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Are psi phenomena real? A study on precognition once exploded science
How a controversial study on psychic powers caused a revolution in psychology research.
Among the scientific studies that came out in the past decade, perhaps none were more controversial than the 2011 paper by the American psychologist Dr. Daryl Bem. He proved an explosive notion, that precognition, the ability to see future events, is actually real, setting off a period of soul-searching among psychologists that still persists to this day. How could an eminent Cornell University professor come to such a conclusion, which is so squarely outside mainstream science and props up parapsychology? Could his experiments, which seemed to follow accepted procedures and sound methods in coming up with this unexpected proof, be replicated?
The paper, "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect," reported on nine experiments involving over 1,000 participants, with eight of them successfully showing that a person's responses could be influenced by stimulating events that happened after the responses were already made and recorded.
This possibility strongly supported the notion of precognition, where individuals seem to gain information or energy transfer that no physical or biological process we know of says they should have. Such phenomena, which also include telepathy and clairvoyance or remote viewing, are collectively known as "psi".
The experiments that seemed to prove Bem's thesis ranged in their approach. Some of the stimuli used were erotic in nature, with an early experiment consisting of having research subjects (Cornell undergrads) looking at a pair of curtains on a computer. They were supposed to guess which one had a hidden pornographic image, with the correct answer being randomly chosen after the student made their decision. Interestingly, students performed slightly better than simple guessing would have produced, with 53 percent choosing the correct location of the image.
Another experiment had students examining sets of words that they would then have to type out. Somehow, the students did better at first remembering words they would type out later. It's as if having the second opportunity to practice and remember words had benefits that went backwards in time.
Cognitive neuroscience professor Chris Chambers, one of Bem's critics (and there were many), called the conclusion of the paper "ridiculous." And yet, "this is really interesting because if a paper like this that's doing everything normally and properly can end up producing a ridiculous conclusion, then how many other papers that use those exact same methods that didn't reach ridiculous conclusions are similarly flawed?" Chambers wondered in an interview.
What Could ESP Mean?
Bem said that he chose to conduct experiments that were easy enough to be replicated by others. In a 2010 press release by Cornell, he pointed out that "I designed the experiments to be persuasive, simple and transparent enough to encourage them to try replicating these experiments for themselves."
He offered free packages with detailed instruction manuals on how to conduct such experiments, along with the requisite computer software for running the sessions and analyzing the data. He knew this work would face extreme scrutiny and encouraged other psychologists to get these results on their own. And that's exactly what they tried to do.
A 2010 study carried out by the University of California–Berkeley business school professor Leif Nelson and Carnegie Mellon's professor Jeff Galak used an online version of Bem's word-recall experiment and failed to come up with the same outcome from a sample group of over 100 people. Bem's argument against this approach was that trying to establish ESP online was not going to work.
Other studies, like the 2011 paper led by Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a research methodologist at the University of Amsterdam, also couldn't replicate Bem's finds and took issue with the statistical analyses he employed, saying the psychologist overstated his evidence.
But there were studies that seemed to have replicated what Bem found. In fact, Bem's team published a meta-analysis in 2015 of 90 experiments from 33 different labs in 14 countries, which involved 12,406 participants. Analyzing the results, Bem demonstrated statistical support across all the studies for his conclusions on the existence of ESP, writing that there is "decisive evidence."
Of course, the decisiveness of this evidence is still in the eye of the beholder. In fact, psychologist Jonathan Schooler from the University of California–Santa Barbara, who was one of the original peer reviewers for Bem's work, supports the notion that the bias and even the psychic abilities of the experimenter may have a lot to do with the possible success of psi studies.
"If it's possible that consciousness influences reality and is sensitive to reality in ways that we don't currently understand, then this might be part of the scientific process itself," said Schooler. "Parapsychological factors may play out in the science of doing this research."
Psychology toolbox: How to use skepticism | Derren Brown
In an interview with Slate, Bem acknowledged the firestorm of reactions his research has caused. "The critics said that I put psychologists in an uncomfortable position and that they'd have to revise their views of the physical world or their views on research practice," he shared. "I think both are true. I still believe in psi, but I also think that methods in the field need to be cleaned up."
Indeed, the publication of Bem's paper prompted a call to replicate not just his study but psychology studies in general. After all, if an outlandish result is achieved, it's worth verifying if it can be repeated. Otherwise, the study could have errors and its result could simply be a fluke rather than any scientific discovery. A group of 270 scientists from 17 countries attempted replicating 100 studies from the year 2008, found in peer-reviewed psychology journals with solid reputations.
Their goal was to repeat all 100 experiments exactly as carried out by the original scientists. Unfortunately, and quite strikingly, only 36 percent of the replications managed to get the same results as the initial studies. To put it another way, 64 percent of the studies analyzed were potentially wrong, or at the very least misleadingly or insufficiently presented.
If so many studies could not be replicated, what did that mean for the whole field of psychology? New standards for psychology research were implemented. Researchers now commonly use the process of "pre-registration," whereby they write up how they would conduct the study and what their hypotheses might be, before they carry out the experiments. This limits their ability to manipulate data and report positive results before they are found.
Additionally, hundreds of scientific journals now publish "registered" reports that explain whether they would accept or reject submitted studies before they are undertaken. This makes the decision to publish papers focus on their methodology more than some sensational results.
As far as parapsychology and Bem's research, it is clear that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and it's safe to say the disputed nature of the studies that seemed to support ESP and similar phenomena have not made a real dent on the consensus scientific opinions. More reproducible work with much wider samples and unchallengeable statistical approaches must be done for such dramatic claims as precognition (which would break the second law of thermodynamics among other things in our accepted reality) to be taken more seriously.
Check out Dr. Daryl Bem's study here, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
- Psychic powers have long been the realm of fantasy and science ... ›
- Is Precognition Possible? - Big Think ›
- Broken Taboo: A Major Journal Publishes Evidence of ESP - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.