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Proof(?) of ESP

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  • medit8ionsociety
    NY Times January 5, 2011 Journal s Paper on ESP Expected to Prompt Outrage By BENEDICT CAREY One of psychology s most respected journals has agreed to publish
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 6, 2011
      NY Times
      January 5, 2011
      Journal's Paper on ESP Expected to Prompt Outrage
      One of psychology's most respected journals
      has agreed to publish a paper presenting what
      its author describes as strong evidence for
      extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events.

      The decision may delight believers in so-called
      paranormal events, but it is already mortifying
      scientists. Advance copies of the paper, to be
      published this year in The Journal of Personality
      and Social Psychology, have circulated widely
      among psychological researchers in recent weeks
      and have generated a mixture of amusement and scorn.

      The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments
      performed over the past decade by its author,
      Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell,
      testing the ability of college students to accurately
      sense random events, like whether a computer
      program will flash a photograph on the left or
      right side of its screen. The studies include
      more than 1,000 subjects.

      Some scientists say the report deserves to be
      published, in the name of open inquiry; others
      insist that its acceptance only accentuates
      fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer
      review of research in the social sciences.

      "It's craziness, pure craziness. I can't believe
      a major journal is allowing this work in,"
      Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology
      at the University Oregon and longtime critic of
      ESP research, said. "I think it's just an
      embarrassment for the entire field."

      The editor of the journal, Charles Judd, a
      psychologist at the University of Colorado,
      said the paper went through the journal's
      regular review process. "Four reviewers made
      comments on the manuscript," he said,
      "and these are very trusted people."

      All four decided that the paper met the
      journal's editorial standards, Dr. Judd
      added, even though "there was no mechanism
      by which we could understand the results."

      But many experts say that is precisely the
      problem. Claims that defy almost every law
      of science are by definition extraordinary
      and thus require extraordinary evidence.
      Neglecting to take this into account — as
      conventional social science analyses do — makes
      many findings look far more significant than
      they really are, these experts say.

      "Several top journals publish results only
      when these appear to support a hypothesis that
      is counterintuitive or attention-grabbing,"
      Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a psychologist at the
      University of Amsterdam, wrote by e-mail.
      "But such a hypothesis probably constitutes
      an extraordinary claim, and it should undergo
      more scrutiny before it is allowed to enter the field."

      Dr. Wagenmakers is co-author of a rebuttal to
      the ESP paper that is scheduled to appear in
      the same issue of the journal.

      In an interview, Dr. Bem, the author of the
      original paper and one of the most prominent
      research psychologists of his generation, said
      he intended each experiment to mimic a
      well-known classic study, "only time-reversed."

      In one classic memory experiment, for example,
      participants study 48 words and then divide a
      subset of 24 of them into categories, like food
      or animal. The act of categorizing reinforces
      memory, and on subsequent tests people are more
      likely to remember the words they practiced
      than those they did not.

      In his version, Dr. Bem gave 100 college students
      a memory test before they did the categorizing —
      and found they were significantly more likely to
      remember words that they practiced later.
      "The results show that practicing a set of
      words after the recall test does, in fact,
      reach back in time to facilitate the recall
      of those words," the paper concludes.

      In another experiment, Dr. Bem had subjects
      choose which of two curtains on a computer
      screen hid a photograph; the other curtain
      hid nothing but a blank screen.

      A software program randomly posted a picture
      behind one curtain or the other — but only
      after the participant made a choice. Still,
      the participants beat chance, by 53 percent
      to 50 percent, at least when the photos being
      posted were erotic ones. They did not do better
      than chance on negative or neutral photos.

      "What I showed was that unselected subjects
      could sense the erotic photos," Dr. Bem said,
      "but my guess is that if you use more talented
      people, who are better at this, they could
      find any of the photos."

      In recent weeks science bloggers, researchers
      and assorted skeptics have challenged
      Dr. Bem's methods and his statistics, with
      many critiques digging deep into the arcane
      but important fine points of crunching numbers.
      (Others question his intentions. "He's got a
      great sense of humor," said Dr. Hyman, of Oregon.
      "I wouldn't rule out that this is an elaborate joke.")

      Dr. Bem has generally responded in kind, sometimes
      accusing critics of misunderstanding his paper,
      others times of building a strong bias into
      their own re-evaluations of his data.

      In one sense, it is a historically familiar
      pattern. For more than a century, researchers
      have conducted hundreds of tests to detect ESP,
      telekinesis and other such things, and when
      such studies have surfaced, skeptics have been
      quick to shoot holes in them.

      But in another way, Dr. Bem is far from typical.
      He is widely respected for his clear, original
      thinking in social psychology, and some people
      familiar with the case say his reputation may
      have played a role in the paper's acceptance.

      Peer review is usually an anonymous process,
      with authors and reviewers unknown to one
      another. But all four reviewers of this paper
      were social psychologists, and all would have
      known whose work they were checking and would
      have been responsive to the way it was reasoned.

      Perhaps more important, none were topflight
      statisticians. "The problem was that this
      paper was treated like any other," said an
      editor at the journal, Laura King, a psychologist
      at the University of Missouri. "And it wasn't."

      Many statisticians say that conventional
      social-science techniques for analyzing data
      make an assumption that is disingenuous and
      ultimately self-deceiving: that researchers
      know nothing about the probability of the
      so-called null hypothesis.

      In this case, the null hypothesis would be
      that ESP does not exist. Refusing to give that
      hypothesis weight makes no sense, these experts
      say; if ESP exists, why aren't people getting
      rich by reliably predicting the movement of the
      stock market or the outcome of football games?

      Instead, these statisticians prefer a technique
      called Bayesian analysis, which seeks to
      determine whether the outcome of a particular
      experiment "changes the odds that a hypothesis
      is true," in the words of Jeffrey N. Rouder,
      a psychologist at the University of Missouri
      who, with Richard D. Morey of the University
      of Groningen in the Netherlands, has also submitted
      a critique of Dr. Bem's paper to the journal.

      Physics and biology, among other disciplines,
      overwhelmingly suggest that Dr. Bem's experiments
      have not changed those odds, Dr. Rouder said.

      So far, at least three efforts to replicate
      the experiments have failed. But more are in
      the works, Dr. Bem said, adding, "I have received
      hundreds of requests for the materials"
      to conduct studies.
      This article is being posted strictly for
      non-commercial purposes and for educational use
      only and thus meets the Fair Use statutes criteria.
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