Thursday, March 06, 2003

The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research is dedicated to, as they call is, the "Scientific Study of Consciousness-Related Physical Phenomena". A good example of the kind of work they do is the random mechanical cascade experiment, in which a human operator is asked to attempt to influence the results of a cascade of balls running through a sort of flipperless pachinko machine. The results? The operator had a tiny but undeniable effect. In their own words, "The observed effects are usually quite small, of the order of a few parts in ten thousand on average, but they are statistically repeatable and compound to highly significant deviations from chance expectations."

The Global Consciousness Project is a cousin to PEAR, in that it is directed by Roger Nelson, who was the coordinator of experimental work at PEAR until he retired in 2002 to spend more time with GCP. The central idea of GCP is that if consciousness can have an impact on observable phenomena, then perhaps there is a sort of global consciousness, and maybe there are ways we can observe it. This is what they do: They've created a network of random event generators all over the world that run continuously, recording the results of all these random events. Because they're random, a graph of these results would show a line that staggers either side of a nice straight line (the average).

Think of these random event generators as electronic coin flippers, running 24 hours a day. The longer the flipper is flipping, the closer the average gets to 50/50, right? Well, GCP looks for anomalies in the data, periods of time when things are way off 50/50. Like ten heads in a row. The idea, if I'm understanding what I'm reading, is that they've already found that the consciousness of a single human being can have a small but statistically significant effect on random processes. So, if we set up a bunch of random events happening all over the world, all the time, significant anomalies in the data could be construed as evidence for a global consciousness, if they fit certain criteria, such as being widespread and coinciding with major world events. Like September 11th.

In my experience, folks who are inclined to believe in things like global consciousness see evidence for it everywhere, and people who aren't see evidence against it. And that's fine. But here's a guy whose life's work has been in statistics and the hard sciences, and when the dust is settled and the numbers have been run, there's something there that's just plain weird.

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