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Can Porn Make You Psychic?

A Cornell University researcher is making headlines with the publication of experiments into the paranormal.

Typical Cornell University instructor

Daryl Bem is the author of the research paper, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,” published just this week in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

His experiments were three-fold, but all involved means of testing potential telepaths. The primary test was one in which he had 1,000 subjects sit in front of a computer and look at pornography.

Seriously.

The subjects looked at a computer screen, on which two curtains were shown. One curtain covered nothing. The other covered “arousing images”. The subjects had to click on the curtain they “felt” contained a picture.

And the results of this titillating expedition?

According to his findings:

…subjects consistently performed above chance, and correctly located the porn 53.1 percent of the time.

Interestingly, experiments were also conducted with “non-arousing images” hidden behind the curtain, and these resulted in a different hit-ratio. The non-porn inspired correct guesses just 49.8 percent of the time.

So is this what’s been obstructing our evolution into XXX-Men? Do we just need to convince adult websites to throw a curtain over their material to give us that extra incentive? Just think about it! You could actually be a porn-predicting Jedi!

Wait, what’s that?

The results haven’t been replicated?

Oh. That’s, um, sort of an important step in this whole science thing.

In fact, one of Bem’s experiments has been replicated, but the results painted a different picture from Bem’s findings. Leif Nelson of the University of California at Berkeley and Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University performed one of Bem’s experiments and discovered no significant results. Not for porn, not for non-porn.

Guess which one is making headlines? (Yes, including this article.)

Certainly, Bem has published an intriguing paper. Now, the real scrutiny begins. And the scrutiny is here. Nelson and Galak have published their own paper, in which they make a few interesting comments on Bem’s psychic results:

“There are obviously a multitude of possibilities for why we failed to obtain a result similar to Bem, ranging from the mundane (e.g., our sample was more heterogeneous than Bem’s) to the exotic (e.g., the quantum mechanics that allow for the detection of future events are also contingent on the specific physical features of the original experiment rooms.)”

Fun stuff, to be sure. Let’s scroll to the bottom line:

For the purposes of this paper we really only care about one possibility: Do we fail to detect precognition because precognition does not exist? In answer to this question we emphatically say, ‘We don’t know. On the one hand, we fail to replicate the effect, but on the other hand, our single failure to replicate is hardly sufficient to seriously undermine an entire paper.’”

As Jeffrey Jones says in Amadeus, “Ah, well. There it is.”

I suppose it could be quantum effects or an issue with population samples, or perhaps some other factor regarding in-person testing. After all, let’s point out that Nelson and Galak’s experiments were conducted over the Internet, and not face-to-face. Influential factors may be involved in either setting.

Bem may have looked like this whenever 53.1% of the pictures popped on his control screen.

The only relevant fact is that Bem’s results have not been replicated.  Bem himself admits that they need to be, in order to lend any weight to his findings.

You can read Bem’s paper here, and Nelson and Galak’s here.

2 comments to Can Porn Make You Psychic?

  • HappyEvilSlosh

    It’s been a while since I read the paper but if I recall correctly it isn’t true that over 1000 people were used on any single trial, rather over 1000 people were used spread across 7 different experiments, for that particular one you talk about I seem to remember it only involving around 200 people.

    Secondly I’m all about bashing this paper but I believe the one you link has been withdrawn by the authors since it was done online and they couldn’t prove people were paying attention. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1018886/Bem6.pdf is a paper that specifically attacks the use of statistics in Bem’s paper.

  • pegdirb

    I encourage everyone to read the paper, instead of relying on very limited accounts of it, such as this one.
    It clearly is not enough to convince me of the existence of psi, and my guess is that most future attempts to replicate will fail. However, it is a rigorous, methodologically sound set of experiments to test precognition. It is also quite simple in procedures and analysis (but see Wagenmakers, Wetzels, Borsboom & Maas 2010), which make it very easy for anyone to replicate. This is clearly a plus in comparison to other examples from the psi tests or related issues such as alternative medicine. In sum, Bem presents a paper that meets the criteria that we skeptics usually ask (and rarely get) from people suggesting evidence of psi. This is mainly an empirical paper, trying to convince us of the existence of the effect. In terms of explanations the author himself does not have confidence in any answer. He openly admits that his speculations on evolutionary basis or quantum mechanics are just that – the best speculations he can come up with to account for the effects.
    Do not get stuck on the fact of using erotic or pornographic stimuli. That is really not the point! In fact, those kind of materials are not that uncommonly used in experiments. In addition, the experiment here described (Experiment 1) is actually the least convincing to me, because they present no justification or convincing reason for not expecting the effect with the negative pictures (maybe because they did not find it…). However, there are a few more convincing studies after that (although I doubt they will replicate).
    In fact, replication is the point here, and I want to alert anyone interested in pursuing replication attempts that Richard Wiseman is having a registration of anyone who intends to do it, before having the results (go to his blog for this).
    Finally, it is important to realize that even if this was to replicate (with the proper statistical tests), it would still not be evidence for the kind of precognition most anecdotes deal with (broader and supposedly much more powerful). However, it would be ‘precognition’ and something quite hard to reconcile with our current notions of ‘things’.

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