Are Cornell Students Psychic?

In a series of experiments, Cornell psychology professor? Daryl Bem has demonstrated “numerous ‘retroactive’ psi effects – that is, phenomena that are inexplicable according to current scientific knowledge” among hundreds of Cornell students. As the BPS Research Digest summarizes: “Take priming, the effect whereby a subliminal (i.e. too fast for conscious detection) presentation of a word or concept speeds subsequent reaction times for recognition of a related stimulus. Bem turned this around by having participants categorize pictures as negative or positive and then presenting them subliminally with a negative or positive word. That is, the primes came afterwards. Students were quicker, by an average of 16.5ms, to categorize negative pictures as negative when they were followed by a negative subliminal word (e.g. ‘threatening’), almost as if that word were acting as a prime working backwards in time.” Bern suggests the explanation may lie in quantum effects: “Those who follow contemporary developments in modern physics … will be aware that several features of quantum phenomena are themselves incompatible with our everyday conception of physical reality,” Bern writes. “Many psi researchers see sufficiently compelling parallels between these phenomena and characteristics of psi to warrant considering them as potential candidates for theories of psi.” [%comments]

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  1. skeptic says:

    A more honest and accurate reporting of this story would be that Bem has found a small (1.7% to 3%) effect that seems to not be due to chance alone. He then attributes this effect to “psi,” specifically precognition. Given that there is no plausible mechanism for these psi effects, it would be much more reasonable to attribute the small effect to poor study design.

    (Bem does claim that quantum mechanical effects may play a role, but this is pure speculative bunk. No coherent QM effect has ever been observed in a system as large and complex as the human brain…and no current theory within QM predicts the possibility of any such effect.)

    Finally, an attempt to replicate a portion of Bem’s study has already been performed and shows no effect:

    As Thomas Paine said:

    “We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course. But we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time. It is therefore at least millions to one that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.”

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  2. Pup, MD says:

    Quantum physics must be the least likely explanation possible for this imaginable.

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  3. Ian Callum says:

    This type of result raises issues similar to the quantum measurement problem in physics.

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  4. Carl says:

    Handy rule of thumb: When somebody invokes quantum mechanics as an explanation, and that person is not an actual physicist discussing a painstakingly crafted and executed experiment with quantum states…

    …it’s a near certain bet they have no idea what they are talking about.

    This research is (a) a brilliant experimental concept and (b) fascinating if true, but there is still a long way to go and other researchers have already started to find potential flaws in some of the methodology.

    But either way, one thing I will predict right now with great certainty: Quantum mechanics has nothing to do with this.

    Quantum effects simply cannot persist for long enough or become large enough in a “noisy” environment to affect the complex and distributed brain functions involved in deciding, for example, whether a word is “negative”.

    Psi researchers love to draw analogies with QM, but analogies are not science… and in fact the analogy is generally no deeper than “quantum mechanics is contrary to intuition, and psi is too, so since quantum mechanics is true, psi might be too.

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  5. zachk says:

    My heuristics say that this is pseudoscience. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, I’d say this is merely decent evidence.

    Already, an attempt to replicate some of the results has failed:

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  6. Thomas Doggette says:

    What happens when you repeat it, determining randomly *after* the word what the “post-primer” is?

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  7. notmelbrooks says:

    The stop watch was miscallibrated.

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  8. Ian Kemmish says:

    On the other hand, if they were capable of understanding QM, they probably wouldn’t have embarked on careers as psychic researchers.

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    • Larkwood says:

      This statement represents the fundamental problem with research into this field. Anyone who risks approaching the subject as a serious scientist risks a knee-jerk dismissive response which, when it comes from peers, can permanently derail that scientist’s career.

      The widely-reported phenomenon of precognition is absolutely worth studying, because if it turns out to be provable in a lab setting, then it will force science to, at the very minimum, re-architect its current model of how consciousness interfaces with space and time.

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