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Monday, January 24, 2011

The Future is Ours to See

This is a blog about science. Sometimes it focuses on practical applications of science, particularly in the maritime industry. Sometimes it focuses directly on new (or old but interesting) discoveries in astronomy, physics or meteorology, and sometimes I'll even branch out from these if I see something I find interesting. For the most part I try to stay away from the "soft sciences" (usually defined as any discipline other than your own, but with no judgment implied I specifically mean things like psychology and sociology which don't lend themselves as well to the methodological rigor of the physics lab).

And unequivocally I avoid discussion of pseudosciences, except occasionally in the negative. With one singular exception I have avoided anything even remotely metaphysical here. If someone reports seeing something unusual in the sky I may report that, but without much more solid evidence than I've seen to date I'm not going to report that as space aliens.

It isn't that I'm not occasionally interested in such things. It's not even that I refuse to accept the possibility of such things; Bigfoot may prove to be the 21st century's coelacanth (possible; there's no reason to assume that humans are the only primate species in North America), and UFOs may turn out to be alien space ships (rather less likely, I think). The Royal Society once dismissed reports of meteorites based on the understanding that "there are no rocks in the sky, therefore rocks do not fall out of the sky". I get that. But I don't blog here about things currently considered pseudoscience, first because this is a science blog, and second because there are quite enough really cool things within the realm of the hard sciences to fill a blog.

I have and will continue to discuss SETL,  SETI, and things like the Drake Equation, the Great Silence and the Fermi Paradox, because they are topical to my blog and relevant to most fields of astronomy. My next "series" will probably be about SETI. SETI is weird, but SETI is science. It belongs here.

What follows is also science. It belongs here, too.

Dr Daryl Bem, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, has done something for the realm of ESP research which is going to revolutionize nearly everything we thought we understood about the way the world works. Dr Bem is a psychologist, not a physicist, so he is perhaps to be forgiven for not immediately recognizing some of the more unsettling implications of his work. I had planned to wait and see how the mainstream media was covering his research before posting about it, but they don't seem to be covering it at all. So, maybe you're hearing about his research here first.    
Dr. Daryl Bem

So, here's what Dr Bem did. He recognized the fact that in the field of Psi research, even extraordinary evidence would not suffice to support an extraordinary claim. No amount of evidence for telepathy would matter, it is already established that information can be transmitted invisibly from one mind to another. Part of this very post was written and transmitted to my computer on an Android phone (thanks, Santa!). Similarly, for a mind to influence matter invisibly at a distance has no special merit, we use remote controls all the time. Similarly with remote viewing. All of the "talents" ascribed to Psi could be accomplished with simple radio waves.

Except for one. The one thing radio waves cannot do is relay information from the future to the present. To prove that one could receive information "psychically" from the future would prove that something extraordinary was indeed happening. To do so, in and of itself, would fundamentally change the way we understood the world around us, forever.

But Bem didn't stop there. He realized that for the new knowledge to become widely accepted, the experiments to prove the new knowledge had to be simple enough to be reproducible not just by a major research facility, but by any undergrad at any community college with access to no more resources than a laptop computer. It would not suffice for the knowledge to be demonstrable by scientists cloistered in a laboratory. It needed to be demonstrable by anyone who had a few minutes to demonstrate it.

And, the demonstration could not be ambiguous. Some hundredths of a percent deviation over statistical norms when performed by some rare talent would not do; the numbers had to be big and unambiguous and reproducible no matter who was being tested. Bem did this. In each of his experiments his subjects scored consistently 3% above random chance. This is not a statistical anomaly. This is solid evidence.

Bem's methods are going to be controversial. His main field of study is human sexuality, and he realized that humans would react much more strongly to sexual imagery than to deliberately neutral imagery such as the Zener cards pioneered at the Rhine Institute and other parapsychological research facilities.
Zener cards at the Rhine Institute

But his results are striking, and some of the implications of his results are mind-bending. Not only did he establish that the human mind can receive information from the future as well as from the past, but that the human mind can actually learn new information in the future and apply that information in the present. Meaning, you can study for a test after taking the test and still improve your test score.

Chew on that one for a bit.

Daryl Bem's research has been thoroughly peer reviewed and is already demonstrating its reproducibility. By any standard, this is huge. Much of the scientific community is pooping its collective diaper over it at the moment, up to and including attempting to dismiss all of statistical analysis for all fields of science rather than accept that Bem's research could be correct. Otherwise reputable scientists are actually going on record and stating that "Bem's analysis is wrong because it proves precognition and precognition isn't real". Which gets us back to the Royal Society. Rocks do occasionally fall out of the sky. And apparently we do occasionally get information from the future.

Here is Dr Bem's paper, in its entirety.
Feeling the Future

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