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“Study showing that humans have some psychic powers caps Daryl Bem’s career”

On the webpage of Russ Roberts’s interview with me, I happened to come across this article from the Cornell Chronicle, Dec. 6, 2010:

Study showing that humans have some psychic powers caps Daryl Bem’s career

By George Lowery

It took eight years and nine experiments with more 1,000 participants, but the results offer evidence that humans have some ability to anticipate the future.

“Of the various forms of ESP or psi, as we call it, precognition has always most intrigued me because it’s the most magical,” said Daryl Bem, professor of psychology emeritus, whose study will be published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sometime next year.

“It most violates our notion of how the physical world works. The phenomena of modern quantum physics are just as mind-boggling, but they are so technical that most non-physicists don’t know about them,” said Bem, who studied physics before becoming a psychologist.

Really?

Lowery continues:

Publishing on this topic has gladdened the hearts of psi researchers but stumped doubting social psychologists, who cannot fault Bem’s mainstream and widely accepted methodology.

Whoops! That hasn’t aged so well.

P.S. I was curious so I searched Cornell Chronicle for articles about Brian “Pizzagate” Wansink. They had lots of articles on this guy, and many of them were written by Katie Baildon, “a communications specialist for the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.”

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a public relations writer. But it’s interesting to see the diffusion of responsibility:
– Cornell is a well-respected university.
– Cornell, like other such organizations, hires people whose sole job is to write positive things about the institution.
– But sometimes the Cornell public relations department delegates its job and runs articles written by public relations writers hired by individual Cornell professors.

If I was the president of Cornell, I’d be kind of annoyed at all the stupid things being written by people working at my institution.

But I guess none of these items are quite as stupid as the claim that “The replication rate in psychology is quite high—indeed, it is statistically indistinguishable from 100%.” That one came from two Harvard professors who might have benefited by checking with the statistics department before mouthing off like they did.

Also from the Cornell Chronicle, this beauty:

Are your attitudes toward certain foods shaped by peer pressure rather than science? Recent research conducted by Cornell suggests that’s the case.

While some ingredient food fears are justified by objective evidence, others have demonized ingredients and damaged industries. . . .

“High fructose corn syrup avoiders expressed a stronger belief that the ingredient gives you headaches, is dangerous for children, cannot be digested, is bad for skin, makes one sluggish and changes one’s palate,” the researchers reported. . . .

Educating consumers might also do the trick. The researchers noted that participants’ views toward ingredients “became more positive when they were either informed about the history and functions of the ingredient, or informed of the wide range of familiar products that currently contain the ingredient – all factors that contribute to familiarity with the product.” . . .

“To overcome food ingredient fears, learn the science, history and the process of how the ingredient is made, and you’ll be a smarter, savvier consumer,” said Food and Brand Lab Director Brian Wansink, lead author on the report.

Oh, and one other thing:

The study was funded in part by the Corn Refiners Association and the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

All right, then.

48 Comments

  1. Daniel Hawkins says:

    I don’t understand what you’re highlighting in the last article you quoted, besides the potential conflict of interest that was disclosed at the end. There is a lot of fear-mongering about food. Unless you were making a point about something else?

    • Andrew says:

      Daniel:

      Yes, exactly, I was highlighting the conflict of interest.

      • anon says:

        Interesting: in a recent post, http://andrewgelman.com/2017/02/16/cry-of-alarm/, you presented without critique a long comment by Stan Liebowitz on file sharing research. And yet a later comment in that article points out that he runs a center that receives funds from the record industry (a quick google search also shows he serves as an expert witness for these companies as well).

        Why was Dr. Liebowitz’s conflict of interest not disclosed in that post?

        • Andrew says:

          Anon:

          I was not aware of any conflicts of interests on Liebowitz’s part when I wrote that post. It is to the credit of the Cornell P.R. office that they noted Wansink’s conflict of interest when writing their article (and it is to their discredit that they have been uncritically promoting Bem and Wansink over the years). One difference between the Cornell Chronicle and this blog is that I openly encourage people to share other perspectives. For example, in the linked post, I wrote: “The above story sounds particularly horrible but of course we’re only hearing one side of it here. So if any of the others involved in this episode (I guess that would be Oberholzer, Strumpf, or George) have anything to add, they should feel free to so so in the comments, or they could contact me directly.”

          • anon says:

            Andrew:

            OK fair enough. But now that you know and that you have written here that conflict of interest is a serious matter, I assume you will be adding an addendum to that post?

            As it stands now your post is not too different from the Cornell PR people: you uncritically quote someone who has a significant conflict of interest, which is not revealed anywhere in your text (nor even in the linked paper).

            • Andrew says:

              Anon:

              It’s all there in the comments!

              • anon says:

                Cmon Andrew no one is going to read to all that.

                I would think there are a few reasons for this:
                – the casual reader is unlikely to get to the comments. Few people will see what you have agreed is extremely important information
                – I would think you would feel some sense of duty to be reporting this. You literally made it the focus of this post. Why is that one any different?
                – You were deceived by Liebowitz. He never revealed his conflict of interest, which I would think he had a duty to do (especially in light of all his claims of ethical lapses).

                Look its your blog Andrew so its your call. But as you stress science builds by correcting the record of mistakes. That surely seems the case here.

              • Peter McGee says:

                Andrew are you going to respond to this? Anon makes a good point. You are not being consistent here from my perspective.

              • Andrew says:

                Anon, Peter:

                There are just so many third-party conflicts of interest that I don’t really feel the obligation to label all of them, but in this case because you keep bugging me, I’ll put a note in the original post!

  2. Jordan Anaya says:

    Katie Baildon is who replied to our initial emails to the lab (they have long since stopped replying to us).

    Cornell’s research integrity office and IRB also won’t reply to our emails.

    At least we aren’t alone, Cornell wouldn’t reply to this journalist either:
    https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/lot-his-plate

    • Andrew says:

      Jordan:

      I can understand Cornell’s position of not wanting to discipline Wansink, as this would take lots of effort on somebody’s part. The university is basically taking the position that they as an institution cannot evaluate the quality of the work being done by its professors. But, if they want to take that view, I don’t think they should be promoting their faculty’s work.

      When you start promoting work that you don’t have the ability to evaluate, you get laughable headlines like, “Study showing that humans have some psychic powers caps Daryl Bem’s career.”

      Cornell can’t have it both ways. If they want to get credit for the positive publicity they get from Bem, Wansink, and Gilovich, they’re going to get some of the blame when these guys make mistakes and don’t let go.

      As I wrote in the context of Lancet and the Pace study: reputation is a two-way street.

      • Anonymous says:

        Jordan and Andrew: Perhaps things will change, given the ever increasing number of Wansink’s publications with problems. Cornell can ignore the 4 pizzagate publications; can it ignore 37 (the number in Tim van der Zee’s most recent dossier)? It’s been dead silence from both Wansink and Cornell of late. Who knows? Perhaps Cornell is doing its own investigation. Let’s hope so.

      • Nick says:

        I note that Cornell currently has an interim President (the new President takes office on April 17) and the Dyson School of Management (of which the Food and Brand Lab is a part) currently has an interim Dean (I wasn’t immediately able to find out if a non-interim Dean has been hired yet, or when they might be starting). I can understand how temporary senior staff might be a little reluctant to start any form of administrative proceedings that would likely continue beyond their foreseeable time in their jobs.

        • Anonymous says:

          Nick: The situation would probably be handled by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Cornell, not by the President. It’s alarming to go to the website of this office and watch the changing photos; one of them is of Wansink!

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      The linked article from The Psychologist almost makes ya want to join the BPS.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Andrew: “statistically indistinguishable from 100%”: Isn’t one of the two Harvard professors to whom you refer Gary King? His CV says that he is an elected fellow of the American Statistical Association. It wouldn’t occur to him to check with a statistician; he thinks he is one!

    • Andrew says:

      Anon:

      This came up in comments before, and here’s what I wrote at the time:

      I’m not quite sure what went wrong there. But you have to remember that King works well when collaborating with people who do know statistics. I have no idea exactly what went wrong with that Gilbert, King, Pettigrew, and Wilson paper, but it’s possible that: (a) Gilbert deferred to King under the impression that King was a statistics expert, and (b) King deferred to Gilbert under the impression that Gilbert was a subject-matter expert. This sometimes can happen with collaborations, that with multiple people involved, there’s no one to ultimately take responsibility for the conclusions. I’d like to think that either King or Gilbert acting alone would not have made these mistakes: King would not have been emboldened by Gilbert to take such a strong and mistaken position regarding psychology’s replication crisis, and Gilbert would not have been emboldened by King to make such strong and mistaken statistical claims. The whole episode was a disaster.

      I wouldn’t’ve expected King to understand much about how p-values and confidence intervals work, as this is kinda technical and lots of applied researchers and even textbook writers get confused on this point—but I was surprised to see him dismiss the value of replications. Here’s where I think he made the mistake of trusting Gilbert on the substance, and then conversely Gilbert naively trusted King on the stats. I have no idea what either King or Gilbert thinks about this now, but my guess is that King may have realized that he screwed up on this one, but he’s not sure whether to publicly admit his error or just quietly move on and hope that people forget this whole episode.

      • jrkrideau says:

        I am not sure where I read it but I encountered a lovely statemement about Immanuel Velikovsky’s works (Worlds in Collision, etc.)

        Many physicists and biblical scholars were impressed by Velikovsky’s work. The physicists were impressed by his biblical scholarship; the biblical scholars were impressed with his grasp of physics.

  4. Jimmy says:

    It looks like Daryl Bem is still working on the psychic research thing, at least as of last year — he has a meta analysis article here: https://f1000research.com/articles/4-1188/v2

      • Andrew says:

        P.S. I followed Jimmy’s link. The article has open peer reviews so you can read the two review reports. They’re hilarious!

        • Jordan Anaya says:

          Yeah…F1000Research is basically a shit show
          https://medium.com/@OmnesRes/f1000research-gives-open-science-a-bad-name-acd64e5e2307

          Basically you just invite your friends to review your paper and once two of them accept it the paper gets indexed by PubMed. I think it’s basically the easiest method to get your work indexed by PubMed.

          They don’t have any editors looking over the reviews, and the only quality control is that they require authors to have a PhD or MD, so basically none. I hope Brian Wansink doesn’t find out about the site, because then we might see 770 more papers come out of his pizza data set.

          • My personal opinion is that anyone should be able to publish anything at any time and get it indexed by everyone. So I’m not against that at all.

            The key is you need to drop the imaginary idea that “peer reviewed and published in PNAS/Science/Nature/PsychSci/etcetc” means anything at all. Michael Betancourt’s intro to HMC on Arxive is a fantastic piece of work. Is it peer reviewed and selected by prestigious editors and etc? No. Quality of the work is basically uncorrelated with all the fancy back-scratching.

            • Anon says:

              I agree wholeheartedly.

            • Glen M. Sizemore says:

              “The key is you need to drop the imaginary idea that ‘peer reviewed and published in PNAS/Science/Nature/PsychSci/etcetc’ means anything at all.”

              GS: However, if it is published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB), you can take it to the bank. I wonder why that is?

            • Rahul says:

              >>>My personal opinion is that anyone should be able to publish anything at any time and get it indexed by everyone.<<<

              Sure. Post it on your personal website and wait for google to crawl it.

              But then again, there's a reason for curated avenues, right?

              • Andrew says:

                Rahul:

                Indeed, as I’ve suggested many times, I think that journals should get out of the publication business and recognize that their goal is curation. My preferred model is that everything gets published on some sort of super-Arxiv, and then the role of an organization such as the Journal of the American Statistical Association is to pick papers to review and to recommend. The “journal” is then the review reports plus the editors’ recommendations plus links to the original paper and any updates plus post-publication comments.

              • Andrew, Rahul: some thoughts on a peer-to-peer structure for a “super Arxiv”

                http://models.street-artists.org/2017/02/23/public-distributed-cryptographic-scientific-publication/

                I think the peer-to-peer nature of this idea is great because it explicitly prevents “barriers to publication” or “in vs out group” type problems.

                I think the distributed nature is great because human knowledge should be archived for the future, and multiple copies with collaboration and resource sharing facilitates that. I’ve read some fantastic articles from the 1950’s and even a few from the 1800’s I’m glad there is a kind of permanence to a published article. The Arxiv is a big centralized single point of failure with barriers to publication.

                Cryptographic signatures and trust networks are good because with such a system in place, you don’t want people claiming to be other than what they are (think email spam and Nigerian funds transfer scams) and you want a way to help you validate where information came from and who is commenting on it, etc.

          • Anoneuoid says:

            >”the only quality control is that they require authors to have a PhD or MD, so basically none”

            Not that I disagree, but then what is the point of these certifications?

  5. Dan says:

    FYI, Dr. Wansink seems to have erased his controversial blog posts: https://twitter.com/robinnkok/status/849524694143389697

    • Anonymous says:

      Dan: It’s Wansink’s website. Isn’t he entitled to decide what he keeps on it and what he deletes?

      • Andrew says:

        Anon:

        Brian Wansink has the right to do what he wants to the website. Robin Kok has the right to point out that Wansink took that page down. Given that much of this story is about information management (Wansink publishing papers that are not consistent with any possible data, Wansink publishing papers with numbers that don’t add up, Wansink refusing to share whatever data he actually does have), it’s relevant that Wansink is scrubbing the record in this way.

  6. Rahul says:

    >>>If I was the president of Cornell, I’d be kind of annoyed at all the stupid things being written by people working at my institution.<<<

    Ever got a chance to ask Columbia's president what he thinks of Dr. Oz?

  7. Jordan says:

    I was in undergrad during some of these precognition experiments and knew a participant. We thought it was fairly hilarious, because not only is precognition ridiculous, but also because it was “erotic” precognition. The theory was that passing on your genes is the most important thing evolutionarily speaking, so if you have psychic powers that is what they will be looking for.
    http://hplusmagazine.com/2010/11/04/precognition-real-cornell-university-lab-releases-powerful-new-evidence-human-mind-can/

    We also had a confused plant biologist challenge Einstein’s theory of relativity:
    http://www.lansingstar.com/around-town-archive/6638-cornell-scientist-challenges-einstein

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