PEAR is gone. Yes, I know I’m late with this news; folks like [PZ](http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/11/shhhdont_tell_deepak.php), [Orac](http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/11/news_too_good_to_confine_to_just_one_sci.php) and [Jeff Shallit](http://recursed.blogspot.com/2006/11/pear-has-finally-rotted.html) reported this
great news days ago. But I wanted to add my two bits, by explaining just why this is good news. So I’m going to take this news as an opportunity to remind you just what PEAR was, what they did, and why it’s so good that they’re gone.
PEAR was the “Princeton Engineering Anamalies Research” center. They were a group within the engineering department at Princeton that was supposedly studying whether or not consciousness could affect the physical world, and if so, how. Their primarily tool was what they called the “REG”; a highly insulated/isolated device that generated a random string of 0s and 1s. The idea was that this device was sufficiently well isolated that no *physical* intervention by operators of the device would be able to affect its output. They performed a variety of experiments using this device, including things like seeing if a person, without physically touching the device, could alter the distribution of ones and zeros by *thinking* about how they wanted to affect the outcome, or seeing if the distribution varied around the occurrence of events of global significance.
So far, in principle, there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. I’d question whether it’s *worth* doing, without some justification for why they would expect to discover anything, but if they can
find someone willing to fund the work, and that’s how they want to spend their time, I certainly wouldn’t have any problem with it.
The problem with PEAR was that they were *sure* that their experiments would show positive results,
and they used shoddy experimental techniques and invalid mathematical analyses to *make* the results
look positive. They never, in 20-odd years of work, managed to create statistically significant results. But they didn’t let that stop them: they massaged the data to *create* positive results, and then tried to justify the ways they manipulated the data using techniques that ranged from sloppy to
A couple of PEARs greatest hits, to give you an idea:
* [**An attempt to create a mathematical explanation for how consciousness affects reality**][pear-math]. This work uses some of the worst fake math that I’ve ever seen. They slap together some notation and terminology from algebra and group theory that have nothing to do with what they’re discussing to make it *look* like they’ve actually got a mathematical theory underneath the woo-gibberish that they’re spouting.
* [**Skewing statistics to show that minds can affect the REG**][pear-reg]. This one looks at the data recorded from single-users attempting to influence the REG with their minds. It’s a classic example of using invalid statistical analysis to skew data. This also includes one of my very favorite examples of weasel-wording: “In contrast, the anomaly is not statistically evident in the 52% of individual operators producing databases in the intended directions (z0 = 0.31, p0 = 0.38), a feature having possible structural implications, as discussed below.” Yeah, there are really some
pretty darned important “structural implications” in the fact that none of your experimental data is statistically significant: the results that they trumpet in this paper amount to a skew of 0.02% in distribution from the REG.
* [**Post-Hoc data selection to create desired results**][pear-gcp]. In which the PEAR gang
try to study whether events of global significance create anomalous patterns in the REGs. They record data all of the time on the REGs; then when something important happens (like an earthquake, or tsunami, or a terrorist attack) they go back to the data for the time period around the event, and see if they can find any miniscule sample period where the results are skewed.
As you can see from that little sampling, PEARs work ranged from shoddy to downright dishonest. But the fact that they existed as a research center at one of America’s top universities – the same university where Einstein taught, gives them a prestige that they don’t deserve. Their work is frequently cited by woo-merchants of all kinds as “real scientific support” for their crackpottery. (For example, see my recent post on [Deepak Chopra][choprawoo].)
I don’t normally rejoice at seeing a fellow researcher lose their funding. It’s *hard* to get
money to do research, and it’s generally sad to see work end not because the work showed no promise, but simply because it’s funding source dried up. I know of some really tragic cases of great researching getting cut off because of budget problems. But in the case of PEAR, the work *never* showed any promise. It was an elaborate mockery of science which gave shelter to bullshitters and frauds of the worst sort. It’s good to see that the source of money that was paying them to provide that service finally give up.