You know that research is really provocative when it arouses a storm of contention and rebuttals before it is even published. That has been the case with a study by Darryl J. Bem, the retired Cornell University social psychologist best known for developing the theory of self-perception, which holds that people infer attitudes from their own behavior. Recently, that and Bem’s other groundbreaking mainstream achievements have been overshadowed by his edgy exploration of psi phenomena–in particular, precognition, the ability to foretell future events. It’s something that we’re used to seeing in Philip K. Dick novels, not scientific journals.
In November, word got out that Bem was about to publish the startling results of an eight-year-long inquiry, in which a small but statistically significant number of subjects seemed to possess advance knowledge of unpredictable events. Critics who saw a pre-publication copy of the article went after him. Another social psychologist, Brown University’s Joachim Krueger, wrote a debunking blog post entitled “Why I don’t Believe in Precognition” for Psychology Today, and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California took the unusual step of publishing an article reporting that they had been unable to duplicate Bem’s unpublished results. (This led to an even more odd turn of events, in which Bem wrote and submitted for publication a critique of the criticism of his still-unpublished work.) SkepDic, the paranormal debunking website, also published this refutation.
Now that Bem’s article–finally!–has been officially published in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it’s as good of a time as any to revisit the researcher’s revelations. Bem actually conducted not one but nine experiments, involving more than 1,000 subjects. In one experiment, Bern devised an offbeat version of the old the-lady-or-the-tiger puzzle: 100 college student volunteers were shown images of celestial objects mixed with erotic pictures, some explicit, and tried to predict when the latter would, ah, pop up. They were able to do so correctly 53.1 percent of the time. The other experiments produced similar results.
That may seem like a tiny difference from sheer chance. But as Bem noted when I spoke to him back in November, other phenomena–such as the ability of baby aspirin to prevent heart attacks–have gained acceptance based on a similar edge. “It’s about the same success rate that a casino has [over its patrons],” he explained. “And casinos manage to stay in business and do pretty well.” To look at it another way, Bem estimated the odds of the subjects guessing correctly 53 percent of the time as about 70 billion to one.
Some undoubtedly are wondering why an eminent mainstream scientist would even risk tarnishing his reputation by publishing a study such a lightning-rod subject. But Bem seems to be deliberately using his unassailable credentials to pry open the door and force a serious debate over whether precognition exists. “The reason I submitted the article to this particular journal is that they published my article on group decision making 50 years ago,” he admits.
He thinks scientists are making a mistake by dismissing out of hand the possible existence of psi phenomena. “It’s embarrassing for my colleagues to describe me as Copernicus,” he said with a laugh. “There’s actually a large literature on the subject, that people don’t know about.” He elaborated: “We have lots and lots of anecdotal reports of people who think they’ve anticipated some event, going back to Joseph and his precognitive dreams in ancient Egypt. A lot of other cultures other than ours accept them as a daily occurrence. That all begs the question, is there really something there?”
Hopefully, Bem’s foray will lead other scientists to look at the question of precognition anew.
New Scientist has this intriguing Q&A with Bem.