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.