Thursday, July 14, 2011


By Cynthia Nigro, PhD

Daryl Bem likes to use quotes from Lewis Carroll’s, Through The Looking Glass. One of his favorites which is said to Alice by the White Queen is this, “….sometimes, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” So, does Daryl Bem believe impossible things himself? Well, a large part of the scientific community thinks he does.

In March, Dr. Bem rocked the scientific world, when he published an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, one of the most renowned and respected journals in the field, entitled, FEELING THE FUTURE: EXPERIMENTAL EVIDENCE FOR THE ANOMOLOUS RETROACTIVE INFLUENCES ON COGNITION AND AFFECT. What was so unusual about this paper was that it indicated evidence for the existence of PSI, a topic which was never considered valid in a mainstream journal before. Why? Because the term PSI is now used to describe that which is paranormal, and to the mainstream, that means irrational, and unbelievable In Dr. Bem’s words, “ PSI denotes anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms.”

Bem conducted a series of experiments in which he asked students to choose between two curtains presented on a computer screen. Behind one, was a picture, behind the other, a blank wall. They were asked which one they thought hid the picture. Findings were that the students were able to pick the one with the photo behind it with a frequency statistically greater than chance. And, that frequency increased if the picture was pornographic!

Next, he had students look at some words, and then asked them to write down any they remembered. After that, he had them more deliberately study half the words. His findings indicated that the students better “remembered” the words they had studied after the test. That’s right---not a misprint!!! They remembered the words better that they had studied AFTER the test! And this was also statistically significant.

The overall reaction to these findings was one of disbelief, and created a global debate on how these “impossible” results" could have occurred. In fact, the criticisms and scrutinizing began even before the article was actually published. When the results of Bem’s studies first leaked out in 2010, the internet began buzzing with discussions and hypotheses of what he “must’” have done wrong.

The world could hardly attack Dr. Bem himself. His reputation as a researcher was lengthy, stellar, and impeccable. So, they began to find fault with his methods, his statistical analyses, and anything else they could think of. Several replications were begun. Different statistical methods were applied. There seemed to be a frantic rush to somehow demonstrate that this couldn’t be so.
The media picked up on all of this, which resulted in magazine and newspaper articles being written, including one in the New York Times, and prompted interviews with Dr. Bem on television and radio, including his much discussed appearance on the Colbert Report.
As Dr. Larry Dossey expressed in his journal article by the same name, WHY ARE SCIENTISTS AFRAID OF DARYL BEM? Why are these findings creating such a fuss? Unfortunately, it seems PSI has no credibility in the world of science. IF it did, many of the underlying assumptions by which we live, and which scientists hold to be immutable truths, would have to be modified. (And, of course, some great egos would have to admit that they were wrong!!)
This is not the first time in history that someone has had the audacity to question the supposed truths of a scientific community. Remember, it was once accepted that the earth was the center of the universe! Enter Galileo-----and that poor man ended up accused of heresy, and under lifetime arrest, for daring to propose the ludicrous and “impossible to believe” idea that the earth revolved around the sun. Alas, it was later determined that he was right, and the concept was incorporated into a new world view.
On Friday, July 7th, the person behind all this present controversy, Daryl Bem, was our guest at the Rhine. (I had seen him only the night before on the Science Network in a prerecorded episode of Through the Wormhole). He gave a private presentation to our research team, and then later, gave a public presentation at the Steadman Auditorium.
Daryl Bem is a down to earth, unassuming, extremely likable individual. He is obviously brilliant, and communicates what he knows with ease. After listening to him, one is amazed by the amount of knowledge he has imparted in such a short amount of time. He intersperses his dialogue with humorous comments, personal quips, and interesting tidbits of related information.
We at the Rhine Center have no problem accepting the credibility of Bem’s findings. We deal with issues that are considered by many as “unbelievable” and “impossible” every day. For us, his research is just a natural extension of the work begun by J.B. Rhine in the Duke Parapsychology Lab so many years ago. We applaud him for having the courage to pursue this line of inquiry. We hope his work will become the first crack in the rigid tenets of modern science, and may even lead to a serious fracture!!!
Of course, we don’t expect this to happen overnight, and the debate will rage on. The implications of all of this are as yet unclear, but it’s a start. So, we don’t suggest that college students now begin studying for their exams after they’ve taken them!!! We do however suggest that orthodox scientists begin studying findings such as these, and re-evaluating their concept of what is indisputably not possible. In the end, they might just find that embracing the idea of “believing in impossible things” is the ultimate triumph after all!

Daryl Bem is a social psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Cornell University.


Daryl Bem’s Home Page
Appearance on the Colbert Report
Article in the New York Times
Harvard Debate with Daryl Bem

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


From the upcoming Journal of Parapsychology:

DEBATING PSYCHIC EXPERIENCE: HUMAN POTENTIAL OR HUMAN ILLUSION? edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010. $44.95 (hardback). Pp. 236. ISBN 978-0-31339-261-0

Whatever your prior view of the debate over psi, this book is an absolute requirement if you wish to be kept updated. The current status of differing views on scientific arguments for and against the existence of psychic phenomena is debated in this volume. The only risk is that it is easy to choose whom to believe and thereby find your own personal biases confirmed. On the other hand, should you be open-minded and hoping for a resolution, you may at first be disappointed with the stagnation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the seeds for synthesis are actually there, although hard to find. Debates are actually not the best way of encouraging progress in a controversial subject. Inevitably, even without our biases, it is the most persuasive and eloquent debaters who are deemed the winners, whereas in this case the only winner should be science. It becomes then this reviewer’s difficult task to try to bring fairness back to the forefront, but ultimately in a case like this impartiality is an ambitious goal. Even so, I prefer to think that I share the attitude of most serious researchers in this area: If I am being fooled, I want the critic to tell me how.

The book contains chapters written by some of the most vocal experts in this field. Dean Radin and Chris Carter are the proponents presenting the case for psi having now been established, while the critics Ray Hyman, Jim Alcock, and Christopher French take the opposing view. I am going to allow my own bias to immediately discount the chapter by Michael Shermer, the editor of The Skeptic, on the grounds that it is not science; rather, it is based mainly on his personal experiences with tarot readings, accompanied by tales provided to him by the maverick English journalist Jon Ronsson (producer of the film The Men Who Stare at Goats). The chapter does fulfill a function—as a shop-window example of what the proponents in the book complain about: arrogance, in this case assuming psychical researchers know nothing about cold reading.

I shall not attempt a summary and evaluation of each chapter, because this is more than adequately provided by the editors in the form of their own introduction. Instead, I will look at the main issues per se. Harvard psychiatrist Ruth Richards provides a fair-minded introduction to the topic, after which the major contributors present their cases. The contributors then all come back for round two, rebuttals in which they evaluate their opponents’ chapters. Finally, epilogues are provided by the critic Richard Wiseman, the proponent Stephan Schwartz, and the editors themselves.

The confrontation gets heated and personal at times. Frustrated at the lack of appreciation for the enormous effort they expend to fulfill the critic’s demands with the limited support available, the proponents begin to see the critics as outmoded die-hard believers in materialism. They are seen as being left behind by recent developments in quantum physics and consciousness studies. Consequently, several of the proponents label the critics now as “psi deniers,” in much the same class as consciousness deniers and climate change deniers. Whatever one thinks about this labeling, it needs to be said that while much has been written on the psychology of belief in the paranormal, very little is known about the opposing polarized disbelief. Even if it causes some offence, it is therefore of value that Carter contributes a section of his chapter under the rubric Psychology of the Dogmatic Critic (p. 96).

And offence it does cause. Hyman claims he has always, in his role as a member of the Committee for Scientific Inquiry and through his papers in the Skeptical Inquirer, made a distinction between his treatment of parapsychology and other paranormal claims, recognizing that the former are based on scientific procedures. He is clearly offended by the allegations of unfair treatment made particularly by Carter and Schwartz. Likewise, Alcock recoils against this treatment as “ad hominem attacks” and “reviling the messenger.”
To read the whole article you can download a PDF, or subscribe to the Journal of Parapsychology.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Modern Cultural Perspective on Spiritual Healing

“Best-selling author and self-help guru James Ray was convicted last month of negligent homicide in the 2009 deaths of three people at a ceremony he led in an Arizona sweat lodge. His conviction raises enduring questions about how far society should go in monitoring therapeutic spiritual activities, particularly when matters of health and safety are at stake.” – Mitch Horowitz, The Wall Street Journal

Mitch Horowitz, author and friend of the Rhine Research Center, examines the impact of this conviction and the history of the societal attitudes towards spiritual healing. Included is a link to an article published in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, July 8th, 2011.

Online Article