Wyrdsmiths: Reliability and repeatability

“While in the conventional sciences things have to be seen to be believed, in the parasciences things have to be believed to be seen.”
[Stan Gooch, in a letter to New Scientist magazine.]

Science, technology, repeatability and reliability

The relationships between mainstream technologies and conventional science closely parallel those between magical-technologies and what Gooch terms ‘the parasciences’. In both cases:

  • the sciences are primarily concerned with repeatability, in order to establish proof;
  • in the technologies, however, the concern is more with reliability, in order to establish and extend usefulness.

In this sense technology is clearly not ‘applied science’: the differences become fundamental, and in certain circumstances the sciences can actually be more of a hindrance than a help in technology. This is particularly true of the parasciences, because the conventional scientific notions of repeatability simply cannot work in most parascience contexts – or even in many conventional science contexts.

In the mainstream sciences, a hypothesis concerning a phenomenon is considered ‘proven’ if its results are reproducible (repeatable) at different times by different observers under the same physical conditions. This ‘objective’ model works well for macrophysics (i.e. those circumstances in which statistical quantum uncertainties are overriden by sheer numbers of entities) and for most chemistry and biochemistry, and hence underpins most of the corresponding technologies. However, it works well only because it’s assumed that only a single and controllable level of conditions is involved. (There is a actually fundamental problem in most mainstream science, in that this assumption – which is only an assumption – tends to be viewed as ‘law’, leading to serious circular reasoning in science.) In the ‘soft sciences’ such as sociology and psychology, in certain medical sciences such as immunology, and especially in the parasciences, more and more levels of conditions need to be managed in order to achieve ‘objective’ repeatability:

  • the same physical conditions
  • the same conditions of of mind
  • the same conditions of intent
  • the same conditions of necessity

…and so on, because the available evidence clearly indicates that all of these factors are involved. Because most of these levels involve factors which are personal and subjective, it’s plainly absurd to attempt to apply only physical ‘objective’ criteria of repeatability in the respective sciences. (It’s even more absurd – and often downright dishonest – to construct parascience experiments which intentionally ignore these ‘higher’-level factors: in a strict scientific sense, the only thing The Skeptics Society has ever managed to prove, in their endless attempts to ‘debunk’ the parasciences, is that when a specific form of doubt known as ‘the need for proof and conformity to expectations’ is involved, it is extremely unlikely that any paranormal phenomena will occur!) In order to create reliability in magical-technologies, we need to take a different approach.

Goal-directed technologies

Most science focusses on single mechanisms, with experiments usually designed to change just one parameter at a time in order to understand the processes of therespective mechanism. But as the physicist Dr Ted Bastin indicates in the section on magical-technologies and science, technologies need to be understood as essentially goal-directed, in that the mechanisms used to create a required end-result can – and in the magical-technologies often do – vary considerably, both between individuals, and between individual actions. Dowsing, for example, is a perceptual skill which integrates information coming from all the senses, and thus operates through a whole spectrum of mechanisms, many of them strictly physical, but some – as in map-dowsing – obviously not. Unlike in science, where understandability and predictability – what Bastin describes as the ‘well-behavedness’ of mechanisms – necessarily have a very high priority, in technologies all that matters is that the goal is achieved with a high degree of reliability and efficiency: as long as the mechanisms used do not conflict with those requirements, the choice of mechanism to achieve the goal does not greatly matter.

Other magical-technologies work in much the same way as dowsing, using different mechanisms according to availability. In psychokinesis, for example, Batcheldor and Brookes-Smith showed that the mechanisms employed to achieve the required goals in their table-levitation research exhibited the full range of ‘paranormality’ (or lack of it):

  • direct mechanical force (otherwise known as ‘cheating’, in a scientific context! – but acceptable, allowed for and in some ways actually required in their research in order to overcome ‘witness inhibition‘ and ‘ownership resistance‘)
  • unconscious co-operation (two people applying cross-pressure which individually would not be sufficient to lift the table)
  • vacuum adhesion (vacuum created between the table and the palm of a sitter’s hand, sufficient to hold the weight of a light card-table from above)
  • abnormal adhesion (short-term adhesion between the table surface and a sitter’s fingertips, sufficient to hold the weight of the table from above)
  • tenuous-matter support (‘rods’ of a short-lived material – related to the so-called ‘ectoplasm’ in the traditional séance context, and extremely difficult to identify – extruded from a sitter’s arm or body, sufficient to hold and lift the weight of the table from below)
  • hand-following (the table-surface following and mimicking the movements of one or more sitters’ hands from a short distance below)
  • directed autonomous movement (the table carrying out commanded movements without contact or physical/visual modelling by sitters)

The mechanism selected at any one time appears to be that which uses the least effort to achieve the result – in other words, that which achieves the highest efficiency in the overall context. In practice this means that the more ‘normal’ mechanisms tend to be preferred, and that the more ‘paranormal’ mechanisms tend to be increasingly rare, but there is never any guarantee that this is so in any individual case. Skills are personal, hence the conscious (or, in most magical-technologies, often unconscious) choice of mechanism for action is likewise personal: paranormal mechanisms tend to require increasingly complex ‘special-case’ conditions in which to operate, and tend to cause increasingly severe psychological/conceptual witness-inhibition and ownership-resistance difficulties for most observers, but for some people are actually easier to use than ‘normal’ ones!

Psychological/conceptual constraints such as witness-inhibition, ownership-resistance and Inverse Murphy tend to combine in such a way that any attempt to force the action to take place through a single predefined ‘paranormal’ mechanism under rigidly-controlled conditions will usually guarantee that the specified goal cannot be achieved. This is a classic problem affecting most attempts at ‘scientific’ study by inexperienced researchers: the problem in experimental design is to achieve an appropriate balance between precise control of observation and complete freedom of action. Batcheldor and Brookes-Smith’s experiments with group-psychokinesis attempted to resolve this issue by allowing subjective freedom for sitters but retaining control through a fully instrumented table and other objective techniques: even then they had difficulty recording tenuous-matter, as it appeared to be ‘intelligent’ enough to be aware of purpose-fitted detectors and capable of changing form to avoid them! (Note that this occurred in a context in which there was no investment in any particular mechanism, and a deliberate exclusion of personal ‘ownership’ of phenomena: most sitters were actually unaware that tenuous-matter had been formed from and extruded from their own bodies.) In the same way, goal-oriented tools such as biofeedback instruments can help in creating a balance between freedom and control, and also assist in reducing witness-inhibition and ownership-resistance by providing positive reinforcement.

Supporting reliability in magical-technologies

The only functional difference between mainstream ‘applied-science’-based technologies and magical-technologies is that the latter are far less constrained in their range of permissible operating mechanisms. All technologies depend on the skill and experience of individuals: in mainstream technologies technical issues are often (and incorrectly) assigned a higher priority, whereas in magical-technologies individual-based issues such as self-confidence and personal definitions of ‘reality’ necessarily become more central. (Without individual skill, there is no technology: the various mechanisms are perceived and experienced to operate only as arbitrary and unconnected phenomena.) In general, increasing reliability in technology depends on increasing understanding of the nature of skill, and increasing levels of practical support for individual experience and individual choice. Support for magical-technologies is thus essentially the same as for any other skills, but with rather more emphasis than usual on the complex psychology of skill and empowerment:

  • provide positive feedback
  • reduce self-doubt, increase self-trust
  • develop awareness of the dynamic balance between under-confidence and over-confidence
  • address the fears that underly witness-inhibition and ownership-resistance
  • use ‘patterning’ – repetitive actions – to improve ‘body-awareness’ and reduce dependence on conscious control
  • emphasise a goal-oriented rather than mechanism-oriented approach to the skill

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