ESP Study Gets Published in Scientific Journal

Cornell psycholgist researches precognition; journal accepts his findings.

January 6, 2011, 2:10 PM

Jan. 6, 2011 — -- Daryl Bem is a Cornell University psychologist who says he's been doing magic as a hobby since he was 17.

Now he has managed what some scientists may call his greatest trick: he's written a paper attempting to prove the power of ESP -- extrasensory perception -- and had it accepted for publication in a major scientific journal.

"From seeing my own data, and from looking at other research on ESP, I think I could be classified as someone who now believes there's something there," Bem said in an interview with

But the scientific community is filled with grumbles over Bem's work. Many researchers question the wisdom of writing, much less publishing, research on humans' ability to see the future.

Now retired from a long career of mainstream psychological research, Bem says he started looking at ESP for fun, then began to take it more seriously.

Over an eight-year period, he says he conducted experiments with more than 1,000 volunteers on "precognition" -- the ability to perceive things before they actually happen -- and submitted it to The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Psychological Association. The reviewers went over it and accepted it for an upcoming issue, despite some initial skepticism.

"It is not my job to decide what hypotheses are good or bad," said Charles Judd, a professor at the University of Colorado who has been serving as the journal's editor. "It's our responsibility to look at papers and give them a fair hearing, even if they fly in the face of conventional wisdom."

Judd provided ABC News with the text of an editorial that will run along with Bem's paper:

"We openly admit that the reported findings conflict with our own beliefs about causality and that we find them extremely puzzling," it says in part. "Yet, as editors we were guided by the conviction that this paper — as strange as the findings may be — should be evaluated just as any other manuscript on the basis of rigorous peer review."

Bem's experiments were varied. In one, for example, he had volunteers look at a computer screen that showed two curtains and asked them to guess which one had an erotic photo behind it. In fact, the spaces behind both curtains were blank. A computer randomly inserted a photo behind one of them -- but only after the test subject had made his guess.

Fifty-three percent of the time, Bem reports in his paper, the volunteers picked the curtain behind which the computer then happened to place the racy picture. When the pictures were less enticing, he said, the volunteers' guesses were 50-50 -- a result Bem said was significant.

"Science is a way of finding things out," Bem said. "Nothing is off limits in terms of asking the questions."

Psychologist Does ESP Study, Gets Scientific Journal to Publish it.

Did Bem really find evidence of extrasensory perception, or will his paper turn out to be an embarrassment? Already, there are doubts in the scientific world.

"It's obvious, I think to most of us, that this is going to turn out badly," said Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland who is the author of "Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science." "It's a waste of time and it leads the public off into strange directions that will be unproductive."

"I think openness has to be preserved," said Park. "At the same time, if I was the editor of the journal I would certainly review such a piece of work very carefully."

Judd, the editor, said four anonymous reviewers went over Bem's research and concluded it was properly done. Given that, the best his journal could do was publish the paper and let other researchers confirm or refute its findings.

"Anyone can submit a paper for publication," Judd said. "This one comes from someone who is well respected in the field."

Bem, for his part, said he had no reservations about studying ESP: "I've always been a maverick."

ABC News' Ayana Harry contributed to this report.

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