May 3, 2011

Sixth Sense: The ESP Debate

Print More

Despite critics, Prof. Emeritus Daryl Bem, psychology, believes in extrasensory perception in the form of premonition.ESP is made of four different phenomena: telepathy, the ability to communicate without using normal communication methods; remote viewing, the ability to gain information from an object far away; precognition or premonition, the ability to knowledgeably or emotionally predict the future; and psychokinesis, the ability for the mind to influence matter.Bem’s research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, attracted much attention in the psychology community mainly because the journal typically does not publish research on parapsychology, the subfield of psychology containing ESP. In anticipation of the response from the community, an editorial comment was published with Bem’s article defending their decision to publish the research despite their own reservations about Bem’s claims.Bem conducted nine different experiments to prove the existence of premonition. As summarized by Prof. Thomas Gilovich, psychology, and chairperson of the department, Bem was able “to use a number of paradigms in the field of psychology and tweak them to test for precognition.”A series of nine experiments specifically designed for publication in JPSP included over 1000 participants. Bem collected data that showed that participants displayed more predictive ability than could be explained by chance. This suggests that mechanisms, which Bem believevs to be precognition and premonition, allow participants to know beforehand which side to choose. In one experiment, Bem asked students to pick one of two curtains as the one they thought contained a picture behind it. Although the students correctly chose the correct curtain 53.1 percent of the time, which appears to not be too different from the expected 50 percent, Bem believes this value is, in fact, statistically significant and unlikely to appear by chance.A paper published by researchers at the University of Amsterdam suggests that Bem uses incorrect statistical methodology by using one-tailed tests instead of two-tailed tests, which would be more difficult to prove significance for. By re-analyzing Bem’s data using a different set of statistical analysis tools, however, the researchs show that Bem’s data is not statistically significant. Bem believes this claim is “an absolutely ridiculous argument to be making” and that the assumptions used by the University of Amsterdam researchers are “unrealistic.”Gilovich explained another point of concern about Bem’s findings. He states that ESP “is inconsistent with everything that we know about the way the physical universe works” and that “there is no plausible mechanism that we understand at all” that would explain how ESP works.Still, Gilovich complimented Bem, saying the experiments were “a very nice adaptation of the standard paradigms, cleverly modified to test for the existence of precognition.”It is Bem’s belief that there is “nothing in physics that is contradicted” because although ESP might not be in line with Newtonian physics, it is in line with quantum physics. He added, “The fact that we do not have a mechanism to explain it is a major deterrent.  But almost every theory first started out as an unexplainable phenomenon.”Bem understands the opposition to his research. “I do not think that people are irrational to want stronger evidence for this sort of thing,” Bem said. He hopes that his belief in ESP will eventually explained by a concept called quantum entanglement which suggests that two parts of matter or energy that were once together are connected even after they are separated.With all of the reaction from the psychology community about his paper, Bem is surprised by “the degree of what strikes me as fear that [ESP] might be true and the willingness to disregard an entire set of phenomena.”

Original Author: Seyoun Kim