Thursday, December 9, 2010

We need to remain sceptical

While on the subject of inappropriate experiments and conclusions let me add another.
Let’s try out of body experiences (OBEs for short), in particular those associated with near death experiences (NDE). The claim of many theists is that these experiences demonstrate the existence of some sort of metaphysical component to our existence. Atheists of course reject this as nonsense and correctly argue that it is not proven.

But there is much experimentation in this area because if the results are conclusive, one way or the other, then there will be some solid evidence for the existence or otherwise of a spiritual/metaphysical dimension and that will materially add or detract from arguments for the existence of a spiritual being.

There are three main directions being followed.Wikipedia as an OK overview.
1) Documenting personal OBE: Authors such as Penny Sartori is dismissed by many as unscientific. No control, can't replicate etc. The fact that the critics are unable to deliver an explanation for seemingly impossible occurrences does not of course bother them

2) Simulating OBEs. Coming to the aid of the critics of the anecdotal evidence is work done to artificially create an OBE. Henrik Ehrsson and others have used sensory stimulation to cause people to feel detached from their bodies. These experiments can and have been replicated. It is argued that this proves that the OBE associated with near death experiences are mere hallucinations.

3) Peek-a-Boo tests. Used Parnia as part of his research they are conducted by placing objects out of sight of patients who may have OBEs and then if they claim such an experience are asked if they have seen the objects. This seems valid and many await the outcome.

OK, what’s wrong with all this?

Firstly the simulations – at best they demonstrate that such experiences are possible and provide an explanation of the neurological mechanisms. They do nothing to address any metaphysical component. On the whole I would regard them as positive for case of spiritual experiences but certainly in no way definitive and clearly they do not disprove a metaphysical component.

What about the Peek-a-Boos. Certainly Parnia is being very thorough – he wants an undisputed result. But what does the experiment actually test? It tests a physical ability – sight. Now the NDE OBEs often make claims of having seen persons whom the patient had not previously met enter or leave their room, so fair enough to ask if they saw the hidden object ... ?

I argue that the Peek-a-Boo experiments cannot validly test if an OBE occurred. An OBE is by definition a metaphysical phenomenon – why should it respond to physical objects. Certainly those in NDE OBE claim to have “seen” people when they were incapable of vision. ... but the spiritually inclined argue that we can identify people from their spiritual presence – a cardboard object does not have such a presence, so why should we be able to detect it in an OBE?

Certainly there is more to Parnia’s work than the hidden objects with patients being extensively quizzed and where possible measurements made of brain activity together with time correlations. So Parnia may well get somewhere with the anacdotal component, but those others who base their claims on only the hidden object being seen or not are in my opinion drawing a false conclusion from their experiments.

OK what about the anecdotal evidence. Simply put, not much of it was very scientific. However this is not the case with the rigour of some of the more recent studies. The results of these more rigorous studies seem to produce at the very least some very difficult questions for the critics. If the impossible cannot be explained by conventional science then perhaps we should as a last resort use Occam’s Razor and accept the simple a metaphysical explanation.

Still no takers on designing an experiment to test if prayer works? Maybe review those that have been undertaken?

Hamba kahle - peace


Sunday, December 5, 2010

What we think we know?

We have acquired a lot of information on a subject, even some might say knowledge, and still know very little. That science is placed on a pedestal does not really help – perhaps it even hinders. After all, through science we expect to know things with confidence if not certainty. If it is proven through scientific experiment it must be true. Right? Wrong.

Scientific experiment even if it can be accurately repeated proves only the conditions tested by the experiment. We tend to be accepting of the results whereas we should, as with all things maintain an open mind and be sceptical.
This post is triggered by a recent discussion where someone said they had read at least 10 books on the subject and they all basically agreed and the experimental evidence proved X. My view, so what?
Consider a non-theological example and one which I have much sympathy for, namely that homeopathic medicine is a waste of money, being ineffective.
Experiment (1) to test the claims of homeopathy was conducted (I do not have the reference, but my point lies in the principle not the specific of the example). Students were infected with the common cold and while confined in the same accommodation were given (double blind) either a homeopathic remedy or a placebo. Conclusion, the homeopathic remedy was no more effective than the placebo. This experiment confirmed the results of similar studies and is seen as supporting the conclusion that homeopathic remedies don’t work.
Now I take exception to that conclusion and question the validity of the experiment. The experiment tested the clinical effectiveness of a substance – I would accept the results for a commercial cold medicine. Certainly it demonstrated that in a clinical trial the substance was not effective.
BUT that is not the claim made by homeopathy. Classical homeopathy claims to provide a holistic treatment of the person, not a symptom relief treatment as with a commercial cold medication. Therefore the experiment did nothing to test the basic claim of homeopathy.
An experiment that involved a full consultation with a homeopath then a triple blind supply of either placebo or the prescribed homeopathic remedy would certainly provide a better test for the claims. BUT is that still good enough?
Possible outcomes:
A: Either placebo or remedy have better outcome
B: Placebo and remedy have similar outcomes and similar treatment rates as for first experiment.
C. Placebo and remedy have similar outcomes but better treatment rates than for experiment (1). This would be an expected outcome. From what we know of the placebo effect it is reasonable to expect that the method of administration (thorough examination, diagnosis & prescription) would enhance the effectiveness of both placebo and remedy.
So what have we proved? I suggest that there would be evidence to suggest that the homeopathic method was more effective than the clinical method of experiment (1). But certainly one could argue that there is no control group that received a similar level of attention, from say a conventional doctor and then received placebo or remedy – let’s call that experiment (3). I would again predict outcome C.
So what has been proven. Perhaps we should compare the level of efficacy of the placebo in (2) and (3). BUT I still argue that we do not have a valid experimental methodology to test the claim of homeopathy that it is effective as a long term holistic treatment regime. Problem is I can’t think of a practical experiment to test this claim. Such an experiment (4)would have to:
i) Look at the long term effect on general health (how?)
ii) Ensure the equivalence of the health prospects of the participants at the start (how?)
iii) Maintain an equal health environment for participants throughout the experiment (how?)
iv) Provide a valid control groups – perhaps both placebo and conventional medication (in the light of i, ii & iii – not easy)
v) Direct the treatment towards condition(s) considered appropriate for homeopathic intervention – and how do all agree on that?
vi) Administer the homeopathic treatment in line with the homeopathic school, but the placebo in a neutral way (how? Given the responsiveness of the placebo effect to the method of administration).
Now I have found no experiment equivalent to (4) that I would consider a valid test of the claims of homeopathy. So where do we go now?
How about common sense? The homeopathic method has been around for a long time. Its practitioners (the scholarly ones anyway) will have developed their treatment and remedy regimes based on what was found to work (and not work). Their patients would have continued to consult them )or not) based on how effective they considered the treatments to be.
There is a history of scholarship (perhaps not of the type found in a prominent university science faculty) in homeopathy, its treatments are differentiated to align with patient needs and demonstrate a level of consistency. Patients have not unanimously decided it does not work.
Conclusive? Hardly. Of the treatment options available I still find more attractive options. But don’t expect me to accept - that because someone reads a book or two on the subject and that the simple experiments they contained “proved” it does not work – that indeed the case is closed ... and certainly, just because you read on the www or saw it on TV or heard the interview on the radio does not excuse you from not properly exercising your scepticism and thinking it through.
OK now who wants to talk about experiments that test the effectiveness of prayer?

Hamba kahle - peace