TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Scientists Need Not “Study” Psychic Nonsense to Reject It

Surprise, surprise: “A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real,” reports Live Science. But we didn’t need a “new study” to figure that out.

The background is that, last year, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published Daryl Bem’s article purporting to show “retroactive influences on cognition.” Bem’s “experiments” allegedly showed cases in which an “individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur.”

Bem’s claim is not that people can predict certain things about the future based on historical trends and the causal nature of the world (e.g., the Sun will rise tomorrow). Rather, his claim is that people can have “precognition . . . and premonition . . . of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process.” They can do this, he says, because “information travels backwards in time.”

Real scientific experimentation starts with observations of reality, such as the facts that objects fall to earth, eyes perceive light, magnets attract certain types of metals, living cells have a particular structure, and distant reaches of the universe contain (or contained) various entities detectable through modern telescopes. Most fundamentally, real science comports with the law of cause and effect—the truth that a thing can act only in accordance with its identity. This law is necessarily presupposed by all genuine scientific inquiry. One immediate implication of the law of causality is that, because the future hasn’t yet occurred, information can’t travel backward in time from it.

Bem’s “theory” of psychic ability rejects the law of cause and effect; it posits as science the fantasy that people can “know” the future by means that contradict the law of causality. Thus, despite its superficial trappings of “experimentation,” Bem’s “theory” is properly cast aside as the rantings of a mystic.

Those who wish to examine the details of the “chaotic, careless nature” of Bem’s “experiments” may read James Alcock’s critique and follow-up for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

But the fact that Bem’s “research” was ever taken seriously by any portion of the scientific community is deplorable. Bem is not a scientist, he is an anti-scientist, and he should be condemned as such.

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Image: iStockPhoto

Posted in: Science and Technology

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • James Ngetha Gachau

    To any rational person the very notion of time travelling backwards is inconceivable. As Aristotle clearly showed, time is the dimension that indicates movement and change. We exist in time because we are mobile, because we are not fixed in a timeless (eternal) realm. It is movement and change, the very substance of being in reality, that marks time. The only way time can travel backwards is if all the changes occurring in the world could be reversed all at the same time. It is simply impossible to imagine such an occurrence…

  • James Ngetha Gachau

    … And just to show how unimaginable time travel backwards is, consider this: science has shown with irrevocable certainty that the universe is expanding (perhaps this is why everything is constantly moving and changing); for time to travel backwards, the universe would have to stop expanding and start collapsing. Then, al the laws of existence woud have to reverse, and life as we know it would stop…

  • ScottW

    Dear Objectivist folks:
    This psychic researcher guy may be all wet, but I wouldn’t write off backwards time travel or reverse causality just yet. At the quantum level, some pretty wierd stuff happens. Positrons (positively charged electrons) could be, according to the equations, regular electrons traveling backwards in time, and there’s plenty of other freaky stuff at the Planck scale.

  • James Ngetha Gachau

    Sure, pretty weird stuff happens at that level, like Schrodinger’s cat and particle-wave whatnot, and yes maybe you can warp the fabric of space-time, but that’s all theory, hence it’s name of theoretical physics. Don’t stop me by telling me the A-bomb was manufactured using the findings of theoretical physics because that would not be quite the same thing as time travel; can you imagine warping space-time, on a practical level? How much force would you need? About the same amount that creates black holes. Know what happens in black holes? All the laws of physics break down… That’s what I mean when I say time travel would make the world stop existing as it is.

  • Bob Cash

    People who deceive the feeble-mended should be sent to prison, the money they made confiscated and the government should publish statements that EVERY person claiming to be pshcic can only be one of two things; a charlatan or metally unfit. How is it possible that ANYONE could begin to think such drivel could be true? Someone left a message claiming people have “a right to believe”. That’s shocking. People should be educated to understand the difference been possibility and impossibility. Idiots claiming to have such powers should be stopped! It astounds me people are so naive and even prepared to defend these charlatans. It just shows how stupid the general public is.