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Is ESP real? 9 March, 2011

Posted by Simon Nickerson in Uncategorized.
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In January, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published research by Daryl Bem of Cornell University that measured an actual effect of extra sensory perception (ESP) (the link is to a preprint copy of the paper). Basically, the subjects in his experiments were able to guess the outcome of a random event – before it happened – with a small, but statistically significant, margin greater what you expect from just random luck. Jonah Lehrer of Wired has a good summary.

It’s pretty startling to find something like this in a mainstream journal – the journal felt the need to include an editorial comment stating

To some of our readers it may be both surprising and disconcerting that we have decided to publish Bem’s article … We openly admit that the reported findings conflict with our own beliefs about causality and that we find them extremely puzzling. Yet, as editors we were guided by the conviction that this paper—as strange as the findings may be—should be evaluated just as any other manuscript on the basis of rigorous peer review. Our obligation as journal editors is not to endorse particular hypotheses but to advance and stimulate science through a rigorous review process.

The research sparked a number of different responses in the scientific community. First, there was the “there must be something wrong with the experiment” view. Generally, this view starts from the assumption that the paper’s conclusion (that ESP is real) must be incorrect, therefore some error was committed in the course of the research – example here. In the same issue of the journal, a group of scientists from Holland point to the statistical analysis as the source of the error, and warn that many psychology experiments many suffer from the same flaw.

Another response was “this never should have been published”. An article in the NY Times quotes psychology professor Ray Hyman as saying:

It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in… I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.

If I was going to be completely objective about this, I would reserve judgement on the research and wait for the results to be replicated by other researchers. To his credit, Bem details his experimental setup and analysis techniques in great detail, and states:

The major empirical challenge … is to provide well-controlled demonstrations of psi (ESP) that can be replicated by independent investigators. That is the major goal in the research program reported in this article. Accordingly, the experiments have been designed to be as simple and transparent as possible…

Many other findings of positive results for ESP have disappeared when others tried to replicate them.

The main reason for people to assume that the paper’s conclusion is wrong is that there is no way to explain how ESP could possibly work. Bem attempts to address this, pointing out that the mechanisms behind many physical phenomena effects were only found many years after the first evidence of their existence. In this particular case, I don’t think that’s a satisfactory answer. The issue with ESP isn’t just that we can’t explain how it could work; it’s that any explanation would require a complete rewrite of the laws of physics. That’s an unbelievably tall order – the biggest scientific revolution ever, so I think it’s understandable (and even reasonable) to assume that the research is flawed, until many more irrefutable experiments show otherwise.

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