Why Debunking ESP Can Be Interesting

By Carl Zimmer | August 29, 2012 10:26 am

Last year, a Cornell University psychologist named Daryl Bem published a study which he claimed showed that events in the future can influence our minds at the present. I wrote about the study in an essay for the New York Times on the workings of science–how science relies on replication to move forward, and how scientists often struggle to make this happen. When other scientists replicated Bem’s experiments, they failed to get his results. But they found it difficult to get their results published in prominent journals, which frown on replication studies.

Over at Science-Based Medicine, Steve Novella writes about a newly published replication study appearing in the same journal where Bem’s original research was published. Once again, the scientists failed to get Bem’s results. That the future does not affect the present is not exactly news, but Novella’s post is still very much worth reading, because he takes this moment as an opportunity to talk about the reason that studies like Bem’s turn out the way they do in the first place, and how scientists can design experiments better in the future. Check it out.

[Image: Photo by meeni2010 via Creative Commons]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Writing Elsewhere

Comments (4)

  1. Colin Fredericks

    I think you mean “when other scientists replicated Bem’s work”, not “replicated Bem’s findings”.

    Thanks for the article!

    [CZ: Thanks! Fixed.]

  2. Charles Sullivan

    If the replication of Bem’s experiments had appeared before Bem’s experiments, then I might reconsider.

  3. Chris

    I would expect that if you got the same results in a replication study that journals would not be interested in publishing it. “Hey everyone I found the electron!” would be a little pointless.

    However if you do get results contrary to what has been previously published, I would expect the journals to be interested since it could mean a retraction is in the works. “Guess what electrons don’t exist” would be news.

  4. Jason

    Chris, that is true but it leads to a bias towards the sensational claim. “ESP exists!” is a flashy attention getter. “Um, no it still doesn’t” less so. There is a conflict of interest in science journals: the more outlandish the claim, science would say the more need for evidence and strong data to back it up. However, for journals, the more outlandish the claim, the more interest it draws. Good editorial staffs might negate this conflict of interest, but it doesn’t always happen.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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