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Freeman Dyson, global warming, ESP and the fun of being “bunkrapt”

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Should a scientist who believes in extrasensory perception—the ability to read minds, intuit the future and so on—be taken seriously? This question comes to mind when I ponder the iconoclastic physicist Freeman Dyson, whom the journalist Kenneth Brower recently profiled in The Atlantic‘s December issue.

"The Danger of Cosmic Genius" explores Dyson’s denial that global warming will wreak havoc on Earth unless we drastically curtail carbon emissions. Dyson questions the computer models on which these scary scenarios are based, and he suggests that the upside of global warming—including faster plant growth and longer growing seasons in certain regions—may outweigh the downside.

This article resembles Nicholas Dawidoff’s 2009 profile of Dyson in The New York Times Magazine—with a crucial difference. Whereas Dawidoff teased us with the possibility that Dyson could be right about global warming, Brower declares right off the bat that Dyson is "dead wrong, wrong on the facts, wrong on the science." Brower’s goal is to explain how "someone as smart as Freeman Dyson could be so dumb."

Brower has known Dyson for decades. Brower’s 1978 book The Starship and the Canoe was an affectionate study of Dyson and his equally quirky son George, a kayak-designer who in the 1970s lived in a tree in the Pacific Northwest. In his Atlantic article, Brower recounts Dyson’s brilliant contributions to particle physics (he helped formulate quantum electrodynamics), nuclear engineering (he designed a method of space transport based on repeated nuclear explosions) and other fields.

Brower weighs several explanations for Dyson’s stance on global warming: Brower rejects one obvious possibility, that Dyson, at 87, has "gone out of his beautiful mind"; by all accounts, Dyson’s intellect is still formidable (and I found it to be so three years ago when I attended a three-day conference with Dyson in Lisbon). Brower gives more weight to the notion that Dyson—one of whose books is titled The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Books, 2006)—has always been a provocateur who loves tweaking the status quo. I emphasized this contrarian aspect of Dyson’s personality in my 1993 profile of him for Scientific American, titled "Perpendicular to the Mainstream".

Brower’s favorite theory is that Dyson possesses a kind of religious faith in the power of science and technology to help us overcome all problems. We can bioengineer ourselves and other species, Dyson asserts, to help us adapt to a warmer world; if Earth becomes uninhabitable, we can colonize other planets, perhaps in other solar systems. "What the secular faith of Dysonism offers is, first, a hypertrophied version of the technological fix," Brower wrote, "and, second, the fantasy that should the fix fail we have someplace else to go."

This analysis makes sense to me. Dyson’s worldview seems both oddly retro, in a Jules Verne-ish or even Jetsons-esque way, and hyper-futuristic, so much so that humanity’s current problems—notably global warming—fade into insignificance. His remarkable 1979 paper, "Time without end: Physics and biology in an open universe," calculates how intelligent beings, perhaps in the form of clouds of charged particles, can ward off heat death—the polar opposite of global warming!—even after all the stars in the cosmos have dimmed.

Much more damaging to Dyson’s credibility, however, is his belief in extrasensory perception, sometimes called "psi". Dyson disclosed this belief in his essay "One in a Million" in the March 25, 2004, New York Review of Books, which discussed a book about ESP. His family, Dyson revealed, included two "fervent believers in paranormal phenomena," a grandmother who was a "notorious and successful faith healer" and a cousin who edited the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.

Dyson proposed that "paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science." No one has produced empirical proof of psi, he conjectured, because it tends to occur under conditions of "strong emotion and stress," which are "inherently incompatible with controlled scientific procedures." This explanation reminds me of the physicist Richard Feynman’s quip that string theorists don’t make predictions; they make excuses.

Dyson even offered an explanation for what the parapsychologist Joseph Rhine called the "decline effect," which I discussed in a previous post. "In a typical card-guessing experiment," Dyson wrote, "the participants may begin the session in a high state of excitement and record a few high scores, but as the hours pass, and boredom replaces excitement, the scores decline." When I ran into Dyson three years ago in Lisbon, he cheerfully affirmed his belief in psi and reiterated his explanations for why it hasn’t been empirically demonstrated.

I disagree with Dyson that global warming is no big deal—I urge doubters to read Storms of My Grandchildren (Bloomsbury, 2009) by the climatologist James Hansen—and that ESP is real. Yes, some researchers still claim to have found tentative evidence for psi, as The New York Times reported in a page-one story last week. But if ESP existed, surely someone would have provided definitive proof of it by now and claimed James Randi’s $1-million prize for "anyone who can show under proper observing conditions evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event."

Despite this lack of evidence, lots of people—including scientists—share Dyson’s belief in ESP, just as many share his lack of concern about global warming. And let’s not forget that many leading scientists—notably Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health—believe in a God who performs miracles, like resurrecting the dead. Eminent physicists also postulate the existence of parallel universes, higher dimensions, strings and other phenomena that I find as incredible as psi.

In his 1984 book, The Limits of Science, the biologist Peter Medawar coined the term "bunkrapt" to describe people infatuated with "bunk," meaning religious beliefs, superstitions and other claims lacking empirical evidence. "It is fun sometimes to be bunkrapt," Medawar wrote. That’s a nice way of putting it. The gleeful rebel Dyson, it seems to me, embodies our bunkrapt era, when the delineation between knowledge and pseudo-knowledge is becoming increasingly blurred; genuine authorities are mistaken for hucksters and vice versa; and we all believe whatever damn thing we want to believe.

Photo of Dyson courtesy Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. corruptmemory 6:23 pm 01/7/2011

    "Eminent physicists also postulate the existence of parallel universes, higher dimensions, strings and other phenomena that I find as incredible as psi."

    Interesting. It’s hard for me to discern whether your views on postulates regarding "higher dimensions, strings" falls squarely in the same class as "psi". In the case of the former a number of these postulates, ultimately requiring scientific validation, are proposed to explain certain observed phenomena like the fine-tuning of natural constants. Granted, currently there is no evidence to support some of these postulates, but they aren’t "crack-pottery", per se, more like reasonable flights of imagination. "Psi" and denying global warming, seem to be pretty much in the "crack-pottery" category. Perhaps Dyson is being contrarian for its own sake on global warming, but I find it hard to accept his unrelenting criticism of global warming given the evidence available vs his belief in "psi" with absolutely no supporting evidence, and in his own words, unsupportable by scientific investigation.

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  2. 2. cryofpaine 6:57 pm 01/7/2011

    I am continually amazed at the choice by many scientists on what to accept as "gospel truth", and what to dismiss as ridiculous. Despite the fact that there exists as much empirical evidence for God as there is for the Big Bang, many scientists are as closed-minded about the possible existence of God as many religious fanatics are about the possibility of the Big Bang.

    Science in the presence of these types of biases isn’t true science. At that point, it becomes a religion unto itself, as dogmatic as any religious sect. While there is enough evidence to be skeptical of some phenomena, such as ESP, there is a difference between skeptical and outright dismissive. There is so much of the universe that we don’t understand. To think that we know with absolute certainty the most intricate workings of nature, of the universe, of our own minds and bodies even, is foolish.

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  3. 3. corruptmemory 7:19 pm 01/7/2011

    "Despite the fact that there exists as much empirical evidence for God as there is for the Big Bang"

    Um, come again?

    The Big Bang theory has testable properties with multiple lines of evidence supporting it. God neither has testable properties, nor lines of evidence supporting it. There is as much evidence to support Zeus, Odin, Ra, Lord Xenu, etc. as there is to support the Big Bang? I think that you are looking for an equivalence that simply doesn’t exist.

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  4. 4. petemicus 10:56 pm 01/7/2011

    The pertinent information left out of this article is the reason Dyson does believe in Global Warming. The climate models currently being used to "predict" global warming are using too large plantary surface areas to be statistically accurate. Presently not enough computer power exists to handle the number of calculations. The debate should be over the computer model. Anything else is blind specualtion. THAT is the fundamental reason Global Warming currently is akin the a belief in religion.

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  5. 5. R.Blakely 3:55 am 01/8/2011

    Computer models can justify any "tax-scam" that is deemed necessary by a corrupt government. The real problem with thinking that CO2 can cause global warming is not only that computer models prove little, the real problem is that, in fact, CO2 does NOT cause global warming, despite what some "experts" claim.
    Changes in cloud cover cause global warming. NASA should be measuring cloud cover over the entire Earth, so that actual average temperature can be calculated. Since clouds reflect sunlight, clouds cause ice ages and they cause global warming.
    CO2 is released from oceans as they warm. But CO2 cannot alter Earth’s temperature now because CO2 already absorbs all 15-micron photons (see the graph in Wikipedia article "Greenhouse Gas"). CO2 molecules are so symmetrical that they absorb only two types of photons. Only the 15-micron photons are important since the other type of photon that CO2 absorbs is already totally absorbed by water vapor.
    Microwave wave-guides are filled with CO2 because CO2 is so incredibly transparent. CO2 lasers take advantage of CO2′s incredible transparency, and that is one reason why CO2 lasers are so efficient.

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  6. 6. Dr. Paradox 8:34 am 01/8/2011

    Horgan, you liken Dyson’s "explanation" for the elusiveness of psi phenomena in the laboratory to "excuses", but it seems to me that the idea of "strong emotion and stress" as a necessary/contributing element of psi IS empirically testable (to a degree) with "controlled scientific procedures"… According to this line of thinking, subjects who are on an anti-anxiety medication might be expected to exhibit a decline in psi performance and/or to have lower hit rates than unmedicated subjects.

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  7. 7. Jess Hurchst 12:02 pm 01/8/2011

    I’ve felt for many years that if psi phenomena existed then possessing one or more of them would have such a powerful survival effect as to be selected for very strongly and would therefore be very apparent – either in the hunter or the hunted. Haven’t noticed it!

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  8. 8. sethdayal 2:56 pm 01/8/2011

    Freeman’s Orion modernized.

    With their country led by engineers as opposed to the West where nearly all our leaders are attorneys, China has a much better idea for a heavy lift booster

    The Chinese could care less about greenies, so a modification of Freeman Dyson’s Orion scheme is in the works to give them all the lift capacity for which anybody could ever envision a need.

    Drill a 2 mile hole in a salt formation. Put a small nuke at the bottom in a water tank, put a thick steel plate on top of the tank with a automated payload capsule on top. Light the nuke and let er rip. When the projectile exits slam the door shut and redirect the radioactive steam back underground. Radiation leaks – a lot less than the daily radioactive output of one of their coal plants.

    3000 tons at $10 a lb straight to the moon. Seal the hole and drill a new one for the next load.

    Great for compressable are ice, steel,frozen food,fuel tanks, rocket fuel, circuit boards, nuclear fuel, copper wire and a thousand other commodities needed in space.

    Humans and flower petals will have to be launched another way.

    Google 150-kiloton-nuclear-verne-gun for more

    With the cargo capacity available, a simple very efficient spacebased transport could use the nuclear engines from stolen NASA Nerva designs since we aren’t allowed to use them.

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  9. 9. organismASaWhole 4:56 pm 01/8/2011

    I urge people to read: Science and Sanity, an introduction to non Aristotelian systems and general semantics.

    A heavy read but you will be rewarded with a proper functioning nervous system.

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  10. 10. organismASaWhole 4:56 pm 01/8/2011

    I urge people to read: Science and Sanity, an introduction to non Aristotelian systems and general semantics.

    A heavy read but you will be rewarded with a proper functioning nervous system.

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  11. 11. organismASaWhole 4:59 pm 01/8/2011

    double post was accidental sorry

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  12. 12. Pugsley 1:21 am 01/9/2011

    Anyone who does NOT believe in some types of psi is actively ignoring not only large numbers of well-designed scientific studies, but is also brushing under the subconscious rug their own experiences with it, and the experiences of friends and relatives. Disbelieving all of it is a good sign of a mediocre mind unable to weigh evidence on both sides of an issue.

    Basically, this means that Horton’s opinions of Dyson’s credibility is about as important as an average high schooler’s negative opinion of Shakespeare.

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  13. 13. zhasieshmoist 2:20 am 01/9/2011

    "But if ESP existed, surely someone would have provided definitive proof of it by now"

    By that argument, someone in 1940 could have said "But if there were some substance that could kill polio, surely someone would have invented it by now." Billions have been invested in researching cancer and other major diseases. By comparison, the effort put into understanding the reality of psi is barely in its infancy.

    As far as a belief in psi, the "skeptic" is just as prejudiced as the indiscriminate believer. Rather than dismissing a belief a priori, why don’t we review published research and comment on experimental design and how well the results confirm or refute the hypotheses.

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  14. 14. opit 3:31 am 01/9/2011

    "Should a scientist who believes in extrasensory perception be taken seriously?"
    The CIA spent a lot of money on research projects to determine the outome of inquiry into such questions as ‘Remote Sensing’. The Rhine Institute experiments were cited as evidence of some sort of intuition causing statistical anomalies.

    Whereas Dawidoff teased us with the possibility that Dyson could be right about global warming, Brower declares right off the bat that Dyson is "dead wrong, wrong on the facts, wrong on the science."
    …Did this suddenly become reasoned argument ? Saying that a model is both incalculable and insufficient as a means of forward projection is an evaluation of usable results. Rather we have diatribe proposed as rebuttal.

    Delineation between knowledge and pseudo-knowledge is becoming increasingly blurred.

    LOL The point of science is to admit when it doesn’t know something….otherwise it is religion…or politics.

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  15. 15. Fearless Bear 8:42 am 01/9/2011

    To pillory Freeman dyson’s views on climate change science by citing James hansen is equivalent to citing the Pope to say Galileo was wrong. Seriously, hansen is a self-promoter extraordinaire, who has parlayed a willingness to make outlandish claims into a cult leadership role. The models are proven incompetent by several studies and an understanding of their basic mathematical limits. Moreover, actual measurements show the assumptions of the IPCC and others about CO2 capacity to retain warmth is several times too high. Dyson is willing to stand on the merits of his first class mind. You play the role of foppish fool by your shallow criticism.

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  16. 16. MarkMcA 4:51 pm 01/9/2011

    One word proves you wrong: Venus.

    Totally covered in clouds. Ice Age on Venus? Nope. Surface temperature is hot enough to melt lead and, most importantly, HOTTER THAN MERCURY – which is far closer to the Sun.

    Of course, Mercury has no atmosphere and Venus has a thick blanket of CO2. Maybe that’s a clue…

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  17. 17. RobertoTenore 6:21 pm 01/9/2011

    Why is Horgan so utterly convinced by climatologist James Hansen? Hansen has been making failed predictions for decades. For example, in 1986 he predicted that, in 20 years (that’s 2006), global temperatures will have risen by almost 2 degrees, "which is about the warmest the earth has been in the last 100,000 years."
    (See )

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  18. 18. Adrian Meli 7:04 pm 01/9/2011

    I think the brilliance of Freeman Dyson should not be debated, as he clearly is as smart as they come. I was unaware of his view of PSI and find it very interesting in light of all of his other views. When anyone takes myriad views over their career, there are bound to be some that everyone agrees with and disagrees with. So, I will respectfully disagree with his views on PSI until I see proof of otherwise but will go on thinking he has had an amazing career and great additions to the science field. PSI, really? – Adrian Meli

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  19. 19. Ronan 5:26 pm 01/10/2011

    …This is somewhat off-topic relative to the article, but…R. Blakely, you’ve been misinformed somewhat, and I would suggest, with no unkindness intended, that you read up on lasers, emission and absorption of photons in general, and rotational and vibrational spectra before discussing them again. CO2 lasers use CO2 BECAUSE CO2 strongly absorbs and emits infrared, not because CO2 is transparent; for the stimulated emission to take place, the lasing medium must be capable of absorbing (and therefore emitting) in the wavelength that’s being amplified.

    As for the saturation of CO2′s absorption lines in the atmosphere–well, sure, it’s saturated at ground level. Go up high enough, though, and the CO2 becomes diffuse enough that IR can go toddling right through, unimpeded. If the total amount of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere changes, the average height of this lowest transparent layer rises or falls. When it’s lower down in the atmosphere, the average temperature of the surrounding gas is warmer, and more IR photons are emitted and escape into space, leading to a net cooling of the planet. If it’s higher, then the temperature of the gas (and the number of IR photons emitted) is lower, and more heat is retained within the planet’s atmosphere, causing it to warm.

    …Which is a vastly oversimplified explanation, by the by; for one thing, it’s a smooth transition between "black" to IR and transparent to IR, so you can only talk about the average height of the layer that’s emitting into space, rather than one specific height. However, the basic idea holds true.

    As for the comment on microwave waveguides…There, I think (think, not certain) that you’re correct. The symmetry of CO2 that you mentioned, if I’m imagining this correctly, should prevent it from absorbing rotationally (ro-vibrationally is another matter entirely), so it should be transparent in microwaves. I’m not familiar with waveguides and their construction and use, though, so take that with a major grain of salt.

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  20. 20. brublr 8:07 pm 01/10/2011

    From entangled particles to telepathic entangled minds doesn’t seem such an astonishing leap. John Wheeler said, "It from bit" (or qubit, as may be) That is, reality derives from information, not the other way around. I’ve had dreams of spooky knowledge of the future and these, if rare, have evidently been experienced by others. And which I is I, anyway? The I that creates the dream, the I that observes the dream or the I that acts out the dream narrative in waking life? Perhaps there’s such a thing as a hive mind among human beings that collectively offers a dreaming mind an unconsidered directionality that might otherwise remain undreamt?

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  21. 21. brodix 10:01 pm 01/10/2011

    In defense of Dyson, I’d like to offer a few points. In terms of global warming, we are not going to control human economic growth. It is far too bottom up for any top down control mechanisms to do much more than slow slightly and we are going to have to find ways to deal with the consequences. That Dyson puts an optimistic spin on this reality might seem supportive to those actually denying global warming, but it really doesn’t change anything and someone should be considering all the alternatives.
    As for esp, it’s a bit what you mean by the term. The recent experiments, using women’s tears to test male hormone reaction, might well fall in some category of esp. The fact is that in many ways, humanity does function as one large organism and is actually refining the process, with the internet revolution. It might well be that we do have facilities for reading each other’s minds, but have learned to camouflage our thoughts, for obvious reasons. Personally I’m frequently picking up vibes from other people that, at the very least, stir up unexpected bats in my own belfry. Could they be electromagnetic signaling at a subconscious level that is as real as the chemical signals in those tears?

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  22. 22. santhip 1:43 am 01/11/2011

    How can you measure what has happened before the big bang ?

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  23. 23. santhip 1:47 am 01/11/2011

    Seems like the author hasn’t critically evaluated what is James Randi’s "biased" challenge .. Please see these blogs before you cite James Randi in the future :

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  24. 24. jgrosay 4:53 am 01/11/2011

    An university breed Ted Serios ?

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  25. 25. ecardena 5:12 am 01/11/2011

    Mr. Horgan should be recognized for perpetuating a type of scientific McCarthyism. According to him, all of the opinions of anyone who believes or has ever believed in the evidence for psi phenomena should be disregarded (and presumably they should be cast out from academia too). Besides Freeman Dyson, that would include a number of earlier “lightweights” including Nobel prizewinners Lord Rayleigh, Wolfgang Pauli, Charles Richet, Henri Bergson, and Brian Josephson and others, past presidents of the American and British Psychological Associations, and current or emeritus professors at such “disreputable” universities as Cambridge, Cornell, Princeton, University of London, Edinburgh, and Lund.
    And what scientific evidence does Mr. Horgan offer for his repudiation of the scientific study of parapsychology? His considered review of the scientific research on the research on the topic? No, he bases his assertion in the fact that no one has claimed the disingenuous prize offered by the magician The Amazing Randi, through a procedure that does not follow scientific standards and is rigged to make it nearly impossible to attain (see The scientific method is founded on informed and unbiased consideration of evidence, not on prejudiced and ad-hominem attacks, or publicity stunts, as described in this column. The readers of Scientific American deserve much better.

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  26. 26. rtaylortitle 10:19 am 01/11/2011

    Global warming in probably the biggest scam (other than the efficacy of the Federal Reserve) ever foisted onto mankind. It truly is bunkrapt. There is not ONE solid piece of evidence to substantiate its veracity. Yet, it articles like this, it is automatically assumed to be true. It makes one very skeptical of science in this area, and to be honest, science in general. Earth’s weather occurs in cycles most likely due to solar activity and cloud cover variables. Gore, I’m sure, is laughing all the way to his bank accounts.

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  27. 27. Bill Crofut 4:18 pm 01/11/2011

    Dr. Dyson would seem to be only one of many scientists who critical of anthropogenic global warming:

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  28. 28. bsimpson141 12:21 am 01/12/2011

    At the end of the article the author wrote "In his 1984 book, The Limits of Science, the biologist Peter Medawar coined the term "bunkrapt" to describe people infatuated with "bunk," meaning religious beliefs, superstitions and other claims lacking empirical evidence. "It is fun sometimes to be bunkrapt," Medawar wrote."

    I actually went and got the book, ISBN 0-06-039036-0. The word isn’t in the index. I finally found the single use of the word by reading the entire book:

    On page 90 Medawar concludes two example myths, an example of homeopathy and an explanation of eclipses with "Bunk has its uses, though: It is fun sometimes to be bunkrapt(3)."

    In the notes for the book on page 103:
    3. A word inadvertently coined by Paul Jennings when he’d intended to type "bankrupt."

    I can find nothing in the book about infatuation, nothing explaining what this is applied to, not even an explanation of the term and in fact nothing more than that clause and single sentence on the origin of the term in the entire book.

    Have I missed something? I was expecting more than this. It certainly sounded like there was more than this.

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  29. 29. CaliforniaJoe 3:56 am 01/13/2011

    The longer I live, the more evidence, admittedly of an anecdotal nature, that I have come across that various PSI experiences are part of the normal human experience.

    I am a firm believer in the necessity of the scientific method in any and all research, but, it is my belief that our lack of PSI information results from our lack of ability to test and detect it, not from its lack of existence. As an example, I suggest looking back at the state of our understanding of electricity and its principles, as that understanding existed just a few hundred years ago. We have come a long way since trying to harness electricity with a kite and a key during a thunderstorm, as Ben Franklin is reported to have done in the 18th century. From kites to digital cameras in less than 300 years is quite an accomplishment, and we may see similar accomplishments in the field of PSI research, once we figure out how to make a few breakthroughs in the field.

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  30. 30. bucketofsquid 3:28 pm 01/13/2011

    I’m not quite sure what the point of this article is but it seems to me that many people are missing it. Mr. Horgan isn’t saying that we should discard everything Dyson says. He is clearly saying that Dyson being a genius in some areas doesn’t make him a genius in all areas. If Dyson doesn’t have a proven track record on climate then his opinion isn’t any more valid than mine. If you are looking to me for guidance on climate change I suggest you get help from a licensed mental health professional.
    I’ve informally studied ESP and "psi" phenomena for decades. The more I learn, the more I doubt. This is a significant shift from the teenager that thought he could learn to astral project and read minds. The simple fact is that the vast majority of "paranormal" events have simple causes such as many "ghost" sightings being caused by a combination of 18.9 Hertz sound waves and a human brain trying to make sense of the optical artifact that the sound wave creates when striking the eye. Consider also such things as high strength EMF fields causing the feeling of being watched and in some cases outright paranoia.
    A lot of clairvoyance is clearly the result of subconscious analysis of general input. Testing of "psychics" shows that most of those that can deliver a significant success rate in person will fail completely when unable to see their subject. Giving a "psychic" the opportunity to work with a subject they can see the outline of but can’t hear also seems to remove any hope of accuracy. This indicates that simple hearing and vision are what is really happening and the "psychic" is simply more perceptive of others than a non-"psychic" is.
    There are other things such as pheromones and body temperature changes that may contribute. People that visualize heat and have training in mental discipline can create temperature changes detectable in thermal imagers. These temperature changes can sometimes extend a few feet from them. This isn’t ESP. It is just poorly understood biology.

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  31. 31. wmroche 6:41 pm 01/14/2011

    Talking of brilliant people who expound outside their areas of expertise, perhaps one should remember Linus Pauling and his promotion of Vitamin C.

    Pity. He was out by one letter of the alphabet. If he had promoted "D" he would have declared a genius second time around.

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  32. 32. zTheBigFishz 9:36 pm 01/19/2011

    Tsk, tsk, you were suckered by an article that even Gavin Schmidt thought was bunk. A once great magazine reduced to the "People" of science rags.

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