ITHACA, N.Y.—In a controversial study conducted by Prof. Daryl J. Bem of Cornell University, a slim majority of 1,000 test subjects were able to predict when a computer, which was set to display images randomly in either the left or right frame of a computer screen, would display softcore porn images.
According to an article in The New York Times, the study participants were able to guess with 53 percent accuracy in which frame the computer would display the erotic material.
"What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos," Dr. Bem told The Times, "but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos."
So-called "extra-sensory perception" (ESP) remains controversial among scientists, the vast majority of which believe that no such ability exists, and in fact, the James Randi Educational Foundation offers a $1 million prize "to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event."
Nonetheless, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a respected scientific publication, agreed to publish Dr. Bem's findings even though the four scientists to whom it had given the study for peer review agreed that "there was no mechanism by which we could understand the results."
Normally, such an admission, coupled with ESP's long history of inconclusive and outright fraudulent findings would suggest that further review of the study would be warranted before publication—and another group of scientists, which will publish a rebuttal to Dr. Bem's research in the same issue of the Journal, agreed.
"Several top journals publish results only when these appear to support a hypothesis that is counterintuitive or attention-grabbing," Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam and co-author of the rebuttal, told The Times. "But such a hypothesis probably constitutes an extraordinary claim, and it should undergo more scrutiny before it is allowed to enter the field."
Psychologist Ray Hyman, a former "mentalist" and member of the board of the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine which debunks parapsychology claims, went even further.
"It's craziness, pure craziness," Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon, said. "I can't believe a major journal is allowing this work in. I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field."
But even Hyman agree that Dr. Bem might simply be having a good laugh on his colleagues—a suspicion buoyed by the report that the test subjects scored better with erotic images than any other kind.
"He's got a great sense of humor," Dr. Hyman said. "I wouldn't rule out that this is an elaborate joke."