Parapsychology in the next 25 years — still a butterfly science

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Abstract

It would be reassuring to believe that over the next 25 years some significant advance would occur that would enable the discipline of parapsychology and its phenomena to be accepted into the mainstream. This could involve the identification of some experimental protocol that is replicable on demand, resistant to the usual vicissitudes that affect the outcomes of experimental studies; or the introduction by parapsychology’s Einstein of some way of accommodating parapsychological phenomena within generally accepted theories of nature. Of course, the former is a naïve hope given what we know of the nature of effects in the social sciences and the consequences of sampling error on underpowered studies, and the latter seems to rely optimistically on “spooky” properties of quantum physics that share a superficial resemblance to psi phenomena. So what can we reasonably expect to lie in our future given the lessons of the last 25 years? If we experience more of the same, then there will be a steady accumulation of evidence suggestive of psi effects using a range of new approaches and methods, with ever more stringent controls against potential normal explanations. But while statistically significant, the effects will remain tantalisingly small and will derive from studies that are predominantly proof-oriented rather than process-oriented, so that mainstream colleagues will feel justified in dismissing them as minor anomalies with little epistemological value. Where work attempts to elucidate preferred conditions or limiting factors, designs will continue to be insufficiently multivariate so that effects appear to be inconsistent or even capricious where in fact they depend on lawful interactions between a (perhaps large) number of measurable factors. Parapsychology is fortunate to have among its company some highly creative innovators and enthusiastic followers, which has given rise to some ingenious approaches to the study of psi. But in such a small community (at the time of writing the Parapsychological Association lists just 123 professional members) this has led to practices that have negative consequences unless they are addressed. In particular, parapsychology is often criticised by skeptics such as James Alcock and Richard Wiseman for “abandoning” initially successful approaches, leaving commentators with the suspicion that some fundamental flaw has been discovered or that later replications have been unsuccessful but remain unpublished. Although I believe the interpretation to be wrong, I think that these commentators have a point in questioning this fickleness. Elsewhere (Roe, 2009b, pp. 546-7) I have complained that this gives parapsychology the appearance of a “butterfly science” that flits en masse from protocol to protocol as they fall in and out of “fashion” much as a butterfly flits from flower to flower. At best this is frustrating in diverting resources away from a potentially fruitful avenue of research; at worst it looks suspicious to the outsider, who expects to see continuing and systematic work using a particular method for so long as it is productive, particularly where great claims were initially made for it. I went on to argue that as a community we need to better coordinate our efforts to produce a more systematic programme of research, one that goes beyond proof of principle and early adopter independent replications. To do this, we need to attract more “technicians” who are able and willing to follow up on proof-of-principle studies and first-wave replications to conduct the kinds of modest replication extensions that Thomas Kuhn would have called “normal science.” In practice this is extremely difficult to do where funds are so constrained that it is virtually impossible to eke out a career as a “pure” researcher, but an alternative approach could offer a solution. Robert Morris described how his strategy as Koestler Professor of Parapsychology was primarily to invest in human resources, taking the long view in “developing a quality program that could generate excellent scholars who would then go on to take academic posts at other universities, seeding the intellectual landscape of Britain and Europe with parapsychological experts in a way that had not yet proven possible in the US” (Carpenter, 2005, p. 425). Despite Professor Morris’s untimely death, it should still be the priority for senior figures in the field to develop the next generation of academics with the intention of their being embedded in the university structure so they can have the kind of security and longevity needed for them to practise normal science. As to the focus of that coordinated effort, much recent work has concentrated on measuring unconscious responses to target stimuli or involve implicit psi tasks masked by conventional cognitive tasks. These approaches are certainly worthwhile, but I am not convinced that they have much to say about the kinds of spontaneous experience that prompted the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research or which preoccupy the general public today—if parapsychologists are to be employed in the university sector and paid from the public purse then it can reasonably be argued that their research must reflect that public’s concerns. Many spontaneous psychic experiences involve altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in one form or another, and I would argue that this should again become a primary focus for parapsychology. Ganzfeld and dream ESP research seem to have fallen out of favour but continue to produce significant results. Indeed, it could be argued that these studies have been much more successful than we have any right to expect, given a general presumption that “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to ASC induction (Rex Stanford refers to this as the “delusion of operational omnipotence”), which is exacerbated by the tendency for researchers not to monitor whether participants have actually experienced an altered state at all. It is therefore surprising that the number of studies utilising ASCs has dwindled in recent times when they seem to provide the most reliable method of capturing psi effects. In conclusion, assuming we have not achieved the degree of mainstream acceptance I described in the first paragraph of this piece, then I hope to see parapsychology in the next 25 years being practised by a larger community of professional academics, based in university departments, working together in a more programmatic fashion to conduct stringent process-oriented multivariate tests of psi that are founded on the kinds of phenomena reported by the general public and so exploit the psi-conducive nature of ASCs.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Parapsychology
Volume76
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2012

Keywords

  • Parapsychology
  • Butterfly science

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