Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cleve Backster Part II: Deconstruction

So in Monday's post about Cleve Backster, I tried to lay out more or less the claims Backster makes about what he observed. I was a little snarky in the process, but I don't think I fundamentally misrepresented anything he said: I basically gave a super-condensed version of what he claims between pages 21 and 50, with bits and pieces from other parts of the book and a little bit of snark for seasoning.

This is the part where I really have it in for Backster.

See photo-related disclaimer in Part I, if you have not done so already.

I want to be really clear before I start that I am not arguing that plants aren't incredible organisms, or that we already know everything important about them, or that incredible claims about them are necessarily always false. This, after all, is why many of us like plants: they are complex, mysterious, and surprising. And we're still discovering new and cool things about them all the time. For example, the parasitic plant dodder has recently been shown to be able to "smell" victims nearby and preferentially grow in their direction. This, like primary perception, is a type of perception by plants that we weren't aware of until recently. The reason why dodder being able to smell is science and primary perception is not is that the dodder stuff is supported by experimental evidence, and there are obvious ways in which it can work.1 Backster doesn't have particularly good evidence, and has basically no theory at all.2

I don't really have a problem with Backster's story about the original experiment with the Dracaena in his office. I suppose his account may have been somewhat polished from the original event, which is what happens when you tell the same story over and over, but I am, overall, perfectly happy to assume that he really did hook the plant up, and it really did react in the ways he says it did, and at the times it did. It helps that he includes images in his book of the original polygraph graphs: yes, I have to take his word for it that these are, in fact, the original graphs, because I wouldn't know the difference and have no way to prove otherwise, but even so, I'm okay with accepting his word for it.

The point where I begin to have an issue is the part where Backster starts interpreting his results. In a human, remember, polygraphs work because sweaty hands conduct electricity better than dry hands, and people who are anxious or scared tend to get sweaty hands, so there's a fairly straightforward connection between anxiety and changes in conductance.

In a plant, though, it's not clear why conductance of a leaf would be related to the plant's emotional state (and bear in mind that Backster did not, on February 2, 1966, have any reason to believe that plants even had emotional states) in the same way. I mean, perhaps plants do respond to stress by pumping additional water to their extremities, anticipating that extra water will be needed to keep the plant cool when someone is waving a match underneath it, for example, in which case it would make sense for plants to have polygraph conductance traces similar to those of humans. But it makes just as much sense, or more, to think that a plant that thought it was going to be burnt might pull water away from its extremities, to conserve water and lose as little as possible to the fire, in which case the plant's graph would be exactly the opposite of that of a human's.

But Backster jumps to the conclusion that plant graphs can be interpreted in exactly the same way, that plants and humans are emotionally similar in all important aspects. It was his job, and maybe it's natural to make that assumption, but it's been 43 years now, and I have yet to run across anything indicating that Backster even knows there would be a question. So his results are not as impressive as they might be. I mean, how surprised am I supposed to be that you find evidence of humanlike emotions in plants using a polygraph, when you assume that every trace a plant makes on a polygraph is evidence of its humanlike emotions?

And there's a broader problem, too. When it comes right down to it, I'm not sure people can ever really grasp what being a plant is like well enough to understand their emotions, should they have any. Our experiences are too different. We have to eat; they photosynthesize.3 We move around; they stay in one place. We think butterflies are pretty but basically inconsequential; to a plant, a butterfly represents potential caterpillars, which will dismember and eat it. Bees can hurt and occasionally kill us, but to plants, they're reproductive contractors. So it's at the very least lazy to just assume that they have the same feelings and perspective as we do. The fact that Backster can come up with a story that explains plants in human terms does not mean that his story is right.4 It could easily be possible that if plants are picking up on the death of human cells during a person's urination, they could be happy about it, not upset about the death, as Backster would have it. (Why would they have any reason to care one way or the other? We don't even care if our cells are being lost in our urine stream, and they're our cells.)

It's also sort of interesting to me that Backster had just watered the plant, and was, when he set the electrodes on the leaf, expecting to see a dramatic change in conductivity when the water reached the leaf tip, and yet when such a dramatic increase actually occurred, he assumed that he had done it to the plant by thinking about burning it. It's unclear why he forgot about his original plan between the watering and the burning, but it is, perhaps, telling that his first impulse was to make it all about himself:5 ohmygod I'm controlling the plant with my brain!

After that, it all kind of devolves into self-contradiction. He says on page 29 that plants can tell the difference between actual intent to harm them and feigned intent to harm, but on page 26, he tells us that his Dracaena reacted to his colleague's threats repeatedly and consistently even though Backster prevented the colleague from acting on any of them. Unless we're to understand that Backster physically threw himself between the colleague and the plant (repeatedly and consistently!), I have to assume that we're talking about the colleague being instructed to think threatening things at the plant that he had no intention of acting upon, i.e., pretending.

Backster also talks about plant territoriality on page 30, and how the plant won't necessarily react to something happening near itself if it doesn't consider the something part of its territory. On page 48, he's criticizing the real scientists who failed to duplicate his experiments for thinking "you could go to the other side of the wall and watch the experiment unfold through closed-circuit television." Their results failed, he says, because the wall "meant nothing as far as the plant-to-human attunement was concerned." But walls are understood to delineate territories, eighteen pages earlier in the book. So which is it? Will plants react to stuff outside of their territory or won't they?

On page 50, Backster is cautioning experimenters who would duplicate his results from attempting to do so when "noise, visitors, or even a phone conversation" are going on in the area. On 49, he tells the same experimenters it matters a great deal if the plant intended for use has "already been in the lab for more than an hour or two prior to being used in the experiment," because of attunement issues for the people around it. By page 52, he's ripping ivy off the outside wall of a Yale University dormitory, ivy which surely had been there longer than the students living in it had, and examining its conductive responses while some unspecified number of grad students chase a spider around the room. Perhaps the word has changed meanings, but last I knew, dormitories were where students lived, and there was always something going on in them. I mean, if a phone call counts, then it seems like a dormitory would be one of the very last places one would want to set up such an experiment, and certainly it would be a bad idea to use ivy that had been there for considerably more than an hour or two.6

He's also inconsistent about whether or not having a plant attuned to you is a bad thing. If you're trying to get reproducible results, he says, you have to have someone else buy the plant, and put it in a totally separate part of the building, only bringing it into the experimental area immediately before the experiment is to begin, or else it will be attuned more closely to the people nearby and you'll get readings of the people's feelings, not whatever it is you're trying to measure, boiling brine shrimp or whatever. But this is very silly. I mean, seriously, if we could get a plant to consistently respond to strong emotion and unexpressed threats from a human being, in a measurable way, we already have big news. Fuck the brine shrimp. Who even cares whether the plant is interested in the brine shrimp or not: we have OMFG plants that can read minds here. This whole attunement-to-human-caretakers thing appears to be something that Backster just pulls out of his ass to explain why sometimes he doesn't get the results he wants.

And aaallllllso, I take a little bit of offense to the notion that a plant that's just been purchased is a blank slate, as far as attunement to people. When I was working at the greenhouse, I pulled Bryophyllum daigremontianum and Oxalis sprouts out of pots of cactus with tweezers. I hand-washed both sides of every leaf of every Aglaonema in the store (more than once!) to remove black mold from the leaves. I cut dead tips off of seven-foot palms, every tip of every frond. I went over cacti with Q-Tips and rubbing alcohol to remove scale. I wiped the scary gray water/fertilizer/pesticide/dust residue off a four-foot Fortunella once, every tiny little crusty leaf of it, and I started gods know how many seedlings and cuttings and whatever that owed their very existence as an independent plant to me. If plants and people can bond, then those plants and I were bonded, motherfucker, and if experimenters washing leaves with distilled water before an experiment is enough of a bond to invalidate the results, then I bet you a million dollars that none of Backster's experiments ever had a valid result, whether they were stored in a broom closet elsewhere in the building before the experiment or not, because whatever he thought he was seeing was just the plants reacting to the emotions of the florist or garden store employee or whoever in the place they bought the plants from.7

So many of the things Backster's theory "predicts" cut both ways. You have a room full of people eating salad, and you hook electrodes up to a piece of lettuce sitting on your plate. If it registers low conductivity, that's just what the theory predicts: it's gone into shock from all the carnage going on around it. If it registers high conductivity, that's also what the theory predicts: it's agitated by all the carnage going on around it. If you have a brine shrimp experiment set up somewhere and the plant reacts when the brine shrimp get dumped into the water, that's just what the theory predicts: the plant is feeling bad for the brine shrimp. But if the same experiment is giving you results you don't like, well, that's also just what the theory predicts: the plant is responding to one of the many people it's been in contact with before or during the experiment. This is a sign of a bad theory, and even worse science.

And again, not to wail on this wet, vaguely horse-shaped spot on the pavement or anything, but it would actually be a total game-changer in the scientific world if Backster could satisfactorily demonstrate that plants react to people. The brine shrimp thing is his attempt to design an experiment that is entirely external, where he has something more concrete to go on than just his own report that he thought something, which is hard to prove, obviously, and wouldn't be considered very good evidence. But I can think of experiments involving people that would prove human-plant interactions that wouldn't require this kind of self-reporting, and I've only been thinking about this for a couple months.8 Backster's had what, forty years?

And in fact a lot of Backster's stuff works that way. There are too many possible excuses for not seeing the results his theory says you should see, and if all else fails, he can always fall back on the old Mother Nature won't jump through hoops for you because Nature is mysterious and bigger than our comprehension excuse.

Which is, by the way, total bullshit. Every time you drop the ball, it's going to fall toward the ground. Ten times in a row, a hundred times in a row, a thousand times -- always. Every time you combine sodium and chlorine at room temperature, you're going to get an explosive reaction and wind up with salt all over the place. Every time you heat ice up to 32F/0C, it's going to start turning to water. Nature jumps through hoops just fine: that's what science is, is determining which hoops Nature is going to jump through, and in what order, well enough to be able to make predictions about it.

Now, biology is sometimes less straightforward than those examples,9 but it works pretty much the same way. When you dissect a frog, you're going to find the same organs, in the same places, performing the same jobs, as when you dissect any other frog. If you split up a stretch of double-stranded DNA into its component bases, you're going to find that you wind up with the same number of adenine molecules as you do thymine molecules, and the same number of cytosine and guanine. There are principles of biology that work consistently between organisms and between individuals of the same species; that's what makes it a science.

I was initially kind of discouraged when I looked at Backster's book, because some of the stuff that I'd called him out on in earlier drafts seemed to sort of be addressed in the book, but as I looked at it longer, it turns out that it's really not. He still doesn't seem to understand constructing experiments in such a way that they could disprove your theories. (It's not entirely clear that he has a good enough handle on his theory to know what it predicts in the first place, and a theory with no predictive power is a theory that can't be invalidated. So.) He asserts things a lot (that he's constructing experiments with proper scientific controls in place, that lab visitors are routinely just blown away by how awesome the experiment they saw is) without ever providing much in the way of details. (Who visited the lab? On what day? How are they qualified to assess what they saw? What, specifically, did they have to say about what they saw? What would I need in order to duplicate this experiment elsewhere? What kind of scientific controls? Etc.) It's true, yes, that if you take Backster's word for what he's done and seen, then he's achieved something monumentally impressive.

But this is science: we don't have to take him at his word, because we can do the same thing ourselves. The ball always falls to the ground no matter who drops it. That other people appear to have difficulty in getting the same results Backster has, and that Backster doesn't give you the raw data for any of the experiments,10 suggests to me, at least, that this is probably not to be taken seriously.

Really, what I would like would be to have my own equipment, to be able to conduct my own experiments. I don't feel urgently compelled to try to duplicate Backster's experiments anyway, of course. But I sort of feel like I can't be sure it's crap until I've tried it for myself. I want to see the set-up and the results and draw my own conclusions. This is unlikely: polygraphs are expensive, and possibly even slightly rare, now, plus you have to have reams of paper to feed into them, which is not cheap. (I assume by now that someone has found a way to digitize the results, but reproducing Backster's experiments would also, in an ideal world, involve reproducing Backster's equipment.)

At this point, given the evidence as he presents it in the book, the best I could say for primary perception is that Backster has a long ways to go before he has a coherent and testable theory. If he's going to use them as excuses why people aren't getting the results he thinks they should, then he needs to define things like "territoriality" and "attunement." He also needs to refine his theory to the point where it doesn't predict every possible outcome at once, and he needs to stop whining about his persecution at the hands of the scientific establishment and learn what it means to have proper scientific controls on an experiment. (Hint: it is not enough to assert in your book that you were using proper scientific controls. You must actually design experiments which include them.) Until these things happen, only two groups of people have any reason to think that Backster's got something here: one, Backster and the other people whose livelihood depends on promoting his idea of primary perception, and two, people who for whatever reason have decided that they really want to believe him and don't care whether the science backs him up or not.

It's to this second group of people, the ones who want to believe, that we turn for part three of the Cleve Backster series, which is coming up on Friday.


1 You can smell a tomato plant by taking molecules it produces into your nose and interpreting this as "tomato." Dodder, presumably, does the same thing, except that we're talking about molecules entering its stem through pores instead of molecules entering your nose through nostrils. We may be eventually find ourselves surprised again, once this phenomenon has been studied some more, but at the very least, for right now, we've got a fairly reasonable-sounding theory that doesn't hinge on the breakage of existing physical laws in order to work.
2 Naming something is not the same as explaining it. Though "primary perception" sounds like it could be a theory, Backster may as well use the word "magic," for all the fleshing-out of the theory he does. And, n.b., "magic" is never an acceptable scientific explanation for anything. (If it were, science would be much easier.) The more time I've spent thinking about Cleve Backster and his experiments, the more disturbing I find it that he's not working harder at finding an explanation for what he's claiming to see.
He does, at one point, try running some experiments with plants in copper cages, and in special rooms built to eliminate electromagnetic interference of all kinds. All he demonstrates by doing so is that whatever is going on, it is not blocked by copper cages and special rooms. This still qualifies as science, kinda, because proving that something is not happening is still a way of closing in on whatever actually is happening. But it comes off as kind of half-assed: he's proposing a method of communication between species not previously known to communicate, one of which doesn't really even have any sense organs that could receive such a signal (as far as we know) and the other of which doesn't have any ways of communicating that don't involve sound or electromagnetism (neither of which are observed coming from the humans in the tests), that works just as well across long distances (oh yeah -- one of the claims is that cells taken from a person still react to that person's feelings when they've flown 300 miles away.), and would basically rewrite physics as we know it . . . and he's over here dinking around with chicken eggs and brine shrimp? Obviously I can't prove what Backster knows or doesn't know, but this behavior is so unusual for a scientist that I can't help but wonder whether Backster isn't dimly, subconsciously aware that there's something wrong with his theory and/or experiments.
3 Fertilizer is not enough like food for the two things to be parallel. For one thing, the bulk of a plant's weight comes from water and carbon dioxide, not nitrogen or the other components of fertilizer. Fertilizer is necessary, sure, but it's not what the plant is really made of, not in the same sense that human beings are made of food. You'd have a better argument for saying that water and carbon dioxide are the plant equivalent of food.
4 (And I remind the reader that I know a little something about explaining plants in human terms, okay)
5 One does get the impression, from reading through his introduction, that he thinks that the world revolves around himself to a substantial extent, to the point where that's not especially out of character. We all do this to some degree, and I'm not saying that it makes him a bad person, but he comes across as being sort of singularly unable to see beyond his particular perspective on things. This tendency is bad enough that I question whether he understands why scientists have problems with his work: when he talks about it, he postures as someone who is being unjustly persecuted for no good reason by the botanical establishment. I.e., it's not that his results are unconvincing, it's that they're so amazing that he's going to overturn the entire field of botany, and everybody else is threatened by him, Cleve Backster, the guy who discovered primary perception. (Which is obviously ridiculous, since as we all know deep down in our hearts, even if we won't admit it openly, the world actually revolves around me, Mr. Subjunctive, the guy who singlehandedly overthrew Backsterism and saved all of the life sciences from utter destruction.) We'll revisit human egocentrism again in Part III, in a different context.
6 One could argue, and no doubt Backster would, that this is totally different because the ivy wasn't being cared for by any of the students, it just happened to live near them, and was no doubt territorial about the outside of the building, rather than the inside, which would have been a whole new world for the plant, but even so, it's probably best not to argue this on page 49 when you just said on page 48 that you couldn't just go to the other side of a wall to watch an experiment unfold. I mean, either walls matter all the time, walls matter none of the time, or walls matter or don't matter according to certain predictable rules and principles, and Backster never lays out any such rules, so. . . .
7 And fuck you anyway, Cleve Backster, for implying that the growers and florists and greenhouse workers don't matter to the plants, don't bond with the plants, don't care about the plants. I've got a Big Damn Screw Pine who says differently, and he will fuck you up, motherfucker.
8 Experimental set-up #1: Three plants in a room with one cigarette lighter. Each plant is hooked, by two different leaves, to two sets of electrodes. Each electrode's readings are being recorded continuously, giving you six continuous graphs. Twenty undergrad volunteers in a building across campus, who have never been anywhere near these plants, are instructed to go, one at a time, to the room with the plants, pick up the lighter, and use it to lightly burn a non-electroded leaf of one and only one of the three plants (the students will decide spontaneously which plant to burn when they get inside the room) and then leave. For Backster to be correct, 1) the duplicate electrodes on each plant should give readings which are very correlated with one another; the graph from Plant #1, Electrode #1, should agree with the graph from Plant #1, Electrode #2. 2a) Either one plant at a time should give strong reactions, and the reactions should start before the student picks up the lighter, or 2b) all three of the plants should give strong reactions at the same times due to mutual sympathies among the group. If the duplicate electrodes are not giving similar responses at all times, this sort of undercuts Backster's claim that he's measuring anything meaningful (because you could make the claim that for any of his "successful" experiments, he'd have gotten completely different results if he had had the electrodes on a different leaf), and if the plants do not react solely according to which one is threatened or entirely in unison with one another, then it undercuts the claim that they know when they're being threatened and/or know when harm is coming to another organism in the same room.
Experimental set-up #2: A single plant, highly attuned to Backster, is connected to two sets of electrodes as in the first experiment above, and is monitored for a 16-hour period, from 6 AM to 10 PM, during which time Backster is not permitted to go anywhere near either the plants or the recording equipment. Backster, meanwhile, records his own day during the same 16-hour period, noting when he feels strong feelings or whatever. At the end of that day, a four-hour excerpt of both electrodes' graphs, beginning at a randomly-selected time between 6 AM and 6 PM, is presented to Backster without any time cues, and he is given the job of determining what part of the day this four-hour section came from to an accuracy of within fifteen minutes. As before, it's relevant whether the electrode pairs get similar graphs, but it's more important whether Backster's interpretations of the graphs only work when he already knows the answers he's trying to get, or whether he can actually deduce anything about what's going on from them.
If both of these experiments were performed as described, and the results conformed to Backster's predictions, then I might be more willing to accept that there's something going on. As it is, I think he's coming up with the predictions after he sees the experiment, which is a lot less impressive. I can make predictions of all kinds of crazy shit after it happens.
9 And as far as it goes, those examples aren't as straightforward as they look, either: Newton's understanding of gravity works consistently under normal earth-bound conditions, but there are situations where general relativity is required to explain what's going on, too. Chemical reactions generally produce the same products, but sometimes you get products you weren't expecting or don't want (though I don't think that's possible for sodium + chlorine). Ice melts into water, though by changing the pressure it's under you can make it stay solid at higher temperatures, or turn it directly to steam. All of this is totally reproducible, and illustrates additional laws and additional principles which can be applied to other situations and make predictions about what's going to happen when completely new things are attempted; i.e., they're not random wild deviations from Mother Nature refusing to jump through hoops, they're big flashing signs telling you there are more hoops than you were initially aware of.
10 (In some cases, he does provide the paper polygraph traces, though you have to take his word for it that things happened at the points he has marked on the paper, that the timing of everything is what he's claiming it to be. He never tells you how many times he runs the same experiment, how many times things fail to happen as predicted, what happens when the experimental conditions are changed slightly, etc.)


Tim said...

These posts are great. I'm looking forward to Part III.

One minor clarification. . .at the beginning of the second paragraph after the fourth flower, do you mean "I take a little bit of offense to the notion that a plant that's just been purchased *is* a blank slate"?

mr_subjunctive said...

I did mean "is," yes. Fixed.

mr_subjunctive said...

Shall I take the (aside from Tim) deafening silence from readers to mean that everyone wants to say tl;dr but is too nice to do so?

our friend Ben said...

Er, just getting to this post, and very happy to see it, Mr. S.! I do believe that plants and even single-celled organisms can feel and react to pain and to bad or ideal conditions. But to assume that these plants, etc., are not reacting to their own circumstances but to US is ludicrous. Hubris is the only applicable word.

Karen715 said...

Not at all, Mr._S. I'm enjoying every word of this. I just don't have anything to add. No objections, no cogent observations.

The bit about the lettuce did amuse me. I always joke with my husband: "If someone does prove that plants have feelings, what on earth will vegans eat then?

lynn'sgarden said...

LOL, Mr_Subjunctive...tell us what you really think!
I bet ya big $ that all these "Backsterism" would not stand a chance of getting published in today's world...what with 'proof beyond a doubt' and all...which he obviously have zilch in in that dept. And, who knows, maybe if you were to have a face to face discussion, he may even disclaim some of these theories!
I lost it a few times (laughing my ass off) and hubby had to come see what the commotion was (paragraph of footnote 7)!
Gee, what will part 3 bring?! Snarky or not, this was a great post!
Love the color of the last photo!

mr_subjunctive said...

Whew. Okay. Sorry about that, but I always worry when I post something this size that nobody's going to bother to even read it all the way through. The Backster posts are even worse about that than usual, because they've been such an incredible pain to write, and have taken so much of my time. I saw that the post had gotten like 23 hits already, and only one comment, and kind of freaked.

Apologies all around.

Claude said...

I was actually sitting in a restaraunt thinking about your 1st post the other day... sitting at a table with a friend in one of those places where you're surrounded by Boston Ferns and Draceanas, and thinking that if plants were really reacting to the pain and suffering of other plants, then not one of these things would survive the all out slicing, dicing, roasting, frying, steaming and the plain, flat out eating alive of their bretheren that was going on around them.

I do believe that plants can and do respond to their enviorments in ways that we may not yet understand, but there is a limit.

Karen715 said...

Oh, and I should mention that I love the picture with the bee getting pollen all over herself. I wonder how the Portulaca feels about that.

CelticRose said...

Loved the post Mr. S., and looking forward to the next one. ;-)

One point about his original experiment: there's a rather mundane explanation for the results he got.

He had just watered the plant. Now, it takes some time for the water to work its way up from the roots to the leaves. It was simply a coincidence that the water reached the leaves at the same moment he was thinking about burning it. When the water reached the leaves, the conductivity increased and the polygraph went nuts.

Has the man never heard of Occam's Razor, coincidence, or confirmation bias?

our friend Ben said...

Courage, Mr. S.! If writing Poor Richard's Almanac has taught me anything, it's that folks out in cyberspace are still ready and willing to read. When I started the blog, I was convinced that no one would even look at it, since it's basically all essays and (gasp!) no photos. 117,000-plus readers and lots of enthusiastic commentary have restored my faith in a thinking public!

Andrew said...

An even simpler experiment - Hook up electrodes to one or several leaves. Water plant. Time when the plant reacts to the watering & if the plant reacts the same way each time. This could be used to rule out or confirm the very first idea he had about it being psychic or if it was simply reacting to the watering. For controls you could try the tests on different plants of different sizes and moisture content of the soil etc. Plants should react more like plants in similar conditions (same size, amount of water, time of day etc) than like different plants (Big/Small, Needs/Doesn't need water, Day/Night watering) in a way that is reproducible and predictable to determine if Baxter's plant would have reacted the same even if he had not thought about burning the plant.

Looking forward to part 3 as well.

Oh, and how would a plant such as a Monterey Pine or Pond Pine (Pinus radiata & P. serotina) react to fire? On one hand it will kill the tree but on the other it is essential for the survival of the species. Will the seedlings have survivor guilt?

Pam J. said...

I've read Part I. Printed out Part II. Am 1/4 into it. I read in fits and starts. Too much media and incoming data and books to be read and newspapers/blogs/websites to keep up with. Not to mention real life. I'm an ADD reader, if you know what I mean. It's a problem for me.

sheila said...

I read the whole thing, well, er, most of it...

Zach said...

I'm just now reading these 3 posts and thoroughly enjoying them. I don't know anyone else who would tackle this in a blog post and expect people to read it. But here you are, and you've got readers, too! :)

About diet... Whenever I hear someone is a vegetarian I always make sure that they don't just not eat meat because of the poor, innocent animals. If they do, I remind them that at least chickens have legs and can run. What can a head of lettuce do when it comes time for harvest?