In 2011, psychologist Daryl Bem published a highly controversial series of nine experiments designed to tease out the potential existence of precognition, the ability to experience future events. In order to isolate the potential influence of future events on the present, Bem’s experimental design reversed the standard order of psychological investigations. In one experiment, for example, subjects were allowed to practice with random words after having already taken a memory test comprised of some of them.
Bem’s results were controversial for many reasons, mostly because they were positive. But the question of whether or not they should have even been published in the first place, regardless of the results, was raised by many in the scientific and skeptical community. As history has shown us repeatedly, the risk of falsely legitimizing nonsense by publishing positive but typically poorly-designed studies is very real. And negative studies tend to be ignored by believers and policy makers.
Bem’s experimental design was made available from the beginning of his research in 2002, and he encouraged others to perform their own studies. Unfortunately for Bem, attempts at replicating his findings were largely reported, if not always published, as negative. Apparently this was not enough to discourage the intrepid believer. In fact, he currently has a meta-analysis of 90 experiments using the same protocols as his original research under editorial review.
The conclusions of his new analysis [PDF] are, not surprisingly, supportive of the existence of precognition, and in his manuscript he attempts to address all of the skepticism regarding his findings. He even quotes Feynman and implies that physicists are taking the possibility of quantum-based explanations of psi seriously. It’s an interesting read to say the least.
What does NCAA basketball have to do with the topic of psi research?
A new name in the field of parapsychology research has been making headlines since going public with his efforts on the 1st of the month, and not surprisingly the media coverage is increasing now that his findings have been announced. Dr. Mort Fishman, a psychologist and paranormal researcher out of Tuono di Legno University in Florence, has ingeniously incorporated one of the world’s most popular sporting events, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, into a study of precognitive abilities. The results, if they are to be believed, may change the minds of even the hardiest psi skeptics.
In anticipation of March Madness each year, millions of basketball fans around the world fill out tournament brackets in an attempt to correctly predict which teams will win, and ultimately who will emerge victorious from the championship game. Many make a contest out of it, with office pools now a nearly ubiquitous aspect of life this time of year. ESPN even holds a Tournament Challenge, the winner of which is given a chance for $20,000 and a trip to Hawaii. It might even be Mitt Romney this year, leading some to regret their vote in the 2012 Presidential election.
The reasons people give for their choices are myriad, ranging from a thorough evaluation of the various teams’ stats to something as primitive and powerful as a gut feeling or how cute the mascot is. Fishman, an avid basketball fan who played three seasons for the European Basketball Federation’s Florence Nightingales, set out at the beginning of the NCAA college basketball season to determine if there might be a precognitive component to these choices. Inspired by Bem’s study designs, he also incorporated a reversal of standard protocols into his research.
The typical approach to filling out a bracket is to do so before the first game of the tournament. In fact, most official contests require it in order to avoid any unfair advantage. Fishman, who had a league record foul-to-rebound ratio of 2.5 during his stint on the Nightingales, instead asked study participants to fill out their bracket after the completion of the championship game, which was won by beloved perennial tournament underdogs, the Duke Blue Devils. According to Fishman, the most challenging aspect of the study was preventing participants from being exposed to any potential contamination with information about the teams during the season.
We went to great expense to protect subjects from potential bias or even outright cheating by basing their bracket picks on outside information. They were sequestered in a reasonably priced hotel, without access to the internet, television, or radio from November 1st of last year through Monday night. They were not allowed to speak to anyone outside of each other and us. No family. No friends. I think there were a few old Reader’s Digests and maybe a Redbook in the room. Progress requires sacrifice.
Once the brackets were completed and turned over to the research team, the real science began. Each subject entered a sensory deprivation tank and was randomly exposed to the results of 25 of the tournament’s 67 total games. The brackets were analyzed using math to see if subject picks were retroactively impacted by knowing the result of games after the fact. Choosing to courageously forego the stifling process of peer review, Fishman announced the positive findings at a press conference held in the parking lot of a Buffalo Wild Wings eight minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium on East Washington Street in Indianapolis.
As believers in Science-Based Medicine, we must have open minds when it comes to fringe or even highly implausible claims because you never know when seemingly-incontrovertible assumptions about the natural world will be proven wrong. Science is imperfect and historically has been very wrong on many occasions. Experts used to believe that the Earth was flat and we still don’t know how Tylenol even works.
Intellectual humility is a key component of scientific skepticism. Sometimes ideas which were ridiculed turn out to be true. Having a closed mind might help prevent any untrue new idea from being accepted, but some of them are pretty interesting and already very popular with the public. Who are we to judge truth from fiction?
Though the existence of psi has now been proven by the Fishman study, it doesn’t mean that more studies aren’t needed. In fact, the hard part lies ahead. We need to figure out how best to harness its potential in order to improve patient outcomes, and only science can lead the way in that regard. But we must not be afraid of the unknown or of different approaches to discovery. As Endocrinologist Dr. Deepak Chopra said, “All great changes are preceded by chaos.”