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Journal To Publish Paper Showing Evidence Of ESP

January 6, 2011

A respected journal in the science community has agreed to publish a paper presenting strong evidence for extrasensory perception (ESP), which is the ability to sense future events.

Advanced copies of the paper, being published this year in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have circulated widely among psychological researchers in recent weeks and have generated a mixture of amusement and scorn.

The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by Daryl J. Bem, the author of the study and an emeritus professor at Cornell.  The experiments tested the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. 

Some scientists say that the report deserves to be published in the name of open inquiry, while others insist that its acceptance only accentuates fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer review of research in the social sciences.

“It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in,” Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon and longtime critic of ESP research, told the New York Times. “I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”

Charles Judd, the editor of the journal and a psychologist at the University of Colorado, said the paper went through the journal’s regular review process. 

“Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript,” he told the Times, “and these are very trusted people.”

Each of the people decided that the paper met the journal’s editorial standards.

However, some experts say that claims that defy almost every law of science are by definition extraordinary and thus require extraordinary evidence.

“Several top journals publish results only when these appear to support a hypothesis that is counterintuitive or attention-grabbing,” Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, told the Times. “But such a hypothesis probably constitutes an extraordinary claim, and it should undergo more scrutiny before it is allowed to enter the field.”

In one experiment performed by Bem, participants studied 48 words and then divided a subset of 24 of them into categories.

He gave 100 college students a memory test before they did the categorizing and found that they were significantly more likely to remember words that they practiced later.

“The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words,” the paper concludes.

In another experiment, Bem had subjects choose which of two curtains on a computer screen hid a photograph.  Fifty-three percent of the participants chose correctly, while 50 percent did not. 

“What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

Many statisticians say that conventional social-science techniques for analyzing data make an assumption that is disingenuous and ultimately self-deceiving.

Statisticians prefer a technique known as Bayesian analysis, which seeks to determine whether the outcome of a particular experiment “changes the odds that a hypothesis is true,” Jeffrey N. Rouder, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, told the Times.

Rouder said that physics and biology overwhelmingly suggests that Bem’s experiments have not changed those odds.

At least three efforts to replicate the experiments have failed.  But Bem said more are in this works, adding “I have received hundreds of requests for the materials” to conduct studies.

The journal is a 45-year-old monthly published magazine that is one of the psychology world’s most respected journals.

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