Is there really ‘no progress in parapsychology’?

HandbookParapsychologists whine too much, are too dependent on statistics, and are making no progress. That’s the gist of some critical comments about the new book Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century, edited by Etzel Cardeña , John Palmer, and David Marcusson-Clavertz. Sharon Hill, an advocate for science and reason who like me hasn’t read the book, states that this critical review by Peter Rogerson in the Magonia Blog chimes with her own look at the field in 2014. Aside from the fact that both skeptical commentators fail to get the authors’ names right, do they have a point?

Critics often overlook how few researchers are actually actively conducting parapsychological research; so we should expect progress to be slow. Yep, it’s very problematic for parapsychology that it does not yet have a widely accepted theory of psi. So the results of experiments largely boil down to statistical anomalies (hence the dependency on statistics). And I agree that some parapsychologists are rather defensive and portray themselves as heroic underdogs who are unfairly treated by mainstream scientists. I too have written about some of the self-imposed challenges that parapsychologists face.

Many parapsychologists argue that, by the standards applied to other knowledge claims, replicable evidence for extra-sensory perception has already been provided with the ganzfeld ESP database. But debate continues over how to interpret the results of meta-analytic reviews of psi research – largely because meta-analyses are conducted by researchers who already know the results of the studies. So decisions about how to conduct the meta-analysis, such as inclusion and exclusion criteria, are susceptible to researcher bias. And individual studies are also of course susceptible to various forms of questionable research practice, some easier to spot than others.

But there are some developments in recent years that I think will help to move the field closer to closure on the psi question. Daryl Bem’s publication of his ‘feeling the future’ studies in the 2011 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology helped to trigger some long overdue self-scrutiny in psychology as well as stimulating many replication attempts. Then, in 2012, Jim Kennedy and I launched the KPU Registry for Parapsychological Experiments – the first of its kind (fully and irreversibly public) in psychology as well as in parapsychology. By inviting researchers to register their planned research, we can more easily identify, and even eliminate, questionable research practices such as data mining and not publishing undesirable results. While the registry mostly consists of individual studies, more recently we have seen the appearance of multi-centre pre-registered research programmes, coordinated by Bem and colleagues and systematically following up on the original JPSP work. It’s early days yet, given there are so few people actually conducting parapsychological research. But if study registration and programmatic research become the norm, then progress will accelerate.

I am not the first to maintain that the challenges of conducting parapsychological research can drive methodological improvements. Indeed the philosopher and skeptic Gerd Hovelmann’s chapter in the new Handbook addresses this point. Study registration is a good example of this. We have published recommendations to improve study registration practices in psychology, based on our experience with the KPU Study Registry. So I do think parapsychologists have been making progress – and I think we can help other fields make progress as well.

About Caroline Watt

Prof Caroline Watt is a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit.
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3 Responses to Is there really ‘no progress in parapsychology’?

  1. Unfortunately most of critical commentators about parapsychology status of art are ill informed often avoiding to read the original papers or do not understand well the available evidence. As to the “refrain” that these lines of research do not still have reached an unified and worldwide accepted theory, I would invite them to list how many “definite” theories are available in science to explain most of psychological and non psychological phenomena. For example do we have a comprehensive theory which explains the relationship between conscious and unconscious cognitive processing (e.g.Newell, B. R., & Shanks, D. R. 2014). Unconscious influences on decision making: A critical review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(01), 1-19.)? Or the relationship between consciousness and other cognitive acitvities and their brain correlates (Adolphs, R. 201). The unsolved problems of neuroscience. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(4), 173-175.)? I could continue if necessary.
    A final word about another “refrain”, that of lack of or the unreliable replicability of most so-called parapsychological phenomena. Perhaps a careful reading of the recent literature about the reliability of less controversial psychological and non psychological phenomena will hep e.g. Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349(6251), aac4716-1 – aac4716-8; Earp BD and Trafimow D (2015) Replication, falsification, and the crisis of confidence in social psychology. Front. Psychol. 6:621. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00621; Dredge, K. (2014). The Increasing Urgency for Standards in Basic Biologic Research Published Recently in Cancer Research—Letter. Cancer research, 74(24), 7599-7599.)

    Best
    Patrizio

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  2. Ben Steigmann says:

    Arguably sufficient evidence existed before 1900. And evidence of distortions by critics existed also. An overview of Alfred Russel Wallace’s rebuttal to the attacks of William Benjamin Carpenter provides insight and also a template for modern parapsychologists (who should actually engage the major assaults of their leading academic critics rather than pretending the critics don’t exist – in the past few decades, with the exception of Stanley Krippner’s responses as regards Dream telepathy, in New Frontiers of Human Science: A Festschrift for K. Ramakrishna Rao edited by K. Ramakrishna Rao, V. Gowri Rammohan in a chapter by Stanley Krippner titled “Criticisms”: http://tinyurl.com/nfdh9sx, their responses have not been comprehensive). Wallace’s informative article is here: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S270.htm

    My criticism is not an uninformed statement from an outsider. Etzel Cardeña stated that “I think that both extremes of granting unjustifiedly too much to critics instead of responding assertively to them, or claiming greater certainties about the nature of psi phenomena than are warranted does disservice to the field. In the first case it allows critics to get away with demonstrable falsehoods, does not require them to produce actual research to support their points, and does not discuss (the very real) limitations of psi research within the greater context of the limitations of empirical research in general. As for claims that we clearly understand psi phenomena, they crash against the reality of the field’s limited success in establishing the conditions under which results can be robustly replicated.”: https://carlossalvarado.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/people-in-parapsychology-xxv-etzel-cardena/

    I have thought about this for a while, and I understand that professionals have limited time, nevertheless, if we narrow down the texts to deal with to finite, essential items, we might have something we could work with. I feel that the best academic criticisms for modern parapsychologists to confirm or refute in detail (point by point), which contain much that has not been responded to, remain CEM Hansel’s “The Search for Psychic Power” (the 1989 text – parapsychologists cite earlier critiques of Hansel that appeared with Hansel’s initial text, but this text responds to many of the criticisms of Hansel’s earlier work, and brings forth criticism contemporary to its release, much of which has not been responded to), James Alcock’s “Science and Supernature” (part, but by no means all, of this, has been responded to), Martin Gardner’s “Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus” (1989 edition), Ray Hyman’s “The Elusive Quarry”, and David Marks’ “The Psychology of the Psychic” (2nd, 2000 edition, this is the only really relevant edition to deal with – I heard Ed May was going to release a book with the full STARGATE data, so a response – as with all of these folks, there have been partial responses to Marks (see for example Sheldrake’s article “The Need For Open-Minded Scepticism: A Reply to David Marks”: http://www.sheldrake.org/reactions/the-need-for-open-minded-scepticism-a-reply-to-david-marks), but nothing comprehensive). A detailed response to those 5 texts by experts, looking at where the critics were tendentious or possibly engaged in misrepresentations and also, as appropriate, admitting where they were right, would help all non-specialists (who in turn could be a force giving parapsychology greater legitimacy) in assessing the quality of the modern parapsychological database during the heyday of the field, which is what these 5 critiques cover. There could then be an academic consensus among parapsychologists for forcefully making a case in certain areas and abandoning psychic explanations in other areas – caricatures of parapsychologists as gullible cultists trying to buttress dying religious beliefs would then be replaced by an image of objective analysts of anomalous phenomena.

    I would definitely read such a book, as would many others, and I think even the fiercest critics would accord the field more respect for ACTUALLY DEALING WITH the major criticisms.

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  3. Billy says:

    Yes well said Ben. Most of the modern parapsychology proponents have avoided the skeptical criticisms of the field, in many cases perhaps deliberately and this does not actually help the field in the long-run. What we need to see is a detailed evaluation by parapsychology proponents of the criticisms and objections, not a superficial dismissal. I would also add Donovan Rawcliffe’s book “The Psychology of the Occult” to your list. I read this book a few years ago yet it was almost totally ignored in parapsychology literature for about sixty years.

    Sharon Hill recently wrote in the Skeptical Inquirer “Typical paranormal investigators don’t read the skeptical literature much. I’d say they are missing a whole other half of the story by not doing that. If you are going to bill yourself as an expert, you need to know the arguments against your position. (Even the arguments against the skeptical position!) Enthusiasm is not an equivalent substitute for knowledge.”

    I would like to see a modern book by recent parapsychologists that takes on the criticisms of the field.

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