Lately that grand bastion of scientifical journalisming, Scientific American, has been running a guest blog feature on their webiste called “Too Hard for Science?” in which they ask scientists to say a bit about a particular experiment or line of inquiry that they would like to see done, but might be “too hard” to accomplish. Previous entries in the series have ranged from the likely-possible-sometime-in-the-future, such as modelling the entire human brain in a computer, to the maybe-impossible, such as gravity control, to the probably-impossible-even-in-theory-but-wouldn’t-it-be-cool idea of creating black holes without event horizons in the lab.
Today’s entry, however, appears to go beyond the realm of science completely. Physicist Freeman Dyson, famous to most nerds as the “inventor” of the Dyson Sphere, and no stranger to controversy, posits an experiment performed by dogs, using other dogs as subjects, to test for ESP. Why dogs? Well, because dogs are dumb, of course! Dyson’s logic seems to be that all human efforts to detect ESP in each other have failed not because ESP doesn’t exist, but because “Humans are too smart, too much emotionally involved in the outcome of the experiment, and too good at cheating.”
So hang on, let me see if I understand this fully. We have this thing called science, through which we build an understanding of the world around us by using observation and experimentation. The tools of science already include things such as blind and double-blind trials that go to great length to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias. We’ve used those tools to test for ESP, and every time, we’ve found no evidence that it exists. But the reason we’ve found no evidence for ESP isn’t because it doesn’t exist, but because we cheat the experiments somehow? What would the reason be for this, anyway? Presumably what Dr. Dyson is implying is that the people involved in the experiment (either the subjects or the researches, or perhaps a combination of both) are emotionally invested in the outcome of the experiment, so they cheat–either consciously or unconsciously–to get the result they desire. Which is that ESP doesn’t exist? Really? There’s nobody you can think of who might want to prove the opposite?
OK, let’s be fair to Flair. I mean, Freeman Dyson. Maybe what he means is that there’s been too much cheating on both sides. People on the pro-ESP side cheat to prove they have powers they don’t have, and people on the anti-ESP side cheat in order to prove nobody has ESP. Everybody is just cheating up a storm, so we never get a real answer on the ESP issue. Again, this just sounds like a job for the double-blind experiment! And guess what? When you perform properly controlled experiments to test for ESP, it turns out it doesn’t exist!
So, no Professor, I don’t think we need to get dogs to perform experiments on other dogs. I think we pretty much know the answer already. But hey, once again, don’t take my word for it. If anybody out there thinks I’m wrong, don’t yell at me–take it up with this guy. He’s got a million bucks that says you can’t do whatever paranormal thing you say you can do under controlled conditions.