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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Feeling the Future" Study Replicated, as Skeptics Fume

Several years ago Cornell professor emeritus Daryl Bem published the paper Feeling the Future in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The paper reported the results of controlled experiments which seemed to suggest the existence of precognition, the ability of humans to detect the future in a paranormal way. There were voices of outrage that an Ivy League university could have been involved with such a finding, which was denounced as pseudoscience. In the next months skeptics trumpeted one or two unsuccessful attempts to replicate the experiments.

A few weeks ago, however, Bem and others published a meta-analysis looking at 90 different experiments on precognition done in 33 laboratories. They found that Bem's sensational experiments had been well replicated. It seems that there are two ways of doing Bem's experiments, a “fast protocol” and a “slow protocol.” It seems that when you use the fast protocol, trying things just as Bem did, the effect does reproduce well. The paper found that to explain the results as a coincidence, one would have to believe in a coincidence with a chance of about 1 in 10 billion.

Bem's original “Feeling the Future” study was not at all a unique bolt-from-the-blue, but merely something in the same vein as quite a few previous studies (and many human experiences) indicating that something like precognition can occur. A particularly astonishing case is related here. Other similar experiments have shown a phenomenon called presentiment, an anomalous unexplained tendency of the human body to react to a stimulus before the stimulus has been presented. Here is a link to a meta-analysis of such experiments, showing an effect extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance. 

I personally don't like the idea of precognition, and prefer to believe that it doesn't exist, simply because it is easier to understand a universe in which time behaves like a roll of film in a movie can, with a nice clear separation between each frame in the movie and the frame that came before it. But I don't let my conceptual preferences guide my assumptions about whether precognition is likely or possible. 

 How have psi skeptics reacted to the latest meta-analysis showing that Bem's research has been well replicated? A typical unthoughtful knee-jerk reaction is found in this post.

The post exhibits the following characteristics:
  1. There is no attempt at all to address the substance of the meta-analysis paper. There is no mention of any specific flaws that the writer has discovered in the research.
  2. The writer resorts to name-calling, referring to the paper as pseudoscience. He does not say anything to back up such a claim.
  3. The writer very emotionally employs the technique of “character assassination by comparison,” the technique of trying to debunk someone by comparing him to people of low repute. Daryl Bem, a distinguished Ivy League professor emeritus, is indirectly compared to “climate change deniers, young-earth creationists, flat earthers, reptilianists, scientific racists, people who believe that women who are raped won't get pregnant, and Holocaust Deniers.”
  4. The writer claims that “the methodological unsoundness of Daryl Bem's work has been amply demonstrated,” but gives no statements, link or reference to back up that claim.
  5. The writer does not even provide a link to the meta-analysis he is attacking (apparently not wanting anyone else to look at the evidence).
There are numerous things that provoke this type of ire from skeptics: reports of near-death experiences, evidence for extra-sensory perception, evidence for precognition, the astonishing power of the placebo effect, deathbed apparitions, ghost sightings, alternative healing methods, astonishing unexplained recoveries from disease or injury, sightings of UFOs, and evidence that the universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow the existence of intelligent observers. Some peer-reviewed papers that discuss some of these topics can be found here. Perhaps the only thing these items have in common is that they seem to provoke the ire of a certain narrow-minded group which wants to act as a kind of thought police, zealously keeping our minds inside a little square with borders they have constructed.

When faced with evidence that conflicts with their cherished worldview, reductionist materialists all too often seem to follow the following general guidelines:
  1. If the evidence is a first-hand account, say that it is “merely anecdotal,” and imply that it should therefore be ignored (even if the same phenomenon has been reported by many different reliable witnesses over very long periods of time).
  2. Accuse the observers of having had hallucinations (even if their accounts are highly ordered and consistent with each other, and even if they have no signs of pathology or relevant drug use).
  3. If the evidence is something that cannot be reproduced in a laboratory, say that the evidence is “not reproducible,” and that it therefore has no merit (despite the fact that numerous important scientific phenomena such as cosmic gamma ray bursts and the Big Bang cannot be reproduced in the laboratory).
  4. If the evidence can actually be reproduced in the laboratory, with repeated successes, claim that the evidence is based on fraud (using basically the same “they're all fakers” technique used by global warming deniers).
  5. Make vague accusations of methodical unsoundness or mathematical errors, usually without substantiating the claims (or back up the claims with tangled Bayesian reasoning that no one will be likely to understand).
  6. Engage in vague name-calling by calling the research pseudoscience, or, more aggressively, call the researcher an enemy of science (even if he is a science enthusiast or has published many scientific papers).
  7. Imply that the researcher is a careless or easily-duped fool, even if he is an ultra-methodical person with a PhD.
  8. Attempt to discredit the findings by linking them with various disreputable superstitious phenomena such as astrology. Try to link the findings with extremist or fringe religious beliefs, even if there is no evidence to support any such association.
  9. Simply say that the finding was observed because of an incredibly improbable coincidence (a claim that can conveniently be made an unlimited number of times, with little chance that anyone will calculate the total microscopic improbability of all the coincidences being imagined).
  10. Flatly state that there is no evidence whatsoever for the phenomenon, even if evidence for it has been carefully and methodically accumulated by numerous researchers for more than a hundred years.
  11. If all else fails, suggest the possibility of a multiverse to explain the evidence (even though this leads to a “multiplicationism” position that is the opposite of the reductionism that is being defended).
These types of techniques may prove successful, but at the cost of constructing a kind of “reality filter” that may cause you to ignore some of the most important things man may observe or discover. 

Postscript: See this link for Honorton and Ferrari's meta-analysis of forced choice precognition experiments done between 1935 and 1987. Examining 309 experiments carried out by 62 investigators involving 50,000 participants in two million trials,  Honorton and Ferrari found an overall effect with a chance probability of about 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.