October 1, 2017

What Field Hockey can Teach us About Science

I had almost completed writing a post that responded to many of individual questions raised in the comments to two (1, 2) posts regarding B. Allen Wallace and his appearance on a couple of different skeptical podcasts a few years ago. Yet the format of answering questions didn’t make for the most interesting or easiest of reads, but through the act of writing those responses I did come to a unifying comparison that encapsulates many of those responses.

Field Hockey Vs. Science

I will compare the rules for the game of field hockey which were created in the Australian desert in an attempt to limit Canadian dominance of sports with hockey in the name and the rules of science. Take for instance this comment from Andree,

On Eastern there are a plethora of explanations about consciousness based on introspection observation, and this is also falsifiable method just like looking through a microscope. But to reproduce an experiment you have to be trained with this instrument, meditation, just like a scientist have to be trained with microscope to see a cell. But Western science just reject meditation as a consciousness observation method, and prefer to find the answers through correlation between physical properties of brain and mental phenomena. The last method is not wrong, but why reject a direct method?”

There are multiple things to address as a few interesting points are being made in that comment. The first question is, is introspective observation a falsifiable and measurable method, equivalent to looking through a microscope? To his point when someone looks through a microscope and comes to a conclusion they are seeing something subjective and independent, which is similar to someone undertaking the act of introspection and making observations. The only difference is the person is ‘the microscope’ in his example, but there is a barrier of effort that limits scientists to becoming the microscope that Eastern people sometimes dedicate themselves into becoming. Further, there could be years of experience needed in recognizing the results observed by looking through the microscope that doesn’t allow someone else to see those results, the same way that a person wouldn’t be able to understand the subjective introspection.

I think this is a very strong argument, but first-hand reports of subjective experience don’t exist with the same reliability as something seen under a microscope. Someone can be standing by and confirm the observation in a way that is simply not possible for subjective experience. It may be argued that each person would require training and the finding wouldn’t be able to be verified by anyone else, but a picture or video can be taken of the microscope results which can be examined thoroughly by numerous people in a way that subjective experience cannot be examined. A person can undergo the same training and experience something like what that other person is describing in the eastern tradition but this wouldn’t be the same as the examination of the same microscope results. That person would be experiencing their own version of that phenomena and not, as with the microscope, viewing that same material. This would, admittedly, be harder for something like pain, but there are still correlates which can be looked at.  

While I point out reasons to doubt the microscope to personal introspection analogy as being successful, it does lead to the more fundamental question, are the methods of science biased against eastern understandings? This is where field hockey rules can add to the understanding of science and bias.

Field hockey was created with the intention of keeping the Canadian's from taking over the sport. There was a process of which had Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in a collaboration with Australia, purposefully make the rules of field hockey to be biased against Canadians. The Australians and South Park creators knew that research has shown that Canadian hockey players are more likely to be left-handed shots, so they made it so field hockey has the rule where only right-handed sticks are legal.  

Similarly, science could be seen as having rules that are purposefully biased against eastern knowledge or ways of finding knowledge. Both field hockey and science are biased, as field hockey hates Canadians and science doesn’t accept eastern knowledge.

Yet there is an important distinction that can be made, field hockey rules are purposefully biased against Canadian’s in an attempt to keep Jean McMaplepoutine down and science's rules are basic and limited in nature. While it is the case that field hockey could have left-handed sticks without changing the game and it would work, the same isn’t true about the broadening of the scientific method.

Science can be stripped down to being based on falsifiability and measurability. To be able to test, measure and retest, rules of which cannot be broadened to include other methods that are subjective and/or largely unmeasurable as their inclusion would change science in such a way that it would no longer be science. To that end science isn’t biased against eastern understandings in themselves it just can safely ignore them as interesting, but not science until there are ways of testing them with measurability and falsification. Take for instance the claim that with mediation there isn’t the need for food or water, that’s interesting, testable, result of the subjective experience and has been tested. Claims of a similar nature have been made by 'the Iceman' Wim Hof which are very interesting in the regulation of body temperature, but also in other areas, although they seem to be exaggerated.  There was a reasonable skepticism about those claims, but they can and were tested in the same way any other claims would be.

This shows two different systems, one where rules exist in a way that is purposefully biased for arbitrary reasons and one where the opposite is true and rules exist in a purposeful non-arbitrary way.

Bonus Take! –  Psi Will Never be verified by Science due to how it is ingrained with materialism which disallows it or it will never be verified because it is so biased against Psi that verification is impossible

I think many of the commentators to previous posts have the attitude that expressed in that description. I am not attempting to make a straw man, so if that isn't a fair summary than I am willing to change it, but I think that kind of arguments by psi proponents fundamentally underestimates the amount that scientists want to prove phenomena to be true, psi included. Any substantial finding in that area would instantaneously cause fame and fortune as it would be one of the most important findings in the history of science.This is why Daryl Bem and his tests received so much attention. Those tests were fairly well done and came to surprising results, but they failed to be replicated. 

The argument could even be made that science, as it currently exists, is biased in such a way that it would lean towards the proving the existence of psi-phenomena, due to there being a huge publishing bias towards new interesting results and the lack of interest in the publication of replications of other studies. Far from being ‘ingrained in materialism’ or having a system that works against Psi, the system is set up in favor of proving Psi, so long as it can be measured. I think this fact is a huge condemnation of the field, because if it existed in the way in which many people think it does then it takes a grand conspiracy to explain why it hasn’t been scientifically observed, on the scale of the level of conspiracy needed to believe in ‘chemtrails’ or ‘flat earth’.  The type of conspiracy so large that it falls apart under its own weight. 


  1. I think that science, as it currently exists, is biased in the opposite direction to what you propose in the final paragraph. There is a very strong taboo against venturing into the psi field as a researcher. The work and the funding involved is very low.

    At a 2015 conference on the problem of replication in psychology, which exists across the spectrum, not just in psi, one researcher - himself a critic of psi phenomena - had this to say:

    "I was at a conference last week where there were six neuroscience presentations. There were more people working in those labs than in the *whole world* on parapsychology. In terms of the person-hours that have been invested in [the] 100 years of research [in parapsychology], it amounts to about four months of North American social psychology."

    Parapsychology researcher Julia Mossbridge says that "meta-analyses of [paraspychological research] has about the same effect size as most mainstream psychology studies."

    You might be interested in this quite informative discussion showing how complex the issues in the field are:

    "Psychology and Parapsychology in Crisis": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVbeq1WJ2Ok

  2. There is most definitely a taboo against the venturing into psi and funding is low for a predictable reason, being that the results aren't encouraging enough for large-scale investment. This isn't to say their isn't positive results, just that there is a problem with reproducability and smaller results in better studies.

    I think that video, "Psychology and Parapsychology" is a good one not in advocating that Psi is real, just pointing out that Psi is being held to a higher standard than many other areas of psychology and science in general, which has led to results to be trusted more than they should be and not retested to an acceptable degree.

    Still if there are more replications performed and a higher standard being held to Psi than we should have greater accuracy in judging the results...which again has failed to be very convincing.

    I still stand by what I wrote in Science being set up to be biased towards the publication of interesting results and replication being less than ideal, which both work in favour of proving the existence of Psi. While you are correct to point out that their is a bias or taboo in going into Psi research, but with, what I view, as a reasonable bias.

  3. Stephen, all of your points could be raised against physicalism:

    Nothing self-existently physical can be observed. What we "observe" are purely subjective impressions. We compare them with others and when we measure the results of our comparisons, the measurements appear to be stable. The fact that exactly the same thing would occur if we measured objects in our dreams (which perhaps more obviously consist entirely of mind-constructed images) shows clearly that the results of quantitative empirical ("empirical" meaning sensory experience, not all experience) measurement tell us nothing about the nature of the reality we experience.

    What you have done in the previous post and throughout this one is consistently conflate empirical investigation and philosophy (specifically, ontological questions)>

    The solution does not require a full blog post. It's very simple (and nobody I'm aware of in the field of science or philosophy of science has done it, because it can't be done).

    1. Define the word "physical" (and it can't be what most have done, throwing their hands up after trying everything else - "it's what physicists study")

    Since you won't be able to do that, try this to see why it can't be done:

    2. Describe an allegedly purely "physical" object like a stone without using ANY perceptual or conceptual qualia.

    You should really try this VERY energetically in order to understand why "physical" has no positive meaning.

    But I'll do it for you. Since nobody has ever been able to provide a positive meaning for the word "physical", there must be something wrong in that approach. There is. It's a religious not a scientific or philosophic term. It has sole a negative meaning.

    "Physical" means not conscious, not intelligent, not sentient.

    There, now you know what it is. Biologist Richard Lewontin admitted as much when he said we must defend materialism with all we have, no matter how irrational or incoherent our defense, because the alternative (ANY alternative) is so much worse.

    That is not reason, that is blind faith. And that is at the root of all physicalism.