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BOOK REVIEW: Supernormal by Dean Radin

Supernormal: Science, Yoga and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic AbilitiesSupernormal: Science, Yoga and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities by Dean Radin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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With this controversial book, Dean Radin presents the scientific evidence for an array of psychic powers, but he frames the discussion in terms of yogic siddhis. “Siddhi” is a Sanskrit term for an ability that isn’t seen among the general population–at least not reliably so– and for the most part these “accomplishments” correspond to the categories discussed in parapsychology (i.e. telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, and clairvoyance.) [Note: As mentioned, this is a controversial book. I will attempt to provide as unbiased a review as possible. I am generally skeptical, but don’t believe in poo-pooing the study of subjects because they offend my skeptical sensibilities. Furthermore, I try to keep an open mind because: 1.) there is no scientific consensus about what consciousness is or how it works, 2.) quantum biology is a subject in its infancy and we may yet learn there is more quantum “spookiness” going on in the brain than we think. 3.) for all I know we are in an simulation and then it’s all a matter of programming.]

The yogic emphasis doesn’t change the book much from the pop psych literature review of parapsychology studies it would otherwise be, except to necessitate background information on yoga and siddhis. However, this emphasis may or may not have opened up a huge additional readership. Outside of a fringe, siddhis aren’t much in vogue among yoga practitioners these days. Among modern day yogis and yoginis, there are some who believe in them and some who think they’re throwbacks to an era of superstition, malnutrition, and wishful thinking. However, even among the former, siddhis are generally considered a distraction. The advice of most of the great yogis has been to not get lost in the pursuit of such powers because chasing siddhis can derail one from one’s ultimate objective (e.g. liberation.) Still, if even a small fraction of yoga practitioners take an interest, that’s a fairly large readership.

So what exactly is the controversy? Obviously, there are many divergent demographics with differing views on the topic. For hardcore skeptics, parapsychology is right up there with alien abduction, bigfoot /yeti sightings, and the anatomy of the Loch Ness monster with respect to being a legitimate topic for scientific study. On the other hand, there are believers who are offended by the mere notion of studying such phenomena with science, and who say such investigations are an assault on their beliefs.

But that’s not a very interesting controversy—i.e. there are some people who won’t believe in such abilities no matter what the evidence, and others who will believe in them no matter what science has to say. So let’s chop off the hardcore skeptics and hardcore believers and ask what the controversy is as it pertains to those of us who consider evidence when drawing conclusions.

The root of the controversy can be stated rather quickly and clearly. Here it is: the effect size is small but statistically significant. What does that mean? Say this study asks a subject to determine which of five randomly selected shapes has been chosen using nothing but his / her mind. Using pure guessing, one would expect to be right 20% (i.e. 1/5th) of the time. If a person happened to get 32% right in a given trial, that means nothing because small samples don’t give one a convergence towards a mean value. (i.e. Intuitively, you know that if you flip a coin 10 times and get 7 heads, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. If you repeat that 10-flip set 10,000 times, and still get 70% heads, then you probably have a trick coin or something else odd is going on.) So the issue is that even when experimenters repeat the experiment over and over again such that the average value should converge on 20%, it doesn’t. It stays at, say, 30% (exact effects vary but it’s on this order.)

At this point the reader might be thinking of all the factors that could result in this effect (i.e. cheating [insider or outsider], subconscious observation of facial expressions, random selection that is biased, etc.) Well, so have the scientists. In any study, one wants to account for alternative explanations to the utmost. Over the years, researchers like Radin have put all manner of protections in place from quantum random number generators to booths with extreme sound-proofing and Faraday cages (prevents radio signals from transiting.) Still they get this small positive effect that can’t be explained by alternative explanations.

There is also the issue of the filing drawer problem, which Radin devotes considerable space to discussing. It’s the idea that when drawing conclusions from many similar studies, one must accept that there may be many unpublished studies that sit in file drawers because they didn’t produced negative results. These filed / unpublished studies could negate the outcome of the body of studies of that nature. While this remains an open criticism, there is mathematics for determining how many negative studies would have to be turned up to make the results insignificant. Radin argues that the numbers calculated strain credulity.

So this “small but statistically significant effect” is generally agreed upon by all, excepting conspiracy theorists. Now we get to the controversy, which is how to explain this effect. Skeptics run the gamut from hot-blooded haters who claim that it’s all just a scam perpetrated by hoaxers with tenure, to more diplomatic challengers who provide thoughtful, plausible, and non-nefarious explanations for what they believe are false results. Said objections include file drawer problems, statistical “crud factor” (an observed effect in which large sample size studies can show a significant correlations between any two random variables—i.e. everything is correlated with everything else to some degree), and outlier effects.

The latter is a particularly revealing controversy. Say your study results in this 30% instead of 20% effect, and there’s one subject in the study who (over many trials) got the shape right 80% of the time. If you’re a skeptic, you call that an outlier and you want to cut it out of the study because it may be causing part, most, or all of the effect you see. Your assumption is that that this outlier could be anything from a data entry error to an outright cheater, but it’s obviously not a gifted psychic. If you’re a believer, not only do you want to keep that result, you want to find that person and study them to find out if the result was a one-time fluke, or if you have some rare, gifted person.

The book is arranged into three parts. The first part offers background on yoga and siddhis. The second part is the heart of the book and it presents an overview of results from studies of precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis (both of animate and inanimate objects), clairvoyance, and the effect of meditation on these abilities (which also shows a small positive effect, i.e. the general population outdoes probability by a little bit and experienced meditators outperform the general population by a little bit.) The last section is just a couple chapters about the future of parapsychology.

I found this book to be interesting and thought-provoking. Radin comes across as a reasonable investigator who is willing to accept that there is a lot of duplicity going on out in the world, but yet when one uses the methods of science one obtains results that would be generally accepted as successful across the social sciences. At times he does go on anti-skeptic rants. On the other hand, one can imagine his frustration in dealing with individuals unwilling to pin down how much higher the bar must be for parapsychology results over results in more mainstream topics. I think Radin’s greatest mistake was in discussing levitation. Besides at a quantum level, the effects of gravity are well-understood and non-negotiable. While our lack of understanding of consciousness leaves wiggle room to at least consider some unusual happenings, levitation seems a non-starter. Fortunately, as it hasn’t been studied, Radin just presents a couple historical anecdotes and moves on (while—to be fair–acknowledging the fundamental risk in relying on anecdotes.)

I’d recommend this book. I can’t say it swayed my belief on the topic, which tends skeptical, but it did inform my confusion. (It should be pointed out that not all these abilities are equally reviled by science. Precognition is the most fundamentally opposed because it seems to violate the fundamental cause and effect nature of the universe at our scale and larger [as opposed to the quantum level were all sorts of weird happenings transpire.]) I do agree with Radin that there shouldn’t be taboos in science in which scientists are afraid to study a subject of interest because the prevailing notion is that it probably doesn’t have merit. If there weren’t scientists with the cojones to study “crazy stuff” we’d no doubt be far behind our current understanding of the world.

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