Total Drek

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Friday, March 04, 2005

Ahhhh! Static! I'm scared!

Recently I had the opportunity to see the film White Noise with a good friend of mine. For those who are unfamiliar, White Noise is the rousing tale of a man and his out-of-tune television set. Okay, more exactly, it's a movie dealing with what is known as Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP. EVP is a practice wherein people record static from untuned electronic devices, i.e. "white noise," and then examine the recordings for messages from the dead. Don't give me that look! I'm creative, but even I can't make this crap up. According to the American Association for Electronic Voice Phenomena, EVP is predicated on the so-called "survival hypothesis," which is defined as follows:

The Survival Hypothesis holds that we are nonphysical entities who are able to exist in the physical aspect of reality because of our physical body, but that when our physical body dies, we as Self, change our point of view to nonphysical reality. In effect, we exist before and after our current lifetime. The working hypothesis supported by AA-EVP is that these messages [EVP messages] are, indeed, nonphysical in origin and that the Survival Hypothesis is essentially correct. However, even though the fact of these messages can be demonstrated, their origin cannot. Considering this, it is the goal of AA-EVP and its membership to find ways to improve the reception of these messages and to better understand their origin.


Perhaps more informatively, Thomas Edison is reported as having said the following, which is taken as inspiration by practitioners of EVP:

...it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.


In other words, if humans have souls, and if those souls are weakly coupled to the physical universe ('weakly coupled' is a physics term meaning, 'subject only to weak interactions with.' Given the interest in EVP, it's a wonder that nobody has suggested that the souls of the dead account for the universe's missing dark matter. Next thing you know we'll have astronauts claiming that they "see dead people," and the hacks at the Discovery Institute will be claiming that the cosmological constant proves the existence of god. But I digress...) then it should be possible to design an apparatus that allows these souls to communicate with us.

Of course, there are a number of obvious problems with this, but I'll limit myself at the moment to pointing out that even if this hypothesis was correct, it would remain possible for the white noise of the universe to overwhelm any signal from the dead. As it happens I have my amateur radio license and can assure you that such classic, and omnipresent, static generators as the cosmic microwave background can be a real pain in the ass. Unless, of course, the CMB is just the collective mutterings of legions of dead people but, that may be the single most disturbing notion I've ever put forth on this blog; and that's saying something!

In any case, the movie White Noise tells the story of a man who loses his wife to what seems like an accident, only to begin receiving messages from her via EVP. As the plot develops he becomes increasingly obsessed with his home static-lounge, to the point of ignoring his son, and begins to get messages telling him how to right wrongs that are transpiring in the present. Needless to say, he uses his ghostly connection to help people, in the process coming into contact with the bad spirits that live in the afterlife. (Bad spirit, Bad, BAD spirit!) Eventually these messages lead him to a woman who is being held by a serial killer and, coincidentally, to a showdown with a trio of evil spirits who knock him around like a baby seal.

If some of you feel that I have ruined the movie for you, allow me to assure you that the movie ultimately would have ruined itself. I'm just saving you some time.

As you might guess, I didn't much care for this film, but there are two particular reasons for this. First, there's the simple reason: the movie violated its own rules. Stay with me for a moment- I'm a big science fiction fan and, as such, have a quite well-developed ability to suspend disbelief. The thing is that in order for a person to buy into a fantastic world, the creator of that world must stick to certain consistent rules. The rules can be almost anything, but if a rule is laid down it must be followed. To do otherwise is to remind the viewer, or reader, that the world is bullshit. White Noise made the argument that EVP works because the dead need exquisitely sensitive instruments in order to communicate with the living. Fair enough, I can go with that argument, it even makes a certain amount of bizarre sense. The problem is that in the end of the movie, our protaganist is assaulted by a trio of spirits who could, frankly, kick the shit out of a squad of sumo wrestlers. If spirits need such sensitive instruments, they shouldn't be able to physically affect human actions, and vice versa. By breaking its own rules, White Noise ruins its own impact.

My bigger objection, however, deals with what the movie could have been, but wasn't. I went in to the theatre expecting a standard, half-assed ghost story movie. As things developed, however, I more and more suspected that what we were going to get was a drama about one man's emotional need, and hoaxers trying to make a quick buck off of him. It was, in fact, striking how well the plot mirrored the sorts of approaches hoaxers would, and do, use in such situations. Like Malice before it, I thought perhaps we were in for a movie with an actual surprise to offer, instead of semi-digested sanitized fear. I was sadly mistaken- the movie settled into a more-or-less conventional ghost story and missed out on its real potential.

Because the real potential here was to take on the pseudoscience at the heart of EVP and explore the human need to believe in things. I know I'm a scientist, and I've explained before that I prefer an unpleasant fact to a charming fiction, but this movie had the chance to make science and reason seem exciting and relevant. Is it possible that EVP is real? Certainly it's possible. Is it likely? Not so much. Dr. James Alcock, Ph.D. Psychology, wrote an excellent article describing the problems with EVP, so I need not belabor the point, beyond the following.

Come to think of it, "the following," is a helluva lot of prose, and I'm all about belaboring.

I am doubtful about EVP because it seems to be a practice designed for the perceptial predispositons of our species. Consider for a moment the human perceptual system. First, we have biological machinery devoted to absorbing and processing signals from the outside world. We receive these signals in the form of visible light, as travelling distortions in the atmosphere (i.e. sound) as tactile impressions on our skin, and as chemical traces (i.e. smell and taste). In short, we absorb and process an enormous quantity of data every moment from a variety of channels.

The beauty of human perception, however, is that we don't notice this data. As you read these words, you are probably not aware of them as marks of dark and light. Well, you weren't until I said that just now. Instead, you are aware of them as words- as meaningful marks that you recognize. This is an example of a percept, or a coherent understanding of an object in the world that is triggered by a combination of sensory stimuli. You see the marks on the page that resemble words, causing the percept of those words to activate, allowing you to experience the words as words and not merely as sensory data. Such a process also allows you to rapidly identify people and objects, such that you don't need to puzzle out a person's identity every time you see them, but rather can identify them from an overheard snatch of conversation or a brief glance. The percept idea also explains why people may be very close, and may see one another every day, but may fail to immediately notice changes in hair-style. Once a percept has activated, it can prove remarkably resistant to modification. It further appears that the percept ability is not learned, but is rather hard-wired into the human brain, as demonstrated by those who suffer from agnosia, or brain damage that prevents this system from operating properly.

The thing is, the human brain must employ a set of decision rules in the activation of percepts. Information from the world is rarely perfect, and may often be completely inaccurate. Thus, the brain must somehow distinguish signals which should arouse a percept from those that should not. For example, my face looks more similar to my sister's face than to a rock, but if my brother-in-law were to incorrectly activate his percept of my sister when he sees me... well... it would be very awkward. Now, as any social scientist who has studied stats is aware, these decision rules create four possible outcomes in any perceptual situation.

Imagine a 2x2 table. This means a table with two rows, and two columns, generating four cells. Label the top row "present" and the bottom row "absent." Similarly, label the first column (from the left) "activate" and the second column "do not activate." This table represents the four possible outcomes in a perceptual task. If a particular thing, say my sister, is present then we are in the first row. If the viewer, my brother-in-law, then activates the percept of my sister, we have a correct decision. He has activated the percept of something that is present in the world. Similarly, if my sister is absent, and he does not activate the percept, then we also have a correct decision. He has correctly noticed her absence.

Now, let's consider the other two cells. If my sister is absent, second row, and he activates his percept, first column, he believes she is present when she is not. This is equivalent to the common type I, or alpha, error. Similarly if she is present, first row, but he fails to activate the appropriate percept, second column, then he fails to be aware of her actual presence. This is analogous to the type II, or beta, error.

It doesn't matter how good your eyesight is, or how smart you are, every so often your brain will end up in one of those two error cells. Many optical illusions even rely on this, creating enough ambiguity in an image that your brain can apply multiple percepts. So, given that errors will happen, which type of error do you think the brain favors?

Well, let me put it this way. Imagine, friends, that we are part of our primate group out in the serengeti. We're travelling in search of food, but we're acutely aware that there may be large predators in the grass. Which sort of error would you prefer to make, seeing something that isn't there, like a tiger, or failing to see something that is?

Looking at it another way: in the first case you give yourself a good fright. In the other case, you become dinner. Organisms that were predisposed to beta error didn't survive as well as those disposed towards alpha error. Now, this is a post hoc argument, but you have to admit a certain compelling logic. So, in short, our brains are wired to predispose us towards alpha error because it is less costly for us to waste energy attending to something that isn't around, than to risk our lives by not attending to something that is. This also helps explain why quantitative methods are so anal-retentive about alpha error- we're trying to balance out a natural human tendency to identify things that aren't there.

What does this have to do with white noise and EVP? Think about it this way: your brain is a very sophisticated pattern matching machine, and its percept-discriminator would rather err on the side of alpha, rather than beta. If you stare are random signals long enough, what's going to happen?

Exactly. You will see a pattern, whether one is there or not. Your brain is constructed in such a way as to make this not merely probable, but effectively inevitable. EVP as a method is ideally suited to generating percetions of signals even if there are none- perhaps especially if there are none, because then the brain is free to manufacture percepts according to its prior expectations without any contrary evidence getting in the way.

Pesky contrary evidence! Nobody likes you anyway!

So, instead of taking advantage of the human tendency to find order in the orderless and acting as a powerful drama, White Noise simply pandered to an audience that should know better, but probably doesn't. I know I said I like science fiction, and I do, so it might seem odd that I object to factual inaccuracy, but my objection is related to my love of sci-fi. The thing is, sci-fi is a literature of ideas, it's an area where people ask "What if?" and then run with it. Concepts from environmental disaster, to space travel, to global epidemic, to human social life have been mulled over in the genre, and it is this intellectual murmuring and churning that attracts me to the area. I like sci-fi not for the fantasy (actually, with very few exceptions, I loathe fantasy novels) but for the ideas it generates and the discussions it has.

Earlier, I said that I prefer an unpleasant truth to a charming fiction. With EVP, White Noise had a chance to steer clear of a trite and boring fiction, and instead grapple with a compelling, fascinating truth. That we missed out on this opportunity is a real tragedy. When truth is stranger and more wonderful than fiction, it is a shame so many people choose fiction.

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