The Future of Psi

Over the past few months I've mentioned (see here and here) the controversial, soon-to-be-published paper by respected psychologist Daryl Bem which offers evidence for 'precognition' - basically, anomalous perception of future events. This week the New York Times has printed a piece on Bem's research, and (as you might expect) it's chock-full of everything that's wrong with what passes for 'science journalism' in modern times:

One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events.

The decision may delight believers in so-called paranormal events, but it is already mortifying scientists. Advance copies of the paper, to be published this year in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have circulated widely among psychological researchers in recent weeks and have generated a mixture of amusement and scorn.

The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.

Some scientists say the report deserves to be published, in the name of open inquiry; others insist that its acceptance only accentuates fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer review of research in the social sciences.

“It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in,” Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon and longtime critic of ESP research, said. “I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”

So apparently Bem's paper is "mortifying scientists". All scientists? Who are these 'mortified scientists' exactly? And it's only generating generated "a mixture of amusement and scorn"? No curiosity in there? No mention of other positive replications, just the negatives? And as for Ray Hyman...I think his quote perfectly encapsulates the embarrassment that CSICOP and its members are to the entire field of science. On the one hand they say that psi remains bunk because of lack of publication in peer reviewed journals. But apparently by their rules psi research should not be allowed to be published in peer-reviewed journals in the first place! *facepalm*

Speaking of the CSICOPians, a more detailed criticism of Bem's paper is available on their website for those interested in some of the possible flaws in his research: "Back from the Future", by James Alcock. Note too that Daryl Bem has responded to Alcock's criticisms, provoking a reply bursting with sulky hyperbole from Alcock. And if that wasn't enough reading for you, Dean Radin has also responded to Alcock although more on the theme of parapsychology's history than Bem's procedures.

Sadly however, with all the back and forth and muddying of waters already, before the paper has even been published, I'm rather skeptical that Bem's paper will end up being any sort of game-changer in terms of scientific acceptance of psi research.

Update: The New York Times article has appended a 'Room for Debate' section to their story, in which they have a number of scientists give their thoughts on Bem's experiments. Not sure about the 'debate' bit though, as they apparently only have skeptical/cynical scientists in their rolodesk: CSICOP Fellows Lawrence Krauss, David Helfand, Douglas Hofstadter and Richard Wiseman all get to say their piece, along with a few other folk whose first response to the study is to make clear that peer review doesn't always work. Quite the 'debate' there NYT!

If you want a feel for the quality of the debate offered, you'll find Anthony Gottlieb hilariously trying to say there's far too much lab proof of psi...what's needed is real world evidence!

It’s very suspicious that hard evidence of paranormal powers only ever seems to show up in laboratories. If people really can predict the future in extrasensory (and extra-rational) ways, how come they only seem to manage it when ESP researchers ask them to do something trivial, like guess a playing card or a picture?

So it seems parapsychologists have got it all wrong - skeptics don't want them to prove things via double-blind, peer review studies. They want anecdote!

Previously on TDG:

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gbv23's picture
Member since:
5 June 2006
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5 weeks 2 days

At least it gets folks thinking. We've always had ESP, all of us.
The young folks will take it for granted. They are incarnating with abilities better suited to the current vibrational levels. Us old folks were programmed for a world that no longer exists and have to keep-up by shedding the old stories.

I wish I cared more about what "science" does or does not accept but they just keep falling farther behind on conscious evolution.

Glad there are all those renegade scientists whose 'experiments' are with conscious living and the co-creation of experience through thoughts, beliefs and expectations.

Stephen Hodge's picture
Member since:
8 January 2011
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3 years 3 days

While I offer my sincerest congratulations to Prof. Bem for getting his paper accepted by this journal, I think Ray Hyman's comments speak volumes here about just how CSICOP/CSI people really think.

On many occasions I've seen skeptics granstanding their little hearts out screaming "But where is the evidence" adding the caveat "that has been published in a mainstream journal."

This whole carry on since Bem's paper was announced - and not yet even published - just goes to show how silly a request that very often is. It's like asking: 'why should skeptics accept something that skeptics haven't already accepted'.

Surely if an experiment has been conducted properly by a tenured academic it should be automatically puplished in at least one mainstream psychology journal (of which there are hundreds).

Yet, reading Hyman and some of the other CSICOP/CSI people's responses leads one to conclude they object to positive psi research being published in the most highly respected journals on nothing more than the grounds that they personally think it 'craziness, pure craziness'.

Again this is just yet another hurdle that the skeptics raise along with the all-too-common demand for a higher statistical signal in experiments than psi proponents actually report.

We can at least take solace in the fact that, at long last, the public at large are beginning to see the organised skeptics' movement for what it is - cynical, childish, closed-minded and, all too often, more than a little bit bigoted.

Greg's picture
Member since:
30 April 2004
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1 hour 34 min
Stephen Britcref wrote:

On many occasions I've seen skeptics granstanding their little hearts out screaming "But where is the evidence" adding the caveat "that has been published in a mainstream journal."

...Yet, reading Hyman and some of the other CSICOP/CSI people's responses leads one to conclude they object to positive psi research being published in the most highly respected journals on nothing more than the grounds that they personally think it 'craziness, pure craziness'.

Spot on - I was thinking this to myself as well. And - hilariously - in a new 'debate' section appended to the NY Times story, Anthony Gottlieb has put in an objection *in the opposite direction*! Apparently there's far too much lab proof of psi, what's needed is real world proof:

It’s very suspicious that hard evidence of paranormal powers only ever seems to show up in laboratories. If people really can predict the future in extrasensory (and extra-rational) ways, how come they only seem to manage it when ESP researchers ask them to do something trivial, like guess a playing card or a picture?

What. The. F**k!?

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

Rick MG's picture
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2 May 2004
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4 days 3 hours

"Don't bother me with the facts, my mind is already made up."

It'd be interesting to know how many of the pseudoskeptics have actually read Bem's research.

~ * ~

@levitatingcat

Stephen Hodge's picture
Member since:
8 January 2011
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3 years 3 days

Indeed.

And it's heartwarming to see Gottlieb being taken to task for this strange stance against laboratory work. My favourite is from commentator number 4 'Jim Frank' who writes:

Quote:

"I love this line, "It’s very suspicious that hard evidence of paranormal powers only ever seems to show up in laboratories." There are tons of non-laboratory reports of ESP but science spits on it and calls it anecdotal."

Says it all really...

Just as interesting is Wiseman's take on it:

Quote:

"There is no need to go into panic mode and either overturn the laws of physics or label the original work as badly flawed."

....with Wiseman seeming to advocate more research be done.

I wonder if he would also support the need for considerably more funding being required for psi research?

chuck_heston's picture
Member since:
26 June 2010
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2 years 16 weeks

Nothing like a published ESP paper to make the hard-nosed scientific rationalists act completely bonkers! Seriously, Doug Hofstadter, calm down! One study does not mark the end of Scientific Materialism. You know, I was a fan of your books until you started popping supplements with Ray Kurzweil, hoping to live long enough to witness the Singularity and download your mind onto a thumb drive. A secularized religious notion if there ever was one! These primate-fear responses are telling. If the threads of patriarchal scientific materialism were not unraveling before our eyes, there would be no need for educated grown white men to throw such hissy fits!

This all recalls to my mind Jung's framing of the flying saucer a psycho-physical manifestation and symbol of wholeness balancing out the one-sidedness of a techno-scientific society's devotion to pure rationality. All of these trickster-domain boundary phenomena seem to be meant to undermine these sorts of rigid paradigms and dogmatic modes of thought.

creox's picture
Member since:
30 April 2004
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15 hours 8 min

I find the hypocrisy of the scientific method in these cases to be hard to swallow.

I respect science and what it has accomplished but when you look below the surface of the nitty gritty, day to day practice of it you can sure find a lot of politics, backstabbing and cobwebs.

Pity.

edit*

Reading the responses in the NYT article were refreshing in their defense of the scientific method.

Johnny Boy

mdarnton's picture
Member since:
30 November 2006
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51 weeks 11 min

In my field, as in all others, I suppose, there are irrational, uninformed people who make their opinions first, then ignore all evidence that doesn't agree with them. I no longer let what the lowest common denominator of the uninformed believe affect me. Reality exists without being obligated to their input and beliefs. If they can't even bother to inform themselves before they comment, why should we give them any attention at all? Maybe they'll catch up, maybe they won't, but their misunderstanding has no effect on anything except themselves and people like them.