Which Scientific Bets Should Be Declined?

by David Kordahl

Imagine, if you will, that I own a reliably programmable qubit, a device that, when prepared in some standard and uncontroversial way, has a 50/50 probability of having one of two outcomes, A or B. Now imagine also that I have become convinced of my own telekinetic powers.

Suppose that the qubit has been calibrated within an inch of its life, and I have good reason to believe that the odds for the two possible outcomes, A or B, are in fact equally matched. My telekinetic powers, on the other hand, are weak—not strong enough to make heads explode like that guy in Scanners, nor strong enough to levitate chalk like in Matilda. Yet neither am I powerless. If I reign myself in—no more than a few attempts per night (I take care not to tire myself), and no counting tries when my juju’s off (remember, my gifts are unremarkable)—then I have been able, through intense concentration and force of will, to favor outcome A just slightly, just barely bumping its odds up, let’s say, from 50.0% to 50.1%.

Squinting, I claim statistical significance. But when I share these findings with you, my scientifically trained colleague, you are unimpressed.

Okay, but why not? I might insist that experimental controls have been properly implemented. I might even allow you to propose a list of criteria for a follow-up experiment. I might grow impatient, and thrust papers at you on meta-analyses of the para-psychological literature, and pass you a copy of Synchronicity—or at least my review of it—showing how the founders of quantum mechanics were themselves interested in psi effects. Look, I might huff, have you not read Freeman Dyson on the possibility of ESP? Have you not noticed that even critics suggest further study?

I hope this description does not describe the way that I actually behave. But why not? What about this response, rudeness aside, would be so bad? Read more »