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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Trekkie Sceptic Review - Where No man has Gone Before


As my regular readers will know, there's more to me than just being a sceptical activist. I am also a serious Star Trek fan. I was a Trekkie long before I became a sceptic, and I still self-identify as a STARFLEET Officer first, and a sceptic second.

Several months ago, I initiated an endeavour within my Star Trek fan club, the USS Dauntless, to set up a special interest group that tackles sceptical and scientific ideas. I named that group Special Scientific Operations, or SciOps. Our most notable success to date was our Homeopathic Suicide Attempt.

Under the auspices of my duties as Officer in Charge of the Dauntless SciOps team, I've decided to write a semi-regular column for the USS Dauntless website and newsletter doing sceptical reviews of Star Trek episodes and related concepts. I'll be cross-posting those articles here as well.

Before I begin the first of these, I want to clarify what my intentions are with this project. I'm not trying to refute the physics of the Star Trek universe. This has already been done by people far more qualified than I. My aim here is to examine subjects that are already of interest to the sceptical movement when they are introduced into the Star Trek universe.

Since the creators of Star Trek tried their best to make the science of the show as plausible as possible, I think it's fair to point out where they dropped the ball: taking more than the allowed amount of artistic license and buying into credulous propaganda. I'd also like to step up and defend the Star Trek creators when appropriate. Trek is my passion, after all.

With that out of the way, I'd like to begin my sceptical analysis of the Original Series episode, Where No Man has Gone Before.

The premise of the episode is that the USS Enterprise picks up the flight recorder from a long lost Earth starship, the SS Valiant. The recorder reveals that the crew underwent some severe catastrophe after passing through an energy field at the edge of the galaxy. The Enterprise flies off to investigate, and encounters the same energy barrier, which transforms two members of her crew.

Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell and Doctor Elizabeth Denher are suddenly imbued with psychic powers, including photographic memory, telekinesis, telepathy, remote viewing and so on. They become a danger to the crew, and Captain Kirk must figure out how to save his friends and his ship.

The point of interest I'd like to examine in this article is a plot device that was used to describe the mechanism by which the two crewmembers were imbued with special powers while the others were spared: the ESP Scale.

The premise of this idea is that all Starfleet personnel are subjected to a series of tests during their training, which are designed to evaluate their inherent psychic abilities. The assumption made by the writers is that everyone has some inherent psychic power, and that some are more talented than others with these gifts. And that's where they dropped the ball.

We have to remember that this was written in the 1960s. I don't think we can judge the writers too harshly for harbouring a hope that some kind of psi could be discovered. Forty two years later, we can say with a high degree of confidence that there is no such thing.

How can we say that?

Because it's been tested, that's how.

Although some government-funded studies were performed into a number of possible psi abilities (including a CIA-endorsed investigation into remote viewing so as to allow US spies to observe Soviet military secrets), possibly the most damning experiment against any kind of psi is the JREF Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.

Years ago, James "The Amazing" Randi put up a prize for anyone who could reproducibly demonstrate any kind of psychic ability. The requirements weren't difficult: all a claimant had to do was prove (through testing) that their claim was for real, and they would walk away with the prize. Years passed and the prize-money grew to a Million Dollars (US), which is the amount at which it currently sits.

It's still there because nobody has yet claimed it. Not for lack of trying. The James Randi Educational Foundation is willing to provide details of hundreds of applicants who have been tested, and not a single one passed even the first round of testing. Not one.

The JREF Challenge has been widely criticised by believers in the paranormal as being unfair, rigged, fraudulent or irrelevant. Yet the JREF are tenacious in their willingness to present their methodologies, results, bank statements and cooperative attitude to anyone who asks. The challenge is being retired, since the JREF can put those funds to much better use, but Randi remains committed that if anyone were to demonstrate real paranormal abilities, they could still win it... as well as the many other similar prizes offered by other organisations.

Is it possible that psi really does exist, and that the JREF (and their counterparts) simply failed to find it? Of course. No open minded individual can rule out the possibility. But given the complete failure of all applications to the JREF to demonstrate any psychic abilities, the probability seems pretty small. It's probably safe to say that Terrestrial life-forms are not capable of psi. And that any government organisation screening all their members for it according to a predefined scale would be wasting their time - all the applicants would have a rating of zero.

Of course, not all members of the Federation Starfleet are terrestrial life-forms. Who knows what species of other planets might be capable of? But the characters of Mitchell and Denher were most certainly Terran, and should not have registered a ESP rating above zero if that aspect the episode were consistent with scientific reality.