No, You Probably Don’t Want ‘Peer Reviewed Evidence for God’

I have a story to tell you about Daryl Bem.

Daryl Bem is known for a variety of things–in part for, along with Sandra Lipsitz Bem, raising his children in as gender-neutral a household as possible. He’s a professor at Cornell, and has authored papers on, among other things, group decision making and psi.

You know, psi. Also known as predicting the future. Precognition ESP. That sort of thing.

A long while ago, two scientists undertook a review of the literature surrounding precognition, and their names were Bem and Honorton. As this story was originally told to me, Honorton entered the review believing ESP existed, and brought Bem on board as a more impartial investigator. Somewhat less long ago, in the year of my birth, Honorton died. Again, as the story goes, Bem decided to continue the project in honor of his collaborator, eventually publishing a review that favored precognition.

Enter those skeptics (ruining everything, amirite?) who claimed to have found flaws in the review. Now, somewhat committed, Bem returned with not one, but nine experiments designed to illustrate, with minimal human interference, whether or not psi existed, once and for all. I’m told they were intentionally set up to enable ease of replication and clear observation. And, lo and behold, they came in favor of the existence of psi. This would be a less interesting story of scientific arguing if the paper hadn’t been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a very well known, peer-reviewed journal–possibly the highest regarded in social psychology.

This left psychologists in a bit of a pickle.

Jounals shouldn’t publish stuff in favor of ESP!
But it was approved and peer-reviewed!
But it makes us look silly!
But we can’t turn things down just because we don’t like the idea! That’s not science!
But ESP isn’t science!
But peer review!

And it’s enough of a controversy that every social psychology class I’ve taken has included an aside about ‘that silly psi study’. There remain a number of psychologists who think that JPSP should have declined to publish. And again, I want to point out that the Bem study passed every requirement for publication…it’s just that the topic was psi.

There are three things you can take from this:

You can decide that psi exists. After all, there’s peer reviewed evidence for it.

You can decide that JPSP shouldn’t have published Bem’s research or other research that might make the field look like we believe in psychics.

Or you can decide that we could use more rigorous methods for everyone, and that peer-reviewed publications are a step on the way to endorsing a belief, but not the end. (Guess where I fall?)

And in the meantime, atheists, please let’s stop demanding “peer reviewed evidence for god” when talking with the religious. You just might get what you wished for, and then what?