Still, precognition seems a little too counterintuitive—and easily counterargued. For example, wouldn’t I notice if I had ESP? Also, why do I always lose at roulette?
To science-writing eminence Douglas Hofstadter, the publication of work like Bem’s has the potential to unleash, and legitimize, other “crackpot ideas.” In the New York Times, the University of Oregon’s Ray Hyman used the words “an embarrassment for the entire field.” Some critics protest that the article can’t explain what mechanism might be behind precognition. (“We almost always have the phenomenon before we have the explanation,” Bem says.) Others just scoff: Why limit yourself to one kind of pseudoscience? As York University’s James Alcock points out in Skeptical Inquirer, that 53 percent might as well be proof of the power of prayer.
“It shouldn’t be difficult to do one proper experiment and not nine crappy experiments,” the University of Amsterdam’s Eric-Jan Wagenmakers tells me. He’s the co-author of the rebuttal that accompanies Bem’s article in JPSP. Wagenmakers uses Bayesian analysis—a statistical method meant to enforce the notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence—to argue that Bem’s results are indistinguishable from chance. In essence, he explains, 53 percent of a bunch of Cornell sophomores, in unmonitored experiments conducted by a pro-PSI professor, shouldn’t really move the needle, considering how deeply unlikely the existence of precognition actually is. The paper, says Wagenmakers, never should have made it through peer review, and the fact that it did is representative of a larger crisis in the field: The methods and statistics used in psychology, he writes, are “too weak, too malleable, and offer far too many opportunities for researchers to befuddle themselves and their peers.”
In a statement printed in the March issue, JPSP’s editors admit that they find Bem’s results “extremely puzzling.” Nevertheless, they write, “our obligation as journal editors is not to endorse particular hypotheses, but to advance and stimulate science through a rigorous review process.” One of the article’s four peer reviewers, Jonathan Schooler of UC Santa Barbara, says he approved the study for publication because, simply, “I truly believe that this kind of finding from a well-respected, careful researcher deserves public airing.” (Schooler is currently engaged in PSI research; the JPSPwould not divulge the identities of any of the peer reviewers.) He agrees with Wagenmakers’s objections to a point, but protests that “if you hold the bar too high, you’ll never be able to get the data out there for scrutiny.”
And boy, has the data gotten out there; Bem even made a lively appearance on The Colbert Report. Which means that if his study fails to replicate and is discredited, it’ll be just another widely reported “breakthrough” that turned out to be wrong—like vaccines and autism, except this time it’s ESP. “When I look at the results in high-impact journals, I have to laugh, the ridiculous things that are in there. And it’s your fault as well,” Wagenmakers tells me. “The media presents these spectacular findings, like, if you eat a certain species of tomato, you’re 12 percent less likely to develop cancer. Well, how on earth could you design an experiment to prove that?”
Daryl Bem’s mother, Sylvia, was the bowling pioneer of Denver, running the local leagues when the game was still considered unsuitable for ladies. “She always had a gleam in her eye about the fact the neighbors disapproved,” Bem remembers. “Being out of step with the rest of the world just never bothered her any.”
Nor him. Bem dismisses detractors like Ray Hyman as “not worth listening to, because they haven’t come up with any alternative.” But he insists he takes serious critics—“who take the time to read the research thoroughly”—seriously. He praises Wagenmakers’s rebuttal, and with the help of two statisticians, he has written a rebuttal to the rebuttal, currently in peer review at JPSP. “I think I’ve pretty well covered my ass.” (I later send a copy to Wagenmakers; he comments, “There’s nothing new there. I’m not convinced at all.”)
Bem’s gone against the grain his whole life; sometimes, he’s been right. He was arrested at civil-rights sit-ins in Michigan in the sixties and testified with his wife before the FCC in the seventies to force AT&T to change its discriminatory hiring practices toward women. Daryl Bem, Ph.D., and Sandra Lipsitz Bem, Ph.D., were even interviewed in the first issue of Ms. magazine about their egalitarian, gender-liberated marriage.
The Drs. Bem lectured together for years, giving three-hour seminars to packed houses about a partnership in which housework was split evenly and careers were equally important. Though both are now professors emeriti at Cornell, they don’t share a home; neither divorced nor legally separated, they’ve been apart for eighteen years.