The New York Times has a story about a new study by Daryl J. Bem of Cornell University that makes a case for ESP. Of course one needs to consider it carefully–peer review, replication, and all that–before jumping in, but it seems likely that The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will be in for some awkward attention over the next few months.
Most ESP studies get shot down on their methodology–anyone who’s read Martin Gardner and the Amazing Randi knows that. If the participants don’t cheat, they’re influenced by the examiners. Assuming that this study’s controls are as airtight as its author says they are, I suspect its Achilles heel will be in its statistical modeling. I scanned the piece and realized I don’t know anywhere near enough about math to venture any kind of informed opinion, but having just read Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker piece on “the decline effect,” I can imagine the kinds of objections that might emerge. Lehrer’s piece considers the troubling phenomena by which experimental results become less replicable over time.
“Scientific research,” Lehrer writes, “will always be shadowed by a force that can’t be curbed, only contained: sheer randomness….
Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can’t bear to let them go. And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren’t surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.) The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.