The flux capacitor in your brain

So, you already know that Friday was the 55th anniversary of Doc Emmett Brown’s falling off his toilet, hitting his head, falling unconscious, and coming up with the flux capacitor, which not only allowed Teen Wolf to make out with Caroline in the City, but is singlehandedly responsible for the fact that anyone still remembers what a DeLorean is. How do I know you know? Because you spent all week baking this cake.

It took the good doctor thirty more years to get his idea working, so that time travel first became practical in 1985. However, it turns out that, as usual, natural selection got there first. There is an article in press in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that presents experimental evidence for precognition or time-reversed instances of causation. The preprint is available here, from the website of the author, Daryl Bem.

Bem is fairly well known, particularly for his early work in social psychology on the “self-perception theory of attitude change,” which is basically that we learn about ourselves in much the same way that someone else might. For instance, say I hate peanut butter sandwiches. But then I eat a peanut butter sandwich every day for a month. I then look at myself, and say, “Hey, that handsome fellow really seems to like peanut butter sandwiches.” This is the academic basis of that damn Stuart Smalley sketch. He is also responsible for the “Exotic becomes erotic” theory of the formation of sexual orientation.

The paper presents the results of nine experiments, each of which tested for awareness of future events. In the first experiment, subjects were told that there was a picture behind one of two (virtual) curtains, and they were supposed to guess which one. When the picture was just a picture, they picked the right curtain 49.8% of the time, which was not significantly different from the expected 1/2. But, when it was an EROTIC picture, they picked the right picture 53.1% of the time, which, while not particularly overwhelming, is apparently statistically significant at the p=0.011 level. There are eight more experiments on retroactive priming, precognitive avoidance of negative stimuli, and retroactive habituation and induction of boredom. The article also includes discussions of random number generators, pseudorandom number generators, quantum mechanics, and Alice in Wonderland.

So, if you read to the end of this blog post in the hopes that I would tell you what the hell is going on here, I’m afraid I’m going to leave you disappointed. Although, to be fair, your precognitive boredom should have known that I would have nothing intelligent to say sometime around the slash-fic link, in which case you’ve long since moved on. I’ll just lay out the obvious candidates. First, it’s pure chance, although getting consistent results across nine experiments makes this seem not terribly likely. Second, these are nine of a much larger number of experiments, most of which did not conform with the experimenter’s expectations, and were therefore viewed as flawed and discarded. Third, there is actual manipulation of the experiments and/or data, either consciously or unconsciously. Fourth, there is some small possibility of some crazy-cool, Dune-esque, Jedi stuff going on here that is someday going to completely revolutionize how we understand cognition, causation, and time.

Personally, my money is on some combination of options two and three. Even without any type of fraud going on, I think it is incredibly easy for us as scientists to be so convinced that we know what the outcome of an experiment is going to be, that we can massage things around the margins. Keep in mind that these effects are only a couple of percent. On the other hand, even the smallest possibility of number for justifies, to me, the entire institution of tenure. This is exactly the sort of nut-bag research program that you can only pursue if you have absolute job security. I wish that more tenured faculty pursued research like this.

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