LiveScience is reporting on experiments done by researchers at three universities trying to replicate Daryl Bem‘s 2010 claim that he had found scientific proof of psychic ability. The researchers Stuart Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh, University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman and University of London psychologist Christopher French all conducted the experiment separately at their respective universities with 50 participants each.
The researchers chose the strongest of the eight positive findings that Bem originally published. In the experiment, Bem’s participants seemed to reverse the usual cause-effect sequence of time. They saw a list of 48 words flashed onto a computer screen and were then treated to a surprise memory test in which they were asked to type in as many of the words as they remembered.
Next, a random sample of 24 of the previous 48 words was presented again. The participants did some practice exercises with these words, and then the experiment ended. Analyzing the memory-test results, Bem and his colleagues found that the students were more likely to recall the words that they’d soon see again than the words that were not on the later exercise list, as if they could see the future.
“It’s almost as if you study for an exam, you do the exam and then you study for it afterwards and then you get a better mark,” Ritchie told LiveScience. “So you can see why we were kind of surprised by that.”
Bem encouraged replication of his results, and he put the computer program he used in his experiment online so other researchers could use it.
The results of the experiments were very clear. They found nothing.
There was no evidence that studying for a test afterwards did anything to increase performance. So what does that say about the results in Bem’s work?
“It might just be because the statistics were a fluke,” he said. “You’re going to get some false positives sometimes.”
Bem wrote a response to the soon-to-be published findings, stating that it was too early to make any definitive claim. There need to be multiple replication attempts to thoroughly disprove findings.
“This does not mean that psi[psychic phenomena] results are unverifiable by independent investigators, but that we must begin regarding the experimenter as a variable in the experiments that should be included in the research designs,” Bem wrote.
Richard Wiseman, a prominent Skeptic, has a rather long list of attempts to replicate Bem’s work and plans to analyze the results together into one study.
One big problem facing the work is reluctance on the part of journals to publish studies with negative findings, especially those that are replications.
When Ritchie and his colleagues submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the journal that had originally published Bem’s work, they were told that the journal does not publish replications.
“There’s a real problem with finding shocking findings and then not being interested in publishing replications,” Ritchie said.
In that way, Bem’s surprising psychic study has been a boon to psychology, Ritchie said.
“It’s kicked up a huge debate about how scientists do work and how journals publish that work, and I think that’s very valuable in itself — even if I’m not that confident that these findings are real,” Ritchie said.