Parapsychology is the study of mental phenomena, whether actual or purported, that are not currently explainable within the framework of mainstream, conventional science.
Types of parapsychology
The phenomena in question fall into two broad groups.
The general term "psi phenomena" (or the somewhat older term, "psychic phenomena") covers all of these categories.
Status of the field
The standing of the field of parapsychology has always been controversial within the scientific community.
As its name indicates, parapsychology is sometimes considered a sub-branch of psychology, and this arose historically since it involves the study of apparently mental faculties. In its modern form, parapsychology is an interdisciplinary field, which has attracted physicists, engineers, and biologists as well as psychologists and those from the softer sciences.
Many people are not satisfied with the term, and have proposed alternatives, such as "psi research" (similar to the older term "psychical research"), but parapsychology is the term that has the greatest acceptance today.
Parapsychology as a science
While there are some who believe it is in principle impossible to approach the study of paranormal phenomena in a scientific manner, much as it would be impossible to scientificially prove or disprove the existence of a deity, the majority of both believers and skeptics believe that many aspects of psi phenomena can be studied by science.
How science views the field
Scientists treat all claims with scientific skepticism. After examining psi claims for over a century, there has been significant difficulty in merging the results of parapsychology studies with other fields of science. As a result, many in the scientific community feel that parapsychology is not a real science, that psi phenomena do not exist, and that parapsychology is a pseudoscience. Many scientists and skeptical observers of the field believe that some parapsychologists knowingly commit fraud ; that some are incompetent; and that some are na´ve and therefore easily deceived by fraudulent participants; or perhaps some combination of the above.
Parapsychologists disagree with this assessment. Many have been formally trained in science, and are familiar with the scientific method. Statistician Jessica Utts has shown in a number of papers that
- "Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted."
The precise percentage of scientists holding negative views about parapsychology is unclear, since surveys targeting this group are far less common than those targeting the general population. In his article Save Our Science: Paranormal Phenomena and Zetetics , skeptic Henri Broch bemoans,
- "These data are based on an investigation on the belief in parasciences among Frenchmen (published in 1986). [...] Contrary to what might have been thought, the level of belief in the paranormal is directly proportional to the level of education, whatever the religious persuasion may be. Those with higher scientific degrees fare slightly better, although their level of belief is superior to [greater than] the average!"
Sociologist Andrew Greeley, studying surveys and polls since 1978, found that not only did the percentage of Americans admitting to psychic experiences increase over a decade, about two thirds of college professors accepted ESP, and more than 25% of "elite scientists" believed in ESP. Other polls have shown that many scientists hold such beliefs privately but do not share such opinions publicly for fear of ridicule.
The Parapsychological Association is an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). There are chairs, centers, or research units concerned with parapsychology in whole or in part at many universities around the world, as well as independent laboratories involved in parapsychology.
A few parapsychologists are skeptics, for example Chris French and his colleagues at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College in London, and Richard Wiseman and his colleagues at the Perrott-Warrick Research Unit in the Psychology Department of the University of Hertfordshire, both of which units are affiliates of the Parapsychological Association. These researchers do not approach the field with a belief in the paranormal, but are rather interested in the purely psychological aspects of those who report paranormal experiences, along with the study of the psychology of deception, hallucination, etc. These researchers also have provided their own guidelines and input to other parapsychologists for the design of experiments and how to properly test those who claim psychic abilities.
Interpretation of the evidence
Many scientists hold that the entire body of evidence to date is of poor quality and not properly controlled; in their view the entire field of parapsychology has produced no results whatsoever.
Other scientists hold that there is a small amount of data from properly controlled experiments that can be trusted for a small number of psi phenomena. They hold that this evidence is not definitive, but suggestive enough to warrant further research.
Criticisms of parapsychological research
- Anecdotal evidence, characteristic of most of parapsychology, is inherently unreliable. Anecdotes may have natural, non-anomalous explanations such as random coincidence , fraud , imagination, or auto-suggestion.
- If an experiment is not controlled to prevent fraud, then the results may not be trusted. This is especially so given the fact that many people who claimed to possess psi abilities were later proven to be frauds.
- Parapsychology experiments are usually poorly designed. They often lack proper controls, allowing paths of intentional or unintentional information leakage through normal means, etc.
- Parapsychology experiments are rarely replicated with positive results at independent laboratories.
- Positive results in psi experiments are so statistically insignificant as to be negligible, i.e. indistinguishable from chance. For example, parapsychology may have a "file drawer" problem where a large percentage of negative results are never published, making positive results appear more significant than they actually are.
- Currently unexplainable positive results of apparently sound experiments do not necessarily prove the existence of psi phenomena, i.e. normal explanations may yet be found. Concluding unexplainability from unexplainedness constitutes the well-known fallacy Argument from Ignorance.
- Psi phenomena cannot be accepted as explanation of positive results until there is a widely acceptable theory of how they operate.
- Parapsychologists may prefer and write selective history. The whole story may be avoided.
Responses from parapsychologists to some of these criticisms include:
- The hard evidence for psi phenomena today is founded on repeatable experiments and not anecdotal evidence.
- There is no such thing as a 100% foolproof experiment in any field of science, and it is unreasonable to hold parapsychology to a higher standard of epistemology than the other sciences. Fraud and incompetence in parapsychology is addressed in the same way it is addressed in any other field of science: repeating experiments at multiple independent laboratories; publishing methods and results in order to receive critical feedback and design better protocols, etc.
- Experimental protocols have been continually improved over time, sometimes with the direct assistance of noted skeptics. Meta-analyses show that the significance of the positive results have not declined over time, but instead have remained fairly constant.
- There are certain phenomena which have been replicated with odds against chance far beyond that required for acceptance in any other science. Meta-analyses show that these cannot be accounted for by any file drawer problem.
- Anomalous phenomena do not disappear for lack of a theory. There have been many instances in the history of science where the observation of an anomalous phenomenon came before an explanatory theory, and some commonly accepted non-psi phenomena today still lack a perfectly satisfactory, undisputed theory. For instance, in the past, those who cited meteors falling to the earth were dismissed as madmen or false prophets.
- Theories abound in parapsychology for aspects of psi phenomena, though there is not any one that is comprehensive and widely accepted within parapsychology.
- It is not necessary to be a licensed psychiatrist or acquainted with clinical psychology to test the validity of psi. The field of parapsychology overlaps many disciplines, including physics and biology, and often physicists, engineers and others trained in the hard sciences, in conjunction with stage magicians and other experts in deception, are in a better position to design experiments for certain types of phenomena than are psychiatrists or psychologists.
The opinion of parapsychologists regarding the overall evaluation of the body of evidence to date is divided. As noted above, some parapsychologists are skeptics and do not believe that there is anything observed so far which cannot ultimately be explained within the existing framework of known science. Probably a majority of parapsychologists believe in the likelihood, or at least the possibility, of actual psi phenomena, though there is a range of attitudes toward the evidence.
Regarding the evidence, the rule of the thumb of the skeptical community is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Since skeptics may consider paranormal claims extraordinary, they may think that the evidence needs to be better than what normally would be required.
Most people use this approach to evidence in everyday life. For instance, if the news reports that the president of the USA has just arrived in South Korea for a state visit, most people will take this at face value. The news is considered a fairly reliable source of information, and the president visiting a country such as South Korea is not an extraordinary claim. However, if the same news broadcast later mentioned that a 92-year-old man has improved the world record time on the marathon by half an hour, many reasonable people would require more evidence, even despite the assumed reliability of the source, since the claim is extraordinary.
Some parapsychologists agree with critics that the field has not yet reached the degree of consistent repeatability of experimental results needed for general consensus. John Beloff , in his book Parapsychology: A Concise History, notes the evanescent -- some have said the apparently evasive -- nature of psychic phenomena over time, and that the range of phenomena observable in a given era seems to be culturally dependent.
For example, in earlier times, psychic research studied physical phenomena demonstrated by spiritualist mediums that, according to the reports passed down to us in the literature, far surpassed anything that any of today's "psychics" can demonstrate. Skeptics consider this more evidence of the non-existence of psi phenomena.
Yet many people, such as Beloff, cannot easily dismiss the entirety of all the positive accounts - so many of which came from the experts of their day (including scientists and conjurors), many of whom began as noted skeptics - and so believe that continued research in the field is justified.
Other parapsychologists, such as Dean Radin and supporters such as statistician Jessica Utts, take the stance that the existence of certain psi phenomena has been reasonably well established in recent times through repeatable experiments that have been replicated dozens to hundreds of times at labs around the world.
They refer to meta-analyses of psi experiments that conclude that the odds against chance (null hypothesis) of experimental results far exceeds that commonly required to establish results in other fields, sometimes by orders of magnitude.
Indeed, many parapsychologists have moved on from proof-oriented research, intended primarily to verify the existence of psi phenomena, to "process-oriented" research, intended to explore the parameters and characteristics of psi phenomena. Time will tell whether these results prove to be evanescent as well.
James Randi and The Randi Challenge
Magician James Randi demands that magicians as well as scientists be included as observers of psychic experiments, to help detect trickery. Professional magicians such as Randi have claimed that the feats performed by people who claim to be psychics can also be achieved by concealed and fraudulent physical manipulation; Randi, Penn and Teller, and other stage magicians often perform such tricks in public, and then explain how they are done.
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) offers a one million U.S. dollars prize to anyone who can demonstrate any psychic or paranormal phenomenon. For more information about this challenge, see the corresponding section of the James Randi article.
Early Scientific American challenge
The offering of prizes for demonstrations is not new to the field. Circa 1924, Scientific American magazine offered a $5000 prize to anyone who could produce any "visible psychic manifestation". Medium Mina Crandon, known in the literature as "Margery", made a bid and was tested by a committee set up by the editorial staff. Her performance was such that the committee members were split in their opinions. The magazine published the mixed report in its November 1924 issue, no prize was awarded, and the competition was declared closed the following year. In the early 1900s, the then well-known stage magician and skeptic Howard Thurston was sufficiently impressed by the demonstrations of medium Eusapia Palladino that he advertised in the New York Times his offer of $1000 to charity in the name of any fellow conjuror who could duplicate the feats of Ms. Palladino under similar conditions. He had no takers.
Other objections to parapsychology
There are a variety of other objections to parapsychology as well.
- Psi Phenomena as a Violation of the Laws of Physics or Nature
- Some critics claim that the existence of psi phenomena would violate "the known laws of physics", and some of these critics believe that this is reason enough that such phenomena should not be studied. Parapsychologists respond that "laws of nature" are simply summaries of existing scientific knowledge and do get revised from time to time during the course of scientific progress. If the existence of psi phenomenon were ever proven, explaining how they work might require revising or extending the known laws of physics. Precognition, for example, would challenge commonly held notions about causality and the unidirectional nature of time. However, these commonly held notions are often not physical laws, and are already being challenged by modern physical theories, quite apart from psi phenomena. Skeptics and parapsychologists alike generally agree that, as per Occam's Razor, simple explanations should be preferred for any resulting theories of psi.
- Parapsychology as Taboo
- Some believe that paranormal phenomena should not be studied, either because they are forbidden by their religious orientation, or because they believe that to do so opens the investigators to some sort of "spiritual attack".
- Parapsychology as a Danger to Society
- Some believe that parapsychology should not be pursued because it somehow represents a danger to society. As appears in the Y2000 NSF report Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding: Belief in the Paranormal or Pseudoscience , "Concerns have been raised, especially in the science community, about widespread belief in paranormal phenomena. Scientists (and others) have observed that people who believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena may have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Their beliefs may indicate an absence of critical thinking skills necessary not only for informed decisionmaking in the voting booth and in other civic venues (for example, jury duty), but also for making wise choices needed for day-to-day living." Although under the heading 'paranormal phenomena' the report lists topics such as astrology, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster, it also lumps in belief in ESP, and by implication, most parapsychology.
- Parapsychology as a Waste of Resources
- Some believe that parapsychology should not be funded because it is a waste of resources that would be better spent on other activities. Some of these critics feel so strongly about this that they engage in activism to try to prevent or remove funding from psi research. Psychic detectives may waste valuable police resources.
History and evaluation
- German psychiatrist Hans Berger originally invented the electroencephalograph (EEG) in 1929 as a tool to study whether telepathy might be explained by brain waves.
- The first and only PhD in Parapsychology awarded by the University of California, Berkeley was to Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove in 1980. Subsequently some activists unsuccessfully lobbied the Berkeley administration to revoke the degree.
- Patent #5830064, "Apparatus and method for distinguishing events which collectively exceed chance expectations and thereby controlling an output", was granted by the US Patent Office on Nov 3rd, 1998 to inventors including several researchers from the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) center. The patent in no way relies on the existence of psi phenomena, but in the description the inventors do suggest that "One application of the present invention is the investigation of anomalous interaction between an operator and random physical systems, whether by serious scientists or curious members of the public who would like to conduct experiments on their own."
- Hans Bender
- Susan Blackmore
- William Crookes
- Max Dessoir
- Gustave Geley
- Charles Honorton
- Harry Price
- Robert G. Jahn
- Oliver Lodge
- Gardner Murphy
- Fredrick W. H. Myers
- Julian Ochorowicz
- Dean Radin
- Charles Robert Richet
- Joseph B. Rhine
- Carl Sargent
- Helmut Schmidt
- Gary Schwartz
- Stephan Schwartz
- Albert von Schrenck-Notzing
- Ian Stevenson
- Wilhelm Heinrich Carl Tenhaeff
- G. N. M. Tyrrell
- Ingo Swann
- Ray Hyman- Conjuror and noted research psychologist
- Sylvia Brown
- Edgar Cayce
- Miss Cleo
- Gerard Croiset
- Jeane Dixon
- John Edward - conjurors accuse him of television edited "cold reading"
- Stuart Harary
- D. D. Home
- Leslie Flint
- Wolf Messing - Stalinist seer.
- Stephan Ossowiecki
- Leonore Piper
- James Van Praagh - conjurors accuse him of "cold reading"
- Kuda Bux
- Ingo Swann
- Mina Margery Crandon
- Uri Geller - Israeli telekineticist, famous for bending handled spoons in television shows
- Sathya Sai Baba
- S. G. Soal
- Jim Jones - performed fake healings. He was the leader of the People's Temple that committed mass suicide in 1978
- Eusapia Palladino - accused of using foot to levitate table.
Critics of parapsychology
- Susan Blackmore
- Milbourne Christopher - Noted Conjuring Historian
- James Randi
- Ehrich Weiss (Harry Houdini)
- The Conscious Universe, by Dean Radin, Harper Collins, 1997, ISBN 0062515020.
- Parapsychology: A Concise History, by John Beloff, St. Martin's Press, 1993, ISBN 0312096119.
- Parapsychology: The Controversial Science, by Richard S. PHD Broughton, Ballantine Books, 1991, ISBN 0345356381.
- ESP,Seers & Psychics, by Milbourne Christopher,Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970
- The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research, by Ray Hayman, Prometheus Books, 1989, ISBN 0879755040.
- Parapsychology basic topics.
- List of spirituality-related topics
- True-believer syndrome
- The Parapsychological Association is the professional association of parapsychologists and is affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), an advocacy group of scientists arguing for the anti-paranormal point of view.
- PsiPog.net : Psychic Students In Pursuit Of Guidance. Learn to be psychic, and prove ESP to yourself, by reading the articles written by experienced psychics. Non-profit organization.
- The Veritas Academy - An online academy with forums, articles, and classes for psi, chi, magick, and spirituality.
Independent research organizations
- Society for Psychical Research (SPR). The original scientific society founded in London in 1882.
- American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR).
- Rhine Research Center and Institute for Parapsychology , originally part of Duke University, now an independent research center.
University research organizations
- Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh.
- Global Consciousness Project at Princeton
- Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology Research Unit of the Liverpool John Moores University.
- Psychology Research Cluster at University College Northampton.
- Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) at Princeton University.
- Division of Personality Studies (DOPS), a unit of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia.
- Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
- Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) at the University of Adelaide.
- Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths University of London.
- Perrott-Warrick Research Unit in the Psychology Department of the University of Hertfordshire.
- Parapsychology links
- Dean Radin's A Field Guide to Skepticism from his book The Conscious Universe.
- The Need for Responsibility in Parapsychology: My Sixty Years in Psychical Research by Eric Dingwall
- Test your Psi with tests designed by Boundary Institute a nonprofit scientific research organization.
- The Project Alpha Experiment
- Mindreader Sean Boon as featured on television and radio]