September 12, 2011

I confess, I like this issue of Phlit. I always welcome your feedback, but this time even more so than usual.

1. Facts Are Squishy Things

If you’ve played any sports, you know that some days you have it, and some days you don’t; as the saying goes, “when you’re hot, you’re hot, and when you’re not, you’re not.” If, for example, you’ve played basketball, you know that some days all your shots go in, and some days all your shots miss. But when a study of “hot streaks” was conducted, it was determined that there’s really no such thing as hot streaks and cold streaks. But every basketball player knows that there must be something wrong with this study. How much faith should we place in scientific studies? Do such studies prove whatever the scientist wants to prove?

In the Shakespeare Controversy, both sides present “facts” and “evidence,” and both sides ridicule the facts and evidence presented by their opponents. The Controversy has raged for more than a century, and “facts” seem powerless to resolve it. As I said in an earlier issue, “Philosophical ideas are generally incapable of proof; proof is for geometry, not for the humanities. As for evidence, it is often ‘in the eye of the beholder’; one person’s evidence is another person’s bullshit.” John Adams said “Facts are stubborn things,” but perhaps facts are squishier than we commonly suppose. Perhaps facts are arranged to suit our beliefs, and in the end, we believe what we want to believe.

A recent article in the New Yorker casts doubt on scientific studies in general.1 It says that scientific studies often can’t be replicated. That is, the effects that appear initially become less dramatic when the study is repeated. The article is called “The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” It discusses a 1991 Swedish study of birds, a study that concluded females were attracted to males who were symmetrical. This bold conclusion seemed to be supported by solid evidence, and additional studies, by other scientists, seemed to solidify the evidence further.

Then the theory started to fall apart. In 1994, there were fourteen published tests of symmetry and sexual selection, and only eight found a correlation. In 1995, there were eight papers on the subject, and only four got a positive result. By 1998, when there were twelve additional investigations of fluctuating asymmetry, only a third of them confirmed the theory.2

Was Lichtenberg right when he said, in the late 1700’s, “The more experience and experiments are accumulated during the exploration of nature, the more faltering its theories become”?3 In an earlier issue, I noted how people were arguing about what should be considered statistically significant: “I’m glad to see the ‘numbers people’ arguing among themselves, and casting doubt on statistical studies; I don’t use statistics myself, and don’t have much respect for them.” Like facts, statistics are squishy things.

The New Yorker article mentions an Australian biologist who researched scientific studies, and concluded that their results often declined over time — the so-called “decline effect.” The biologist was reluctant to discuss his research:

“This is a very sensitive issue for scientists,” he says. “You know, we’re supposed to be dealing with hard facts, the stuff that’s supposed to stand the test of time. But when you see these trends you become a little more skeptical of things.”

Perhaps facts aren’t as hard as we suppose. Is “hard fact” an oxymoron?

Much of the New Yorker article is devoted to medicine. What medicines are effective? How do we know they’re effective? What if the initial tests are conclusive, but later tests less so? Those who believe in herbal medicine will point to studies that support their position, while those who scoff at herbal medicine will point to other studies.

Scientific studies seem to be influenced by the biases and wishes of those conducting the study.

One of the classic examples of selective reporting concerns the testing of acupuncture in different countries. While acupuncture is widely accepted as a medical treatment in various Asian countries, its use is much more contested in the West. These cultural differences have profoundly influenced the results of clinical trials. Between 1966 and 1995, there were forty-seven studies of acupuncture in China, Taiwan, and Japan, and every single trial concluded that acupuncture was an effective treatment. During the same period, there were ninety-four clinical trials of acupuncture in the United States, Sweden, and the U.K., and only fifty-six per cent of these studies found any therapeutic benefits... This wide discrepancy suggests that scientists find ways to confirm their preferred hypothesis, disregarding what they don’t want to see. Our beliefs are a form of blindness.4

One of the people discussed in the article is J. B. Rhine. Rhine conducted experiments at Duke in the 1930’s that seemed to prove the existence of telepathic powers. His conclusions were widely publicized, and even in far-off Switzerland, Jung hailed them as solid proof. Over time, however, Rhine’s results became less dramatic; he noticed a “decline effect.”

What caused this decline? Perhaps occult phenomena are more likely to occur when people are excited, inspired, “charged up.” When the experiment is repeated, the excitement wears off, and the results become less significant. Does this explain the decline that Rhine noticed? If so, could it help to explain other declines, in other fields? Does the occult principle of “mind over matter” help us to understand scientific studies in general? If mind influences matter, perhaps a more excited mind has a stronger influence.

The article concludes,

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

2. Rick Perry

Rick Perry seems to be the favorite to win the Republican nomination. But he seems to be a relatively easy candidate for Obama to defeat, so Perry might be the best thing that’s happened to the Democratic Party in a long time.

At a recent gathering in New Hampshire, Perry was asked, “How can you scoff at global warming when 97% of scientists believe in it?” Those of us who have studied the Shakespeare Controversy know that 97% of experts can be completely wrong. And as the New Yorker article points out, scientific studies are skewed by biases, wishes, etc. Facts, statistics, and evidence are squishy things.

In the case of global warming, however, I’m persuaded that the experts are right, and the doubters are wrong. I think doubters like Perry are afraid of the costs of dealing with global warming; they have economic and political incentives to be doubters. Likewise, I’m persuaded that evolution is essentially true, and not, as Perry believes, a mere theory or hypothesis.5

Some conservatives and Perry-supporters see conspiracies everywhere. For example, they think that the Federal Reserve and other bankers are involved in a huge conspiracy, and are starting wars against Islam because Islam doesn’t allow loaning-at-interest. They think that pharmaceutical companies are conspiring to make people sick. They seem to suspect the worst of government, and of big institutions in general. David Brooks refers to such people as “the alternative-reality right.”6 Perry’s sympathy for such people makes him attractive in a Republican primary, but unattractive in a general election.

Perry attended Texas A&M, where he was a mediocre student, but active in the school’s social life. As I said in a recent issue, our politicians tend to be “warm, sociable, and likable.” In ancient China, positions of authority were given out based on literary merit; we’ve chosen the opposite course, we give out positions based on literary demerit.

One day, when Perry was jogging, he killed a coyote with one shot. I’d like to ask him, “Why did you kill that coyote? Was it threatening you? I never heard of a coyote threatening an adult male, though I’ve heard of them attacking small children. Every coyote that I’ve ever encountered has been very wary of people. Do you think that the only good coyote is a dead coyote?” Perhaps if you grow up on a Texas farm, as Perry did, you regard coyotes as enemies, since they kill farm animals.

3. Larry Dossey

I noticed a book at the library called The Power of Premonitions, by Larry Dossey, and I began glancing at it. It soon became apparent that the book is full of interesting anecdotes and insights, and it’s only 200 pages long. Dossey has written numerous books, including a bestseller called Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. He’s quite well-known in the psi field; Dean Radin mentions him in the back of Conscious Universe. Dossey is affiliated with Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute. Dossey draws on the work of contemporary researchers like Radin, Rupert Sheldrake, etc. Like most contemporary occultists, Dossey discusses quantum physics, The Aspect Experiment, etc.

Dossey tells the story of a Hungarian bishop, Bishop Lanyi, who had been a tutor of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Just before the Archduke was assassinated, triggering World War I, Lanyi had a dream about the assassination. He was so convinced of its truth that he wrote it down, and summoned two people as witnesses.7

Dossey tells some charming stories about animals — animals with premonitions, hunches, etc. He says, for example, that on the night Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater, “the family dog became frantic at about the same time as the curtain was rising at the theater.... The dog continued running through the hallways [of the White House] until it stopped, threw its head back, and began to wail.” It seems that, before Lincoln was shot, the dog sensed danger, and after he was shot, the dog sensed that, too.8

Dossey also tells an astonishing story about a dog living in England. His owner was a soldier in World War I, and left England for the battlefields of France. The dog was worried, stopped eating, and finally ran away. The soldier’s wife searched for the dog, but to no avail. Finally she wrote her husband, and said the dog is lost. By the time her letter reached her husband, the dog had somehow crossed the English Channel, made its way to France, and found its owner!9

Dossey also says that, in 2004, many animals in Indonesia and surrounding countries sensed the coming tsunami, and made their way to higher ground.

Not only animals, but also primitive people seem to have a sixth sense. Dossey discusses an explorer named Hubert Wilkins, who grew up among Australian aborigines, and noticed that they were capable “of knowing of some event which was taking place miles beyond their range of sight and hearing.”

Dossey discusses the question, Where does consciousness come from? Does the brain produce consciousness? Is consciousness/mind produced entirely by the cells of the brain? Or does the brain receive consciousness, as a TV receives broadcasts? Is consciousness outside the brain, perhaps suffused throughout the universe?

“One of the first modern thinkers,” Dossey writes, “to endorse an outside-the-brain view of consciousness was William James.... James took a courageous stand against what he called ‘the fangs of cerebralistic materialism’ and the idea that consciousness is produced by the brain.”10 James used radio to illustrate how the brain works: if it’s damaged, it doesn’t play sounds correctly, but that doesn’t mean that sounds originate in the radio.

Consciousness doesn’t originate in the brain, it’s received by the brain. The brain must be in good working order to receive correctly, but the brain doesn’t create consciousness, any more than the radio creates sounds. We recall that Radin titled his book The Conscious Universe. As Niels Bohr put it, “Consciousness must be part of nature, or, more generally, of reality.”11 In my book of aphorisms, I wrote, “The Philosophy of Today.... believes that the universe is suffused with energy, power, mystery, even a kind of consciousness.” As Eastern philosophy says, our mind is part of a Universal Mind.

If this view of consciousness is valid, it would help to explain many occult phenomena. For example, it would help to explain life after death: the brain may be dead, but some kind of consciousness may still exist. And it would help to explain how a person could be a reincarnation of someone who lived long ago: consciousness may be beyond both space and time — nonlocal, infinite, eternal.

This view of consciousness is akin to the view that philosophical ideas aren’t reached by thinking or reasoning, they simply pop into the philosopher’s head. As Schopenhauer said, “Deep truths may be perceived, but can never be excogitated.”12 In my book of aphorisms, I wrote,

A philosopher’s most profound ideas are reached by intuition, not by reasoning. A philosopher’s most profound ideas usually come to him during his youth. A philosopher is one who, while still young, has an intuitive perception of the idea of his time.

One might say that a philosopher receives the ideas that are “in the air,” the ideas that are being broadcast.13 The philosopher’s experience strengthens the view that the brain is the receiver of consciousness, not the creator of consciousness.

Scientific ideas, like philosophical ideas, seem to be received rather than created. Dossey quotes Thomas Edison:

“People say I have created things,” he wrote in 1911. “I have never created anything. I get impressions from the Universe at large and work them out, but I am only a plate on a record or a receiving apparatus — what you will. Thoughts are really impressions that we get from the outside.”14

Perhaps consciousness is akin to telepathy, that is, it travels vast distances instantly. Consciousness is like those quantum experiments that overthrow our notions of space and time.

My conclusion [Dossey writes] is that consciousness is not a thing or substance, but is a nonlocal phenomenon. Nonlocal is merely a fancy word for infinite. If something is nonlocal, it is not localized to specific points in space, such as brains or bodies, or to specific points in time, such as the present. Nonlocal events are immediate; they require no travel time. They are unmediated; they require no energetic signal to “carry” them. They are unmitigated; they do not become weaker with increasing distance. Nonlocal phenomena are omnipresent, everywhere at once.15

Infinite, omnipresent. Does this remind you of God? Occult phenomena have much in common with God. One might say that “God” is a word that people have used to make sense of inexplicable, occult phenomena.

What I learned from Dossey’s Power of Premonitions is that it’s dangerous to pick up a book at the library — you may become engrossed, you may not be able to put it down.

4. Murder on the Orient Express

I read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. It’s easy to see why such books are popular; Orient Express is concise, clear, readable. It grabs your attention on the first page, and holds your attention to the last page; you want to learn the solution to the puzzle, you want to know who did it. There are no wasted words, no flowery language, no digressions; as they say in politics, Christie “stays on message.” Every page is a pleasure, an effortless pleasure. The author uses an astonishing amount of cleverness, reasoning; one might compare the author to a chess player. Christie gives us very little Christie, she reveals very little about herself; her writing is objective, not subjective.

Since Christie’s work is so concise, it’s suitable for reading aloud, and since it’s so clear, it’s suitable for young readers, and for foreigners who are trying to learn English. It could persuade youngsters that reading is pleasurable.

Christie’s writing has dignity, courtesy, taste. She doesn’t use the vulgar device, popular in Hollywood, of ridiculing the nobility. Her detective, Poirot, puts faith in Count Andrenyi’s “word of honor,” and this faith proves justified.

While the strengths of such novels are obvious, so are the weaknesses. The characters aren’t three-dimensional and life-like, the story is utterly unrealistic. There are no deep feelings or thoughts; the reader is neither moved nor enlightened, merely entertained. The author doesn’t create a world; she merely creates a puzzle. Edmund Wilson criticized this genre in his essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” while Jacques Barzun defended it in The Delights of Detection.

Christie’s detective-hero, Hercule Poirot, is Belgian, and he seems to use intuitions and feelings more than an Englishman would. As Poirot says to Mary Debenham, “An English inquiry.... would be cut and dried — it would all be kept to the facts — a well-ordered business.”16

Orient Express was published in 1934, and is based on the Lindbergh kidnapping, which occurred in 1932. When Christie wrote Orient Express, she was married to an archeologist who was working in the Middle East. When she visited him in 1931, she travelled via the Orient Express, and her train was forced to stop because of bad weather; this incident influenced her novel, in which the train is stopped by heavy snow. Christie’s time in the Middle East influenced her 1936 novel, Murder in Mesopotamia.

The 1974 film version of Orient Express is one of the most popular film adaptations of Christie’s works.

Christie began her career with The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Her early work was influenced by the Sherlock Holmes stories, as those stories were influenced by Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

5. Miscellaneous

A. A young reader often has a filial respect for an admired writer. Proust says that when his young narrator read Anatole France, he sometimes “wept upon his printed page, as in the arms of a long-lost father.”17 Lucretius had a filial attitude toward Epicurus: “You are the one I follow; in your steps I tread.... You, father, found the truth; you gave us a father’s wisdom.”18

B. One of the key differences in the way people view God is whether God is within man or outside man. Mystics and pantheists tend to view God as within man, while rigid monotheists tend to view God as outside man (man is here, God is there, and never the twain shall meet). Islamic terrorists tend to be rigid monotheists. Are rigid monotheists more willing to kill themselves and others because they view God as outside man? Does the mystical view that God is within give us greater respect for ourselves and others, and thereby make suicide and homicide less likely?

C. Fareed Zakaria has updated his bestseller, The Post-American World. The updated version is sub-titled Release 2.0. A book that surveys political and economic developments needs to be continually updated, and such updating is a challenge for publishers, libraries, etc. An e-book, however, can be easily updated. Perhaps a customer could buy a subscription to an e-book, so he could obtain future updates without having to buy the book again.

D. The local GreatBooks group read a story by John Updike called “The Christian Roommates.” It’s about Harvard freshmen. I found it witty and enjoyable to read, but I didn’t feel that the author was trying to say anything.

I was struck by how the two main characters, Hub and Orson, end up living much the way they started as freshmen. Other people in the group, however, insisted that Orson changed much during the story. Certainly Hub and Orson are very different: Orson becomes a doctor in his hometown, like his father before him, while Hub rejects science and devotes himself to religion and philanthropy. They have a difficult relationship, but end the year on good terms.19

E. I discovered three popular-historical writers:

  1. Miles J. Unger is a former journalist who recently wrote biographies of Machiavelli and Lorenzo de Medici. Unger’s interest in Florentine history goes back to his early years, when he lived in Florence.20
  2. Paul Strathern wrote a popular history of the Medici family, and recently published The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior: Leonardo, Machiavelli and Borgia. Strathern also wrote Napoleon in Egypt, and a book about chemistry called Mendeleyev’s Dream.

    Strathern wrote a series of short books on philosophy (Machiavelli in 90 Minutes, Aristotle in 90 Minutes, etc.), a series on Great Writers (Hemingway in 90 Minutes, Borges in 90 Minutes, etc.), and a series on science (Einstein and Relativity, Turing and the Computer, etc.).21

  3. Christopher Hibbert wrote The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall, The Destruction of Lord Raglan (about the Crimean War), Cavaliers & Roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649, and many other books.

© L. James Hammond 2011
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. See the December 13, 2010 issue. back
2. Ibid. On August 27, 2015, the New York Times published an article called “Many Psychology Findings Not as Strong as Claimed, Study Says.” The article said “a painstaking yearslong effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested.” back
3. See the Wikipedia article on Lichtenberg. back
4. New Yorker article back
5. That is, I believe that human beings arose by evolution, not creation. My doubts about Darwin concern the mechanism of evolution, not evolution itself. back
6. New York Times, August 25, 2011 back
7. Hardcover edition, Ch. 4, “Would History Have Been Different?” p. 159 back
8. Ch. 2, p. 83 back
9. Ch. 2, p. 82 back
10. Ch. 5, pp. 191, 192 back
11. Ch. 5, epigraph back
12. Counsels and Maxims, 5 back
13. In my book of aphorisms, I wrote, “As Dostoyevsky’s work shows, the ideas of atheism and of going ‘beyond good and evil’ were in the air during the late 1800’s; Nietzsche didn’t introduce those ideas, he merely found them and expressed them. To find the ideas of one’s time and express them is the task of a thinker.” back
14. Ch. 5, p. 192 back
15. Ch 5, p. 193 back
16. Ch. 11 back
17. Swann’s Way, “Combray” back
18. On the Nature of Things, start of Book III. The original is “te sequor... inque tuis nunc ficta pedum pono pressis vestigia signis... tu, pater, es rerum inventor, tu patria nobis suppeditas praecepta.” back
19. The story can be found in a volume called The Music School (1966) and also in a volume called The Early Stories: 1953-1975. back
20. Unger’s interview with Brian Lamb is rather dull. Unger’s father, Irwin Unger, is an NYU professor, specializing in American history; he’s the author of numerous books, including The Guggenheims: A Family History, and The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-1879, which won a Pulitzer Prize. back
21. The series on science is called The Big Idea, and is published by Anchor Books, the other two series are published by Ivan R. Dee. back