Parapsychologists 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 Carde , 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.