I stare at the two curtains side by side on my computer screen. I try to focus on the task at hand: Which image has a photo hidden behind it? And what might it be? The alpine lake at sunset? The loving husband embracing his wife?
I choose the curtain on the left. Behind it are a naked man and woman, fucking.
The pairâ€™s sleek, airbrushed bodies flash on my monitor for precisely two seconds, long enough for me to wonder: Did they know? When these two posed, could they guess that one day this JPEG would wind up on a Mac Mini in a lab at Cornell University? Did he know that from his depilated testicles might be launched the first salvo in the war against the ESP skeptics? Did she know her O-face might change the face of science? Could they see the future?
Maybe so, if you believe the research of ÂDaryl Bem. According to â€œFeeling the Future,â€ a peer-reviewed paper the APAâ€™s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish this month, Bem has found evidence supporting the existence of precognition. The experiment Iâ€™m trying, one of nine Bem cites in his study, asks me to guess which of two curtains hides a photograph. (Some of the images are erotic, some neutral, in an attempt to see if different kinds of photos have different effects.) If mere chance governed each guess, Iâ€™d be right 50 percent of the time. Naturally, Iâ€™d guess correctly more like 100 percent of the time if you showed me where the photo was before I chose.
But what about if you showed me the photoâ€™s location immediately after I chose? Perhaps, if I had ESP, I could peek into the future and improve my guesswork, even just a little bit. Over seven years, Bem tested more than 1,000 subjects in this very room, and he believes heâ€™s demonstrated that some mysterious force gives humans just the slightest leg up on chance.
Responses to Bemâ€™s paper by the scientific community have ranged from arch disdain to frothing rejection. And in a rebuttalâ€”which, uncommonly, is being published in the same issue of JPSP as Bemâ€™s articleâ€”another scientist suggests that not only is this study seriously flawed, but it also foregrounds a crisis in psychology itself.
The scourge of responsible psychological research stands behind me, wearing a red cardigan and an expression of great interest. â€œHow were your results?â€ Bem asks. He points out that I scored better predicting the location of erotic photosâ€”in Bemâ€™s hypothesis, more arousing images are more likely to inspire ESPâ€”than I did boring old landscapes and portraits. In this dingy lab in the basement of an Ivy League psych department, is the future now?
Even before Daryl Bem, 72, began studying ESP, he was a mind readerâ€”or rather, a mentalist, who performed Kreskin-style magic acts for students and friends. He knew how easily audiences could be tricked, so he was a skeptic about parapsychology, or PSI. â€œLike most psychologists,â€ he says, sitting on an elderly couch in his townhouse two miles from Cornellâ€™s campus in Ithaca, â€œI knew all the ways in which people could fool themselves and interpret coincidences as premonitions.â€ But reading the existing PSI research changed his opinion about how the brain works. Years ago, he says, â€œthe model of the brain we had was more of a switchboard: stimulus in, response out. Now we have a richer metaphor for thinking about the brain: the computer.â€ His hands trace a flourish in the air, as if to say Presto!â€œShort-term and long-term memory have analogs in the computer. Thereâ€™s stuff in RAM thatâ€™ll disappear when you turn the computer off, and thereâ€™s stuff youâ€™ve saved to disk. The computer does an enormous amount of unconscious processingâ€”that is, stuff that does not appear on the screen, if you think of the screen as the consciousness.â€
Over seven years, Bem measured what he considers statistically significant results in eight of his nine studies. In the experiment I tried, the average hit rate among 100 Cornell undergraduates for erotic photos was 53.1 percent. (Neutral photos showed no effect.) That doesnâ€™t seem like much, but as Bem points out, itâ€™s about the same as the houseâ€™s advantage in roulette.
Thinking counterintuitively about ESP appealed to him. â€œMy career has been characterized,â€ he says, â€œby trying to solve conundrums where I just donâ€™t believe the conventional explanation.â€ More than 40 years ago, Bemâ€™s doctoral dissertation challenged the dominant paradigm of social psychology, Leon Festingerâ€™s concept of cognitive dissonance. Bemâ€™s groundbreaking â€œself-perception theoryâ€ suggests that rather than possessing an ironclad sense of self, we define our own emotions and attitudes using the same haphazard external cues (If I bite my nails, I must be nervous) that others use when observing us. â€œItâ€™s a clever theory,â€ Bem says, â€œbut what made me rich and famous is that I called the article â€˜Self-ÂPerception Theory: An Alternative to Cognitive Dissonance.â€™â€‰â€
Still, precognition seems a little too counterÂintuitiveâ€”and easily counterargued. For example, wouldnâ€™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 Bemâ€™s has the potential to unleash, and legitimize, other â€œcrackpot ideas.â€ In the New York Times, the University of Oregonâ€™s Ray Hyman used the words â€œan embarrassment for the entire field.â€ Some critics protest that the article canâ€™t explain what mechanism might be behind precognition. (â€œWe almost always have the phenomenon before we have the explanation,â€ Bem says.) Others just scoff: Why limit yourself to one kind of pseudoscience? As York Universityâ€™s James Alcock points out in Skeptical Inquirer, that 53 percent might as well be proof of the power of prayer.
â€œIt shouldnâ€™t be difficult to do one proper experiment and not nine crappy experiments,â€ the University of Amsterdamâ€™s Eric-Jan Wagenmakers tells me. Heâ€™s the co-author of the rebuttal that accompanies Bemâ€™s article in JPSP. WagenÂmakers uses Bayesian analysisâ€”a statistical method meant to enforce the notion that extraordinary claims require extraÂordinary evidenceâ€”to argue that Bemâ€™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, shouldnâ€™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 â€œtoo weak, too malleable, and offer far too many opportunities for researchers to befuddle themselves and their peers.â€
In a statement printed in the March issue, JPSPâ€™s editors admit that they find Bemâ€™s results â€œextremely puzzling.â€ NeverÂtheless, they write, â€œour obligation as journal editors is not to endorse particular hypotheses, but to advance and stimulate science through a rigorous review process.â€ One of the articleâ€™s four peer reviewers, Jonathan Schooler of UC Santa Barbara, says he approved the study for publication because, simply, â€œI truly believe that this kind of finding from a well-respected, careful researcher deserves public airing.â€ (Schooler is currently engaged in PSI research; the JPSPwould not divulge the identities of any of the peer reviewers.) He agrees with Wagenmakersâ€™s objections to a point, but protests that â€œif you hold the bar too high, youâ€™ll never be able to get the data out there for scrutiny.â€
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, itâ€™ll be just another widely reported â€œbreakthroughâ€ that turned out to be wrongâ€”like vaccines and autism, except this time itâ€™s ESP. â€œWhen I look at the results in high-Âimpact journals, I have to laugh, the ridiculous things that are in there. And itâ€™s your fault as well,â€ Wagenmakers tells me. â€œThe media presents these spectacular findings, like, if you eat a certain species of tomato, youâ€™re 12 percent less likely to develop cancer. Well, how on earth could you design an experiment to prove that?â€
Daryl Bemâ€™s mother, Sylvia, was the bowling pioneer of Denver, running the local leagues when the game was still considered unsuitable for ladies. â€œShe always had a gleam in her eye about the fact the neighbors disapproved,â€ Bem remembers. â€œBeing out of step with the rest of the world just never bothered her any.â€
Nor him. Bem dismisses detractors like Ray Hyman as â€œnot worth listening to, because they havenâ€™t come up with any alternative.â€ But he insists he takes serious criticsâ€”â€œwho take the time to read the research thoroughlyâ€â€”seriously. He praises Wagenmakersâ€™s rebuttal, and with the help of two statisticians, he has written a rebuttal to the rebuttal, currently in peer review at JPSP. â€œI think Iâ€™ve pretty well covered my ass.â€ (I later send a copy to WagenÂmakers; he comments, â€œThereâ€™s nothing new there. Iâ€™m not convinced at all.â€)
Bemâ€™s gone against the grain his whole life; sometimes, heâ€™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-Âliberated 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 donâ€™t share a home; neither divorced nor legally separated, theyâ€™ve been apart for eighteen years.
â€œI always loved living alone,â€ Bem says. â€œAnd then the other thing is, I identify as gay.â€ He tucks his white-socked feet under a couch cushion and remembers an early date with Sandra. â€œI said, â€˜Well, Iâ€™m from Colorado, and Iâ€™m a stage magician, and Iâ€™m predominantly homoerotic.â€™ And she said, â€˜I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever known anyone from Colorado before.â€™â€‰â€ He chuckles at his well-Âpracticed joke.
Bem and his partner, Bruce Henderson, a professor of communication studies at Ithaca College, just celebrated their fifteenth anniversary. Theyâ€™ve never lived together. â€œHeâ€™s a total slob,â€ Bem confides. â€œHis place looks like somewhere youâ€™d find a body amid all the junk and the cats.â€ (Insists Henderson: â€œI have what seems like 100 cats but is in reality only one very old one.â€) Bemâ€™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 â€œa certain irreverence toward the academy,â€ as Henderson puts it, Bem never senses any resentment from inside Cornell. â€œThe faculty all have the property of being sufficiently arrogant,â€ Bem explains, â€œthat it doesnâ€™t trouble them to have a flake in their midst. They value the kind of non-Âconformity that leads you to new things. Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re here rather than at the University of Mexico, or whatever.â€
Thomas Gilovich, Bemâ€™s department head, agrees: â€œYou have to be a very solid university to have the luxury of having someone like Daryl around.â€ Before retiring to emeritus status, Bem taught a variety of classes, including a seminar on the culture wars. â€œMy purpose every week,â€ he says, â€œwas to give them an aha! experience, where they say, â€˜Iâ€™ve never thought of an issue in that way.â€™â€‰â€ He publishes less than other academics of his stature. â€œItâ€™s not embarrassingly low, but in pure publication terms, youâ€™d probably be surprised,â€ says Gilovich. But when he does publish, itâ€™s a showstopper. As Gilovich puts it, â€œHis impact factor is high.â€
Still, Cornellâ€™s grad students never assist with Bemâ€™s ESP studies, at Bemâ€™s insistence, to avoid possible career-Âhampering stigma. â€œI tell students, â€˜Only undergraduates and tenured professors should study this stuff,â€™â€‰â€ he says. Bem got tenure â€œin 1968, 1969, or 1970, Iâ€™m not sure which,â€ well before he ever started studying PSI. Because he canâ€™t get grants, he pays for his research himself.
Gilovich has known Bem for 33 years. (â€œDaryl and Sandy taught us how to play bridge.â€) He has an unforced affection for his colleague, and heâ€™s dubious of warnings that science might suffer if Bemâ€™s research turns out to be bunk. â€œI feel like science is strong enough,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s a very corrective discipline. If an idea is boringly wrong, itâ€™ll be forgotten. If itâ€™s excitingly wrong, other people will do research and will find out.â€
I ask him about Bemâ€™s research plans for the spring semester: to recruit students in Gilovichâ€™s Intro to Social Psych class and feed them answers after theyâ€™ve taken the Âmultiple-choice quizzes. If Bemâ€™s results are positive, would that be a violation of Cornellâ€™s Code of Academic Integrity?
Gilovich laughs. As long as everyone in the class has the same opportunity, he says, it should be okay. â€œLook, there are a lot of skeptics who say, â€˜Oh, the worldâ€™s interesting enough.â€™ Yeah, it is, but if there were other, you know, realms, dimensions, whatever, that we donâ€™t know aboutâ€”that would be even better.â€ Heâ€™s quiet for a moment. â€œIt would be cool if itâ€™s true. Iâ€™m just â€¦ Iâ€™d bet a lot of money itâ€™s not.â€
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 â€œExotic Becomes Eroticâ€ in Psychological Review, arguing that neither gays nor straights are â€œborn that wayâ€â€”theyâ€™re born a certain way, and thatâ€™s what eventually determines their sexual preference.
â€œI think what the genes code for is not sexual orientation but rather a type of personality,â€ he explains. According to the EBE theory, if your genes make you a traditionally â€œmaleâ€ little boy, a lover of sports and sticks, youâ€™ll fit in with other boys, so what will be exotic to youâ€”and, eventually, eroticâ€”are females. On the other hand, if youâ€™re sensitive, flamboyant, performative, youâ€™ll be alienated from other boys, so youâ€™ll gravitate sexually toward your exoticâ€”males.
EBE is not exactly universally accepted. â€œThe evidence is overwhelming that sexuality is constitutionally based,â€ Glenn Wilson, a professor at Londonâ€™s Gresham College and the co-author of a book on the psychobiology of sexual orientation, tells me in an e-mail. â€œBemâ€™s theory has no merit. It does not specify why one individual would be affected by â€˜alienationâ€™ rather than another.â€
Bem seems unconcerned. â€œColleagues of mine, especially those in biological science, say, â€˜Daryl, your theory is beautifully written and well argued and almost certainly wrong.â€™ Which is fine!â€ He laughs. Heâ€™s moved on in search of other magic tricksâ€”more aha! moments to rile, and perhaps expand, the world of research psychology. â€œIâ€™m perfectly happy to be wrong.â€
Take Daryl Bem’s ESP Test
After a relaxation period” Photo: Illustrations by Zohar Lazar
You are then asked to type as many of the words as you can remember. Photo: Illustrations by Zohar Lazar
The computer will then reinforce your memory of 24 of the words by asking you to retype them and sort them into categories. Photo: Illustrations by Zohar Lazar
If, back in STEP 3, you remembered more of the 24 words you’d study in STEP 4 than of the unreinforced words, it might be because of ESP”your mind saw into the future and benefited from the studying. Photo: Illustrations by Zohar Lazar