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

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