Forward Thinker

Experimental psychologist and amateur magician Daryl Bem ’60 landed on the front page of the New York Times in January for his research on ESP. Heather Ainsworth/The New York Times/Redux

Psychologist Daryl Bem ’60 has just published an extraordinary hypothesis. Go ahead and guess.

By Bill Donahue
Cover Illustration by Gavin Potenza

It’s possible that you already know what this article is going to say—that, in fact, you anticipated this first sentence, replete with commas, before I even tapped it to life on my keyboard. Over the eons, to avoid calamity and strengthen their chance of reproducing, humans have developed a weak form of precognition, the ability to see into the future. At least that’s what Daryl Bem ’60 believes, and—

Wait, wait, wait. I know what you’re thinking—Bem is one of those Reedies, sitting cross-legged in a cave somewhere, sipping kombucha tea as he muses on Jungian symbology and the alignment of his chakras.

Actually, Bem is an emeritus professor at Cornell University and a researcher of international renown. University of California at Santa Barbara psychologist Jonathan Schooler calls him “one of the most eminent psychologists in the field.” He is a versatile academic who, in a full half-century as a published scholar, has written on risk taking, self-perception, and sex discrimination. He has just published a nuanced paper in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, laden with statistics that, he argues, provide compelling evidence for precognition.

Bem’s 61-page study, “Feeling the Future,” is hardly the first to present evidence for ESP, but it may be the most prestigious and consequential. As Douglas Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University, Bloomington, says, “If any of his claims were true, then all of the bases underlying contemporary science would be toppled, and we would have to rethink everything about the nature of the universe.”

Hofstadter and many other skeptics feel that Bem’s paper should never have been published. In a blog entry, Hofstadter calls the article an offense to anyone who dares to “believe deeply in science” and adds that Bem is “necessarily, certainly, undoubtedly wrong in some fashion.”

Meanwhile, ESP believers hail Bem as a sort of psychological Galileo. Dean Radin, the past president of the Parapsychological Association, and a senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, reckons that the paper will “dissolve past prejudices. A few generations from now,” he says hopefully on his blog, “I suspect that psi will still be controversial, but no more so than dozens of other leading-edge topics in science.”

Bem’s paper details nine experiments that he conducted over the course of eight years in a cramped, windowless lab, using over 1,000 Cornell students as subjects. The endeavor might sound almost tedious in its plodding pursuit of precision, but somehow it wasn’t, for Bem is anything but a stolid technocrat. He is a lifelong magician who regularly performed mentalist tricks in the lecture hall at Cornell, seemingly reading his students’ minds by, for instance, guessing at the contents of a box brought from home. He’s an accomplished pianist who, on a lark, has twice conducted the symphony in his current home, Ithaca, New York. And he’s also an inventive thinker with no patience for pro forma nonsense. In his widely circulated 2003 essay, “Writing the Empirical Journal Article,” he says, “Scientific journals are published for specialized audiences who share a common background of substantive knowledge and methodological expertise. If you wish to write well, you should ignore this fact.”

Some of Bem’s experiments are just plain weird. In one, for example, he tested “retroactive recall” by showing subjects a list of words, asking them to recall the words, and then giving them the opportunity to rehearse some of those words after the quiz. Bizarrely, the words they recalled best were the same words they rehearsed after the quiz—as if the effects of the rehearsal somehow reached backwards in time.

The most talked-about experiment, though, involves pornography. Hypothesizing that humans have developed extrasensory antennae for sexual prospects, Bem sat subjects before a computer screen depicting a pair of blue velvet stage curtains and told them that an explicit image would soon appear behind one of the curtains. Could they guess which curtain would reveal the smut?

When tantalized with the prospect of porn in this either/or scenario, Bem’s 100 subjects guessed correctly 53.1 percent of the time.

To University of Amsterdam psychologist Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, that slim majority doesn’t mean much. In a rebuttal that accompanies Bem’s paper, he says that Bem went on a “fishing expedition” and failed to satisfy the scientific dictate that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Bem disagrees. “For all nine of my experiments, there was a less than one in 100 chance that the results were random,” he says. “For some, it was less than a one in 1,000 chance. Something is going on.”