Category Archives: The Skeptics

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.


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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Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion


Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory. We share an interest in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right. We are both atheists in our personal convictions who have written books on religion. In Darwin’s Cathedral I attempted to contribute to the relatively new field of evolutionary religious studies. When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake.

Where We Agree and Where We Part Company

In The God Delusion Dawkins makes it clear that he loathes religion for its intolerance, blind faith, cruelty, extremism, abuse, and prejudice. He attributes these problems to religion and thinks that the world would be a better place without it. Given recent events in the Middle East and even here in America, it is understandable why he might draw such a conclusion, but the question is: What’s evolution got to do with it?

Dawkins and I agree that evolutionary theory provides a powerful framework for studying religion, and we even agree on some of the details, so it is important to pinpoint exactly where we part company. Evolutionists employ a number of hypotheses to study any trait, even something as mundane as the spots on a guppy. Is it an adaptation that evolved by natural selection? If so, did it evolve by benefiting whole groups, compared to other groups, or individuals compared to other individuals within groups? With cultural evolution there is a third possibility. Since cultural traits pass from person to person, they bear an intriguing resemblance to disease organisms. Perhaps they evolve to enhance their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups.

If the trait is not an adaptation, then it can nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was adaptive in the past but not the present, such as our eating habits, which make sense in the food-scarce environment of our ancestors but not with a McDonald’s on every corner. Perhaps the trait is a byproduct of another adaptation. For example, moths use celestial light sources to orient their flight (an adaptation), but this causes them to spiral toward earthly light sources such as a streetlamp or a flame (a costly byproduct), as Dawkins so beautifully recounts in The God Delusion. Finally, the trait might be selectively neutral and persist in the population by genetic or cultural drift.

Dawkins and I agree that these major hypotheses provide an excellent framework for organizing the study of religion, which by itself is an important achievement. We also agree that the hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Evolution is a messy, complicated process, like the creation of laws and sausages, and all of the major hypotheses might be relevant to some degree. Nevertheless, real progress requires determining which hypotheses are most important for the evolution of particular traits. The spots on a guppy might seem parochial, but they are famous among biologists as a case study of evolutionary analysis. They can be explained primarily as adaptations in response to two powerful selective forces: predators remove the most conspicuous males from the population, whereas female guppies mate with the most conspicuous males. The interaction between these two selection pressures explains an impressive amount of detail about guppy spots — why males have them and females don’t, why males are more colorful in habitats without predators, and even why the spots are primarily red when the predators are crustaceans (whose visual system is blind to the color red), as opposed to fish (whose visual system is sensitive to the color red). Guppy spots could have been selectively neutral or a byproduct of some other trait, but that’s not the way the facts fell.

Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould: Strange Bedfellows

The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously criticized his colleagues for seeing adaptations where they don’t exist. His metaphor for a byproduct was the spandrel, the triangular space that inevitably results when arches are placed next to each other. Arches have a function but spandrels do not, even though they can acquire a secondary function, such as providing a decorative space. Gould accused his colleagues of inventing “just-so stories” about traits as adaptations, without good proof, and being blind to the possibility of byproducts and other non-adaptive outcomes of evolution.

Gould had a point, but he failed to give equal time to the opposite problem of failing to see adaptations where they do exist. Suppose that you are a biologist who becomes interested in explaining the bump on the nose of a certain species of shark. Perhaps it is just a byproduct of the way that shark noses develop, as Gould speculated for the human chin. Perhaps it is a callous that forms when the sharks root around in the sand. If so, then it would be an adaptation but not a very complicated one. Perhaps it is a wart, formed by a virus. If so, then it might be an adaptation for the virus but not the shark. Or perhaps it is an organ for detecting the weak electrical signals of prey hidden in the sand. If so, then it would be a complex adaptation.

Few experiences are more thrilling for a biologist than to discover a complex adaptation. Myriad details that previously defied explanation become interpretable as an interlocking system with a purpose. Non-adaptive traits can also be complex, but the functional nature of a complex adaptation guides its analysis from beginning to end. Failing to recognize complex adaptations when they exist is as big a mistake as seeing them where they don’t exist. Only hard empirical work — something equivalent to the hundreds of person-years spent studying guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective — can settle the issue.

Dawkins argued on behalf of adaptationism in his debates with Gould and would probably agree with everything I have said so far. For religion, however, he argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.

For the Good of the Group?

To understand Dawkins’ skepticism about the group-level benefits of religion, it is necessary to trace the history of “for the good of the group” thinking in evolutionary theory. Groups can be adaptive only if their members perform services for each other, yet these services are often vulnerable to exploitation by more self-serving individuals within the same group. Fortunately, groups of individuals who practice mutual aid can out-compete groups whose members do not.

According to this reasoning, traits that are “for the good of the group” require a process of between-group selection to evolve and tend to be undermined by selection within groups. Darwin was the first person to reason this way about the evolution of human morality and self-sacrificial traits in other animals. Unfortunately, his insight was not shared by many biologists during the first half of the 20th century, who uncritically assumed that adaptations evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy — for the good of the individual, group, species, or ecosystem — without requiring a corresponding process of natural selection at each level. When the need for group selection was acknowledged, it was often assumed that between-group selection easily prevailed against within-group selection. This can be called The Age of Naïve Groupism, and it ended during the 1960s and 1970s, thanks largely to two books: George C. Williams’ 1966 Adaptation and Natural Selection and Richard Dawkins’ 1976 The Selfish Gene.

In Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams affirmed the logic of multi-level selection but then added an empirical claim: Even though between-group selection is theoretically possible, in the real world it is invariably trumped by within-group selection. Virtually all adaptations evolve at the individual level and even examples of apparent altruism must be explained in terms of self-interest. It was this empirical claim that ended The Age of Naïve Groupism and initiated what can be called The Age of Individualism, which lasted for the rest of the 20th century and in some respects is still with us.

Another theme developed by Williams was the concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of selection. In sexually reproducing species, an individual is a unique collection of genes that will never occur again. Individuals therefore lack the permanence to be acted upon by natural selection over multiple generations. According to Williams, genes are the fundamental unit of natural selection because they have the permanence that individuals (much less groups) lack.

In many respects, and by his own account, Williams was interpreting ideas for a broader audience that began with Darwin and were refined by theoretical biologists such as Sewall Wright, Ronald Fisher, and J.B.S. Haldane. The concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of selection, for example, is identical to the concept of average effects in population genetics theory, which averages the fitness of alternative genes across all of the individual genotypes and environmental contexts experienced by the genes. A decade later, Dawkins played the role of interpreter for an even broader audience. Average effects became selfish genes and individuals became lumbering robots controlled by their genes. Group selection became a pariah concept, taught only as an example of how not to think. As one eminent evolutionist advised a student in the 1980s, “There are three ideas that you do not invoke in biology: Lamarkism, the phlogistron theory, and group selection.”

Scientific Dogmatism

In retrospect, it is hard to fathom the zeal with which evolutionists such as Williams and Dawkins rejected group selection and developed a view of evolution as based entirely on self-interest. Williams ended Adaptation and Natural Selection with the phrase “I believe that it is the light and the way.” Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype:

“The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism … We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin’s ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label ‘the selfish organism’…”

This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one’s own cause. Never mind that Darwin was the first group selectionist. Moreover, unlike The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype was written by Dawkins for his scientific peers, not for a popular audience!

In reality, the case against group selection began to unravel almost immediately after the publication of Adaptation and Natural Selection, although it was difficult to tell, given the repressive social climate. In the first place, calling genes “replicators” and “the fundamental unit of selection” is no argument at all against group selection. The question has always been whether genes can evolve by virtue of benefiting whole groups and despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the gene favored by between-group selection replaces the gene favored by within-group selection in the total population. In the parlance of population genetics theory, it has the highest average effect. Re-labeling the gene selfish, just because it evolves, contributes nothing. The “gene’s eye view” of evolution can be insightful in some respects, but as an argument against group selection it is one of the greatest cases of comparing apples with oranges in the annals of evolutionary thought.

The same goes for the concept of extended phenotypes, which notes that genes have effects that extend beyond the bodies of individual organisms. Examples of extended phenotypes include a bird’s nest or a beaver’s dam. But there is a difference between these two examples; the nest benefits only the individual builder, whereas the dam benefits all of the beavers in the pond, including those who don’t contribute to building the dam. The problem of within-group selection is present in the dam example and the concept of extended phenotypes does nothing to solve it.

The Revival of Group Selection

Much has happened in the four decades following the rejection of group selection in the 1960s. Naïve groupism is still a mistake that needs to be avoided, but between-group selection can no longer be categorically rejected. Claims for group selection must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, along with the other major evolutionary hypotheses. Demonstrations of group selection appear regularly in the top scientific journals.

As one example reported in the July 6, 2006 issue of Nature, a group of microbiologists headed by Benjamin Kerr cultured bacteria (E. coli) and their viral predator (phage) in 96-well plates, which are commonly used for automated chemical analysis. Each well was an isolated group of predators and their prey. Within each well, natural selection favored the most rapacious viral strains, but these strains tended to drive their prey, and therefore themselves extinct. More prudent viral strains were vulnerable to replacement by the rapacious strains within each well, but as groups they persisted longer and were more likely to colonize other wells. Migration between wells was accomplished by robotically controlled pipettes. Biologically plausible migration rates enabled the prudent viral strains to persist in the total population, despite their selective disadvantage within groups.

As a second example reported in the December 8, 2006 issue of Science, economist Samuel Bowles estimated that between-group selection was strong enough to promote the genetic evolution of altruism in our own species, exactly as envisioned by Darwin. These and many other examples, summarized by Edward O. Wilson and myself in a forthcoming review article, are ignored entirely by Dawkins, who continues to recite his mantra that the selective disadvantage of altruism within groups poses an insuperable problem for between-group selection.

Individuals as Groups

Not only can group selection be a significant evolutionary force, it can sometimes even be the dominating evolutionary force. One of the most important advances in evolutionary biology is a concept called major transitions. It turns out that evolution takes place not only by small mutational change, but also by social groups and multi-species communities becoming so integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right. The cell biologist Lynn Margulis proposed this concept in the 1970s to explain the evolution of nucleated cells as symbiotic communities of bacterial cells. The concept was then generalized to explain other major transitions, from the origin of life as communities of cooperating molecular reactions, to multi-cellular organisms and social insect colonies.

In each case, the balance between levels of selection is not fixed but can itself evolve. A major transition occurs when selection within groups is suppressed, making it difficult for selfish elements to evolve at the expense of other members of their own groups. Selection among groups becomes a dominating evolutionary force, turning the groups into super-organisms. Ironically, during the Age of Individualism it became taboo to think about groups as organisms, but now it turns out that organisms are literally the groups of past ages.

Dawkins fully accepts the concept of major transitions, but he pretends that it doesn’t require a revision in his ideas about group selection. Most important, he doesn’t pose the question that is most relevant to the study of religion: Is it possible that human genetic and cultural evolution represents the newest example of a major transition, converting human groups into the equivalent of bodies and beehives?

Selfish Memes and Other Theories of Cultural Evolution

Dawkins’ third claim to fame, in addition to selfish genes and extended phenotypes, was to coin the term “meme” to think about cultural evolution. In its most general usage, the word “meme” becomes newspeak for “culture” without adding anything new. More specific usages suggest a variety of interesting possibilities; that culture can be broken into atomistic bits like genes, that these bits are somehow represented inside the head, and especially that they can evolve to be organisms in their own right, often spreading at the expense of their human hosts, like the demons of old.

As with religion, Dawkins has not conducted empirical research on cultural evolution, preferring to play the role of Mycroft Holmes, who sat in his armchair and let his younger brother Sherlock do the legwork. Two evolutionary Sherlocks of culture are Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, authors of the 2005 book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection.

Consider genetic evolution by itself. When a new mutation arises, the total population consists of one group with a single mutant and many groups with no mutants. There is not much variation among groups in this scenario for group selection to act upon. Now imagine a species that has the ability to socially transmit information. A new cultural mutation can rapidly spread to everyone in the same group, resulting in one group that is very different from the other groups in the total population. This is one way that culture can radically shift the balance between levels of selection in favor of group selection. Add to this the ability to monitor the behavior of others, communicate social transgressions through gossip, and easily punish or exclude transgressors at low cost to the punishers, and it becomes clear that human evolution represents a whole new ball game as far as group selection is concerned.

In this context, the human major transition probably began early in the evolution of our lineage, resulting in a genetically evolved psychological architecture that enables us to spontaneously cooperate in small face-to-face groups. As the great social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville commented long ago in Democracy in America, “the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.” As the primate equivalent of a beehive or an ant colony, our lineage was able to eliminate less groupish competitors. The ability to acquire and socially transmit new behaviors enabled our ancestors to spread over the globe, occupying hundreds of ecological niches. Then the invention of agriculture enabled group sizes to increase by many orders of magnitude, but only through the cultural evolution of mechanisms that enable groups to hang together at such a large scale. Defining, motivating, coordinating, and policing groups is not easy at any scale. It requires an elaborate system of proximate mechanisms, something akin to the physiological mechanisms of an individual organism. Might the elements of religion be part of the “social physiology” of the human group organism? Other than briefly acknowledging the abstract possibility that memes can form “memeplexes,” this possibility does not appear in Dawkins’ analysis.

Bring on the Legwork

It is absurd, in retrospect, that evolutionists have spent much more time evaluating the major evolutionary hypotheses for guppy spots than for the elements of religion. This situation is beginning to remedy itself as scholars and scientists from all backgrounds begin to adopt the evolutionary perspective in their study of religion.

An example from my own research will show how empirical legwork can take us beyond armchair theorizing. Here is Dawkins on the subject of whether religion relieves or induces stress in the mind of the religious believer:

Is religion a placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress? Possibly, although the theory must run the gauntlet of skeptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion causes rather than relieves stress … The American comedian Cathy Ladman observes that “All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.”

One of my projects is a collaboration with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced shick-sent-me-hi), who is best known among general readers for his books on peak psychological experience, such as Flow and The Evolving Self. Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) which involves signaling people at random times during the day, prompting them to record their external and internal experience — where they are, who they are with, what they are doing, and what they are thinking and feeling on a checklist of numerical scales. The ESM is like an invisible observer, following people around as they go about their daily lives. It is as close as psychological research gets to the careful field studies that evolutionary biologists are accustomed to performing on non-human species, which is why I teamed up with Csikszentmihalyi to analyze some of his past studies from an evolutionary perspective.

These studies were performed on such a massive scale and with so much background information that we can compare the psychological experience of religious believers vs. nonbelievers on a moment-by-moment basis. We can even compare members of conservative vs. liberal protestant denominations, when they are alone vs. in the company of other people. On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone. Religions are diverse, in the same way that species in ecosystems are diverse. Rather than issuing monolithic statements about religion, evolutionists need to explain religious diversity in the same way that they explain biological diversity.

These results raise as many questions as they answer. We did not evolve to feel good but rather to survive and reproduce. Perhaps religious believers are happily unaware of the problems that nonbelievers are anxiously trying to solve. As a more subtle point, people pass back and forth between the categories of “nonbeliever” and “believer” as they lose and regain faith. Perhaps some nonbelievers are psychologically impaired because they are the recent casualties of religious belief. Only more scientific legwork can resolve these issues, but one thing is sure: Dawkins’ armchair speculation about the guilt-inducing effects of religion doesn’t even get him to first base.

Natural Historians of Religion

Hypothesis testing does not always require quantification and the other trappings of modern science. Darwin established his entire theory on the basis of descriptive information carefully gathered by the naturalists of his day, most of whom thought that they were studying the hand of God. This kind of information exists in abundance for religions around the world and throughout history, which should be regarded as a fossil record of cultural evolution so detailed that it puts the biological fossil record to shame. It should be possible to use this information to evaluate the major evolutionary hypotheses, which after all represent radically different conceptions of religion. Engineering principles dictate that a religion designed to benefit the whole group will be different from one designed to benefit some individuals (presumably the leaders) at the expense of others within the same group, which in turn will be different from a cultural disease organism designed to benefit itself at the expense of both individuals and groups, which in turn will be different from a religion for which the term “design” is inappropriate. It would be odd indeed if such different conceptions of religion could not be distinguished on the basis of carefully gathered descriptive information.

Of course, it is necessary to gather the information systematically rather than picking and choosing examples that fit one’s pet theory. In Darwin’s Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample,” which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken.

By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do. The best way to illustrate these points is by describing one of the religions in the sample — Jainism — which initially appeared the most challenging for the group-level adaptation hypothesis.

Jainism is one of the oldest and most ascetic of all the eastern religions and is practiced by approximately three percent of the Indian population. Jain ascetics filter the air they breathe, the water they drink, and sweep the path in front of them to avoid killing any creature no matter how small. They are homeless, without possessions, and sometimes even fast themselves to death by taking a vow of “santhara” that is celebrated by the entire community. How could such a religion benefit either individuals or groups in a practical sense? It is easy to conclude from the sight of an emaciated Jain ascetic that the religion is indeed a cultural disease — until one reads the scholarly literature.

It turns out that Jain ascetics comprise a tiny fraction of the religion, whose lay members are among the wealthiest merchants in India. Throughout their long history, Jains have filled an economic niche similar to the Jews in Western Europe, Chinese in Southeast Asia, and other merchant societies. In all cases, trading over long distances and plying volatile markets such as the gem trade requires a high degree of trust among trading partners, which is provided by the religion. Even the most esoteric (to outsiders) elements of the religion are not superfluous byproducts but perform important practical work.

For example, the ascetics must obtain their food by begging but their religion includes so many food restrictions that they can only accept food from the most pious lay Jain households. Moreover, the principle of non-action dictates that they can only accept small amounts of food from each household that was not prepared with the ascetics in mind. When they enter a house, they inspect the premises and subject the occupants to sharp questions about their moral purity before accepting their food. It is a mark of great honor to be visited but of great shame if the ascetics leave without food. In effect, the food begging system of the ascetics functions as an important policing mechanism for the community. This is only one of many examples, as summarized by Jainism scholar James Laidlaw in a 1995 book whose title says it all: Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society Among the Jains.

How then, is it possible to live by impossible ideals? The advantage for addressing this question to Jainism is that the problem is so very graphic there. The demands of Jain asceticism have a pretty good claim to be the most uncompromising of any enduring historical tradition: the most aggressively impractical set of injunctions which any large number of diverse families and communities has ever tried to live by. They have done so, albeit in a turbulent history of change, schism, and occasionally recriminatory “reform,” for well over two millennia. This directs our attention to the fact that yawning gaps between hope and reality are not necessarily dysfunctions of social organization, or deviations from religious systems. The fact that lay Jains make up what is — in thoroughly worldly material terms — one of the most conspicuously successful communities in India, only makes more striking and visible a question which must also arise in the case of the renouncers themselves.

This example illustrates a phenomenon that I call the transformation of the obvious. Jainism appears obviously dysfunctional based on a little information, such as the sight of an emaciated acetic or beliefs that appear bizarre when taken out of context. The same religion becomes obviously functional based on more information. This is the kind of “natural history” information that enabled Darwin to build such a strong case for his theory of evolution, and it can be used to build an equally strong case for the group-functional nature of Jainism. As for Jainism, so also for most of the other enduring religions of the world.

An Emerging Consensus?

I recently attended a conference on evolution and religion in Hawaii that provided an opportunity to assess the state of the field. It is not the case that everyone has reached a consensus on the relative importance of the major evolutionary hypotheses about religion. My own talk included a slide with the words SHAME ON US! in large block letters, chiding my colleagues for failing to reach at least a rough consensus, based on information that is already at hand. This might seem discouraging, until we remember that all aspects of religion have so far received much less attention than guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective. The entire enterprise is that new.

There was, I believe, a convergence taking place during the short period of the conference. Richard Sosis, whose previous research includes a detailed comparison of religious vs. non-religious communal movements, presented new research on the recitation of psalms among Israeli women in response to terrorist attacks. William Irons and several other participants developed the concept of hard-to-fake signals as a mechanism for insuring commitment in religious groups. Dominic Johnson reminded us that inter-group conflict, as much as we might not like it and want to avoid it, has been an important selective force throughout human genetic and cultural evolution and that some elements of religion can be interpreted as adaptations for war. In my response to this paper during the question period, I largely agreed with Johnson but pointed out that most of the religions in my random sample did not spread by violent conflict (e.g., Mormonism). Johnson is currently examining the religions in my random sample in more detail with respect to warfare, a good example of cumulative, collaborative research. Peter Richerson and I gave a tutorial on group selection, which was especially useful for participants whose understanding of evolution is grounded on the Age of Individualism.

Lee Kirkpatrick delivered a lecture titled “Religion is Not an Adaptation” that might seem to oppose the adaptationist accounts mentioned above. What he meant, however, is that he doubts the existence of any genetic adaptations that evolved specifically in a religious context. He is sympathetic to the possibility that more general genetically evolved psychological adaptations are co-opted by cultural evolution to form elaborately functional religious systems. Similarly, other psychologically oriented talks about minimal counter-intuitiveness (beliefs being memorable when they are weird but not too weird), hyperactive agent detection devices (our tendency to assume agency, even when it does not exist), and the ease with which children develop beliefs about the afterlife, might be interpretable as non-adaptive byproducts, but they might also be the psychological building blocks of highly adaptive religions. In evolutionary parlance, byproducts can become exaptations, which in turn can become adaptations.

No one at the conference presented a compelling example of a religious belief that spreads like a disease organism, to the detriment of both individuals and groups. The demonic meme hypothesis is a theoretical possibility, but so far it lacks compelling evidence. Much remains to be done, but it is this collective enterprise that deserves the attention of the scientific research community more than angry diatribes about the evils of religion.

Real-World Solutions Require a Correct Diagnosis of the Problems

Explaining religions as primarily group-level adaptations does not make them benign in every respect. The most that group selection can do is to turn groups into super-organisms. Like organisms, super-organisms compete, prey upon each other, coexist without interacting, or engage in mutualistic interactions. Sometimes they form cooperative federations that work so well that super-super-organisms emerge at an even larger spatial scale. After all, even multi-cellular organisms are already groups of groups of groups. In a remarkable recent book titled War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin analyzes the broad sweep of human history as a process of cultural multilevel selection that has increased the scale of human society, with many reversals along the way — the rise and fall of empires. Religion is a large subject, but the explanatory scope of evolutionary theory is even larger.

American democracy can be regarded as a cultural super-super-organism. The founding fathers realized that religions work well for their own members but become part of the problem at a larger social scale. That is why they worked so hard to accomplish the separation of church and state, along with other checks and balances to prevent some members of the super-super-organism from benefiting at the expense of others. In this context I share Dawkins’ concern that some religions are seeking to end the separation of church and state in America. I am equally concerned that the checks and balances are failing in other respects that have nothing do to with religion, such as unaccountable corporations and extreme income inequality.

I also share Dawkins’ concern about other aspects of religions, even after they are understood as complex group-level adaptations. Religions can be ruthless in the way that they enforce conformity within groups. Most alarming for a scientist, religions can be wanton about distorting facts about the real world on their way toward motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world. We should be equally concerned about other distortions of factual reality, such as patriotic histories of nations and other non-religious ideologies that I call “stealth religions” in my most recent book, Evolution for Everyone. Finally, I agree with Dawkins that religions are fair game for criticism in a pluralistic society and that the stigma associated with atheism needs to be removed. The problem with Dawkins’ analysis, however, is that if he doesn’t get the facts about religion right, his diagnosis of the problems and proffered solutions won’t be right either. If the bump on the shark’s nose is an organ, you won’t get very far by thinking of it as a wart. That is why Dawkins’ diatribe against religion, however well-intentioned, is so deeply misinformed.

On Scientific Open-Mindedness

Toward the end of The God Delusion, Dawkins waxes poetic about the open-mindedness of science compared to the closed-mindedness of religion. He describes the heart-warming example of a scientist who changed his long-held beliefs on the basis of a single lecture, rushing up to his former opponent in front of everyone and declaring “Sir! I have been wrong all these years!”

This inspiring example represents one end of the scientific bell curve when it comes to open-mindedness. At the other end are people such as Louis Agassiz, one of the greatest biologists of Darwin’s day, who for all his brilliance and learning never accepted the theory of evolution. Time will tell where Dawkins sits on the bell curve of open-mindedness concerning group selection in general and religion in particular. At the moment, he is just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion.

It is time now for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work on understanding one of the most important and enigmatic aspects of the human condition.

© 1992–2006 Skeptics Society

David Sloan Wilson is a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University. He is the author of of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and The Nature of Society, and his latest book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

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

Dr. Dean Radin’s website is at

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© 2014 The Association for Skeptical Investigation. All rights reserved.


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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© 2014 The Association for Skeptical Investigation. All rights reserved.


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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© 2014 The Association for Skeptical Investigation. All rights reserved.


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.


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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Richard Wiseman’s Suggestibility


Are paranormal powers are a matter of suggestion?

by Colin Wilson


“It seems, on the contrary, to show that the human mind possesses paranormal powers of which most of us are unaware, but which can be induced to operate by the right kind of suggestion.”

– Colin Wilson

In 1971, many people began to report seeing a ghost near Ratcliff Wharf, on London’s Isle of Dogs.

An elderly clergyman would be observed gazing up the river. But as soon as people took their eye off him for a moment, he would vanish. Many people reported seeing him over the next couple of years, and their accounts were carefully chronicled by a journalist named Frank Smyth. In past centuries, the area had been well known for robbery and violence, and a favourite theory was that the old man had been murdered in a cheap boarding house for the contents of his wallet.

I happened to know this was untrue. For the ghost was the invention of Frank Smyth, who made up the story one day to fill an empty space on the back cover of a magazine called Man, Myth and Magic. He was astonished to learn that his phantom had became part of the folk lore of the East End.

Which explains how I came to take part in a deception of which I still feel slightly ashamed. I was working for BBC2, as the presenter of a series of programmes on the paranormal called “A Leap in the Dark”. And for our final programme, the producer decided to try and demonstrate how easily people can become the victims of suggestion. We went to a waterfront pub whose owner was convinced he had seen the ghost, and he and his wife both described the sighting to me on camera – the old fashioned black clothes and white ruff that 18th century clergymen often wore instead of a dog collar. I hated doing this to them, and was inclined to refuse, until I reflected that the rest of the series had already been filmed, and that this was, after all, making an interesting point about people’s proneness to suggestion.

Besides, I knew that the paranormal events described in the rest of the series were genuine – a poltergeist that wrecked a lawyer’s office, a British peer who dreamed racing winners, a woman who had an accurate dream of her own sister’s suicide.

So when I read that a well-known debunker of the paranormal, Professor Richard Wiseman, describes in the British Journal of Psychology experiments that prove the gullibility of some of his students, I accept them without question. Wiseman describes how a key was bent by a stage magician who claimed to have the same powers as Uri Geller, and how when the key was laid on the tabletop, many students accepted the suggestion that it was continuing to bend. This, says Wiseman, proves that most of us are inclined to believe what we are told.

Which, he implies, demonstrates that Uri Geller’s powers might also involve suggestion. I.e: that having bent a key using ‘stage magic’, he could then convince the onlookers that it must have been genuine by making them think the key continued to bend when placed on a tabletop.

If he will forgive me, I feel he is deceiving himself, and anyone who is gullible enough to be convinced by his logic. Psychologists have known for two centuries that people are suggestible. And that neither proves nor disproves that ‘magicians’ like Geller are doing it all by suggestion.

Here I can speak from experience. I met Geller for the first time in the mid-1970s, not long after his demonstrations of spoon-bending on the David Dimbleby programme on BBC television had made him famous. I had been asked to write a film script about him, and was determined not to be deceived. The secretary of the tycoon who was hiring me took us along to a West End restaurant for lunch. The girl – her name was Rae Knight – sat beside me in a corner, and Geller sat facing us, with his back to the main body of the dining room.

When I asked him to demonstrate his spoon-bending abilities, he immediately put me on my guard by explaining that he ‘drew his power from metal’, and would need to take the spoon across to the nearest radiator. Whereupon, Rae and I watched as he placed the spoon against the radiator, rubbed it with his finger, and within half a minute was triumphantly waving the bent spoon. Naturally, I was not impressed, for he was too far away to watch closely. But a few minutes later, he did something that left me in no doubt that he had paranormal powers: he read my mind.

He told me to draw something on the back of my menu card, and turned his back on me as I did so. I put one hand round the card, and Rae, sitting beside me, was watching in case he tried to peek. I did a drawing of a kind of goblin with a serpentine neck that I often drew for my children. It was my own invention, and it was impossible that Uri could have known about it. At that point, he told me to cover it up with my hand, and turned round to face me. He then asked me to stare into his eyes, and to try to transmit the drawing to him. After a few moments he shook his head: ‘No, it’s not working – try harder’. And then, just as I was convinced it was going to be a failure, he seized a pen and duplicated my drawing on the back of his own menu card. There could have been no possible way he could have deceived me.

Not long after that I had dinner with the stage magician who calls himself the Amazing Randi, and who has made something of a career of accusing Geller of trickery. Right in front of my eyes, Randi bent a spoon by – apparently – rubbing it gently with his finger. Then he performed number of card tricks that struck me as totally baffling. But finally, I told him about Uri’s mind-reading, and asked: ‘Could you duplicate that?’ He thought for a moment then shook his head. ‘Not without preparation’.

It is worth knowing that Richard Wiseman started his own career as a stage magician, and became one of the youngest members of the magic circle. Then, possibly inspired by Randi, he decided to make a career of using his knowledge of stage magic to investigate the paranormal, and has finally achieved the kind of reputation that makes him welcome on television programmes as the resident sceptic.

One of his sponsors is CSICOP, the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal [now CSI], a group of scientists and scientific popularisers who take pleasure in declaring themselves unrepentant materialists. The very suggestion of anything paranormal – like ghosts, extra-sensory perception or precognition of the future – makes them foam at the mouth. But in 1975, they got their fingers badly burned when they set out to disprove some scientific claims made for astrology by the French statistician Michel Gauquelin. He alleged that the a person’s choice of profession seemed to be influenced by the planet he was ‘born under’, and that statistics show that an unusual number of sports champions are born under Mars, actors under Jupiter, scientists under Saturn, and so on.

A physicist named Dr. Dennis Rawlins asked to examine these claims, but when he did so, his computer analysis tended to support Gauquelin. Still convinced that Gauquelin had to be wrong, Rawlins explained his own results and tried to convinced his colleagues to move on to firmer ground. They ignored him; instead there was a cover-up, and (as Rawlins wrote) ‘one’s willingness to go along with the cover-up (to protect the cause) became a test of loyalty’. They ended by throwing him out and suppressing his results. Rawlins refused to be silenced, and his subsequent revelations did CSICOP some serious damage.

So whenever I see Professor Richard Wiseman’s name in print, I expect to hear something that will sound like the CSICOP party line.

Now this is not what bothers me, for I accept that scepticism plays an important part in scientific investigation. I only become worried when sceptics show signs of refusing to look facts in the face.

And where suggestion is concerned, some pretty amazing facts have been around for nearly two centuries.

First, Dr. Anton Mesmer discovered that illnesses can be cured by ‘mesmerism’, which involved stroking with magnets to move ‘vital fluids’ around the body. No psychologist now doubts that the success of this treatment was due in part to suggestion. But then a French marquis named Puysegur placed the whole thing on firmer ground when he stumbled on the techniques of hypnosis. He made passes in front of the eyes of a servant, who fell into a trance and carried out orders with his eyes closed. Later, a girl called Madeleine would obey mental orders given to her by members of the audience. It seemed that hypnosis had made her telepathic. In other words, it seemed to release ‘hidden powers’. Thereafter, the history of hypnosis in the 19th century is full of well authenticated examples of telepathy taking place under hypnosis, including a series of impressive experiments conducted by ‘Darwin’s rival’ Alfred Russell Wallace, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research.

All of which, I would suggest to Professor Wiseman, does the exact opposite of proving that paranormal powers are a matter of suggestion. It seems, on the contrary, to show that the human mind possesses paranormal powers of which most of us are unaware, but which can be induced to operate by the right kind of suggestion.

While I was studying Uri Geller in the 1970s – I went on to write a book about him – I was also investigating cases of so-called poltergeist activity, in which objects fly around the room and china gets smashed. This often seemed to happen in the presence of teenagers, and I concluded that they develop certain unconscious powers that can produce these effects by a kind of spontaneoua ‘psychokinesis’ – or mind over matter. And the more I studied Uri, the more I became convinced that his own powers are of a similar nature.


Not if you come to these things with an open mind, and are prepared to put your prejudices behind you.

If I thought Professor Wiseman had that kind of mind I would take him rather more seriously.

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James Randi’s Challenge a Big So What!


James Randi’s Challenge:


A Big “So What!”

by Loyd Auerbach


Loyd Auerbach, M.S., is the Director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations. He is a Consulting Editor and columnist for Fate magazine, an adjunct Professor at JFK University and President of The Psychic Entertainers Association. He holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern University and a graduate degree in Parapsychology from JFK University. He is the author of a number of books on the paranormal including Ghost Hunting: How to Investigate the Paranormal, Hauntings & Poltergeists: A Ghost Hunter’s Guide, and Mind Over Matter, besides videos and CDs.

I might actually title this essay “Why I no longer care about Randi’s One Million Dollar Challenge,” but honestly “So what!” sums up my feelings these days.

Over the last several years, I’ve been somewhat outspoken about the specific details of the rules of Randi’s challenge. But recently, when being harassed by yet another disbelieving type about the test, some kind of light – an epiphany of sorts – went on in my head.

The individual made a statement, with a question, that I often hear in variations from self-described skeptics (actually disbelievers):

“The Amazing Randi offers one million dollars for anyone who can demonstrate something paranormal. If psychic abilities are real, why has no one won the prize?”

Rather than responding as I have in the past with a discourse as to why I don’t believe anyone will win that money, I spontaneously switched gears. The following is an approximation of the remainder of the conversation:

“What would that prove?” I asked.

“Huh?” said the Skeptic.

“Why is Randi offering the money?” I asked.

“For anyone who can prove something paranormal,” said the Skeptic.

“If someone did win the million, what would that actually prove?” I asked.

“Huh?” said the Skeptic.

“I mean, if a psychic won the million dollars, other than the psychic walking away one million dollars richer, what would that prove to the skeptical community or to science?” I asked.

“That someone could do something psychic,” said the Skeptic with some confusion in his voice.

“Would it? If someone won Randi’s million dollars, would YOU accept that psychic abilities are real? Or even just possible?” I asked.

“Huh?” said the Skeptic.

“Would mainstream science accept the probability of psi, if not the reality, if some psychic won Randi’s million?” I asked.

“Uh-uh-huh?” said the Skeptic.

“Would the organized skeptics accept that psi is real, or would they be more likely to believe that Randi was simply fooled, scammed out, of his million? Would you?” I asked.

I received a blank stare from the Skeptic, then saw confusion appearing on his face.

I continued to push at him. “The fact is that people who do not accept the laboratory and other evidence for psi that already exists are unlikely to change their minds or their beliefs simply because someone beats Randi’s challenge and wins Randi’s money. In the name of science, many keep raising the issue of parsimony, of Occam’s Razor where psi is concerned. In this case, wouldn’t the simpler explanation as far as the skeptics are concerned be that Randi was scammed out of the money? In the name of science, many raise the issue of repeatability. If someone beat Randi’s challenge once, how does this meet the criteria of repeatability? What does this prove?”

The Skeptic was silent, confusion and frustration (and a little anger) continuing on his face.

I finished with, “If you can honestly tell me – I mean look me in the eye and tell me honestly – that you would be open to psi’s existence if a psychic won Randi’s money, I’ll give you 20 dollars right here and now. It’s not a million, but to be honest, your opinion isn’t worth that much to me.”

He walked away. (Okay, he stormed off.)

I’ve since used this argument on a few others, whenever Randi’s challenge is raised like a weapon against the field of parapsychology, and against the existence (real or just potential) of psi.

To recap: If someone wins Randi’s million, he/she will be one million dollars richer. However, as far as science and the skeptics are concerned, the simpler answer to this conundrum is that Randi (or his chosen panel of judges) was fooled.

In other words, So What if someone wins the money. It won’t change the prevailing attitudes towards parapsychology, or the prevailing beliefs of most who waiver to the disbelieving side of the center where psi is concerned.

As this is the case (prove me wrong, somebody – please!), we waste our time even giving Randi’s challenge the time of day.

It’s not a benchmark for science, or even the skeptics. Why should we care?

So what!

Loyd Auerbach’s Website


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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

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Paul Kurtz “Investigates” Evidence of Paranormality


Paul Kurtz “Investigates” Evidence of Paranormality


by Guy Lyon Playfair


British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted,
Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.

Evidence for paranormality keeps turning up in the least expected places, for instance in the July/August 2001 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the journal of the so-called Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (note that they don’t pretend to investigate the actual phenomena, just the claims).

In the course of a lengthy article celebrating the 25th anniversary of this tendentious outfit, top psi-cop Paul Kurtz congratulates himself for saving us all from intellectual ruin and makes an astonishing revelation: he once actually did some psi research himself during a course he taught on parapsychology. His students carried out “nearly 100 independent tests” and “the thing that absolutely stunned me was the fact that we never had positive results in any of the many tests conducted”. He gives no details – we cannot expect a philosopher to bother with such trivia as scores and probability values, or even to tell us what kind of experiments these were except that they were designed “to test psychic and other claims”. Nor does he explain why his 250 students only managed to get through 100 experiments in four years.

Now, I am statistically near-illiterate, but to get a 100 percent fail rate on a hundred tests sounds rather highly significant to me. Kurtz notes with pride that 90 percent of his students began the course as believers (in what? God? Fundamentalist secular humanism? Serious skeptical inquiry?) and “by the end 90 percent became extremely skeptical because of their failure to demonstrate the paranormal in their own experiments”.

“Was the so-called goat effect suppressing the evidence?” he asks. “I doubt it.” (The Sheep-Goat effect, discovered in the 1940s by psychologist Gertrude Schmeidler, is generally thought to be one of the most important findings in parapsychology. It proposes that those who accept the possibility of psychic phenomena (sheep) will score higher on any kind of tests than those who don’t (goats). If Kurtz was interested in genuine skeptical enquiry instead of treating the whole area of the unexplained in the way a combine harvester treats a cornfield, he might have had his students look at a paper in the British Medical Journal (May 9th, 1987) entitled “Is there any point in being positive?” This gave the results of an experiment in which patients were given either positive suggestions (such as “This will make you better in a few days”) or negative ones (“I don’t think there’s much I can do for you.”). The positvely-motivated group recovered significantly more than the other one after just two weeks, whether they had been given medication or a placebo. So if being positive or negative about what you are doing can produce immediate physical results, we can expect it to affect scores in Kurtz’s tests, whatever they were.

The best known recent instance of the Sheep-Goat effect was that in which Marilyn Schlitz (a sheep) and Richard Wiseman (a supergoat) carried out experiments with the same subjects and on two occasions got very different results, hers positive and his negative. In the October 2002 issue of The Paranormal Review, Caroline Watt asked each of them what kind of preparations they make before starting an experiment. Their answers were: Schlitz: “I usually pray, actually. I usually pause and ask the Divine that the highest purpose be revealed through the experiment. When she met her subjects, she added: “I tell people that there is background research that’s been done already that suggests this works… I give them a very positive expectation of outcome. Wiseman: “In terms of preparing myself for the session, absolutely nothing.”

That says it all, really.

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