Paranormal Circumstances: One Influential Scientist’s Quixotic Mission to Prove ESP Exists
On a winter afternoon last March, Daryl Bem stepped out of the psychology department building at Cornell University, dressed in a red parka and a woolen hat to fend off the icy wind. As he walked along the pavement, navigating mounds of snow and taking care not to step onto the slushy street, the well-bundled social psychologist looked like a man who might prefer staying safe within the boundaries, a man who might shun risk—proving once again the danger of mistaking surface for substance. The 73-year-old Bem has defied the norm throughout his intellectual life, burning every dogma he’s encountered in the pyre of his logic. Now, in the twilight of his career, he has committed what may be his most daring act of sacrilege: claiming the existence of precognition, the ability to sense future events. Maybe this time, his colleagues say, Daryl Bem has gone too far.
Bem made his mark as a psychologist four decades ago by proposing the then radical idea that people adjust their emotions after observing their own behavior-that we sometimes develop our attitudes about our actions only after the fact. The proposition challenged the prevailing wisdom of the 1960s that things worked the other way around, that attitude was the engine from which behavior emerged. Though counterintuitive, Bem’s theory has held up to scientific scrutiny in dozens of studies and is now enshrined in psychology textbooks.
Over the years, Bem cemented his reputation as a rebel by floating other controversial theories on topics such as personality and sexual orientation. His own personal life was also decidedly unconventional. Despite being married to a woman, Bem never hid from his family the fact that he is gay. A few years ago, he explained this conjugal conundrum in an Internet posting (pdf) distinguishing between romantic love and sexual attraction, arguing that many individuals—like himself—fall in love with a person of the “wrong” gender.