The rigorous, widely respected Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish a paper later this year offering "strong evidence" that extra-sensory perception (ESP) exists. Although Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell University, claims his tests of over 1,000 college students over eight years have yielded proof of ESP, his findings have provoked "amusement and scorn" from the scientific community. Should we believe Bem, or do his claims give serious science a bad name?
Look at what Bem actually did: Bem's findings are "fascinating," says Robert Krulwich at NPR. For example, when he asked students to choose between two computer images of curtains — one of which "hid" a blank wall, while the other concealed a picture (sometimes an erotic one) — they chose the curtain hiding the photo at a rate higher than statistical odds would suggest. "One possibility is that the tasty reward of 'hot action' somehow got passed backwards through time more effectively." Bem is one of the "most respected, senior and widely published professors of psychology" in the world. If his findings can be repeated, "this story is going to be big."
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If history's any guide, no one will be able to repeat these findings: Bem isn't the first psychologist to claim proof of ESP, says James Acock at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Time and time again, the studies fail to "yield data that are capable of being replicated." Bem's work is no different; it's full of "flawed research" and "methodological and analytical problems." His conclusions reflect "not the light of knowledge, but the biases of the researcher." The only mystery is how his study got published.
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But there's some precedent: Although Bem's assertion that memory can work backwards throws out "our entire understanding of time and physics," says Melissa Burkley at Psychology Today, the idea that time is not linear is a key supposition of quantum physics. Light particles, for example, "seem to know what lies ahead of them and will adjust their behaviors accordingly." Modern physicists "have just had to accept it," even though it is unexplainable.
"Have scientists finally discovered evidence for psychic phenomena?"