I’ve often thought that there would be a market in the scientific community for an intellectual analog to the deplorable Girls Gone Wild phenomenon. Called Researchers Gone Weird it would be an examination of times when generally good or excellent scientists have fallen off the rails. In my dream world, this show would be hosted by Kary Mullis and the ghost of Linus Pauling.
Just to stay topical, the first episode of the series could be about psychologist Daryl Bem. Recently, Bem released a research paper titled Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect. Purportedly, the study demonstrates the existence of Psi abilities. In reality, it seems more likely to be a big bag of fail.
Over at CSI James Alcock has done a devastating number of the methodology and statistical analyses of the study. I highly recommend giving the full article a read, if only to gaze in awe upon the full listing of bizarre faults — incorrectly performed statistical analyses, odd and unexplained departures from standard personality testing, experiments and procedures presented out of order (again, unexplained), seemingly ad hoc or unjustified data mining, and in more than one case the changing of experimental procedure midway through the experiments.
Near the end of the paper, Bem doesn’t so much wander out of his depth as plunge head first into it singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
As a general rule, if you’re going to include a section on how quantum physics might explain the (non-)results of your work, and you’re not a physicist, you probably ought to get somebody to proof read what you’ve written to make sure it’s not bollocks.
As a corollary to the general rule, you don’t want that person to be Dean Radin (or Deepak Chopra).
The psychological level of theorizing just discussed does not, of course, address the conundrum that makes psi phenomena anomalous in the first place: their presumed incompatibility with our current conceptual model of physical reality. Those who follow contemporary developments in modern physics, however, will be aware that several features of quantum phenomena are themselves incompatible with our everyday conception of physical reality. Many psi researchers see sufficiently compelling parallels between these phenomena and characteristics of psi to warrant considering them as potential candidates for theories of psi. (For a review of theories of psi, see Broderick, 2007, and Radin, 2006.)
While it’s certainly true that aspects of quantum mechanics seem puzzling or downright contradictory with regard to our everyday experiences, this has no bearing on the success or popularity of quantum mechanics. Indeed, quantum physics has been extraordinarily successful at explaining all manner of esoteric and everyday phenomena — a better understanding of the quantum world has led to a better understanding of the everyday world we inhabit.
The analogy that Bem is trying to draw here simply isn’t apt. It’s not enough to go against the experiences of the real world; either tangible evidence or a coherent theoretical model is required, and even with this study, Psi research has neither.
The development in quantum mechanics that has created the most excitement and discussion among physicists, philosophers, and psi researchers is the empirical confirmation of Bell’s theorem (Cushing & McMullin, 1989; Herbert, 1987; Radin, 2006), which implies that any realist model of physical reality that is compatible with quantum mechanics must be nonlocal: It must allow for the possibility that particles that have once interacted can become entangled so that even when they are later separated by arbitrarily large distances, an observation made on one of the particles will simultaneously affect what will be observed on its entangled partners in ways that are incompatible with any physically permissible causal mechanism (such as a signal transmitted between them).
The worst part about all this, of course, is that nothing Bem is saying is new. Proponents of the New Age and the paranormal have been misappropriating the mystical sounding ‘quantum entanglement’ for decades; sadly, they appear to remain blissfully ignorant of the actual physics involved.
At no point in the paper does Bem ever mention exactly what entanglement has to do with Psi — we’re left to guess exactly what the relevance is for ourselves, hardly a stunning display of academic rigor. Truth be told, it’s unlikely to stand up to scrutiny no matter what the notion. The property of being entangled is a notoriously fragile state, making the idea that it might form the basis of a theory of naturally occurring Psi ludicrous at best.
Imagine, if you will, two people with two magical typewriters. The setup is such that when a key is pressed on person A’s typewriter, the same keystroke will occur on person B’s typewriter — in this way, they transmit information.
We send A and B out into a world populated by other typewriter-carrying denizens. When two people meet each other — say A and a new person C — they randomly select and exchange two typewriter keys. Now, when A presses that key, the keystroke information is transmitted to C instead of B.
It soon becomes apparent that the more interactions A has with the population of this world, the less effectively he’ll be able to communicate with B. Eventually, it will be as though they were never able to transmit information via typewriter at all — each will be stuck dealing only with those people who are around them.
It’s this level of fragility that we’re dealing with when we talk about quantum entanglement. In the real world, where unfathomable numbers of particles are buzzing around, interacting, and generally not giving a damn about what people might want them to do, quantum entanglement becomes a physical and logistical nightmare.
The biggest question people have been asking of this seems to be, How did this get published in the first place? To me it doesn’t seem particularly surprising. After all, we’ve seen it happen umpteen times in the past…why not in the present?
The difference now, of course, is that there’s a thriving scientific community on the internet that provides immediate feedback. It took over a decade for the Andrew Wakefield nonsense to be put to rest in academia — compare that to the recent ‘arsenic bacteria’ kerfuffle, which was duly ripped into and rather publicly admonished within a week of the announcement being made.
If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll be seeing some spin or backpedaling in the very near future from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I’ll start taking bets now as to whether creative framing or scientific integrity wins the day…