Claims of psychic ability fail to stack up

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A group of British scientists has failed to replicate the findings of a controversial study that appeared to show the existence of psychic abilities.

In 2010, Cornell University academic Daryl Bem carried out a series of tests in which subjects appeared to be able to 'recall' events before they took place.

The study was published in the highly-reputable Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.

But, as Stuart Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh points out, "When scientists find very surprising results that seem to contradict everything we know about how the world works, it's always a good idea to wait and see if other independent researchers can find the same effects. In this case, we couldn't."

He, professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire and professor Chris French of Goldsmiths, University of London, attempted to replicate the results at each of the three institutions - and none was successful. They conclude that there's no evidence for the existence of psychic ability.

It's hardly a surprise. Indeed, since the original report's publication, other scientists have spotted several flaws in its methodology.

However, those that criticize the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology for publishing it are missing the point. While the flaws exist, they're minor. Bem's results were just as statistically significant as those of any other report published by the journal, and the study went through exactly the same peer review process.

While a high level of statistical significance is an extremely strong indicator that something's really going on, it's not a guarantee. Sometimes 100 coins in a row do come up heads, just by chance.

And dismissing results on the basis of how unlikely they seem simply isn't science. Attempting faithfully to replicate a study, as Ritchie's team has done, is.