The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

There are 31 Chapters under nine labels. Each chapter is an essay summarizing the research and developments in that particular subsection of the field. All sections are well-referenced. Therefore, just as an updated version of the last Handbook, by Wolman in 1977, this is a valuable volume.

What’s hot and what’s not

sad_1Certain subject areas are just not happening right now in parapsychology: Ghosts, poltergeists, and reincarnation studies are not hot. The specific chapter on ghosts and polts concludes that no ideas to explain ghosts have been productive and no irrefutable evidence exists that they are paranormal. That specialty is a bust. Polts might be implicit macro PK but spontaneous studies are hardly done in parapsychology these days except by amateurs. See Healy and Cropper, my review here. Curiously, amateur investigation of ghosts and hauntings IS hot – a stunning disconnect between the academic and popular view of the subject. Reincarnation, still a headline-grabbing news story at times, is also dead in terms of research. This formal scene is very different from pop culture which reflects their widely variant values and needs.

Near-death and out-of-body experiences have left the realm of parapsy and have become of interest to neuroscientists. There is a hint of disappointment in that fact. Is parapsychology a holding tank for indeterminate phenomena only to lose the research to a mainstream research area?

Out of body experiences moving to another lab
Out of body experiences moving to another lab

Also hot is presentiment (pre-“feeling”) (work by Bem) and a resurgence of mental mediumship (work by Beschel) especially in certifying mediums for use in experiments and grief counseling. The attitude of some authors of this book is that the current frame of scientific research is too limited by biology and materialism. What if consciousness is not derived from mind and matter but that it is foundational; and we live in a “veiled reality”? When we enter “altered states” we are getting a taste of other parts of true reality. It’s mind studies turned upside down. Is it possible? I suppose, but it’s really hard to test.

But what is so hot that it is burning up the field is experimenter psi and its more ruinous source – implicit psi. The impact of experimenter psi was clear in the various articles. It’s worth discussing why this suspected mechanism totally stymies research in this field.

Work has previously been done regarding explicit psi. That is, psi agents are conscious of the effect they are intending to produce. Implicit psi is when there is no conscious awareness. The agent, some more than others, influence the outcome of the random events generator, or the selection choices or order in experiments. Animal studies have been killed by implicit psi because there is no way to tell which organism is using psi.

How do you shield against consciousness? The implication is that we are “swimming in psi”, that it affects us every day, everywhere. Therefore, psi would be fundamental in organisms. It knows no limits of time and space, either. Feelings of what happens in the future can “ripple backwards” in time to unconsciously affect us now. Such effects would show up in non-psi studies making them all not as they seem. Nothing is objective, nothing a coincidence, we make unconscious choices to do or not do something based on a mechanism we aren’t even aware of. In consideration of boundless implicit psi, my thoughts implode. Yet, I noted the Global Consciousness Project was not a definitive success leaving the idea of worldwide psi effects unconvincing.

So, to take a step back to experimenter effect, this is related to the main bugaboo for the field – why some researchers consistently get results and others don’t. Parapsychology’s greatest problem is the lack of reliability and repeatability. Experimenter psi is uncomfortable. The question of what is at the root of it remains tender to touch. The possibility that some experimenters make participants just feel more at ease and open to psi experiences (by being personable, allowing degrees of freedom in the experiments) is said to be possibly conducive to good results. Or, the experimenter is actually affecting the experiment with his or her own psi. At least one author, suggests that the experimenters not enter “psi-conducive states” such as relaxation so not to influence their own experiments. Everything about that is just odd – the assumption and the implication. While there are several mentions in this book about frauds or suspected fraud, authors are usually quick to add that it doesn’t mean fraud is worse than in any other sciences or that this field is tainted overall. True, but other fields aren’t suggesting such extraordinary phenomena as this. There are barely a few mentions of cooking the data or being less rigorous in methods as an explanation for why some get better results than others. At a certain point, one must be desperate to show SOME progress in a field under duress. It may not be intentional but. . . implicit. In reading the rest of the book, parapsychologists are good at coming up with general special pleading. They’ve had to adapt their views in order to keep going.

Interesting array of attitudes from writers

The attitude of the various contributors to this volume are varied. Some are difficult to read because they are too technical and dry, but most have done a good job in their summaries to be understandable to those not intimately involved in psi research. A few writers are overly confident, but many are realistically uncertain. I don’t think any would disagree that there are significant hurdles to overcome. There is only one chapter that takes a position that psi is not real. But there are tacit admissions of serious problems in other places:

  • Parapsychology has “currently no recognizable practical use” for research.
  • Academic integration of the discipline has not been successful. (Chapter 30)
  • The PEAR lab consortium’s 3 years of data yielded disappointing results. (Chapter 20)
  • There were no confident results in finding correlations with certain brain regions related to psi performance. (Chapter 17)
  • Evidence for anomalous cognition “demonstrated compelling trends” (Chapter 15) but the effects sizes are small. This is the best they can do.

Psychology vs physics

I also noticed a split in thinking about the field between psychology and physics. There is a chapter on quantum ideas, which was informative to understand how they think about the entanglement effect. In fact, this Chapter (13) is explicit in that psi is a physical science, “not a search for the soul”. Other chapters still consider psi the means to show consciousness after death and are very much psychology-based.

Being NOT EVEN CLOSE to having any mechanism for psi is critical. They admit to being “very far” from being able to understand micro PK. It’s not a comfortable place to be. In a nutshell, here is my view of the history of psychical research:

  • Early researchers assumed that they would readily have results. It would be obvious.
  • They discover it’s not obvious, that some of the best claims are faked.
  • Field work is too difficult to control – the concentration moves to lab work
  • The effects are there but very small, maybe it doesn’t exist at all.
  • The effects are small, rare, and very complex. Signals are small even contradictory. It’s special, maybe even deliberately elusive.
  • Maybe the rules need to be changed for investigation.
  • Conventional framework of science just isn’t working, we need to discard the idea of reality that we have.

Field tied in knots

The field seems tied in knots that are too difficult to unravel in order to move forward or dissolve entirely. As a result, we hear a litany of what sounds like terrible excuses. The anti-materialism sentiment, mentioned above, is a big issue the threads through many of these essays. Some in the field think current science is too limited, they will get results by changing the rules. Yep, I’m sure they will, but proponents of this path don’t see this would diminish the credibility even more. “Psi at all costs” sounds desperate. Just mentioning it is a red flag. And, I am not the only reviewer to note this tone in the collection.

Other excuses I read made for some cringeworthy reactions. Here are some examples. Eccentric claimants make testing difficult. High profile fraud has tarnished the reputation and decreased support. Other psi agents may interfere with each other. A positive psi influence may be cancelled out by a negative influence or inhibited by other cognitive processes. Experiments aren’t using actual gifted participants which is why the results are poor or non-replicable. Psi may be fundamentally elusive, it can’t be brought to use on demand. Perhaps some environmental factor is inhibitory or conducive. More research is needed to tease out the factors needed to produce consistent results. And, there isn’t enough people and funding.

Hay is even made out of the evidence that conflicts: It’s evidence of the irreproducibility of psi. The field is becoming unfalsifiable.

A few contributors emphasize the prejudice and intolerance they receive and blame “skeptics” for it. In the first section, organized skepticism is called “debilitating” to progress of parapsychology. The various digs at skepticism (which IS a key component of the scientific ethos) was so interesting that I’ll leave that for another post. But there is a pleading for observers to see the “increasingly consistent and positive database” and not be influenced by negativity of skeptics who dispute it. The most annoying chapter was that by Sheldrake who described “psi in everyday life”. His comments were astoundingly naive and unsupported calling on “the commonness of the sense of being stared at” – in addition to his studies that he thinks are solid – “makes it very probable that this is a real ability”. Of course, “the dogmas of materialism have had a severely inhibitory effect on psi research”. This may not be entirely pseudoscience, but it’s BAD science and pathetic reasoning.

Continued study is justified by the editors due to continued reports of psi, existing research paradigms to continue testing, and the passion of the investigators. None of these justifications are strong. With the results being less than compelling to the rest of the scientific community, this field continues to peter out in legitimacy, bleeding into other areas like neuroscience and anomalous psychology.

Chapter 3: The Case Against Psi presents a scenario we might expect if psi was real and one if psi was NOT real. Sorry to say, the latter fits.

What information I got from this book was appreciated and important. I learned a lot and I think it is a tremendous reference worth having. But the message I received is that cumulative progress not happening in parapsychology as it should with a healthy science. There are huge gaps and fundamental holes existing over a century from it’s inception. Some proponents respond by creating new tenuous and unrealistic footholds. To those who remain passionate and committed to the idea of psi, this book might be supportive and encouraging. To those of us who wonder what the chances are that it might resurrect and redeem itself, the outlook is not good.

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Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news.