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"...parapsychology is the only realm of objective inquiry in which the phenomena are all negatively defined, defined in terms of ruling out normal explanations." James Alcock (2003)
Parapsychology is the search for evidence of paranormal phenomena, such as ESP and psychokinesis. Most scientists try to explain observed and observable phenomena. Parapsychologists try to observe unexplainable phenomena. All the other sciences have led us away from superstition and magical thinking, while parapsychology has tried to find a scientific basis for such things as divination and mediumship.
Much parapsychology today attempts to find statistical oddities that can't be explained either by the laws of chance or by any other known natural causes. Parapsychologists assume in such cases that they have found evidence for psi.
Scientific methodology in this field dates from at least 1882 at the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in London, which continues to flourish. Its initial members sought to distinguish psychic phenomena from spiritism, and to investigate mediums and their activities. They studied automatic writing, levitation, and reports of ectoplasmic and poltergeist activity. In America, Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980) conducted psi experiments at Duke University in the 1930s. His work continues at the Rhine Research Center and at various labs across the country where experiments have concentrated principally on extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis, remote viewing, and astral projection. There are at least half a dozen peer-reviewed journals of parapsychology. However, research in this area has been characterized by deception, fraud, and incompetence in setting up properly controlled experiments and evaluating statistical data (Alcock 1990; Gardner 1981; Gordon 1987; Hansel 1989; Hines 1990; Hyman 1989; Park 2000; Randi 1982). For a short history of psi research, see my essay on the subject.
Americans Charles Tart and Raymond Moody, among many others, continue to expand upon Rhine's work. The CIA and the U.S. military have hired parapsychologists and studied alleged psychics such as Ingo Swann and Joe McMoneagle. Parapsychological research has been done at several places in the U.S., including the Maimonides Hospital Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, and the University of Virginia Division of Perceptual Studies. In Europe, the main center of parapsychology has been the University of Edinburgh, whose psychology department has the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology and publishes the European Journal of Parapsychology. Liverpool Hope University has a parapsychology research group and Goldsmith's University of London has an Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. (A list of research centers around the world is posted here. Another list of research labs is given by the Parapsychological Association.) Parapsychologists publish several journals.
Psi researchers often find evidence for psi, but a yearlong study done by the United States Air Force Research Laboratories (the VERITAC study, named after the computer used) was unable to verify the existence of ESP. A carefully designed study by Richard C. Sprinthall and Barry S. Lubetkin published in the Journal of Psychology (vol. 60, pp. 313-18) found no evidence of ESP. Some parapsychologists, e.g., Louie Savva and Susan Blackmore, have abandoned the search for psi after years of failing to find any significant support for paranormal phenomena (Blackmore 1987, 2000).
Despite the fact that psychologists have been in the forefront of paranormal studies, a study of 1,100 college professors in the United States found that only 34% of psychologists believe that ESP is either an established fact or a likely possibility. Comparable figures for other disciplines are much higher: natural scientists (55%), social scientists [excluding psychologists] (66%) and for academics in the arts, humanities, and education (77%). Of the psychologists surveyed, 34% believe psi is an impossibility, while only 2% of the other respondents maintained this position (Wagner and Monnet 1979).
Parapsychologists who claim to have found positive results often systematically ignore or rationalize their own studies if they don’t support psi. Rhine discarded data that didn’t support his beliefs, claiming subjects were intentionally getting answers wrong (psi-missing). Many psi researchers allowed optional starting and optional stopping. Many psi researchers have limited their research to investigating parlor tricks (guessing the number or suit of a playing card, or “guess what Zener card I am looking at” or “try to influence this random number generator or the outcome of this dice throw with your thoughts”). Any statistical strangeness is attributed to paranormal events. Some researchers, like Dean Radin, write histories of the paranormal that make no mention of fraud (Soal) or cheating (Project Alpha) or embarrassing events like Rhine's declaring the horse Lady Wonder to be psychic. Radin is also fond of meta-analysis, which allows him to lump together numbers of studies of questionable worth and do a statistical analysis that makes the data seem like gold. In his latest book, Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality, Radin provides a mega-meta-analysis of over 1,000 studies on dream psi, ganzfeld psi, staring, distant intention, dice PK, and RNG PK. He concludes that the odds against chance of getting these results are 10104 against 1 (p. 276). He comments that "there can be little doubt that something interesting is going on" (p. 275). Maybe so, but what does it have to do with the paranormal?
In The Conscious Universe (1997), Radin uses statistics and meta-analysis to prove that psychic phenomena really do exist even if those who have the experiences in the labs are unaware of them. Statistical data show that the world has gone psychic, according to the latest generation of parapsychologists. You may be unconscious of it, but your mind is affecting random number generators all over the world as you read this. The old psychic stuff - thinking about aunt Hildie moments before she calls to tell you to bugger off - is now demonstrated to be true by statistical methods that were validated in 1937 by Burton Camp and meta-validated by Radin 60 years later when he asserted that meta-analysis was the replication parapsychologists had been looking for. The only difference is that now when you think of aunt Hildie it might be moments before she calls her car mechanic and that, too, may be linked to activity in your mind that you are unaware of.
Radin's latest book sees entanglement as a key to understanding extrasensory phenomena. Entanglement is a concept from quantum physics that refers to connections between subatomic particles that persist regardless of being separated by various distances. He notes that some physicists have speculated that the entire universe might be entangled and that the Eastern mystics of old might have been on to something cosmic. His speculations are rather wild but his assertions are rather modest. For example: "I believe that entanglement suggests a scenario that may ultimately lead to a vastly improved understanding of psi" (p. 14) and "I propose that the fabric of reality is comprised [sic] of 'entangled threads' that are consistent with the core of psi experience" (p. 19). Skeptics might suggest that studying self-deception and wishful thinking would lead to a vastly improved understanding of psi research and that being consistent with a model is a minimal, necessary condition for taking any model seriously, but hardly sufficient to warrant much faith.
From the standpoint of physics there seems to be a major problem with the assumption and alleged discovery by some parapsychologists that spatial distance is irrelevant to psi. Three of the four known forces in nature weaken with distance.* Thus, as Einstein pointed out in a letter to Dr. Jan Ehrenwald, “This suggests...a very strong indication that a non-recognized source of systematic errors may have been involved [in ESP experiments]” (Garder 1981, 153). The skeptic would rather believe that ESP doesn’t exist than that there is some very strong and powerful force that is undetectable even though we’re able to detect what must be a much weaker force, gravity, without any trouble at all.
Recently, the work of Charles Honorton and his ganzfeld experiments have been put forth as examples of proper scientific studies whose integrity cannot be doubted. Maybe. But the data from these experiments illustrate another problem with much research in parapsychology: correlations don't establish causality. Finding a correlation that is not what would be predicted by chance does not establish a causal event. Nor does it establish that if it is a causal event, it is a paranormal event. Furthermore, even if there is a causal event, the correlation itself isn't of much use in determining what that event consists of. What you think is cause may be the effect. Or, there may be some third, unknown, factor which is causing the effect observed. Or, the correlation may be due to chance, even if it is statistically unlikely in a certain sense. Or the correlation may be illusory and due to an experimenter expectation effect rather than to any real causal event. The apparent chance correlation may actually be statistically likely over the long run. So, the fact that a group of test subjects identifies correctly which of four pictures someone else has seen at a .36 rate when .25 is what chance predicts doesn't establish a causal event. Nor does it, of course, establish ESP as the cause, if there is a cause. The event may well be causal, but the real cause may be something quite ordinary, such as fraud, unintentional cues, or some tendency to bias in the subject matters selected by chance. If other researchers can duplicate the results with more and more rigorous tests, then it will become highly probable that causal events are being measured. Then, the problem will be to find the cause. Maybe it will turn out to be a psychic force hitherto undetected by physics, but this seems unlikely.
Parapsychologists, such as Dean Radin, also point to the work of Robert Jahn at Princeton University as an example of strong evidence of psychokinesis. Skeptics disagree. Physicist Robert Park, for example, called Jahn's lab "an embarrassment to science."* Jahn's work does seem to be a classic example of pathological science, except that rather than make observations at the threshold of perception, Jahn and his team focused on statistical analysis at the threshold of significance.
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books and articles
Wagner, M. W. & Monnet, M. “Attitudes Of College Professors Toward Extra-Sensory Perception,” Zetetic Scholar, 5, 7 – 16, 1979
KOESTLER PARAPSYCHOLOGY UNIT (interesting history of the origins of terms such as psi, ESP, etc.)
The Research With B.D. and the Legacy of Magical Ignorance by George P. Hansen
Deception by Subjects in Psi Research by George P. Hansen