It was only a matter of time once Daryl Bem’s intriguing paper on proving the paranormal received a noteworthy response from the skeptical community. And so when James Alcock responded to the inquiry with his paper, “Back from the Future” in the Skeptical Inquirer, he pointed out many fairly valid questions to be had with Bem’s experiment alongside a critique of Bem’s methods. The chemistry of mixing the paranormal with science could be analyzed for ages on its own, but Alcock has several questions that -if addressed- could either topple Bem’s experiment and our hopes for a psychic science or further validate it if future experiments took these issues into account.
Perhaps one of the most troubling problems with scientific studies of the paranormal is the difficulty in finding experiments that can not only be performed with precision and attention to detail, but that the that scientific data be reproducible through future experiments with comparable results. And of course this was one of the more intriguing elements of Daryl Bem’s experiments. By setting up a very specific experimental model anyone could in theory reproduce Bem’s experiments with comparable results. But there is a certain level of skepticism that all experiments must be able to withstand as well. In the case of Bem’s experiment, skeptics like Alcock have pointed out that the procedures of the experiments in many cases varied or would change halfway through the experiment. For example, in experiment 2: precognitive avoidance of negative stimuli, the procedure was altered part of the way through. Perhaps more problematic is the fact that the results from before and after the change were mixed together into one body of data. The raw data in this case could have skewed the results in either direction, but in a groundbreaking experiment attempting to prove psychic phenomena, future experiments will have to depend all the more on rigid and perfect methods to uphold their conclusions in even the most scrutinizing of skepticism.
Of course this same skepticism has been met with cries of foul from believers in the phenomenon. The prospect of this hopeful experiment’s vindication being destroyed through mistakes in the methodology has not sat well with so many. But it seems in a case such as this where the goal is to explain a phenomenon rumored to exist for thousands of years through scientific method, a healthy dose of skepticism should not only be expected, but actually encouraged. Without this important skepticism many experiments would not be held to a very high standard at all and as a result the word “scientific” would lose all meaning. Only by embracing this skepticism and attempting to develop more foolproof methods of scientific proof in the end will the words psychic and science be able to tie the knot once and for all.
In the paranormal world, the word skeptic often holds with it a heavy burden that borders on obscenity. But as theories surrounding quantum physics begin to branch in directions that seem in themselves almost paranormal, perhaps it is time to make room in this field for skepticism and the fantastic mystique of the unknown to come to an understanding rather than polarizing the two ever more.