What is Parapsychology? ( 什麼是超心理學? )
What is Parapsychology?
CAN claims of extrasensory perception, or ESP as it is commonly called, be studied as a science? Can assertions of psychic phenomena be subject to the scientific method of experimental design, statistical significance, and independent replication? The controversial field is called parapsychology, and if you can read minds, see the future, or sense unusual things, we have some parapsychologists who would like to meet you–and test you. But critics–who call themselves skeptics–assert that the entire field is virtually all pseudoscience, without serious merit, just capitalizing on uncritical media and a gullible public. Parapsychology, according to skeptics, should be debunked. Parapsychology, according to proponents, is the scientific study of the paranormal, also known as psi phenomena. It is the careful investigation of events–like mental telepathy, clairvoyance, or other bizarre manifestations–that seemingly cannot be accounted for by natural law or knowledge. The claim that parapsychology is a real science excites some but annoys others. Is parapsychology a new science or an old fraud? Here we brought together some leading parapsychologists and skeptics. They joust and we judge.
Dr. Barry Beyerstein, a neuropsychologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada and a leading skeptic, is a regular contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Barry requires reasonable evidence and logic to justify extraordinary claims.
Dr. Dean Radin, an experimental psychologist who has conducted ESP experiments, is the author of The Conscious Universe. Dean believes that ESP research demonstrates what he calls “the scientific truth about psychic phenomena.”
Dr. Marilyn Schlitz, trained as an anthropologist, is the research director of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and a leading scientist in parapsychology. Marilyn presents careful experiments supporting the existence of psychic phenomena.
Dr. Charles Tart, a research pioneer in scientific parapsychology, is the author of over 250 articles published in professional books and journals, including Science and Nature. Charles is a spiritual seeker who believes that one of his virtues as a scientist is that he hates to be fooled.
Dr. James Trefil, a professor of physics at George Mason University, is a prolific author and commentator on science in the national media. Jim views parapsychology through the critical eyes of a mainstream scientist.
ROBERT: Dean, why do you think that the scientific method can be applied to the investigation of psychic phenomena? Skeptical critics claim that ESP is more wishful thinking or ancient superstition than serious science, with a touch of modern fraud tossed in now and then.
DEAN: Science consists of two general areas: there is the act of measurement, which is the empirical side of science, and there is the development of mechanisms, which is its theoretical side. When people ask the question, “Is parapsychology scientific?” they’re almost always thinking about the theoretical side. And it’s quite true that we don’t have very good theories about why psychic phenomena happen.
ROBERT: Do you mean that even those scientists who are convinced of the reality of psychic phenomena cannot construct convincing fundamental mechanisms–theories–to explain its underlying cause?
DEAN: Yes. But on the measurement side, it’s very clear that the scientific method can be brought to bear on these phenomena.
ROBERT: We’re going to examine that assertion. Charles, you’ve been a parapsychologist for forty years; you’re one of parapsychology’s founders. Can you describe the field and give some sense of its import for human understanding?
CHARLES: Parapsychology is our modern name for what was originally called psychical research. It began as an organized field of inquiry in the nineteenth century, when there was much conflict between science and religion. Science seemed to be explaining more and more of the world, and it threatened to throw out religion totally. But a few scientists thought that religion was not all nonsense. They wondered whether it was possible to apply the methods of science, which had worked so well in the physical sciences, to examine the strange or unusual happenings associated with religion and to find out whether those phenomena are actual fact or just superstition. Parapsychology is the modern evolution of those early investigations.
ROBERT: Barry, you’re a neuroscientist and a skeptic. I know what a neuroscientist does–you study the brain. What does a skeptic do?
BARRY: A skeptic is someone who demands reasonable evidence and reasonable logic to back up extraordinary claims. I wouldn’t call parapsychology a pseudoscience, as long as it uses the same experimental controls, the same techniques, and the same mathematical and statistical procedures that are used within mainstream science. We can disagree about the adequacy of the evidence–that’s what I’m skeptical about–but I don’t claim that it’s all fraud or pseudoscience. The key is the amount of evidence and the availability of that evidence for skeptics to check.
ROBERT: We’re going to give you some evidence right now. Marilyn, the Institute of Noetic Sciences is a leading center of research on the mind and unusual phenomena. Could you describe your own most compelling experiments where human “senders” influenced the physiological responses of human “receivers” at a distance, without any intervening sensory communications?
MARILYN: We were interested in evaluating the extraordinary claims made by healers in different cultures. Were those healers somehow able to influence the physiology of people at a distance, under conditions where recipients didn’t even know that senders were trying to affect them? Since such investigations are very difficult to conduct in a field setting, we moved into the laboratory. The experiment monitored the measurable effects of autonomic nervous activity, which is the part of our physiology that functions automatically.
ROBERT: Like heart rate, breathing, peristalsis.
MARILYN: That’s right. So I would invite you into the lab and I would monitor various attributes of your physiology.
ROBERT: I’m nervous already.
MARILYN: We can calm you¡K. Then we would sCHARLES monitoring your galvanic skin response, the electrical activity of your skin, which is the same method used in lie detectors–
ROBERT: I’m not coming near you.
MARILYN: Oh, you have something to hide, do you? Here’s the procedure. You, as the recipient-subject, sit in one room while we’re monitoring your physiology. Then we invite a sender-healer to sit in a distant room, and there’s absolutely no sensory communication between the two of you. We ask this healer, at specific random moments, to influence your physiology at a distance. So, for example, he or she might try to calm you, by employing psychical projections of serenity. We then compare your autonomic nervous system activity during the test periods, when the healer is attempting to calm you, with your autonomic nervous system during the control periods, when everything is the same except the healer is not sending. We call these experiments “intentionality at a distance.”
ROBERT: As the recipient, I wouldn’t know when the healer was trying to exert influence-intentionality–at a distance?
MARILYN: Exactly. You’d have no idea when these influence periods occur; they’re randomly distributed throughout the session. We’ve now compiled about forty experiments that were set up under this kind of protocol. Overall, the results are highly compelling. There are strong statistical data to support the idea that there’s some kind of exchange of information between the sender and the recipient, even though under these conditions there’s no sensory contact.
ROBERT: Have you had nonbelievers–skeptics–auditing the experimental design, the data, and the statistical analysis?
MARILYN: The most recent experiments I’ve done were with a professor from England, Richard Wiseman, who’s a card-carrying member of the skeptical community. He was very interested in doing experiments together, and the first project we did was in his lab, under his conditions. Everything was identical–same equipment, same randomization procedures, same subject population–except that I worked with half the people and he worked with half the people. The result was that we both replicated our initial findings: I got statistical significance and he didn’t. This result was compelling to us, in terms of what effect the expectations of the researcher might have on the results. We then invited Richard to come over to my laboratory and set up the same experiment–and, again, we replicated the effect a second time. These experiments suggest that not only is there an effect but it can happen under conditions where skeptics and proponents work together. And they further suggest that there may be some way in which the belief systems or expectations of the researcher come into play.
ROBERT: Jim, you’re a physicist. One of your many books is 101 Things You Don’t Know About Science. Did you include parapsychology in your list?
JIM: No–that book was a tour of the frontiers of science at the end of the twentieth century.
ROBERT: Why didn’t you include parapsychology?
JIM: One of the criteria I used for including an issue was that there had to be some reasonable expectation that the issue would be resolved in the foreseeable future. Parapsychology has been around, as has been said, for over a century. I don’t see a resolution coming anytime soon, so I didn’t include it.
ROBERT: Dean, take us through the categories of parapsychology. People know what mental telepathy is, but there’s more.
DEAN: There are four classic categories that are studied as part of parapsychology. One is telepathy, as you said. The common understanding that telepathy means “the reading of minds” is not quite right, because that sounds as though thoughts were being perceived, and this virtually never happens. Telepathy means that there’s some kind of mind-to-mind connection; it’s often a feeling, the kind of emotion that seems to pass. The second category is clairvoyance, which is getting information from a distance, either in space or time. The third category is precognition, which can be considered a subset of clairvoyance, which is the acquisition of specific information through time.
ROBERT: So clairvoyance is defined as the occurrence of apprehending information directly, something that you couldn’t know through the senses. Clairvoyance differs from telepathy in that clairvoyance perceives information directly from an object or about an event, whether past, present or future, without the necessity of any other mind knowing about that object or event.
DEAN: Right. For example, [the object or the event] can be hidden, as in an envelope or at a distance, so that normal senses couldn’t perceive it. Or it could be displaced in time, whether precognition [knowledge of the future] or retrocognition [knowledge of the past]. The fourth category is psychokinesis, popularly known as “mind over matter.”
ROBERT: What’s a classic “mind over matter” experiment?
DEAN: In the old days, gamblers would claim that they could toss the dice and make a certain number come up more often than chance should allow, and that initiated about forty or fifty years of research, doing exactly that experiment.
ROBERT: Might trips to casinos alleviate some of the financial pressure of funding parapsychological research?
DEAN: There are two questions here: first, is there any effect when gamblers “will” certain numbers to come up; and second, if there’s an effect, what is its magnitude? It turns out that when we do the overall assessment, we discover that there’s an effect, but its magnitude is less than one percent. That’s not very big.
ROBERT: One percent is well below the lowest odds advantages of the house. Do we cancel the trip to Las Vegas?
DEAN: You’ll continue to lose at the casinos, though maybe a little bit slower.
ROBERT: Charles, give us some sense of the classic experiments in parapsychology, and how the field developed originally as a science.
CHARLES: In Victorian days, people played what you might call telepathic parlor games. I might ask you to go off in another room, open a book, and read a certain passage, while back here the rest of our little group would try to write down our mental impression of whatever was in that passage. Let’s say that on occasion some of us would get a few words that were the same as those in the book. This kind of experiment is very hard to evaluate; there are lots of words in a book passage. There were many informal, inconclusive experiments like this.
ROBERT: How were the first reasonably scientific experiments designed?
CHARLES: A more classic telepathy experiment would work something like this. Someone goes off to a different room and shuffles a stack of cards a dozen times to make sure it’s thoroughly mixed. He or she would then, at predetermined time intervals–say, every sixty seconds–look at one card at a time. Meanwhile people back in the original room would write down their impression of the order of the cards. We could then evaluate, with statistical mathematics, whether the experiment produced results that were sufficiently above chance to justify the supposition that sometimes information was being transferred. I’d estimate that there are now several hundred experiments showing that this kind of telepathy experiment can produce results greater than chance. Now, it’s a small effect, as Dean [Radin] said; it differs from chance by only a few percentage points. It’s very rare to get a perfect score; getting a hundred-percent-correct result in such an experiment has happened maybe two or three times in the whole history of the field.
ROBERT: Given the huge number of experiments that have been conducted, one would expect, just from normal randomized statistical distribution, that every once in a while the results would be a hundred percent perfect. I’d equally expect that every now and then the results would be a complete bust–getting nothing right, zero percent.
CHARLES: Except that we have sophisticated sets of statistical tools that can differentiate between results that reflect statistical significance and random distribution. Of course, one can make the counterargument that the published results are only those experiments that happen to come out above chance, and that if you included all the actual experiments done but unpublished, then the total results would approximate chance. To test this claim, you can figure out how many unsuccessful, unpublished psi experiments would have to have been done. It turns out that for this counterargument to be true, then every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth would have to have been doing ten failed experiments a day for the last five thousand years. This shows the strength of the data. The evidence for the existence of telepathy or clairvoyance is overwhelming.
ROBERT: We’re talking about a meta-analysis of parapsychological experiments–an analysis that pulls together a large number of independent experiments.
DEAN: Meta-analysis means the analysis of analyses, so rather than doing multiple trials in a single experiment, you look at the collected results of many experiments.
ROBERT: In the last thirty or forty years of parapsychological research, what’s your strongest piece of evidence?
MARILYN: I don’t think we can identify one particular experiment that makes the case for the field; we have to look at the aggregate. Research has taken different directions. There’s the remote viewing work, where people are attempting to describe characteristics of geographical locations at a distance. A number of experiments have now been done using this kind of procedure–and have been replicated consistently–producing sufficient data to demonstrate that there’s some kind of effect happening here.
ROBERT: You’ve conducted some of the interesting Ganzfeld experiments; this is a procedure where you reduce sensory input for subjects and then ask them to describe, say, a remote video clip. One of the favorite techniques is to tape sliced Ping-Pong balls over their eyes and feed white noise into their ears; then they’re asked to imagine what somebody else is drawing, or something like that.
MARILYN: The Ganzfeld is a procedure that was initiated at the turn of the twentieth century, when introspective psychological experiments were popular. Sensory deprivation is a technique that induces imagery; in a way, it simulates the dream experience, and people start seeing images.
ROBERT: Is it like an altered state of consciousness?
CHARLES: Yes, sensory deprivation is conducive to inducing an altered state.
ROBERT: Has it been shown that altered states have a positive correlation with evidence for telepathy and clairvoyance?
CHARLES: There’s a general literature to that effect, and I believe that it’s probably true. If I say, use your ESP, that’s a simple, rational thing to do–and it usually doesn’t work. We don’t know what part of the mind ESP comes from, but it doesn’t seem to come from normal consciousness.
ROBERT: Barry, what does a skeptic make of all this?
BARRY: Unfortunately, the debate has gotten so technical that what we’re now talking about are very, very small statistical effects. And when the effects are that small, and that difficult for skeptics like myself and my students to replicate, then we have to look to the possibility that there are interesting statistical anomalies and artifacts here, not real phenomena. A statistical effect, if you get one, means that it’s unlikely for the event in question to have happened by chance alone. But even if there’s something operating here, statistical significance alone can’t tell you what that something is. Is it some paranormal phenomenon? Or is it sensory leakage? Is it fraud? Is it recording error? Or is it some kind of subtle artifact of the experiment that’s well worth studying but is normal, in the sense that it doesn’t violate our sense of the physical world. There are just so many possibilities other than paranormal explanations, and statistics alone will never tell us what’s really going on. Statistics can only inform us that it’s unlikely that there’s nothing but chance operating there.
ROBERT: I have a sense that in recent times there’s actually less research going on in parapsychology than there was a few decades ago. Innovative research interest, today, seems oriented more toward transpersonal and other kinds of holistic psychologies. Has the experimental side of parapsychology diminished in importance?
DEAN: I don’t think the importance of parapsychological research has diminished at all. It may be that the total number of people actively doing experiments is probably somewhat lower.
ROBERT: Why is that?
DEAN: I think interest in parapsychology goes in cycles. There’s something like a twenty-year funding cycle.
ROBERT: It has nothing to do with sunspots?
DEAN: Well, perhaps that, too–but I don’t think so. It’s quite interesting that fifty years ago the usual skeptical response was that parapsychological phenomena were just impossible, full stop. But something new has occurred in the last decade or so. Barry brought out that we’re now dealing with technical issues of experimentation, where we’re trying to figure out whether this anomaly is psi or something more commonplace. And that’s a very dramatic change.
ROBERT: Are you suggesting a subtle admission by skeptics that experimental data of parapsychological phenomena are meeting the critical tests of good science, such as tightly controlled experimental design, replicability by independent scientists and labs, and statistical significance?
DEAN: It changes the playing field from “You guys are nuts, because this stuff couldn’t possibly be real” to “Let’s figure out whether these anomalies are what they appear to be–because, after all, they came from people’s experiences, not from strange experiments in the lab–and if they’re what they appear to be, we’ve captured psi.”
ROBERT: What do your friends and colleagues in mainstream science think of your chosen profession?
DEAN: They hold a range of opinions, but in general here’s what happens. Scientist friends or colleagues will come into my lab–some claiming they’re skeptics, some not–and then they actually spend time running experiments and looking at the results. When they do these steps themselves, they usually change their opinion quite quickly. This opinion change is of two kinds. First, they realize that parapsychologists are as skeptical as they are. You have to be, because after years of scrutinizing these experiments, what we do now is quite good science. Second, they witness experiments that in some cases are really quite dramatic. Real anomalies emerge right before their eyes, and so my colleagues become really interested.
ROBERT: Jim, what would it take for you to move parapsychology from where you wouldn’t even mention it in your books to recommending it for inclusion in mainstream scientific discussion?
JIM: In science, there’s this process of first establishing that something happens–that there really is something going on that needs to be explained, and then you try to explain it; this is what you call experimental theory. My take on parapsychology is that I’m not convinced that there’s something to be explained here.
ROBERT: What would convince you to change your opinion?
JIM: I could imagine carefully controlled experiments that produced anomalous data. I haven’t seen Marilyn’s [Schlitz] experiments; however, I’ve seen others that looked just as convincing initially, but then you get into these very technical discussions of the experimental design and the statistics. The issue often comes down to what sorts of things could produce these very small effects that people are measuring–things that wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with extrasensory perception but might be something in the design of the experiment or the way data was analyzed.
ROBERT: Charles, you’ve dealt with these issues for decades. Has the whole field of parapsychology devolved down to hypertechnicalities?
CHARLES: Meanwhile, back in the real world, real people are having real experiences that they believe are due to extrasensory perception. Surveys show that a majority of the population thinks they have had an ESP encounter personally. Of course, when you have people claiming to have had a psychic experience, you ask yourself what it means. If you ask the people themselves, you get a large range of responses. Some go off the deep end, declaring, “I’m chosen by God, because I’m so very special.” Others try to make sense of what happened, but they run into skeptics who tell them that these experiences are impossible and anyone who thinks he’s had such an experience is simply deluding himself. I don’t think it’s a particularly healthy response to invalidate people that way.
ROBERT: How would you respond to such a person describing an anomalous, seemingly psychic experience?
CHARLES: Some few of us look at the scientific literature on parapsychology and say, Well, we do have evidence for basic psi phenomena–like telepathy or precognition or something similar–so maybe this particular real-world instance was an actual occurrence. Psychic experiences are not just matters of academic interest. When people have a psychic experience, they quite often change their philosophy of life–or if they already have, say, spiritual values, these beliefs are then validated by the event. I’m not simply an experimental parapsychologist. I’m a transpersonal psychologist–which means that I’m interested in the personal, emotional applications of psychic experiences. I want us to have a good database on what happens in these experiences: What seems to be a real effect and what seems to be illusion? What kinds of people have them, and are they associated with mental illness? By the way, psi phenomena are not generally related to mental illness. Parapsychology can have practical relevance to real people’s lives.
ROBERT: Charles, you wrote very personally that your initial interest in parapsychology related to an early conflict between science and religion. Do you think this tension, or longing, influenced your conclusions?
CHARLES: No. I have two guiding forces in my life. The first is that I hate to be fooled under any circumstances. And that makes me a very good scientist. I’m more critical of methodology in psi experiments than many scientists who take comparatively skeptical positions. My second guiding force is that I’d like there to be a bigger and more interesting universe, with meaning in it. So my way of dealing with my childhood conflict between science and religion was to become a scientifically rigorous researcher in parapsychology, just like the people who started the Society for Psychical Research in the nineteenth century. I applied the basic scientific method of observing data and testing theories to this area of unusual experiences, in order to see what’s real and what’s not–to ascertain what is, indeed, superstition and nonsense left over from earlier times.
ROBERT: How do you react to the increasing prominence and strength of the skeptical community?
CHARLES: I wish there were a genuinely skeptical community. I’m afraid that just about every skeptic I’ve ever met is what I call a pseudoskeptic. A real skeptic says, “I don’t know about parapsychology and psi, and the explanations we have so far don’t satisfy me. I want to look at the data.” But the skeptics I’ve encountered claim to know already that there’s nothing to it, and then they break all sorts of rules of scientific procedure to go about their debunking. Skepticism, as it is generally practiced, is neither legitimate science nor legitimate criticism.
ROBERT: Isn’t it legitimate help when skeptics expose all the ridiculous claims that encrust serious parapsychology with absurdities?
CHARLES: That might have been true a hundred years ago, but the methodology in parapsychology has become so good, and parapsychologists are so thorough in their own criticism of one another’s experiments, that the matter is pretty well handled.
ROBERT: But there are abundant common frauds, silly stories of ESP defying all credulity that circulate widely in the media. Furthermore, if the data are so robust, why do we have, right here, scientists on opposite sides? What is it about parapsychology that gives the field such weak acceptance?
MARILYN: I’m reminded of the joke that there are three stages in the skeptical acceptance of unorthodox ideas. First, the critics will say, “There’s nothing in that data.” Then, as you acquire more data, the second stage comes up: “Well, there might be something to it, but it’s such a small effect that it’s meaningless.” And you acquire more data and show its relevance, and then the skeptical community says, “Of course, we knew it all along; so where have you been?”
ROBERT: Jim seems comfortably set in the first stage; Barry is, too, but he’s also glancing at the second stage.
MARILYN: If we can give serious skeptics some education about the data, I think their stage could well change.
ROBERT: We’ll arrange for Marilyn [Schlitz] to give Jim [Trefil] and Barry [Beyerstein] the results of her experiments. Then we’ll get back together in the future–that’s a promise.
MARILYN: I want to comment about the contribution of open-minded skeptics, because I feel that they can make a great contribution to parapsychology. There’s a lot of nonsense that dominates our culture. People are led down blind alleys and come to believe very strange things. General skepticism, therefore, is good for all of us. I agree with Dean [Radin] that parapsychologists themselves are inherently skeptical, and I agree with Charles [Tart] that those of us collecting this data don’t want to be fooled. But I’ve seen examples within the skeptical community where they are really helping us to refine our protocols and sharpen our critical skills.
ROBERT: That’s a major contribution.
MARILYN: Yes, it is. There’s a lot of room for healthy debate within the parapsychological community such that we can begin to move the field forward.
ROBERT: If there’s genuine search for truth, parapsychologists and skeptical scientists make a great combination.
JIM: I’ve been involved in other areas of science where there’s been a great deal of skepticism–for example, the skepticism greeting the theory that the dinosaurs were wiped out by the effects of an asteroid impact. I saw how the scientific community, driven by data, changed its mind and generally accepted this theory over a period of time. I just don’t see that happening in parapsychology–it hasn’t happened for a hundred years.
BARRY: I think Charles [Tart] is making a stereotype of what skeptics are. What he said doesn’t jibe with the kind of skeptics that I know. It’s not just that these supposed events are weird. We all accept quantum mechanics–which is totally counterintuitive–because it produces results. Quantum mechanics is replicable, it gives better explanations, and it makes predictions that turn out to be verified in experiments. There were many skeptical physicists; Albert Einstein himself went to his grave still figuring there was something wrong with it. But quantum mechanics is not controversial anymore, because it has delivered the goods. And this is what parapsychology has yet to do. If it turns out that ESP or psi research does come up with something that tips the scales, then I don’t know very many skeptics who would be any more skeptical about it than we are about quantum mechanics.
ROBERT: Dean, let’s go on to something different. What is field consciousness? Give us some examples of how it may work.
DEAN: Field consciousness is a relatively new finding about what may happen when people get together in a group–say, as a choral group or a sports team–and they feel that something “just gels.” Everyone is working together perfectly and there’s a sense of coherence within the group. The same technology that we use to study mind-over-matter [psychokinetic] effects in the laboratory are applied to these situations to investigate whether there’s something paranormal happening here.
ROBERT: Give us an example.
DEAN: Take an electronic random-number generator, which is like a coin flipper. The traditional experiments are one-to-one, with one generator and one person who tries to change the distribution, essentially, of heads and tails. The only difference, in field consciousness studies, is that you take this random-number generator and put it in the vicinity of a group that’s doing something together, where there are moments of strong coherence–for example, during group meditation. The objective is to ascertain whether the act of coherence among a group is reflected as statistical anomalies in the random-number generator. There have been now something like seventy or eighty experiments of this kind in the past two years, and the grand accumulation of data suggests that something unusual does happen.
ROBERT: You’ve also used events on a grander scale, where very large populations are involved–such as when much of the world was tuned into the opening of the Olympics or the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial–and come up with what you think is compelling data.
DEAN: This is the beginning of a new experimental area, but initial experiments suggest that something like a “mass mind” effect might really exist–that when we have millions of minds thinking about the same thing, something happens.
ROBERT: Charles, give us some real-world examples of psychic phenomena.
CHARLES: During the Second World War, a friend of mine came home very tired from her defense job and fell sound asleep. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, she finds herself leaping out of bed and standing in the middle of the floor with a feeling of absolute horror. She has no idea what the absolute horror is about, and so she starts to feel silly after a while. She stands there for about thirty seconds, and then the house rumbles a little bit. She thinks maybe it’s a minor earthquake, and she looks at the clock and goes back to bed. The next day she discovers that the Port Chicago Munitions Shipping Facility had blown up at the time she leaped out of bed, and the little rumble was the time it took the shock wave to go from Port Chicago to Berkeley. Was she responding to the horror of hundreds of people suddenly being killed and maimed? This is the kind of anomalous experience that happens to people in everyday life.
ROBERT: You’ve heard the following argument: Because every night so many people have so many nightmares about so many things, random coincidences like your friend’s sudden waking timed with the munitions explosion must occur rather frequently. It’s statistically mandated, though it’s surely random. But when the random coincidence happens to one individual, it feels very special, even though it isn’t. An analogy is winning the lottery–that’s completely random, but to the winner it’s very special.
CHARLES: The argument is a correct one, which is why we parapsychologists took all this psychic stuff into the laboratory almost a hundred years ago. We knew what coincidence was, and we had to rule it out conclusively.
ROBERT: Dean, do you have any amazing stories?
DEAN: Most of my amazing stories happen in the laboratory, for exactly the reason that Charles [Tart] just said. But the anecdotes are really compelling. I’ve had experiences like that in my life, and you’re absolutely right: it could be coincidence. So as a scientist I want to know whether, in principle, these coincidences could be some form of parapsychological phenomena.
ROBERT: The challenge is to investigate spontaneous, real-world psi phenomena in a controlled, scientific manner.
MARILYN: One parapsychologist did a study correlating the numbers of people who rode on trains on days when there were train wrecks with the numbers of people riding trains on average, safe days. Over the course of time, it looked as though there were significantly fewer passengers riding on the days of train wrecks. He also did some interesting work with business executives, assessing the incidence of psychic phenomena among people who were at top levels. The results indicated that high-level executives scored better than the average population on ESP, which suggests that these very successful people may be using certain kinds of psychic abilities in everyday life, in ordinary practice. Maybe they aren’t labeling it psychic; certainly they don’t considering it weird. But these successful executives may be, in fact, harnessing and employing psychic ability every day of their lives.
ROBERT: Dean, if a person is psychic but feels funny about admitting it, he may say he has a hunch or is just intuitive. That’s our social protection. What are the standards of good science here? We normally talk about the replicability of evidence.
DEAN: Right. The gold standard of empirical science is whether an effect can be independently replicated by lots of people over a long period of time, and also whether conceptual replication can be shown–because, obviously, if you do exactly the same experiment and the experiment has a flaw in it, you just repeat the flaw. So in my book I focused on meta-analysis, combining many experiments in different classes of parapsychology to see whether replication exists, and comparing the results from parapsychology with those from other areas of science. The answer, very clearly, is yes, there is replication by many different people over long periods of time, and conceptual replication, in at least a few classes of parapsychological work.
BARRY: My trouble is that for the last twenty years I’ve been asking my psychology students to try replicating classic parapsychological experiments, without any positive results whatsoever. Since I have a random-number generator in my lab, other people from the community would come to ask my help in conducting ESP-type experiments. I’ve had psychics try to beat my random-number generator.
ROBERT: How have they done?
BARRY: Zip. Nothing. I just can’t get any replication in these things.
MARILYN: To that I would argue that one can make the same kind of case for musical ability. To conclude that there’s some genuine anomaly present, it doesn’t necessarily have to be distributed evenly among the entire population.
BARRY: But I’ve done that. We’ve had people come in who claim to have psychic ability and they fall flat on their faces, too, just like my students.
DEAN: Are you claiming that you never get significant results?
BARRY: I’m saying [I get] nothing more than chance would predict.
DEAN: OK, but you’re getting a distribution of results, some of which are positive and some negative.
BARRY: Individual trials and even individual persons may produce skewed results. If you run the random-number generator a hundred times, five of them, on average, will come out above chance. So the results match our statistical predictions for random behavior.
MARILYN: My experiments with Richard Wiseman–who is a member, recall, of the skeptical community–suggest that maybe there’s something inherent in the experimenter’s ability to elicit these kinds of phenomena.
BARRY: I like to take students who come to me because they want to prove me wrong. I give them the equipment, send them off and say, “OK, if it’s bad vibes from me, fine–I’ll be gone.” Some of these students have actually refused to give me their data, because they were so embarrassed when nothing nonrandom happened.
DEAN: One of the problems here is that many scientists don’t understand the meaning of statistics in the behavioral sciences. They’re thinking of the type of precision you get in the physical sciences–which, of course, is substantially more precise than that in the behavioral sciences. Most conditions of human behavior are so variable that you need a much higher power of statistical analysis in order to pull out the significances.
ROBERT: This means more trials in the experiments and different mathematics in the analysis.
DEAN: Yes. If the underlying effect is very small, you need the right kind of statistics to come out with a significant result.
ROBERT: It makes me nervous when such a small effect is supporting a field that’s challenging basic assumptions of the physical world.
DEAN: The effect is not so small. Sometimes the effects look small, but this is because the sum totals are the combined results of positive correlations and negative correlations canceling each other out.
ROBERT: A correlation of minus-one, which means a zero-percent relationship, is just as strong as a correlation of plus-one, which means a hundred-percent relationship.
CHARLES: If something is consistently wrong, it’s just as useful as if something is consistently right. You just reverse the predictions.
BARRY: It’s consistency that’s the problem.
ROBERT: There are two opposing points here, both rather fun. On the one hand, it’s conceivable that positive and negative correlations exist often in parapsychology, each representing massively significant psi; but since the positives and negatives are so entangled and can’t be teased apart, they’re constantly canceling each other out, so that the combined effect always appears minuscule. On the other hand, this argument does seem the perfect rationalization for little or nothing going on.
ROBERT: Jim, why are mainstream scientists reluctant to get involved, either as skeptics or participants, in this whole field?
JIM: It’s about as risky as you can get.
MARILYN: So little money is allocated to parapsychology compared to any mainstream science.
ROBERT: Since the implications of parapsychology are so potentially momentous, why is a little risk such a deterrent to adventuresome scientists?
JIM: Let’s look at this from the point of view of the scientist. The one bit of capital you have as a scientist is your research time, which is always limited. In building your career, you have to decide where you’re going to spend your time and what the chances are of a payoff. When I look at parapsychology, I see a long history with no payoff. I don’t see any payoff upcoming. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t do it. I have great admiration for people like Barry [Beyerstein] who get involved in the skeptical analyses, but frankly there’s very little reward for such work in the scientific community. You don’t get career-making points for skepticism.
ROBERT: Do you think that’s good?
JIM: No, I don’t think it’s good, but it’s a fact, OK? An individual scientist is much better off putting effort into normal research in a mainstream discipline than going off into a field like parapsychology, or even getting involved in opposing it, as a skeptic. There’s just no payoff.
ROBERT: Charles, have you had a payoff?
CHARLES: Speaking as a parapsychologist, it’s even more complicated than that. Not only don’t you get any points for doing parapsychological research, you’ll probably lose your university job if you do! This is especially true if you get positive results. This is historical fact; it’s happened in many cases.
ROBERT: That sounds contrary to the ideals of scientific inquiry.
CHARLES: The academic world is not as open-minded as it’s supposed to be, sad to say. But there’s a deeper level that, as a psychologist, interests me greatly. It’s only been a few hundred years since we burned people at the stake who we thought had strong psychic powers. Some of my own research shows that many people, under their conscious exteriors, harbor diffuse fears and emotional ambivalence about psychic results. Parapsychology is not a neutral topic–it affects people quite deeply.
ROBERT: Nobody will be burned at the stake today. We’re going to take predictions. One hundred years from now, will parapsychology be recognized as a mainstream science?
DEAN: I think the answer is yes, but it won’t be called parapsychology anymore. It’ll be absorbed into mainstream science.
MARILYN: I would agree with Dean [Radin], and I think parapsychology is going to be applied to things like health care.
BARRY: I would actually like to agree, too, but I don’t hold much hope that it will actually happen. If the data are there, then it’s no longer “para” anything, it’s part of physics or part of physiology, or both. If data come in a way that skeptics can accept, then parapsychology can fold its tent and become part of mainstream science.
ROBERT: But that’s not going to happen?
BARRY: No, I’m not expecting that to happen.
JIM: I think we’ll go along in the next century pretty much as we’ve gone along in the last century. There will be people who keep trying to establish parapsychology as a legitimate field of science, and it just won’t happen.
CHARLES: I’m between the optimists and the pessimists. I think we’ll have reasonable practical applications in which psychic abilities can help. Even more important, we’ll be looking at the implications of psychic phenomena for our transpersonal or spiritual nature. That’s what will be really important.
ROBERT: CONCLUDING COMMENT
ABOUT one fact there is no dispute. Paranormal phenomena have persisted in virtually every culture, and the varieties of such puzzling events are endless. How to explain it all? I think there are three possibilities. One, the paranormal does not exist and all the perplexing reports can be dismissed as illusion, delusion, misguided hope, mistaken belief, laboratory error, or furtive fraud. Two, the paranormal does exist and science will ultimately solve all these puzzles, perhaps using the counterintuitive concepts of quantum theory or something similar. Three, the paranormal does exist, but science in its present form can never get at it. We will have to wait, until one of these alternatives brings us closer to truth.
Marilyn Schlitz notes that
“One parapsychologist did a study correlating the numbers of people who rode on trains on days when there were train wrecks with the numbers of people riding trains on average, safe days. Over the course of time, it looked as though there were significantly fewer passengers riding on the days of train wrecks. He also did some interesting work with business executives, assessing the incidence of psychic phenomena among people who were at top levels. The results indicated that high-level executives scored better than the average population on ESP, which suggests that these very successful people may be using certain kinds of psychic abilities in everyday life, in ordinary practice. Maybe they aren’t labeling it psychic; certainly they don’t considering it weird. But these successful executives may be, in fact, harnessing and employing psychic ability every day of their lives.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn notes that
“If a person is psychic but feels funny about admitting it, he may say he has a hunch or is just intuitive. That’s our social protection.”
Charles Tart notes that
“It’s only been a few hundred years since we burned people at the stake who we thought had strong psychic powers. Some of my own research shows that many people, under their conscious exteriors, harbor diffuse fears and emotional ambivalence about psychic results. Parapsychology is not a neutral topic–it affects people quite deeply.”
Beneath our veneer of rationality, atavistic fears lurk, unacknowledged. In fact whatever PSI abilities modern humans have inherited from our ancestors and have retained into the modern era, are entirely natural and “normal.” As Marilyn Schlitz notes, these abilities may even have enormous, unrecognized survival value. It is only our prejudicial “rationalist” mindset that has cast them in an undeservedly negative light.
— Bevin Chu
Explanation: What is Parapsychology?
Illustration(s): Barry Beyerstein, Dean Radin, Marilyn Schlitz, Charles Tart, James Trefil, Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Author(s): Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Affiliation: CLOSER TO TRUTH (CTT)
Publication Date: N/A
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect