Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

ESP (Extra-Sexy Perception)

Daryl Bem, an experimental psychologist of some standing, has an obsession; proving that ESP exists.  He's been at this for decades.  He was one of the researchers who designed the Ganzfeld Experiment back in the 1980s, in which people were placed in sensory deprivation and allegedly could communicate telepathically.  (Other scientists, naturally wishing to see if they could replicate these results, couldn't.)

He's still at it, almost thirty years later, and published a paper last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which he basically says, "Now I've done it!  See?"

Unfortunately for Bem, this piece of research is (1) once again generating results that most other scientists don't consider significant, and (2) may be one of the most unintentionally funny experimental designs I've ever heard.

What he did was to take a bunch of college students, and place them in front of two computer screens.  The students were equipped with sensors that detected which way their eyes were moving.  Then they were shown pairs of photographs on the two screens.  The pairs of photographs were made up of (1) an innocent photograph like a landscape or a puppy, and (2) a photograph of people having sex.  Bem's claim was that based on the eye movements of the students, they anticipated the screen with the erotic photograph "significantly more than fifty percent of the time."

The experiment was repeated with other types of photographic pairings, and no effect was found.

So, if you accept Bem's results -- ESP works, but only if sex is involved.

Bem writes, with an apparent straight face, "The presentiment studies provide evidence that our physiology can anticipate erotic stimuli before they can occur.  Such anticipation would be evolutionarily advantageous for reproduction and survival if the organism could act instrumentally to approach erotic stimuli and avoid negative stimuli."

Sure.  That makes total sense.  If a guy sees a woman making sexual advances toward him, it's gonna help him out if he's ready to rock and roll 0.1 seconds before she is.  Because we all know how slow guys are to get aroused.  Excuse me while I take a momentary break to guffaw.  All of which tells me that whatever he knows about psychology, the guy (1) doesn't understand evolutionary theory, and (2) apparently has never gotten laid.

Bem's paper also describes a variety of other experiments he conducted.  My favorite was one in which he found that studying after a test makes your score better.  Yes, you read that right.  In Bem's words:  "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."  I hope my students don't find out about this.  I have a hard enough time getting them to study as it is.

And of course, no woo-woo article would be complete without a mention of quantum physics.  Bem writes, "Those who follow contemporary developments in modern physics, however, will be aware that several features of quantum phenomena are themselves incompatible with our everyday conception of physical reality."

As far as I can tell, this means, "Quantum physics is kinda weird.  ESP is also weird.  Quantum physics is real.  Therefore ESP is real.  Q.E.D."

There's also the problem that other psychologists did a statistical analysis of Bem's results, and found that "the evidence for psi is weak to nonexistent."  Given that this criticism was published in the same issue of JPSP, you have to wonder how Bem's paper got past the peer review process in the first place.

Anyway, Bem claims that his research shows that if ESP exists, (1) it will help you to locate pornography, and (2) allow you to study after you take tests.   All of which explains vividly why his findings would appeal to college students.  If he could add another experiment that showed (3) a method for dowsing for beer, I think he'd be the most popular researcher on US college campuses.

No comments:

Post a Comment