Project Core – Demarcation and Departure

Project Core – Demarcation and Departure
by guest blogger,
Tyler A. Kokjohn

Paranormal phenomena encompass a diverse array of experiences that are often considered to be entirely outside the boundaries of science.  However, the tools and techniques of scientific investigation are so powerful because they can be applied to many situations and this demarcation is not necessarily sharp.  Some cryptozoology research efforts and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) are solidly within the scientific mainstream in terms of approach and methodology.  While the often fleeting and unpredictable nature of paranormal events complicates their study, it is possible to investigate certain aspects of them scientifically.  Project Core was created to initiate that process.

Investigations begin with a question, or as a scientist might put it more properly, a hypothesis.  The heart of the scientific method is asking questions that can be answered through direct observation or experiment.  The art of the process is ensuring that your approach and answers are unbiased and valid.  Some of the challenges are illustrated by a simple experiment I conducted in my own back yard.

The video (below) combines a series of photos taken at one minute intervals over about an hour which shows flower blooms opening up in the morning and moving to face and follow the sun.

Flowers1


How do plants respond to the environment like that?  That is a complex problem, but it is possible to reduce the scope of inquiry to an answerable question. Scientists often employ a reductionist approach to break down complicated problems into more manageable smaller pieces.  In this case the correlation between sunlight and flower opening leads to a testable hypothesis; exposure to visible light induces flowers to open.

To test my hypothesis I collected two yellow flowers in the morning before they had opened.  I placed one under a light indoors and the other inside an adjacent container (a coffee cup with a lid) which I could keep dark.  The experiment was started at 8:47 a.m. and was stopped at 9:34 a.m., when I noted almost all the flowers outside had opened up.

 

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The experimental outcomes:

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Unfortunately, it seems the original hypothesis that light exposure triggers bloom opening was not supported by the experimental evidence.  The flower blossom incubated in light opened up, but because a similar flower held in the dark (the control) also opened up, it seems light exposure had no impact on the bloom opening response.

Case closed?  Not exactly, I made a couple of mistakes.  The tricky part was trying to do my best to debunk my own investigation to discover any errors in method or logic.  To start, I reviewed the rationale for the experiment design.  Both orange and yellow flowers were available to me, but I used only yellow flowers from the same small garden area to study.  Hopefully, these actions provided experimental subjects that were as similar to each other as possible.  That means any activity differences observed during the experiment could confidently be attributed to the differences in the manipulated variables, in this case, light exposure.

The flowers I tested were cut and that meant they were physiologically different from the ones out in the yard with functioning root systems.  However, I synchronized my experiment with the bloom opening behavior of the rooted flowers.  The cut flowers, including the one in the dark, had also opened at the same time of day.  In addition, the fact that cut flower blooms opened suggests that all the necessary systems functioned like those active in the rooted plants.  If the cut flowers did not open or did so in a very different time frame it would be a lot more difficult to make a convincing case for functional physiological equivalence.  So it appears my reductionist approach using cut flowers mimicked reality closely enough to be useful.

The work began with an obvious correlation between light exposure and bloom opening.  However, even the most apparently clear-cut correlations do not necessarily reveal the true underlying causes.  To avoid falling prey to the logical fallacy ‘with this, therefore because of this,’ deceptive correlations are rooted out by subjecting them to additional confirmatory tests.   However, these tests must be done carefully and their results interpreted skeptically.

There are problems with my study because I was too lax with the self-criticism from beginning to end.  I set up and performed the experiment improperly, but failed to notice the error until after the work was completed.  Suppose I wanted to submit a manuscript describing this work and my conclusions to a scientific journal for publication.  Before it is published, it goes through a peer review in which it is evaluated by anonymous experts chosen by the journal editors.  Editors rely on peer reviewers to expose shortcomings in approach or execution.

It is not hard to imagine if I had not noticed the errors and submitted my work for publication, an alert reviewer would probably returned a polite, but devastating, critique of the work and results to the journal editor and me.

The author has failed to test his central hypothesis that light exposure induces closed flower blooms to open.  Unfortunately, the collection of flowers seems to have taken place after dawn when all the blooms had already been exposed to indirect light.  Perhaps this exposure was sufficient to catalyze petal motion.  If so, the observation that a flower incubated in the dark could open is easily explainable as nothing more than experimental artifact.  To answer the question, the investigator will need to collect flowers at night and take precautions to ensure the dark controls are incubated without any light exposure.    

Without this system of external checks, you can see how easy it would be to make and publish errors.  In this case, I did not have a true controlled experiment because of an unnoticed oversight in how I performed the work.  That small mistake was the difference between being able to reach a scientifically valid conclusion or not.             

With experience a person can get better at developing controlled experiments, but a more insidious danger, confirmation bias, sometimes confounds investigators.  Humans are natural story tellers.  Accepting the experimental results at face value it was easy to conclude that light exposure has nothing to do with bloom opening.  That idea is so seductive because it seems to fit all the observations so well.  The problem is that the way I did the work makes it impossible to reach any experimentally-validated conclusion at all about the impact of light on bloom opening.  I quit being skeptical too soon.  Believing the results of a single shoddy experiment, I then built a tidy global narrative as to how the whole process worked.  But note how I began by investigating one hypothesis (light exposure induces bloom opening) and ended up answering a different one (light exposure has nothing to do with bloom opening). These subtle shifts and circular logic traps can be extremely hard to recognize because few stories appeal to us more than the ones we create ourselves.  Poor experiment design is troublesome, but lethal confirmation bias may emerge at any point in the investigation process.  Even liberal applications of Occam’s Razor may not prevent biased investigators from extracting preconceived answers out of uncorroborated correlations and poorly executed experiments.  If a mainstream scientist is skillful or simply lucky, he or she recognizes any errors and corrects them before proceeding to publication.  If not, a peer reviewer will probably be delighted to expose them.

Creating and evaluating hypotheses by confronting them with data demands proficiency, patience and determined ruthlessness.  Hypotheses for which no properly controlled, reproducible supporting evidence can be developed must be modified, put aside or rejected.  The process is sometimes so tricky that scientists do not trust themselves to do it properly every time.  That’s why they employ peer review to check their work.

Aspects of paranormal phenomena can be reduced to experimentally tractable questions.     The Project Core survey is best viewed as a departure point to construct hypotheses to be confirmed or refuted through additional work.  Some potential lines of inquiry are already clear.  We invite you to explore the questions posed in the Project Core survey as well as develop new testable hypotheses, the ultimate peer review.

The inherent challenge of paranormal phenomena investigation suggests that many attempts to describe and comprehend them may be deemed crude and unsatisfactory.  We should anticipate needing to systematically eliminate biases, refine ideas and explore alternative approaches as new data and insightful constructive criticisms dictate.

Intruders Foundation Consent Forms: Consent or Exploitation?

It comes as no surprise to me that an alien abduction book-writing hypnotist’s consent form reads more like an amateurish cover my ass form. But that’s because I’m from here. What happens when an actual scientist the likes of whom alien abduction researchers have been screaming at for years to take this subject seriously does so and reads these consent forms? Well, your answer is below. And it begs the question: Do these abduction researchers really want scientists and the mainstream to take their work seriously or is that smoke and mirrors because they assume such people will not anyway? It’s easy to yell “Take me seriously!” or demand disclosure from the government when you know it’s not going to happen. Then you get to look like a hero of the people and profit from that.

This begs another question and another: Are these researchers really researchers? If there are no standards, no ethics, only the defense of misused tools like hypnosis and book reviews… speeches about the coherence of cherry-picked data… should this be considered a field of study to begin with?

–Jeremy Vaeni

Intruders Foundation Consent Forms: Consent or Exploitation?
by,
Tyler Kokjohn

Jack Brewer’s recent blog post on The UFO Trail regarding access to confidential hypnosis tapes exposed far more than a thoughtless violation of research confidentiality standards.  The Intruders Foundation consent form Jack published with his essay is shocking and virtually nothing like an informed consent form that would be employed for biomedical research.

First and foremost it served as notice that Budd Hopkins had claimed all publication rights to every utterance and any created entity of interest he could collect from his subjects.  Any privacy or confidentiality issues for the participant were apparently entirely secondary matters.  Worse, possible psychological issues emerging following participation were fully foreseeable adverse events – the document clearly informs the subject of that.  But then Budd simply washed his hands of them. In effect, subjects assumed risks that were never adequately explained and if anything went wrong were left on their own.

Unfortunately, risk is an unavoidable part of some biomedical research.  Potential foreseeable risks are managed through a comprehensive informed consent process to provide full, detailed information in advance to all subjects.  Written informed consent documents provide potential subjects with information about the nature of the research, how it will be used, the risks incurred and the rights of all participants. Potential adverse events must be described in sufficient detail and in an understandable fashion so that every subject knows completely what might go wrong BEFORE agreeing to participate.  Adverse events are mitigated through meticulous followup care during and after the study term if necessary.  No research may commence until the investigator has devised an appropriate and complete written informed consent form and obtains full institutional approval for it as well as a detailed written plan to recognize and mitigate all adverse events arising from the investigation.  The investigator and institution are responsible for completely informing all individuals of the attendant risks involved and assume full responsibility for the welfare of the subject and any/all needs that emerge as a consequence of participation in the study.  Attempting to insulate oneself from lawsuits through the invocation of a vague disclaimer or withholding vital information to thwart informed decision-making by possible participants is never permitted.

The evidence suggests Budd Hopkins realized serious problems might develop from his investigations – and he took steps to try to avoid the trouble they might cause him. After taking pains to highlight his own incompetence and lack of medical training, he persisted in rooting around where he effectively admitted he had no business whatsoever.  Holding himself legally blameless for all consequential damages, he was seemingly disinterested in mitigating any injuries he induced.

The implications are far reaching. If Budd Hopkins knew his work could create serious issues, it would seem that others using similar methods must have had analogous experiences with the induction of adverse events.  In other words, hypnosis investigators know this or reasonably should know of the potential for investigations to produce trouble in their subjects.  Authors Philip Klass, Jim Schnabel and Kevin Randle et al. had the situation well figured years ago, but were ignored. Recognizing this is no parlor game and what really can happen is something many hypnotists probably hope no one else ever figures out.  Anyone contemplating taking part in research is well advised to read and consider the informed consent documents carefully before participating.

Quiet Time To Reassess Positive Thinking – A Poem By Colin Andrews

Colin-Andrews-HeadShouldersHere’s something I didn’t expect to announce this way: I’m coming back to the podcasting game. I’ve been taping interviews for this and expect it to be up and running in the next week or so. I won’t write anything else about it until the official announcement because I don’t want to step on any toes. But all of this is to say, I wanted Colin Andrews as a guest to discuss at what point a researcher becomes an experiencer. He liked the idea and since we’re friends, he agreed to record when he got back from a trip abroad, even though he’s on media hiatus.

Whelp, he’s back and will not be doing the show after all. Instead–and in answer to why–he sent me an audio file of him reading a poem that he had written. He gave me permission to publish it exclusively, so here it is. One wonders what happened on this trip to provoke such a powerful and definitive response that we can all respect and take to heart.

Yes, it might do us all good to take this to heart.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN

EDIT:

Well, this has certainly resonated with a good many people in a short amount of time. My friend Joe Gooch has set it to music, with enthusiastic approval by Colin.

CLICK HERE FOR THE MUSICAL VERSION