Science is interested in understanding the world as it really is....but, surprisingly, only up to a point! You have to play by the inferential rules, like how to design experiments, evaluate data, and so on. But you also usually have to stay within bounds. That means, you have to stay within the limits of what is considered legitimacy at any given time. And if you don't, you'll get a critique like this one,
“It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in. I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”
We're not talking about cheating here. We're talking culture, and that means within the tribally accepted belief system. Currently, the science tribe doesn't accept supernatural explanations, so we don't accept hypotheses based on divine intervention in experiments. Thus most scientists say that religion is outside the realm of science, and at present so is consciousness. Subjective experience is also not viewed as objective science!
Of course, what is 'supernatural' is what we don't know how to understand. But if we discover some new factor or force--as happened with the use of telescopes and microscopes, or electromagnetism, the new things are melded in with the known, and hence natural world. No longer supernatural.
At any given time, people tend to believe that all fundamental forces of that sort are known, even if we don't know the details of how they work in various cases (such as predicting traits from genes? future climate? electron orbits?). But if current theory is correct, isn't the world made entirely by molecules and energy and don't they follow universal rules that intertwine them with each other (like gravity, filling space and time)? If that's the case, then nothing is truly independent of anything else, and things we observe could be causally connected in ways we didn't expect.
A paper soon to be published in a highly respected psychology journal, after standard peer review, that claims that something of this order occurs to explain extra sensory perception (ESP, or psi as it's called these days). For example, physics routinely invokes 'entanglement' by which particles in different places can affect each other in ways such that one particle 'knows' the status of the other. So why can't information be transmitted and hence received and interpreted elsewhere, such as by one person perceiving such things without any standard physical evidence of information transfer?
This paper, described today in the NYTimes, and freely accessible online -- and the subject of discussion for some weeks already in the blogosphere -- is a report of 9 different trials of psi. A thousand Cornell undergrads were asked to perform different tasks -- guessing which screen would show an erotic picture before the computer had randomly selected it, for example -- and the results interpreted by the investigator as showing that 'precognition' exists.
The rationale for this decade of experimentation seems to be that what we know about physics makes it possible
The development in quantum mechanics that has created the most excitement and discussion among physicists, philosophers, and psi researchers is the empirical confirmation of Bell’s theorem [see the paper for citations], which implies that any realist model of physical reality that is compatible with quantum mechanics must be nonlocal: It must allow for the possibility that particles that have once interacted can become entangled so that even when they are later separated by arbitrarily large distances, an observation made on one of the particles will simultaneously affect what will be observed on its entangled partners in ways that are incompatible with any physically permissible causal mechanism (such as a signal transmitted between them).and evolutionary theory makes it plausible.
If psi exists, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that it might have been acquired through evolution by conferring survival and reproductive advantage on the species. For example, the ability to anticipate and thereby to avoid danger confers an obvious evolutionary advantage that would be greatly enhanced by the ability to anticipate danger precognitively.Well, of course, if this were so it would also not be unreasonable to suppose that most species in addition to humans would have this ability, and that a trait with the huge selective advantage that psi would surely have would not be as difficult to detect -- or as intermittently useful and reliable -- as it's proving to be.
And, the paper is getting just the kind of broadside critique any heretical challenge to accepted wisdom will get. The quote above, for example, about these results being just crazy is taken from the story in the Times, is from a Ray Hyman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and described as a 'longtime critic of ESP research'. Of course, maybe he's a reflex, superannuated critic. Because there are also those who are applauding the results -- finally mainstream science shows psi exists. But, as is generally the case, reactions to this paper tend to be based on people's preconceived notions about ESP rather than the science. Reactions as predictable as, well, as psi!
Or just bad science?
A rebuttal of the methodology is already available online, presenting a number of explanations for the apparent positive results of this work, including that it's a confusion of exploratory and confirmatory data (that is, the investigator refines his testing based on previous findings and doesn't correct for this), and that a Bayesian analysis that evaluates the plausibility of new results based on what has been found or assumed before, shows that none of the results are significant after all.
Indeed, the idea that psi even exists, much less what it is, is has been thoroughly controversial, or rather, rather thoroughly dismissed by scientists (in our current tribe). Mostly, it's been for good reason. Claims of the phenomenon have largely been unsupported by adequate evidence. Frauds and trickster showmen have been deeply implicated in ESP shows, seances, and the like. Tarot card readers are clever at making educated guesses and safe predictions. So why should we believe any such claims? Is invoking 'entanglement' to explain psi any different than other after-the-fact true-sounding WAGs (wild ass guesses)? Or is it the right kind of explanation, but simply far ahead of what we actually know about what we call 'entanglement'?
History shows that some such things, like alchemy and phrenology, have presaged what became legitimate science, even if their initial premises were guesses based on poorly observed aspects of Nature. Many accepted ideas, like earth-centered astronomy or the four humours theory of medicine, have clung on for centuries even though clearly wrong (we now know). If someone actually shows that psi is 'real' that will mean showing the nature of the mechanism or that it can be systematically repeated, or something of that kind. Then, it will become part of the normally accepted world. The skeptics will be laughed off as having been conservative Luddites impeding progress.
On the other hand, hucksters and legitimate scientists alike have offered countless explanations and theories that went absolutely nowhere. And the claims of studies of psi find only slight statistical supporting evidence (making the big assumption of no kinds of bias or misapplication of significance tests, such as how truly multiply blinded participants and observer were, whether multiple testing was corrected for, and what 'significance' level--p value--should be used). Why should the evidence be so weak? In this context, the author's totally Kiplingesque 'evolutionary' Just-So explanation supports suspicion more than it supports the hypothesis, because it's so egregiously trying too hard, far too hard, for something that involves a participant and a computer (of course some day we may find a million year old computer fossil). If humans evolved for anything, perhaps it was to be gullible!
Nonetheless, pseudo psi-ence aside, there remains the legitimately serious question of how we could ever tell psi from sound, and how can we decide the limits of acceptable claims, of what constitutes scientific understand of the real world? This has been an issue, often unstated, throughout the history of science. In a way, it's what keeps science so conventional and incremental in daily practice, but in the long run what makes science interesting.