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Published online: 13 February 2007; | doi:10.1038/news070212-6

[log in to unmask]: When research goes PEAR-shaped
There should be room for a bit of fringe science - but it's liable to 
suck you in

Philip Ball


It can't do much for your self-esteem when the media get interested 
in your research because it is shutting down. But Robert Jahn and 
Brenda Dunne of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) 
laboratory probably aren't too bothered by that.  For the attention 
generated by this week's closure of the PEAR lab - or rather, by the 
suggestion in the New York Times that this removes a source of 
embarrassment to the university - can surely only enhance the profile 
of Jahn and Dunne's vision of exploring "consciousness-related 
anomalies".

What anomalies, exactly? Jahn and Dunne carefully avoid calling the 
phenomena they have studied for more than two decades by their more 
familiar names: telekinesis and telepathy.  What they have studied, 
they say, is "the potential vulnerability of engineering devices and 
information processing systems to the anomalous influence of the 
consciousness of their human operators" - that is, people's ability 
to control machines using only the power of their minds.

Jahn, now an emeritus professor, is a former dean of Princeton's 
school of engineering and an expert on electric propulsion.  He and 
Dunne, a developmental psychologist, closed the lab themselves, as 
Jahn is about to retire.  "We have accomplished what we originally 
set out to do 28 years ago, namely to determine whether these effects 
are real and to identify their major correlates," they said in a 
press release.  They hope that young scholars from the International 
Consciousness Research Laboratories, a network established in 1996 
and now boasting members from 20 countries, will carry on their work.

But the work itself is full of worrying statements. In a paper called 
"The PEAR Proposition"1, published in the Journal of Scientific 
Exploration (published by the Society for Scientific Exploration, of 
which Jahn and Dunne are officers), the Princeton duo talk about "the 
tendency of the desired effects to hide within the underlying random 
data-substructures" and say volunteers would often produce "better 
scores" in initial tests. This echoes the way that researchers in 
other areas of fringe science, such as cold fusion and the 'memory of 
water', betrayed their lack of objectivity with talk of 'good' runs 
and 'bad' ones.

Jahn and Dunne are commendably honest about the "bemusing" and 
"capricious" nature of their measurements, but that only adds to the 
impression that they decided they were engaged in a battle of wits 
with nature, who did her darnedest to hide the truth.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the findings aren't genuine.  But 
perhaps, in science, that's not enough. With effects this slippery, 
can you do science at all?  And what happens if you try?


Know your limits

The affair has ignited debates about the limits of academic freedom 
and responsibility. The New York Times quotes physicist Robert Park 
of the University of Maryland, a noted debunker of pseudo-science, as 
saying "It's been an embarrassment to science, and I think an 
embarrassment for Princeton", whereas physicist Will Happer at 
Princeton says "I don't believe in anything [Jahn] is doing, but I 
support his right to do it." (The university itself is trying to keep 
out of the fray, saying they gave Jahn the room to pursue his 
"personal interest", but that, like many other researchers, he 
obtained the funding himself.)

Some will surely share Park's view that this sort of thing gives 
science a bad name.  But they'd be wrong to let the matter rest 
there, because PEAR's research reveals some interesting things about 
the practice and sociology of science, and what happens to scientists 
when they dabble in the 'paranormal'.

Reasonable scientists cannot rule out the possibility of telekinesis, 
telepathy and other such 'anomalies' of the mind, simply because 
there are still huge gaps in our understanding of consciousness and 
the brain.  But most will say that because all previous attempts to 
study these putative phenomena have failed to establish anything like 
a consistent, reproducible and unequivocal body of data, the chances 
of doing any serious science on the subject are minimal.

As John Webster said of witchcraft in the seventeenth century: "There 
is no greater folly than to be very inquisitive and laborious to find 
out the causes of such a phenomenon as never had any existence."


Will-o'-the-wisp

Experience teaches us that these things, from N-rays to cold fusion 
and homeopathy, are will-o'-the-wisps: too elusive for fruitful 
research, and probably imaginary, if not downright fraudulent.

Perhaps a stronger reason why scientists usually steer clear of such 
things is that it can amount to professional suicide. In "The PEAR 
Proposition", Jahn and Dunne describe the hostility they experienced 
at Princeton. They found "covert ridicule ... grudging concession of 
academic freedom, and... uneasiness in public discussion of the 
subject."

And they found it virtually impossible to publish their findings. 
Their papers, many of which reported the effects of subjects' mental 
and emotional states on a computerized random-number generator, were 
returned with the comment that they treated an "inappropriate topic". 
One editor said that he would consider the text only if the authors 
transmitted it telepathically, they report1.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that academics who dive into these 
murky waters tend to be older and already established in mainstream 
disciplines. Such people have earned themselves a bit of academic 
slack (as well as the ability to attract funding), and don't risk the 
exclusion that younger researchers would face.

All the same, a lack of peer feedback removes the normative force 
that might otherwise prevent researchers from going down some pretty 
strange tracks.  You start off with random number generators and 
unimpeachable experimental technique, and before long you are talking 
about "an ongoing two-way exchange between a primordial Source and an 
organizing Consciousness".

It would be a poorer world that castigates and shuns any researcher 
who dabbles in unorthodox or even weird ideas.  But the PEAR 
literature is sobering reading for anyone thinking of doing that.  It 
shows just how these things can suck you in.