Last weekend, Michael Heap, Chris French, and Goldsmiths College at the University of London hosted the 2015 European Skeptics Congress. On the Saturday I presented on 30 years of research at the KPU. I was glad to be able to inform skeptics about what academic parapsychologists do. One interesting question following my talk was whether skeptical participants in ESP studies should be trusted to give an honest description of their target impressions.
I also took part in a panel (pic above, photo credit Mark Williams) on researching anomalous phenomena and claims, together with members of Czech and German skeptic groups who set up what seemed to me to be reasonably well-controlled tests of individual claiming psychic abilities. A test by the Czech skeptical society, known as Sisyfos, consisted of concealing plants or stones in 30 identical cardboard boxes in a nuclear shelter, to test a dowser’s claims that he could locate living material (he couldn’t). The presenter Antonin Pavlicek noted that there is an abundance of nuclear shelters in the Czech Republic. Martin Mahner of the GWUP described a number of tests they have conducted (they offer a €10,000 prize similar to the Randi challenge), mostly testing dowsing-like claims. (None was successful.) They included a man who used an onion on a pendulum to dowse for water, which is a new one on me. Other claims tested: to locate an active mobile phone, to detect poisoned food, to detect electricity running in a cable, finding coins under cups, and a homeopathic fertiliser. I was impressed that both societies went to some lengths to negotiate and agree the nature and conditions of the test with the claimant, so that the claimant was satisfied in advance that the test was fair. After failing the tests, most claimants came up with an explanation for why they failed that preserved their belief in their psychic capabilities.
Parapsychologists testing alleged psychic abilities tend to conduct experiments with large numbers of individuals who may have had occasional psychic experiences but who don’t claim particular psychic skills. At the panel, we discussed why the KPU does not test claimants. My feeling was that the skeptical organisations were testing claimants to meet a public communication goal, to catch the attention of journalists and demonstrate what happens when controlled tests are conducted. Parapsychologists are seeking to publish their research in peer reviewed journals and to communicate with the scientific community. Although the nature and strength of the hypothesised abilities being tested differs, most experimental parapsychologists adopt the model of experimental psychologists (that X ability is normally distributed in the general population.)
I think my personal congress highlight was a screening of Carla MacKinnon’s short experimental film The Devil in the Room (see pic). I thought this was an excellent portrayal of sleep paralysis, with expert commentary from Prof Chris French and spooky mixed media film and animation to convey the horror that is felt by the experient. It is a fantastic vehicle to help anyone who doesn’t realise their scary night-time experiences are due to sleep paralysis.
Attendance was perhaps a bit disappointing given how many Skeptics in the Pub groups there are in the London area. However, the programme was interesting, the lecture room was first class, there was a nice social area to mingle and try out various perceptual illusions and purchase books, and of course a great London pub to hang out in at the end of the day.
And talking of books, I purchased one by two Polish researchers who also attended the Congress, Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski: Psychology gone wrong: The dark sides of science and therapy. It has sections on fraudsters in psychology, the misuse of psychotherapies, and the dodgy commercial applications of psychology. Here is a link to the book on Amazon. Although parapsychologists sometimes feel ‘picked on’ by skeptics, this book is a reminder that skeptics can be skeptical about many things, including mainstream psychology.