Interviews with Tamas Borbely of Goldsmiths College and Dr. Peter Bancel of the Global Consciousness Project reveal common ground on revolutionary research.
The notion of a collective global consciousness is accepted truth within many cultures, but scoffed at by modern scientists. That may change. Once skeptical researchers investigating the 10-year Global Consciousness Project are finding solid data to support the conclusion that we’re all connected.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris an interview with Tamas Boberly of Goldsmiths College at the University of London, and Dr. Peter Bancel of the Global Consciousness Project. During the 50-minute interview Mr. Boberly recaps his analysis of the work done so far, “I’ve been reading the papers that Dr. Nelson and others produced on the Global Consciousness Project and it is my impression that they have a very, very solid methodology and a very good grasp of the statistics that are used… and if you look at the results, obviously the results they report are astronomical. They are very, very convincing. I think the only criticism, which is perhaps even unjust, could come in the form of claiming that because of the lack of a clear-cut definition for these events, perhaps not all, the negative results are reported. And like I said, I’m not suggesting that this is the case. But defining the events in advance would be an excellent way of silencing critics, because otherwise, having looked at the database that they have compiled in the past decade or more, it is certainly very convincing.”
Dr. Peter Bancel describes his involvement with the project, “I came into the project after it had been going for a couple of years and even at that point the cumulative effect of these events that Roger Nelson had been looking at had considerable significance. So one of the first things I set out to do was to see if I could find something methodological or otherwise wrong in how the project was set up. I was asking myself if there was anything fatal, and there wasn’t at all.”
Alex Tsakiris: We’re joined today by Tamas Borbely, who is a research assistant at Goldsmiths College at the University of London. Tamas is one of the researchers that Chris French has tasked with looking into the Global Consciousness Project and doing a little bit of collaborative work and making an attempt to see if any of that research makes sense or needs further analysis. So with kind of a stumbling introduction, Tamas, welcome to Skeptiko.
Tamas Borbely: Hello, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks so much for joining me. And as I was just about to say in the chat we were having before this conversation, when we had an email exchange, you pointed out much of the research here hasn’t begun. I said I think that’s okay because what I really thought we’d do today is really stake out the territory, if you will, and lay the foundation for the work that hopefully will be done between you and Roger Nelson’s group on the Global Consciousness Project. So with all that, tell us a little bit about your background and about what you’re doing in investigating global consciousness.
Tamas Borbely: Okay. I have a degree in psychology and from the outset I was interested in the unconscious biases that shape human thinking and behavior. At the outset I wanted to go into occupational psychology and have a look at how those biases affect work efficiency. But then during the social and cumulative psychology courses, I realized that these are much more wide-spread than I originally thought.
So now I’m mostly interested in those commissions that are not based on external factors – thoughts, beliefs that are not based on empirical evidence but stem from somewhere else. Obviously, belief in the paranormal is of great relevance to me and of great interest.
You mentioned before we started that I’m on the skeptic side of the whole thing. I don’t like that term. I don’t like to be classified or thought of as a skeptic, even though I don’t believe that many of the paranormal phenomena exist. I do make myself to be a disinterested bystander and I’d be very, very happy to find anything interesting because on an emotional level I do wish these things were true. And I do hope they are. So I think that’s why the cooperation with people who strongly believe in these things is a great thing, because I’m not hostile to the whole idea.
Now here at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, we obviously investigate claims of the paranormal and try to provide a psychological explanation, or at least investigate the psychological aspects of those anomalistic experiences and anomalistic events. We hope to collaborate with Dr. Nelson and the people on the Global Consciousness Project on strengthening the methodology or enhancing it.
I’ve had an exchange of emails with Dr. Nelson and asked him about their methodology and he said that because there is no strong theoretical background to the whole thing, it’s just an anomaly that they are trying to collect data on basically, and they’re hoping to be able to explain in the future.
They don’t have very clear-cut methods for defining major events, for example, that they want to investigate. And this is something that Chris and I will be really interested to work on, to work on the project going forward, looking at future events and hopefully being able to identify the factors that would help us predict, because obviously our goal in the long term is to be able to predict what events will have an effect on these random number generators and to understand the characteristics of these events that shape the size of the effect.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, hold on. I didn’t think we were going to get into a lot of the detail of the experiment, but since you’ve waded into these waters, we have to kind of deconstruct a couple of things that you’re saying there.
First of all, I’ve been included in all those email exchanges so I’m reasonably up to date on what’s going on. I’m not sure that I would characterize Dr. Nelson’s papers as concluding that they’re unclear of defining what the parameters are for the events. Clearly half of their events are predicted beforehand, so I don’t know that they’re reaching. You make it sound like they’re reaching out for help and saying, “Gee, how can we more closely or better define these events?”
And then I thought that really the most important work that we could do initially is just establishing whether or not the phenomena that they’re observing, again without any connection to any kind of theoretical basis for it, but whether the phenomena, the methodology they’re using to observe that phenomena, is valid. So it’s really a matter of going through their methodology and finding the flaw, finding where the critical area is, isn’t it?
Tamas Borbely: No, no, I didn’t mean to imply that they were doing anything wrong or imprecise. Their classification of an event as major is pretty much intuitive. And of course, I do agree that a massive earthquake that claims 100,000 lives or the work of finals on New Year’s Eve do have a massive emotional impact on most of the people on the planet. We’d be very, very pleased to come up with a formal definition of an event that we would hope would register on the random number generators. That’s what I was trying to convey.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but again, it seems to me if we get to that point we’ve kind of buried the lead, if you will. If these events on a global basis are affecting these random number generators, that would be quite an astounding conclusion for you to come to…
Tamas Borbely: Exactly. Yes.
Alex Tsakiris: …so isn’t that where we really need to start and say, “Is the hardware really producing a truly random stream? And is that random stream truly non-random in this way that measures coherency of these people around the globe?” Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but isn’t that really the heart of what you’re hoping to figure out in your initial review of their work?
Tamas Borbely: Well, I’ve been reading the papers that Dr. Nelson and others produced on the Global Consciousness Project and it is my impression that they have a very, very solid methodology and a very good grasp of the statistics that are used. We wouldn’t be going in to take it apart and look for the flaws, and I don’t think that if we were, we would find any or many, anyway.
Alex Tsakiris: I agree.
Tamas Borbely: So I think what they do is pretty solid. What would be really interesting to collaborate on is to improve the predicting power of their methodology because one way to silence skeptics – some papers that I’ve read pointed out that even though these events are chosen beforehand in the sense that the data that are analyzed before the decision to investigate a certain event, they’re not chosen before the event actually happened because there is no clear-cut definition of what a major event will be.
So one thing we’d be very happy to work on is to come up with a definition that we could use going forward to say – just off the top of my head – there’s an earthquake claiming more than 10,000 lives or a sports event broadcast to more than two million people, or something like that. And then we could have a look at those in the future, those events, and see if they work.
Alex Tsakiris: All that I think is very interesting. I think they do have quite an elaborate methodology for identifying those events. I’m sure you’ll find ways to improve it, and that’s great. I think it’s also, if you read the papers, it’s also interesting to see where they’re going, both with temporal and spatial considerations and factors and taking that in, and particularly, the spatial aspect of it. If the earthquake happens in India, are the effects greater in the coherence of the random number generators around that geographic area? And does it lessen as it gets further away? All that is kind of interesting, as well.
Tamas Borbely: I totally agree with you on that. And if you look at the results, obviously the stat scores they report are astronomical. They are very, very convincing. I think the only criticism, which is perhaps even unjust, could come in the form of claiming that because of the lack of a clear-cut definition for these events, perhaps not all, the negative results are reported. And like I said, I’m not suggesting that this is the case. But defining the events in advance would be an excellent way of silencing critics, because otherwise, having looked at the database that they have compiled in the past decade or more, it is certainly very convincing.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. I’m surprised that you’d say that and I think many skeptical folks are going to be surprised if that’s the conclusion that you come to, because as you know, in the past this data has been out there, right? It’s not like you’re looking at new data or really new papers. It’s new to you which is fair enough, but it’s hard to fathom how little impact this work, as significant as it is in terms of its implications, how little impact this has had among the psychology community and the scientific community, as well. I don’t know. It’ll be really interesting to see what you come up with at the end.
Tamas Borbely: I think that’s one of the problems with the whole division into believers and skeptics. I don’t think Dr. Nelson or any of his colleagues set out on this project believing that there is a global consciousness they will now find and prove. They just set out investigating a bunch of numbers and then found something and then tried to come up with a theory as to why that anomaly should be there. I think this is the approach. If the numbers are there and if the methodology is solid, then there is no room really for personal belief or conviction. That’s my personal way of looking at it.
Alex Tsakiris: I agree. I don’t see how anyone could see it any differently, at least if they’re engaged in science. It’s about the methods, right? Well, very good, Tamas. I know you’re pressed for time. Is there anything else we need to add? And when can we expect to hear more about your work and the project?
Tamas Borbely: I think will pick up pace now pretty soon because we have had a number of projects that we been running here at the APR unit. Now we have a few more research assistants on the team, so we should be able to really take more resources to this. And then Dr. Nelson suggested that one of his teams will be in Europe in March, so we do hope to meet up with him as well. I think that will certainly boost the speed of our cooperation.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. We’ll certainly look forward to hearing more as the project progresses.
Tamas Borbely: We’ll definitely keep you posted.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Thanks again, Tamas.
So that was my interview with Tamas Borbely from Kings College, London. So next I was able to reach Dr. Peter Bancel, who is collaborating with Dr. Roger Nelson and is somebody who just became interested in the Global Consciousness Project for reasons that you’ll hear in our interview. So we just kind of rolled right into this interview and began by talking about the interview that I’d just had with Tamas and that I had shared with Dr. Bancel. Here we go:
You know, it’s interesting when we talked to Tamas or you hear that interview. Here’s somebody who’s coming at this cold. And in some ways it’s refreshing that he’s so open. He’s like, yeah, just the obvious. Because I’m so used to this kind of stratified, party-line skepticism that when someone just looks at it with an open mind and says obviously it looks like they’ve done their work and they’re qualified people so I assume they’re not making any glaring errors. It would be interesting to explore this and this and this. That is so refreshing, but it’s so, at least from where I sit, it’s so unique you just don’t hear anybody do that.
Dr. Peter Bancel: Yes well, he’s a student or a young researcher or something, so he doesn’t have to worry too much about his back or something at this point.
Alex Tsakiris: One other thing. You mentioned how we might clarify your role with the Global Consciousness Project. How would you phrase that?
Dr. Peter Bancel: I became interested in the Global Consciousness Project about 10 years ago, at a point in my career where I was starting to ask questions about the mind fits into things. My training is as a physicist, as you know, an experimental physicist, and I’d worked in the States and got my degree at the University of Pennsylvania. I worked as a post doc at IBM. Then I came to France and worked in a couple of fields over here.
But after a while I started to question what’s the interface really between physics, which is what I knew, and mind and experience and how all that fits together. You get into that just a little bit when you think about quantum mechanics. There’s basically no interplay between them at all, except in the 90s there started to be these discussions about the nature of consciousness itself and that brought in some contributions from some physicists and stuff that were starting to ask questions.
I guess what I was asking myself was if you wanted to study the mind or mind science, is that just brain science? Or is there something more than just the brain that needs to be taken into account when you’re thinking about mind?
One of the areas where people have asked those questions is in psi research or parapsychology. So I looked into that a little bit and then found out about the Global Consciousness Project and that was appealing to me because it has an aspect that has at least some foothold in the physical world. You know, the properties of these random number generators and what not.
So I contacted Roger Nelson and he was completely open to working with whoever would be interested in looking into the project, so I started to do that. One thing that he has set up that’s very nice is that the way the project runs is that there’s this network that generates data and it’s just a continuous data stream and it’s available to anybody who can download it and take a look at it.
So that’s sort of how I started. It was also about the time when the September 11th attacks happened so that, of course, heightened the interest in what’s going on. But I got into it, again I basically jumped out of the plane without a parachute as far as a physics career is concerned and said I really wanted to look into this carefully. So I’ve been doing it ever since.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell me this, when you first encountered the Global Consciousness Project I understand from what you just said that there was something intriguing there because there was this piece of hardware that was connected to the physical world that was generating this data that might show a connection to the consciousness world, whatever that world is.
But what were your first impressions? What were some of the thoughts that were going through your mind in terms of being a skeptical scientist when you encountered this?
Dr. Peter Bancel: First, I wouldn’t call myself a skeptical scientist; I would just say I’m a scientist, so what interested me first was that this was something that I could get into because the data was there. Really, if you want to know something about a field, then you can read papers, that’s one way. But really, you have to do the work yourself; do the research yourself. It’s really the only – especially with some new field that you’re doing now.
So what was particularly appealing to me is that I had this interest in these general questions and then here was a way where I could actually into it. I had done some work with random number generator experiments sort of as they had been done at the para lab in Princeton for a year prior to that, and quickly came to the conclusion that that’s not the kind of work that one can do by oneself. It’s very difficult.
Alex Tsakiris: What are some of the particular challenges of working with those random number generators and that massive amount of data that it takes to see some kind of effect?
Dr. Peter Bancel: There are two things. One is if you are running experiments where you’re working with people, it’s very time-consuming, costly, and you have to organize and arrange to have subjects and stuff like that. That takes a lot of – there’s actually a lot of overhead involved with that.
The other thing is that these experiments, even if they product results that are interesting, have extremely weak effects, so you have to be even more careful than you might otherwise need to be to make sure that you’re not being influenced by some small bias or some kind of quirk in analysis procedures. So you just have to be very, very, very careful with what you’re doing because you’re looking at such a small effect. That’s really the main difficulty with it.
The Global Consciousness Project has its own sort of problems as far as that’s concerned; the way it’s set up is not really easily amenable to analysis. I think when the project was started there wasn’t really so much an idea of exactly how one would go and dig into the data to understand an effect if one were found. If there was some more thought that went into it, then it might have been conceived a little bit differently so that the analysis would be easier. But that just means that there’s just a lot of grunt work that has to be done in order to be sure that you’re on a good footing.
Alex Tsakiris: Interesting. Let’s dive into that for a minute. Breaking it down shows the extent to which you’ve really dug into this, and I think other people would probably like to hear that because as you mentioned, anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps, as it were, and do some of their own analysis, that’s certainly possible. So what were some of the challenges that you had to go through in trying to do some analysis of the data?
Dr. Peter Bancel: It’s kind of technical details that aren’t terrifically interesting, but one example is that the project, which now has been running for about 11 years, I mean that’s really a beauty of it. There’s this huge, continuous database that you can look at and it allows you to explore the data and these events that we look at over very long periods of time. But it also produces what’s essentially a control database because the thing’s continuous and we can only look at a small subset of the data. We can use all the rest of the data that is there to check for stability, normalize the data, and do things like that.
Alex Tsakiris: Just to clarify so that everyone understands what you’re saying, or maybe I should say so I understand what you’re saying, is that if we assume that these random number generators truly are random, then the pattern statistically should demonstrate that over time. And that if we find a statistical anomaly, some period of time when they appear to be non-random, we can go back and take that data and compare it with all the other data sets that we might choose and see if there really is that anomaly or if we’re just kidding ourselves. Is that essentially it?
Dr. Peter Bancel: Yes, that’s pretty much it. And one way to look at this, at the GCP network is that it’s an instrument. You want the instrument to be stable so that you can rely that its default behavior is the same today as it was yesterday and as it will be a year from now. Having this long, continuous database, one of the things you can do, and that’s what I do, is you go and check for stability over the long term. This effect that we see seems to be punctual; it seems to happen in relatively short and sparce periods of time. And so the overall database sort of swamps that and can be taken as a control.
Alex Tsakiris: I love that analogy of the instrument and saying that we really should view the global consciousness network as an instrument tuning into global consciousness. That’s interesting.
So tell us a little bit about where you focused your analysis and what you found.
Dr. Peter Bancel: I came into the project after it had been going for a couple of years and even at that point the cumulative effect of these events that Roger Nelson had been looking at had considerable significance. So one of the first things I set out to do was to see if I could find something methodological or otherwise that was wrong in how the project was set up. So I sort of took six months and vetted the whole experiment.
Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. So the data is there. Your first thing is let me go and do what he said he did and see if I come up with the same result. Just a straight replication, huh?
Dr. Peter Bancel: Right. And so I just basically checked what had been done. In doing that, found problems. There are always problems in experiments, and particularly in an experiment like this, which has a very large scope but an extremely small team. So I went through and I did find some small problems and then I corrected for them. The question I was asking myself is if there was anything fatal, and there wasn’t at all.
Alex Tsakiris: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of the analysis that you have done and the methodology as it is right now for selecting events? And in doing so, one of the things I want to point out is that the analysis of the data, as you just described, is already in place. So when they are selecting events, it’s not like they’re massaging the events to fit the data or that they’re massaging the data to fit the events. Is that correct?
Dr. Peter Bancel: Yes, that’s right. As far as the methodology of the experiment goes, it’s just very simple. It’s that the data stream is continuous, but it’s locked up in an archive that you don’t touch until you make a prediction for an event. When you do that, you specify an event by specifying a time, a block of data like today from 9 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock in the morning, something like that.
And then you specify the same time a statistic. Like for example, the average value of the data as being the statistic that you expect will be there. So you do all of that before you look at the data. Then you go back and you actually make that calculation. What was the average value of all those numbers from 9 to 10 o’clock in the morning? That then gives you basically a score for a particular event. The experiment then runs by accumulating many events and accumulating the value of all these scores to see if, on average, things are actually deviating from what would be expected.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s not like there’s some meter that someone would imagine sitting on Roger’s desk and the meter flies over to the red zone as the data’s streaming in or anything like that.
Dr. Peter Bancel: Yes, that’s a notion that’s kind of like Whack-A-Mole, you know this game in the amusement arcades? The idea that the effect would be strong enough so that you could actually see in real time something happening. We know absolutely for sure that the effect is so weak; it’s just a very, very – if you want to think of it in terms of a signal, that’s maybe not the best way to phrase it – but you think of it as a very, very weak signal, you’re going to have to accumulate for a long, long, long time before you actually have some confidence that you’re actually seeing something.
Alex Tsakiris: You touched on the issue of noise and on the small signal that we’re trying to tease out of this data. And I think that’s one of the criticisms that I hear from folks after they get over the initial idea that this really is a valid way of generating this data. And then the second thing is usually this idea that it’s such a small, small, small effect, how do you know you’re really measuring anything at all? Do you want to speak to that for a minute?
Dr. Peter Bancel: That’s kind of a red herring. Anybody who makes an objection that the effect is so small that it’s therefore not interesting probably wouldn’t have to think very much before realizing that many, many things that are measured in science and well understood are very, very small effects.
You can think of all of the work and research that’s done in medical sciences and studying drugs and whatever. Those are all very, very small effects in general. And in the hard sciences, as well. So the fact that something has a small effect doesn’t mean that it has any less credibility. It just means that you have to perform an appropriate experiment to look at it.
Alex Tsakiris: And doesn’t it also relate back to the topic you were talking about before of your instrument? It might be a small effect with the instruments we have to measure it now, and it might be a function of the quality of those instruments, right?
Dr. Peter Bancel: Yes, right, exactly. And then that begs the question of is your instrument the best it can be? And one of the things certainly that we’d like to work towards would be to upgrade the instrument.
Alex Tsakiris: Of course, the other objection that we hear all the time is data mining, but I think we’ve addressed that in that since the data is archived; someone can’t see it before the event is determined, and really, even if they could see the data it would be virtually impossible to pick out an event just from looking at the data stream. That pretty much eliminates the chance that someone is just going back and fishing through a bunch of data, looking for a pattern.
Dr. Peter Bancel: I think these kinds of arguments come from somebody who’s presenting themselves as a skeptic, right? The skeptical approach is interesting but to my mind, it’s not science. Skeptics are basically concerned that somebody is wrong in their thinking and that thinking should be corrected. And so skeptics are worried about convincing people that they’re wrong, or something like that. So it has to do with a sort of social question.
I mean, science is something else. To my mind, science doesn’t really even take a skeptical stance; it’s just trying to ask the best questions that you can and then devise the best experiments to address those questions, simply because you’re curious about how things are going on in the world.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s really a wonderful way to put that, and I think it’s a very appropriate reframe, because so often we’ve heard this point that science is about skepticism and skeptical science and the like. And I think that’s really a very, very appropriate and interesting reframe to say science really isn’t about skepticism. It’s about finding the best way to pose these questions and the best way to carry out these experiments. I think that’s an interesting point. You’ve got some further thoughts on belief in science, don’t you?
Dr. Peter Bancel: I find that the arguments that occur with skeptics are often missing the point because they’re focusing so much on questions of belief and not on questions of curiosity. But science informs belief, of course. That’s one of the reasons that we do science, is because we want to check and expand our view of the world. But sometimes in the skeptical debates, there’s a misunderstanding of how belief arises, and how science feeds into belief.
For my sense, basically belief comes from three things: either we experience something and therefore we believe it because we see it; or we through logic or induction reason that something must be so and therefore we believe it; or somebody tells us it’s the case and we believe them. So then we believe what they’re saying.
What’s particular about science is that it rests firstly on the experience. So it’s about finding experience and making that experience familiar and that’s in scientific talk you would usually then talk about having reproducible experiments. What a reproducible experiment is, is just becoming more familiar with a given experience, and therefore you come to believe it.
Alex Tsakiris: Is all that really true, though? Because I think when we look at science in the broader sense of all the places that science has taken us beyond the physics and the hard sciences, we get into varying degrees of certainty on each one of those levels, right?
When we take experience and you go into the social science field and particularly go into the psychology field, there are folks who are firmly of the belief that we should not trust our experience. Not trust any experience, all the way from B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud on, to saying there’s this whole part of our experience that we shouldn’t trust and we have to norm it with other people’s experiences.
Dr. Peter Bancel: That’s right. That brings in a second aspect of the experimental. We could also use that word in terms of experience; we could also say experimental. The second aspect is that the experimental work happens in a community. So it’s not just that you are only doing an experiment in your lab, but then you’re sharing that with others. Others can do it. And then you can just come to some kind of common consensus of whether the experience is valid or not.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, ideally, but that’s just a whole other rat’s nest, right? It gets down to what is experience? How is it culturally biased? How is it biased by our language?
Dr. Peter Bancel: Exactly, yeah. And those are all good and valid questions that you have to wrestle with. Yes, I don’t see that as a problem or a rat’s nest. It’s just the way things are.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it is a rat’s nest when we get to the point where we are now, where I think in many respects we question whether or not we can even rely on experience. We get into philosophical questions like free will and whether we even can really be aware and control anything that we’re doing.
And typically when we talk about consciousness, why is there so much controversy about consciousness? I think it’s because neuroscience is constantly telling us don’t trust your experience. You’re making a decision before you’re conscious that you’re making it. And there are all these little anomalies that they seem to find and they seem to explain away with some kind of materialistic view of the world. So I don’t think experience is as simple and straightforward as it seems as a way of understanding what’s going on.
Dr. Peter Bancel: I completely agree with you, and that’s why one of the tools of science is to go for a very particular kind of experience, which is an experiment. And so you construct and control your experience so that it has certain qualities that can lead to a consensus about what’s happening. What science doesn’t really contain in terms of this kind of belief structure, is the authority that that’s the thing that’s missing. No one in science has authority to say such-and-such and that that can be taken as a valid and sufficient means for believing something.
Alex Tsakiris: See, and I’m not even sure I’d agree with you on that last point. I mean, four out of five dentists recommend Dentyne, I mean…
Dr. Peter Bancel: But that’s not real science.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, but I think it is. I think if we look at medical science, this idea that we can garner a consensus of people who are in authority and we can rely on that. Survey work is all about consensus on authority. And I think there’s also a lot of good experimental work that backs up the notion that the whole wisdom of crowds thing. That if we get enough people who think a certain thing, then there’s a theory behind that that suggests that it’s highly suggestive that that is what we’re going to find.
Dr. Peter Bancel: Well, I’m talking about what I consider science to be and what might be some sort of ideal way of it working. What I meant by authority is authority is not part of what informs belief in science. It’s that authority alone is not. So really, it always has to go back to some experience. An example is that I came to the Global Consciousness Project and then the first thing that I was motivated to do was to go and get the data and verify it for myself. So that’s the way it works.
There’s some sort of authority, if you like, a published paper from the Global Consciousness Project. You read that but then you’re motivated to go back through the other layers of science and actually get down to the actual experimental record.
Alex Tsakiris: What else I think is interesting about this whole discussion we’ve had inside the discussion is that it really loops back around to your initial interest in the Global Consciousness Project in terms of quantifying consciousness. Because as we just explored there, there’s a lot of different aspects to looking at experience and we can find fault with it, and science has, and question what’s the best way to normalize it?
That isn’t what you said. You said, “I’ve tried to pull this apart a million different ways. Here’s this guy with this huge database that allows me to really bridge the gap between all those tricky issues and some good, hard data that I can really sink my teeth into.”
Dr. Peter Bancel: Yes. And then at the end of the day, for myself, really it isn’t about belief at all. At the end of the day, the question really is what is the next question that gets opened up? The study and the understanding of an experiment, the interesting thing isn’t the answer that it gives you; it’s that it provokes a further question that pries open or brings some insight into how I go about experiencing the world.
Alex Tsakiris: Wonderful, wonderful. So with that as a wonderful backdrop for what we’re trying to help promote in terms of collaboration between the Global Consciousness Project, of which you’ve been associated with, and the work that Chris French is doing at the University of London in investigating it, what do you see as the next steps and where might that be unfolding?
Dr. Peter Bancel: As I mentioned, what’s very nice about Chris French and Tamas getting interested is that they can bring some effort to this side of the experiment that hasn’t received as much attention as the data analysis and that is having some kind of re-thinking about how these events are specified. Which is really asking what is it actually that’s going on in the world among people?
Alex Tsakiris: So Dr. Bancel, what are your thoughts in terms of where this work might eventually wind up going?
Dr. Peter Bancel: The collaboration with the London group, I think could eventually lead a ground for looking back at the Global Consciousness Project altogether and seeing how the whole project or experiment might evolve to better address these questions. I think that the experiment, at some point, needs to close down and re-open with a 2.0.
Any time you have some long, ongoing experiment with a complicated instrument, at some point you sort of struck down the instrument, digest what you’ve learned, make a new, improved instrument, and then start again. So that would be something that would be wonderful to get into the conversation without any kind of collaborations that were going on.
Another thing that can come out of the London collaboration actually has to do with – you hear this famous, I guess it was Carl Sagan who was saying extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which is sometimes used as a push-back against psi research. I tend to agree with that, actually. I think that’s completely sensible and reasonable. Although I do think that people often slightly misunderstand what is meant by extraordinary claims.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s very open and generous on your part. I do have to take somewhat of an exception with you on a couple of those points, though, from where I sit and from doing Skeptiko for a few years. 1) The extraordinary claims/extraordinary proof thing, the problem with that is like so many tautologies, it’s obvious at its superficial level and then is open for interpretation or misinterpretation by whoever hears it.
I would suggest that the institution of science, as it’s currently constructed with the peer review process, with the consensus that you have to build among your community to get anything accepted, handles the subjectiveness of the extraordinary claim and the extraordinary proof without any need to layer on top of it, as we often hear, that you’re doing science, but your science I deem extraordinary, therefore I demand you do this and this and this. I just don’t think it’s necessary. I think the statement is meaningless and it’s just used by skeptics and people who don’t like a certain belief or a certain bit of information to dismiss it.
2) The other thing I’d say about re-booting the Global Consciousness Project, I think that’s wonderful and I think it’s a good idea. But I don’t think it really gets to the issue of why the Global Consciousness Project has been so maligned on one hand, but also ignored on the other. When I first got into this and started talking to people who were real researchers, real scientists, but had self-identified as skeptics, one of the things I heard over and over again is hey, just give us any little foothold here into psi or some unexplained phenomena, and we’ll be all over it.
And the truth is just the opposite. There’s an organized effort of willful ignorance, if you will, in terms of these topics. My take is that there’s plenty of data there already for someone to dig into and to create a lot of momentum behind the Global Consciousness Project. So I’m all for re-boot, 2.0, and getting more legitimacy to it. But I don’t think that goes toward explaining why there hasn’t been more interest in it up to date, because there’s really enough for somebody to dig into there.
Dr. Peter Bancel: Actually, I disagree with you, because I remember when I started really working full-time on the project. I was invited to the Institute of Noetic Science by Roger and met with him and a few other people, Dean Radin, to spend a weekend talking about the project. I came away from that meeting pretty close to your view there of there’s really enough to get into.
However, I thought that the project is too complex and too in kind of a raw state to really be accessible for scientists. So things have to be – it’s like you have to invite someone over for dinner and you serve them a cooked meal. You don’t give them all the ingredients and say, “There’s the kitchen.” You see what I mean?
Alex Tsakiris: That’s probably a pretty good analogy and maybe that speaks to the different audiences that you talk to and the different circles that you run in than I run in. I understand your point. I think it’s a very good one; I’m glad you made it. I do have to say, at the same time, I was looking at some of the criticism of your papers that have been published online and I found this one gentleman who’s a statistician and is obviously pretty accomplished in his field. What I found is what I so often find: this kind of blanket dismissal of it without even getting to first base.
Dr. Peter Bancel: I think that was Andrew Gelman, who’s a statistician in the political sciences at Columbia University in New York. He was contacted by a journalist who wanted an opinion on the statistics. He made some comments to the journalist and then posted it on his blog without ever having read the papers.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. And then when he did read the papers, he didn’t really back off. He didn’t say what your analysis says is that it’s still is a valid way of pursuing an interesting anomaly. No, it was just this blanket dismissal. So maybe you have a legion of interested physicists who are ready to jump into this once the meal is prepared. I think you’re right.
We have to do that and that has to help, but I don’t think it goes toward fully explaining this issue of belief that we were talking about a minute ago. And that’s that beliefs, these cherished beliefs and closely held beliefs among some scientists, are slow to change. I don’t think preparing the meal and serving it up on a silver platter is going to make the revolutionary change happen overnight. But maybe what your point is, is that it’s certainly the first step in making that happen, and to that I certainly agree.
Dr. Peter Bancel: That’s right. It’s an essential step in engaging people and I look at it as something you actually offer people. I’m a scientist, I like scientists. It’s a pleasure to offer them something that’s accessible that they can roll up their sleeves and get into. So experiments need to be clear-cut and at some level simple; but at the same time, the scientist who’s looking at the evidence has to do his homework so that he can judge whether or not that’s extraordinary evidence. Do you see what I mean?
Alex Tsakiris: I do, but I think that relates back to my point in that it’s somewhat of a tautology. It’s built-in to the method of science and when we layer it on top, like it so often is, and it’s put on after the fact that okay, we’re going to measure whether or not that science that you’ve done is valid by some outside, subjective measure that I have, of what extraordinary claims and extraordinary proof are, I think we move further away from the ideals of science and further away from the beauty of the tool of discovery. When you say it’s…
Dr. Peter Bancel: Exactly, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: …when you say it’s internalized in a good scientist to be mindful that their claims, if they are extraordinary, require and extra degree of diligence on their part, I think that’s wonderful. I just don’t like to hear it from someone coming from the outside and making some kind of subjective evaluation of whose experiments are subjective and what results are extraordinary.
Dr. Peter Bancel: Yes, I think all of these things have to do with the art of science.
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly.
Dr. Peter Bancel: Can you hold these things that clash with your beliefs but honestly engage them? So it’s like a way of telling whether or not somebody is deemed a scientist. If they’re being unnecessarily dismissive, then at that moment they’re not being a scientist.
Alex Tsakiris: Wonderful. How extraordinary and it’s been a wonderful, wonderful chat and I’ve really, really enjoyed it. I think we’ve explored some of the areas beyond the Global Consciousness Project that are of great interest to me and are constantly topics that we talk about here on Skeptiko. I’m sure that many, many folks will find this a very interesting dialogue. Thanks again, so much.
Dr. Peter Bancel: I’ve occasionally listened to your broadcasts on Skeptiko and appreciate very much the huge effort that you do to keep this debate going and genuine, because it’s a very good program. I appreciate it a lot.
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks. It’s fun for me and I don’t know, it’s just a delight, and I’m finding that more and more folks, once they’re exposed to the kind of work that you’re doing and folks like Roger Nelson are doing, they’re finding that it really is fascinating on a level that they couldn’t even have imagined because they’ve never really been given a chance to hear from folks like you and hear the thoughts that are behind some of this research that we just get a glance at from a headline that passes the desk and usually has some kind of skeptical spin on it. So it’s really great to dig into this stuff in some depth.
Dr. Peter Bancel: Okay, Alex, you take care.
Alex Tsakiris: Take care.