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I Foresee an Uproar Over an ESP Study

• January 06, 2011 • 12:57 PM

Rather than accepting or rejecting controversial findings — like Daryl Bem’s upcoming paper on ESP — based on preconceived notions, how about approaching them with scientific scrutiny?

One evening more than a decade ago, I attended a talk by Daryl Bem, a well-known psychologist, at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Bem claimed that humans might be capable of precognition, or the ability to predict the future.

As a newly minted Reed psychology graduate, Bem inspired me to write a computer program to test my own precognitive abilities. I happened to tell my boss and mentor at Reed, Allen Neuringer, about my little self-experiment. Allen, a wonderful person and adviser, and a behaviorist interested in hard facts, looked at me, paused for a moment, said “ESP doesn’t exist,” and walked away.

An upcoming issue of the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish scientific evidence indicating that Allen was wrong. (Take an early peek here.) In a study put out by Cornell University, Daryl Bem claims that in a series of nine tightly controlled experiments he designed and conducted, more than 1,000 Cornell university students were able to predict future events with more than 50 percent accuracy. The experiments were straightforward, such as having test subjects guess on which side of a computer screen an image would appear. Taking the results together, Bem says, “The odds against the possibility that the combined results are merely chance coincidences or statistical flukes are about 74 billion to 1.”

Bem’s article is already generating conversation and controversy in the scientific world. Proof of psi — psychic powers — would turn a slew of academic disciplines inside out. It is difficult to overstate its implications. In psychology, we would have to conclude that there really is a “sixth sense.”

Endless questions would follow: How does it work? Can we train it? Is it a form of psychopathology? Neuroscientists and biologists would face similar questions. How did this ability evolve? Do other animals have it as well?

Perhaps the most violent shock of all will come to the laws of physics. Quarks move through time in strange ways, but there is no reason to conclude that billions of them would coordinate their strange behaviors in an intelligent way to affect a network of neurons in the brain. Precognition would turn physics upside down.

And of course that’s just academia — the practical implications could be even more staggering. What if we can predict the future? What does that mean for politics? The economy? Las Vegas?

It is difficult to imagine a scientific discovery as spectacular as Bem’s coming along for another century. If true, it will essentially be proof of magic; it will require the boundaries human knowledge to be re-examined. So how should we regard Bem’s study, and the media barrage that will inevitably accompany its publication?

There are three general ways to approach Bem’s research. The first might be characterized as the “no duh” reaction: “I don’t need a scientist to tell me ESP exists! I’ve predicted the future plenty of times. I even predicted the outcome of the Super Bowl last year!”

This is faulty reasoning at best, though it’s far from uncommon. All humans are saddled with a psychological tick called confirmation bias: We have a natural tendency to seek confirming evidence of our beliefs and ignore disconfirming evidence. So you’re apt to remember when your Super Bowl prediction came true, but not when you got it wrong. And of course it needn’t be mentioned that examples of humans beings being utterly, spectacularly wrong about the future are easy to call to mind — chances are all you need to do is take a quick survey of your recent past.

That’s the first approach. The second might be called the “No. Duh,” approach. Many people, scientists and nonscientists alike, are likely to greet Bem’s research with stout disdain. ESP is only a shade different than witchcraft, they’ll say. They won’t deny its ubiquity, or its appeal: We have all probably experienced moments when we had the uncanny sense that we were able to peer into the future. Indeed, this time of year some of us may pay visits to a fortune-teller; even the most hardheaded among us might thrill at the idea that something “special” was involved in our successful Super Bowl prediction.

But a professional scientist in virtually any field, should we happen to consult one, will tell us, charitably or uncharitably, that we are being crazy. ESP is magical thinking, they will say.

If the first approach is too credulous, this second approach is too dismissive. Daryl Bem has lectured regularly about precognition for years, and he always warns young professors to never say its name aloud if they wish to get tenure. So noted. Job security aside, however, I wish to make clear that I do not believe in ESP. What I do believe in, though, is science.

Which brings us to the third, and best, approach. Bem has conducted a serious study, and it should be approached scientifically, with a scientist’s skepticism but also a scientist’s faith in free inquiry accompanied by empiricism.

Daryl Bem knows as much as anyone about criticisms of psi phenomena and the pitfalls of doing psi research, and he says that there’s a 74 billion to 1 chance that his results are a fluke. This situation puts an empiricist between a rock and hard place: Bem’s results are convincing and yet impossible.

The way to find out for sure is to put his results under a microscope until every possible angle has been examined with the minutest care. My prediction is that future research will not support his claims. But when it comes to predicting the future, I could be wrong. And if I am, wow.

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Nate Kornell and Sam Kornell
Nate Kornell is an assistant professor of psychology at Williams College, where his research focuses on the processes underlying effective learning and remembering. Sam Kornell is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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