Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dream weavers

Hard-nosed science types like myself are often criticized by the paranormal enthusiasts for setting too high a bar for what we'll accept as evidence.  The supernatural world, they say, doesn't come when called, is highly sensitive to the mental states of people who are nearby, and isn't necessarily going to be detectable to scientific measurement devices.  Also, since a lot of the skeptics come into the discussion with a bias toward disbelief, they'll be likely to discount any hard evidence that does arise as a hoax or misinterpretation of natural phenomena.

Which, as I've mentioned before, is mighty convenient.  It seems to boil down to, "It exists, and you have to believe because I know it exists."  And I'm sorry, this simply isn't good enough.  If there are real paranormal phenomena out there, they should be accessible to the scientific method.  Such claims should stand or fall on the basis of evidence, just like any other proposed model of how things work.

The problem becomes more difficult with the specific claim of precognition/clairvoyance -- the idea that some of us (perhaps all of us) are capable of predicting the future, either through visions or dreams.  The special difficulty with this realm of the paranormal world is that a dream can't be proven to be precognitive until after the event it predicts actually happens; before that, it's just a weird dream, and you would have no particular reason to record it for posterity.  And given the human propensity for hoaxing, not to mention the general plasticity of memory, a claim that a specific dream was precognitive is inadmissible as evidence after the event in question has occurred.  It always reminds me of the quote from the 19th century Danish philosopher and writer, Søren Kierkegaard: "The tragedy of life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards."

This double-bind has foiled any attempts to study precognition... until now.  According to an article in Vice, a man named Hunter Lee Soik is attempting to create the world's largest database of dreams, in the hopes that the evidence from it will establish once and for all that clairvoyance exists.

Soik is the man behind Shadow, an app for recording your dreams.  You enter them into the app upon waking, and they are timestamped and placed in a worldwide dream database.  The database software is able to identify keywords; what Soik is hoping is that prior to major world events, there will be a spike in keywords relating to those events.  And given that the transcripts are timestamped, such spikes (should they occur) would be incontrovertible evidence that precognition, or at the very least some kind of collective consciousness, is occurring while people are asleep.

[image courtesy of photographer Rachel Calamusa and the Wikimedia Commons]

"(W)hat happens if we can start looking at precognitive dreams, and say, 'Oh, there are actually correlations that are happening in real time?'" Soik asks.  "If we had this data back during 9/11, we could point to a time-stamped audio file describing the dream that predates the actual event. So, how could you then refute that kind of hard data?"

Which certainly is approaching the question the right way.  My only concern is that the keywords would be specific enough, and the spikes analyzed for statistical significance.  Even if you accept particular accounts of dreams as true, the difficulty is that humans have dreams about a rather narrow range of things -- some of the more common ones reported are dreams of being chased, of falling, of death (either our own or of someone we know), of sex, of being naked, of being lost.  To represent an actual signal -- evidence of precognition -- you would have to establish (for example) that a statistically-significant spike in dreams about death had a direct relationship to a particular violent occurrence in the world, and wasn't just representing an upsurge in anxiety over the state of things.

But like I said: Shadow, and its creator Soik, seem to be taking the correct approach.  I do wish, however, that Soik wouldn't sail off into the ether so regularly, because it doesn't do anything for his credibility.  In his Vice interview, he states that precognition is like Schrödinger's Cat (a comparison that escapes me completely) and goes on to say, "Who else is dreaming what you're dreaming, for example?  I really believe a lot in quantum field mechanics.  And I believe that a lot of the science jargon [means] simply: If you're happy, and you hang out with someone, you make them happy, and they make someone else happy."

To which I respond:  (1) No, that is not what the science says.  (2) What the fuck does this even mean?

Be that as it may, I encourage any of my readers who are interested in contributing to get the Shadow app (you can download it from the link I included above).  The bigger the database, the easier it will be to establish whether any data generated is statistically significant.  And it would be nice to have a wide variety of people involved with contributing dream data, not just the woo crowd that usually gravitates toward such endeavors.

I'm thinking of doing it myself.  I could include last night's dream, which was about a state senator from Alaska who accidentally chopped my dog's tail off, and whom I was trying to talk into paying me $10,000 in damages for the mental anguish she was experiencing, because she could no longer wag to express "I'm happy" and "Oh, look, a squirrel," which seem to be the two most sophisticated concepts her lone functioning brain cell is capable of processing.

I wonder what world event that might be predicting?

1 comment:

  1. Your statement "If there are real paranormal phenomena out there, they should be accessible to the scientific method." supposes that events which defy understanding and measurement by modern science are not real. Perhaps. But just as nanotech may have been untestable 100 years ago, we have to be careful not to toss it all away because we can't put it in a test tube or make a computer model of it today.

    Isn't some of today's "paranormal" maybe just tomorrow's "normal"? Dreams and the collective unconscious, maybe. Reptilians living among us and crystal healing, not so much.

    Just a thought.