MIND
January 20, 2011

New Study Reports Evidence of "ESP"

A new study finds evidence that we know things ahead of time. Or is it just a numbers game?

A new study published by a renowned researcher in a prestigious, peer-review journal has the scientific community raising a skeptical – in some cases, irate – eyebrow. In an elaborate series of experiments, the researcher says he demonstrates a phenomenon known as psi, which is akin to the popular term "ESP". According to the paper, psi is the "anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms." As you might guess, the scientific community is not falling over themselves to jump on the ESP/psi bandwagon.

What makes good science, Krauss says, is not that a paper is published, but rather that it piques the interest of other researchers who try to replicate the findings.

As Bem writes in his paper, his study’s nine experiments were all designed to test the notion that future events can influence our behavior in the present, suggesting we have some advance awareness of the future events. Two relatives of psi are precognition (conscious awareness of a future event) and premonition (a vague awareness, or "apprehension" of what is to come).

In the study, Daryl Bem, professor emeritus at Cornell University, tested the psi phenomenon on over 1,000 college students. Here’s an example of one of Bem’s experiments. Participants in the study were shown 48 words, which fell into one of four categories: food, animals, occupations, or clothing. In a typical memory experiment, participants would then be asked to place a subset of the words into the four categories as a form of practice. After categorizing the words, the participants would be asked to recall as many of the words as they could.

In Bem's psi experiments, however, the participants recalled the words before they were asked to place a subset of the word into categories. So, in effect, the recall portion came before the practice. Bem found that the participants were able to recall more of the words than they would later be asked to categorize. Just why the participants were better at recalling the yet-to-be-practiced words is, of course, the million dollar question.

Critics say it’s not about psi or ESP, but a matter of statistics. One group suggests that the study’s findings do not support the psi phenomenon at all, but simply underscore the need to use different – more sophisticated – kinds of statistics to analyze data like these.

In a rebuttal in same journal, Eric-Jan Wagenmaker and his colleagues actually reanalyze Bem’s data using different statistical tests. The result? They say that their findings are no different from what one would expect from chance. They urge that instead of changing what we think about psi, we should change the way we think about statistics: using the classic statistical tests simply allows researchers to "befuddle themselves" and their colleagues.

As if to foretell these concerns, Bem writes in his own paper that using complicated and unusual statistical tests does not help the situation at all — rather than strengthening the data, he says, they actually work to weaken them.

What of the fact that the paper made it through the rigorous review process to get published in a top-rate journal? Critics make the point that just because it’s published doesn’t mean it’s good science. Though the anonymous peer-review process is considered the gold-standard in evaluating scientific study critically, journal reviews are, after all, still human, and the process can be subjective.

In a comment in The New York Times, Lawrence M. Krauss of Arizona State University says that it’s a misconception that just because something is published, it’s correct. On the contrary, what makes good science, he says, is not that a paper is published, but rather that it piques the interest of other researchers who "push it forward" and try to replicate the findings. Krauss writes: "In this way, the good research survives, and the bad research gets happily buried in the dustbin of history, which is what I expect will happen in this case."

The study and accompanying rebuttal are in press for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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