Two years ago the prepublication release of a research paper by psychologist Daryl Bem claiming experimental evidence for precognition created a worldwide media stir and intense controversy within the scientific and skeptical communities.
Bem, of Cornell University, claimed that through nine experiments he had demonstrated the existence of precognition, specifically the existence of “conscious cognitive awareness . . . of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process.” Essentially, he had claimed to have produced evidence that psychic abilities not only exist but can transcend time and allow the future to reach backward to change the past.
Informed critics of parapsychology were almost uniformly incredulous. Although Bem is a respected psychologist, they found so many flaws in the research protocols and methods that in their view the conclusions had no validity. One of the most stinging rebukes came in the form of an extended, in-depth critique of all nine experiments by York University psychologist and CSI Executive Council member James Alcock in the Skeptical Inquirer (“Back from the Future: Parapsychology and the Bem Affair,” SI, March/April 2011; see also editorial “Why the Bem Experiments are Not Parapsychology’s Next Big Thing” in the same issue).
Alcock also concluded that the journal that published Bem’s study, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), had done everyone a disservice by publishing this “badly flawed research article.” Parapsychology and the journal’s own reputation, he wrote, had been damaged, and the article’s publication disserved the public as well, “for it only adds to [public] confusion about the existence of psi.”
Experiments attempting to replicate Bem’s results were quickly conducted at various universities, but none were accepted for publication by JPSP. In fact, it said it would not consider publishing replication failures. This fact raised more controversy and concern.
Now the journal has had an apparent change of heart. It has finally published a set of experiments that attempted (and failed) to replicate Bem’s results. Seven experiments conducted by Jeff Galek of Carnegie Mellon University, Robyn A. LeBoeuf of the University of Florida, Leif D. Nelson of the University of California at Berkeley, and Joseph P. Simmons of the University of Pennsylvania have been published in JPSP’s final issue of 2012 (Vol. 103, No. 6) under the title “Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi.”
The article is lengthy, but the central conclusion is succinctly stated:
“Across seven experiments (N= 3,289), we replicate the procedure of Experiments 8 and 9 from Bem (2011), which had originally demonstrated retroactive facilitation of recall. We failed to replicate that finding.” They further conducted a meta-analysis of all replication attempts of the Bem experiments “and find that the average effect size (d=0.04) is not different from 0.”
To put it even more directly (from the beginning of their conclusions section): “We conducted seven experiments testing for precognition and found no evidence supporting its existence.”
- Whatever Happened to Parapsychology? (livescience.com)
- Can science prove we’re psychic? (3quarksdaily.com)
- New Research Shows That Most People Can See the Future (thecontroversialfiles.net)
Magical thinking is a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend physical connections. Magical thinking invests special powers and forces in things and sees them as symbols on various levels. According to anthropologist Dr. Phillips Stevens Jr., “the vast majority of the world’s peoples … believe that there are real connections between the symbol and its referent, and that some real and potentially measurable power flows between them.” He believes there is a neurobiological basis for this, though the specific content of any symbol is culturally determined. (“Magical Thinking in Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” Skeptical Inquirer, 2001, November/December.)
One of the driving principles of magical thinking is the notion that things that resemble each other are causally connected in some way that defies scientific testing (the so-called law of similarity, that like produces like, that effect resembles cause). Another driving principle of magical thinking is the belief that “things that have been either in physical contact or in spatial or temporal association with other things retain a connection after they are separated” (the so-called law of contagion) (James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion; Stevens). Think of relics of saints that are supposed to transfer spiritual energy. Think of psychic detectives claiming that they can get information about a missing person by touching an object that belongs to the person (psychometry). Or think of the pet psychic who claims she can read your dog’s mind by looking at a photo of the dog. Or think of Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, the idea that there are mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and collective memories within species. (Coincidentally, Sheldrake also studies psychic dogs
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Harsha Maddula, a Northwestern University pre-medical student from Long Island, N.Y., went missing Sept. 22, last seen leaving an off-campus party in Illinois. Police and volunteer searchers were unable to find him, but Maddula’s family said reassuring words from psychics had raised their spirits.
Apparently, psychics contacted by the Maddula family’s relatives in India said Harsha was okay and would be found: “He’s still alive. Don’t worry.'”
The next day, however, Maddula’s body was found in Wilmette Harbor near his dormitory. He’d been dead for nearly a week, hidden from searchers in the water between two boats. There was no sign of struggle, robbery, or assault; though toxicology tests are still underway, police believe he was likely the victim of an accidental drowning.
This is only the latest of many cases where grieving families of missing persons have been given false hope by psychics. Despite the failure of psychic detectives to locate missing people, desperate families often turn to psychic and soothsayers.
It happens regularly: grieving families hoping psychics will recover their missing loved ones are always disappointed. Still, even if they don’t believe in psychics, they conclude that nothing else has worked, so there’s no harm in trying.
Indeed, as a news article on Michigan Live.com noted, the mother of a missing woman will be seeking advice from a nationally-known psychic next week: “The mother of Venus Stewart, who has been missing since April 2010 and is presumed to have been killed by her estranged husband, has been invited to appear on the syndicated talk show ‘Dr. Phil,'” according to Live.com. The news article went on to say the mother Therese McComb of Colon, Mich., would fly to Los Angeles next week to tape the show, which will air in November. On the show, famed psychic John Edward will try to contact Stewart’s spirit to possibly get information about the whereabouts of her body.
“I’m desperate’ to find Stewart’s body and have closure,” McComb said. ‘This is about a desperate mother. That’s what it is,” she added.
If Edward can lead police and the McComb family to where Venus Stewart is, dead or alive, it would be the first time it’s happened.
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Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.
Also see: Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena
- The Problem With Psychics Meddling With Missing Person Investigations (businessinsider.com)
- ESP & Psychic Powers: Claims Inconclusive (illuminutti.com)
- Shoehorning (illuminutti.com)