Present day parapsychologists are experimentalists and frequently fall into one of two camps – process oriented or proof oriented parapsychologists. Proof oriented researchers design experiments to find proof of phenomena amongst the general population or in a subsection of the population who profess particular abilities, known as “special claimants” (e.g. psychics, mediums). Process oriented researchers begin from the standpoint that the phenomenon exists and try to find the conditions under which it best operates (e.g. are females more telepathic than males; do twins have a special telepathic connection?; are believers better at ESP than non-believers; is a relaxed atmosphere more conducive to telepathy?). Conversely, some process oriented researchers begin from the standpoint that the phenomenon exists but that there is a perfectly natural explanation for it. Subsequently, their experiments either attempt to provide evidence of such normal explanations or design experiments that rule out all possible normal explanations thereby testing the idea that under such circumstances the phenomenon will not be revealed.
Such scientific approaches to paranormal phenomena didn’t always exist. Psychical Research, seen as a forerunner to Parapsychology, began in the late 1800s and was principally focused on field-based research (although there are key parapsychology-type experiments conducted by Psychical Researchers that pre-date “Parapsychology”). In 1870, for example, Sir William Crookes, a renowned scientist, held many séances in his own home in order to investigate the medium Florence Cook who claimed that she could communicate with the dead and produce physical phenomena (e.g. summoning the appearance of phantom figures). In detailed published accounts of his personal experiences he reported countless phenomenon (including phantoms and levitation) and was convinced of communication with an “outside intelligence” (Crookes, 1874).
The development of laboratory research was seen, at the time, as a minor activity peripheral to the accumulation of ‘paranormal’ evidence in the form of eyewitness testimonies and scientists’ personal experiences. It was precisely because of the criticisms of such evidence that the field of parapsychology began in the 1930s at Duke University with J.B and L. E. Rhine. Even the development of the term ‘Parapsychology’ around the same time by Max Dessoir, a philosopher, was an attempt to distance the field from the anecdotal work being carried out by psychical researchers. Criticisms of the psychical research approach included its apparent lack of objectivity and control that the scientist would have compared to when in their own laboratory (e.g. séances were frequently conducted in darkened rooms which made it easy for fraud). Rhine’s research was an attempt at a sustained experimental programme in the laboratory which identified, and controlled for, possible normal explanations for paranormal phenomena. For example, to see if mind to mind communication was possible Rhine would put two people in different rooms and ask one of them to pick the symbol card the other had chosen (one of the infamous Zener Cards). This prevented normal communication (simply talking to each other) and was in response to criticisms of fraud. In addition, to show that the two people picking the same card wasn’t due to chance he ran the experiment hundreds of times.
Contemporary parapsychology continued in this vein in a continued attempt to gain recognition from mainstream science. One very important development in science as a whole is the use of the double blind method. Imagine if you are asked to drink two cups of un-labelled coca cola and have to decide which one is light, which is normal. You do not know which is which since there are no labels or any other clues, other than taste – this is a single blind method. If the person asking you the question (i.e. the experimenter) also doesn’t know which is which – this is a double blind method. It’s an extremely important method in science that prevents any biasing from the experimenter. A survey in 1998 by Rupert Sheldrake showed that double blind methods were used in 85.2% of published parapsychology experiments compared to 0.8% in the biological sciences, 5.9% in medical sciences and 4.9% in psychology and animal behaviour. If science refers to an organized structure of acquiring knowledge based on the scientific method, then Parapsychology is a science.
Perhaps adherence to scientific method is insufficient to warrant a description as a science. An additional requirement would be that the discipline is actually testing identifiable natural phenomena. Although there are numerous parapsychology books and articles detailing possible normal explanations for paranormal experiences, “there can be no dispute that people have [these] parapsychological experiences and the scientific investigation of these experiences by definition then constitutes a science,” (Irwin, 2004, p260).
There is still a controversy surrounding parapsychology, however, and is not helped by the constant debate between the two belief camps (i.e. the two camps commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as “sceptics and believers”). The underlying argument is whether or not parapsychology has produced evidence in the laboratory. This argument has been highlighted recently with substantial press following the publication of a series of studies by Daryl Bem showing positive results of Precognition in the laboratory. Despite recognition of potential normal explanations for apparent success in the laboratory (e.g. fraud, experimenter bias etc.) some parapsychologists have paid insufficient attention to such explanations and, as such, their conclusions remain questionable. In addition, analyses of a number of series of highly controlled ESP experiments (telepathy and psychokinesis) conducted using identical methods has split the field between those who claim positive evidence has been found whilst others suggest a ‘file-drawer effect’ may be to blame (i.e. not reporting negative results or simply putting negative results in the file-drawer). Either way, whether the parapsychologist in question studies PK or Telepathy experimentally, or tests mediums in the lab, examines poltergeist incidents or spends the night in a haunted house, parapsychology remains a controversial science, but it does, in my view, remain a science. In the immortal words of Dr. Peter Venkman, “Back of, man. I’m a scientist.”
Crookes, W. (1874). Notes of an inquiry into the Phenomena called Spiritual during the years 1870-1873. Quarterly Journal of Science, January.
Irwin, H. (2004). An Introduction to Parapsychology. North Carolina, US: McFarland & Company.
O’Keeffe, C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 215-231.
Sheldrake, R. (1998). Experimenter Effects in Scientific Research: How Widely are they neglected? Journal of Scientific Exploration. Vol.12, p73-78.
© Ciaran O’Keeffe 2011