Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From Nate Kornell and Sam Kornell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.