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.
Interesting: Last month The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Tom Bartlett, their senior science editor, titled “Spoiled Science.” It’s about the way Cornell University’s renowned Food and Brand Lab has taken a credibility hit in the wake of revelations about multiple statistical anomalies that have been discovered in papers co-authored by its director, Brian Wansink, who is also a celebrity scholar due to appearance on the likes of 60 Minutes and Rachael Ray. The heart of the article’s import is laid out in this paragraph:
The slow-motion credibility crisis in social science has taken the shine off a slew of once-brilliant reputations and thrown years of research into doubt. It’s also led to an undercurrent of anxiety among scientists who fear that their labs and their publication records might come under attack from a feisty cadre of freelance critics. The specifics of these skirmishes can seem technical at times, with talk of p-values and sample sizes, but they go straight to the heart of how new knowledge is created and disseminated, and whether some of what we call science really deserves that label.
In the middle of the piece, Bartlett sudden mentions Daryl Bem’s famous precognition research from a few years ago, and subjects it to a brief but withering moment of scorn:
This isn’t the first time Cornell has had to cope with a blow to its research reputation. In 2011, Daryl Bem, an emeritus professor of psychology, published a paper in which he showed, or seemed to show, that subjects could anticipate pornographic images before they appeared on a computer screen. If true, Bem’s finding would upend what we understand about the nature of time and causation. It would be a big deal. That paper, “Feeling the Future,” was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate, though Bem himself has stood by his results.
Yesterday Bem responded with a letter to the Chronicle titled “In Defense of Research on Precognition,” in which he sets the record straight. He begins by pointing out that his paper was published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which has a rejection rate of 80 percent, and where the paper was approved by four referees and two editors before publication.
He then points out that Barlett’s claim about the experiment’s failure to replicate is patently false: “In 2015, three colleagues and I published a follow-up meta-analysis of 90 such experiments conducted by 33 laboratories in 14 countries. The results strongly support my original findings. In particular, the independent replications are robust and highly significant statistically.”
Finally, he shares this salient fact:
Bartlett further asserts that this research was widely ridiculed and constituted a blow to Cornell’s research reputation. But it was Cornell’s own public-affairs office that was proactively instrumental in setting up interviews with the press and other media following the publication of the original article. New Scientist, Discover, Wired, New York Magazine, and Cornell’s own in-house publications all described the research findings seriously and without ridicule.
Me, I’m just fascinated to see mentions of such matters cropping up repeatedly in a place like The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose publication of essays by Jeffrey Kripal on the paranormal I discussed at some length a few years ago. (And of course I’d be lying if I denied that I simply enjoyed reading Bem’s refutation of Bartlett’s belittling.)