wobbly camerawork the sole purpose of which is to keep viewers awake between the commercials. Shermer justifies his descent to this level by the simple and undeniable fact that thousands more watch this kind of nonsense than read books. Like any sensible evangelist, he goes for the mass market.

To be fair, the nonsense in The Borderlands of Science is outweighed by far by the sense, which serves to give the nonsense more prominence than it deserves. Shermer at his best is very good indeed. It is unfortunate that he is unwilling to treat subjects like remote viewing that are not yet contained within the borders of science with the same objective thoroughness that he applies to more conventional matters.

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer and Reductionism’s End

 

Michael Shermer and Reductionism’s End

 

Analysis of a Conversation with Michael Shermer, Positivist

by Ted Dace

 


Though Michael Shermer edits and publishes Skeptic magazine,
he’s not so much a skeptic as a positivist.

He certainly seems positive about a lot of things,
in particular that life is purely a matter of mechanism.


 
In January of 2007, I conducted an hour-long telephone interview with Dr. Shermer, a psychologist by training who nonetheless revealed maybe a little more about himself than he intended. Our discussion, which was sponsored by the Skeptiko website, kicked off with an audio clip featuring the world’s most creative and challenging biological theorist, Rupert Sheldrake.

“There’s much more to evolution than just natural selection, which weeds out organisms that don’t do too well under a given set of conditions. It doesn’t explain creativity in the first place. Chance mutations don’t explain it very well. What explains it much better is the inherent creativity in living organisms.”

Shermer was baffled by Sheldrake’s comment. “What do you suppose he means by creativity in animals?”

I explained that animals creatively develop new behaviors, which give rise over time to new bodily forms. Darwin himself illustrated the idea with land mammals that took to the waters in search of food millions of years ago and transformed, over many generations, into “fully aquatic” sea mammals.

Shermer called Darwin’s hypothesis “kind of a stupid example,” a startling judgment about the man who created the first viable theory of evolution. Alas, evolution has evolved since Darwin’s time, and as the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, it doesn’t always mean progress. At one time we had a commonsense theory in which the source of evolutionary novelty was the day-to-day decisions made by organisms responding to challenges to their survival. New behaviors that succeeded in the context of the environment were selected, so to speak, while adaptations that failed were rejected.

But in the last 70 years, we’ve been told a very different story about the origin of living forms subject to natural selection. Turns out it has nothing to do with the actions of the whole organism in its environment but involves only the occasional replication error of nucleic acid chains deep in its chromosomes.

You’d think a self-identified skeptic like Shermer would be, well, skeptical of an idea so antithetical to all sense and reason. But he prefers this view because, as he told me, “At some point, you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” When I pointed out that the creative adaptations of living creatures provide a more plausible basis for novel forms of life than a purely blind, chemical process, Shermer gave a very telling response.

“What does this mean, internal creativity? Positing some sort of metaphysical thing or something. At some point we’re gonna ask, well, what is this internal creativity? Quit using that word. Give us something that we can actually test in the lab. What are you talking about – genomes? Protein chain things? What is it you’re talking about?”

You know you’re dealing with a positivist, and not a true skeptic, when you hear the term “metaphysical” being wielded like a club. Positivist pioneer Auguste Comte argued that a belief is metaphysical, and therefore unscientific, if it involves anything other than observable phenomena under the control of “immutable laws of nature.” Despite the fact that many researchers have subscribed to this philosophy down the years, positivism is perfectly at odds with the spirit of science, a kind of mutant skepticism that disbelieves whatever it fails to comprehend, stifling inquiry to the point where we can’t even utter the wrong words. As Shermer put it, “instead of speculating about some inherent force at work, let’s just don’t call it anything.”

Though often confused with a belief in the supernatural, metaphysics is simply the age-old attempt to define what is intrinsically real as opposed to merely apparent. As long as you posit an underlying reality that gives shape to the world of phenomena, such as “immutable laws of nature,” you are burdened with metaphysics.

Like any positivist, Shermer is a true believer in the metaphysics of reductionism, which treats all things, including organisms, as if they were machines “reducible” to their material parts under the control of abstract physical law. If it works, it must work like a machine. Since creativity is not something you find in machines, it must not be real. And even if it was, organisms would have no means of transmitting their adaptations to their offspring, for the only conveyor of biological inheritance is the genome, and genes, we are told, cannot mutate except by accident. Thus we are left with random genetic mutation as the sole means of producing new instincts and anatomies that can be passed on to descendants.

In response to my questioning on the tyranny of the random mutation, Shermer appealed to the revolutionary findings of “evo-devo,” a new field of study concerning the twin questions of evolution from bacteria and development from the egg. Shermer claims that evo-devo is “really opening our eyes about the power of the interaction between environments and genomes.”

“Well, frankly, I think evolutionary biologists have for the longest time placed too much emphasis on random mutation. I don’t think that’s where the action is. I do think it’s on this whole business of genome mixing through sexual reproduction and especially the whole evo-devo stuff. I think that’s gonna turn out to be a much greater source of diversity than mutations.”

Setting aside sexual remixing of genes, which only emphasizes or diminishes pre-existent traits, we are left with evo-devo as the savior of mechanistic evolution. In his 2005 book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, molecular biologist Sean Carroll explains the principles of evo-devo and why radical change in body plan doesn’t require radical genetic change.

Genes that are most active during embryogenesis are roughly the same for all species. Flies and people, for instance, emerge out of the same sets of developmental genes. We don’t grow up to be flies because, fortunately, most of these genes are preceded by “switches,” strips of DNA which, instead of coding for a protein, activate and deactivate genes at appropriate times. It’s the switches that have evolved since the time of our common ancestor with the fly some 500 million years ago.

Thus the chief innovation of evo-devo is that the key mutations triggering speciation take place in noncoding strips of DNA rather than the genes they switch on and off. In other words, we’ve gone from random genetic mutation to random DNA mutation as the source of novelty in life. Not much of a revolution.

Nonetheless, evo-devo has opened up a new window onto the cell. At the level of the genome, observes Carroll, development is “one hell of a movie with nonstop action,” every bit as complex as the patterned activities of tissues, organs and organ systems. This is indeed revolutionary but not in the way Shermer thinks. In place of the reduction of the organism to its genome, we now have two equally complex, parallel processes with no clear causal relationship between them.

If bodily development is caused by the unfathomable combinatorial complexity of “tens of thousands of switches being thrown in sequence and in parallel,” what gives rise to this genetic symphony in the first place? That gene switches are controlled by proteins produced by genes controlled by gene switches is clearly not getting us anywhere. It goes without saying that the point of reductionism is to render a complex process in terms of a simpler, more basic one. The illusion that DNA could provide this simpler level of organization has now been definitively dispatched. Biological reductionism is finished.

But it’s easy to miss niggling little details like that when you’ve got Carroll fresh out of the lab evangelizing rhapsodically on evo-devo’s “powerful explanatory vision,” gushing over its multiple “ahas” and its “powerful – indeed, beautiful – discoveries,” and trembling before its revelation of “deep, unexpected connections among different forms.” Yes, it’s one “surprising twist” after another as reductionist chestnuts fall by the wayside. Of course, in the old days this was called falsification.

Evo-devo represents the undoing of reductionism at the hands of molecular biology. Like Frankenstein confronted by his own monster, it’s just too much irony to bear. The critical faculty snaps off. When you’ve been positive too long, the forest remains invisible even as it leaps out from the trees.

Shermer caught me off guard when he claimed that arch-reductionist Richard Dawkins “fully admits the evo-devo stuff is the hottest thing around.” Surely Dawkins, of all people, can hold his own against the allure of the camp Kool-Aid. But there’s no way out. The research underpinning evo-devo is rock solid. To his credit, Carroll leaves no doubt that what matters is not so much the genes themselves but how they’re used. For Dawkins, who once snickered at the very idea of a “built-in wisdom” capable of operating genes and producing beneficial mutations, this is a hard pill to swallow.

In his 1996 release, Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins confidently assures his readers that everything from vision to flight to spider webs to insect fungi farming came into being “without brainpower or intelligence of any kind.” By contrast, Darwin felt a “cold shudder” when he considered the evolution of the eye, and that was with the assumption that creative adaptations can be inherited. A skeptic even when it came to his own conclusions, Darwin went so far as to argue, in The Origin of Species, that the theory of evolution by natural selection “must stand or fall” according to the ability of organisms to inherit and build on adaptations undertaken by ancestors. Despite rejecting out of hand the inheritance of acquired traits, Dawkins, ever the positivist, seems undisturbed by such doubts.

Darwin cited numerous clear-cut examples of the inheritance of living adaptations among farm animals and transplanted flora, but it wasn’t until 1957 that the phenomenon was demonstrated in the laboratory. While directing Russia’s prestigious Zoological Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, Georgii Shaposhnikov divided a population of aphids into three groups, the first sequestered in a normal habitat, the second effectively killed off by a toxic habitat, and a third that endured a barely suitable environment. This third group quickly adapted to their conditions and thrived. Their new traits were preserved, and after only eight generations, they were no longer able to survive in their normal environment or even mate with the aphids that had remained there. In short, a species was born.

Since then, scientists have observed at least one more example of rapid speciation – a new breed of sockeye salmon in Lake Washington that took 13 generations to emerge – as well as numerous smaller instances of evolution at breakneck speed, most recently the blue moon butterfly of the South Pacific, which abruptly developed a new gene for repelling a parasite. Though we can always write off such examples as just another lucky mutation, according to Miroslav Hill, who studied the effects of toxins on mammalian cells, what we’re actually witnessing is purposive, “adaptive” mutation, just as Darwin foresaw in the middle of the 19th century.

As Director of Research at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in the 1980s, Hill was trying to cultivate mammalian cells resistant to a lethal drug called thioguanine. The standard method in such situations is to bombard cells with mutagens, which promote random mutations in DNA, in hopes of hitting the jackpot. Skeptical that this would yield any results, Hill instead simply exposed successive generations of cells to the toxin to see if any would adapt. After three weeks of watching a lot of hamster cells bite the dust, the mutants began to appear.

What Hill didn’t expect was that each time he poisoned another batch of cells, a larger proportion adopted the key mutation and survived. The same thing happened when he repeated the experiment with a different drug, ethionine, and again with high temperatures. Each generation of exposed cells was smarter, i.e., more adaptive than the previous batch.

According to Rupert Sheldrake, this result indicates the influence of “morphic resonance.” From chromosome to cell to organ to animal, living structures resonate with morphologically similar predecessors. When cells are assaulted en masse, subsequent cells under the same conditions survive in bigger numbers because they gain from the knowledge of the first batch. Morphic resonance is thus a mechanism of collective memory.

If organisms resonate with predecessors on the basis of similar form and experience, it’s no longer necessary to assume that phenotype reduces to genotype, as both types are merely tracks running parallel beneath a memory-driven locomotive of development. Genomes resonate with previous genomes of the same kind while developing organs resonate with previous organs of the same kind. The purpose of the switches that keep the genes pumping out the right proteins at the right times is to provide the emerging organic intelligence with the tools it needs to churn out a person or a carrot or a bee or whatever it’s of a mind to make.

Of course, Michael Shermer wouldn’t be skeptic-in-chief if he didn’t bust a blood vessel when he hears terms like morphic resonance. Indeed, Shermer got defensive whenever he sensed I was steering our discussion in an unorthodox direction.

Dace: “I think the problem, the reason we have this intractable debate regarding evolution is that there’s got to be intelligence in there somewhere. Now, if it’s not going to be an intelligent deity, shouldn’t it…”

Shermer: “This is not a debate in science. No one has this debate. I’ve never heard this debate before, and I go to all these evolution conferences. Nobody debates this. This is an outside of science debate. This is a Rupert / Deepak Chopra debate. It’s a different kind of creationism. But it has nothing to do with science.”

Positivists love creationism because they think it’s the only alternative to their own take.

As long as every dissenting view can be lumped in with creationism, the reductionist status quo remains unchallenged. While Shermer did eventually admit that morphic resonance, if it exists, is a natural phenomenon, his concession came with a caveat. “At some point, to be considered part of rigorous science, there has to be some way to test it, or else it’s my opinion and your opinion.”

The irony here is not just that morphic resonance is testable – as Hill and other researchers have inadvertently shown – but that Shermer’s favored view is not. When Walter Elsasser, a nuclear physicist accustomed to the mathematical rigor of Boltzmann, Einstein and Schrödinger, decided to find out for himself if biology can be brought under the disciplined yoke of physics, he ran headfirst into what can only be described as Mount Impossible.

Small-scale physics depends on the fact that elements of a given type are identical. Quantum mechanics works because electrons, for example, are all interchangeable, as are protons, neutrons, photons and so on. The same goes for each type of atom and molecule. But biological compounds are classed together on the basis of similarity, not identity. Examine blood, bone, muscle, brain, gland, etc., and the ratios of its chemical constituents will vary wildly from person to person, including genetically identical twins. In the face of infinite shades of sameness and difference, the methodology of physics is useless. We are real. We cannot be abstracted. Such is life.

No living creature will ever be reduced to physics. There will never be a nice set of equations to solve in order to predict the overall workings of a cell, much less the vast structures it weaves as it duplicates during development. Though biophysics can account for a variety of discrete cellular processes, a point-to-point causal explanation of how DNA builds bodies is beyond the reach of physical analysis. By making the safe assumption of a strictly chemo-mechanical emergence of the body from its DNA, biologists placed themselves beyond testability and therefore beyond science. It’s not so much that reductionist theory is dead but that there was never a theory to begin with. From the day it hatched from the positivist mind of August Weismann, mechanistic biology was a chimera.

This is not the first time Shermer has been taken for a ride. In his youth, he climbed out from the intellectual vacuum of evangelical Christianity only to fall face first into a vat of New Age superstition. Yet he was evolving all along and soon found his way into the blinding light of positivism. Perhaps he’ll emerge from this trap as well. I couldn’t help but be encouraged when he made something of a peace offering near the end of our talk.

“Let’s take a slightly different topic of self organized complexity, Stuart Kauffman’s research on complex, adapted systems, and there does appear to be something sort of inherent in systems. I’m not quite sure what it is. Languages evolve a certain way. Writing systems evolve. The law, the economy, marketplaces, cells, water, consciousness, these appear to be self-organized emergent properties of simpler systems.”

This sort of insight bodes well for Shermer’s progress. It is, after all, exactly where Rupert Sheldrake was 30 years ago.

 
 
 
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