Skeptical Questions, Die Zeit Interview

Early in March, 2007, Maike Pollmann requested an email interview, and agreed to provide a copy of the article she was preparing for the online edition of Die Zeit before its publication. Since her questions are interesting and well-formed, and represent an intelligent skepticism, this page makes them available on the GCP website, where they constitute useful additions to the FAQ collection. After negotiating the conditions (most importantly an opportunity to vet the article before publication) I provided responses to the interview questions.

On Wed, 7 Mar 2007, Pollmann, Maike wrote:

Enclosed herewith you will find the questions on your Global Consciousness Project.

Thank you for your time and effort.

Sincerely yours,
Maike Pollmann

On your homepage you say that you find something like a circumstantial evidence for the existence of a "consciousness field" and that intentions or emotional states which structure the field are conveyed as information that is absorbed into the distribution of output values of labile physical systems.

You make a statement here rather than a question, but I can address it. The remarks about a "consciousness field" are speculative, and are tentative first steps in efforts to develop useful models to help shape our research questions. This material is found not on the homepage, but in pages like "Theory and Speculations" where we introduce several approaches, and discuss their fit to the data, as well as their implications for good questions in our research and analysis.

Does the global consciousness change the values of a random process or does it just rearrange the natural peak-values into the time of an event?

To the extent I understand this question, both of these options are far ahead of our understanding of the data. All we have are correlations of deviations in statistical measures with major events in the world. What we can say is that there is converging evidence that the departures from expectation we see are related to something about human consciousness. For example, deviations are correlated with major earthquakes occuring on land, but not when they occur in the oceans (where humans are not affected).

You say that your usage of consciousness is more general, that is it implies also the unconscious and subconscious aspects. I cannot really imagine what that means. Can you shortly explain your definition of a global consciousness?

The term "global consciousness" can have many interpretations. Informally, I regard it as a growing integration of thought and feeling across the world, fostered by communication and travel, and becoming especially strong when great events focus attention. I also see it as possible that a direct, albeit weak, interaction of individual consciousnesses might support a collective consciousness like that which many people report experiencing in groups. In any case, for scientific purposes we use operational definitions -- that is, we specify the operations used to set a hypothesis for test. The start and end of a period of time when we think a global event may engage attention is specified, along with the analysis protocol. The hypothesis is registered, and when the data become available, the analysis is completed and entered into the formal results database.

What makes you sure that the global consciousness is the reason for your findings and not any other global effect? Cosmic rays for example? And why can the signal of the global consciousness pass your shieldings?

We actually do not claim that "the global consciousness is the reason for [our] findings". What we have found and what we show in our reports is structure in our data, correlated with pre-specified events in the world. The data should be random, and they are random in the aggregate, but when we look only at the data corresponding to global events, the data are not random. We address cosmic rays and other physical influences such as electromagnetic fields, temperature changes, etc., by instrument design and by logical operations that exclude them, and we assess the data analytically to determine whether there is evidence for physical effects. As for why or how the correlations (not signals) we see can occur while physical influences cannot affect our instruments, this is one of our research questions. We don't yet know how to explain or define a mechanism for the departures from expectation in the data.

Granted that there is such an effect of our consciousness, why does it remain unnoticed in all physics experiments so far, but affects our brain? Unlike to our ordinary senses there is no practice to encode and decode the signal.

I think the answer may be that we don't notice much that we are not looking for. The effects we see in the GCP data are very small (the average Z is about 0.3) and we therefore cannot expect to observe them in a single experiment. Reliable statistics require the accumulation of 30 to 50 replications of the basic hypothesis test. This means that if we were not actively looking for evidence of a correlation between consciousness and the statistics, we would not see it. Of course physics experiments have a different focus, so there is little chance of seeing tiny aberrations that might correlate to consciousness states. (I should note that this story is much more complex, and there are some observations in mainstream science that are consistent with consciousness effects.)

All features of the purported signal seems to be completely uncharacteristic for all physical phenomena. What makes you believe in it?

As I have said, we are talking about correlations, not signals. We are looking at data, not at interpretations, and we are reporting statistically significant correlations, not beliefs. But to answer your question, independent and very thorough assessments of the data show strong evidence that there is something to be explained. There are non-chance deviations from expected behavior, and they are not mistakes. While the deviations are tiny, and the immediate practical consequences are minimal, the scientific and philosophical implications are substantial.

Do you have any idea of the effect that allows information to be transmitted in this novel ways?

I have only speculations and metaphors at this point. My work is primarily empirical, and I give my attention to making sure the data are sound and the analyses correct.

Why does the time of the signal vary in its occurance? Sometimes it even seems to know the future, like on 9/11.

Again, I, or we, have only speculations. There could be something happening in the world at the apparently "early" time (like 50 or 100 terrorist conspirators intensely committing themselves, some to die a few hours hence.) But I am open to the possibility of a precursor or premonitory effect, metaphorically like an advanced wave interpretation in physics.

Some physicists (e.g. May & Spottiswoode) find that your results do not hold under close inspection. What do you think about such analysis?

They confused explorations with formal analysis. If you look at their paper, you will see that the complaints are about data-snooping, where an analyst tries various things and then picks out something impressive. I agree with them that this is not good science. But that is not what we do. Our evidence and any claims we make are based on a strict formal protocol. Each event in the formal series (now 223 events) is a fully specified replication of the basic hypothesis test, with the parameters set before the data are examined.

What about the effect size with numbers of people potentially involved is there a correlation?

Yes. Using best estimates for the numbers of people engaged, a recent analysis has determined that large events (more people) have a significantly larger effect size.

Do you rule out that the reported events are due to chance coincidences? There is no chance to replicate an event.

Yes, we can rule out chance as an explanation for the results in the formal series of over 200 replications of the basic hypothesis test. The current overall summary includes 223 events, which cumulatively differ by 4.7 sigma (standard deviations) from chance. This corresponds to a probability of 1.13 x 10e-6, or about 1 in 1 million.

What is the social meaning of the correlation of such patterns with events of importance to humans? Is there any application of this knowledge?

The most obvious implication, or social meaning, is that humans are interconnected in subtle but important ways, both with each other and with the physical world more generally. The evidence is good, but the effects are so small that we may be tempted to say they don't matter. But it is possible to interpret these implications more generously to suggest that what we think and feel is important, and can change the way our world develops into the future. This is, of course, also trivially true because we are creative and industrious animals (with some unfortunate bad habits like a disposition to violence) and we build things. But the research suggests another aspect, in which the visions and expectations we have actually make a difference, and the more so when the visions are shared.

What do you wish for the future of the GCP?

I'd like to stabilize our understanding, and find satisfactory theoretical explanations for how this works. More importantly, I think the GCP findings have profound implications for understanding consciousness, and for defining our creative role in determining our own future. Given more clarity about the science and its meaning, I think the GCP's future should have an educational focus. We need to get our act together to create and maintain a healthy and peaceful home on this planet. I can think of no better way to accomplish that than to foster the development of a global consciousness.

Roger D. Nelson In Lak'ech
Director, Global Consciousness Project

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