'Flawed' ESP Study Sparks Uproar

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A paper to be published later this year in a scientific journal claims to have found strong evidence for the existence of psychic powers such as ESP and knowing events before they occur.

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According to a front-page article in today’s New York Times:

“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.”

Bem claims he found statistically significant evidence of some mysterious ability.

Could this be long-awaited proof of ESP?

Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon at Eugene who previously evaluated the efficacy of psychic abilities for the Pentagon, is not impressed. Hyman found many methodological flaws in Bem’s study and questioned the journal’s decision to publish the findings.

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Hyman told Discovery News:

“I’m puzzled as to how four referees and two editors of a prestigious journal could allow Bem to publish as ‘experiments’ studies that violated accepted methodological standards. “Experiment 1 is just one example. The first 40 subjects were tested with an equal number of erotic, neutral, and negative pictures. Presumably, although Bem never tells us what his specific prior hypotheses were, the intent was to show that erotic pictures would yield a positive precognitive effect, the neutral pictures would show no effect, and the negative pictures would yield a negative precognitive effect. With no reasonable justification, Bem runs the remaining 60 subjects with a set of pictures, half of which are erotic and the other half are ‘non erotic.’ “Even if the editors wanted to allow this peculiar combining of two different experiments into one, they should have at least insisted that Bem supply some acceptable rationale for this blatant disregard of experimental methodology.”

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Hyman continued:

“It gets worse. If you look closely at the study, there’s blatant inconsistency between Experiment 1 and Experiment 2 that the journal referees should have, at the very least, required Bem to explain. In Experiment 1, he reports that the negative targets did not have the expected negative effect. Indeed, they were slightly above chance — in the wrong direction. Yet, he conducts Experiment 2 by using only negative pictures and no erotic ones. This time the negative pictures do produce the predicted negative effect. This suggests that Experiment 2 actually was run before Experiment 1. “In my opinion the referees were derelict in not requiring Bem to specify in which order the experiments were conducted, and why he says he planned each experiment to have 100 subjects when some have 150, another has 200, and one has 50.”

Another researcher, James E. Alcock, a professor of psychology at Toronto’s York University, also examined Bem’s study in-depth and found similar flaws. “Overall, this is a very unsatisfactory set of experiments,” Alcock concludes.

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Alcock noted that this is not the first time that a scientist has claimed to have found solid evidence of psychic abilities. For example the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) group, led by Princeton’s Prof. Robert Jahn, claimed to have found evidence of psychic abilities during its nearly 30 years of existence, but shut down in 2007, never having scientifically proven their claims.

Bem has replied to his critics and stands by his findings. Ultimately, of course, either the findings will stand the test of time and be replicated by other researchers, or they won’t.

While the new study may indeed finally offer groundbreaking evidence of psychic powers, history suggests that his claims are likely to fizzle under close scrutiny.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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