Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Weirdest Scandal Ever?

Probably not. But it's still pretty weird.

Slate has an article up today about a Seattle neuroscientist named Larry Farwell. Farwell was one of the early researchers exploring the possibility of EEG-based brain-computer interfaces, technology that led to the development of my Emotiv Insight consumer EEG headset. Slate published the article in the first place because Donald Trump's nominee for National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was briefly involved with one of Farwell's companies. So it's actually not that much of a scandal per se, but it still makes for fascinating reading.

Farwell got his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University. For 10 years after graduation he invested in real estate and studied transcendental meditation, among other avocational pursuits. (He’s also been a semiprofessional swing-dance performer and a broadsword-wielding black belt in kung fu with a penchant for the flying kick.) Finally, in 1984, Farwell went back to school for a Ph.D. in neuroscience in the lab of the brain-electrode pioneer Emanuel Donchin.

Farwell produced extraordinary work while a student in the Donchin lab. In 1988, four years before completing his graduate degree, he and Donchin devised one of the first brain-computer interfaces for converting thought directly into speech. Their system worked through electroencephalography, or EEG—the measurement of broad oscillations in the brain’s electrical activity by electrodes placed atop the scalp.

Donchin had expertise in a particular EEG brain-wave pattern called the “P300,” which corresponds to a brief change in voltage that shows up on neural traces about half a second after people are presented with a meaningful or surprising stimulus. (The name P300 refers to the fact that this signal can appear as soon as 300 milliseconds after the triggering sound or image.)

So right off the bat, Farwell sounds like quite the character. Farwell and Donchin employed the P300 response to develop their brain-computer interface, which presented subjects with a series of letters. The subject would then concentrate on the letter he or she wished to communicate. When they did, an EEG would pick up the P300, which tightly correlated with concentrated attention.

Farwell and Donchin went on to try and develop the P300 detector into a more advanced lie detector, by pairing it with and interrogation technique called the Guilty Knowledge Test. The idea was basically sound, that guilty subjects would produce the P300 or a pattern close to it in response to the actual facts of a criminal case as opposed to made-up ones.

With funding from the CIA, Farwell and Donchin pursued this idea for several years, publishing their first, somewhat meager results in 1991. Lots more research on their lie-detector test would be necessary, they said, but the approach clearly held some promise. Brain electrodes could one day be used “in the aid of interrogations.”

By the time that paper had been published, Farwell was already on the payroll as a full-time research consultant for the CIA. (The agency would provide him with about $1 million in research funding between 1991 and 1993.)

Farwell signed research contracts not just with the CIA but also with the FBI and the U.S. Navy. Soon he would claim to have discovered a different brain wave pattern—a more elaborated version of the P300 that lasted a full second or even longer—which he patented as the “memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response,” or MERMER.

By analyzing this entire stretch of data, Farwell claimed, he managed to achieve an astonishing 100 percent accuracy in his lie-detector tests: No false positives, no false negatives, and no indeterminate results.

And here's where Farwell's claims start to veer off the rails. Individual brain geometry varies too much for an EEG to always catch a particular signal given standard electrode placement. You might be able to get close with a functional MRI and a standard atlas mapping calibration adjustments to variations in brain function localization. But even then, 100% is pretty farfetched, especially under real-world conditions.

So any independent peer review would point out that Farwell's claims of such accuracy are basically impossible. And Farwell's former mentor Donchin went on to do just that.

Donchin laid out his concerns in a nasty and personal rebuttal to Farwell’s 2012 paper, written with several co-authors and published in the same academic journal. There he accused his former student of using “grandiloquent language” to distort and misrepresent the record on brain fingerprinting. Farwell’s patented P300-MERMER technique had never been described in a peer-reviewed publication, the rebuttal argued, so there was no way of knowing if it really added any value to the P300. Also, of the 13 studies that Farwell cited in support of his claim of 100 percent accuracy, just three had been written up in peer-reviewed journals, and these comprised just 30 participants in all.

So in short, the sample size was way to small to justify a 100% claim with any confidence. Farwell accused Donchin of distorting the facts in his rebuttal - which might have been true, for all I know - but if we're dealing with a sample size of 30, it doesn't matter. A sample size that small is enough for a preliminary study that suggests avenues for further research... and that's it. Regardless of any other facts, and no matter how accurate Farwell's data was, the math just doesn't work.

And this, right here, is where the story drifts in Augoeides territory. Farwell also published a book in 1999, called How Consciousness Commands Matter: The New Scientific Revolution and the Evidence That Anything Is Possible. In his book, he recounts experiments he performed to test the hypothesis that consciousness could affect radioactive decay.

So he set out to test what he called the Conscious Unified Field Hypothesis, according to which the human mind can affect reality in tangible, seemingly impossible ways. His father, the nuclear physicist, helped him set up his main experiment: Farwell put a sample of plutonium inside a particle detector, and then he sat beside it. “My task was to command matter through consciousness,” he wrote, “to bring order into the otherwise random process of quantum particle emission, using nothing but the influence of consciousness alone.”

The book describes what happened next: Farwell sat there for a while in total silence, trying to affect the particles with his mind. A set of bar graphs fluctuated on a monitor, showing the time intervals between each release of alpha particles from the plutonium. If he could affect those intervals with his mind—that is to say, if he could exert his will over the timing of radioactive decay—then he’d have proved his theory. Sure enough, the intervals began to shift, he told me. Farwell’s mind had changed the intervals enough that he felt able to conclude—with “99.98 percent confidence,” no less—that “consciousness can and does command matter at the quantum-mechanical level.”

So basically, Farwell was able to replicate the PEAR experiments. He probably didn't call it that, but that's exactly what this is. But unlike Dean Radin and Richard Jahn who worked on the PEAR project, Farwell completely misinterpreted the results as proving the mind's ability to "command" matter. Any magician worth his or her salt will tell you that's not how it really works - even if you establish that consciousness can influence matter, command is way too strong a word.

Essentially, Farwell took the classic Skeptic argument as fact, which is based on the assumption that if you can do something, you can do anything. For example, "If you could really read minds, you would have won the Powerball." This ignores that (A) mind-reading has nothing to do with playing lotteries and (B) there are probabilistic limits to magical effects. The force you can exert on the universe doesn't automatically go to infinity just because you are doing it with your mind.

That's kind of disingenuous sloppiness that the Randis of the world constantly deploy against anything that appears even marginally paranormal. At least, I would hope that it is disingenuous. If it isn't, it implies that the Skeptics out there are not even intelligent enough to understand that all real phenomena have defined characteristics and measurable limitation. But I digress - that's just a big pet peeve of mine.

Farwell and a business partner, Krishna Ika, attempted to commercialize the dubious lie-detection technology in 2012, following up on the remarkable claims made in the original 2012 article. The resulting company, Brainwave Technologies, accumulated board members over the next several years including Michael Flynn and a friend of his, Brian McCauley.

Subu Kota, the espionage-linked businessman, joined Brainwave as a board member in 2013. In August 2014, Ika announced Brainwave’s official worldwide launch, claiming to have sold Farwell’s technology to police in Singapore and to a police department in Florida. In February 2016, Brainwave added Michael Flynn—who had been fired from his post as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency around the time of the company launch—to its advisory board. Two months after that, a friend of Flynn’s named Brian McCauley, who had just retired from the FBI, joined the board as well.

McCauley’s presence on the board would soon provide evidence for the interconnectedness of all things, or at least the interconnectedness of all scandalous shenanigans in Washington. In mid-October, the Washington Post reported on McCauley’s link to Hillary Clinton’s private email server and to documents related to the attack in Benghazi. In 2015, while still at the FBI, McCauley had proposed trading favors with the State Department, whereby the bureau would agree not to classify a Benghazi-related message from Clinton’s server. (He says that he quickly rescinded the offer when he learned the contents of the email.) Both McCauley’s and Flynn’s names have lately disappeared from the Brainwave website. Ika says they had to sever ties because both had taken jobs in the Trump administration.

So even if consciousness does not bind the universe together (and, understand, I believe that it does), Farwell himself seems to sit at a bizarre nexus of interpersonal connections and personal influence with connections all across the Washington establishment. to be fair, there's no evidence of wrongdoing by Flynn anywhere in the story - he just served on a corporate board for a few years and then resigned. At the same time, though, it would seem that this whole mess is part of the very swamp that Trump promised to drain as president.

You really should just go read the whole thing. I had trouble picking out bits and pieces to excerpt, and as one commenter puts it, the article is "the full Jon Ronson." It's a great read, full of all sorts of strange assertions and connections that seem to be a perfect allegory for today's political situation.

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