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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: