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Study: Psychic ability doesn't hold up (+video)

A new study supports skeptics of psychic abilities. Researchers failed to find evidence to support claims that extrasensory perception is real.

By Stephanie PappasLiveScience / March 15, 2012

Journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) stays in Point Pleasant to explore the reports of unexplained phenomena with the help of Sgt. Connie Parker (Laura Linney) in Mark Pellington's "the Mothman Prophecies," 2002. A new study did not find evidence to support the idea of psychic ability.

AP Photo/Melissa Moseley

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Bad news for Miss Cleo and other alleged clairvoyants: A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real.

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This panel, held at Harvard University in 2011, featured psychologists Daryl Bem, Jonathan Schooler, and Samuel Moulton. It was moderated by Harvard psychologist J. Richard Hackman.

Skeptics may scoff at the finding as obvious, but the research is important because it refutes a study published in a psychological journal last year that claimed to find evidence of extrasensory perception. That research, conducted by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, triggered outrage in the psychological community when the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology announced in 2010 that the paper had been accepted for publication. Psychologists immediately leapt on Bem's statistics and methods, finding reasons how he may have come up with the unbelievable results.

But the real key to a strong scientific finding is reproducibility. If no other researchers can replicate a particular result, it's not likely that the result is real. So University of Edinburgh psychologist Stuart Ritchie and colleagues decided to mimic one of Bem's experiments almost exactly to see if they would also find evidence of psychic powers.

Backward causality

The researchers chose the strongest of the eight positive findings that Bem originally published. In the experiment, Bem's participants seemed to reverse the usual cause-effect sequence of time. They saw a list of 48 words flashed onto a computer screen and were then treated to a surprise memory test in which they were asked to type in as many of the words as they remembered.

Next, a random sample of 24 of the previous 48 words was presented again. The participants did some practice exercises with these words, and then the experiment ended. Analyzing the memory-test results, Bem and his colleagues found that the students were more likely to recall the words that they'd soon see again than the words that were not on the later exercise list, as if they could see the future.

"It's almost as if you study for an exam, you do the exam and then you study for it afterwards and then you get a better mark," Ritchie told LiveScience. "So you can see why we were kind of surprised by that." [Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]

Bem encouraged replication of his results, and he put the computer program he used in his experiment online so other researchers could use it. Ritchie, University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman and University of London psychologist Christopher French all conducted the experiment separately at their respective universities with 50 participants each.

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The results were clear.

"We found nothing," Ritchie said.

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