Professor Bem’s case for ESP

By Dan Kois
nymag.com

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 pair’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 ­Daryl Bem. According to “Feeling the Future,” a peer-reviewed paper the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish this month, Bem has found evidence supporting the existence of precognition. The experiment I’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, I’d be right 50 percent of the time. Naturally, I’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 photo’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 he’s demonstrated that some mysterious force gives humans just the slightest leg up on chance.

Responses to Bem’s paper by the scientific community have ranged from arch disdain to frothing rejection. And in a rebuttal—which, uncommonly, is being published in the same issue of JPSP as Bem’s article—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. “How were your results?” Bem asks. He points out that I scored better predicting the location of erotic photos—in Bem’s hypothesis, more arousing images are more likely to inspire ESP—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 reader—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. “Like most psychologists,” he says, sitting on an elderly couch in his townhouse two miles from Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, “I knew all the ways in which people could fool themselves and interpret coincidences as premonitions.” But reading the existing PSI research changed his opinion about how the brain works. Years ago, he says, “the 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.” His hands trace a flourish in the air, as if to say Presto!“Short-term and long-term memory have analogs in the computer. There’s stuff in RAM that’ll disappear when you turn the computer off, and there’s stuff you’ve saved to disk. The computer does an enormous amount of unconscious processing—that is, stuff that does not appear on the screen, if you think of the screen as the consciousness.”

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 doesn’t seem like much, but as Bem points out, it’s about the same as the house’s advantage in roulette.

Thinking counterintuitively about ESP appealed to him. “My career has been characterized,” he says, “by trying to solve conundrums where I just don’t believe the conventional explanation.” More than 40 years ago, Bem’s doctoral dissertation challenged the dominant paradigm of social psychology, Leon Festinger’s concept of cognitive dissonance. Bem’s groundbreaking “self-perception theory” 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. “It’s a clever theory,” Bem says, “but what made me rich and famous is that I called the article ‘Self-­Perception Theory: An Alternative to Cognitive Dissonance.’ ”

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.

“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.”

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