When Skeptics Face the Evidence

October 15, 2011
Cassandra Vieten, IONS Senior Fellow

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?


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