“Science Shows Evidence of Precognitive Powers”

Right, so there’s that article that’s going around, with various headlines about how precognition and psychic potential may actually be a Real Thing.  I’m not gonna lie, the headline got me a little excited – I’m always up for a good scientific paradigm shift.

You could probably go to the trouble of googling the original study and figuring out for yourself whether it’s legit – but the important everyday skill1 is being able to tell from skimming the mainstream media’s version.  Here’s how that went for me:

Points in Favor of it being Legit:
– The researcher in question is from Cornell.2
– “9 experiments were done with 1000 Cornell students

Points Opposed:
– The headline of the Psychology Today ends in “?!?!”
– In the experiment with a 53% accuracy rate (in a 2-choice situation), only 100 students were used.

That’s right, the researcher claimed victory with 53 out of 100 students essentially correctly guessing a coin flip. In order for a 53% rate to be seen as being above 50% in a statistically significant way, you would have to use more than 10,000 subjects.3

Finally, a quote from another team of researchers in response to this paper: “”We reanalyze Bem’s data using a default Bayesian t-test and show that the evidence for psi is weak to nonexistent. We argue that in order to convince a skeptical audience of a controversial claim, one needs to conduct strictly confirmatory studies and analyze the results with statistical tests that are conservative rather than liberal. We conclude that Bem’s p-values do not indicate evidence in favor of precognition; instead, they indicate that experimental psychologists need to change the way they conduct their experiments and analyze their data.” “

1. Why? Because I said so.  No, I’m not just lazy.  It’s an important skill.
2.  As opposed to, say, Phoenix’s Online Emporium of Psychoanalysis and Welding
2. If you want actual informed discourse (I don’t think my blog is a great vehicle for that), Daniel Hawes over at Psychology Today has a great counterpoint article explaining the statistical problems with the study.

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