The Fall of Parapsychology?

Long time readers of this blog will know I am a genuine fan of Professor Chris French — he is brilliant, hard working, and actually investigates claims, and like Professor Wiseman avoids making the “rationalist myths” howlers that most of the celeb-atheist twittering classes embarrass their readers with, by actually knowing what he is talking about. Unlike Richard Wiseman, there is a certain down to earth self effacing humility in Professor French. 😉

Anyway Prof French edits the excellent The Skeptic magazine: I assume it is excellent based on a small collection of essays that were published in book form a couple of years back, and because I really like Neil Davies, the chap who does the wonderful caricature cartoons, and also Andrew Endersby who I know has long been involved with the magazine. However this remains a statement of faith on my part, as I have never been able to afford to subscribe: perhaps this year I shall, and i am pleased to see one can order individual issues, so if you are interested enough in the subject to have read this far go and have a look at picking up a subscription? 🙂

Anyway I am not here to sell magazines, I’m writing today because before Christmas and my annual cold and chest problems I saw an interesting little piece by Professor French on Anomalistic Psychology on Nature.com blogs. It’s a very short piece, well worth reading, and I have already given my thoughts on Anomalistic Psychology in a couple of other places on my blog – at the end of my infamous Paranormality review, and I in my review of Chris French’s Cheltenham SitP talk. So while I will reprise some of those concerns here, this piece if a direct response to Prof. French’s article and video, which you should go view now if you have not yet. 🙂

The article opens with a rather well written introductory paragraph that sets the context.

“Ever since records began, people have reported strange experiences that appear to contradict our conventional scientific understanding of the universe. These have included reports that appear to support the possibility of life after death, such as near-death experiences, ghostly encounters and apparent communication with the dead, as well as claims by various individuals that they possessed mysterious powers such as the ability to read minds, see into the future, obtain information from remote locations without the use of the known sensory channels, or to move objects by willpower alone. Such accounts are accepted as veridical by most of the world’s population in one form or another and claims relating to miraculous healing, alien abduction, astrological prediction and the power of crystals are also accepted by many. Belief in such paranormal claims is clearly an important aspect of the human condition. What are we to make of such accounts from a scientific perspective?”

OK, so writes Prof. French. This raises so many fascinating questions — firstly and most obviously, a physical phenomena that was mysterious in late 7th century Constantinople, or 18th century France, or 1970’s Dagenham, may well be fully understood now. French I am sure accepts this point: but indeed much science is anomaly driven, as we refine models by trying to explain things such as “dark matter” or some other scientific mystery. A deeper issue however arises – where is the observer in the “conventional scientific understanding of the universe” situated? If he means there have been through history phenomena reported that are now Fort’s damned “things” (but still they march!) then yes, but are we talking outside the “conventional scientific understanding of the universe” of their period, or today? The conventional scientific understanding of the latter 13th century could accept many phenomena that ours today can not: we have sensibly enough adopted methodological naturalism as an epistemological framework, and resolved the philosophical debate of centuries by deciding yes Nature can be described and modeled mathematically, without arbitrary intervention, ghosts, gods, goblins or witches.

I assume Professor French has in mind the modern scientific worldview, shared by the average Nature reader, who one assumes is not much like Rupert Sheldrake or Bernard Carr, but closer to the kind of chap who writes books called The Magic of Reality seemingly completely happy to accept that Science in some way directly equates to reality. (OK, a low blow — but I think intelligent children can grasp concepts as simple as Instrumentalism, or Inductivism. Failing that, point out to them that if Cheltenham is the Cosmos, then we can draw a series of maps of it; those maps in some simple ways equate to our science’s relation to the actual universe; it is a description, useful for making predictions and getting places, but we should never forget the science is just a depiction of the reality, and the nature of the relationship between the two is still hotly disputed in the philosophy of science…)

So yep, a lot of these phenomena are utterly discredited in the eyes of the modern scientific paradigm, though as much for metaphysical axiomatic reasons as for successful falsification of them. I have a real issues with the very notion of parapsychology, being a negatively defined discipline, and have argued passionately on this blog as to why I find the notion of the paranormal utterly incoherent, unhelpful and indeed probably damaging. I would encourage you to take a moment to understand my argument there before proceeding, if you have the time…

Chris French, like Richard Wiseman, Sue Blackmore and a handful of other committed sceptics have actually done what most sceptics never do, and done a load of experiments. In that process you can easily go, like Dr Sue Blackmore, from a believer to a complete sceptic, or the other way like Prof. Jessica Utts and others have I guess. I think it was during the period when Sue Blackmore was becoming disillusioned with parapsychology that she wrote one of the most important papers she ever published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Luckily that paper is online here and it is absolutely worth reading — it is really the Founding Manifesto of modern Anomalistic Psychology, and Dr Blackmore deserves a great deal of credit she does not often seem to get.

Now in the article Dr Blackmore writes, surveying the SPR in 1987

So first, has our subject really failed so dismally? A dispassionate look at our Society’s activities suggests that it has not lived up to its early ambitions. We do not hold crowded lectures in our own well appointed lecture theatre, nor are we established in a University department. Also there are not many of us. This year, in 1987, the SPR has 830 members; not an enormous increase over the 700 or so who were members in 1887. Size, you may protest, is not everything. No indeed it is not, but what else could we boast? As a Society we are not very well known and are still considered as a fringe group, accorded rather little respect or academic standing. And as for research—most of us do not do very much and there is pitifully little money with which to encourage more.

The situation in 2011: I believe there are about 50 parapsychology PhD students now, and somewhere around the 13 or 14 active parapsychology units or departments doing parapsychological research in UK universities – most are psychology departments, with a couple doing paraphysics. The SPR still has around the same number of members it always had I believe; in recent years the decline in numbers has dropped, perhaps even reversed. As to the money and respect, it is much the same as when Dr Blackmore was writing. This reminds me of the joke of a friend who told me he was working in “Anomalistic Psychology” and i asked him what the difference was between that and parapsychology – “about 50k a year and tenure” he replied. However while we have seen losses, like the European Journal of Parapsychology folding, we have seen gains in terms of a huge increase in the number of PhD students in the field, a large amount of publications with some like Bem’s drawing mainstream attention, and probably more research that I ever will ever have time to even read the abstracts of published in the last three years. (Most of it bores me to tears, because y interests in parapsychology are pretty much apparitions and poltergeists. :))

So when Chris French writes in his piece of the failure of parapsychology, I am minded of Susan writing back in 1987, and I remember her call for a new parapsychology —

If we are going to have a new psychical research we must ask ourselves just what are the questions which matter to us. I would guess that most people interested in psychical research are interested because of experiences they have had and cannot explain. These might be dramatic psychic experiences; convincing examples of telepathy or precognition; veridical astral projection or effective communication with the dead but most people’s experiences are far less veridical and much more personal than that—as a glance at any issue of our Newsletter Supplement reveals. I suspect that the crucial experiences are often things which people know in their heart are important but find it very hard to explain to anyone else. For myself, I have had out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams; experiences in which myself and the rest of the world seemed to be one; in which all change flowed in an endless now. I have learned that it is possible to see more clearly, even perhaps to ‘wake up’. These things are hard to describe; even embarrassing to speak about. But it is these experiences which brought me to psychical research.

Anomalistic Psychology is exactly the “New Parapsychology” Blackmore called for in that paper: it performs important work. I have many reservations: I am no fan of fMRI studies that purport to show certain brain states correlated with certain neurological responses, and which crop up in some research in the area, and I am frankly sceptical of some of the modular theories of brain activity that I have seen touted, and the evolutionary psychology explanations often put forward on the fringes of the area. If you stick to Wiseman, French, Blackmore and the APRU you probably won’t go far wrong — once you get involved with psychologists who have no understanding of parapsychology, things get very silly and annoying quite often.

My greatest critique remains simple: Anomalistic Psychology runs the risk of being “faith based”; it is grounded in a materialist reductionist worldview, and as I think most scientists now recognise all observation is theory laden and our preconceptions can shape drastically which research questions we even bother to ask, it runs the risk of being unproductive, if the answers for the anomalies are not actually located in the noggin, but in the wispy shades of the ethereal dead or some such.

And there is the rub: in my recent ANOMALY article I pointed out that physical aspects of “haunts” have been consistently downplayed and ignored by parapsychological writers and sceptics alike for over a century, and I argue the reason why is they are not mental, psychological phenomena. I am sure that Anomalistic Psychology could tell us something about belief in poltergeists, but it would not tell us much about what the chaps from the Max Planck institute measured happening at the Rosenheim poltergeist, or many other bizarre cases with physical aspects?

Still, I remain unsure about how we can be certain about what is actually going on in these cases, and Anomalistic Parapsychology is certainly of interest and useful: but again, it must avoid simply being “parapsychology for sceptics”, and it must never become mired in dogma. Dr Blackmore wanted a parapsychology that faced up to the loss of the self, free will, and triumph of materialism — I am waiting for Prof. Hood’s book before I launch my critique on those positions, but based on the versions Blackmore offered I think the case is weaker now than it was when she was writing in 1987. In either case, I prefer at least some nod to academic impartiality and objectivity: the venerable SPR, for all its eccentricities, has a wonderful thing in it’s “no corporate opinions” rule. Once “believers” are welcome in Anomalistic Psychology, as they are as both subjects and students in Religion and Sociology departments, my doubts will no doubt diminish.

So to quickly finish, because I am aware my hacking cough makes me cantankerous and rude, how do we account for the “retreat factor” in paranormal gains and losses, by which seemingly promising results are soon lost? In the case of Bem, there was media hyping, but plenty of similar papers had been published over the last decade. I am almost completely uninterested in psi research, but I will write a future post on the papers, and their statistical power, and the failed replications (denied publication in the mainstream journals, published in the parapsi ones though?) Sometimes it is possible for dodgy research to grab the worlds attention – but actually there is another phenomena, where interesting and consistent stuff like the Ganzfeld studies are ignored, and largely forgotten, owing to the whims of fashion. Maybe the problem is they show some interesting result, but bring us no closer to a mechanism or theory of psi — as to why that is I won’t speculate. Still, I think the truth may be just that: any ESP research last as long as people are interested in it., and any “paranormal” gains are quickly countered. As my experience of skeptics is that they can be very easily be misled by anything that suits their prejudices, like all of us, being human,the countering may not even be factually accurate — as in when the over enthusiastic skeptic hurls Randi’s Prize at me as a reason why PEAR, Bem or the Ganzfeld trials were all nonsense. 🙂

Anyway apologies for the slightly sardonic tone – I am a little unwell, but felt worth commenting on the piece.

cj x

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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3 Responses to The Fall of Parapsychology?

  1. Evocative article Chris on the future of Parapsychology. I have appraised similar issues and suggested some constructive approaches related to the status and progress of Parapsychology as an academic discipline in my paper, ‘Parapsychology- Re-appraising Methodological Issues’- see:

    http://​www.americanchronicle.com/​articles/view/264231

  2. Am Chron article on parapsychology, methodology and allied traditions- ( full link can be pasted if not functional from below URL):

    http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/264231

  3. Newton Green says:

    Thank you, Chris. I have not come across you before, but I may surely rate you as a non-dogmatic sceptic. This is a pleasant change from the usual sceptical tendency to defend an essentially materialist-determinist at all costs, resorting to profanity and personal denigration in the process. They often make it worse by referring to the result as ‘Science’. Whilst from the other end of the ‘psi spectrum’ myself (cf “God, Ghosts, and Independent Minds” – Newton Green; Penpress, or via Amazon or Kindle) I, too, would like to see more research done in promising areas like the Ganzfeld distance-viewing experiments. Rapport between identical twins – ie is it Nature, Nurture, a dollop of both, or simply force of habit? – seems another promising lead to follow, if only to eliminate false trails. My own hunch is that Mind exists independently of Brain (not a fashionable position, I know!) and in the non-experimental field I am much intrigued by, for example, the latest “Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research” (October 2011, Vol 59, Part 223) in which Erlendur Haraldson sets out the best case for an independent ‘something’ surviving the death of the Brain and communicating with our normal everyday environment via (in this case) a trance-medium that I have ever seen. When you are feeling stronger, may I recommend that you obtian a copy and consider it thoughtfully. If the mechanics of such phenomena could be clarified and made part of the normal processes for investigating ‘psi’, progress in this field would indeed be made. Get well soon, meanwhile. Newton Green

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