the opposite of precognition…

February 3, 2011

I am very late to the game on this (that is what I get for “giving myself a break” because I am not teaching any classes this semester), but I wanted to archive some of these events here. And for those of you who have not encountered this little dust-up, it is time you gave it a bit of thought…

Here is the short version: Daryl Bem, emeritus professor of Psychology at Cornell, published a paper just over a month ago that provides evidence for “psi phenomenon” (in this case premonition, or precognition – awareness of events that have not yet occurred). It created a BIG uproar: see here, here and here for some reactions (note: this is the first and quite possibly only time I will link to “The Atlanta Vampire Alliance”, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity). I have read the article (and you can too – it is downloadable from numerous sources, including Dr. Bem’s site linked prior), but I have not fully decided how I think about it…

  1. It appears methodologically sound.
  2. He finds evidence for the same theoretical phenomenon across several samples and variations of the basic methodology.
  3. It doesn’t make sense to me given my understanding of “how the world works”…

So, what to be done with a study like this?

  1. Replicate to verify the findings. This endeavor is already underway: here and here.
  2. Maybe the way we approach analyzing data is flawed: see here for an introduction to this issue (there are more in depth treatments of this issue, e.g. this one by Wagenmakers, Wetzels, Borsboom, & van der Maas)
  3. Embrace the findings and work to develop a suitable theoretical framework that can account for them? (I don’t dare link to any of the attempts to do this that I found…)
  4. Ignore it. Unfortunately, I imagine a good number of scientists will do just that… and they will miss out the opportunity for a really good think.

Regardless of the outcome, this is one of those “interesting moments” in science. Some of the assumptions we live by are being tested. People are a bit uncomfortable. We aren’t sure just what to think. This is what makes being a scientist exciting. Enjoy.


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