You might recall last year a surprising new study by Daryl J. Bem who published his paper ‘Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect’ in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
This paper appeared to show that ESP (extra-sensory perception) was a real phenomena and under certain circumstances (in this case erotic photos) it could be demonstrated in a laboratory setting.
Suffice it to say, many scientists and skeptics were very skeptical of the findings of this paper. After all, ESP is an extraordinary claim and goes against much of our established evidence about how the brain works and what is physically possible in our universe. To prove this claim, we need equally extraordinary evidence.
One of the first steps to establishing the truth or not of the study is to replicate it. This process means that scientists in different intuitions and different locations attempt to follow the same methodology and procedure and get the same results. This would demonstrate that errors in methodology or researcher bias’ were not influencing the results of the study. If the replicating studies could not reproduce the same results, that would imply that there was a problem somewhere along the way, either with the new studies or the original. This trial and error process would get us closer to the truth.
Stuart Ritchie, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Edinburgh attempted to reproduce the study but failed to get the same results. But Ritchie found he couldn’t get these negative findings published.
Considering all the attention Bem’s paper received — and the enormous implications if his findings are indeed valid — follow-up research seems pretty important. Not only that, but published follow up studies are very important for the scientific process. When journals refuse to publish such papers, they’re really throwing in a monkey wrench to the scientific method. The error-correcting mechanisms of the scientific method only work when those error corrections get published in the scientific community and become part of the debate.
One such example of the difficulties that Ritchie and his team encountered was when they attempted to get their study published in the British Journal of Psychology who sent it out for peer review. Richie described the experience here. One of the negative reviewers, who didn’t have problems with the methodology but rather the fact that the three researchers, Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Stuart Ritchie were all skeptics, who all had psychic powers and were using them to suppress the ESP.
The only way they could get their paper published was if they agreed to do it again, this time with a believer in ESP to run all the participants. Despite the fact that this would add an obvious bias to the paper, they are proceeding with the study but are of course frustrated with the delay and stipulations on their research.
This whole issue is an example of what can happen when the scientific method is prevented from moving forward.
Had the original study been published, followed by studies attempting to replicate the results, which in turn would point researchers in the direction of either exploring an exciting development in human psychology or sending the original researchers back to the drawing board to re-examine their conclusions. Either way, we would have learned something new about how the brain works. Instead, the media took hold of a popular idea and propagated a potentially misleading notion that ESP is real.
We will of course keep our eye on this bit of skeptical news.