Psychical Research President states scientific disbelief in psi is “pathological”

coverPNRWhat a very strange “President’s Letter” is in Issue 77 of the Paranormal Review published by the Society of Psychical Research (Winter 2016). I read and re-read it trying to make heads or tales out of Dr. Poynton’s meaning and assertions. He seems to despise the application of reason and questioning, wishing the stodgy “pathological” scientists and skeptics would just BELIEVE already since the evidence for psi is as plain as day.

Fortunately, you can view the letter here (scroll down a bit past the editorial). Take a read and see what you think.

130 years ago, the first SPR President Sidgwick lamented why people did not accept psychic evidence. He asserted that more and better evidence must be needed to convince them, and he and his esteemed colleagues must go get it. Today’s President Poynton’s view remains that the ‘mass of evidence is enormous” in support of psi, yet those annoying debunkers debunk – he specifically mentions Wikipedia and skeptical publications. I have read the latest and greatest compendium on parapsychology and viewed the data and conclusions presented there. Not everyone agrees on that “mass of evidence” but they sure do demonize the Skeptical approach.

Poynton calls such inquiry and doubt “scientific credulity” and labels it “cognitive pathology”. Its deep roots need to be killed, he says, and that will happen only when the old guard dies. Those are some very strong words for a field that remains desperate to hold on to any remaining credibility 130 years later. Yet, Poynton blames the outside world (critics who aren’t convinced by the evidence, and Wikipedia editors).

Could it be that the Skeptics are hitting a nerve? Or are we dogmatists? I say the former since the track records for extraordinary claims like dowsing, psychic powers, astrology, alien visitation, Creationism, faith healing, etc. are getting nothing but worse. I think we’re right to be doubtful these claims are true. Science progresses. These fields of study do not. Not even after centuries!

Critical thinkers in the know about mainstream health claims are familiar with the difference between evidence-based medicine and science-based medicine. Evidence-based studies can support usefulness of chiropractic, homeopathy, acupuncture and other alternative treatments. But the mechanism for these remains non-existence and pre-scientific – magical thinking, so to speak. More importantly, the studies have not been robust and convincing. Other explanations apply; not the ones proponents of alternative treatments espouse. Applying scientific reasoning to the empirical results allows us to take a deeper look into why these claims remain problematic and why we should be very cautious about accepting the claims at face value. This same rationale applies to why the scientific community generally is unaccepting of psi. It isn’t making sense.

Poynton wishes to hang EVERYTHING on empirical evidence (which he seems to equate to raw observations of seeing and hearing). He never mentions controls, alternative explanations and faulty studies and conclusions. He even states that it’s a mistake to consider reason above observations. Citing Kant on ghosts, he ridicules Kant’s sentiment that “even if real ghosts exist, a rational person must still not believe in them, because it corrupts all use of reason”. Much of the content here seems to be from Poynton’s 2015 book “Science, Mysticism and Psychical Research”. It sounds exactly like the common argument from psi proponents to reject materialism and “change the rules” of science because it’s not giving us the answers we want. I guess I need to read up on my Kant (who was a scathing critic of Swedenborg, a founding father of spiritualism).

Poynton projects very clearly in this essay that BELIEF should be the default, not disbelief. Where on earth would it have gotten us if we embraced the Enlightenment as “pathology”? Weird. I don’t get it. Parapsychology proponents are perplexing. Explanatory comments welcomed.

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11 thoughts on “Psychical Research President states scientific disbelief in psi is “pathological”

  1. It’s interesting to see how much the author and his own sources seem to lean on personal authority when speaking of evidence. They seem to expect that personal credibility is the key to solving the problem of evidence, which I suspect is a perception driven more by the lack of it. …sort of a wish-fulfillment fantasy that may be even more important than the issue of psychic powers in themselves, to be taken seriously! More than some could ever hope for.

  2. Pathological, eh? So are believers in the paranormal known for their sanity? Some might well be sane and rational people, but what about the ones who demonstrably aren’t? Similarly, it might be the case (I don’t know) that ‘some scientific disbelief in psi is “pathological”’ but not all, surely? I say what I have said all along: ‘Show me the evidence”. I would love to see evidence for just one paranormal claim. There might be some “debunkers” who have a “pathological need” to debunk. But I’m not one of them, and I don’t think “pathological debunkery” is all that widespread. Randi tells the story of how he once tested someone who claimed that he could tell what music was imprinted onto a vinyl long-playing record just by looking at the grooves. Randi tested him and it turned out he could do what he was claiming to do. Randi said that this was, to his mind, a paranormal ability. He said that if the man had come to him a few years later when he was offering his famous one million dollar prize that he would have had to hand it over. And yes, it would have ceased to be a paranormal ability and would have been absorbed into mainstream science. Randi was motivated by a desire to stop old, poor, sick and disabled people being exploited by hucksters and charlatans. If compassion for the most vulnerable in our society is pathalogical, then let’s all be pathological. Give me that kind of mental illness over the “sanity” of shysters, hustlers, and con artists any day.

  3. Well, I look at it this way: Consider the HUGE strides made in the last 130 years in fields such as chemistry, physics, biology, geology, paleontology, medicine, etc. During this same period, psi has likewise been a field of study. It seems to me that, if psi was real, we’d all be levitating, talking to dead relatives, and have the clairvoyance to always find missing people, as well as our car keys. Since parapsychology has not made the same advances as the aforementioned fields, perhaps it’s not really dogmatic to say it probably doesn’t exist.

  4. Psi research is one of those topics that is so frustrating for an open minded skeptic. Having a century of work dismissed by outsiders as being the result of shoddy experiments, researcher bias, trickery, and sometimes even confusing math has got to be extremely frustrating for people who believe their research may show that we continue after death or have powers far beyond those normal senses granted to most of us. (No, it’s not five. There are more than five normal senses.)

    Effectively Poynton seems to be calling “mainstream science” out as Psi Deniers. That would be amusing if it weren’t so sad. Not sad because I think he’s deluded, but sad because it shows what a huge gulf there is between the hopeful experimenter and the doubtful skeptic. If psi were real, I would expect more duplication in the labs and more readily demonstrable citizenry with the ability to manifest its powers. We have more potential psi candidates alive now than have ever been alive before. We have better detection equipment now than we have ever had before. We have more potential ghosts to converse with than we have ever had before. But given all those observations are we closer to a world where people accept the existence of and reliably make use of its effects? I think not.

    In 130 more years will we be sending smiles to each other as “likes” on ThoughtBook? I dunno. But if we are I’m betting it will be through technology generated neural uplinks, not any kind of hitherto unproven psi powers. And when will the get rid of all the damned ads on ThoughtBook? I thought the future was going to be so great…

  5. CBC radio had a man who could identify classical music by looking at vinyl . He was very knowledgeable on classical music.. They gave him 5 records without the original labels. He correctly got 4, all classical. The 5th was a pop record. He had simply made a study of the appearance of the grooves of records. Might have been the same man that Randi met…. BTW the live cannon shot on the Telarc (record company) disc is easily seen on the disc..

  6. When well designed, controlled studies fail to support a claim, the only recourse the claimant has is to attempt to somehow discredit the results of the studies. There’s nothing else they can do if they are to maintain any kind of credibility. So we hear claims that the studies were badly done, or that the people who conducted the study were biased somehow, or the ever popular conspiracy theory where, for some reason that’s never fully explained, scientists are out to get them.

  7. I’m just going to note that the President’s opinions remain his own: the SPR holds no corporate opinions, and publication does not represent endorsement as with ASSAP too. Fortunately no one has inferred they do, but just to be absolutely clear — this has been a part of the SPR constitution since founding in 1882; and indeed ASSAPs since our inception in 1981.

    I edit the ASSAP equivalent of the Paranormal Review (Seriously Strange) and I publish every issue articles with which I personally fundamentally disagree. Psychical research covers many perspectives and there being no generally recognised or replicable theoretical base we allow those varying perspectives to be voiced, and the SPR for example ranges from the completely sceptical (and Skeptic) to the most passionate believers in psi or spiritualism or – well six impossible things before breakfast.

    I’m sure my own lunacies annoy other psychical researchers – but they are mine: we can not be guilty by association as we don’t agree on anything.

    I have not read Dr Poynton’s letter yet — so I have no idea what to say — but I thought I’d best comment.

  8. John Poynton says:
    Sharon Hill asserts that I “despise the application of reason and questioning, wishing the stodgy ‘pathological’ scientists and sceptics just BELIEVE already since the evidence for psi is as plain as day.” Also that I project “very clearly in this essay that BELIEF should be the default, not disbelief.” In the article she comment on, I use the word believe or belief three times, firstly to “question Sidgwick’s belief that the attitude of incredulity can be buried under a heap of facts,” secondly about Kant’s legacy “that a ‘rational person’ must not believe in psi phenomena,” thirdly a criticism of the view that “belief is coupled with the irrational.” If one compares these statements with Sharon’s about BELIEVE and BELIEF, it is evident that she herself asserts a false belief or prejudice that seriously damages her judgement. Her supposition regarding my alleged view about “the application of reason” manifests the same symptom. I wrote that “if reason is placed above observation and experience then what is there to distinguish it from prejudice and dogmatism?” If she does not recognise it, this is a statement aligned with William James’s radical empiricism, which upended Kant’s philosophy focused on the “limits of human reason,” with a philosophy that placed experience at its root. I recommend James’s presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research in 1896; it is a most perceptive commentary on limiting dogmatism in science, supported by his own successful psi research. If reason excludes areas of experience, as in Kant’s work, then it is a hindrance to free scientific progress. Sharon finds that “parapsychology proponents are perplexing” and asks for an explanation. I would say that being perplexed is the result of entrenched false prepossessions that lead to misreading, misjudgement and misunderstanding, as seems exhibited in her article. If she judges that psi research has not got very far in 130 years, she might consider the situation in physics, firstly the general admission that we still do not know what some 96% of the universe is made of despite research in physics going a lot longer than 130 years, and secondly that a development centred in physics named ‘post-materialist science’–the thinking of Mario Beauregard et al.–embraces psi phenomena and hopefully will help develop a theory of psi..

    1. The entire piece is about belief. It ends with “The study of the origins of paranormal disbelief is unfinished business that cannot remain so neglected.” And a premise of it is that incredulity is a problem. Incredulity is the state of being unwilling or unable to believe something. This is justification for concluding the piece is very much about “belief,” a word I find problematic to use in terms of scientific knowledge. I don’t believe or not believe in psi, I’m not convinced by the evidence.

      If I have misread and misinterpreted the piece, please rephrase the major points. I remain perplexed as to the future of a field if several of the leading researchers call for a move outside the framework that currently exists for scientific inquiry in order to make their conclusions more acceptable.

      I find the comparison between progress in parapsychology and physics to be extreme and inappropriate. We have made huge findings in physics (a really broad subject area, though) over just the past few years. As I mentioned, I’ve attempted to keep up with the state of parapsychology and in no way is it comparable.

  9. Thank you for your response, Sharon. I agree that ‘belief’ is a word one might not like to use in science because it has too many meanings. In a scientific context, one of the several definitions in the Oxford Dictionary could be trimmed to mean: acceptance of a proposition, statement or fact as true, on the ground of authority or evidence. This would be the same as being convinced or not convinced by available evidence, and it is not connected with whether one is right or not: early in my career as a biogeographer I was up against the settled belief/conviction in North America that continental drift was “theoretically impossible”, even though evidence for drift screamed out of the geology of the southern continents. But whether it’s belief or conviction, a whole complex of factors, psychological, historical, temperamental, insecurity, professional, have a bearing on a person’s belief or conviction, and a lot of these are unconscious or barely conscious. One of the aims in my ‘president’s letters’ to the SPR magazine is to explore these factors, or at least bring some of them to the attention of readers, particularly disbelief in psi. There are any number of papers in and out of parapsychological journals exploring possible psychological factors in psi belief, and I became irritated that there was not a comparable number of studies exploring factors behind psi disbelief. That is why I singled out the recent study by Harvey Irwin (a prolific writer on psychological factors associated with psi belief) which for once asked “why has the study of the origins of paranormal disbelief been so neglected?” In a remarkable study of factors associated with psi disbelief by a young Iranian-American, Jason Jorjani in his ‘Prometheus and Atlas’ (London: Arktos), there is a penetrating analysis of your concern (I would say it includes insecurity) of what you describe as a “call for a move outside the framework that currently exists for scientific enquiry in order to make their conclusions more acceptable.” Jorjani’s view, along with those encouraging post-materialist science, is that psi phenomena are as established in fact as anything in science, and that a complete revolution in physics (in a broad sense) has to be followed through to accommodate the facts. Of course it’s no news to thinkers in physics/cosmology that a revolution has to take place anyway to include accumulating quantum and other phenomena. The old materially-located physics is simply inadequate, and Jorjani graphically describes what this could entail. And it frightens people into disbelief. But regarding your finding “the comparison between parapsychology and physics to be extreme and inappropriate,” be ready, Sharon, to dump some unanalysed prepossessions that, to be feared or not, seem on the way to be shredded in post-materialist science. Best wishes.

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