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Journal’s Paper on ESP Expected to Prompt Outrage

One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events.

The decision may delight believers in so-called paranormal events, but it is already mortifying scientists. Advance copies of the paper, to be published this year in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have circulated widely among psychological researchers in recent weeks and have generated a mixture of amusement and scorn.

The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.

Some scientists say the report deserves to be published, in the name of open inquiry; others insist that its acceptance only accentuates fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer review of research in the social sciences.

“It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in,” Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon and longtime critic of ESP research, said. “I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”

The editor of the journal, Charles Judd, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, said the paper went through the journal’s regular review process. “Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript,” he said, “and these are very trusted people.”

All four decided that the paper met the journal’s editorial standards, Dr. Judd added, even though “there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results.”

But many experts say that is precisely the problem. Claims that defy almost every law of science are by definition extraordinary and thus require extraordinary evidence. Neglecting to take this into account — as conventional social science analyses do — makes many findings look far more significant than they really are, these experts say.

“Several top journals publish results only when these appear to support a hypothesis that is counterintuitive or attention-grabbing,” Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, wrote by e-mail. “But such a hypothesis probably constitutes an extraordinary claim, and it should undergo more scrutiny before it is allowed to enter the field.”

Dr. Wagenmakers is co-author of a rebuttal to the ESP paper that is scheduled to appear in the same issue of the journal.

In an interview, Dr. Bem, the author of the original paper and one of the most prominent research psychologists of his generation, said he intended each experiment to mimic a well-known classic study, “only time-reversed.”

In one classic memory experiment, for example, participants study 48 words and then divide a subset of 24 of them into categories, like food or animal. The act of categorizing reinforces memory, and on subsequent tests people are more likely to remember the words they practiced than those they did not.

In his version, Dr. Bem gave 100 college students a memory test before they did the categorizing — and found they were significantly more likely to remember words that they practiced later. “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words,” the paper concludes.

In another experiment, Dr. Bem had subjects choose which of two curtains on a computer screen hid a photograph; the other curtain hid nothing but a blank screen.

A software program randomly posted a picture behind one curtain or the other — but only after the participant made a choice. Still, the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent, at least when the photos being posted were erotic ones. They did not do better than chance on negative or neutral photos.

“What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

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I don't have a problem with publishing controverisal papers in scientific journals. It will cause controversy all the better. Undoubltedly somebody will find fault it and publish a rebuttle; the resulting debate should be informative.

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http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all

"One of the first demonstrations of this mysterious phenomenon came in the early nineteen-thirties. Joseph Banks Rhine, a psychologist at Duke, had developed an interest in the possibility of extrasensory perception, or E.S.P. Rhine devised an experiment featuring Zener cards, a special deck of twenty-five cards printed with one of five different symbols: a card was drawn from the deck and the subject was asked to guess the symbol. Most of Rhine’s subjects guessed about twenty per cent of the cards correctly, as you’d expect, but an undergraduate named Adam Linzmayer averaged nearly fifty per cent during his initial sessions, and pulled off several uncanny streaks, such as guessing nine cards in a row. The odds of this happening by chance are about one in two million. Linzmayer did it three times.

Rhine documented these stunning results in his notebook and prepared several papers for publication. But then, just as he began to believe in the possibility of extrasensory perception, the student lost his spooky talent. Between 1931 and 1933, Linzmayer guessed at the identity of another several thousand cards, but his success rate was now barely above chance. Rhine was forced to conclude that the student’s “extra-sensory perception ability has gone through a marked decline.” And Linzmayer wasn’t the only subject to experience such a drop-off: in nearly every case in which Rhine and others documented E.S.P. the effect dramatically diminished over time. Rhine called this trend the “decline effect.”

---------- Post added January-7th-2011 at 03:50 PM ----------

I don't have a problem with publishing controverisal papers in scientific journals. It will cause controversy all the better. Undoubltedly somebody will find fault it and publish a rebuttle; the resulting debate should be informative.

Not having seen the paper, I don't want to comment too much, but the authors should have been forced to deal with historically known problems with studying ESP like the decline effect, which really requires that you document these things over extended periods of time.

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Not having seen the paper, I don't want to comment too much, but the authors should have been forced to deal with historically known problems with studying ESP like the decline effect, which really requires that you document these things over extended periods of time.

From the paper:

As the number of exposures increases in a mere exposure experiment, liking increases, plateaus, and eventually begins to decline. To account for this, Bornstein proposed a two-process model in which boredom increasingly competes with habituation as the number of exposures increases. Because boredom causes a stimulus to be less liked, the liking curve begins to level off and then turn downward as boredom overtakes habituation. As a result, it is not possible to specify a priori how many exposures would be optimal in any particular experiment. In this experiment, we varied the number of exposures across sessions.
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After having read the paper, I don't support its publication, especially not in an important journal (not that I've ever heard of the journal before; not being a social science). As itself described based on the meta-analysis, the published literature supports the idea that humans might have some sort of weak ESP ability.

In that context, this paper does not appear to move the field forward. Normally, when reviewing a paper part of the review is the work's impact. This work would seem to have a low impact (especially compared to people conducting similar experiments, but actually looking at MRI data, which they also describe in their intro).

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