Thursday, November 11, 2010

I can see the future and it involves flash cards

A new study reports that precognition is true, and that we can see the future. Just like the opening scene of Ghostbusters, where Peter Venkman was testing the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.* Fortunately, the effects detected in the new study didn't simply piss off the subjects:
Extraordinary claims don't come much more extraordinary than this: events that haven't yet happened can influence our behaviour.

Parapsychologists have made outlandish claims about precognition – knowledge of unpredictable future events – for years. But the fringe phenomenon is about to get a mainstream airing: a paper providing evidence for its existence has been accepted for publication by the leading social psychology journal.

What's more, sceptical psychologists who have pored over a preprint of the paper say they can't find any significant flaws. "My personal view is that this is ridiculous and can't be true," says Joachim Krueger of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who has blogged about the work on the Psychology Today website. "Going after the methodology and the experimental design is the first line of attack. But frankly, I didn't see anything. Everything seemed to be in good order."

Critical mass

The paper, due to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology before the end of the year, is the culmination of eight years' work by Daryl Bem of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "I purposely waited until I thought there was a critical mass that wasn't a statistical fluke," he says.

It describes a series of experiments involving more than 1000 student volunteers. In most of the tests, Bem took well-studied psychological phenomena and simply reversed the sequence, so that the event generally interpreted as the cause happened after the tested behaviour rather than before it.

In one experiment, students were shown a list of words and then asked to recall words from it, after which they were told to type words that were randomly selected from the same list. Spookily, the students were better at recalling words that they would later type.

So now I know that I know what will I know in a few minutes. Just don't ask me to spell it correctly.

*The building in the Ghostbusters scene, Pupin Hall on the Columbia Campus, is also famous for other major scientific breakthroughs.
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