Is this evidence that we can see the future?
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, skeptical 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.”
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.
In another study, Bem adapted research on “priming” – the effect of a subliminally presented word on a person’s response to an image. For instance, if someone is momentarily flashed the word “ugly”, it will take them longer to decide that a picture of a kitten is pleasant than if “beautiful” had been flashed. Running the experiment back-to-front, Bem found that the priming effect seemed to work backwards in time as well as forwards.
‘Stroke of genius’
Exploring time-reversed versions of established psychological phenomena was “a stroke of genius”, says the skeptical Krueger. Previous research in parapsychology has used idiosyncratic set-ups such as Ganzfeld experiments, in which volunteers listen to white noise and are presented with a uniform visual field to create a state allegedly conducive to effects including clairvoyance and telepathy. By contrast, Bem set out to provide tests that mainstream psychologists could readily evaluate.
The effects he recorded were small but statistically significant. In another test, for instance, volunteers were told that an erotic image was going to appear on a computer screen in one of two positions, and asked to guess in advance which position that would be. The image’s eventual position was selected at random, but volunteers guessed correctly 53.1 per cent of the time.
|For a more detailed commentary on what’s being discussed here, check out chapters 13 & 14 within Aliens Above, Ghosts Below: Explorations of the Unknown” on Amazon.com, Barnes & Nobel.com and at www.cosmicpantheon.com.|
That may sound unimpressive – truly random guesses would have been right 50 per cent of the time, after all. But well-established phenomena such as the ability of low-dose aspirin to prevent heart attacks are based on similarly small effects, notes Melissa Burkley of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, who has also blogged about Bem’s work at Psychology Today.
Respect for a maverick
So far, the paper has held up to scrutiny. “This paper went through a series of reviews from some of our most trusted reviewers,” says Charles Judd of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who heads the section of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology editorial board that handled the paper.
Indeed, although Bem is a self-described “maverick” with a long-standing interest in paranormal phenomena, he is also a respected psychologist with a reputation for running careful experiments. He is best known for the theory of self-perception, which argues that people infer their attitudes from their own behaviour in much the same way as they assess the attitudes of others.
Bem says his paper was reviewed by four experts who proposed amendments, but still recommended publication. Still, the journal will publish a sceptical editorial commentary alongside the paper, says Judd. “We hope it spurs people to try to replicate these effects.”
One failed attempt at replication has already been posted online. In this study, Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Leif Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley, employed an online panel called Consumer Behavior Lab in an effort to repeat Bem’s findings on the recall of words.
Bem argues that online surveys are inconclusive, because it’s impossible to know whether volunteers have paid sufficient attention to the task. Galak concedes that this is a limitation of the initial study, but says he is now planning a follow-up involving student volunteers that will more closely repeat the design of Bem’s word-recall experiment.
This seems certain to be just the first exchange in a lively debate: Bem says that dozens of researchers have already contacted him requesting details of the work.
RANDI’S CHALLENGE: A Big “So What!”
Loyd Auerbach, M.S.
Note: This essay was published as the majority of my “Psychic Frontiers” column in the February 2004 issue of FATE magazine.
I might actually title this essay “Why I no longer care about Randi’s One Million Dollar Challenge,” but honestly, “So What!” sums up my feelings these days.
Over the last several years, I’ve been somewhat outspoken about the specific details of the rules of Randi’s Challenge (http://www.randi.org/research/index.html). But recently, when being harassed by yet another disbelieving type about the test, some kind of light – an epiphany of sorts – went on in my head. The individual made a statement, with a question, that I often hear in variations from self-described Skeptics (actually disbelievers): “The Amazing Randi offers one million dollars for anyone who can demonstrate something paranormal. If psychic abilities are real, why has no one won the prize?”
Rather than responding as I have in the past with a discourse as to why I don’t believe anyone will win that money, I spontaneously switched gears.
The following is just an approximation of the conversation, with (yes, I admit it) a little dramatic license thrown in.
“What would that prove?” I asked.
“Huh?” said the Skeptic.
“Why is Randi offering the money?” I asked.
“For anyone who can prove something paranormal,” said the Skeptic.
“If someone did win the million, what would that actually prove?” I asked.
“Huh?” said the Skeptic.
“I mean, if a psychic won the million dollars, other than the psychic walking away one million dollars richer, what would that prove to the skeptical community or to Science?” I asked.
“That someone could do something psychic,” said the Skeptic with some confusion in his voice.
“Would it? If someone won Randi’s million dollars, would YOU accept that psychic abilities are real? Or even just possible?” I asked.
“Huh?” said the Skeptic.
“Would mainstream Science accept the probability of psi, if not the reality, if some psychic won Randi’s million?” I asked.
“Uh … uh … huh?” said the Skeptic.
“Would the organized Skeptics accept that psi is real, or would they be more likely to believe that Randi was simply fooled, scammed out of his million? Would you?” I asked.
I received a blank stare from the Skeptic, then saw confusion appearing on his face.
I continued to push at him. “The fact is that people who do not accept the laboratory and other evidence for psi that already exists are unlikely to change their minds or their beliefs simply because someone beats Randi’s challenge and wins Randi’s money. In the name of Science, many keep raising the issue of parsimony, of Occam’s Razor where psi is concerned. In this case, wouldn’t the simpler explanation as far as the Skeptics are concerned be that Randi was scammed out of the money? In the name of Science, many raise the issue of repeatability. If someone beat Randi’s Challenge once, how does this meet the criteria of repeatability? What does this prove?”
The Skeptic was silent, confusion and frustration (and a little anger) continuing on his face.
I finished with “If you can honestly tell me – I mean look me in the eye and tell me honestly – that you would be open to psi’s existence if a psychic won Randi’s money, I’ll give you 20 dollars** right here and now. It’s not a million, but to be honest, your opinion isn’t worth that much to me.”
He walked away (okay, he stormed off).
**[Note: Okay, I didn’t really offer the 20 bucks when this first happened. I only thought of it afterwards. But now, I often do!]
I’ve since used this argument on a few others, whenever Randi’s Challenge is raised like a weapon against the field of Parapsychology, and against the existence (real or just potential) of psi.
To recap: If someone wins Randi’s million, he/she will be one million dollars richer. However, as far as Science and the Skeptics are concerned, the simpler answer to this conundrum is that Randi (or his chosen panel of judges) was fooled.
In other words, So What if someone wins the money. It won’t change the prevailing attitudes towards parapsychology, or the prevailing beliefs of most who waiver to the disbelieving side of the center where psi is concerned.
As this is the case (go ahead…prove me wrong, somebody…please!), we waste our time even giving Randi’s Challenge the time of day (though I am somewhat in his corner where Sylvia Browne is concerned. – see his website at www.randi.org).
I respect the position of true skeptics, and even the beliefs and opinions of debunkers if they’re honest about their beliefs and opinions. But holding forth Randi’s Challenge as the benchmark for proof of the paranormal is as silly as someone telling Randi to “prove it does not exist.”
It’s not a benchmark for Science, or even for skepticism. So, why should we care?
“So What!” I say.
Let me finish with another observation.
In the September 19, 2003 issue of SWIFT, Online Newsletter of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation) entitled “Yellow Bamboo Surprise, Fear of Technology, and Answering Montague Keen…” (http://www.randi.org/jr/091903.html), Randi responds to comments by researcher Montague Keen, who (Keen) mentions me and FATE in his discussion of Randi’s Challenge. Randi had this to say about FATE:
“For those unfamiliar with Fate Magazine, from their own web page we see that they publish stories on ‘alien abductions, angels, archaeological hotspots, fringe science, ghosts, hauntings, life after death, monsters, paranormal investigations, psychic pets, psychics, readers’ personal mystic experiences, reports of the strange and unknown, spirit animals, spiritualists, and UFOs’ — to only begin. Not recognized as a scholarly journal, in my opinion.”
Randi’s correct. In no way could FATE be labeled a “scholarly journal.” It is a publication for the general public. While I’m not sure where on FATE’s website Randi got the quote from (as with many websites, FATE’s changes from time to time), what Randi lists is in fact a good description for FATE’s content coverage.
However, this could easily be a description of the contents of THE SKEPTICAL INQUIRER and THE SKEPTIC magazines, neither of which is recognized as a “scholarly journal.” Of course, that’s my opinion.
Dr. Barry Taff: A Veteran Of The Psychic Wars
Sean Casteel and John Weigle
Dr. Barry Taff has been on the forefront of the academic study of psychic phenomena for decades and has long documented the connection between psi events and UFOs. His own psychic experiences began in childhood, and he has no doubt of the reality of some form of coupling between human consciousness and a field of energy that we do not as yet understand.
Taff spoke on March 9, 2013, at a meeting of the Close Encounter Research Organization, which earlier this year added the word “international” to its name and is seeking to branch out worldwide in the dissemination of UFO and alien abduction information. The meeting was held in Thousand Oaks, California, a city located just north of Los Angeles.
Taff opened his lecture by reciting part of a poem by T.S. Elliot that Taff felt eloquently expressed the fluid nature of time and the human mind:
“Time present and time past,” the poem reads, in part, “Are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, All time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction, Remaining a perpetual possibility.”
Taff moved on to declare, “There is no paranormal. It’s normal.” He said that long-term memories are not stored in our brains, they’re kept in a remote source outside of us, which relates to the T.S. Elliot poem and his grappling with the nature of memory and time.
From there, Taff began to recount his own history of psychic experiences, beginning with an incident that happened when he was ten years old. In grade school, a young girl approached him and he asked her what the weird bag was that she was wearing. He didn’t know at that age that such a bag was used after a colostomy. The young girl screamed and told the principal, who called Taff into his office and asked if he had looked under the girl’s dress or sneaked into the girls’ bathroom. Taff told the principal he had x-ray vision and pointed out that he could see that the principal had unhealed keloid scar tissue himself. The principal then called Taff’s parents, and they said, “Don’t ask.”
Taff joked that if he had a dollar for every one of his psychic experiences, he would be a whole lot wealthier.
As a child, Taff predicted the assassination of John Kennedy to his parents a couple of years before the event. His parents insisted on making a bet in the belief that young Taff would be proven wrong. They didn’t speak to Taff for ten days, he said, after the prediction came true.
In 1968, Taff was visiting a girlfriend at her house when he decided he wanted some iced tea, which his girlfriend didn’t keep around. At that same moment, Taff’s father saw Taff enter the house, go to the refrigerator and drink iced tea from the pitcher. But Taff had never left his girlfriend’s house. Although his parents never drank iced tea, the pitcher was partially empty the next morning, as though someone had drank from it prior to Taff’s seeing the pitcher of tea the next day.
It was difficult to photograph Taff as a child, he said, and once, when he and a colleague were visiting a TV show producer, a photograph was taken of Taff and his colleague in which the other person showed up perfectly but where Taff had been standing the photo showed only a flash of light.
With this strange history behind him, Taff became a researcher of psychic phenomena in an academic setting, eventually earning a doctorate in psychophysiology with a minor in biomedical engineering from UCLA in 1975. From 1970 to 1987, he was involved in the study of remote viewing.
“What we saw blew us away,” he said.
When using the techniques of remote viewing, according to Taff, both past and future information are available, and it is possible to see information from a great distance. The evidence suggests that our brain, consciousness and space-time work in the same way. As part of the testing of remote viewing, Taff and his associates were given remote viewing “targets” and when they reported what they saw, they provided information on Trident submarines. The tape recordings made of the remote viewing experiments were later confiscated by representatives of an unnamed intelligence agency because of the classified details contained therein. Taff and his group later performed additional work for intelligence agencies with mixed results.
Unfortunately, Taff said, when understanding the implications of remote viewing and the nature of time, one is forced to conclude that there is no such thing as free will. He offered a story by way of example. In college, he was working with a girl in the psych lab when he had a dream of her going home and being involved in a car accident. In the dream, he saw a driver he thought was himself, so he broke off the relationship in the hope that he could change the future. The girl got involved with another man, and he was the driver in the accident that occurred. Nothing could alter the fulfillment of the precognitive dream, and thus the will of the participants was not free.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends and colleagues because of my work in this field,” Taff lamented, because they were frightened or put off by what he said or things that occurred in his presence.
Taff’s work on the case that became the novel “The Entity” brought him some degree of fame. In August 1974, he and some of his colleagues in parapsychology met a woman who said her house was haunted and that she had been repeatedly raped by ghosts. Taff wrote a big “P” on her report form, meaning he considered it a psychiatric case. Then the woman’s neighbors started seeing things. A skillet flew out of a cupboard. The bedroom felt like it was refrigerated, but it wasn’t. There was an odor of decaying matter. A green light double the size of Taff’s fist appeared and slowly turned into the form of an upper torso. When it disappeared, two of Taff’s assistants passed out.
The team later sealed off the rooms to prevent any light from coming in and prepared a grid on the walls so they could pinpoint any strange things that happened. They shot hundreds of frames of film that showed nothing unusual, but everyone saw things in the room during the filming. The team members wrote down their observations before conferring together and found that their stories matched when they discussed them.
Taff helped write the eventual novel “The Entity,” saying that not everything in the book actually happened. He appears as the slightly fictionalized character “Gene Kraft.” A movie starring Barbara Hershey and Ron Silver was released in 1983. A capsule recounting of the plot is included in “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” that reads, in part, “A woman is raped repeatedly by a giant, invisible mass. Her psychiatrist thinks it’s all in the mind until parapsychologists set a trap for the critter.”
There is an article posted on Taff’s website at http://barrytaff.net entitled “The Psi-UFO Connection: What On Earth Is Going On?” In it, Taff writes of a rather fascinating yet obscure relationship between paranormal experiences and UFO encounters.
“Why is it that many CE-III’s and IV’s have paranormal fallout following the event?” he asks. “Why is it that certain people who have frequent paranormal experiences are more likely to experience a UFO encounter?”
Taff goes on to say that it is obviously not scientifically valid to try to explain one phenomenon by recourse to the other, but there is a “longitudinal continuity” between the two kinds of events that may one day help to explain them both.
In his lecture to CERO International, he offered the case history of Judy, another woman with whom he was romantically involved. There is a more detailed version of the story in the aforementioned article on his website.
“I met a beautiful girl on Valentine’s Day (1977) while investigating a case in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles,” Taff writes. “This girl was so physically stunning to me that it was impossible to stop staring at her.”
The case he was investigating was a very weak one and no follow up work was done. But he and Judy ended up in a very intense relationship. As time passed, there were repeated episodes of RSPK (Recurrent Spontaneous Psycho-Kinesis) activity culminating in “a large glowing sphere of light emerging from the lumbar region of her back” while Taff was giving her a massage. The clocks in Judy’s condo would all frequently “desynchronize” and run at different speeds.
“All of this paranormal activity was kind of an added bonus to being in a relationship with her,” Taff writes. “At least I thought it was. Boy, was I wrong.”
Taff writes that they both felt it was a perfect relationship and that Judy turned out to be a gifted psychic who also worked with the psi training groups at the UCLA lab as well as on missing persons cases. Taff expected that he and Judy would be engaged within six months, but “fate had something else in mind.” He began to have repeated precognitive dreams in which he was given the message that their romance would end on July 22, 1977. The reasons for the split were never provided in the dreams.
He never told Judy about the dreams because she might misinterpret what he said as expressing a desire to leave her. The dreams stopped, and his happiness was restored. When July 22 came around, he had almost forgotten the dreams entirely. He awoke to find Judy beside him in bed, sobbing and shivering under the covers. She asked Taff why he hadn’t helped her the previous night.
When Taff asked her what she meant, she told him that she “had awakened to find the room brilliantly lit, but the lights were not on. She was levitated up out of the bed, eventually finding herself in a round, metallic-walled room where she was strapped to a metallic table around her wrists, neck, ankles and abdomen. There were tiny men who had skin like a snake or reptile and a face without ears or noses, with large black eyes, who were poking and prodding her everywhere, but especially in every bodily orifice.”
Judy could hear the little men speaking though their lipless mouths were not moving.
“They kept saying that they weren’t going to hurt her, even though that’s exactly what they were doing. The next thing she remembered was waking up in bed with me soundly sleeping next to her.”
Taff writes that he asked her if she knew anything about UFO abductions, which she did not. Although she was very interested in the paranormal, UFOs held no interest for her. Taff finally coaxed her out from beneath the covers and was shocked to find that Judy had bruises at her neck, waist, wrists, abdomen and ankles – consistent with her claim that she had been restrained on the metallic table. And she was bleeding from every orifice, bearing out her story that she had been poked and prodded in those same locations.
Judy subsequently had a complete breakdown, “becoming almost totally delusional with overt signs of dissociation. She never sought any help from anyone and she never, even marginally, recovered. She became a religious zealot, but of a very unusual type. Needless to say, our relationship ended on that day, just as my dream had predicted. From occasional contact with her over the subsequent years, she claims to have been re-abducted many times. It’s one thing to lose a potential mate, but not to something like this.”
At the CERO International lecture, Taff touched on another case that he also writes about in the same online article. He received a phone call in the mid-1970s from a local television network executive who complained about poltergeist activity in his home. Over time, he reported occasional luminous anomalies, disembodied voices, banging noises and problems with electrical items in the house. Both the executive and his family seemed “quite grounded, normal, stable and well-adjusted.” Eventually the man’s calls ceased. Then one night, while the man and his wife were on a road trip in northern California, they saw what they thought was a small, burning plane about to crash into the hills to their right.
“They drove up to where they assumed the plane had crashed,” Taff writes, “and after rounding a bend, they ran into a very unexpected sight. A shocking and terrifying visage to say the least. Sitting on the ground in front of them was a classic flying saucer, maybe 30 to 50 feet in diameter. And if that wasn’t difficult to enough to absorb, there were several diminutive humanoids in tight-fitting flight suits moving around the area around the saucer, as if looking for something. The beings were about four feet tall with grayish-brown skin, large, black almond-shaped eyes with no apparent nose or outer ears. Classic grays in every respect.”
Suddenly, several of the humanoids became aware of the man and his wife sitting in their car observing the scene. One of the creatures pointed a tubular-shaped object at the couple that emitted a bright light. The next thing the pair remembered was being back on the highway many miles away and several hours later.
After experiencing this classic abduction scenario, the two began to have disturbing dreams about their missing time, most of which they were reluctant to discuss with anyone. They sought psychological counseling but were assumed by mental health workers to have both had a psychotic break, for which medication was recommended. The abduction experience was little known in the mid-1970s, so this response from the mental health community is not surprising, Taff writes.
The man and his wife began to experience strong emotional mood swings, indicative of dramatically altered personalities. They eventually divorced, with the husband becoming particularly volatile and erratic, which led to his leaving his lucrative job in television in a newfound state of anxiety, anger and bitterness. What had begun as poltergeist activity had progressed to an alien UFO abduction and left great misery in its wake.
“We’re dealing with something far more advanced than we are,” Taff added during his lecture, “and technology that is like magic to us.”
But change is not the goal in physical science, he said, pointing to the fact that hardly anyone in mainstream science takes these issues seriously. There exists an inverse correlation between belief and whether new ideas will work, he said. What the scientists say won’t work will and what they say will work won’t. Imagine what would happen if a vehicle was unveiled tomorrow that used an entirely new form of energy. We need what Taff called “a change in the way we perceive normality.”
UFOs are the most classified information the government has, he continued. Add gray aliens to the mix of our own racial and ethnic problems, and one can imagine the results. We should not fear an alien invasion so much as the problems we’ve created for ourselves.
Both psychic phenomena and UFO contact involve an energy of a type we don’t understand, Taff said toward the end of his lecture. Most people are not sensitive to it and can live a long time without ever having any experiences with it. Others are sensitive to it.
“It’s there,” Taff said. “It’s real. We are always a (central) part of the equation.”