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Can we see into the future?

The ex-magician challenging our assumptions surrounding the linear perception of time

TextLore OxfordPhotographyTommy Nease

In high school, Daryl Bem was a stage magician. Not exactly the ideal gateway career into science, yet regardless, that's where Bem was led. Decades on, with a degree in physics and a PhD in social psychology under his belt, Bem had successfully transitioned from a kind of teen Derren Brown to become a widely respected social psychologist. His self-perception theory regarding how knowledge of the self unfolds has been in use for decades, serving to elevate Bem to a position of professional prestige. Now, his research into precognition—the ability to see into the future—is causing disarray throughout science, journalism and psychology alike.

While respect in a particular sect often enables academics to push boundaries and explore exciting, new frontiers, Bem isn't afraid to overstep those boundaries, harking back to his initial ambitions in magic for a taste of the inconceivable. His public support of the broadly mistrusted Ganzeld experiment via his late '70s paper "Does Psi Exist?" was the tipping point. The Ganzeld experiment involved the sensory deprivation of one participant or "receiver" through staring at a uniform field of colour, while a "sender" looks at an item and attempts to project that image into the "receiver's" mind. 

While most academics passed this off as worthless and ungrounded research, Bem took it as empirical evidence of extrasensory perception. His opinions on this subject were unpopular, but an ability to take an "agnostic" approach to science worked in his favour, and Bem maintained respect through his willingness to test, prove and occasionally disprove whatever theories came his way.

When the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology agreed to publish Bem's research on precognition in 2011, the study seemed to have hit the trifecta: the winning combination of a mainstream academic, respected journal and extraordinary subject matter left the media tripping over themselves to document such a historic milestone. Titled "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect," Bem's report covered nine experiments involving 1,000 participants, with the intention of providing "an explanatory theory for [precognition and premonition] that is compatible with physical and biological principles."

The experiments simply involved taking broadly accepted psychological tests and reversing the sequences. In one count, participants were required to pick words from a list, before the computer randomly generated six words from the same list, which participants would have to type. Much like the rest of the study—and to the outrage of any number of skeptical onlookers—participants' responses seemed to heavily align with Bem's hypothesis of the existence of precognition.

Though initially pegged as "genius," unsatisfied experts were desperate to disprove the suggestion that our linear perception of time could be questionable, and infuriated that their nitpicking was failing to unveil faults in Bem's research. Regardless, complimentary cries were quickly replaced, as Bem's work was cited "pure craziness" and an "embarrassment for the entire field."

Immediately one of the nine initial experiments was replicated by scientists from a range of high-end establishments, each of whom reported absolutely no evidence of precognition. Though no journal would publish this newer study based on the fact it was a replication, a number of new papers set to disprove Bem's work began to emerge. As practiced parapsychology critics robed themselves in uniform incredulity, his research eventually seemed to buckle beneath the strain, as the methodology and protocols were called into question.

In the years since, the journals, which initially refused to publish replications have altered their standing, and multiple replications of Bem's work have been published, which illustrate the apparent failure of his studies. Yet with a meta-analysis of Bem's work and subsequent replications on the brink of publication, it could only be a matter of time before he once again finds himself at the eye of a media storm.

It remains uncertain as to whether there's stake in Bem's work, but the inclination to disbelief it is based purely on presumptions about the fabric of our universe. "As good scientists, we shouldn't let out preconceived beliefs and biases influence what we study," commented Professor Melissa Burkley of Oklahoma State University. "Even if these preconceived beliefs reflect our basic assumptions about how time and space work."