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Defending precognition research in ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education’

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.)

Recommended Reading 30

This week’s (exceptionally long and varied) offering of intellectual enrichment includes: an argument that the likely death of economic growth is the underlying theme of the current U.S. presidential election; thoughts on the rise of a real-life dystopia of universal algorithmic automation; an account of how the founder of TED became disgusted with the direction of the iconic ideas conference and created a new one to fulfill his original vision; reflections by a prominent physicist on science, religion, the Higgs boson, and the cultural politics of scientific research; a new examination of the definition, meaning, and cultural place of “pseudoscience”; a deeply absorbing warning about the possible death of the liberal arts, enhanced by the author’s first-person account of his own undergraduate liberal arts education at the University of Chicago; thoughts on the humanizing effects of deep literary reading in an age of proliferating psychopathy; a question/warning about the possible fate of literature as a central cultural-historical force in the grip of a publishing environment convulsed by epochal changes; an interview with Eric Kandel on the convergence of art, biology, and psychology; a new report from a psychiatric research project on the demonstrable link between creativity and mental illness; a career-spanning look at the works and themes of Ray Bradbury; and a spirited (pun intended) statement of the supreme value of supernatural and metaphysical literature from Michael Dirda. Read the rest of this entry