While browsing New Scientist the other day, I came across this article – a report on a recent paper by one Daryl Bem, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It seems Bem is psychologist of some note, but also an amateur magician, who has now moved onto things paranormal after hooking up with a guy called Chuck Honorton (now deceased) who seems to have been one of the major contributors to paranormal research (such as it is).
In his paper, Bem claims to have measured precognition – the ability to perceive future events. He apparently did this by taking a standard flashcard test and reversing it. In a flashcard test, subjects are shown words, and they are asked to type randomly selected ones. When given a memory test, the words that were practised have been better memorised (go figure). So, he reverses this – giving subjects the memory test, prior to the flashcards. He then claims a small but statistically significant success rate in precognition.
Back to Bem in a moment. This story has something in common with another well-known precognition story – the psychic dog story (yes, I said dog). Here’s a good run-down on it. To cut a long story short, the infamous British scientist (infamous for his ‘challenging’ ideas) Rupert Sheldrake carried out some experiments on a dog whose owner claimed that the dog was psychic, and could tell when she (the owner) would come home. Again, he found that, to a statistically significant degree, the dog would know when its owner was due (regardless of the time of day), and go out onto the porch to wait.
There must be many thousands of these experiments which have been carried out around the world, as people desperately seek evidence of the paranormal. Despite this, no-one has to-date been able to provide one single verifiable example. Not one. Instead, what we see is people who are either self-deluded, want so badly to find evidence that they taint their experiments, or, con-artists, the most famous being Uri Geller (who has since come clean).
And in all recorded cases, the effect being reported is quite small. It’s not uncommon to hear about 1 or 2% variation from random as being the effect size. However, whenever the experiments have been repeated, tightening up the controls on the tests, the effect has diminished further, or vanished altogether.
The thing that these two cases have in common is that, even if they do present data showing a statistically significant result, it isn’t direct evidence of paranormal. They present evidence of a statistically significant thing, and then simply claim that the cause was paranormal. In all claims of this type, closer inspection or attempted replication usually reveals a more plausible explanation.
For example, in the psychic dog experiment, subsequent repeat testing by sceptical psychologist Richard Wiseman did indeed find an effect which showed apparent precognition in the dog. However, he was also able to propose a simpler explanation for the results – that the longer the owner was away, the more often the dog would go to the porch, and the longer he would wait, thereby increasing the hit rate. Simple. No paranormal required.
Of course, many proponents refuse to accept it when their ‘findings’ are questioned. In Bem’s case, when asked whether he would try to claim the $1 Million dollars on offer by the James Randi Educational Foundation, he replied:
No. He controls the entire process and he has never been totally clear as to what level of probability he would accept. He also insists on having all the rights to reporting what happened and that’s not how we as scientists progress.
Well, that’s just another excuse. What does he mean “that’s not how we as scientists progress’? Is he saying we shouldn’t test extraordinary claims? And of course he controls the process – would you let the proponent specify the test conditions? And, the JREF has always been totally clear on criteria for success – demonstrate the existence of the paranormal, not just some probability or statistic which implies the paranormal. Very simple. Just beat chance in any of a whole variety of tests, including flashcards, dowsing, telepathy and so on. Or, demonstrate your telekinesis from another room, or without using magnets or blowing something.
The bottom line is, it’s been many decades at least since the paranormal thing took off, and still nothing. Not a skerrick. And the road is littered with crooks and self-deluded types who have tried and been exposed as frauds.
I always wanted to be able to levitate stuff like Uncle Martin from My Favourite Martian, by waving a finger, but I fear it will never be possible.