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 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.
The paper is here(pdf) and makes for interesting reading, though I must admit that I’m not smart enough to assess it. Posters at the JREF forum have been muscling in with what seem like valid criticisms so as far its merits go I’ll let the debate pan out.
Yet what has intrigued me is the consternation at its even being published. If Bem’s experiments are flawed that’s one thing but to cast them into the trashcan of pseudoscience because they’re just unlikely seems absurdly prejudiced. Even its statistical detractors – those bastions of bewildering Bayes Theorems – have said Bem has presented “evidence…worthy of note“. Yet elsewhere the cries chime out across the op-ed pages. Douglas Hofstatder, for one, is fretful…
If any of [Bem's] claims were true, then all of the bases underlying contemporary science would be toppled, and we would have to rethink everything about the nature of the universe.
I don’t think we’d have to rethink – say – heliocentrism (and, no, that’s just a prediction, not prerecognition).
It is a tricky issue, but ultimately we cannot lightly publish articles whose implications would necessarily send all of science as we know it crashing to the ground. Instead, we have to find out how those articles are wrong. Or perhaps we simply have to ignore them, because there are a million crazy ideas that could be found to be slightly supported by empirical studies, and we can’t open the floodgates to millions of crazy ideas.
In my naivete I’d thought discovering how and if research are flawed is the duty of its peer reviewers. (In principle at least; if not always in practice.) The demand that studies be ignored, meanwhile, opens the door for elitism and dogma. Once a faintly arbitrary notion of what constitutes a mad idea has been formed you’ve essentially claimed yourself infallible: like a great big scientific Titanic. What’s more, while it’s unfair to think that as something’s spectacular it must be a phantasm, if you don’t subject research to a broader critique how do you know it shatters all the fundamental precepts of science. People used to doubt the existence of meteorites because, perhaps, they’d always thought of rocks as being pretty much inactive. Well, accepting their presence didn’t force geologists to burn their old textbooks: a simpler explanation was on hand.
This intolerance is bewilderingly unscientific and might hint at why bad explanations of “paranormal” findings are so gladly accepted. In his critique of Bem’s paper James Alcock, a noted Sceptic, darkly warns that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and details a history of supposed failures in psi research. As Dean Radin argues, none of his dismissals are convincing. In essence he claims that there’s no evidence to support parapsychology because no evidence has ever been accepted. Well, perhaps, but unless we’re to to believe that human processes aren’t fallible it’s only right that we’re informed of why it hasn’t.
The best reaction comes from Richard Wiseman (who, rather neatly, came out best from Randi’s Prize)…
…it is time to do what science does best — take the long view and withhold judgment until the evidence is in.