The Paper That Everyone’s Talking About

Nearly all academic articles are ignored by everyone outside that particular field (and by many inside it, too). A few make an impact, get cited, etc. Even fewer get mainstream attention. Most are archived and forgotten.

Every once in a while, though, a paper hits the big time and the author gets his or her 15 minutes in the Warholian sun.

That’s what’s happening to Daryl J. Bem. His paper, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,” is everywhere at the moment. It began with a flurry of attention from blogs, followed by multiple articles in The New York Times, along with NPR, MSNBC, Fox, Der Speigel, Al Jazeera — and it hasn’t even been published yet.

It’s easy to see why. In the paper, Mr. Bem, professor emeritus of psychology at Cornell University, claims that subjects in his experiments were able to predict the future. Not only that, but he claims that in one of the experiments subjects were able to predict the appearance of erotic images more accurately than the appearance of neutral ones. So you’ve got predicting the future and sex. It’s supernatural and it’s dirty. Plus, it’s written by an Ivy League professor and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a real, respected journal. Publicity gold!

Naturally, plenty of people think the research is bunk and have said so. I’m not going to rehash any of that because there are multiple places on the Internet where those discussions are going on. (Plus, here’s a rebuttal to the paper that will be published alongside it in the journal.)

But I was curious what it’s like for a researcher to suddenly find himself in the spotlight.

So I called up Mr. Bem. He had to squeeze me in before another interview. He said at the moment he was weighing interview requests from The Colbert Report and Anderson Cooper. He was hesitant about the Colbert people because he worried they might try to make him look silly, and he was concerned about Anderson Cooper because his people want to recreate the experiments in the paper for the show — essentially, make him redo the science he’s been working on for years.

He’s started turning down radio interviews because they just became too much. And he’s also stopped reading the online comments about his paper, some of which accuse the respected psychologist of being a kook.

Mr. Bem, who is 72, published his first paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology nearly 50 years ago. That one was on group decision-making, a decidedly less controversial topic. Since then he’s become known in the field primarily for self-perception theory. This is, by far, the biggest reaction he’s ever had to a paper. And he says it may be the last thing he publishes.

He’s also received about a hundred e-mails so far. “About half of them are from people saying they or someone in their families makes predictions and offering evidence that they’ve been accurate,” he says. “I get a few from fellow psychologists saying they would like to repeat the experiments. I don’t get too many people writing me saying they think this is crazy.”

Though some people certainly do think it’s crazy. But Mr. Bem expected that. He also thought the paper would provoke some reaction, though the avalanche of interest has overwhelmed him.

And this surely isn’t the end of it. A number of researchers are trying to replicate his results and the outcome of those experiments will probably be known by the end of this year. If it turns out he’s right, that people are capable of “precognition,” then that’s a big deal, to put it mildly. If they show that he erred in such a public fashion, then it will be a blow to his reputation. Either way, if this is his last paper, Bem’s going out with a bang.

Return to Top