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There are Tits Behind That Curtain, I Know It

Back in 2002, a psychologist named Daryl Bem began conducting a series of tests. Bem was after the holy grail of cognitive strangeness--precognition, the psychic knowledge of future events.
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Κείμενο Vinnie Rotondaro

The folks at VICE have been kind enough to let me write a few articles on a rather strange subject that you may or may not find reputable or interesting: psychic phenomena. So far as I can tell there’s no better place to start than a recent study that has, in my opinion, challenged the psychological mainstream as it relied on widely accepted research practices in an attempt to prove a widely rejected theory of psychic ability. (Please don’t think me crazy.)

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Back in 2002, a psychologist named Daryl Bem began conducting a series of tests.

His methods were simple, in a way even elegant. Established psychological principals were examined. Standard methodology was used. Just backwards. That was the difference. Bem was after the holy grail of cognitive strangeness—precognition, the psychic knowledge of future events.

“It more violates our intuitions about how the world works than telepathy does,” Bem told me. “We have lots of familiar phenomena in which information moves invisibly through space. It’s called television. But we don’t have any familiar phenomena in which information goes backward in time.” Simply put, Bem sought to reverse the order of cause and effect, and incredibly, eight of his nine experiments worked.

One of the most interesting exercises was conceived thusly:

Two curtains appear on a computer screen. One of them, a test subject is told, conceals an image. The other is empty. This is a lie. There is no image to choose on either side, not until after the subject makes a pick and a random number generator kicks into gear. The machine randomly pulls from two pools of images—a neutral pool (sailboats and mountains and smiling octogenarians) and a pool of hardcore erotica (al fresco shots of dudes and babes banging on grassy knolls)—and then, it randomly decides which curtain to throw it behind.

Unfortunately, the images in Bem's tests came from a database used for psychology experiments that can't be distributed, but he told us the above is a pretty good example of what his subjects were shown.

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Bem’s hypothesis was that the pleasure derived from viewing porn in the future would travel backwards through time to influence the present. Chance has it that the participants would achieve a perfect split between the smut and the non-smut, when they got any image at all, just like flipping a coin. But that didn’t happen. Across 100 tests and 3,600 overall trials, subjects got neutral images 49.8 percent of the time—flat chance—and the porn 53.1 percent of the time, a small but “statistically significant” effect.

Seven other tests produced similarly small but significant results. Across all nine tests, and after eight years of study, Bem calculated the probability of his overall effect size to represent odds against chance of 74 billion to one. He submitted his findings in the form of a paper entitled “Feeling the Future” to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), a preeminent psychological journal, and it was accepted.

That’s when things got weird. It was like a bomb went off. Bem, a professor emeritus at Cornell University and something of a psychological chieftain (he had developed a revolutionary theory of attitude change), had violated a grave scientific taboo: the paranormal = bullshit.

An epistemological ruckus ensued.

The New York Times was particularly brutal in its coverage, lining up what psychic research observer Steve Volk called a “murderers row of skeptics” who questioned Bem’s findings and then badmouthed the journal for publishing the report, even though, as JPSP chief editor Charles Judd explained, four peer reviewers—”very trusted people”—and two journal editors had vetted it. Judd’s pleas fell on deaf ears.

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Bem hunkered down. He parried a series of challenges. Most looked to punch holes in his methodology, some even accused him of cheating. One particularly heavy (and ongoing) critique questioned his statistical approach, but so far he’s kept it at bay.

That so many attacked the research and that others dismissed it out of hand is difficult to make sense of given that a topflight, no-nonsense science journal failed to find any fault in the first place. When I spoke with Bem, I asked him why he crafted his experiments in such a simple and un-whacky way—just a test subject and a computer screen (previous psi tests involved stuff like submerging people in water and placing halved ping pong balls over their eyes). His answer? “Because I wanted to get it in JPSP.”

Nevertheless, his fellow psychologists remain deeply skeptical. I asked a total of 50 psychology department chairs and psychologists at top US universities what they thought about psychic study, and Bem’s research in particular. Out of the 19 who responded, none said they believed in psychic phenomena, and only five thought the study was soundly conducted. Some expressed disappointment that the study was published. A few seemed put-off that I was bringing it up at all. As one professor told me, “In the long run, Bem’s article will have little, if any, positive impact. In the short run, it is an embarrassment for personality and social psychology.”

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Bem doesn’t blame other psychologists for their disbelief. “If all I had were my nine experiments in that publication, I’m not sure I’d be convinced,” he told me. “But I have this whole background of knowing the literature.”

Bem is by no means the first researcher to conduct psychic—now called “psi”—studies. There are others, PhD’s who say they’ve produced a whole body of evidence, a “hidden literature”, that proves psi’s existence. Bem, for instance, was inspired in part by the work of Dean Radin, a researcher who performed experiments that suggest human beings are capable of anticipating stimuli before being exposed to them. Other psi researchers claim to have discovered evidence of psi in dreams, coin-flipping tests, and in events involving “group consciousness,” like 9/11.

For the most part, the only ones who read this stuff are fellow psi researchers and a rival group of skeptics who are as devoted to debunking psi as the researchers are to substantiating it. It is a bizarre slice of the science world. The two camps, skeptics and believers alike, both claim to have science on their side and yet agree upon nothing.
In trying to make sense of this dichotomy, psychologist Harris Friedman, co-editor of the book Debating Psychic Experience, was the closest thing to an impartial observer that I could find.

“It’s fascinating,” he told me. “People of good will and sound mind and high intelligence can look at the same data and draw drastically different conclusions. And then they get emotional about it.”

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So why the emotion? I called University of Pennsylvania science sociologist John Tresch for an explanation. “Psychic questions hover around the science of the mind,” he said. “The people who founded psychology were very interested in mesmerism, hypnotism, in states of somnambulism and clairvoyance, seeing at a distance.” But over the years psychic study was chased underground as the field of psychology, a so-called “soft” science, went “hard” and tried to become more like physics.

And that’s sort of funny, because in attempting to explain the unimaginable today, Bem and other psi researches nod towards the non-linear mysteries of quantum physics. In the 1970s and 80s researchers discovered that at the quantum level particles can retain instantaneous connections—they can become “entangled.” Lab wizards can now perform virtuosic displays of quantum entanglement, maintaining “non-local” connections between particles that lie kilometers apart. Tap one and the other dances instantaneously, almost as if the two reside out of space-time altogether.

Such discoveries galvanize psi researchers. But as MIT physics science historian and author of How the Hippies Saved Physics David Kaiser explained, development in understanding of quantum physics since the 1970s has made it much harder to appeal its mysteries. “The gap with which to play is not zero,” he said, “but it’s also not huge, and it’s narrowed a lot over the last few decades.”

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As far as quantum physics is concerned, Kaiser explained, information can’t flow backward through time. Bem concedes the point, but as he says, “The history of science is full of instances where the phenomenon comes first and the explanation comes later.“

Neither Bem nor his psi colleagues know the physical mechanism that would allow psychic phenomena to work, so they must replicate their findings to gain credence. Bem ran each of his experimental concepts twice to show that his results could replicate, and they did. But he also stuck his neck out by providing replication packets for his nine tests, making it easy for other researchers to give them a shot.

So far a handful of replication efforts have failed. A trio of prominent skeptics, including a British psychologist named Richard Wiseman, conducted three of them. Ironically, in the mid 90s Wiseman performed a meta-analysis of ganzfeld telepathy experiments (the ones with halved ping pong balls on eyes and bodies submerged in water). In the 1980s Bem and a researcher named Charles Honorton published their own meta-analysis of these tests, showing significant effects. When Wiseman conducted his, he found none, a so-called failure to replicate (Bem disputes this).

Even more ironically, in 1997 Wiseman and a psi researcher named Marilyn Schlitz teamed up to examine something called the experimenter effect. In general, psi enthusiasts tend to get positive results while psi doubters don’t, and this falls in line with a body of evidence suggesting that an experimenter’s bias can trickle into the experimenting process. In ‘97 Wiseman and Schlitz agreed to perform identical psi tests using identical subject pools. Wiseman, a skeptic, got no effect. Schlitz, a psi believer, did. When the two repeated the study, the same thing happened.

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Whatever the experimenter effect is, it is not limited to parapsychology and no one knows exactly how to explain it.

Neither does anyone know how to explain what’s known as the “decline effect.” When Wiseman and Schlitz ran the tests a third time, for example, neither got a positive result. The effect vanished. It is often the case that initial positive results fade away over successive replication attempts, casting a fog over research in parapsychological, mainstream psychological, ecological, and pharmaceutical fields. “I worry about the decline effect,” Bem told me.

And yet Bem’s findings have only upped the ante for behavioral fields like psychology. It’s a strange, high-stakes game. If the hammer ever comes down and psi is found not to exist, it would say something about the entire methodological and statistical approach that Bem used in the first place.

As Harris Friedman of Debating Psi Experience put it, “Those who attacked Bem and attacked the journal of social and personal psychology for peer reviewing and publishing his article are in a double bind, because the methods and the approach that he used were thoroughly mainstream and conventional within the field of psychology. How can they accept other findings as scientific that meet the same criteria that Bem met, while rejecting Bem’s as unscientific?”

I brought the issue up with Bem.

“If psi doesn’t exist,” I said, “and if your tests are done as well as you’ve done them, and others have done them, and they still come up with results that defy odds, then in some way the method you used must be flawed.”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s either that or psi exists.”