Society for Scientific Exploration

EXPLORER

PresidentŐs Column

November 2009

 

Matters of Life & Death

 

 

On 24 August 2009 Wired Magazine published a story entitled ŇPlacebos are getting more effective. Drugmakers are desperate to know why.Ó The author described growing difficulties with placebo-controlled trials of antidepressants. It isnŐt that the antidepressants are becoming less effective; instead, the placebos are becoming more effective and so the statistically determined benefit of taking the drugs is decreasing. Researchers have proposed a number of possible explanations, but none is fully convincing.

 

Might the mysterious placebo effect involves some sort of a build up of intention over time? We in the SSE know that intention has dramatic effects on medical outcomes. Recent presentations at SSE meetings by Joie Jones and William Bengston have shown substantial effects of applied intention on healing. From work by William Tiller, Jones, and Dean Radin we know that spaces can be conditioned. With Rupert SheldrakeŐs morphic fields we see evidence that all sorts of knowledge can build up over time. Some studies of prayer and healing have produced null results. Do the null results ŇdebunkÓ effects of intention on healing? Of course not. In a commonly used example, a series of strike-outs doesnŐt prove that a baseball player canŐt ever get on base, if on some other days he hits home runs.

 

The documented effects of intention provide ample material for hypotheses on why placebo effects should be increasing. Do we understand the phenomena fully? Far from the case. Is it going to be easy to disentangle different possible effects? Certainly not. Are there large-scale studies of these effects? Sadly, no.

 

Looking at another recent news item, on 4 November 2009 a story in the New York Times described a bomb detector that the Iraqi government purchased and deployed to police and military checkpoints throughout the country. More than 1500 of the devices were purchased from a company called ATSC at considerable expense. The small hand-held units have a telescope antenna that swivels to point in the direction of the weapons or contraband. U.S. forces consider them to be useless magic wands, but the head of the Iraqi unit for detecting bombs is confident that they work.

 

Three years ago a person who sold these devices was introduced to me to so that I could figure out the physics of how they worked. He needed that information to be able to sell them in the USA. He believed they worked by sensing electromagnetic fields associated with the material to be detected. It was immediately obvious to me that the sensing had nothing to do with electromagnetics but was instead a form of dowsing. I suggested that if he replaced the metal antenna with a non-conducting one it would work just as well, proving the effect was not electromagnetic. He did and it did.

 

With help from the local Boulder SSE chapter my lab initiated a project to study the device. We used the proprietor and my lab technician, trained by the proprietor, as operators of the device in a set of experiments. The proprietor had been successful nearly 100% of the time using the device in the field and was confident the experiment would give a positive outcome. Using careful procedures that were double-blind (searcher and experimenter didnŐt know the location) and even triple-blind (no one knew until after the experiment) we found... nothing. Not only were the results not above chance, they werenŐt even at chance Đ the searchers found the object less often than if they had picked locations randomly.

 

What is happening here? It dowsing bogus? Published scientific studies (including in the Journal of Scientific Exploration) have sometimes confirmed the efficacy of dowsing, and for millennia countless dowsers have successfully found water and other materials. There are other dowsing studies, such as the one my lab started, which gave null results. Do the null results ŇdebunkÓ dowsing? Of course not. There are uncontrolled variables in intention-healing studies, in dowsing studies, and in baseball.

 

What these negative findings do show is that psi experimentation is not easy. There are parameters that we still donŐt understand or know how to control. This will take more work: thorough, innovative, replicated research. With the current lack of funding, it will take a long time.

 

The bigger question here is: does it matter? Are these anomalies just tidbits of interest only to a small group of anomalists?

 

Lives have been torn apart because some drugs with apparent promise are ineffective. A large number of people die from the side effects of drugs. If there are fundamental problems with the controls in clinical drug trials, it matters! If the dowsing-based bomb detectors really work, many lives are being saved by them. If they donŐt, then people, real people, are dying unnecessarily!

 

These effects are not just academic curiosities. Many lives depend on them. And these are only two examples Đ the tip of the iceberg. Psi and other areas that SSE researchers investigate are important not only because they are fascinating, not only because they have broad implications for our worldview, but also because life and death decisions depend upon our understanding these inadequately investigated phenomena.