November 17th, 2010

Hey, psi research is about to be taken seriously!   Oh that’s right, we’ve been here before…

Something you don’t see every day:  a post from an otherwise entirely mainstream science writer – Jonah Lehrer – that treats psi research with respect, even a touch of awe, in this case concerning a new paper from Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem.

Bem’s experimental method was extremely straightforward. He took established psychological protocols, such as affective priming and recall facilitation, and reversed the sequence, so that  the cause became the effect. For instance, he might show students a long list of words and ask them to remember as many as possible. Then, the students are told to type a selection of words which had been randomly selected from the same list. Here’s where things get really weird: the students were significantly better at recalling words that they would later type.

One problem with Lehrer’s treatment is that he seems to put the history of psi research, including Bem’s own research program, through an absurdly narrow and distorting filter.  He mentions J. B. Rhine’s work in the 1930s, then seems to suggest that it petered out because Rhine’s results and every other set of results became somehow irreproducible – but suddenly now, the best part of a century later, Bem is resurrecting the field with new experimental techniques that, yes, may be reproducible at long last.

A similar trend [towards null results] occurred with other Rhine subjects, and with nearly every other confirmed demonstration of psi. As a result, the phenomenon was never taken seriously, despite the fact that it had been repeatedly demonstrated in the lab.

And this is why Bem’s paper is so important: It provides the first testable framework for the investigation of anomalous psychological properties. Unlike the Zener deck, for instance, these tests build upon well-known experimental paradigms, and minimize the contact between the experimenter and the subject.

Hellooo?  First of all, Bem has been publishing positive psi results since the early 1990s.  In fact, his initial forays into this controversial field were what got me to start writing a book about parapsychology – a book that began with visits to academic psi labs but swiftly turned into Remote Viewers.  I well remember Bem’s enthusiasm at the Parapsychology Association conference in Toronto in 1993.  As I wrote in the book, other mainstream academics including Harvard’s Robert Rosenthal (now at UC-Riverside) were publishing positive results on psi experiments or meta-analyses at the time.  Moreover, when I visited them in 1993-94, the old Rhine lab near Duke (by then privately-funded and called the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, or FRNM) and the psi lab at U. Edinburgh were still putting out papers, mainly on the ganzfeld protocol which everyone at the time was saying was repeatable, was the final blow to the skeptics, etc.

And then there was the proverbial rabbit hole I fell into and spent most of my book writing about, namely the military-funded and applications-oriented research by the US, the Soviet Union and other Cold War players from the 1960s onwards.  As readers of Remote Viewers may recall, that research program moved on from the “repeatability” issue almost immediately.  (Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ published some of those initial results in Nature in 1974.)  Most of the subsequent research (of which I’m aware – anyway a lot has been declassified) was aimed at understanding the neurophysiological correlates of remote viewing and characterizing the information channel, i.e., trying to get a grip on “signal to noise” issues – which were huge, considering the ambitious way they were trying to use the phenomenon.

Another thing that sociology/philosophy/history/anthropology-of-science types might find interesting about Lehrer’s account is his attempt to turn Bem’s new report into a feelgood story about the scientific method.

the real contribution of this paper isn’t even these statistically significant results. Instead, it’s Bem’s attempt to create rigorous, well-controlled tests of psi that can be replicated by independent investigators.

As if it’s all about finding the right method and there has never been anything sociological about psi research’s marginal status, never anything biased about the way in which negative results (or criticisms of positive results) are accepted and positive ones are shrugged off.  I don’t think modern science’s cultural resistance to psi is the whole story, but it’s a huge part of it.  Anyway, the idea that science routinely violates its own ideals to defend its boundaries (or merely to get stuff done) is itself pretty mainstream by now, thanks to guys such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend (and, among many others, Bem’s colleague at Cornell, the sociologist Trevor Pinch).

Incidentally, Lehrer does seem intrigued — as I have been — by the way in which psi experiments seem to mesh with the existing psych and neuroscience literature.  For example, a key to positive results in one of Bem’s experiments was the inclusion of strong emotional content in the target images.  Of course this hardly a new observation in psi research.  (To maximize this emotional content, Russian scientists in the 60s apparently killed baby animals and looked for psi-mediated EEG responses in their mothers, who were otherwise isolated.)  But it’s the kind of thing that can make the psi case more compelling for people who come from a more mainstream science background.  So hopefully Lehrer’s interest will develop, and maybe even lead — with help from the more freewheeling, story-hungry media of today — to the field’s getting the serious attention and funding it has long deserved.  Still, I can’t help feeling that — no pun intended — “we have been here before,” and Bem’s new results will eventually recede (as his old results and everyone else’s have receded) out of sight, and out of mind.  Why?  Well, that’s a good subject for another post.

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