Why ‘waste my life’ on parapsychology? #NECSS

Last week I was fortunate to get to hang out backstage at NECSS (Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) in New York. It was great to get to know Evan Bernstein, and Steven, Jay and Bob Novella and their families. These are the NECSS co-organisers and the guys behind the long-running Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

While in New York, I also enjoyed a chatty dinner with a Skeptic who asked me (in a friendly way) why I was wasting my life on parapsychology. Parapsychologists form more than one ‘tribe’. For me, aside from that it’s a very interesting area in which to work, my answer is that I believe that researching paranormal experiences (parapsychology broadly defined), such as apparitional experiences, out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, can help us to learn more about normal brain function. Perhaps more surprisingly though, I think that psi research is generally well-conducted, positive results are not easily dismissed, and the challenge of conducting controlled tests of the psi hypothesis (i.e., parapsychology as it is narrowly defined) can drive advances that can benefit science more generally. Just a few examples:

Historians have suggested that the origins of randomization in experimental design can be found in nineteenth century tests of telepathy – check out this paper by Ian Hacking.

Ted Kaptchuk, the placebo expert,  has argued that testing controversial claims helped to develop placebo and double-blind methods – read more about that here.

Hans Berger developed electro-encephalography in order to search for telepathic brain waves, after he had a seemingly psychic experience. Read more about Berger’s ‘unusual and solitary journey’ to one of the greatest breakthroughs in neuroscience here.

I could go on, but skipping a century or so I’ll finish with a handful of more recent examples. Psychology’s ‘replication crisis’ was in part stimulated by Daryl Bem’s 2011 publication of studies about ‘Feeling the Future’ – read more about the wider importance and ramifications of Bem’s paper here. Psychology responded by starting to debate the need for study registration and introduced registered reports. Meantime, parapsychologists were already ahead of the game. In 1978, the European Journal of Parapsychology introduced registered reports – an editorial policy of accepting papers on the basis of their planned methods, as a way to tackle publication bias. Read about that here. In 2012, Jim Kennedy and I launched a registry for parapsychological studies. So far as we are aware it was the first registry of its kind in psychology – discover more about the KPU Registry here. In 2015, Jim and I published a paper for the wider psychological community making recommendations for how to improve study registration practices in psychology based on our experiences with parapsychological study registration. You can read that here. Finally, next month at the Parapsychological Association convention, Jim and I will be proposing a prospective meta-analysis of parapsychological studies. This is something that occasionally happens in medical research (check out the Cochrane Collaboration), but is rarely found elsewhere in behavioural research. The abstract of our PA paper is here.

So, that is why I am still engaged with parapsychology, and with scientific advancement.


About Caroline Watt

Prof Caroline Watt is a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit.
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11 Responses to Why ‘waste my life’ on parapsychology? #NECSS

  1. I get exactly the same viewpoint from skeptics. Cryptozoology is all pseudoscience. They even persist in the viewpoint when I point out there is peer reviewed cryptozoology in mainstream zoology journals.


  2. Leon Kennedy says:

    I am confused about the position of Ian Hacking. He has written a paper entitled “Some reasons for not taking parapsychology very seriously”. It is more of a commentary piece than a paper but he criticizes the statements of Stephen E. Braude and the modern parapsychology movement. I believe Hacking to be a skeptic. I did not know about his paper on telepathy.

    Hacking, Ian. (1993). Some reasons for not taking parapsychology very seriously. Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review. Vol. 32, No. 3. pp. 587-594.


    • Bevis Beauvais says:

      I have checked out Hacking’s 1993 paper Leon mentioned. I do not think he is a sceptic but he does seem world weary and disillusioned after an arduous quest only to find that he is a Sir Galahad rather than a Sir Percival and therefore not destined to attain the Grail. He is pretty cool though and I reckon he would readily lend his lance and sword to a just cause.

      Maybe he should recall Jacques Vallee’s theory of how ufo phenomena are an analogue of earlier folklore and might represent an archetypal control mechanism of some kind interacting with our specie to hasten our individual and collective evolution. False visions and disappointment are all part of the quest. Jung observed that ufo events were myths in the making and dreams of the Collective Unconscious. Parapsychologists are all still dreaming and the dreams mutate through the decades and eras.


  3. Bevis Beauvais says:

    I note that unlike the other papers referred to by Dr Watt, I may only read Mr Hacking’s article if I pay for the privilege of doing so. A reason, perchance, for not taking him too seriously.


  4. I couldn’t find a completely open access version, however it is possible to read it online for free by registering.


  5. Bevis Beauvais says:

    Millett’s meticulous paper on Hans Berger suggests a man with the obsessive character of a Renaissance alchemist and the emotionally crippled temperament of a Paul Dirac but without the genius, coterie of admirers and worldly success to remove the sting of tragedy. And we are reminded how far our science and ethics have potentially come should they be applied with consistence and integrity.
    It seems decidedly morbid for someone believing in a God and privately pursuing poetry and literature to spend so much time using clinical patients as guinea pigs for his experiments. Considering the political climate he was presumably under toward the end of his life one can only wonder what he may have been tempted into had good health prevailed into the first half of the 1940s.
    His naivety in using the conservation of energy law to understand psychic energy is understandable since he did not know, as we do, that the law applies only to closed systems and must be modified in the light of quantum field theory and the vacuum (or plenum as we are urged by some to call it). Similarly, had he known of the Stargate project’s finding that psi phenomena cannot be screened he would have wasted less time seeking an electromagnetic underpinning of psychic energy.
    Hamstringing psychological and psychical research with the materialist dogma was as lazy minded then as it still is today. Just because Descartes, who we should remember believed in a God and a spiritual mind’s influence upon matter, confined his science to the material dimensions he could quantify is a foolish reason to practically give up on subjective introspection. Indeed, our specie’s development and use of the faculties of consciousness and language seem rather to recommend it.
    Progressing from horse and carts to space rockets shows what can be achieved in four or five centuries of continuous endeavour. Considering that our psychology is not yet a century and a half old should cause us to view Indian yogi’s three millennia or so of continuous introspection with humility and make us less fearful of abandoning the materialist paradigm when exploring beyond the disciplines of engineering where it continues to prove useful.


    • Bevis Beauvais says:

      Having still not been able to read Hacking’s paper on telepathy for free I shall return to his “Some Reasons for Not Taking Parapsychology Very Seriously,” which is very informative and repays several readings. But first, may I express my admiration for Dr Watt’s laudable patience and good humour in the face of sceptics? Personally I tend to find them rather dull, small minded and often insufferable, especially the passive-aggressive kind who are so arrogant in their wilful ignorance and unappealing in their tendency to scoff and mock, no matter how politely it is conveyed.

      Anyhow, back to “The Hack,” who I maintain is one cool dude despite the appearance of a sceptic mask which upon closer scrutiny reveals an exemplary open yet philosophically and scientifically critical mind. I’ll confine myself to two sections of his article.

      Firstly, he alludes to Braude’s attraction for “the verisimilitude of the century-old sources.” I can understand this attraction since the further back in time we go the less likely phenomena may be hoaxed using the technological means that would be possible today. Take the Fatima apparitions, for example, which as well as the famous religious visions reported by the children included ufo-like phenomena witnessed by multiple observers (to put it mildly). Today hoaxers might use lasers, in some atmospheric conditions, and drones in others, mixed in perhaps with acoustic hallucinations induced with the auditory microwave effect. But surely such science was not engineerable back in 1916?

      Secondly, and in the light of my references to the Stargate Project in relation to Hans Berger above, I found his account of research at SRI informative. Interested readers will find that popular articles about this on the net are dominated by professional debunkers and therefore might like to look up material by the programme’s scientists as well, especially Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ. Sceptics who try to replicate their findings do not have access to the original exceptionally gifted psychics who were the subjects of the SRI tests.

      One high profile critic is the ubiquitous James Randi who once went under the stage name “The Amazing Randi,” and whom Arthur C Clark informs us was originally a fake psychic and astrologer. If you look up John Hasted, who was head of experimental physics at Birbeck College, you will find Randi has a very condescending view of the man and refers to his naivety. People who prefer to place trust in a scientist rather than a stage performer may like to read the physicist’s work and then investigate the methods of debunkers. They tend to attempt to disprove a complex experiment based on multiple data sets by focusing on peripheral factors and attempting to generalise them to the entire programme. They also tend to create or perpetuate smears on the reputations of the scientists involved or the psychics tested. Many of you may believe Geller has conclusively been proved a fake. Deeper study is revealing.


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