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When Skeptics Face the Evidence

by Cassandra Vieten

This last weekend found me in Washington, DC, at the Society for Experimental and Social Psychology Annual Conference (SESP). SESP is an elite academic association dedicated to the advancement of social psychology whose members are nominated by colleagues for having made a substantial contribution to the field. My colleagues in this field are doing truly amazing work on things like morality, exclusion, and ostracization; how implicit factors influence courtroom decisions; whether and how women change their voice and appearance when ovulating; and lots of stuff on how what’s happening outside our conscious awareness influences almost every interaction we have and every decision we make.

I was invited to discuss the controversy that was kicked up in the field of social psychology about the study of precognition. You may recall the article published earlier this year by Cornell professor Dr. Bem and the flurry of media attention. Bem even ended up on the Colbert Report.

Dr. Bem is a leading social psychologist (he was probably in your undergrad psych textbook, if he didn’t write it) and has been well-respected in his long and esteemed career. So his work suggesting that precognition may be real is particularly provocative in his own field of study.

Social psychologists (and other scientists) as a whole are extremely skeptical not only of the research on psi but of the very idea that psi can or should be studied by scientists. There seems to be a deep concern that the whole field will be tarnished by studying a phenomenon that is tainted by its association with superstition, spiritualism, and magic. Protecting against this possibility sometimes seems more important than encouraging scientific exploration or protecting academic freedom. But this may be changing. The session I presented in was very well-attended, and I found that most people, while not exactly open-minded, were open-hearted, thoughtful, and willing to engage in respectful discussion about the topic.

Jonathan Schooler, an equally provocative and successful social psychologist, hosted the session, called “Confronting the Controversy: Recent Evidence for Precognition.” Schooler, another of the relatively few mainstream academic scientists who conduct experiments on psi publicly, has received his own share of press attention lately for talking about the “decline effect,” a phenomenon in which certain research findings (such as the effectiveness of a new drug) can, upon repeated scientific examination, appear to be quite strong initially but decline over time.

In a series of rapid-fire, 11-minute talks, Bem, Schooler, and I were joined by Michael Franklin, one of Schooler’s post-doctoral students who is getting some interesting results using psi with online roulette games, and Sam Moulton from Harvard, holding the counterargument that his investigation of psi over the last decade has yielded no evidence for its existence.

During my talk, I presented a whirlwind tour of the historical evidence for precognition, covering the scientific methods that have been used, the biases encountered when it comes to publishing results, and focusing on a recently-published IONS study on presentiment as measured by EEG in the brain. I finished with the following points:

1. there is a body of evidence supporting the possibility of precognition;
2. precognition can be studied intelligently; and
3. the study of precognition is not a threat to

a. the field of psychology,
b. the whole of the scientific endeavor, or
c. you personally…(Though if you do it yourself, there may be a risk to your application for tenure).

Thankfully, this last point met with good-natured laughter.

Invitations to academic forums, attention from the mainstream science press, and coverage in popular media demonstrate a growing interest in precognition. We are beginning to recognize that scientists can ask the big questions about provocative mysteries without losing empirical rigor in the process

Convinced? Skeptical? Why should science explore presentiment and other psi phenomena? Or not?


  • Anonymous Icon

    BradfordGlass Oct 25, 2011

    Science is INTENDED to be a neutral process that expands our understanding of our world. To date, science's view of psi research falls somewhat short of neutral, and with an intention that falls somewhat short of understanding. If they could "do science," the world of psi would benefit. If they continue to apply limited and possibility-constraining thinking to what they want to CALL science, they'd best leave psi alone; it will do better without them.

  • Anonymous Icon

    LawrenceCarson Oct 25, 2011

    In the beginning ... the word "science" (Latin <= Scier) meant "to know." How one knew may have been through a number of their sensory perception detection systems (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, gustatory, olfactory and yes ... emotions, feelings and Einstein intuition.) In the beginning it did not mean to reduce the observed to its least quanta level ... nor to measure ... nor to replicate. It just meant “to know” via any living experience that expressed its reality.

    IMO ... today “science” for the most part focuses on the time-space-energy (triality) field manifestations (earthly reality). Psi – it seems to me is trying to focus on the REALITY of the Monality, i.e. the oneness of the Zero Point Field by looking for the predictive analytics (correlated metrics) of the “Monality field of Causation” ... and the Duality/Triality field of Effects. If the infinite field of potentiality is infinite, then by definition it will never render itself to our currently scientific lenses focused solely on earthly bound time-space-energy realities.

    IMO ... what Psi explorers are really seeking to find ... is some linkage-process ... connecting these two alternate fields of reality, i.e. a linkage-process that time and courageous curiosity may eventually uncover as an “IEMF -TICL (Info-Electro-Magnetic-Field with Trans-Inductive Coherent Linkage). And through this “potential” TICL information is transferred from one dimension through another. Now there is the handwork of a Master’s Design.

    IMO, the question is not how to convince the defensive librarians of science (cynics) that the non-measurable exists ... but rather to research how those that are courageous and passionate explorers may direct their awareness probes ... within the experiential realities of an unfettered field of infinite possibilities.

  • Sibylle Hajostek Nov 12, 2011

    Well, isn't it the very nature of science to research unknown phenomena?
    And wasn't whatever new discovery within science doubted at first on a large scale and the proponents of these new concepts made ridicule at first?
    Scientists (or actually any kind of specialists) seem a special species to me wandering between extremes: either they are fantastic out-of-the-box thinkers going new ways or they are strict, narrow-mnided in-the-box-sitters being unable to look over their own box-borders. So their education either favours their new ideas or it hinders them completely.
    Sibylle Hajostek

  • Jeanine Broderick Dec 13, 2012

    I am glad to see the progress here. To me this ties in with the topic of "Rejecting Uncommon Beliefs" and what is being learned in that arena. Does anyone else feel like there are thousands of closed doors right in front of us and the keys are in the locks and being turned at varying rates of speed? I see so much evidence that things are ready to bust wide open in so many areas. I love living now.

    PSI exists far more commonly than we believe. I experience a correlation between positive mood and increased experiences. Many of the experiences are so common we do not register them.

    One example in my own life is when I drive. I could always sense who was going to change lanes without any outward physical sign. My former husband who is usually angry and therefore not intuitive about anything would be so angry when someone did not use a blinker and I did not understand it - I had known the person was going to change lanes while he would be startled by their actions.

    As my understanding grew I became more and more aware of things that most people do and know but don't know how they know but neither do they question how they knew it. We are so accustomed to knowing these things that we take it for granted.

    I think it is lovely we have access to information.

    I often knew who was on the phone long before caller ID. I didn't talk about it because I thought it was weird. Now I know many people who do the same thing.

    Not long ago I was driving behind a truck pulling a trailer. Now anyone who has driven much has been in this situation. I certainly have countless times. But on this occasion I had a strong thought, "I do not want to be behind this trailer." So I changed lanes and just as I was beginning to pass the area where the trailer was hitched to the truck I saw the trailer bounce off the hitch and head toward the guard rail on the right side of the road. I immediately sped up and finished passing him. The trailer hit the guard rail and then spun back across the road, into the center divide and almost into oncoming traffic on the other side of the grass medium. That urge to not be behind the trailer was guidance. We get things like that all the time. One time my folks were going home from my house late at night and when Dad came to an intersection the light was green but he decided to slow down anyway. Next thing he knew a car ran the red light at high speed crossing the intersection right where he would have been had he not slowed down. Dad is not one who believes in this stuff and will just attribute it to luck. What some call luck is something else entirely.

    The guidance psi can provide is so valuable. The more it is studied, validated and consciously recognized the more people will be able to benefit from it.

    In a way it reminds me of Acres of Diamonds. We have so many resources already at our fingertips but we do not see them.

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