According to today’s conventional scientific wisdom, time flows strictly forward — from the past to the future through the present. We can remember the past, and we can predict the future based on the past (albeit imperfectly) — but we can’t perceive the future.
But if the recent data from the lab of Prof. Daryl Bem at Cornell University is correct, conventional scientific wisdom may need some corrections on this particular point.
In a research paper titled Feeling the Future, recently accepted for publication in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Bem presents some rather compelling empirical evidence
that in some cases — and with weak but highly statistically significant accuracy – many human beings can directly perceive the future. Not just predict it based on the past.
A pre-publication copy of Bem’s paper is available on his website, and it should appear on the
journal’s website shortly. The article is already attracting considerable attention, including a
piece in Psychology Today. Also, Bem reports that he has already received hundreds of requests
for “replication packages” — documentation and software allowing others to repeat the experiments he did. If you want to try to replicate the work yourself, replication packages for some of the
experiments are already available at http://dbem.ws/psistuff .
If Bem’s results are indeed replicated, this will shock some scientists, but many others will say “I told you so.” A 2002 survey by the US National Science Foundation shows that 60% of adult Americans agree that some individuals possess psychic powers. The percentage of scientists holding such opinions is much lower — but there is a small community of scientists, such as Dr. Bem, working to reconcile popular intuitions about paranormal phenomena with the scientific method and world-view.
[graphs are from http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/best_case_for_esp/ ]
What we’re talking about here is precognition (consciously perceiving the future) and premonition (unconsciously sensing the future) — aspects of the general class of phenomena Bem calls “psi,” and others have called “paranormal” or “psychic.” US government contractors SAIC used the phrase “anomalous cognition and perturbation,” in the context of their top secret work for the government investigating related effects.
I grew up very skeptical of claims of psychic power, jaded by stupid newspaper astrology columns and phony fortune-tellers claiming to read my future in their crystal balls for $20. Clearly there are many frauds and self-deluded people out there, falsely claiming to perceive the future and carry out other paranormal feats. But this is no reason to ignore solid laboratory evidence pointing toward the conclusion that, in some cases, precognition really does exist.
As Bem puts it in the abstract of his paper, a little more formally:
The term psi denotes anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms. Two variants of psi are precognition (conscious cognitive awareness) and premonition (affective apprehension) of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process. Precognition and premonition are themselves special cases of a more general phenomenon: the anomalous retroactive influence of some future event on an individual’s current responses, whether those responses are conscious or nonconscious, cognitive or affective.
His new paper explores precognition and premonition empirically, via reporting the results of 9 experiments, involving more than 1,000 Cornell University students.
Bem’s recent experiments share a common methodology. Start with a well-established psychological effect involving certain stimuli leading to certain human responses. Then, modify the standard experimental set-up so that the human subject’s responses are obtained before the “stimulus” events occur. The question is whether the experiments still work this way. Can the Cornell students, sometimes, directly feel the future?
The short answer is: yes
From Psi Skeptic to Psi Enthusiast
Daryl Bem didn’t start out as a psi researcher, and that’s not what he focused on for most of his scientific career. His greatest prominence is in personality psychology, as the creator of the self-perception theory of attitude change. He actually began his career as a physicist, with a BA in physics from Reed college and some physics graduate work at MIT; then he switched course to psychology in the midst of his graduate work, due to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. Now formally retired (though still active in research), he had a very successful research career with a host of publications in top journals, and spent two decades as a full professor at Cornell, after holding earlier positions at Harvard, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon.
Bem got into psi research indirectly via one of his hobbies: he is a stage magician, and in the early 1990s he was invited to evaluate some ESP research being done at the Psychophysical Research Laboratories (using the “ganzfeld” procedure that I’ll discuss a little later). At first he was skeptical of the lab’s ESP claims, and thought to use his knowledge of stage magic trickery to figure out what was really going on behind the scenes. But after much careful study he became more and more convinced there might be some genuinely anomalous phenomena going on. Ultimately his evaluation led to one of the classic publications in parapsychology, a review of ganzfeld ESP experiments in the Psychological Bulletin, a leading peer-reviewed academic psychology journal, coauthored by Bem and Honorton. As time went on, Bem’s interest in psi led him to design and conduct his own experiments in the field including, most recently, the work reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper that is our focus here.
Perceiving Erotic Stimuli from the Future
The first experiment described in Bem’s new paper involves perceiving erotic stimuli from the future — specifically, perceiving whether an erotic picture is going to appear in a certain location or not. As usual in empirical psychology, the experimental setup is a bit involved — but if you want to really appreciate the evidence for precognition that Bem has obtained, there’s no substitute for actually understanding some of the experiments he did. So I’m going to quote Bem’s paper at some length here, regarding his first experiment.
The setup was, in Bem’s words, as follows:
One hundred Cornell undergraduates, 50 women and 50 men, were recruited for this experiment using the Psychology Department’s automated online sign-up system. They either received one point of experimental credit in a psychology course offering that option or were paid $5 for their participation. Both the recruiting announcement and the introductory explanation given to participants upon entering the laboratory informed them that
[t]his is an experiment that tests for ESP. It takes about 20 minutes and is run completely by computer. First you will answer a couple of brief questions. Then, on each trial of the experiment, pictures of two curtains will appear on the screen side by side. One of them has a picture behind it; the other has a blank wall behind it. Your task is to click on the curtain that you feel has the picture behind it. The curtain will then open, permitting you to see if you selected the correct curtain. There will be 36 trials in all.
Several of the pictures contain explicit erotic images (e.g., couples engaged in nonviolent but explicit consensual sexual acts). If you object to seeing such images, you should not participate in this experiment.
The participant then signed a consent form and was seated in front of the computer. After responding to two individual-difference items (discussed below), the participant was given a 3 minute relaxation period during which the screen displayed a slowly moving Hubble photograph of the starry sky while peaceful New Age music played through stereo speakers. The 36 trials began immediately after the relaxation period.
The stimuli presented were as follows:
Most of the pictures used in this experiment were selected from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS; Lang & Greenwald, 1993), a set of 820 digitized photographs that have been rated on 9-point scales for valence and arousal by both male and female raters. This is the same source of pictures used in most presentiment studies. Each session of the experiment included both erotic and non-erotic pictures randomly intermixed. […]
40 of the sessions comprised 12 trials using erotic pictures, 12 trials using negative pictures, and 12 trials using neutral pictures. The sequencing of the pictures and their left/right positions were randomly determined by the programming language’s internal random function. The remaining 60 sessions comprised 18 trials using erotic pictures and 18 trials using non-erotic positive pictures with both high and low arousal ratings. These included 8 pictures featuring couples in romantic but non-erotic situations (e.g., a romantic kiss, a bride and groom at their wedding). The sequencing of the pictures on these trials was randomly determined by a randomizing algorithm … and their left/right target positions were determined by an Araneus Alea I hardware-based random number generator.
The main hypotheses Bem made about the outcome of this experiment, before running it, were that
1. “participants will be able to identify the position of the hidden erotic picture significantly more often than chance (50%).”
2. “we should also find the hit rates on the erotic trials to be significantly higher than the hit rates on some types of non-erotic trials.”
And what were the results?
1. “Across all 100 sessions, participants correctly identified the future position of the erotic pictures significantly more frequently than the 50% hit rate expected by chance: 53.1%.” (which is highly statistically significant given the number of trials involved, according to the calculations shown in the paper)
2. “In contrast, their hit rate on the non-erotic pictures did not differ significantly from chance: 49.8. This was true across all types of non-erotic pictures: neutral pictures, 49.6%; negative pictures, 51.3%; positive pictures, 49.4%; and romantic but non-erotic pictures, 50.2%.”
In other words the hypotheses made in advance of the experiment were solidly confirmed. The experiment yielded highly statistically significant evidence for psychic precognition. Much more than would be expected at random, given the number of subjects involved, the Cornell students were able to perceive the erotic stimuli from the future — but not, in this context, the non-erotic ones.
I won’t run through the other experiments described in the paper in similar detail. You can read the paper itself for that, which is unusually clearly written for an academic article. But you get the idea. These are rigorously conducted psychology experiments, professionally automated and computerized — as is often done these days — with the only unusual aspect being that the response comes before the stimulus. The results are statistically compelling. They don’t show any particular individuals who can foresee the future with total accuracy, every time. But they show that on average, over a bunch of Cornell university students, the future can be foreseen more often than chance — if the future involves something of sufficient psychological valence (e.g. an erotic picture). Some students appeared to have greater premonitory power than others, though nobody had anywhere near perfect accuracy on any of the experiments.
If Psi Exists, Why Aren’t the Observed Effects Stronger?
You may wonder why the results of Bem’s experiments weren’t stronger. Why only 53%, why not 95%? OK, so he didn’t find any experimental subjects who were so powerfully psychic they could predict the erotic pictures almost all the time — but then couldn’t he have set up a different sort of experiment, yielding a stronger effect?
Of course, outside the lab, people have reported many apparent cases of extremely dramatic psi effects. But the long history of parapsychology lab research, going back far before Bem to Rhine’s ESP work in the 1930s, shows that when you bring psi into the lab, it tends to become more of a systematic statistical biasing factor than a source of individual mind-blowing “miracle events.”
A reasonable analogy might be the study of “falling in love.” In the wild, in real life, falling in love can be a dramatic and overwhelming phenomenon. But imagine studying it in the lab by pairing men and women with each other in various combinations and contexts, and measuring the “in love” tendencies that arise. “Falling in love in the lab,” empirically measured in contrived laboratory situations, would very likely present itself as a weak and mercurial effect, a mere systematic biasing of the behavior of certain men and women toward each other — statistically meaningful, perhaps; but qualitatively different from its everyday-life manifestation, which is unpredictable by nature, and, partly for this reason, so overwhelming.
I don’t believe I have any particularly strong psi abilities myself, but in my everyday life, I’ve witnessed some rather striking examples of psi phenomena involving others. For instance, one day a few years ago, a friend and I were walking in the forest with her beloved dog, and the dog (as was common) ran far away from us, exploring the woods and chasing animals. Then, all of the sudden, my friend said, “She [the dog] is looking at a turtle. I can see it right now as if it were in front of me.”
I was understandably skeptical: “Yeah right. How could you know?” Turtles were not that commonly seen in those woods.
I was going to call the dog, but my friend asked me not to. Instead we quietly looked for the dog, and she was about 100 feet away staring intently at a turtle, which was sitting there peacefully by a stream.
Strange and striking — and like so many other real-life anecdotes of psi phenomena, damnably hard to replicate in a lab.
I’m reminded of another dog story. My Japanese Chin, Crunchkin, once surprised us by showing how well he recognized himself in the mirror. He looked at himself in the mirror curiously. Then he walked across the room and picked up a sock, and stared at himself in the mirror with the sock in his mouth. Then he put the sock down and picked it up again, all the while observing his mirror image do the same. Finally, he apparently concluded the dog in the mirror was just him, somehow, and lost interest. It was brilliant – but I know if we tried to replicate it in a laboratory setting (or in the house for that matter) it wouldn’t work — the dog would run away or act silly or something. One of the general challenges of laboratory psychology is to bring out, in weak but systematic form, phenomena that occur much more strongly, but much more capriciously, in everyday life situations.
Evidence for ESP
Perhaps the most frequently replicated psi experiment is the “ganzfeld” ESP experiment, which was the reason Daryl Bem became involved in psi research in the first place.
In 1983, due to his combined expertise as a stage magician and research psychologist, Bem was asked to perform a careful evaluation of Charles Honorton’s ganzfeld work at the Psychophysical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Princeton, New Jersey. PRL was funded by the McDonnell Foundation, founded by John McDonnell, one of the founders of the aerospace firm of McDonnell-Douglas.
“Ganzfeld” is German for “whole field,” and it refers to the procedure of placing an experimental subject in a setting of mild sensory deprivation, thus enabling (so it seems) greater sensitivity to psi phenomena. The desired mind state is generally achieved by isolating the subject in a comfortable chair in a darkened room and having them listen to “white noise” through headphones. In Honorton’s version of the experiment, halved ping-pong balls were taped over the subject’s eyes, and these were flooded with red light, creating a homogenous visual field.
Under these conditions, Honorton’s experimental subjects were then asked to try to perceive a video “target” that was being played in another isolated room, and being watched by a “sender.” The perceiver was asked to discourse during the session, commenting on the visual images they see in their mind’s eye. Afterwards they were supposed to rate either four still pictures or four moving videos, in order to judge which one they felt the “sender” was watching during the session. The process was completely automated, removing any role for subjective bias on the part of the experimenter.
When Bem arrived, Honorton had just started a new series of ESP experiments that used the ganzfeld procedure — and after studying this work, Bem was convinced that results needed to be published in a mainstream science journal. As Bem said, “I looked over the protocol, and was quite impressed…. I had read Honorton’s debate with [psi skeptic] Ray Hyman, and thought that the one talent I have is that I am able to reach the mainstream journals.”
Bem was unable to find any fatal flaw in Honorton’s work. He became more and more interested in extending his research focus from personality and social psychology to psi research. In 1994, Bem and Honorton co-authored a landmark article on psi in the mainstream psychology journal Psychological Bulletin. The article described the results of a thorough statistical meta-analysis of eleven ganzfeld studies. (A meta-analysis involves combining data from a series of similar experiments conducted over a period of time, to come to an overall conclusion.) The result of the meta-analysis was striking: subjects obtained overall target “hit” rates of approximately 35 percent, far above the 25 percent that chance performance would predict.
Bem and Honorton also carefully evaluated the possibility of a “file drawer effect.” This is the name used to illustrate a tendency to publish studies with positive results, while studies with negative results don’t get reported. Their analysis shows that, to explain the obtained results using a file drawer effect, would require around 50 unpublished negative studies for each published positive one. Given the large amount of cost and effort required to run a serious psi experiment, this really doesn’t seem plausible. (It should be noted that many results in other areas of science would have to be thrown out, if one were to adopt significance criteria so strict as to rule out the ganzfeld data due to the possibility of an extreme file drawer effect like this.)
In the years since, there have been further meta-analyses of the ganzfeld ESP database, and there has been some back-and-forth with psi skeptic Ray Hyman about the results (which can be found on Bem’s website. But ultimately, no skeptic has managed to explain away the results of these meta-analyses in a remotely convincing way.
Why Is Replication of Psi Experiments So Difficult Sometimes?
The chief bugaboo of scientific psi research has been replicability. It has proved frustratingly difficult to precisely replicate the results of many psi experiments. While the results of meta-analyses like the one Bem and Honorton did are compelling, it’s nevertheless frustrating that one often needs to proceed by analyzing the results of multiple experiments in a statistical way, rather than by simply doing a precise replication of “exactly” the same experiment over and over again, and getting exactly the same results each time.
As Ray Hyman, the most serious critic of the ganzfeld meta-analyses, has said: “Every field has ‘paradigm experiments’ where you can get results. There are thousands of experiments in psychology that can be replicated, but in parapsychology there isn’t one where you can get that. In no other field is there something similar.”
Perhaps the experiments described in Bem’s new paper, Feeling the Future, will finally resolve this problem and provide robustly replicable experiments demonstrating psi phenomena. I certainly hope so. But it’s worth briefly reflecting on possible explanations for the relative difficulty of replicating psi experiments. The nonexistence of psi is one possible explanation, of course, but certainly not the only one.
Consider the experiment of dropping objects from the air, and observing that they fall to the ground. This can be replicated perfectly easily. But what if there’s a high wind? Then the objects may blow away. They may even “fall” up instead.
The point is that, in order to “replicate” an experiment, one must know the relevant factors to be held constant between the original experiment and the replication. There is, after all, no such thing as an exact replication. In the case of falling objects, we know that wind conditions are one thing that must be held roughly constant in order to have a fair replication. But what things must be held roughly constant in order to have a fair replication of a psi experiment?
Many early psi researchers noted the possibility of “experimenter effects,” wherein the mindset of the experimenter might affect the results. This is not uncommon in psychology experiments of various kinds. Modern psi research protocols minimize this possibility via using automated set-ups, enabled by modern computer technology.
A more perplexing phenomenon is the apparent dependence of some psi phenomena on solar activity and geomagnetic fields.
If you’ve studied any astronomy, you may recall that a sidereal day is approximately 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.091 seconds – shorter than the regular 24-hour solar day. A sidereal day is defined as the time it takes for the Earth to complete one rotation relative to the vernal equinox (the point the Sun passes in March on its way from south to north, when the Earth’s equator is in the same plane as the center of the sun). Astronomers use sidereal time to keep track of the direction to point their telescopes to view a given star in the night sky.
Why is this relevant to psi? Because a meta-analysis has shown that the outcomes of psi experiments are related to sidereal time! Specifically, in an analysis by Ed May and James Spottiswoode, the correlation between psi effect size and the Earth’s magnetic field was found to be greater for experimental trials occurring around 13 hours Local Sidereal Time.
May and Spottiswoode’s conclusion? “AC [anomalous cognition] performance is modulated by a parameter which varies with solar activity.”
This sort of dependency is exactly the sort of thing that could help make psi experiments difficult to replicate. We know that the arc of a falling ball depends on the wind, but we don’t know whether psi depends on solar activity and the earth’s magnetic field or not. If it does have such dependencies, we don’t know how they work.
It’s the sort of consideration that highlights the subtle interdependency between theory and experiment in science. We create theories to explain experiments. But then, to validate an experimental observation requires replicability — and the articulation of the conditions required to constitute “replication” in a given context requires some theoretical understanding of the phenomena in question. Tricky? Yes. But science has not progressed as far as it has by hiding its head in the sand and ignoring subtle, tricky aspects of the world.
But How Can It Be That Way?
Some people, who believe psi phenomena are real, think they lie intrinsically beyond the scope of science — perhaps in the same rationally inexplicable domain as the divine and the soul. Most psi researchers disagree. Daryl Bem declares confidently that “there will be a physical explanation.”
I tend to agree. But what kind of explanation?
Nobody knows yet for sure, but the most likely direction seems to be quantum physics. Regarding precognition, in particular, there is much reason for hope here. Quantum physicists, with no thought at all to psi, are prone to discussing the possible ways in which the future may affect the present (see the recent Discover magazine article, for example.) Strange though it may sound to the layperson, the foundational equations of quantum physics don’t provide much support for the common-sense notion that time only flows forwards.
In 2006, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) organized an interdisciplinary conference of physicists and psi researchers specifically to discuss the physics of time and retrocausation. The proceedings were published as a book by the American Institute of Physics.
Quantum theory itself is not understood perfectly, and its equations can’t (yet) be exactly solved except in very simple cases. So it’s conceivable that psi phenomena can be explained by modern physics as is, once we learn to solve and interpret the equations better. But many researchers (myself included) suspect that some subtle tweaks to quantum physics may be needed to create a detailed explanation for psi phenomena.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson and University of California statistician Jessica Utts have noted one promising research direction:
… theories that presuppose that quantum theory is not the ultimate theory of nature, but involves (in ways that in some versions of the idea can be made mathematically precise) the manifestations of a deeper “subquantum domain.” In just the same way that a surf rider can make use of random waves to travel effortlessly along, a psychic may be able to direct random energy at the subquantum level for her own purposes. Some accounts of the subquantum level involve action at a distance, which fits in well with some purported psychic abilities.
This feels right to me,but for the purposes of this article such details aren’t really to the point. Rather, what seems worth emphasizing is that there may well be some variant of quantum theory that allows coherent behavior among molecules in the brain in a manner that could potentially support psi phenomena such as precognition (as reported in the Bem paper). We don’t know for sure, but given that quantum physicists themselves are prone to talk about influences going backwards as well as forwards in time, this sort of notion is certainly not off the wall or pseudoscientific.
The Dangers of Pseudo-Skepticism
So there is significant laboratory evidence of psi and a plausible direction for finding a scientific explanation, even if there is no explanation yet. What, then, should the scientific-minded individual’s attitude be? Isn’t a great deal of skepticism still warranted?
Certainly, any individual’s claims of dramatic psi capabilities should be viewed with great skepticism. There have been too many frauds and tricksters fooling themselves and/or others.
On the other hand, skepticism can be overdone. Freedictionary.com defines a skeptic as “One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.” A certain amount of skepticism is important for science. While science has sometimes upheld traditional beliefs, it has often upturned them. Telescopes and spacecraft revealed airless space and hunks of rock in the sky, not gods or ancestors. But there’s one thing skepticism is not about — it is not about rejecting observed data because it disagrees with current theoretical understanding. One of the disturbing features of psi research in the last few decades has been the exceptional derision it’s faced from some individuals and groups purporting to advocate rationality and skepticism.
For instance we have CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, pronounced “Psi Cop”), a well-funded organization devoted specifically to debunking claims of psi phenomena, with multimillion dollar headquarters in New York and LA. In 2006, CSICOP changed its name to CSI (the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), but continues to use the csicop.org Internet domain.
On their website, CSICOP states that their brand of skepticism “does not reject claims on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, but examines them objectively and carefully.” And yet, listen to Lee Nisbet, former Executive Director of CSICOP: “[Belief in psi is] a very dangerous phenomenon. Dangerous to science, dangerous to the basic fabric of our society… We feel it is the duty of the scientific community to show that these beliefs are utterly screwball.” To my mind, this isn’t skepticism — it’s dogma. A real skeptic would want to investigate claims like Bem’s with an open mind, to understand the real truth, regardless of beliefs or biases one way or another.
Fortunately, some others associated with CSICOP have taken a more open and scientific attitude than Nisbet. In 2000, CSICOP’s Skeptical Inquirer magazine contained an article on Bem’s earlier work, entitled The Best Case for ESP?, that didn’t perform any debunking, and certainly did not reveal Bem as an “utterly screwball.” Psi skeptic Ray Hyman was quoted complaining about the lack of clear replications in the psi research literature, but then also noting that psi critics have rarely risen to the level of sophistication of serious psi researchers: “Most of the criticism of the field is of straw people. The criticism has been very bad.” The article concluded on the following ambiguous and reasonable note:
The history of parapsychology has not offered much hope that future generations will witness the scientific confirmation of psychic ability, but the prospect remains provocative and tantalizing to the imagination. Daryl Bem’s research may stand as a major guidepost on the road to discovery, or go down in future decades as one of many promising findings never to be replicated nor confirmed.
(Ben Goertzel and psi “skeptic” James Randi, at the 2010 Singularity Summit)
And then there’s James Randi, the well-known stage magician, a founding member of CSICOP, who has made a career out of debunking televangelists and other fraudulent pseudo-psychics. I met Randi at the 2010 Singularity Summit in San Francisco, where we both spoke. My talk was on the applications of AI to genetics, and he expressed his appreciation for it. His talk focused on some of his successful debunking efforts, and was compelling and hilarious. However he never mentioned the existence of serious academic psi research, focusing instead on the bogosity of various evangelical faith healers and showman-style stage psychics. In my brief chat with him, I chose not to broach the topic of psi, not wanting to disrupt the pleasant vibe. But one of his helpers did express interest in having me speak at one of Randi’s “Amazing Meeting” conferences. I wonder if they’ll still be interested after reading this article!
One of Randi’s claims to fame is his “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” — a million-dollar prize he offers to “any person or persons who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under satisfactory observing conditions.” This sounds interesting at first, but gets less so when you dig into the fine print. For instance, the introduction to the rules says, “All tests must be designed in such a way that the results are self-evident, and no judging process is required.”
As the more science-oriented psi skeptic Ray Hyman has noted, this doesn’t really mesh with the way science works: “Scientists don’t settle issues with a single test, so even if someone does win a big cash prize in a demonstration, this isn’t going to convince anyone. Proof in science happens through replication, not through single experiments.”
After all, think about it: how would Daryl Bem win Randi’s prize for the sort of work described in his new paper? Note that, in order to win, applicants must pay the expenses to run their demonstrations at Randi’s own site. Further, they must sign a contract effectively giving Randi control over all the publicity derived from the demonstration.
So: Dr. Bem would have to set up a lab full of computer equipment in Randi’s facility in Florida at his own expense. Rather than using Cornell University students, he would have to recruit local individuals to take part in the experiments and pay them for their participation. Presumably, he would also have to bear the cost of enabling Randi and his staff to monitor the experiment on video to enable thorough fraud detection.
And after all that, would Randi judge the results as sufficiently “self-evident”? If not, then Bem would have wasted a lot of time and money replicating the experiment according to Randi’s requirements. It seems it would be much more worthwhile for other university psychology labs to replicate Bem’s methodology with their own students.
Overall, it seems clear that the community of “professional skeptics” is not really adequately equipped to evaluate the scientific evidence for psi. They are well suited to evaluate supposed faith healers and stage psychics, but that’s a different matter. The scientific evidence for psi is going to have to be evaluated by the scientific community.
It’s damn hard to get papers on psi accepted into mainstream scientific journals due to the overall anti-psi bias of the scientific community. The Journal of Parapsychology is reasonably high-quality — and follows many admirable practices such as accepting papers without regard to whether their results are positive or negative regarding the presence of psi phenomena — but it isn’t taken as seriously as it should be outside the psi research world. Bem’s recent paper shows it is possible to publish psi results in high-quality mainstream science journals, and I hope we’ll see more of this.
If this article and Bem’s new paper have stoked your curiosity about psi phenomena, where can you turn next for more (high-quality, scientifically-sound, BS-free) information?
If you want to read more scientific papers on psi, Bem’s website is one place to start. There are also some interesting and relevant articles on Dr. Jessica Utts’ website. Utts is a statistician at UC Irvine who has worked for the US government evaluating apparent psi phenomena. Her article, An Assessment Of The Evidence For Psychic Functioning, is particularly compelling, containing descriptions of a variety of experimental results, and concludes:
It is clear to this author that anomalous cognition is possible and has been demonstrated. This conclusion is not based on belief, but rather on commonly accepted scientific criteria. The phenomenon has been replicated in a number of forms across laboratories and cultures. The various experiments in which it has been observed have been different enough that if some subtle methodological problems can explain the results, then there would have to be a different explanation for each type of experiment, yet the impact would have to be similar across experiments and laboratories. If fraud were responsible, similarly, it would require an equivalent amount of fraud on the part of a large number of experimenters or an even larger number of subjects.
Nuclear physicist Dr. Ed May has a number of interesting articles on the site of the Laboratory for Fundamental Research, including information on the US government’s StarGate project to investigate “remote viewing” (the use of ESP to perceive far-off locations via the minds of others who are currently experiencing them).
I have not found any truly great textbooks about psi research, but a fairly thorough historical grounding in the area is provided by the edited volume Basic Research in Parapsychology put together by Dr. K. Ramakrishna Rao, an Indian researcher who is currently Head of the Department of Psychology and Parapsychology (as well as Dean of Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Vice Chancellor) at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, India. This is an academic work, with some chapters that are as readable as a newspaper feature article and others that are more involved and technical. It provides a high-quality overview of serious psi research from the 1960s through the 1990s.
On the less academic side, Damien Broderick’s 2005 book Outside the Gates of Science gives an extremely sensible and readable “popular science” level summary of psi research and the thinking that underlies it. (Broderick is best known as a science fiction writer, but devoted transhumanists may recall that his excellent book The Spike covered essentially the same ground as Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, but a half-decade earlier.)
Finally, if you have a historical bent you may get a kick out of Upton Sinclair’s 1930 book Mental Radio. Best known as a novelist and social advocate, Sinclair also had a deep interest in psi research, due partly to his wife Mary’s claim to have telepathic abilities. Over a three year period, he invented and conducted a series of 300 tests probing these abilities, which are reported in his book. For instance, in some of these experiments, Sinclair would sit in one room, make a drawing and place it into a sealed envelope; while at the same time, Mary would attempt to psychically detect the image and draw a copy of it. Other experiments involved variations of the protocol, for example longer-distance transmissions. Mary’s success rate, as recorded by Sinclair, was vastly greater than chance.
Sinclair’s Mental Radio contains the following wonderful quote, which I urge you to keep in mind if you choose to further explore the work of Bem and other modern psi researchers:
It is foolish to be convinced without evidence, but it is equally foolish to refuse to be convinced by real evidence.