(I originally wrote this article for the April issue of The REALL News, the newsletter of our local skeptics group. It is a little out-of-date now, since Terry Schiavo has died, but I suspect there will still be some interest in it, so I've decided to post it here.)
"It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives."—Francis Bacon
"Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs."—Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic's Dictionary
As I write this, Terry Schiavo is still alive. By the time you read it, it is probably that she will be dead. The struggle over whether to keep her alive has been dominating the news recently. The moral and ethical questions involved in the case are not ones that I can say anything about from a skeptical viewpoint. Rational, scientifically-minded people can disagree on whether she should be kept alive.
However, there is one aspect of the case that caught the attention of the skeptic within me, in part because it seemed to parallel another item that was in the news recently.
The Global Consciousness Project is an ongoing experiment being conducted by Princeton University. The basic idea is that the combined mental processes of everyone on the planet forms a "global consciousness" and that this global consciousness might in some way be detectable.
To attempt to do so, they have created a "black box" that randomly generates zeros and ones. If there are no outside influences, the random pattern of zeros and ones should be just that—random. However, if the global consciousness of the population of the planet effects the random number generator, then the pattern would no longer be random. There might be a "spike" of an increased number of ones, indicating a change in the global consciousness of the planet, such as a major news event.
You might remember that in the original Star Wars movie, when the Empire's Death Star destroyed Alderan, Obi Wan Kenobi noted "a great disturbance in the Force". The Global Consciousness Project is supposedly a bit like that.
For example, when Princess Diana's funeral was held, a "significant" deviation was noted. When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, a significant deviation in the pattern of random numbers was detected. When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit following an earthquake on December 26, 2004, a "trend" in the pattern of random numbers was noted.
In short, when some world-shaking event occurs, it shows up in the pattern of random numbers.
Except when it doesn't.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003. The data showed no sign of it. The space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry on February 1, 2003, but had no effect on the random number generators. An earthquake in Turkey on August 17, 1999 killed nearly 4,000 people, but you wouldn’t know it from examining the pattern of random numbers.
So what's going on here? Why are these researchers claiming that their random number generators are evidence of a global consciousness? Because they're humans, and humans are very good at seeing connections—even when there is no connection to be seen.
When a presumably important event happens, someone makes a prediction that they will see a corresponding deviation in the data. They then examine the data to see whether that is in fact the case. If they see that the data has deviated from the average, that is deemed significant! If they find that the data has not deviated from the average, well, that’s not significant, is it?
But wait! Just because the event happened at, say, 2:00 PM Eastern Time, that's no reason to look only for a deviation in the data at 2:00 PM Eastern Time. Perhaps the deviation didn't occur until an hour later—that's significant! Or perhaps the deviation didn’t occur until the next day—that also is significant! Or perhaps the deviation occurred very gradually over the course of several days—that too is significant!
But if you're limiting yourself to looking for deviations at or after the time of the event, you'll miss some of the best ones. That’s right! If the deviation occurred before the time of the event, that's very significant! That indicates that our global consciousness knew that something was going to happen and was effecting the random number generators in advance!
Are you only looking for a jump in the numbers? Foolish skeptic! You can double your chances by also looking for a big drop in the numbers!
What sort of events are considered candidates for effecting the global consciousness? Well, some are obvious things—big events in the news, such as earthquakes, terrorist attacks, wars, and so forth. Other events are a bit less expected, such as New Year’s, something called the "Group Mind Meditation", the full moon appearing in Taurus (predicted, apparently, by a channeled Buddha—seriously), World Earth Healing Day (I missed that one), and the casting of a binding spell placed on Osama Bin Laden by a group of Wiccans and pagans (yes, I'm serious). I get the impression that perhaps these researchers are, let's say, a bit more accepting of paranormal beliefs than I am.
In any case, it seems apparent that the (rather generously interpreted) "hits" are considered indicative of a "global consciousness", while the "misses" are, well, just misses. They're considered puzzling, perhaps, but certainly not considered evidence of the nonexistence of a global consciousness.
Which brings me back to the Terry Schiavo case.
You might have seen some of the video of Ms. Schiavo apparently reacting to outside stimuli. She is shown smiling when her face is touched, her eyes are shown tracking an object moving in front of her, and so on. It’s quite compelling footage and certainly gives many reason to believe that Ms. Schiavo is not, in fact, in the persistent vegetative state claimed by her husband and her doctors.
What you might not have realized, however, is that the video clips shown so widely and totaling about 4½ minutes are excerpts from about 4½ hours of video.
If you watch the unedited footage, you will see her not smiling when her face is touched, smiling when her face is not touched, not smiling when her face is not touched, and (finally) smiling when her face is touched. In short, her reactions seem to have no connection to the stimuli.
Similarly, when she is told to close her eyes, she might do so many minutes later. And when she is told to do something else, she might continue to close her eyes. This is all taken as evidence that she is responding to instructions. Whether she does the action immediately, whether she does the action minutes later, whether she continues to do the action long after she has been told to do something else—it's all counted as a "hit", confirmation that she is aware of her surroundings.
In short, it's a clear example of confirmation bias. When she reacts, it is considered evidence that she is aware. When she doesn't react, or when she acts without a stimulus, it is considered unimportant.
I want to emphasize that my point is not that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die. My point is simply that it is a mistake to give more weight to the evidence indicating she has some awareness than to the much more voluminous evidence that she truly is in a persistent vegetative state.
One can still conclude, on the basis of moral, ethical, religious, or legal considerations, that she should be kept alive. However, such a conclusion should be reached with a full realization of what a critical examination of the science tells us.