Robert Todd Carroll
Parapsychologists are unique in that they devote most of their research to trying to prove the existence of something that are believed to be inexplicable by known laws of nature. Most sciences try to explain observable phenomena; parapsychology tries to observe unexplainable phenomena.
Scientific methodology in this field dates from at least 1882 at the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in London. Its members sought to distinguish psychic phenomena from spiritism and to investigate mediums and their activities. The society studied automatic writing, levitation, and reports of ectoplasmic and poltergeist activity. Modern experiments in parapsycholgy have concentrated principally on extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (mental influence on physical objects) and astral projection (mind travel and perception without the body). Such experiments have been conducted at Duke University in the 1930s under Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980) whose work continues at the Rhine Research Center, in Britain at the Society for Psychical Research and in Russian research labs. 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. A year-long 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. Other parasychological research continues at many places, including Maimonides Hospital Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York; the University of Nevada at Las Vegas; the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research; and the University of Edinburgh, whose psychology department has the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology, and publishes the European Journal of Parapsychology. Parapsychologists have many other publications, as well.
Traditionally, research in this area has been characterized by incompetence in setting up properly controlled experiments and evaluating statistical data, deception and fraud. When properly controlled experiments are done, they have usually yielded negative results, i.e., have been unable to demonstrate a single clear case of psychic power or paranormal phenomena. Positive studies are generally explicable by chance (one expects by chance that there will be periodic unusual runs of "psychic hits." But negative result studies, such as the one done by Richard C. Sprinthall and Barry S. Lubetkin published in the Journal of Psychology (vol. 60, pp. 313-18) and which was carefully and properly designed, are universally rejected by true believers in psi. Researchers who claim to have found positive results usually systematically ignore or rationalize their own studies if they don't support their claims. Many, if not most, psi researchers allow optional starting and optional stopping. All psi researchers limit their research to investigating parlor tricks (guessing the number or suit of a playing card, or "guess what I am looking at") and parlor tricksters. Many are fascinated by numbers and experiment with another kind of parlor trick turned high-tech. Instead of having people use their thoughts to change traffic signals from red to green, they have them try to influence random number generators in computers. When the researchers get a bit of statistical strangeness they speculate it is due to paranormal powers.
On the other hand, when parapsychologists do claim to have proof of a real psychic, they can't get the psychic to duplicate the amazing results of their studies. For example, J.B. Rhine claimed that Hubert Pearce, who later became a Methodist minister, correctly identified 25 ESP cards in a row after having been promised $100 for each card he could correctly identify. The only use to which Pearce ever put his alleged powers was in another test done by Rhine and J.G. Pratt, another true believer. Not only did Rhine and Pratt not take precautions to make sure that Pearce did not cheat, they never had anyone independently test Pearce. As a result, much of the literature on this topic deals with integrity: skeptics proposing that cheating was possible and Rhine and Pratt taking offense that anyone would challenge their integrity or competence, much less the integrity of their subject, Mr. Pearce. There would not have been any controversy, however, if Pearce had been tested properly or by others who didn't have such a vested interest in the perpetuation of the notion that paranormal research may yield valuable results some day. There would not have been any controversy if Pearce had gone on to demonstrate publicly his psychic powers. Most likely, Pearce didn't publicly demonstrate his psychic powers because he didn't have any.
Also, Pearce was not an accomplished magician like Uri Geller, another star witness for the ESP defense. Geller has demonstrated his powers to the public: he can bend spoons and keys with his mind, which, as Randi has pointed out, is the hard way. Randi performs the same trick and demonstrates how it's done. To get a good picture of what passes for scientific research in parapsychology today, read either Randi's account of the studies done on Geller by Russel Targ and Harold Puthoff [ch. 7 of Flim-Flam!] or read Martin Gardner's account of their book Mind-Reach [ch. 30 of Science Good Bad and Bogus].
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 which is not what would be predicted by chance does not establish a causal 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. 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. 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 the exercise of ESP. Each of the four known forces in nature weakens 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 these ESP experiments]" (Garder, 1981, p. 153). The skeptic would rather believe that ESP doesn't exist than that there is some very strong and powerful force which is undetectable even though we're able to detect what must be a much weaker force, gravity, without any trouble at all.
One thing that most defenders of psi have in common is faith. This alone accounts for why they pursue and provide reams of empirical data to support their claims but disregard or trivialize all empirical evidence that indicates their claims are in error. Their faith is not an irrational fideism--belief without regard for and totally in spite of the evidence. Their faith is the kind of controlled faith that marks some religious belief. Evidence counts, but only if it supports your belief; otherwise it doesn't count. This selective thinking trivializes the concept of evidence and explains, in part, why so many of the empirical tests for psi are inadequately designed, controlled and administered. It explains too why so much rationalization and ad hoc hypothesizing goes on to explain away failures to confirm their psychic hypotheses.
Parapsychologists have an extremely broad understanding of what counts as good science. To many non-parapsychologists it appears that not only can one do sloppy or junk science, or invent harmful therapies, and get away with it in parapsychology; it seems to be the norm. Thus, it is an attractive field for a wide array of bumblers with doctorates. This is a shame because its parent, psychology, is also a field with many competent scientific researchers who are contributing to a better understanding of human behavior and to the well-being of many patients.
See related entries on astral projection,
auras, Edgar Cayce, clairaudience, clairvoyance, confirmation bias, dermo-optical perception,
dreams, extraordinary human functions, ganzfeld experiment, mentalist, Raymond Moody, optional starting and stopping,
paranormal, precognition, psi, psi-missing, psychic,
psychic photography, psychic surgery,
psychokinesis, remote viewing, retrocognition, retrospective
falsification, s$Bia(Bnce, shotgunning,
Charles Tart, telepathy, and James Van Praagh.
Alcock, James E. Science and Supernature: a Critical Appraisal of Parapsychology (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990). $30.95
Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), ch. 25. $6.36
Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981), chs. 7, 13, 18, 19, 21, 27 and 31. $15.16
Gordon, Henry. Extrasensory Deception: Esp, Psychics, Shirley MacLaine, Ghosts, Ufos (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987). $19.57
Frazier, Kendrick. editor, The Hundreth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991). $18.36
Frazier, Kendrick. editor, Science Confronts the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986). $19.16
Hansel, C.E.M. The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989). $18.36
Hines, Terence. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990). $19.16
Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry: a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989). $23.07
Kurtz, Paul.editor, A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985). $19.96
Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982). $15.16
Randi, James. The Magic of Uri Geller (Ballantine, 1975).
Robert Todd Carroll