“I always loved living alone,” Bem says. “And then the other thing is, I identify as gay.” He tucks his white-socked feet under a couch cushion and remembers an early date with Sandra. “I said, ‘Well, I’m from Colorado, and I’m a stage magician, and I’m predominantly homoerotic.’ And she said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone from Colorado before.’ ” He chuckles at his well-practiced joke.
Bem and his partner, Bruce Henderson, a professor of communication studies at Ithaca College, just celebrated their fifteenth anniversary. They’ve never lived together. “He’s a total slob,” Bem confides. “His place looks like somewhere you’d find a body amid all the junk and the cats.” (Insists Henderson: “I have what seems like 100 cats but is in reality only one very old one.”) Bem’s home, by contrast, is tidy. Decorative owl knickknacks perch attentively atop the window seat, flanking a doll of Edna Mode, the fashion designer from The Incredibles.
Despite “a certain irreverence toward the academy,” as Henderson puts it, Bem never senses any resentment from inside Cornell. “The faculty all have the property of being sufficiently arrogant,” Bem explains, “that it doesn’t trouble them to have a flake in their midst. They value the kind of non-conformity that leads you to new things. That’s why they’re here rather than at the University of Mexico, or whatever.”
Thomas Gilovich, Bem’s department head, agrees: “You have to be a very solid university to have the luxury of having someone like Daryl around.” Before retiring to emeritus status, Bem taught a variety of classes, including a seminar on the culture wars. “My purpose every week,” he says, “was to give them an aha! experience, where they say, ‘I’ve never thought of an issue in that way.’ ” He publishes less than other academics of his stature. “It’s not embarrassingly low, but in pure publication terms, you’d probably be surprised,” says Gilovich. But when he does publish, it’s a showstopper. As Gilovich puts it, “His impact factor is high.”
Still, Cornell’s grad students never assist with Bem’s ESP studies, at Bem’s insistence, to avoid possible career-hampering stigma. “I tell students, ‘Only undergraduates and tenured professors should study this stuff,’ ” he says. Bem got tenure “in 1968, 1969, or 1970, I’m not sure which,” well before he ever started studying PSI. Because he can’t get grants, he pays for his research himself.
Gilovich has known Bem for 33 years. (“Daryl and Sandy taught us how to play bridge.”) He has an unforced affection for his colleague, and he’s dubious of warnings that science might suffer if Bem’s research turns out to be bunk. “I feel like science is strong enough,” he says. “It’s a very corrective discipline. If an idea is boringly wrong, it’ll be forgotten. If it’s excitingly wrong, other people will do research and will find out.”
I ask him about Bem’s research plans for the spring semester: to recruit students in Gilovich’s Intro to Social Psych class and feed them answers after they’ve taken the multiple-choice quizzes. If Bem’s results are positive, would that be a violation of Cornell’s Code of Academic Integrity?
Gilovich laughs. As long as everyone in the class has the same opportunity, he says, it should be okay. “Look, there are a lot of skeptics who say, ‘Oh, the world’s interesting enough.’ Yeah, it is, but if there were other, you know, realms, dimensions, whatever, that we don’t know about—that would be even better.” He’s quiet for a moment. “It would be cool if it’s true. I’m just … I’d bet a lot of money it’s not.”
Before PSI, Bem made his biggest splash in the nonacademic world with a politically incorrect but weirdly compelling theory of sexual orientation. In 1996, he published “Exotic Becomes Erotic” in Psychological Review, arguing that neither gays nor straights are “born that way”—they’re born a certain way, and that’s what eventually determines their sexual preference.
“I think what the genes code for is not sexual orientation but rather a type of personality,” he explains. According to the EBE theory, if your genes make you a traditionally “male” little boy, a lover of sports and sticks, you’ll fit in with other boys, so what will be exotic to you—and, eventually, erotic—are females. On the other hand, if you’re sensitive, flamboyant, performative, you’ll be alienated from other boys, so you’ll gravitate sexually toward your exotic—males.
EBE is not exactly universally accepted. “The evidence is overwhelming that sexuality is constitutionally based,” Glenn Wilson, a professor at London’s Gresham College and the co-author of a book on the psychobiology of sexual orientation, tells me in an e-mail. “Bem’s theory has no merit. It does not specify why one individual would be affected by ‘alienation’ rather than another.”
Bem seems unconcerned. “Colleagues of mine, especially those in biological science, say, ‘Daryl, your theory is beautifully written and well argued and almost certainly wrong.’ Which is fine!” He laughs. He’s moved on in search of other magic tricks—more aha! moments to rile, and perhaps expand, the world of research psychology. “I’m perfectly happy to be wrong.”