Friday, March 29, 2013

#488: Daryl Bem

Daryl J. Bem is a social psychologist and professor emeritus at Cornell University, the originator of the self-perception theory of attitude change, and proud recipient of the 2012 Pigasus Award (Category: Scientist). To the wider public he is most famous for carrying out research (i.e. credulously endorsing and propping up by confirmation bias and badly constructed experiments) on a range of psi-related phenomena and other branches of pseudoscience, including handwriting analysis.

More recently, Bem has investigated backward causation, and one cannot help to suspect that the “research” is part of a desperate attempt to save some post-hoc fallacies. Backward causation could of course in theory almost explain fortune tellers – admittedly with less predictive success than the “they don’t really predict the future”-hypothesis, but the backward causation thing is of course more exotic.

Bem really rose to fame in 2011, when he published the article “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The article offered purported statistical evidence for psi phenomena. Of course, the paper itself and its methods were crap, and its statistical analysis would have been deeply flawed –when corrected the extremely small but statistically significant effect disappeared – even if the test itself had been sound. The effects have furthermore not been replicated (more on that and the paper itself here; brief summary here). Indeed, Bem even admitted to committing the Texas sharpshooter fallacy at occasions in the experiment. He did not admit that he purposely waited until he thought there was a critical mass that wasn't a statistical fluke, which is, to put it mildly, not something you’re allowed to do in real science.

Indeed, the publication also prompted a wider debate on the validity of peer review process for allowing such a paper to be published, though that wasn’t quite the debate Bem was looking for.

Though it received wider dissemination, the publication was not Bem’s first attempt at carefully shoehorning data to fit a cherished hypothesis. With Charles Honorton, Bem has earlier claimed to have found “substantial evidence that the meditative state, the dream state, the hypnotic state, the sensory deprivation state, and certain drug-induced states are conducive to psi.” The “experiments” are discussed here, and were in fact also published (back in 1994) despite the horrible quality of the paper. Bem is also known to defend the, shall we say, “discredited” ganzfeld experiment.

And now for something entirely predictable. Bem, utterly unsurprisingly, thinks there is a connection between psi and quantum phenomena. Bem thinks there is such a connection because he understands quantum phenomena more or less as well as Dean Radin.

Diagnosis: Living proof of how far confirmation bias and post hoc reasoning can take you.

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