Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘J.B. Rhine

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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If there’s a single theme that runs throughout my book Astounding, it’s the two sides of the editor John W. Campbell. These days, Campbell tends to be associated with highly technical “hard” science fiction with an emphasis on physics and engineering, but he had an equally dominant mystical side, and from the beginning, you often see the same basic impulses deployed in both directions. (After the memory of his career had faded, much of this history was quietly revised, as Algis Burdrys notes in Benchmarks Revisited: “The strong mystical bent displayed among even the coarsest cigar-chewing technists is conveniently overlooked, and Campbell’s subsequent preoccupation with psionics is seen as an inexplicable deviation from a life of hitherto unswerving straight devotion to what we all agree is reasonability.”) As an undergraduate at M.I.T. and Duke, Campbell was drawn successively to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and Joseph Rhine, the psychologist best known for his statistical studies of telepathy. Both professors fed into his fascination with a possible science of the mind, but along strikingly different lines, and he later pursued both dianetics, which he originally saw as a kind of practical cybernetics, and explorations of psychic powers. Much the same holds true of his other great obsession—the problem of foreseeing the future. As I discuss today in an essay in the New York Times, its most famous manifestation was the notion of psychohistory, the fictional science of prediction in Asimov’s Foundation series. But at a time of global uncertainty, it wasn’t the method of forecasting that counted, but the accuracy of the results, and even as Campbell was collaborating with Asimov, his interest in prophecy was taking him to even stranger places.

The vehicle for the editor’s more mystical explorations was Unknown, the landmark fantasy pulp that briefly channeled these inclinations away from the pages of Astounding. (In my book, I argue that the simultaneous existence of these two titles purified science fiction at a crucial moment, and that the entire genre might have evolved in altogether different ways if Campbell had been forced to express all sides of his personality in a single magazine.) As I noted here the other day, in an attempt to attract a wider audience, Campbell removed the cover paintings from Unknown, hoping to make it look like a more mainstream publication. The first issue with the revised design was dated July 1940, and in his editor’s note, Campbell explicitly addressed the “new discoverers” who were reading the magazine for the first time. He grandly asserted that fantasy represented “a completely untrammeled literary medium,” and as an illustration of the kinds of subjects that he intended to explore in his stories, he offered a revealing example:

Until somebody satisfactorily explains away the unquestionable masses of evidence showing that people do have visions of things yet to come, or of things occurring at far-distant points—until someone explains how Nostradamus, the prophet, predicted things centuries before they happened with such minute detail (as to names of people not to be born for half a dozen generations or so!) that no vague “Oh, vague generalities—things are always happening that can be twisted to fit!” can possibly explain them away—until the time those are docketed and labeled and nearly filed—they belong to The Unknown.

It was Campbell’s first mention in print of Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French prophet, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Campbell alluded in another editorial to the Moberly-Jourdain incident, in which two women claimed to have traveled over a century back in time on a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The editor continued: “If it happens one way—how about the other? How about someone slipping from the past to the future? It is known—and don’t condemn till you’ve read a fair analysis of the old man’s works—that Nostradamus, the famous French prophet, did not guess at what might happen; he recorded what did happen—before it happened. His accuracy of prophecy runs considerably better, actually, than the United States government crop forecasts, in percentage, and the latter are certainly used as a basis for business.” Campbell then drew a revealing connection between Nostradamus and the war in Europe:

Incidentally, to avoid disappointment, Nostradamus did not go into much detail about this period. He was writing several hundred years ago, for people of that time—and principally for Parisians. He predicted in some detail the French Revolution, predicted several destructions of Paris—which have come off on schedule, to date—and did not predict destruction of Paris for 1940. He did, however, for 1999—by a “rain of fire from the East.” Presumably he didn’t have any adequate terms for airplane bombs, so that may mean thermite incendiaries. But the present period, too many centuries from his own times, would be of minor interest to him, and details are sketchy. The prophecy goes up to about the thirty-fifth century.

And the timing was highly significant. Earlier that year, Campbell had published the nonfiction piece “The Science of Whithering” by L. Sprague de Camp in Astounding, shortly after German troops marched into Paris. De Camp’s article, which discussed the work of such cyclical historians as Spengler and Toynbee, represented the academic or scientific approach the problem of forecasting, and it would soon find its fictional expression in such stories as Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown” and Asimov’s “Foundation.” As usual, however, Campbell was playing both sides, and he was about to pursue a parallel train of thought in Unknown that has largely been forgotten. Instead of attempting to explain Nostradamus in rational terms, Campbell ventured a theory that was even more fantastic than the idea of clairvoyance:

Occasionally a man—vanishes…And somehow, he falls into another time. Sometimes future—sometimes past. And sometimes he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does come back, there’d be a tendency, and a smart one, to shut up; it’s mighty hard to prove. Of course, if he’s a scholarly gentlemen, he might spend his unintentional sojourn in the future reading histories of his beloved native land. Then, of course, he ought to be pretty accurate at predicting revolutions and destruction of cities. Even be able to name inconsequential details, as Nostradamus did.

To some extent, this might have been just a game that he was playing for his readers—but not completely. Campbell’s interest in Nostradamus was very real, and just as he had used Williamson and Asimov to explore psychohistory, he deployed another immensely talented surrogate to look into the problem of prophecy. His name was Anthony Boucher. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail tomorrow.

Note: Please join me today at 12:00pm ET for a Twitter AMA to celebrate the release of the fantastic new horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads, which includes my short story “Cryptids.”

Crossing the Rhine

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Zener cards

Note: I’m out of town today for the Grappling with the Futures symposium at Harvard and Boston University, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 1, 2017.

Two groups of very smart people are looking at the exact same data and coming to wildly different conclusions. Science hates that.

—Katie M. Palmer, Wired

In the early thirties, the parapsychologist J.B. Rhine conducted a series of experiments at Duke University to investigate the existence of extrasensory perception. His most famous test involved a deck of Zener cards, printed variously with the images of a star, a square, three waves, a circle, or a cross, in which subjects were invited to guess the symbol on a card drawn at random. The participants in the study, most of whom were college students, included the young John W. Campbell, who displayed no discernible psychic ability. At least two, however, Adam Linzmayer and Hubert Pearce, were believed by Rhine to have consistently named the correct cards at a higher rate than chance alone would predict. Rhine wrote up his findings in a book titled Extrasensory Perception, which was published in 1934. I’m not going to try to evaluate its merits here—but I do want to note that attempts to replicate his work were made almost at once, and they failed to reproduce his results. Within two years, W.S. Cox of Princeton University had conducted a similar run of experiments, of which he concluded: “There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the ‘average man’ or of the group investigated or in any particular individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects.” By 1938, four other studies had taken place, to similar effect. Rhine’s results were variously attributed to methodological flaws, statistical misinterpretation, sensory leakage, or outright cheating, and in consequence, fairly or not, parapsychological research was all but banished from academic circles.

Decades later, another study was conducted, and its initial reception was very different. Its subject was ego depletion, or the notion that willpower draws on a finite reservoir of internal resources that can be reduced with overuse. In its most famous demonstration, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice of Case Western University baked chocolate chip cookies, set them on a plate next to a bowl of radishes, and brought a series of participants into the room. They were all told to wait, but some were allowed to eat the cookies, while the others were instructed to snack only on the radishes. Then they were all given the same puzzle to complete, although they weren’t told that it was impossible to solve. According to the study, students who had been asked to stick to the radishes spent an average of just eight minutes on the puzzle, while those who had been allowed to eat the cookies spent nineteen minutes. The researchers concluded that our willpower is a limited quantity, and it can even be exhausted, like a muscle. Their work was enormously influential, and dozens of subsequent studies seemed to confirm it. In 2010, however, an analysis of published papers on the subject was unable to find any ego depletion effect, and last year, it got even worse—an attempt to replicate the core findings, led by the psychologist Martin Hagger, found zero evidence to support its existence. And this is just the most notable instance of what has been called a replication crisis in the sciences, particularly in psychology. One ambitious attempt to duplicate the results of such studies, the Reproducibility Project, has found that only about a third can be reproduced at all.

J.B. Rhine

But let’s consider the timelines involved. With Rhine, it took only two years before an attempt was made to duplicate his work, and two more years for the consensus in the field to turn against it decisively. In the case of ego depletion, twelve years passed before any questions were raised, and close to two decades before the first comprehensive effort to replicate it. And you don’t need to be a psychologist to understand why. Rhine’s results cut so radically against what was known about the brain—and the physical universe—that accepting them would have required a drastic overhaul of multiple disciplines. Not surprisingly, they inspired immediate skepticism, and they were subjected to intense scrutiny right away. Ego depletion, by contrast, was an elegant theory that seemed to confirm ordinary common sense. It came across as an experimental verification of something that we all know instinctively, and it was widely accepted almost at once. Many successful studies also followed in its wake, in large part because experiments that seemed to confirm it were more likely to be submitted for publication, while those that failed to produce interesting results simply disappeared. (When it came to Rhine, a negative result wouldn’t be discarded, but embraced as a sign that the system was working as intended.) Left to itself, the lag time between a study and any serious attempt to reproduce it seems to be much longer when the answer is intuitively acceptable. As the Reproducibility Project has shown, however, when we dispassionately pull studies from psychological journals and try to replicate them without regard to their inherent interest or plausibility, the results are often no better than they were with Rhine. It can leave psychologists sounding a lot like parapsychologists who have suffered a crisis of faith. As the psychologist Michael Inzlicht wrote: “Have I been chasing puffs of smoke for all these years?”

I’m not saying that Rhine’s work didn’t deserve to be scrutinized closely, because it did. And I’m also not trying to argue that social psychology is a kind of pseudoscience. But I think it’s worth considering whether psychology and parapsychology might have more in common than we’d like to believe. This isn’t meant to be a knock against either one, but an attempt to nudge them a little closer together. As Alex Holcombe of the University of Sydney put it: “The more optimistic interpretation of failures to replicate is that many of the results are true, but human behavior is so variable that the original researchers had to get lucky to find the result.” Even Martin Hagger says much the same thing: “I think ego-depletion effect is probably real, but current methods and measures are problematic and make it difficult to find.” The italics, as usual, are mine. Replace “human behavior” and “ego depletion” with “extrasensory perception,” and you end up with a concise version of the most widely cited explanation for why psychic abilities resist scientific verification, which is that these phenomena are real, but difficult to reproduce. You could call this wishful thinking, and in most cases, it probably is. But it also raises the question of whether meaningful phenomenon exist that can’t be reproduced in a laboratory setting. Regardless of where you come down on the issue, the answer shouldn’t be obvious. Intuition, for instance, is often described as a real phenomenon that can’t be quantified or replicated, and whether or not you buy into it, it’s worth taking seriously. A kind of collective intuition—or a hunch—is often what determines what results the scientific community is likely to accept. And the fact that this intuition is so frequently wrong means that we need to come to terms with it, even if it isn’t in a lab.

Crossing the Rhine

leave a comment »

Zener cards

Two groups of very smart people are looking at the exact same data and coming to wildly different conclusions. Science hates that.

—Katie M. Palmer, Wired

In the early thirties, the parapsychologist J.B. Rhine conducted a series of experiments at Duke University to investigate the existence of extrasensory perception. His most famous test involved a deck of Zener cards, variously printed with the images of a star, a square, three waves, a circle, or a cross, in which subjects were invited to guess the symbol on a card drawn at random. The participants in the study, most of whom were college students, included the young John W. Campbell, who displayed no particular psychic ability. At least two, however, Adam Linzmayer and Hubert Pearce, were believed by Rhine to have consistently named the correct cards at a higher rate than chance alone would predict. Rhine wrote up his findings in a book titled Extrasensory Perception, which was published in 1934, and I’m not going to try to evaluate its merits here. What I will note is that attempts to replicate his work were made almost at once, and they failed to reproduce his results. Within two years, W.S. Cox of Princeton University had conducted a similar run of experiments, of which he concluded: “There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the ‘average man’ or of the group investigated or in any particular individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects.” By 1938, four other studies had taken place, to similar effect. Rhine’s results were variously attributed to methodological flaws, statistical misinterpretation, sensory leakage, or outright cheating, and in consequence, fairly or not, parapsychological research was all but banished from academic settings.

Decades later, another study was conducted, and its initial reception was very different. Its subject was ego depletion, or the notion that willpower draws on a finite reservoir of internal resources that can be reduced with overuse. In its most famous demonstration, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice of Case Western University baked chocolate chip cookies, set them on a plate next to a bowl of radishes, and brought a series of participants into the room. All were told to wait there, but some were allowed to eat the cookies, while the others were instructed to snack only on the radishes. Then they were all given the same puzzle to complete—although they weren’t told that it was impossible to solve. According to the study, students who had been asked to stick to the radishes spent an average of just eight minutes on the puzzle, while those who had been allowed to eat the cookies spent nineteen minutes. The researchers concluded that our willpower is a limited quantity, and it can even be exhausted, like a muscle. Their work was enormously influential, and dozens of subsequent studies seemed to confirm it. In 2010, however, an analysis of published papers on the subject was unable to find any ego depletion effect, and last year, it got even worse: an attempt to replicate the core findings, led by the psychologist Martin Hagger, found zero evidence to support its existence. And this is just the most notable instance of what has been called a replication crisis in the sciences, particularly psychology, with one ambitious attempt to duplicate the results of psychological studies, the Reproducibility Project, finding that only about a third could be reproduced.

J.B. Rhine

But let’s consider the timelines involved. With Rhine, it took only two years before an attempt was made to duplicate his work, and two more years for the consensus in the field to turn against it decisively. In the case of ego depletion, twelve years passed before any questions were raised, and close to two decades before the first comprehensive effort to replicate it. And you don’t need to be a psychologist to understand why. Rhine’s results cut so radically against what was known about the brain—and the physical universe—that accepting them would have required a drastic overhaul of multiple disciplines. Not surprisingly, they inspired immediate skepticism, and they were subjected to intense scrutiny right away. Ego depletion, by contrast, was an elegant theory that seemed to confirm ordinary common sense. It came across as an experimental verification of something that we all know instinctively, and it was widely accepted almost at once. Many successful studies also followed in its wake, in large part because experiments that seemed to confirm it were more likely to be submitted for publication, while those that failed to produce interesting results simply disappeared. (When it came to Rhine, a negative result wouldn’t be discarded, but embraced as a sign that the system was working as intended.) Left to itself, the lag time between a study and any serious attempt to reproduce it seems to be much longer when the answer is intuitively acceptable. As the Reproducibility Project has shown, however, when we dispassionately pull studies from psychological journals and try to replicate them without regard to their inherent interest or plausibility, the results are often no better than they were with Rhine. It can leave psychologists sounding a lot like parapsychologists suffering through a crisis of faith. As the psychologist Michael Inzlicht wrote: “Have I been chasing puffs of smoke for all these years?”

I’m not saying that Rhine’s work didn’t deserve to be scrutinized closely, because it did. And I’m also not trying to argue that social psychology is a kind of pseudoscience. But I think it’s worth considering whether psychology and parapsychology might have more in common than we’d like to believe. This isn’t meant to be a knock against either one, but an attempt to nudge them a little closer together. As Alex Holcombe of the University of Sydney put it: “The more optimistic interpretation of failures to replicate is that many of the results are true, but human behavior is so variable that the original researchers had to get lucky to find the result.” Even Martin Hagger says much the same thing: “I think ego-depletion effect is probably real, but current methods and measures are problematic and make it difficult to find.” The italics, as usual, are mine. Replace “human behavior” and “ego depletion” with “extrasensory perception,” and you end up with a concise version of the most widely cited justification for the resistance of such abilities to scientific verification, which is that these phenomena are real, but difficult to reproduce. You could call this wishful thinking, and in most cases, it probably is. But it also raises the question of whether it’s possible to have a meaningful phenomenon that can’t be reproduced in a laboratory setting. Regardless of where you come down on the issue, the answer shouldn’t be obvious. Intuition, for instance, is often described as a real phenomenon that can’t be quantified or replicated, and whether or not you believe this, it’s worth taking seriously. A kind of collective intuition—or a hunch—is exactly what determines what results the scientific community is likely to accept. And the fact that this intuition is so often wrong means that we need to come to terms with it, even if it isn’t in a lab.

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