Professor Daryl Bem, a prominent psychologist from Cornell University (now retired), will soon publish an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a top-ranked, mainstream psychology journal. The article reports nine experiments involving 1,000 subjects, each study investigating an aspect of precognition – perception of the future. His approach was to take experiments commonly used in social psychology and add a clever twist to reverse the usual cause-effect sequence. Eight of the experiments resulted in statistically significant outcomes, and the combined results of the nine studies were astronomically significant, with odds against chance far beyond a million to one.
That a well-regarded journal would dare publish this article has outraged a few scientists, leading them to a great gnashing of teeth and worries about unleashing awave of superstitious nonsense. The gnashing has been covered in dozens of media outlets, and it finally bubbled up to the attention of the mainstream media, including the New York Times and NPR. A webpage on the “World of Parapsychology” site has been keeping track of the worldwide media attention. Some of the op-eds border on the hysterical. Others are more rational. The comments to the op-eds show the same polarization: Some scientists froth with anger over the mere possibility that precognition might be real, others call for tolerance when entertaining new ideas, while the general public can’t figure out what all the fuss is about.
One of the frothier tomes, the Skeptical Inquirer, published an online commentary on Bem’s article written by uber-skeptic James Alcock, professor of psychology at York University in the UK. I will not address Alcock’s critique of Bem’s procedure (Bem does that calmly and effectively), but I will comment on his preamble, which I reproduce here in portions. Alcock writes:
Parapsychology has long struggled unsuccessfully for acceptance in the halls of science. Could this article be the breakthrough? After all, it apparently provides evidence compelling enough to persuade the editors of that APA journal of its worthiness. However, this is hardly the first time that there has been media excitement about new “scientific” evidence of the paranormal. Over the past 80-odd years, this drama has played out a number of times, and each time, parapsychologists ultimately failed to persuade the scientific world that their phenomena actually exist. Recalling George Santayana’s now-clichéd dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we should approach Bem’s work with a historical framework to guide us.
Alcock fails to mention that one reason for the “failure to persuade” are myths about psi research that are incessantly repeated by skeptics whose inability to accept anything new makes it impossible for any new evidence to sway their original beliefs. The strategy of repeating the same talking points ad infinitum is effective because most listeners eventually absorb those words and assume that they are true (a lie told often enough usually becomes accepted as truth). A genuine skeptic would wonder if Alcock’s critique is backed up by solid facts. After doing some homework, he or she would discover that most of it isn’t. Alcock continues:
Consider the following: In 1934, Joseph Banks Rhine published Extra-Sensory Perception (Rhine & McDougall, 1934/2003), summarizing his careful efforts to bring parapsychology into the laboratory through application of modern psychological methodology and statistical analysis. Based on a long series of card-guessing experiments, he wrote: “It is independently established on the basis of this work alone that Extra-Sensory Perception is an actual and demonstrable occurrence” (p. 210). Elsewhere, he wrote: “We have then, for physical science, a challenging need for the discovery of the energy mode involved. Some type of energy is inferable, and none is known to be acceptable . . .” (p.166). Despite Rhine’s confidence that he had established the reality of extrasensory perception, he had not done so. Methodological problems eventually came to light, and as a result, parapsychologists no longer run card-guessing studies, and rarely even refer to Rhine’s work.
This sounds like a slam dunk, except that Alcock’s perception of history is distorted. In Rhine’s 1940 book, Extra-Sensory Perception after Sixty Years, which refers to the period 1880 to 1940, Rhine and his coauthors discussed in great detail every critique their work had received and how potential design and analytical loopholes were addressed in their subsequent experiments. They also listed all known replications of their card-guessing method, dozens of them conducted at universities around the world. This volume makes it clear that Rhine and his colleagues were every bit as methodologically sophisticated and as hard-nosed as their harshest critic and that their data – when viewed under the most critical light available at the time – withstood those critiques.
The key reason why Rhine’s work failed to sustain the initial excitement it had generated in the 1930s was the rise of behaviorism in academic psychology. Within that paradigm, not only was ESP considered to be impossible, but any form of subjective experience, including conscious awareness itself, became a forbidden topic. And the reason few researchers today use ESP cards is not because the method was flawed but because better methods have been developed. Like any other area of research, methods and ideas naturally evolve and build upon the work of previous generations. Alcock continues:
Physicist Helmut Schmidt conducted numerous studies throughout the 1970s and 1980s that putatively demonstrated that humans (and animals) could paranormally influence and/or predict the output of random event generators. Some of his claims were truly extraordinary – for example, that a cat in a cold garden shed, heated only by a lamp controlled by a random event generator, was able through psychokinetic manipulation of the random event generator to turn the lamp on more often than would be expected by chance. His claim to have put psi on a solid scientific footing garnered considerable attention, and his published research reported very impressive p-values. In my own extensive review of his work (Alcock, 1988), I concluded that Schmidt had indeed accumulated impressive evidence that something other than chance was involved. However, I found serious methodological errors throughout his work that rendered his conclusions untenable, and the “something other than chance” was attributable to methodological flaws.
As with Rhine, excitement about Schmidt’s research gradually dwindled to the point that his work became virtually irrelevant, even within parapsychology itself.
Blithe accusations of “I found serious methodological errors” provide an easy justification for dismissing this remarkable body of research. Is it really true that Alcock’s dissection of Schmidt’s work made that research irrelevant or that other researchers did not follow up his work? No. The assertion is so wrong that it verges on breathtaking. Hundreds of experiments involving random number generators (RNG) were published after Schmidt’s studies, and meta-analyses of those experiments have been published and debated in mainstream physics and psychology journals. Schmidt’s work inspired dozens of researchers to replicate and extend his work, and it continues to do so today in research programs like the Global Consciousness Project. His work also led to several psi-related patents. Alcock charges ahead:
The 1970s gave rise to “remote viewing,” a procedure through which an individual seated i