Parapsychology is the study of the evidence involving phenomena where a person seems to affect or to gain information about something through a means not currently explainable within the framework of mainstream, conventional science. Proponents of the existence of these phenomena usually consider them to be a product of unexplained mental abilities.
Types of parapsychology
The phenomena in question fall into two broad groups.
- Extra-sensory perception (ESP) is also known as anomalous cognition, and includes telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairalience, clairgustance, clairsentience and precognition.
- Anomalous operation includes psychokinesis (in the past referred to as telekinesis), out-of-body experiences, astral projection, near-death experiences, mediumship, and reincarnation.
The general term "psi phenomena" (or the somewhat older term, "psychic phenomena," which was said to be the "psi factor" in an experiment) 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 has arisen historically since it involved 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 other sciences. (For an argument that parapsychological phenomena may not in fact be psychological, see Peter J. King's "Psychology without the 'para' (or the psychology)" (Think 3, 2003, pp 43 53).) Parapsychology often involves the use of new and untested technologies and methods such as; neurofeedback, NLP, and past life regression etc. As such, it may yet earn the right to be included as a modern and proper science.
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 gained the greatest acceptance today.
How science views the field
Scientists treat all claims with scientific scepticism. 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 sceptical observers of the field believe that some parapsychologists knowingly commit fraud; that some are incompetent; and that some are naïve 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 complains:
"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 not only that the percentage of Americans admitting to psychic experiences had increased over a decade, but that 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 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.
- Parapsychology spends too much time simply trying to show that certain phenomena occur, and too little time trying to explain them — yet it's explanation that constitutes the heart of scientific enquiry, and wider, scientific acceptance of parapsychological phenomena would come only with the provision of explanation.
Responses from parapsychologists to criticisms
- The hard evidence for psi phenomena today is founded on repeatable experiments and not anecdotal evidence.
- There is no such thing as a completely 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 skeptic. 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 sighted 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 skeptic 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 sceptical 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.
1. 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 proved, 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.
2. 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".
3. Parapsychology as a Danger to Society
Some believe that parapsychology should not be pursued because
it somehow represents a danger to society. As is stated 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 decision making 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.
4. 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
See history of parapsychology.
- 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 Ph.D. 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. Reportedly, as many as 46 people in the UK have doctorates in parapsychology.
- 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."
- Rais Amrohvi
- Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi
- Hans Bender
- Susan Blackmore
- William Crookes
- Max Dessoir
- Thomas Edison
- Gustave Geley
- John Hasted
- Charles Honorton
- Robert G. Jahn
- William James-founding father of American Psychology
- Brian Josephson-Nobel Prize in Physics, 1973
- Oliver Lodge
- William McDougall
- Gardner Murphy
- Frederick W. H. Myers
- Julian Ochorowicz
- Harry Price
- Dean Radin- Author of "The Conscious Universe", which examines the scientific evidence in parapsychology.
- Jim D. Ray
- Carl Reichenbach
- Joseph B. Rhine
- Charles Robert Richet
- Carl Sargent
- Helmut Schmidt
- Albert von Schrenck-Notzing
- Gary Schwartz-Has stated he has scientific proof of established contact with the dead
- Stephan Schwartz
- Henry Sidgwick
- Ian Stevenson
- Ingo Swann
- Wilhelm Heinrich Carl Tenhaeff
- Mark Twain
- G. N. M. Tyrrell
- Alfred Russel Wallace
Sylvia Browne — received the Pigasus award, Category #4 for
2004 for claiming to "see" in July, 2004 that Osama Bin
Laden was dead, predicting in 2003 that Saddam Hussein would be
found dead by year's end, and other triumphs. Sylvia won in category
#2 in 2003.
Kuda Bux firewalker
Edgar Cayce — claimed to be a psychic healer in the first half of the 20th century.
Mina Margery Crandon — last noted physical and mental medium in the USA
Jeane Dixon can look across the room and make Uri Geller drop his spoon
William and Horatio Eddy — 19th Century Vermont psychics. Their spirit cabinet performances were very similar to that of the famous Davenport Brothers. This tradition is carried on by the team of Glenn Falkenstein and Frances Willard.
Tom Rannachan — Scottish "Psychic Medium" who claims to talk with the dead & receive accurate premonitions.
John Edward — Host of TV show "Crossing Over" in which he claimed to communicate with the dead.
Uri Geller — Israeli telekinetic, famous for bending handled spoons in television shows. Traveled the world with his confederates, who sometimes posed as news reporters. He was deported from Israel, his home country.
Stuart Harary probably means Keith Harary, OBEr
D. D. Home
Jim Jones — claimed to perform healings. He was the leader of the People's Temple that committed mass suicide in 1978
Joseph McMoneagle Former US Army intelligence officer, currently a corporate remote viewer
Wolf Messing — Stalinist seer. His daughter's puff book made him famous.
David Morehouse Government remote viewer
Eusapia Palladino— accused of using her foot to levitate table and other deceptions by conjurors in hiding who watched her methods at close hand. (Rinn, 1950)
Pat Price Government remote viewer
Sathya Sai Baba, big name Indian guru; materialization of small objects
S. G. Soal
Ingo Swann, involved in the formation of the remote viewing procedure.
James Van Praagh
Rev. B. Anne Gehman
Critics of parapsychology
Susan Blackmore — Stopped lecturing and abandoned parapsychology
altogether, because she could no longer endure the near fanatic
and rude behavior of both believers and non-believers.
Milbourne Christopher — Noted Conjuring Historian. His works are frequently overlooked.
Ray Hyman- Conjuror and noted research psychologist
Ehrich Weiss (Harry Houdini)