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Feeling Randi: Skepticism and the Strange Science of Psychic Sex

Our friends over at The Daily Grail brought to my attention recently that famous Skeptic James Randi has nominated researcher Daryl Bem for his annual “Pigasus Award,” on account of displaying what he believes to be unusual silliness in the parapsychological field.

Bem is best remembered in recent times for his research into what has variously been called “time-traveling pornography,” “Feeling the Future,” and perhaps, “extra-sensory sexual orientation” (what an unusual combination… must be a fun job, eh?).

Bem’s “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect” appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011, which made a case for the presence of psychic predictions that people had apparently made in conjunction with being shown erotic imagery. According Bem, there appeared to be a small, but noticeable trend toward greater statistical likelihood for accurate predictions when participants in the study were shown, of all things, naughty photos. This sort of research, of course, doesn’t set very well with those from Randi’s skeptic camp…

According to Randi, during the official 2012 Pigasus announcement:

The winner of the Pigasus Prize in the scientist category is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research that has been discredited on many accounts by prominent critics, such as Drs Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella and Chris French. Such examination shows very strange methods used by Bem to prove his case, which ends up unproven – though the popular media, of course, have chosen to embrace it.

Indeed, similar studies have not only sought to recreate the circumstances Bem had claimed were present in his initial experiment, but also to highlight bad procedures that may have been present at the time they were conducted. Altogether, while a number of researchers find the implication that sexual arousal could potentially “spike” the innate functions of psi to be of interest, the majority seem to think Bem and his research rank among the absurd.

Let us suppose for a moment, however, that Bem’s research, and what it purported to show, were accurate interpretations. What if having an intense connection with another individual could actually erupt as a result of some (for lack of a better term) psychic connection we might have with a potential partner? It might even stand to reason, since we’re engaging in open-minded speculation along these lines, that such an ability to be drawn toward a certain person and experience various psychic phenomenon in relation to that individual might have assisted in our success rate in terms of procreation. In other words, our bodies may have adapted some degree of psychic ability to “predict” who our partners would be, and thus, in modern times this ability to predict the appearance of an erotic image better than other kinds of stimuli could display the remnants of such an ability.

While Bem’s research will be–and rightly should be–questioned, if there is indeed merit to the study and its procedure, skeptics like Randi will almost inevitably overlook the potential merit to understanding elements of our human physiology that could result from further attempts at careful inquiry along these lines. Sadly, rather than merely trying to poke holes in an argument for the existence of psi, the very fact that Bem’s research had to do with human sexuality was a very likely factor in terms of ensuring his ultimate dismissal in the scientific community. I, for one, doubt that many have even tried to look at the deeper implications here, barring the obvious necessity for validating the rigors of the experiment itself… and if Randi’s approaches continue to dominate the field, perhaps no one will.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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