News Briefs 04-04-2017

Ring the bells...

Quote of the Day:

I'll tell you a secret. Something they don't teach you in your temple. The gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed... We'll never be here again.

Achilles, in the movie 'Troy'

Precognition Researcher Daryl Bem Responds to Criticism of His Famous Experiments

Crystal Ball

Last month the Chronicle for Higher Education published an exposé of sorts on Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and bestselling author on eating habits. Towards the end of the article, the author of the piece pointed out that this controversy wasn't the first to deal "a blow to Cornell's research reputation":

In 2011, Daryl Bem, an emeritus professor of psychology, published a paper in which he showed, or seemed to show, that subjects could anticipate pornographic images before they appeared on a computer screen. If true, Bem’s finding would upend what we understand about the nature of time and causation. It would be a big deal. That paper, "Feeling the Future," was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate, though Bem himself has stood by his results.

Bem, however, could be dismissed as a quirky psychologist poking at conventional wisdom. He wasn’t in charge of a major lab. Cornell’s business school uses Wansink’s face to illustrate its faculty and research webpage."

Long-time readers will know the research being referred to here as we were covering it way back in 2010, well before it became big news. In short, highly respected researcher Daryl Bem and his team ran nine experiments, involving more than 1,000 participants, that tested for "retroactive influence" (that is, effects before cause) by “timereversing” well-established psychological tests so that individuals' responses were obtained before the stimulus events occurred. The result: statistically significant positive results suggesting 'presentiment' of future unknown events was an actual thing.

Bem's paper was (predictably) slammed by CSICOPian skeptics (including James Randi and Michael Shermer), but for the most part it was relatively well-accepted, and made headline news around the world. Addionally, although there was one high-profile failed replication of the experiments, there were also a number of positive replications of the research results, resulting in a meta-analysis supporting the original results.

So it's difficult to see how the author of the Chronicle of Higher Education piece came to the conclusion that Bem's paper "was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate". For his part, Daryl Bem has written a letter of reply that has just been posted on the Chronicel for Higher Education website:

To the Editor:

In "Spoiled Science" (March 31), Tom Bartlett briefly refers to a 2011 publication of mine that appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It presented the results of nine experiments claiming to demonstrate the existence of precognition, a form of ESP. The Journal is one of the most strongly refereed journals in psychology, with a rejection rate of approximately 80 percent. Four referees and two editors approved the article for publication.

Bartlett asserts that my experiments failed to replicate. He is incorrect: In 2015, three colleagues and I published a follow-up meta-analysis of 90 such experiments conducted by 33 laboratories in 14 countries. The results strongly support my original findings. In particular, the independent replications are robust and highly significant statistically.

Bartlett further asserts that this research was widely ridiculed and constituted a blow to Cornell’s research reputation. But it was Cornell’s own public-affairs office that was proactively instrumental in setting up interviews with the press and other media following the publication of the original article. New Scientist, Discover, Wired, New York Magazine, and Cornell’s own in-house publications all described the research findings seriously and without ridicule.

Daryl J. Bem
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
Cornell University

To learn more about Bem's controversial research - both the science, and the history, see the links below.

Related:

News Briefs 03-04-2017

Let's see if you're whistling by the end of today's news...

Quote of the Day:

Always look on the bright side of life.

Monty Python's The Life of Brian

Weekly Roundup 02-04-2017

News Briefs 30-03-2017

This wasn't in the brochure!

Thanks to my ParaMania homies. See ya in LA next week!

Quote of the Day:

“You simply have to turn your back on a culture that has gone sterile and dead and get with the program of a living world and the imagination.”

˜Terence McKenna

Is Harvesting Medicinal Plants for 'Shamanic Tourism' Sustainable?

Ayahuasca preparation (photo by Heah, CCSA3 licence)

In recent years there has been a surge in so-called 'medical' or 'shamanic' tourism, with people from Western countries visiting retreats in foreign locations - such as the Amazon - to partake in indigenous ceremonies involving plant brews. But an overlooked element of such tourism is the question of whether this higher level of plant harvesting is sustainable.

Long-time Grailer Michael Coe, a graduate student working on his PhD in ethnobotany, is conducting research to try and answer this important question. As a recipient of the prestigious Richard Evans Schultes Award he has been able to partially fund his work already, but he is also seeking extra crowd-funding assistance for his research from the community:

Certain plant species are fundamental to the identity and longevity of cultural groups. Culturally important medicinal plants that are used for multiple purposes and have gained global attention are expected to be harvested frequently. I will identify medicinal plants that are culturally irreplaceable for local healers in Peru but that are used in medical tourism, and use mathematical models to investigate if and how harvesting these plants for medical tourism can be sustainable.

Michael's research is endorsed by the likes of Luis Eduardo Luna and Dennis McKenna, who notes that Michael's "important ethnobotanical fieldwork is a major undertaking, to understand the ecological and environmental context for the medicinal complex associated with ayahuasca."

So if you'd like to help out a fellow Grailer doing legit scientific research on an important topic, head over to his page on Experiment.com and help him reach his funding goal!

Link: Is Harvesting Medicinal Plants for Medical Tourism Sustainable?

News Briefs 29-03-2017

Spiral out...

Quote of the Day:

Don't cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.

Unknown

Seance Through Science: Edison's Ghost Machine

Thomas Alva Edison is a man who requires little or no introduction. In his 84 years of life Edison came up with many, many innovations including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the stock ticker, the power station, and of course, the light bulb. In fact, Edison is still the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 patents in the USA alone. He also routinely electrocuted numerous animals including an elephant, but that’s another story. All this, as I say, you probably already know. You may even have heard, or read, that Edison's last breath is preserved at the Henry Ford Museum (AKA the Edison Institute) in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford having convinced Edison’s son Charles to seal a glass vacuum tube of air from the inventor's room shortly after his death in October 1931. Granted, that seems a bit odd, but memento mori were not so uncommon then, and Ford was a great friend of Edison’s after all. Even so, some might wonder whether it’s something Edison senior would have consented to himself. It does seem rather morbid – superstitious even – and surely at odds with the hard scientific logic of a man who was quoted by the New York Times in 1910 as saying he had come to the conclusion that “there is no ‘supernatural,’ or ‘supernormal,’ that all there is can be explained along material lines”. But then again, perhaps not.

The October 1920 issue of American Magazine contained an article with the rather attention grabbing title of “Edison Working on How to Communicate with the Next World” written by one Bertie Charles Forbes (founder of Forbes Magazine). In an interview conducted by Forbes and published in Scientific American soon after, Edison expressed some rather interesting – some might say surprising – opinions concerning no less a subject than life after death:

If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical and scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, and other faculties and knowledge that we acquire on Earth […] I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, moved, or manipulated [...] by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.

Indeed, it would seem that these were not just idle musings, because in a private journal entry, again dating from 1920, Edison wrote:

I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us […] I am engaged in the construction of one such apparatus now, and I hope to be able to finish it before very many months pass.

A second Scientific American piece ran in 1921 in which Edison was quoted as saying:

I don't claim anything, because I don't know anything [...] for that matter, no human being knows […] but I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence who wish to get in touch with us [...] this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity.

By this time it seems it must have been pretty widely known that Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, was working on a machine which might prove the existence of spirits or ghosts. The editor of Scientific American reportedly received more than 600 letters from readers enquiring about the device. This was big. So, what happened next? The answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing. The machine was never mentioned again during Edison’s lifetime and the whole matter seems to have been all but forgotten. Forgotten that is, until old Edison had been in his grave for two years.

Page 34 of the 1933 October edition of Modern Mechanix (motto: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today”) bore the intriguing headline “Edison’s Own Secret Spirit Experiments”. “For thirteen years results of Edison’s astounding attempt to penetrate that wall that lies beyond mortality have been withheld from the world, but now the amazing story can be told.” The prodigiously illustrated three page piece tells a tale of the “black, howling wintry night in 1920 – just such a night when superstitious people would bar their doors and windows against marauding ghosts—”when Edison and a group of scientists and spiritualists “assembled like members of a mystic clan” to test his theories concerning life after death. Edison was, we are told, armed with a powerful lamp whose light was concentrated into a beam and directed at photo-electric cell which in turn transformed that light into an electric current. Any object passing through that beam of light, no matter how miniscule or insubstantial, would disrupt the electrical current and that fluctuation would be displayed on the dial of a meter connected to the photo-electric cell. This rather disappointingly simple set up was, we are informed, the machine with which Edison sought to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts or spirits once and for all. “When the experiment was ready to begin the spiritualists in the group of witnesses were called upon to summon from eternity the ethereal form of one or two of its inhabitants, and command the spirit to walk across the beam”. And the result of this groundbreaking experiment? Well, in the long hours that followed, during which the “wind howled around the corners of the laboratory”, the needle, we are told, never so much as wavered. “It was because of these negative results that the news of the amazing experiments was never given out to the world. Edison would not reveal his belief-shattering discoveries to a believing world”.

The Modern Mechanix piece is written (as you can no doubt tell from the portions quoted above) rather more like a story than a factual article and no author credit is given in the magazine’s table of contents. This, coupled with the fact that no members of Edison’s “mystic clan” are named, and no sources or references are given, has led some researchers to conclude that the article is, in fact, a piece of fiction (albeit one with a rather anticlimactic ending) woven out of the fragments of information given in interviews and articles published during Edison’s lifetime. There is, however, another reason why some who are interested in Edison’s paranormal experiments might instantly take the Modern Mechanix piece for a fiction: the apparatus described is all wrong.

In a 1921 New York Times article Edison was said to be developing a machine that would measure “one hundred trillion life units” in the human body that “may scatter after death.” The Modern Mechanix article reused much of the material from that earlier piece in explaining what it referred to as Edison’s hypothesis of “immortal units”. Edison is said to have taken a print from one of his fingers and then to deliberately burn that fingertip so as to remove or alter its print. Later, when the finger had healed, he took a second print which proved to be identical to the original. “From this experiment, Edison got confirmation of his hypothesis that it is these aforementioned “immortal units” which supervised the re-growth of his finger skin, following out the original design. Man, he believed, is a mosaic of such life units, and it is these entities which determine what we shall be.” These “immortal units” then are supposedly what Edison was expecting to break his beam of light (though exactly why Spiritualists would be required to summon them is anyone’s guess).

I first began researching Edison’s alleged supernatural experiments several years ago. At the time I did quite a bit of Googling round and bookmarked about twenty or so webpages containing relevant information. It was always a subject I meant to come back to but, for one reason or another, I just didn’t find the time. A couple of weeks ago I spotted the folder marked EDISON is my bookmarks and clicked to Open All in Tabs. More than half the links were dead. Of those that remained, most focussed on the idea that Edison could have been working on an apparatus or experiment very much like the one described in the Modern Mechanix article – a way of seeing or measuring the hypothesised “life units” or “immortal units”. Such an experiment would, naturally, have been doomed to fail. Many of those websites since deleted, and a handful of the links remaining however, focussed on Edison’s own journal entry of 1920 “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us”. Communication with – rather than mere detection of – ghosts or spirits is still believed by some to have been Edison’s true goal. Edison’s Spirit Telegraph, or Spirit Telephone are wonderfully evocative terms which still turn up a few interesting search results. “Thomas Edison was trying to build a machine to talk to the dead,” writes one blogger, “I can recall first coming across those very words in an old, dusty book back in the 1970s”. “After his death, the plans for the apparatus could not be located. Many have searched extensively for the components, the prototype or even the plans to the machine but have never found them,” concludes another.

Some, however, have expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the 1920 diary entry, much of which seems like a mere reproduction of portions of the original Scientific American interview with the “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus […]” paragraph tacked on at the end.xiv Furthermore, there is one very important piece of evidence which many seem to have overlooked, whether accidentally or wilfully. In an interview published in the New York Times in 1926 Edison was asked about the comments he’d made six years earlier concerning the prospect of investigating the survival of spirits after death, to which he replied “I really had nothing to tell him [Forbes], but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.” And so, like the Modern Mechanix piece before it, our own tale of Edison’s Secret Experiments ends with something of anticlimax – the whole thing was merely a hoax. But then again, perhaps not.

In 1941, a séance was supposedly conducted in New York in which a spirit claiming to be that of Thomas Alva Edison made itself known. This spirit, it is alleged, named certain associates (members of the “mystic clan”, if you will) who apparently still had in their possession the missing plans for, and elements of, his machine. These people were located. A prototype was built. It did not work. This prototype somehow passed into the possession of one J. Gilbert Wright - a General Electric researcher whose claim to fame was the discovery/ invention of a special kind of silicone putty. Wright, it is said, spent the rest of his life trying to perfect the machine. In some versions of the tale, Wright frequently consults Edison’s ghost, via regular séances to get his advice on how the machine might be improved. When Wright finally passed on in 1959 all trace of the machine is said to have vanished. A more fittingly farfetched end to a tall tale? Perhaps. Even so, surely I’m not the only one left wondering; what if there was just one component needed to complete the machine that Wright could never lay his hands on? Something another member of Edison’s “mystic clan” wasn’t willing to part with. Something, perhaps, as small and innocuous seeming as one very specific glass vacuum tube.

REFERENCES

http://www.paranormal-encyclopedia.com/e...
http://web.archive.org/web/2010032808480...
Dagobert D. Runes (editor): The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas A. Edison (New York Philosophical Library, 1948)
http://longstreet.typepad.com/thescience...
http://www.gereports.com/edisons-forgott...
http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2006/08/1...
http://strangeandspookyworld.wordpress.c...
http://www.prairieghosts.com/oh-milan.html
http://web.archive.org/web/2009052313334...
http://www.ghosteyes.com/thomas-edison-p...
http://www.ghostvillage.com/ghostcommuni...
http://ufoexperiences.blogspot.com/2007/...

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This article is taken from John Reppion's collection STEAMPUNK SALMAGUNDI and was originally published in SteamPunk Magazine #9, 2013.

News Briefs 28-03-2017

The living tarot...

Thanks @MattStaggs.

Quote of the Day:

A tiger? In Africa?!

Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life'

Where Do Superstitions Come From?

Ever wonder why you knock on wood or feel nervous when the number 13 turns up in your life? In this lovely little animated short you'll find some answers, as well as advice on whether you should start being more rational and ignoring superstitions:

So why do people cling to these bits of forgotten religions, coincidences, and outdated advice? Aren’t they being totally irrational? Well, yes, but for many people, superstitions are based more on cultural habit than conscious belief. After all, no one is born knowing to avoid walking under ladders or whistling indoors, but if you grow up being told by your family to avoid these things, chances are they’ll make you uncomfortable, even after you logically understand that nothing bad will happen...And since doing something like knocking on wood doesn't require much effort, following the superstition is often easier than consciously resisting it.

Besides, superstitions often do seem to work. Maybe you remember hitting a home run while wearing your lucky socks. This is just our psychological bias at work - you're far less likely to remember all the times you struck out while wearing the same socks. But believing that they work could actually make you play better, by giving you the illusion of having greater control over events. So in situations where that confidence can make a difference, like sports, those crazy superstitions might not be so crazy after all.