91. Global Consciousness Project Welcomes Collaboration With Skeptics

When it comes to claims of a global consciousness linking us all to tragedies like the earthquake in Haiti, or the terrorist attacks of  9/11, there are many skeptics.

global-consciousness-project120While the research results of the 12 year old Global Consciousness Project have withstood serious skeptical examination from researchers who’ve dug into the millions of test results collected on the publicly available website, skepticism persists.

But according to Alex Tsakiris, host of the Skpetiko science podcast, dialog between controversial science researchers and their doubters is a good for science, “it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to unconventional science – that’s what makes it unconventional – but skeptics need to look deeper… critical thinking demands we’re sometimes critical of our own cherished beliefs.”

Tsakiris continued: “We’ve helped initiate a collaboration on the Global Consciousness Research Project work of Dr. Roger Nelson, and a skeptical researcher from the University of London named Dr. Chris French.  That’s a step in the right direction.  Many skeptics bemoan the lack of interest in science education, but when presented with the chance to explore topics like the Global Consciousness Project, that clearly have great fascination to the public, they shy away.  This is unfortunate. Science is a method, it’s not a position.  There are no unscientific topics, just unscientific methods.”

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Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko I wanted to do a little bit of an update.

I’ve received several e-mails from folks saying, hey, what’s going on with this project, what’s going on with that project? And I realized that over the last couple years I have started several initiatives and maybe not updated everyone as well as I could as to what’s going on. So this and a couple episodes after this will be quick little updates, if you will, of some of the things that are going on here at Skeptiko. And there will be a call for you to maybe get involved if you can. There’s a couple of areas where we could really use some help.

So the first project I wanted to give you a little update on is the Global Consciousness Project research. Now, for those of you who are coming in totally in the dark about the Global Consciousness Project, I’d point you to a couple of episodes we did a few months back. We have an interview in there with Roger Nelson and Dean Radin, two of the principal investigators in the Global Consciousness Project. Real quickly, here’s what it is.

The Global Consciousness Project asks the question, are we connected? Are we all connected in some way that we don’t fully understand but that is measurable in some way? The way they go about doing this is very clever, and it came out of some research that was done at Princeton University, and that is, they set up these random number generators and they give these to folks all over the world. These random number generators are hooked up to their computer. Then they just turn them on and they get all this data back. They see if there’s any correlation between these random number generators in their variance off of being random.

So, the biggest news event associated with the Global Consciousness Project came after 911. When they analyzed the data from all these random number generators spread out across the world, they found a huge spike in the correlation greater than they had in any of the years previously. In any day, 911 stood out. This got a lot of people’s attention.

Well, it also got the attention of a lot of skeptics. The main skeptical argument against the Global Consciousness Project is that of data mining. So if you just talk to skeptics and you bring up Global Consciousness Project and 911, what you invariably will hear is, “Ugh! Pseudo-science because they just collect all this data and they’re not blinded from the data and they just comb through this data looking for some pattern. They don’t have any kind of analysis method set up in advance, and oh, it’s just terrible science. It’s pseudo-science.”

Well, this is what we attempted to explore on the show, and it really wasn’t even our agenda that was driving it. It was because I had invited a guest on the show named Brian Dunning, who hosts a very popular skeptical “critical thinking” show called, Skeptoid. Brian came on the show and he wanted to talk about the Global Consciousness Project because he had looked into it. And these are the charges that he brought up. So that’s what launched us on the Global Consciousness Project.

After Brian came on the show and made these claims which didn’t seem to fit with what I had understood about the Project, even though I didn’t know it that well, I decided to investigate further. So naturally, I contacted the folks at the Global Consciousness Project. The principal investigator is a guy named Roger Nelson, formerly was a professor at Princeton and has since retired but continues to do the Global Consciousness Project. I also contacted Dr. Dean Radin, who many of you know, who was also one of the principal investigators for the Global Consciousness Project and is still involved there.

So these guys came on and in very convincing, very directly just shot down every one of these claims. You can go back and listen to the episode if you want. I mean, it’s just hard to defend the skeptical position here. I mean, the claim of data mining is refuted because hey, in some cases, they don’t even do a retrospective, backward analysis. They predict forward. Even when they are doing a retrospective analysis, they have the criteria in place, both for selecting events and for analyzing those events.

And they publish all the data out there on the Web so anyone can go and analyze it and say, “Oh, here’s your mistake. Here’s where you’re fiddling with your analysis.” Which just isn’t true. No one’s ever been able to prove that or establish that beyond just this kind of arm-waving thing that sometimes we see from skeptical folks.

But none of that is really an update for any of you. It’s just kind of telling you what happened. So in continuing the story of telling you what happened, I have to remind you that a few weeks after our interview with Dr. Nelson and Dr. Radin, I had the chance to bring up the topic with Dr. Chris French, who is a very skeptical guy, edits the Skeptical Magazine in the UK and is Professor of Anomalous Psychology at the University of London.

He came on the show and one of the topics we wandered into was Global Consciousness Project. He had quite a different view of it than the typical skeptical fair. He said, “Hey, you know, it looks like solid researchers, looks like a lot of interesting data. I haven’t looked into it enough to really form an opinion, but yeah, I think it’s worthwhile to investigate.” So I kind of jumped on that and said, “Great. Let’s do it. I’ll even throw in a little bit of money to fund some research there.” And that’s what we did.

So as a follow-up to that show, I contacted both Dr. Nelson and Dr. French, arranged to make a donation to both their organizations to put someone on this and that was in September. The update is…not a whole lot of update. But there is some progress there. There’s been a lot of communication back and forth. Dr. French has really been pretty upfront about him just not being able to find the time and him being kind of the weak link in moving that stuff forward up to now. But he has finally assigned one of his research associates, a student, to look into it.

Dr. Nelson has, in kind, contacted them numerous times, sent a bunch of information over there. Also, Dr. Peter Bancel from France, has agreed to take the train up to the UK and visit and see if they can jumpstart that work. So that’s the update on what’s going on with the Global Consciousness Project. Hopefully, we will have stoked some real collaboration there and we can kind of push that a little bit further. I’ll certainly keep you informed as we do.

There’s one other little update that I want to offer on that. This being the new year, 2010, one of the things I’ve done is kind of go back and contact some old guests who have been on the show and see if there’s any updating we can do on that end. One of the folks I contacted was none other than Brian Dunning, of Skeptoid. I invited him back on the show to talk about whatever he wanted to talk about, but the e-mail exchange I had with him is very interesting, very telling in a lot of ways, and I wanted to share that with you here today.

So here’s the e-mail exchange I had with Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, beginning on January 10, the first e-mail I sent to him. Here goes:

Hi Brian, happy New Year! Let’s do it again. Got 30 minutes for a Skeptiko interview? (This is me on January 10th.)

One day later he got back to me. On what topic? Brian says. So I was kind of surprised to hear from him. I was glad to hear from him. I thought, ‘Maybe we can really have a follow-up discussion.’

So I immediately zipped him back an e-mail saying, Critical thinking, cognitive dissonance among skeptics, skeptic vs. believer debates. I’d love to touch on Global Consciousness. Recently interviewed skeptic Chris French on the topic, but we don’t have to go there if you prefer.

So that same day I got a reply from Brian. Given the way you wrapped up your follow-up show to my previous appearance, I’m not convinced you’ve changed anything about your methodology that would compel me to contribute anything further. Your show is a public disservice. It encourages listeners to favor fringe claims that lack validity over established knowledge of how our universe works. My focus these days is to instill appreciation for real science, as that leads to real solutions to the problems we all face.

Well, as you can imagine, I had a couple of things to say about that. So I shot him back an e-mail. That sounds pretty dogmatic, Brian. I think dialogue is the best way to sort this stuff out. There are a lot of smart listeners out there. They can decide what’s of service (as opposed to what’s disservice). Moreover, not really understanding your concern regarding a follow-up interview. You have an equal chance to present your side. There won’t be any post-production editing. I’ll even present it without an intro or end commentary. How would this not advance your stated goal of critical thinking?

And not surprisingly, that’s the last I heard from Brian Dunning of Skeptoid. But, you know, as I say that, “not surprisingly,” it is surprising. I really don’t get this. For those of you out there who are skeptics, and I know many skeptical folks listen to this show, I commend you for doing it. I really do, because you’re participating in a dialogue that is a difficult dialogue to have. I listen to a lot of the skeptical shows, too, and it’s hard sometimes. It really kind of gets to your gut, you know, when you hear stuff you don’t agree with.

But I don’t get this point. I don’t get how someone like Brian Dunning can on one hand, so arrogantly claim that he should be the one to decide what’s science. He should apply his critical thinking and no one else’s criticisms should be heard or should be discussed. It really goes against just the basic understanding of how dialogue is supposed to happen, how disagreements are supposed to be resolved. So I really don’t understand that. And if there are skeptics out there who can explain to me Mr. Dunning’s position on this, I’d love to hear it, because obviously he’s shut down.

I mean, to me it seems obvious. To me, it just seems like someone who’s been beaten. You know? They’ve lost an argument and they don’t want to admit it and they’re running and hiding. That’s just how it seems to me, but there might be something deeper here that I’m missing. If there is, I’d love to know. I’d love to know, so anyways, that’s going to wrap up our update on the Global Consciousness Project. Hopefully, we’ve stirred some real research, some real collaboration between Dr. French at the University of London and the research coordinators, Dr. Nelson and his group at the Global Consciousness Project.

So on the next episode of Skeptiko that’s hopefully going to come out in just a few days, I’m going to do another quick update on some of the other projects we’re working on.

I mentioned earlier in the broadcast that we’re looking for volunteers, people to help in some of this research. I’ll have more details on that on the next update that we do. If you are interested and would like to contact me now, please do that. In general, as I have in the last couple of episodes, I encourage any of you who are interested in connecting with this show and connecting with me, to please do so. I have some links up there on the Skeptiko Web site at skeptiko.com. You can connect with me via Facebook, via Twitter, send me an e-mail directly. Many of you have done that and it’s just been very fun and exciting getting to know some of you. So please do that.

All right, that’s going to do it for this quick update episode of Skeptiko. Much more to come. Until then, bye for now.