ESP, Science & The Bem Brouhaha

As I noted in Supernaturalism and the Paranormal, it is possible that experiences typically categorized as “paranormal,” if they can be measured and verified, have some relationship to religion.  People who have such experiences might be inclined to attribute them to the realm of the supernatural.  How a person categorizes supernatural experience — as either paranormal or religious — will be heavily dependent on cultural patterning.

I mention this because Professor Daryl Bem of Cornell University is preparing to publish some of his laboratory studies involving extrasensory perception (“ESP”), and as Benedict Carey reports, it is causing quite a stir:

One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events.

The decision may delight believers in so-called paranormal events, but it is already mortifying scientists. Advance copies of the paper, to be 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.

“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, said. “I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”

The editor of the journal, Charles Judd, 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 said, “and these are very trusted people.”

All four decided that the paper met the journal’s editorial standards, Dr. Judd added, even though “there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results.”

It does not seem “crazy” to me and in fact is quite the opposite: science should be investigating these kinds of claims.  Peer review is simply the first step in many that will examine Bem’s results.  Some will simply try to replicate his findings and others will criticize the statistics used to analyze the data.  If it appears the findings are valid, the search for possible mechanisms will begin.  Already, the mere fact of publication has sparked a robust and healthy debate.

Simply ruling out the possibility that something like precognition exists because we lack the tools to understand or explain it at this time seems to me the opposite of science — it is dogma.  When dealing with things of this nature, I like to use what I call the “100 year rule,” which means that before we pass judgment on something, we should ask ourselves what the state of knowledge was 100 years ago.  Each 100 years that passes brings with it astonishing advances, many of which could not have been foreseen or predicted.

Given how little we understand about the universe and brain, it hardly seems far-fetched that what Thomas Kuhn would call “normal science” has much to discover.  We should welcome findings and analyses that could result in a paradigm shift.

What I find alarming is that someone like Douglas Hofstadter, author of Godel, Escher, Bach, seems to think that science is somehow complete and close-minded to things that may not fit:

If any of [Bem’s] claims were true, then all of the bases underlying contemporary science would be toppled, and we would have to rethink everything about the nature of the universe.

The reason you would not even consider publishing [Bem’s article] is that you believe deeply in science and this deep belief implies that the article is necessarily, certainly, undoubtedly wrong in some fashion, and that the flaws in it should be found and exposed, rather than publishing it prematurely.

[W]e cannot lightly publish articles whose implications would necessarily send all of science as we know it crashing to the ground. Instead, we have to find out how those articles are wrong. Or perhaps we simply have to ignore them, because there are a million crazy ideas that could be found to be slightly supported by empirical studies, and we can’t open the floodgates to millions of crazy ideas.

This kind of “deep belief” (and a priori commitment to a particular position) strikes me as fundamentally wrongheaded and metaphysical.  If you believe deeply in science, you publish the results and let scientists get to work.  Science has a long ways to go before we understand the cosmos, life, or mind.

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