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?


  1. blf says

    [L]et’s stop demanding “peer reviewed evidence for god” when talking with the religious. You just might get what you wished for, and then what?

    A sensible discussion can begin! In the absence of any evidence of Magic Great Sky Faeries, there is no room for the eejits who think, e.g., the drunken writings of scribes transcribing Stoner Age myths is anything other than early literature.

  2. Amber Sherwood says

    Stuart Richie, Richard Wiseman and Chris French failed to replicate but JPSP refused to publish so they published in PLOSONE.

    Then JPSP had a change of heart and apparently published other failure to replicate results.

    Peer review is the first step towards established science, not the last. If everyone understood that, I think that would go a long way to solving the problem.

  3. Joey Maloney Who Is Unable To Login For Some Obscure Reason says

    If you can get any of God’s peers – Thor, Astarte, Amon, Zeus, any of those guys – to pipe up and vouch for His existence, I guess that would be good enough for me.

  4. Kevin Kehres says

    I actually would be happy to entertain peer-reviewed evidence for the existence of god(s). I have consistently said all along that if one could be proven to me to exist, then I would be compelled to accept that evidence.

    And there are already a ton of academic theology journals that are indeed peer-reviewed. That doesn’t frighten me one bit.

    HOWEVER — what is offered in 100% of the cases is not evidence for the existence of god(s), but arguments about the possibility of the existence of god(s)/powerful aliens capable of building a universe. And then a sleight of hand trick to “ergo, Jesus” (or whatever the flavor of the day is).

    Arguments aren’t evidence. Evidence is evidence.

  5. Blanche Quizno says

    Given that we’ve got history going back, what, 5,000 years, and in that time, NO ONE has been able to provide *any* evidence that confirms the existence of their gods or any other, I think that it would actually be a good thing to have suchlike peer review. Let people lose their reputations and credibility arguing for nonsense. Why not? Free world and all that. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread etc.

    And if ESP exists, why don’t we see any evidence of it ourselves? Why aren’t people actually making a bazillion dollars off it? Those who put on shows claiming clairvoyance, such as John Edward and Uri Gellar, have been exposed as frauds. So where is the Real Deal? Surely, if it exists, there must be SOMEone who actually has it, right? Where is this person? Let us see him/her and observe this wondrous ability for ourselves. Thus far, nothing.

    If any of this crap is real, then why hasn’t any of these “gifted” individuals stepped forward to strut his/her stuff and walk away with the James Randi Million Dollar Psychic Challenge prize that awaits anyone who can demonstrate such ability?

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