Precognition Researcher Daryl Bem Responds to Criticism of His Famous Experiments

Crystal Ball

Last month the Chronicle for Higher Education published an exposé of sorts on Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and bestselling author on eating habits. Towards the end of the article, the author of the piece pointed out that this controversy wasn't the first to deal "a blow to Cornell's research reputation":

In 2011, Daryl Bem, an emeritus professor of psychology, published a paper in which he showed, or seemed to show, that subjects could anticipate pornographic images before they appeared on a computer screen. If true, Bem’s finding would upend what we understand about the nature of time and causation. It would be a big deal. That paper, "Feeling the Future," was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate, though Bem himself has stood by his results.

Bem, however, could be dismissed as a quirky psychologist poking at conventional wisdom. He wasn’t in charge of a major lab. Cornell’s business school uses Wansink’s face to illustrate its faculty and research webpage."

Long-time readers will know the research being referred to here as we were covering it way back in 2010, well before it became big news. In short, highly respected researcher Daryl Bem and his team ran nine experiments, involving more than 1,000 participants, that tested for "retroactive influence" (that is, effects before cause) by “timereversing” well-established psychological tests so that individuals' responses were obtained before the stimulus events occurred. The result: statistically significant positive results suggesting 'presentiment' of future unknown events was an actual thing.

Bem's paper was (predictably) slammed by CSICOPian skeptics (including James Randi and Michael Shermer), but for the most part it was relatively well-accepted, and made headline news around the world. Addionally, although there was one high-profile failed replication of the experiments, there were also a number of positive replications of the research results, resulting in a meta-analysis supporting the original results.

So it's difficult to see how the author of the Chronicle of Higher Education piece came to the conclusion that Bem's paper "was widely ridiculed and failed to replicate". For his part, Daryl Bem has written a letter of reply that has just been posted on the Chronicel for Higher Education website:

To the Editor:

In "Spoiled Science" (March 31), Tom Bartlett briefly refers to a 2011 publication of mine that appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It presented the results of nine experiments claiming to demonstrate the existence of precognition, a form of ESP. The Journal is one of the most strongly refereed journals in psychology, with a rejection rate of approximately 80 percent. Four referees and two editors approved the article for publication.

Bartlett asserts that my experiments failed to replicate. He is incorrect: In 2015, three colleagues and I published a follow-up meta-analysis of 90 such experiments conducted by 33 laboratories in 14 countries. The results strongly support my original findings. In particular, the independent replications are robust and highly significant statistically.

Bartlett further asserts that this research was widely ridiculed and constituted a blow to Cornell’s research reputation. But it was Cornell’s own public-affairs office that was proactively instrumental in setting up interviews with the press and other media following the publication of the original article. New Scientist, Discover, Wired, New York Magazine, and Cornell’s own in-house publications all described the research findings seriously and without ridicule.

Daryl J. Bem
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
Cornell University

To learn more about Bem's controversial research - both the science, and the history, see the links below.