Skeptics Eviscerated a Cornell Psychologist Whose Published Evidence Said Yes. A Decade Later, His Data Has Stood Up.
More than ten years ago, a prominent research psychologist, Daryl J. Bem, published a paper in a respected academic journal that presented evidence for precognition. The response was swift and withering. Critics in academia and news media called Bem's work an embarrassment; skeptics reran his trials and said they failed; one journalist argued that the clinician's results themselves proved "science is broken."
A decade on, however, the unthinkable has occurred. Bem's data has stood up.
When you say the word precognition it strikes many people as fantastical, as though we are entering crystal-ball territory. I do not believe in altering vocabulary to suit reactions (or that it does any good). But why the incredulity? We already know, and have known for generations, that linear time as we experience it is an illusion.
Einstein's theories of relativity, and experiments that have affirmed them, establish that time slows in conditions of extreme velocity—at or approaching lightspeed—and in conditions of extreme gravity like a black hole. The individual traveling in a metaphorical spaceship at or near lightspeed experiences time slowing (not from their perspective but in comparison to those not at near lightspeed), and this is not a mere thought exercise.1 Space travelers in our era, although they are obviously not approaching anywhere near that velocity, experience minute effects of time reduction.2
In short, linear time is a necessary illusion for five-sensory beings to get through life. Time is not an absolute. What's more, I hope that we as a culture are coming to a greater understanding of inter-dimensionality through models like string theory—in which all of reality, from particles to different dimensions, are connected by undulating networks of strings—and are learning further about the infinitude of objects and events, such as we glean from quantum physics and experiments that branch off from them.
This brings us to a remarkable episode from 2011, when well-known research psychologist Daryl J. Bem of Cornell University published a paper called "Feeling the Future" in a prominent psychology journal.3 For about ten years, Bem conducted a series of nine experiments involving more than 1,000 participants into precognition or "time reversing" of widely established cognitive or psychological effects, such as memorization of a list or responding to negative or erotic stimuli flashed as images on a screen. Bem's discoveries demonstrated the capacity of cognition across boundaries of linear time.
Bem, as with other researchers, including Dean Radin of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), identified factors that seem to correlate with precognition, such as the body's response to arousing or disturbing imagery. As Bem wrote of previous experiments in presentiment of stimuli: "Most of the pictures were emotionally neutral, but a highly arousing negative or erotic image was displayed on randomly selected trials. As expected, strong emotional arousal occurred when these images appeared on the screen, but the remarkable finding is that the increased arousal was observed to occur a few seconds before the picture appeared, before the computer had even selected the picture to be displayed."
In one of Bem's trials, subjects were asked to "guess" at erotic images alternated with benign images. "Across all 100 sessions," he wrote, "participants correctly identified the future position of the erotic pictures significantly more frequently than the 50% hit rate expected by chance: 53.1%.. .In contrast, their hit rate on the nonerotic pictures did not differ significantly from chance: 49.8%…This was true across all types of nonerotic pictures: neutral pictures, 49.6%; negative pictures, 51.3%; positive pictures, 49.4%; and romantic but nonerotic pictures, 50.2%."4
The response to either arousing or disturbing imagery is suggestive of the emotional stakes required for the presence of a psi effect, to which pioneering parapsychologist J.B. Rhine alluded in the appendix to a British edition of his 1934 monograph Extra-Sensory Perception:
Since my greatest interest is in stimulating others to repeat some of these experiments, I should like to mention here what has seemed to me to be the most important condition for ESP. This is a spontaneity of interest in doing it. The fresh interest in the act itself, like that of a child in playing a new game, seems to me the most favorable circumstance. Add now…the freedom from distraction, the absence of disturbing skepticism, the feeling of confidence or, at least, of some hope, and I think many good subjects can be found in any community or circle.
This begins to suggest the bridge, however delicate, between parapsychology and the kinds of causative mind metaphysics I explore in my books including The Miracle Club and Daydream Believer. In both categories—thought causation and ESP—passion is critical. Stakes must exist and strong emotions must be in play. In his 1937 New Frontiers of the Mind, Rhine emphasized the role of spontaneity, confidence, comity, novelty, curiosity, and lack of fatigue. (And, as it happens, caffeine.)
But Bem's horizons extended further. In the most innovative element of his nine-part study, the researcher set out to discover in experiments eight and nine whether subjects displayed improved recall of lists of words that were to be practice-memorized in the future:
Inspired by the White Queen's claim, the current experiment tested the hypothesis that memory can "work both ways" by testing whether rehearsing a set of words makes them easier to recall—even if the rehearsal takes place after the recall test is given. Participants were first shown a set of words and given a free recall test of those words. They were then given a set of practice exercises on a randomly selected subset of those words. The psi hypothesis was that the practice exercises would retroactively facilitate the recall of those words, and, hence, participants would recall more of the to-be-practiced words than the unpracticed words.
Bem found a statistically significant improvement of recall on the lists of words studied in the near future: "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."
In experiment nine, this retroactive effect was heightened when researchers added a refined practice exercise. ("A new practice exercise was introduced immediately following the recall test in an attempt to further enhance the recall of the practice words. This exercise duplicated the original presentation of each word that participants saw prior to the recall test, but only the practice words were presented.") The results improved: "This modified replication yielded an even stronger psi effect than that in the original experiment." In general, future memorization heightened current recall.
Unsurprisingly, Bem's 2011 paper met with tremendous controversy. Some critics even suggested that his study was intended as satire or an exposé of foundational flaws in the scientific model of data gathering, although Bem's work in parapsychology had gone back many years. Abandoning tones of probity that he displayed in earlier collaborations within parapsychology,5 University of Oregon psychologist and skeptic Ray Hyman told The New York Times: "It's craziness, pure craziness. I can't believe a major journal is allowing this work in. I think it's just an embarrassment for the entire field."6
I have observed among psi skeptics a kind of reverse habituation in matters of critical opinion. I have personally encountered skeptics who in private or after extensive discussion will ease their tone of opposition, slacken their rejectionism, allow for intellectual exchange, and even acknowledge key data. But once they return to their peer groups, including on social media, they often revert to tones of unmitigated stridency.
Within a year of Bem's publication, a trio of professional skeptics published a rejoinder. Playing off of Bem's "Feeling the Future," their paper sported the media-friendly title, "Failing the Future."7 The experimenters reran Bem's ninth experiment. They wrote in their abstract: "Nine recently reported parapsychological experiments appear to support the existence of precognition. We describe three pre-registered independent attempts to exactly replicate one of these experiments, 'retroactive facilitation of recall', which examines whether performance on a memory test can be influenced by a post-test exercise. All three replication attempts failed to produce significant effects…and thus do not support the existence of psychic ability."
In his 1975 presidential address to the Parapsychology Association, scientist Charles Honorton (1946-1992) observed, "Even among parapsychologists there is a rather widespread belief that most of the independent replication of the early Duke work [by J.B. Rhine] were non-confirmatory." I have often noted the confusion—some of it, I warrant, intentional—that polemical skeptics bring to this material in reference sources and media. This situation is so pronounced that on September 12, 2021, while writing this piece, I privately emailed parapsychologist and friend Dean Radin: "Would you say that the Bem word-memory experiments are too pockmarked by data-gathering problems or lack of replicability to be ranked among core literature?" In his typically understated manner, Dean replied: "The Bem experiments are fine." This began my personal efforts to sort out what is unclear in dominant media and search rankings: the skeptics have cooked the books.
In the study that I cited above, "Failing the Future," the authors omitted a critical detail from their own database. By deadline, they possessed two independent studies that replicated Bem's results. They made no mention of the opposing studies despite their own ground rules for doing so. Bem wrote in his response:
In their article, [coauthor Stuart J.] Ritchie et al. mention that their experiments were "pre-registered." They are referring to an online registry set up by [coauthor Richard] Wiseman himself, asking anyone planning a replication to pre-register it and then to provide him with the data when the study is completed. As he noted on the registration website: "We will carry out a meta-analysis of all registered studies…that have been completed by 1 December 2011."
By the deadline, six studies attempting to replicate the Retroactive Recall effect had been completed, including the three failed replications reported by Ritchie et al. and two other replications, both of which successfully reproduced my original findings at statistically significant levels. (One of them was conducted in Italy using Italian words as stimuli.) Even though both successful studies were pre-registered on Wiseman's registry and their results presumably known to Ritchie et al., they fail to mention them in this article.8
In the type of gear-grinding reply that renders these debates self-perpetuating and never-ending, the authors referenced other studies that had failed to reproduce Bem's results (at least one of them an online study that Bem disputed), without directly addressing his criticism.9 The authors were scrupulous about this much: thanking Bem for making his database, software, and instructions available gratis to any researchers who wished to retread his efforts, which runs counter to the oft-heard canard that ESP experiments elude repetition or that parapsychologists avoid repeat trials.
In an otherwise caustic article written from the a priori assumption that ESP is impossible because it is impossible, journalist Daniel Engber noted in Slate in 2017: "To help get this project underway, Bem had granted researchers full access to his data and provided a detailed how-to guide for redoing his experiments—a level of transparency that was pretty much unheard of at the time."10 Yet without considering the plausibility of psi beyond "it couldn't be true," in the words of a counter-researcher, the writer concluded: "Bem had shown that even a smart and rigorous scientist could cart himself to crazyland, just by following the rules of the road." Science itself is broken, the piece went, with Bem's analysis as exhibit A.
Although there unquestionably exists a significant crisis of replicability and data manipulation—not to mention fraud—in the social and natural sciences,11 no one has directly tied any of this to Bem or his methods. Contrary to the stated nature of skepticism, however, inference sometimes trumps facts. On August 27, 2015, the New York Times ran an article, "Many Psychology Findings Not as Strong as Claimed, Study Says" by Benedict Carey. The piece dealt with a series of high-grade failures that rocked the social sciences over the previous several years, including misreports, research retractions, and fabrications. Amid this malfeasance, the opening paragraph read, "A top journal published a study supporting the existence of ESP that was widely criticized." It hyperlinked to Bem's study.
Bem's paper was grouped with, and cited as a prime exhibit of, polluted data. But not once in the article did the reporter further reference Bem's study or support why it was categorized with fraudulent and compromised research. At the time, the paper maintained an editorial ombudsman. I wrote her to call this out. I received no reply. I wrote a letter to the editor. It did not run. I have written for the New York Times myself on controversial topics. A year before the article, I published an op-ed on the global problem of violence against accused witches.12 In this case, however—with a controversial study coming from a respected researcher and published in a leading journal grouped without explanation with corrupted data—I could gain no evident hearing.
What about Bem's findings and the crisis of replication? I noted that Bem opened his database and software and provided instruction manuals free to anyone who wished to rerun his experiments. As of July 2020, Bem's experiments (including the original trials) showed replication in a meta-analysis encompassing 90 experiments in 33 laboratories in 14 countries.13 Indulge my repetition of that figure. "To encourage replications," Bem and his coauthors wrote in the abstract of their follow-up paper, "all materials needed to conduct them were made available on request. We here report a meta-analysis of 90 experiments from 33 laboratories in 14 countries which yielded an overall effect…greatly exceeding" the standard for "'decisive evidence' in support of the experimental hypothesis."
After a January 2022 talk in which I defended Bem's data, I heard from professional skeptic Michael Shermer who wrote on Twitter: "Dear @MitchHorowitz @RupertSheldrake et al. Bem's precognition experiment was NOT 'replicated 90 times' 72 studies revealed no effect, 18 were statistically significant. 'there is as of yet no compelling reason to draw the inference precognition exists'." He linked to a critique of the aforementioned meta-analysis.
After a degree of inconclusive back-and-forth (this being Twitter), I replied:
Michael, I do not believe you understand meta-analysis. "Statistically significant" refers to the p-value associated with a study. It does *not* mean the effect is real or not real. What you want to know is what is the size of the effect under study. If the effect is small (which is the case for practically all experiments in the behavioral and social sciences) then the results of any single study may well not reach statistical significance (because not enough trials in the study were run). But if the effect size per study is observed to be about the same over many replications, and the overall estimate of the effect is not zero, then you are dealing with a real phenomenon. That is the purpose of meta-analysis. The Bem meta-analysis shows that the effects are indeed repeatable over many replications, and that the effect is above zero (in fact, from a statistical perspective we have very high confidence that it is above zero). But even beyond this, one would expect that 5% of studies would be statistically significant at the p = 0.05 level purely by chance. But that's not what we have here. We see 18 out of 90 studies being significant. That's 20%, far more than the chance expectation of 5%. You have a naive understanding of how to properly evaluate replication of experimental effects. The 90 studies, meta-analyzed, show significant effect. I have—now for the third (and final) time—invited you to a formal, jointedly [sic] sponsored debate since Twitter is so limited a forum. I further review this material in my forthcoming book.
I believe that I am highlighting only the glacial tip of how parapsychological data is mishandled within much of mainstream news media and large swaths of academia. The question is: why? I have difficulty understanding human nature, which is, finally, the crux of the matter. "The itch to silence those whose opinions we disagree with, applied centuries ago against scientists of the stature of Bruno, Galileo, and others, has spread, ironically, to scientists themselves, and there are few cases as blatant as those involving the topic of parapsychology," wrote Thorsen Professor of Psychology at Lund University, Sweden, Etzel Cardeña in 2015.14 And further: "I think that a contributing factor is that research on parapsychology is seen as so emotionally (and factually) threatening because it suggests that 'things are not as they seem,' or at least as the censors believe they are."
Indeed, after a certain point of tautological criticism of nearly a century of academic ESP research, it becomes difficult to avoid using a strong word that I prefer not to use and that I do not use lightly: suppression. Not of any centrally organized sort but of a cultural sort in which prevailing findings run so counter to materialist assumptions that critics—who ironically perceive themselves as arbiters of rationality—assume an "at any cost" stance to dispel contrary data. Winning becomes more important than proving. It is the antithesis of science. This is the irony to which professional skepticism has brought us.
But truth has a strange way of enduring. As Bem's findings have.
Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian whose books include Occult America, One Simple Idea, The Miracle Club, and Daydream Believer, from which this article is partly adapted. His books are published in Arabic, French, Italian, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese. China's government has censored his work. Twitter @MitchHorowitz | Instagram @MitchHorowitz23
1 Einstein famously wrote in a letter of March 1955, "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
2 E.g., see "Here's why astronauts age slower than the rest of us here on Earth" by Kelly Dickerson, August 19, 2005, Business Insider
3 "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect" by Daryl J. Bem, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, Vol. 100, No. 3
4 You will note the slender but statistically significant effect that is referenced here, which is typical of parapsychology experiments. The measurable impact is not like Zeus throwing lightning bolts at earth but rather a detectable "signal in the noise," which requires precise measurement and circumstantial cultivation.
5 "A Joint Communiqué: The Psi Ganzfeld Controversy" by Ray Hyman and Charles Honorton, Journal of Parapsychology, vol. 50, December 1986
6 "Journal's Paper on ESP Expected to Prompt Outrage" by Benedict Carey, New York Times, Jan. 5, 2011
7 "Failing the Future: Three Unsuccessful Attempts to Replicate Bem's 'Retroactive Facilitation of Recall' Effect" by Stuart J. Ritchie, Richard Wiseman, Christopher C. French, PLoS ONE, March 2012, Volume 7, Issue 3
8 "Bem's response to Ritchie, Wiseman, and French," posted 15 Mar 2012: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/comment?id=10.1371/annotation/02eae6d6-af7f-41d8-b2b3-b6d32fdce7a6
9 "Authors' response to Bem," posted 15 Mar 2012: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/comment?id=10.1371/annotation/cd8a1df4-e003-44aa-9d72-a7e1a6b26012
10 "Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real: Which means science is broken" By Daniel Engber, Slate, June 7, 2017
11 E.g., see "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False" by John P. A. Ioannidis, PLoS Medicine, August 2005, Volume 2, Issue 8. Much is sometimes made of the "decline effect" in Rhine's experiments—a topic that he addressed in detail and hypothesized over (e.g., see the previous statements from Rhine's Extra-Sensory Perception and New Frontiers of the Mind); this issue, too, is general to the medical and social sciences, e.g., "The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?" by Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, December 5, 2010.
12 "The Persecution of Witches, 21st-Century Style" by Mitch Horowitz, July 4, 2014
13 "REVISED: Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events" [version 2; peer review: 2 approved] by Daryl Bem, Patrizio E. Tressoldi, Thomas Rabeyron, Michael Duggan, first published: 30 Oct 2015, latest published: 29 Jan 2016, last updated: 23 Jul 2020, F1000Research
14 "The Unbearable Fear of Psi: On Scientific Suppression in the 21st Century," Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 29, No. 4, December 15, 2015