Parapsychology continues to fail to impress reviewers

A correspondent clued me in to what he called a “devastating commentary on parapsychology.” I agree. The review on the Magonia Review of Books meshes with what I had written in June 2014 when I looked into parapsychology, comparing then and now. It’s helpful to see an independent critique that notes the same flaws as you did. I’m not the only one who notices that the standard-bearers of parapsychology are unhelpful to their own cause. 

I enjoy the Magonia Blog review of books because the review are often in-depth and I typically learn something new whether I read the highlighted book or not. I also love to learn about what’s cooking with publishing these days, what is out there for people to access, and I’m often left to wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to publish THAT!

In the review entitled Believing Impossible Things, Peter Rogerson examines Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited byEtzel Cardeña , John Palmer, and David Marcusson-Clavertz (edit: names fixed). It’s not a book I would read since it’s not aimed at me, since I’m not parapsychology expert, but for PhD level students of parapsychology. (I’m thinking that must be a pretty small audience.) Rogerson describes it as a “large, 400-plus page work [that] presents 31 papers under nine headings, which seeks to update the original Handbook of Parapsychology… devoted to experimental parapsychology and is highly dependent on statistics.”

In a 2014 post for Sounds Sciencey, Psi, Sci. (Sigh!), I reviewed Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry (1989) and Debating Psychic Experience (2010). I sought to tease out any progress that had been accomplished in parapsychology. I didn’t find any:

The great researcher into the behavior of electricity and magnetism, Michael Faraday, put his work on hold in 1853 to examine mediums. He was unimpressed. Several researchers who came to inquire about psi, either as an advocate or undecided, left because there was nothing of substance, nowhere to go. Science does not ignore data, even that of extraordinary claims. But if the data are not good, not reliable, not robust, and not reproducible, it’s not “ready for prime time” and will not be accepted as mainstream.

To move forward, improvements must be made such as acceptance of and accountability for constructive critique, adherence to high standards, and maybe even an established end point. A well-articulated theory for psi must be derived, but first there must be a consensus that psi exists! That’s the fundamental problem to which there still is no resolution.

Rogerson’s impression from this new collection of papers is that “[P]arapsychology has become even more insular than it was. The language, vocabulary and basic concepts are not those of mainstream science.”

He appears to agree with my opinion in that it hasn’t progressed. Parapsychologists talk in a jargon dependent on assumptions in the field with which the rest of the scientific community does not agree. These concepts form the basis of the field. That is a house of cards, flimsy and unimpressive.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, parapsychology was affiliated (often not formally) with credible academic institutions. 132 years after the first president of the Society for Psychical Research stated that there was proof of this human potential, each generation of psi researchers has attempted to show as much in a scientifically conclusive way. But ever-morphing (or “morphic“) paradigms and optimistic researchers still could not produce a body of evidence convincing to a critical number of scientists.

It is impossible not to notice the disdain that parapsychology’s leading spokespeople have towards the framework of science. They resent it. The researchers deliberately steer clear of scientific scrutiny, making excuses for the results – the displacement effect, psi-missing, decline effect, scientific prejudice and pathological disbelief by skeptics. I wrote how they could not build up that house of cards to something robust:

The key problem was always lack of replication. A single experiment cannot be definitive. There must be many that converge upon something robust and reliable. This was not happening. Many insignificant studies were placed in the file drawer while this or that experiment provided hope. When studies didn’t go well, advocates looked for a hidden effect—perhaps sitters had guessed the card right before or right after the chosen card. Adjustments sometimes snatched a success out of the jaws of failure.

Rogerson wrote that he noticed a “defensiveness” tone that implied “we really are a science, despite what the nasty critics say”, which he views as “whining and rather self-pitying”. Yes, I noticed that too when the likes of Sheldrake, Radin, Jahn, and Carter used ad hominem attacks and skeptic strawmen arguments to attempt to hit back, demanding to “change the rules” to suit them, and supporting obviously unfit characters who know nothing of scientific philosophy to embarrassingly promote their agenda. They keep digging their non-crediblity hole deeper.

Furthermore, any of the evidence produced was DOA, since there remains no explanatory basis for the extraordinary claims of psi effects.

Rogerson sees only a half-hearted attempt to do science with this latest volume:

There seems little interest to relate the alleged phenomena of parapsychology to concepts rooted in other scientific fields, and in many (though not all) of the papers there is an implicit ideological programme to provide evidences (in the theological sense) for forms of Cartesian dualism.

and

My suspicion is that though parapsychologists often use the language and conventions of science their heart is not really in it and that they see their main role as cultural warriors against ‘materialism‘, often itself a shorthand for a variety of moderneties.(sic)

I had written that psi proponents considered it a mystery effect—unreliable, elusive. When all outliers and deviation is considered paranormal, the interpretation is unfalsifiable and not scientific.

The advocate contributions exhibited a strong trend of anti-materialism. People like Jahn follow the musings of Rhine, in wanting to rid the field of scientific materialism. Jahn states that the rules should be changed. This field is somehow special so it should not have to meet the same scientific standards. This jaw-dropping assertion is an admission of desperation. Psi research is motivated by a deep belief in the phenomenon, not a quest for the best answers. You can sense their frustration—over a century of work and no progress achieved. The desperation is obvious.

While my review was a comparison of the parapsycholigsts’ and skeptical viewpoint, Rogerson says there is almost no input in this new volume from a sceptical position which he finds telling (and supports the “insular” characterization).

Finally, where I saw a new path to a rebooted parapsychology via anomalistic psychology, Rogerson sees it too:

It might well be better to concentrate on studying anomalous personal experiences, without making any assumptions as to their nature and causation, rather than engaging in ever more recondite laboratory research, in the vain hope that by make ever obeisance to the sacred totem of statistics, cargo in the form of scientific recognition will fall from the sky or the academic ivory tower.

I’m by far not the only one who sees parapsychology as far outside the sphere of mainstream science. Advocates keep reminding us in no subtle terms. Paranormal advocates can whine and complain all they want about how science isn’t fair and they have the evidence that skeptics refuse to accept yet we refuse it with good reason. The productive path lies with anomalistic psychology, let the old house of cards fall down already.

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0 thoughts on “Parapsychology continues to fail to impress reviewers

  1. Caroline Watt seems to disagree. Though, I can’t see that there is a strong argument here against the major points.

    https://koestlerunit.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/is-there-really-no-progress-in-parapsychology/

    Again, I note it’s not a book I would read since it’s beyond my technical expertise and not one I would buy due to its price. My point is that I agree with another person who appears to be making very similar comments to my own.

    I am an outsider, with scientific training, who has examined both sides of the parapsychology issue. This is my current conclusion. It may change, but the outlook for this field does not seem good.

    1. Well, Koestler is one. There are more than one private institution. Windbridge Institute is independent, gets money from grants from donors like Bial, a Portuguese pharmaceutical company.

  2. There are around 50 PhD’s in parapsychology in the UK at the moment, many from the KPU at Edinburgh University, but also from Northampton Uni, Nene Uni, Coventry Uni, West of England, Bristol, Bath, Nottingham, Warwick, Derby, Cambridge, Lampeter and many other universities with parapsychology research interests. There were 13 universities with postgrad students working in parapsychology last time i looked, but that number is almost certainly just those with research students doing PhDs – most psychology departments teach about parapsychology and it’s sceptics and it’s contribution to the field (Andreas Somner has a book coming out in that area soon I think).

    I guess I should read Cardena’s book: I know his work (Varieties etc) and also am familiar with the Magonians, and indeed sympathetic to their psychosocial approach – but I have noticed in the past they seem to have very limited patience for the SPR or parapsychology generally. I do note that leading proponents of parapsychology seems to be as you state “Sheldrake, Radin, Jahn, and Carter”- I am familiar with the names of 3 of them, and have seen some of their work – but those are not names I associate with 21st century parapsychology much? The academic parapsychology community is pretty small, but these “celebrities” are not really typical of us.

    Anyway I shall go read the book! Thank you for the useful post.

    1. Good points. But at least two of those – Sheldrake and Radin – do get considerable attention. As I note, they do more harm than good. But Radin and Carter were prominent in Krippal’s edited book that I mention. (Of course so were Hyman and Wiseman, which I appreciated). I got a lot out of that. I really would not get much out of Cardena’s.

  3. Caroline Watt is an interesting figure to me because she has published a few contradictions and it is hard to work out where she stands on the parapsychology debate. She has published a decent skeptical paper on the NDE, but also endorsement for blatant charlatans like Daniel Dunglas Home. Check out this piece from early this year:

    http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/science-ghost-hunting-parapsychology-will-eventually-disappear-1498709

    She states “I think parapsychology will probably disappear – we’ll ultimately integrate it with neuroscience and psychology.” Skeptics have said the same thing.

    My opinion is that her research seems to be almost in the “anomalistic psychology” camp (Chris French), rather than parapsychology but she hasn’t come out yet and admitted this.

    1. What’s the difference? Caroline like Chris and Richard Wiseman publish in the parapsychology journals. Sue Blackmore’s Do We Need a New Psychical Research? in the JSPR in 1982 (I think) can be seen as the first clear stating of Anomalous Psych as distinct afaik, but ultimately there are parapsychology articles from 1882 onwards that fit the AP label, in that they look at paranormal beliefs and paranormal ideas rather than just paranormal phenomena. They are all parapsychologists, at the end of the day.

  4. Just saw a mention of your blog through Caroline’s recent blog. I’m just wondering why you would judge a field after purposefully failing to read its important books because they weren’t “written for you”? Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century was actually put together for people like you who make thoughtful commentary on science in general and who could have something very useful to say from a different perspective. Being knowledgeable about the topic is what make James Alcock’s and Ray Hyman’s critical works useful.

    The Parapsychology Foundation YouTube Channel, in the PF Book Expo 2015 playlist, in which Dr. Cardeña outlined the contents of Parapsychology could fill in the gaps although I would assume that actually reading the book is a pretty accepted prerequisite for chiming in publicly on its usefulness which is, after all, a species of review.

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