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Bem’s Precognition Research and the Crisis in Contemporary Science

Recently Daryl Bem defended his famous research into precognition in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More recently, as in this week, Salon published a major piece about Bem and his research that delves deeply into its implications for the whole of contemporary science —  especially psychology and the other social sciences (or “social sciences”), but also the wider of world of science in general — and shows how Bem’s research, and the reactions to it, have highlighted, underscored, and called out some very serious problems:

Bem’s 10-year investigation, his nine experiments, his thousand subjects—all of it would have to be taken seriously. He’d shown, with more rigor than anyone ever had before, that it might be possible to see into the future. Bem knew his research would not convince the die-hard skeptics. But he also knew it couldn’t be ignored.

When the study went public, about six months later, some of Bem’s colleagues guessed it was a hoax. Other scholars, those who believed in ESP — theirs is a small but fervent field of study — saw his paper as validation of their work and a chance for mainstream credibility.

But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions — that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field — and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind — could be total bunk.

If one had to choose a single moment that set off the “replication crisis” in psychology — an event that nudged the discipline into its present and anarchic state, where even textbook findings have been cast in doubt — this might be it: the publication, in early 2011, of Daryl Bem’s experiments on second sight.

The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze. . . .

When Bem started investigating ESP, he realized the details of his research methods would be scrutinized with far more care than they had been before. In the years since his work was published, those higher standards have increasingly applied to a broad range of research, not just studies of the paranormal. “I get more credit for having started the revolution in questioning mainstream psychological methods than I deserve,” Bem told me. “I was in the right place at the right time. The groundwork was already pre-prepared, and I just made it all startlingly clear.”

Looking back, however, his research offered something more than a vivid illustration of problems in the field of psychology. It opened up a platform for discussion. Bem hadn’t simply published a set of inconceivable findings; he’d done so in a way that explicitly invited introspection. In his paper proving ESP is real, Bem used the word replication 33 times. Even as he made the claim for precognition, he pleaded for its review.

“Credit to Daryl Bem himself,” [University of California-Berkeley business school professor] Leif Nelson told me. “He’s such a smart, interesting man. . . . In that paper, he actively encouraged replication in a way that no one ever does. He said, ‘This is an extraordinary claim, so we need to be open with our procedures.’ . . . It was a prompt for skepticism and action.”

Bem meant to satisfy the skeptics, but in the end he did the opposite: He energized their doubts and helped incite a dawning revolution. Yet again, one of the world’s leading social psychologists had made a lasting contribution and influenced his peers. “I’m sort of proud of that,” Bem conceded at the end of our conversation. “But I’d rather they started to believe in psi as well. I’d rather they remember my work for the ideas.”

Note that the article also contains, in its middle section, a fascinating personal profile and mini-biography of Bem himself, including a recounting of his life-long interest in mentalism, which began in his teen years and persisted into his career in academia:

As a young professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Bem liked to close out each semester by performing as a mentalist. After putting on his show, he’d tell his students that he didn’t really have ESP. In class, he also stressed how easily people can be fooled into believing they’ve witnessed paranormal phenomena.

FULL TEXT: Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which Means Science Is Broken.

Indigenous myths, animal ESP, and portents of apocalyptic transformation

Here’s science writer Carrie Arnold, in a newly published article at Aeon titled “Watchers of the Earth,” discussing the possibility that indigenous myths may carry warning signals for natural disasters:

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Reading this triggered a flood of associated thoughts this morning, mostly related to things I’ve read elsewhere that resonate with it. Although the basic focus is different, for me this article somewhat recalls a starkly apocalyptic and millenarian passage from the ending to Benjamin Hoff’s The Te of Piglet (1992), a book that many readers found off-putting for its semi-grimness, which represented a departure from the more charmingly whimsical presentation of Taoism that Hoff had adopted in its predecessor, The Tao of Pooh: Read the rest of this entry

Legacy’s End: The Rise and Fall of the UCLA Parapsychology Lab

Many people are curious about the real story of UCLA’s former parapsychology lab (not a department!), which existed from about 1967 through 1978. In the early 1970s I personally conducted research there along two fronts. One front was in the lab itself, where I conducted psi training research groups from 1971 through 1980. The other was in the field, where I investigated ghosts, hauntings, and poltergeists (as in the Entity and Hollymont cases). Both of these endeavors yielded considerable evidence that have helped us better understand the nature of psi at many levels.

The lab was located on the fifth floor of the former Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI; now the Semel Institute) at UCLA’s Center for the Health Sciences. In many ways it was a clearinghouse for various researchers and scientists to visit and share data, conduct their own research, or participate in ours. Each member of the lab sort of did his or her own “thing” in relation to the lab’s operations.

Many factors were involved in the lab’s demise, but chief among them was a series of events that, while they should have been fortunate, since they underscored the popularity and effectiveness of the lab and its research, apparently attracted too much media attention for UCLA in general and the NPI in particular to stomach. Read the rest of this entry

Remote Viewing, Reality, and the Human Condition: Reflections on a Weekend with Russell Targ

There is no other discipline that I know which engages at the same time a person’s critical faculties and his imagination and then stretches them both to a comparable extent.

— John Beloff, “The Study of the Paranormal as an Educative Experience

On the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the United States’ longest running parapsychology research laboratory is hidden behind a humble facade. This is fitting for a research institute that delves into the very root of our experience of consciousness: that hidden realm lying beneath our own humble human facades.

Founded in the 1930’s by psychologist J. B. Rhine, the Rhine Research Center, as it is now called, has been at the forefront of research into anomalous human experience for more than seven decades.  More importantly, it continues today as one of the major parapsychological research groups in the world, and the friendly folks at the Rhine are more than happy to share that experience with anyone who is honestly inquisitive about their work.

The Rhine Research Center, then and now

On October 19th and 20th, I attended a two-day seminar that was hosted by the Rhine Research Center and presented by Russell Targ, co-founder of the Stanford Research Institute‘s Remote Viewing program, which has become famous for providing training to the U.S. military’s so-called “psychic spy” initiative. As John Kruth, Executive Director for the Rhine, pointed out, the training given to those that attended the recent seminar at the Rhine (including myself) was the same training provided to the original SRI group. Read the rest of this entry