Thursday, January 6, 2011

I Should Have Seen This Coming

The NY Times reports today on an eminent and well-respected psychologist's paper, about to be released in a peer-reviewed journal, supporting a finding of extrasensory perception:

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.”

The article notes the respect Bem commands. They even cite Ray Hyman, a critic, who wonders whether he didn't mean it as a joke. Hyman's a mainstay of the Skeptical Inquirer, whose raison d'etre is debunking paranormal claims. I'd say the mass of evidence mostly favors the debunkers, but it's also obvious that they, too, have an agenda, and themselves can't entirely avoid biases of social construction.

Out of my field enough, this, so all I can bring to the table is skepticism, tempered with the odd, lingering hope and belief that sooner or later, someplace, there'll be something brand new, from an utterly unexpected source, that'll shake us out of our complacency as much as Riemann, Lobachevsky, Becquerel, Planck, Einstein and Godel shook 'em up back then.

Now, I'll admit that part of my bias is that the phenomena hypothesized, if actually present, should manifest themselves in far less ambiguous terms. Were telepathy or precognition possible, one might leap to the perhaps erroneous conclusion that they should be manifest in the sort of abilities routinely displayed in pop fiction, rather than culled from subtle statistics. Meanwhile, we daily get offers from wall Street types selling prognostications we should act upon which, were they as accurate as is implied, would offer the prognosticator opportunities far greater than those of magazine marketing, and, at that, best kept secret.

So, one is, too, offered the bemused thought that if the Gifted Ones exist out there, They don't want us to know about Them. Maybe Hyman is one of 'em. That'd explain it all. The next step, clearly, is to study in meticulous detail the funding of the Skeptical Inquirer. But, then, you saw that coming, didn't you?


Anonymous said...

I had a dream about my cat breaking his leg 2 years before it happened. Does that count?

(DISCLAIMER: previous cat long since dead, not my current one)

ProfWombat said...

Richard Feynman once said (paraphrasing): 'On the way here, I saw a car whose license plate was 357-JDG. What are the odds of that? Isn't that amazing?'

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