Can we go back and change the past?

Can we go back and change the past? asks Lynne McTaggart in her latest blog post. And there we have a perfect example of Betteridge’s law of headlines. The answer is, of course: no.

One of the most basic assumptions about intention is that it operates according to a generally accepted sense of cause and effect: if A causes B, then A must have happened first.

No, that’s just the post hoc fallacy. Oh, wait: intention, as McTaggart defines it, is the post hoc fallacy.

This assumption reflects one of our deepest beliefs, that time is a one-way, forward-moving arrow. What we do today cannot affect what happened yesterday.

It’s more than an assumption, it is a fundamental law of physics. It is inherent in the structure of space-time, tied to the speed of light as the “cosmic speed limit”. There is some speculation as to the possibility of closed time-like curves, but this still would not permit us to influence past events – the “grandfather paradox“.

As an author of a book supposedly on quantum physics, you’d think Lynne would know this – but of course her book is actually quantum flapdoodleW.

There are, however, some cranks who think otherwise. I wonder if that’s who Lynne has been referring to? (Rhetorical).

However, a sizeable body of the scientific evidence about intention violates these basic assumptions about causation.

I see where Lynne went wrong there. There is no scientific evidence of intention. There’s a good deal of scientific evidence refuting it, and some pseudoscientific pseudo-evidence supporting it.

Since Lynne is a source and proponent of pseudoscientific pseudo-evidence in favour of intention, she naturally thinks it is scientific and evidence.

She is this: wrong.

The evidence is clear: just like homeopathy, the apparent effect of wishful thinking intention reduces as methodological rigour increases. It only “works” if you allow the subjectivity and bias of belief to skew the result.

Research has demonstrated clear instances of time-reversed effects, where effect precedes cause.

No, it has not. Retrocausality remains hypothetical.

Indeed, some of the largest effects occur when intention is sent out of strict time sequence.

Your logical fallacy is: begging the question. Lynne may believe that this is so, but the standard of evidence required to establish this as fact would be very high indeed, and since none of it has even been published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal it’s safe to say that we are very much not there yet.

These studies offer up the most challenging idea of all: that thoughts can affect other things no matter when the thought is made. In fact, they may work better when they are not subject to a conventional time sequence of causation.

No they do not offer it up, they simply demonstrate that you are so caught up in belief that you have suspended your critical faculties. If your “tests” of wishful thinking intention show that it works backwards in time as well as forwards, that is clear evidence that your methodology is hopelessly wrong. Only a fool would conclude that this instead shows that they have the ability to violate causation. It is hubris of an extraordinary kind.

Princeton University’s former dean of engineering Robert Jahn and psychologist Brenda Dunne discovered this phenomenon when they investigated time displacement in their random event generator trials. In some 87,000 of these experiments, volunteers were asked to attempt to mentally influence the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ random output of random event generator (REG) machines in a specific direction anywhere from three days to two weeks after the machines had run.
As a whole, the ‘time-displaced’ experiments achieved even greater effects than the standard experiments.

Jahn is notorious. He was the founder of Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) and was (indeed still is) a believer in parapsychology. There are many skeptical reviews that challenge the validity of their claims (e.g. this in Skeptical Inquirer).

The important thing to remember is that science by definition generally cannot prove a negative; however, the effects proposed by PEAR always fit the following criteria:

  1. The effect size is very small. Only a very tiny amount of bias need creep in to produce this effect.
  2. The effect size is greater when subjectivity is involved in judging outcomes.
  3. The apparatus is generally not calibrated by running the trial with and without the purported input, sequentially.
  4. The effects are generally not replicable by independent groups.

This is not a sound basis on which to make any confident claim. There is too much risk of subtle and not-so-subtle bias.

This is well explained by Caroline Watt in this interview for the European Skeptics Conference podcast. A multi-centre study with pre-planned analyses and a pre-planned meta analysis showed no effect.

The very idea that intention could work equally well whether ‘backward’, ‘forward’ or in sequence made Jahn realize that all of our conventional notions of time need to be discarded. The fact that effects were even larger during the time-displaced studies suggested that thoughts have even greater power when their transmission transcends ordinary time and space.

Whereas it should in fact have caused him to go back and question  his assumptions and try more rigorous tests.

Future shock

Dean Radin, chief scientist for the Institute of Noetic Science, also tested the possibility that, under certain conditions, a future event can influence an earlier nervous-system response. He made ingenious use of a strange psychological phenomenon called the ‘Stroop effect’, named after its discoverer, psychologist John Ridley Stroop, originator of a landmark test in cognitive psychology.

Dean Radin does not “test” anything. He sets out to provide evidence to support a hypothesis: the very definition of pseudoscience. Bob Park, Richard Wiseman and Chris French have all analysed his and Jahn’s work and pointed out glaring flaws, on the border of outright fraud in places. Wiseman and Julie Milton have written an excellent book on how to exclude these biases.

The Stroop effect of which McTaggart speaks is the one in which people are required to read out the names of colours; when these names are printed on cards in the wrong colour, the speed and accuracy of reading reduces. This is actually relevant, but not in the way McTaggart thinks: it is a form of cognitive dissonanceW, which helps to explain why believers in some phenomenon find it hard to accept disconfirming results.

It is abundantly clear that the work of Jahn and Radin cannot be replicated by others in properly controlled conditions. They have a variety of excuses for this, all of which amount to special pleadingW.

Swedish psychologist Holger Klintman devised a variation on the Stroop test. Volunteers were asked first to identify the colour of a rectangle as quickly as they could, then asked whether a colour name matched the colour patch they had just been shown. A large variation occurred in the time it took his volunteers to identify the colour of the rectangle. Klintman discovered that the identification of the rectangle colour was faster when it matched the colour name shown subsequently. The time it took for people to identify the colour of the rectangle seemed to depend on the second task of determining whether the word matched the rectangle colour. Klintman called his effect ‘time-reversed interference’.
In other words, the later effect influenced the brain’s reaction to the first stimulus.

Woo alert.

The two papers by Klintman are:

  • Klintman, H. (1983). Is there a paranormal (precognitive) influence in certain types of perceptual sequences? Part I. European Journal of Parapsychology, 5, 19-49.
  • Klintman, H. (1984). Is there a paranormal (precognitive) influence in certain types of perceptual sequences? Part II. European Journal of Parapsychology, 5, 125-140.

Research published in parapsychology journals has to be treated with immense caution, due to the influence of True Believers.

And in fact in 1987 Camfferman tried to replicate the experiment (Time reversed interference: A replication study. European Journal of Parapsychology, 7, 13-31), and failed, following which interest in Klintman’s findings fizzled out.

It’s just one more in a long line of false positives caused by adding two and two and getting 5i.

Radin created a modern version of Klintman’s study. […] In four studies of more than 5000 trials, all four showed a retro-causal effect. Somehow, the time it took to carry out the second task was affecting the time it took to carry out the first one.

I’m pretty sure that this paper was published in Radin’s own journal, and has had no effective peer-review.

The implications are enormous. Our thoughts about something can affect our past reaction times.

They would be, if they were robustly established and independently repeatable. Which they aren’t.

So what on earth is going on?

Self-delusion, for the most part. Systematic, sustained and by now pretty much willful. Radin believes in precognition and is uncritical towards claims that support his belief.

Radin discovered more evidence that our mental influence is operating ‘backwards’ in an ingenious study examining the probable underlying mechanism of intention on the random bits of an REG machine.

No, he set out to produce more “evidence”, but he failed to follow an appropriately rigorous methodology so the result was what is technically known as wrong.

Radin first ran five REG studies involving thousands of trials, then analyzed two of his most successful experiments through a process called a “Markov chain”, which mathematically plots how the REG machine’s output got from A to B.

[…] Radin’s analysis of the data had one inescapable conclusion: this was not a process running forward, in an attempt to hit a particular target, so much as an “information” flow that had traveled back in time.

So, starting from the premise of precognition, he produced evidence of precognition. Voila! Homeopaths are very adept at this too.

There is a long history of PEAR and its fellow-travellers combining large numbers of failures to provide claimed success.

To pretend that his findings are compelling, even unarguable, as McTaggart seems to believe, is to overstate the case massively. The same problems noted above, apply: the effect size is tiny and independent replication is absent.

Seed moments

So if we’re not reaching back in time, but our future is affecting the present as it unfolds, just how much of the past can we change in the sticks-and-stones world of real life?

We can’t. These experiments, even if they did demonstrate limited precognition, would not allow wholesale violation of causation. And actually they are almost certainly bollocks.

And actually when one looks at the supposedly “robust” basis for Radin’s claims one finds:

Radin is aware of the file-drawer effect, in which only positive results tend to get reported and negative ones are left in the filing cabinet. This obviously can greatly bias any analysis of combined results and Radin cannot ignore this as blithely as he ignores other possible, non-paranormal explanations of the data. Even the most fervent parapsychologists recognize this problem. Meta-analysis incorporates a procedure for taking the file-drawer effect into account. Radin says it shows that more than 3,300 unpublished, unsuccessful reports would be needed for each published report in order to “nullify” the statistical significance of psi. In his review of Radin’s book for the journal Nature, statistics professor I.J. Good disputes this calculation, calling it “a gross overestimate.” He estimates that the number of unpublished, unsuccessful reports needed to account for the results by the file drawer effect should be reduced to fifteen or less. How could two meta-analyses result in such a wide discrepancy? Somebody is doing something wrong, and in this case it is clearly Radin. He has not performed the file-drawer analysis correctly. – Meta-analysis and the file-drawer effect, Stenger (emphasis added).

All scientific findings carry the caveat: this might be wrong, but…

Radin, like most parapsychology believers, is insufficiently self-critical, excuses away prosaic explanations, and seeks to support not refute his beliefs. Nothing Radin writes shows any hint that he considers that he might be anything other than correct, and this applies vastly more strongly to McTaggart, who doesn’t have any of the scientific background that would be helpful in understanding the risks of self-delusion in experiments with subjective or debatable outcomes.

For McTaggart, these are religious truths that she wants to be scientific, so she seeks science that supports her beliefs.

This is, of course, exactly how creation “science” works.

Psychologist William Braud has pondered this issue at length. He once observed that those moments in the past most open to change might be ‘seed’ moments when nature has not made up its mind – perhaps the earliest stages of events before they blossomed and grew into something static and unchangeable: the brain of a child, which is far more open to influence and learning than an adult’s; or even a virus, which is far easier to overcome in its infancy. Random events, decisions with equally likely choices, or illness – all probabilistic moments are those most open to change.

Always keep an open mind, just not so open that your brains fall out. Lynne McTaggart has a closed mind. Her mind is not open to the scientific consensus view on homeopathy, vaccines or anything else where she has made up her mind.

That’s presumably why her “intention experiments” are not considered worthwhile enough for publication in any reputable journal.

Although our understanding of the mechanism is still primitive, the experimental evidence of time reversal is fairly robust. This research portrays life as one giant, smeared-out here and now, and much of it – past, present and future – open to our influence at any moment.

No, the evidence is not robust, and our understanding is that the observed effects are consistent with bias. Prosaic, but science tends to be that way.

You generally can’t tell from McTaggart’s writing which studies she is referring to, but there are a large number of studies by Radin that have been systematically demolished. His “Global Consciousness Project” is actually a global nonsense project. Noetic “science” is just new-age claptrap and Dean Radin is a crank.

And even if all that were not true, the effect is so tiny (fractions of a percentage point different over large numbers of repetitions and very short periods) that it would be ignorable for all practical purposes.

But that hints at the most unsettling idea of all. Once constructed, a thought is lit forever.

Pure chopralalia. That sentence has no objective meaning whatsoever.

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