Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent’s Dishonesty in Parapsychology

Context

I write this blog as a long-term investigator into psychology and the paranormal. This post concerns a saga of intellectual dishonesty by the late Cambridge University psychologist, Carl Sargent, and his mentor, Professor Hans J Eysenck, of King’s College London. A diary of events weaves a dark story that many wish the world would forget, but the story needs to be told. The parties in this story displayed gullibility, bias and wilful deceit. One of them (CS) was forced to leave his academic post and seek another career. Many years after his death, the other (HJE) stands accused of producing ‘unsafe’ publications on an industrial scale.

Carl Lynwood Sargent (1952 – 2018) was a British parapsychologist and author of several roleplaying game-based products and novels, using the pen name Keith Martin to write Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Sargent also wrote four books with Hans J Eysenck.  

According to his Wikipedia entry,

Hans Jürgen Eysenck, was born in Berlin onand died in London on, was a British psychologist of German origin known for his work on personality , heritability of intelligence , behavioral therapies and for his critiques of psychoanalysis. At the time of his death, Eysenck was the most frequently cited living psychologist in English-language scientific journals.”

Hans J Eysenck’s intellectual honesty   was recently the focus of renewed controversy after Anthony Pelosi exposed a series of impossible findings published by Eysenck in the field of health psychology (see here, here and here). 26 of Eysenck’s publications were recently considered “unsafe” by an investigation by King’s College London, and many others are also suspected.

Intellectual dishonesty

Richard Smith (personal communication) astutely remarked as follows: “When forensic accountants detect fraud they assume that everything else from that person may well be fraudulent. Scientists tend to do the opposite–assuming that everything is OK until proved to be fraudulent. But as proving fraud is hard lots of highly questionable material remains untouched.”

Smith continues: “I think of the example of R K Chandra, who was eventually found guilty not only of research fraud but also of financial and business fraud. His first paper established to be fraudulent was in 1989. Why, I ask myself, would you start being honest after you’d practised fraud–yet hundreds of his papers are left unremarked, including unfortunately some that have been shown to be fraudulent.”

A reliable source and long-time colleague of Eysenck’s states: “Eysenck was a mendacious charlatan. I base that not so much on his published fiction but his denial of the link between smoking and cancer was pernicious. His espousal of the beliefs of the John Birch Society was egregious…a grant had to be withdrawn and several researchers dismissed.

A profile of Hans Eysenck based on his biography by Rod Buchanan and also his books with Carl Sargent provide insights into Eysenck’s intellectual values as a scientist and scholar. There were four books with Sargent, all with Eysenck as first author:

  1. Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal – Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 01/01/1982 (1982)
  2. Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal – (2nd Ed.) – Prion Books Ltd (1993)
  3. Know Your Own Psi-Q – John Wiley (1983)
  4. Are You Psychic? –  Prion Books Ltd (1996).

The collaboration between the two authors began in the early 1980s in Sargent’s heyday at Cambridge and continued until 1996.

A Distorted Account of Parapsychology

These four books present a distorted and strongly biased view that psychic powers are scientifically proven.  The evidence suggests exactly the opposite (Marks, 2020).

Eysenck’s and Sargent’s ‘ naivety and credulity are everywhere apparent. They present a one-sided view of the scientific evidence on psi and affect the naive stance that fraud and trickery do not need to be considered. David Nias and Geoffrey Dean (1986) summarised their criticisms of the Eysenck/Sargent books thus: “the failure of Eysenck and Sargent’s books to cover trickery and credulity is a serious deficiency” (p.368).

In my opinion, these books are among the most distorted and misleading accounts of parapsychological phenomena ever published by academic psychologists. The four books are a total disgrace and how Eysenck had the gall to put his name to them – perhaps only to build his reputation as the fearless contrarian – is beyond imagination.

In addition to the terrible scholarship, there is convincing evidence of scientific fraud by Sargent. How much Hans Eysenck knew about this, we will never know exactly because Eysenck requested that his papers be destroyed after his death. However, Blackmore’s report on Sargent’s fraud became public knowledge several years into the collaboration and years before the third and fourth books with Eysenck were published.

If Sargent had kept his trickery hidden from Eysenck then Eysenck could have been an innocent party.  In a partnership built over 14+ years, surely there would have been a conversation that included a question of the kind, ‘Oh, I hear you left Cambridge, why was that?”  If, as seems likely, Sargent ‘fessed up’ by admitting the occurrence of some kind of experimental ‘error’, then Eysenck could have been party to covering up Sargent’s deceit. Did Eysenck imagine nobody would notice? or perhaps he simply did not care. After all, that great Cambridge genius, Isaac Newton, had done the same kind of thing, and Eysenck saw no problem with a bit of data fudging. According to Eysenck, a ‘genius’ does whatever is necessary to prove their theories, as he had stated in one of his many pot-boilers.

Escaping Early Disaster

1978: Carl Sargent starts playing Dungeons & Dragons and submits an article to Imagine magazine.

1979: The University of Cambridge awards Sargent a PhD, that he claims was the first awarded to a parapsychologist by this university.

1979: The Society for Psychical Research provides a grant to Susan Blackmore (SB) enabling her to visit Sargent’s lab at Cambridge in November.  The original plan was to visit for a month. However, SB was only able to stay eight days from November 22-30 1979.  Blackmore describes her visit to Sargent’s lab as follows:

“[Sargent’s Ganzfeld] research was providing dramatically positive results for ESP in the GF and mine was not, so the idea was for me to learn from his methods in the hope of achieving similarly good results …. After watching several trials and studying the procedures carefully, I concluded that CS’s experimental protocols were so well designed that the spectacular results I saw must either be evidence for ESP or for fraud. I then took various simple precautions and observed further trials during which it became clear that CS had deliberately violated his own protocols and in one trial had almost certainly cheated. I waited several years for him to respond to my claims and eventually they were published along with his denial. (Harley & Matthews, 1987; Sargent, 1987).”

Sargent’s Career Temporarily Blossoms with Eysenck

In this period, Sargent developed his career in parapsychology at Cambridge with Blackmore’s ‘cheating’  report brushed under the carpet.

1980: Sargent writes a monograph, Exploring Psi in the Ganzfeld. Parapsychological Monographs No 17.

Sargent, C. L., Harley, T. A., Lane, J. and Radcliffe, K. publish: ‘Ganzfeld psi optimization in relation to session duration’, Research in Parapsychology 1980, 82-84.

1981: Sargent and Matthews publish ‘Ganzfeld GESP performance in variable duration testing’. Journal of Parapsychology 1981, 159-160

1982: Eysenck and Sargent (1982) publish their first book together, Explaining the unexplained: mysteries of the paranormal. Weidenfeld and Nicolson; First Edition.

1983: Eysenck and Sargent publish their second book, Know Your Own PSI-Q.

Then the Inevitable Downfall

1984: The Parapsychological Association Council asked Martin Johnson to head a committee to investigate SB’s accusation of fraud by Sargent. My book, Psychology and the Paranormal, describes what happened next;

The Parapsychological Association (PA) invited CS to provide an account of the ‘errors’ that SB had reported, but he declined to offer any explanation. The PA President, Stanley Krippner, wrote to CS at four different addresses, but still received no reply. The PA’s ‘Sargent Case Report’ dated 10 December 1986 found that, in spite of strong reservations about CS’s randomisation technique, there was insufficient evidence that CS had used unethical procedures.

CS was ‘reproved’ for failing to respond to the PA’s request for information. However, CS had allowed his PA membership to lapse through non-payment of dues, but he was informed that, should he wish to renew his membership, his application would be considered with ‘extreme prejudice’, I.e. CS would I likely be re-admitted as a member.

The final report of this committee reprimanded Sargent for failing to respond to their request for information within a reasonable time.

1985: Sargent leaves Cambridge University and the parapsychology field [stated in the 2nd edition of Explaining the unexplained: mysteries of the paranormal, 1993].

At some point, Sargent moves into full-time authoring of game-books.

1987: Susan Blackmore’s 1979 report is finally published: ‘A Report of a Visit to Carl Sargent’s Laboratory’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 186-198.

1993: Undeterred by the report of cheating, Eysenck and Sargent publish their third book, Explaining the unexplained: mysteries of the paranormal. (2nd ed.)

1996:  Eysenck and Sargent publish their fourth book, Are You Psychic?: Tests & Games to Measure Your Powers (1996), a revised version of ‘Know your own Psi-Q’.

The Hidden Truth

Two editions of the book by H. J. Eysenck and Sargent (1982, 1993) raise questions about how much Eysenck knew of the fraud accusations against Sargent in Blackmore’s SPR report of 1979. In the 1982 edition of the first book, the procedural problems with Sargent’s GF research are not even mentioned. In the 1993 edition, the authors refer to ‘spirited exchanges on GF research’ between Blackmore, and Sargent and Harley (p. 189).

However, the Ganzfeld evidence of psi is described by them as ‘very, very powerful indeed’. They do not mention the accusations of fraud, CS’s departure from Cambridge University, and his repeated non-cooperation with the Parapsychology Association enquiry.

I obtained an update from Susan Blackmore on her current thinking about her 30-year-old allegation of fraud by CS and on psi research more generally, which I reproduce below. Here are Susan Blackmore’s answers to a few specific questions:

Do you think, in the light of everything that has come to light, CS committed fraud at Cambridge? (Ideally, a yes or a no).

Yes, at least on one specific trial.

Do you think CS knowingly deceived anybody (including possibly himself) or was he simply a victim of confirmation bias/subjective validation?

The former.

Is there anything else you would like to say about research on psi?

In the light of my decades of research on psi, and especially because of my experiences with the GF, I now believe that the possibility of psi existing is vanishingly small, though not zero. I am glad other people continue to study the subject because it would be so important to science if psi did exist. But for myself, I think doing any further psi research would be a complete waste of time. I would not expect to find any phenomena to study, let alone any that could lead us to an explanatory theory. I may yet be proved wrong of course. (Blackmore, personal communication, 1 August 2019)

Summary of facts and conclusions

  1. A consistent pattern of data manipulation in Hans Eysenck’s and at least two collaborators’ research practice is evident over several decades. Yet only recently have journals found it necessary to retract 14 of Hans Eysenck’s papers and to publish 71 expressions of concern. One paper of concern was published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1946. 
  2. A reliable source accused Eysenck of cheating with his data analyses in the 1960s and other colleagues and PhD students publicly critiqued Eysenck’s laboratory methods.
  3. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, Eysenck formed a long-term collaboration with a Cambridge academic Carl Sargent in spite of the fact that Carl Sargent had been accused of fraud in 1979.  Eysenck and Sargent’s joint publications, with Eysenck as senior author, occurred over the period 1982-1993.
  4. In 1992 and 1993, Anthony Pelosi, Louis Appleby and others raised serious questions about publications by Eysenck with R Grossarth-Maticek (Pelosi, AJ, Appleby, L (1992Psychological influences on cancer and ischaemic heart disease. British Medical Journal 304: 12951298.Pelosi, AJ, Appleby, L (1993Personality and fatal diseases. British Medical Journal 306: 16661667.) The authorities failed to respond.
  5.  Anthony Pelosi (2019) again voices his concerns. This author’s editorial appealing to Kings College London to open an enquiry finally led to concrete action. 25 publications by H J Eysenck and R Grossarth-Maticek have been deemed by KCL to be unsafe.
  6.  As suspicions strengthened over a 75-year period from the mid-1940s, torpor and complacency in the academic system enabled research malpractice to continue, not only Eysenck’s and Sargent’s, but across the board.
  7.  The currently available systems for regulating research integrity and malpractice are an abject failure. A totally new approach is required. An independent National Research Integrity Ombudsperson needs to be established to significantly improve the governance of academic research.

New Book

Featured

From the Preface

[An ESP experiment] “immediately appeals to his [or her] unconscious readiness to witness a miracle, and to the hope, latent in all [people], that such a thing may yet be possible. Primitive superstition lies just below the surface of even the most tough-minded individuals, and it is precisely those who most fight…” 

C.G. Jung, 1952.

It is of natural science to investigate nature, impartially and without prejudice.

J.R. Smythies, 1967.

Anomaly

  • something that defies explanation – adds spice. Beyond spice, anomaly offers hope, the hope that something – whatever it may be – exists beyond the everyday. We humans live in hope eternally. But what exactly is an ‘anomaly’? I do not mean the kind of oddness or peculiarity in human behaviour that is everywhere to be seen. I am referring to things that really should not be so, the weird, the spooky, the face in the mirror that isn’t you. Anomalistic experiences are curious, strange, ‘funny peculiar’.  As we engage with the experience itself, we freely ruminate and craving to understand, we dig to discover something new. The goal here is to do precisely that, to dig below the surface of anomalistic experience, to take a close look at the psychology of the paranormal, to put psi ‘under the microscope’.  One should not be surprised if all is not as it seems and we can expect surprises aplenty here.

I approached the writing of this book with anticipation

wondering where the adventure might lead. I hoped it would lead towards new insights, explanatory theory and nuggets of new knowledge.

In the end, I reached an altogether unexpected conclusion…

How, you may well ask, can that be?  Surely, an ‘expert’ about psychology and the paranormal should already have reached an opinion one way or the other, a strong point of view?

Not so.

I genuinely have no idea where this new investigation will lead.I write as a zetetic.[1] I have a map and a set of place names[2],  but what exists at each place is uncertain. I last visited this field 20 years ago. Now, with ‘new eyes’ and new evidence, one’s understanding could be significantly different compared to 20 years ago.  Unlike previous visits, I am giving the psi hypothesis an initial probability of being a real, authentic and valid experience of 50%.

Please take a minute to consider your own current degree of belief in ESP.  Indicate your current belief with an arrow on the Belief Barometer below.[3]

My objective

is to cut a path through the vast, tangled jungle of publications with a machete that is sharp and decisive. With each new claim, one must reads, reflect, question, reflect some more, and ultimately decide at one particular moment the degree of plausibility that each specific claim possesses. Belief Barometers will be used to mark your and my degree of belief for each individual claim. The amount of variation in one’s degree of belief indicates a sensitivity to evidence.  If somebody simply says ‘0%’’ or ‘100%’ to absolutely everything, that surely indicates intransigence and intolerance of ambiguity.

One cannot profess definite explanations in advance because that would be blinkered. If we already KNEW the answers, we would cease to investigate, I would not be writing, and you would not be reading. The truth would already be out and we would be picking at the flesh of dead learning like vultures at a dead elephant.

No true zetetic starts from a fixed position. She/he suspends judgement while seeking and exploring with an open mind. In any science, all ideas are provisional, pending further investigation. Those who assert a fixed point of view before looking at the evidence break the ‘Golden Rule of Science’, which is to let conclusions follow the evidence.

Anomalistic psychology

includes the entire spectrum of conscious experience in all of its glorious splendour. By examining in-depth the evidence both pro and con any particular claim, one gains an entitlement to offer conclusions. Even then, the conclusions are tentative, pending further investigation by independent investigators. I am also minded to recall Heraclitus’ well-known dictum, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.”  Having stepped into the paranormal river on a few occasions, it was each time a different river.

It is impossible here to include everything in Anomalistic Psychology. The selected exemplify phenomena that have received significant attention from researchers over the last 50 years.  Fun though they may be: Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, Clever Hans, mediums, Ouija boards, and stage mentalists didn’t make the cut. See them in the ‘red tops’ and on YouTube.

Returning to the world of psi

after a 20-year respite, I am curious to see what has changed. Anomalistic Psychology is now the battle-ground of psi (Luke, 2011) and there is a growing stockpile of sophisticated methods and findings that can be considered to be supportive of paranormal interpretation.

My return to the field is not without some amount of trepidation, for now I risk being the target for pot-shots from both sides!

However, a strongly partisan view is unhelpful to making any progress in this, or any other part, of science.  Progress requires a dialogue between advocates of differing positions. I wish to put down a marker that says: “Peace. Nobody won. Stop fighting.” That’s not to say there won’t be criticism; there must be, otherwise there can never be progress.

To establish a dialogue, I invited seven *stars* of the field to respond to my criticisms and questions: Daryl Bem, Susan Blackmore, Stanley Krippner, Dean Radin, Hal Puthoff, Rupert Sheldrake, and Adrian Parker. Warm thanks to one and all.

Evidence, critique, new theories

In this book, I present evidence, critique, and new theories. Whenever possible, I use verbatim quotations of advocates concerning specific claims. Nobody can ever legitimately say that a claim has been ‘disproved’; if the truth of a claim is undecided, it is only possible to say that it is neither confirmed nor disconfirmed.

Whatever one thinks, the world is always independent of how we might wish it to be. There is nothing wrong about believing in psi if one chooses to, and scientists have no place disparaging such beliefs. Belief in the paranormal is normal.

Sociologist Andrew Greeley (1991) put it this way:

“The paranormal is normal. Psychic and mystic experiences are frequent even in modern urban industrial society. The majority of the population has had some such experience, a substantial minority has had more than just an occasional experience, and a respectable proportion of the population has such experiences frequently. Any phenomenon with incidence as widespread as the paranormal deserves more careful and intensive research than it has received up to now….People who have paranormal experiences, even frequent such experiences, are not kooks. They are not sick, they are not deviants, they are not social misfits, they are not schizophrenics. In fact, they may be more emotionally healthy than those who do not have such experiences.” (Greeley 1975: 7)

Scientists should be agnostic about the ontological status of paranormal experience and examine the circumstances that constrain or facilitate exceptional experiences.  In approaching each claim, I maintain a zetetic viewpoint, neither believing nor disbelieving,  attending to the evidence. Only after one has completed a thorough survey of evidence is one entitled to an informed opinion. A zetetic must not be naïve, however.

Master zetetic, Marcello Truzzi (1987):

Marcellotruzzi

“The ground rules of science are conservative, and in so far as these place the burden of proof on the claimants and require stronger evidence the more extraordinary the claim, they are not neutral. But, we also need to remember, evidence always varies by degree, and inadequate evidence requires a tolerant reply which requests better evidence, not a dogmatic denial that behaves as though inadequate evidence were no evidence” (p. 73).

Astronomer, Carl Sagan (1995) also offers wise advice:

260px-Carl_Sagan_Planetary_Society

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones.” (Sagan, 1995, p 25).

The first 20 years of the 21st century

brought many astonishing scientific discoveries: the first draft of the Human Genome, graphene, grid cells in the brain, the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cells, the Higgs boson, liquid water on Mars and gravitational waves. Not bad going in such a short time!  During this same period, Anomalistic Psychology has grown at an enormous pace with increased numbers of investigators and publications (Figure P2).  Disappointingly, however, new discoveries or theories are few and far between. If there has been one discovery, it might be stated thus: The science of anomalistic experience is more complex and obscure then most psychologists ever imagined. When we are at the beginning of new venture like this, we must not be deterred by having no real answer to two of the hardest questions in science: What is consciousness and what is it for? [5]

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One of the greatest scientific minds of the last century, Stephen Hawking, stated:

Stephen_Hawking.StarChild

“Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations” (Sample, 2011).

It has also been said that advances in science come not from empiricism but from new theories.

Parapsychology, like its ‘big sister’ Psychology, has always been heavily empirical and short on theory. The rapid growth is indexed by multitudes of empirical studies in the absence of notable theoretical developments.

By becoming more theory-driven, the field of ‘Psychology + Parapsychology’ as an integrated whole seems likely to make faster progress.

It seems counterproductive to treat Parapsychology and Psychology as separate fields.

Bringing the ‘Para’ part back into mainstream Psychology helps to integrate the discipline. This book takes a step in that direction. Parapsychology and Psychology contain myriads of variables, A,B,C…N…X,Y,Z.  An established strategy for developing new research in Psychology and Parapsychology is for the investigator to identity ‘gaps’ in the field and to set about filling those gaps with correlational and experimental studies with almost every possible permutation and combination of variables.  The gap filling approach is one strategy for keeping productivity high but, often, it is at the expense of developing new theories. As already noted, the academic world is based on quantitative measures of performance[6] and the number of publications a researcher can claim matters. This drive towards publications leads to what I call ‘Polyfilla Science’.

Polyfilla Science

For every ‘hole’ investigators can fill, they are almost guaranteed a peer-reviewed publication. ‘Polyfilla Science’ exists on an industrial scale, keeping hundreds of thousands of scientists busily occupied in hot competition. The ‘winners’ of the Polyfilla competition are the ones who tick the highest number of boxes and harvest the most citations.[7]

‘Polyfilla Science’ can be represented as a multidimensional matrix of cells where the task of science is viewed as filling every last cell in the matrix (Figure P3).  This method of doing science is more akin to a fairground shooting gallery than to theory-driven science.  In the absence of theory, many researchers use a Polyfilla ‘shotgun’ by testing a dozen or more “hypotheses” in one shot. Popular though it is, ‘Polyfilla Science’ isn’t the only game in town, and a theory-driven approach is also available.  Theory is used to identify the principles behind questions that need answering in a process of confirmation and disconfirmation of predictions. When one considers the fact that there are one hundred thousand psychology majors in the US alone, all needing a research project, it is no wonder the Polyfilla approach is so popular.[8]

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The book is geared towards the needs of teachers, researchers and students interested in Anomalistic Experience, Parapsychology and Consciousness Studies.

In comparison to the scientific discoveries in other fields, Psychology or Parapsychology have made no world-changing discoveries in the last 50 years. By this, I mean discoveries that are worth telling your grandchildren. In my opinion, the lack of significant theoretical developments, and the Polyfilla Approach, are two of the main reasons for this lack of progress.  All this needs to change.

Avoiding the drunkard’s search

One must beware – and avoid – the drunkard’s search principle – searching only where it is easiest to look. You probably already know the parable:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his wallet and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost it here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost it in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.

lost_in_the_dark

We must look wherever psi could be found, not only where it is easiest to look.

The search for psi is a complex, winding trail of traps and pitfalls. When we observe evidence, we must not,  a priori, rule it out as subjective validation or confirmation bias. An openness to being wrong may cause uncomfortable feelings, but knowledge and truth are never givens. When we are lucky enough to discover something new, this is hard-won treasure.

I present here new theories in the spirit of open inquiry. There’s a saying that ‘today’s theories make tomorrow’s fish-n-chip paper’. Possibly, probably, these theories are wrong.  So be it. If possible, falsify my theories, throw them out, and develop better ones. By testing and falsifying existing theories, newer, better theories can be obtained and so on indefinitely. As I share thoughts and conclusions, the reader will be able to contest and challenge  and contrary evidence.

We’ve walked on the Moon and are heading to Mars, but we still don’t yet know the function of consciousness. One of the starting points must be to separate fact from fiction in anomalistic psychology.

Notes

[1] Zetetic from the Greek zçtçtikos, from zçteô [ζητέω (zéteó) — to seek] “to seek to proceed by inquiry”.

[2] [2] Tópos, the Greek name for “place” (τόπος); ‘topic’ in English.

[3] Belief Barometers appear throughout this book.

[4] The majority of so-called ‘skeptics’ are disbelievers and/or deniers who have adopted the label ‘skeptic’ for its more temperate connotations. The late Marcello Truzzi was one of two co-founding chairman of the leading US skeptical organisation CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Truzzi became disillusioned with the organization, saying they “tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion… Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them.” Using the title of ‘skeptic’, Truzzi claimed that this association of debunkers could claim an authority to which they were not entitled: “critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves ‘skeptics’ are actually pseudo-skeptics and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label.” Genuine or ‘classical’ skepticism is the zetetic view to suspend judgement and enter into a genuine inquiry that assumes any claim requires justification. Maintaining a zetetic position of open inquiry requires a steady hand and a critical mind. There is no room for naivety but a touch of Socratic irony may at times be helpful. A protracted correspondence between Martin Gardner and Marcello Truzzi , indicating their two contrasting viewpoints, has been published by Richards (2017).

[5] Nagel (2013) and Strawson (2006), among others, argue for the ancient philosophy of pan-psychism, in which all physical objects from atoms to the cosmos all have conscious experience.  Elsewhere, I have described Consciousness  as “a direct emergent property of cerebral activity” (Marks, 2019)..

[6] Numbers of publications, citations, grant monies, prizes, promotions and awards.

[7] One of the world’s most published and ambitious ‘Polyfilla’ psychologists told me a self-effacing story about the occasion he went for an interview at the University of Oxford. A member of the panel asked: “Dr X, you have a huge number of publications. But what does it all mean?” He didn’t know the answer and got rejected for the post.

[8] Polycell Multi-Purpose Polyfilla Ready Mixed, 1 Kg, i#1 best seller on Amazon.co.uk, 16 May 2019.

[9] The history of the field is adequately reviewed by others e.g. John Beloff (1993) or Caroline Watt (2017).

Psychology and the Paranormal

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

So the well-worn saying goes.

Are there? If so, what are they? And how does one obtain solid evidence? These questions have taxed human beings for millennia.

A zetetic approach

I approach psychology and the paranormal  in a spirit of enquiry, wondering where it may lead. I hope it might lead to new knowledge and theory.  I have no fixed ideas on the subject. My previous skepticism has relaxed somewhat.

How can that be?  Surely, a so-called ‘expert’ must already have an opinion one way or the other? Wrong!

The truth is that I started a new inquiry having no fixed ideas about which direction the evidence will lead. In fact, that inquiry led me into a most unexpected direction – my critique of laboratory ESP research became stronger as did my conviction that spontaneous ESP was worthy of serious consideration.   

One thing I know – it is necessary to step beyond old assumptions, seek alternative ways of discovering new knowledge.

If we already KNEW the answer, the TRUTH, why would we bother to read, write or even THINK for that matter, because the truth must already be determined, already written by somebody, somewhere and all that would be left would be to pick up established learning.

Believers vs. Disbelievers

It is apparent to any observer that the paranormal field is divided between two armies of believers (so-called ‘sheep’) and skeptics (so-called ‘goats’, who are actually dis-believers) battling it out with no holds barred.

The stakes are high. The fight is not about empirical studies, observations and anecdotes.  The very nature of science, life and reality are being contested.

There are ‘dead bodies’ and ‘unexploded land mines’ all over the place and one would be lucky to leave the field in one piece. One can surmise that there can only be losers, never winners, in this futile type of war. In the end every soldier in the affray is a loser. It’s an intellectual version of World War I with permanent trenches and barbed wire fences that has been waging for over a century.

I know this because I have been there on the battle field.  I entered the field and did several tours of duty. Then, battle-weary with the affray, I walked away.

Recently I returned to see if anything has changed.

As I stuck my head over the trench top waving a white flag of peace, a few warning shots were fired. The same old battle is raging but with the difference that many new foot soldiers have been recruited and there have been scores of  new studies over the last 20 years. These studies have been weaponised to provide increased power, precision and impact.

The army of non-believers now possesses a stockpile of findings consistent with scientific explanations of the paranormal. The believer army, meanwhile, has accrued an equally large stockpile supportive of paranormal interpretations.

White Flag of Neutrality

Offering the white flag of peace and neutrality causes no small amount of trepidation. One risks being a target for both sides. In the battle of the paranormal, nobody is permitted to be neutral?  It’s a ‘do or die’ scenario like no other in science.

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The blog posts here are written from a dispassionate point of view. My purpose is to create a balanced and even-handed review based on the best contemporary evidence on paranormal claims in science and medicine.

I present here the evidence, both pro and con, explain the relevant psychological processes, present scientific arguments, and eventually produce a final balance sheet.

Reality or Illusion?

I have provided accounts of five striking coincidences over my lifetime. The five events individually have odds in the range 10-9  to 10-18.  What are the odds that all five coincidences could happen to one individual?

To determine the probability of five independent events, A, B, C, D and E, all occurring, we need to multiply the probabilities of the individual events:

P(anB and C and D and E) = P(A)×P(B) x P(C)×P(D) x P(E) 

The five coincidences, which were independent of each another, are as follows:

A) The Chiswick Coincidence: P=10-18 = one chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000  = one in one quintillion (a million, million, million)

B) Coincidence or Luck?: P = 10-10  = one chance in ten billion.

C) Citizen 63 – Marion Knight: P= 4.5 x 10-10  = 4.5 chances in ten billion

D) The Flying Horseshoe:  P = 1.3 x 10-12 = 1.3 chances in a million, million

E) Under the Wallpaper:   P = 5.08 x 10-9 = 5 chances in a billion

The combined probability of the five events is :

P =   10-18 x 10-10 x 4.5 x 10-10 x 1.3 x 10-12  x 5.08 x 10-9

P = 3 x 10-58 

This is one of the smallest probabilities imaginable. 

Yet, according to the accepted scientific theory, coincidences are chance events, and so there is nothing extraordinary here. 

One person’s coincidence another person’s yawn?

I recently came across the late Michael Thalbourne‘s  ‘A BRIEF TREATISE ON COINCIDENCE’.  Fascinating!

Especially notable in Michael’s account is the huge  gap that exists between the impact of a coincidence on the experiencer and an outsider perspective on the very same event.

This fact is revealed in his own experiences of sharing coincidences and witnessing other people’s reactions. This observation has been confirmed in laboratory research suggesting that one person’s amazing coincidence can bring on a yawn.

Michael Thalbourne

Dr Michael Thalbourne (MT)  was born in Adelaide, South Australia, on March 24th 1955 and passed away on the 4th of May 2010. He was educated at the University of Adelaide and the University of Edinburgh. From 1980 until 1987 Thalbourne was employed at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University in St Louis Missouri, USA.  In 1992 he returned to his hometown of Adelaide where he served as the President of the Australian Institute for Parapsychological Research and was the editor of the Australian Journal of Parapsychology.

Survey of Beliefs about Coincidences

MT used a 10-item survey of attitudes towards, and experience of, coincidence with  24 people.  To  the statement “I have experienced truly astounding coincidences”, 25% reported “often”, 63% “now and again”, and 13% reported “rarely”; nobody reported “never”.

Another statement was:  “I experience many small coincidences which would probably not impress other people but which make life interesting for me”. 29% responded “strongly agree”, 58% said “agree”, while 8% were uncertain and 4% said “disagree”.

A third statement was “It takes a certain vigilance of mind to see subtle coincidences.” Sixty-seven percent agreed or strongly agreed, 17% were uncertain, and the same percentage said “disagree”. Thus, the majority agreed with the statement.

The causation of coincidences was included in the survey. MT asked: “Coincidences may be expected to occur from time to time just by chance or pure luck, and they never signify anything important or meaningful.”  MT reports that no one said “strongly agree”,  33% said “agree”, 21% were uncertain, while 29% disagreed and 17% strongly disagreed.

Another statement was “People who report many coincidences must be reading meaning into events which are just random.” Eight percent strongly agreed, 25% agreed, 38% were uncertain, 21% disagreed, and 8% strongly disagreed.

What is quite interesting is the strong link between having a positive attitudes towards coincidences and being much more likely to believe in experiences of the paranormal (r = .72, p < .001).

Egocentricity – the ‘yawn’ factor

One problem in considering coincidences is the  “egocentricity” bias (Falk, 1989).  People consider their own coincidences to be surprising and worthy of note, but other people hearing those same coincidences tend to be dismissive of them, thinking they occurred purely by chance.

MT confesses that, following the Falk study, he became more reluctant to share his own personal coincidences with other people. As a person who recently shared a coincidence in print myself, I can well understand MT’s reaction.  But the large number of coincidences that he experienced seemed too great to be a chance effect, so he thought he’d carry on sharing them. I have also felt this way at times, and there is no fool-proof way of eliminating the paranormal hypothesis, as far as I am aware.

MT gives three detailed examples of what he took to be potentially ‘paranormal’ coincidences. I quote these here as part of a developing portfolio of published cases.

MT Case 1

Thursday April 21st, 2005…

MT states: “I was deeply immersed in Liddell and Scott’s (1889) An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. In particular I was studying the preposition ΠΡΟ (i.e., PRO) to see whether it could mean “on behalf of”. I scoured the two-thirds of a column devoted to this preposition, but could not find the meaning I wanted. I had to give up at that point, because at 6:30 I was to go out to a fast food restaurant with a friend, for dinner.

Less than half an hour later, when we were at the restaurant, there passed by our table a young lad in soccer gear: on his shirt were the words, in Greek, ΑΣΠΙΣ ΠΡΟΝΟΙΑ (ASPIS PRONOIA). I for my part was astonished that he should be wearing, in Greek, even though as part of a longer word, the preposition ΠΡΟ. I knew that ΠΡΟΝΟΙΑ was a compound word made up of that preposition ΠΡΟ plus ΝΟΙΑ (from NOEEIN, to perceive), meaning something like “forethought”. (However, I was unfamiliar with the word ΑΣΠΙΣ, and I asked the boy what it meant, but he didn’t know. When I got home, I looked it up and discovered that it meant “a body of soldiers”. So the soccer shirt meant something like “a body of soldiers with forethought.”)

It seemed to me that the coincidence of having two quite unrelated instances of the Greek word ΠΡΟ within half an hour of each other was highly unlikely to occur by chance.

I’d never seen the boy before, and have never seen him since, nor have I seen this Greek phrase (or any other Greek words) on another soccer shirt. However, those around me with whom I shared the coincidence dismissed it as chance (as perhaps the reader will too!) But the egocentric bias is strong for the experient of a coincidence as well as for the people to whom it is told. Thus, I continue to regard the coincidence (and many that I’ve experienced since) as being more than chance.”

MT Case 2

“Saturday, December 11th, 2004, my family and I were gathered at the flat of my youngest brother to celebrate his 42nd birthday. Two coincidences occurred to me that day. First of all, my brother possesses a CD of the composer Monteverdi which he himself never plays but which he good-heartedly loans to me now and again. I spoke aloud the name of the composer, Monteverdi. I was misheard, and was asked “Verdi”? I said, “No. Claudio Monteverdi.” But the question got me thinking, “What is Verdi’s first name? Is it Giuseppe?”

I resolved to check my Webster’s Biographical Dictionary when I got home. Yes, p. 1515reveals that his name was indeed Giuseppe. The coincidence occurred a little later when I was watching the evening news, and a man was interviewed whose first name was given at the bottom of the screen as Giueseppe. (I in fact wondered if the station had spelt the name Giuseppe incorrectly.)”

MT Case 3

“The …coincidence involved my father telling a joke about George W. Bush wanting to get into Heaven to talk with Moses. Bush tried several times, but on each occasion Moses told St. Peter to send him away. Finally, Moses said “The last time I talked with abush I ended up wandering in the wilderness for 40 years!” That evening, just after 8:30, I was watching a commercial station on which there was a movie called For Richer or Poorer with Tim Allen in it as an entrepreneur engaged in setting up theme parks. The character revealed his latest theme park inspiration, which he called “Holy Land”, and pointed out a bush “which bursts into flame every hour”. I know for a fact that my father was unacquainted with the movie and so he had no idea that the theme of the burning bush was to arise later that evening. It is interesting to me that when I told my father about what I’d seen and heard on TV that very night, sceptic that he was, his reaction was one of dogged silence, and certainly not the cry “How amazing!”, as he battled his cognitive dissonance. If he said nothing about the coincidence it would go away.”

MT’s conclusion

MT  dismisses skeptical explanations based on chance “as a bottomless pit, able to swallow up each and every coincidence that does not already have a normal explanation.”

On the other hand, MT wisely states that “we must be ever cautious about the coincidences that we do evaluate as paranormal.”

The fact is, however, there is no fool-proof method to say one way or the other. It comes down to one’s own subjective evaluation.

What do you think?  Is pure chance the only credible explanation, or  are there hidden causes, or is something paranormal going on?

Psychology and the Paranormal

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Thanks for the visit!

I approach this blog site with a sense of anticipation, wondering where it may lead…

I hope it might lead towards light, new treasure, in the form of new knowledge and theory.  

How can that be, you might well ask ?  Surely, a so-called ‘expert’ must already have an opinion one way or the other about the paranormal? Wrong!

The truth is that I have no fixed ideas about which direction the evidence will lead. 

One thing I do know – it is necessary to step beyond old assumptions, seek new objects of knowledge. 

If we already KNOW the answer, the TRUTH, why would we bother to read, write or even THINK for that matter, because the truth must already be determined, already out there, written by somebody, somewhere and all that would be left to do would be to pick up dead learning.

Believers vs. Disbelievers

It is quickly apparent to any observer that the paranormal field is heavily divided between two armies of believers (so-called ‘sheep’) and skeptics (so-called ‘goats’ who are actually dis-believers) battling it out with no holds barred.

The stakes are high. The fight is not about empirical studies, observations and anecdotes.  The very nature of science, life and reality are being contested.  

There are ‘dead bodies’ and ‘unexploded land mines’ all over the place and one would be lucky to leave the field in one piece. One can surmise that there can only be losers, never winners, in this futile type of war. In the end every soldier in the affray is a loser. It’s an intellectual version of World War I with permanent trenches and barbed wire fences that has been waging for over a century.  

I know this because I have been there on the battle field.  I entered the field and did several tours of duty. Then, battle-weary with the affray, I walked away.

Recently I returned to see if anything has changed.

As I stuck my head over the trench top waving a white flag of peace, a few warning shots were fired. The same old battle is raging but with the difference that many new foot soldiers have been recruited and there have been scores of  new studies over the last 20 years. These studies have been weaponised to provide increased power, precision and impact.

The army of non-believers now possesses a stockpile of findings consistent with scientific explanations of the paranormal. The believer army, meanwhile, has accrued an equally large stockpile supportive of paranormal interpretations.  

White Flag of Neutrality

Offering the white flag of peace and neutrality causes no small amount of trepidation.  Am I now to be a target for both sides – because, in the battle of the paranormal, nobody is permitted to be neutral?  It’s a ‘do or die’ scenario like no other in science.

download.jpg

The blog posts here are written from a dispassionate point of view. If I am passionate about anything, it is about the importance of neutrality. My purpose is to create a balanced and even-handed review based on the best contemporary evidence on paranormal claims in science and medicine.

I present here the evidence, both pro and con, explain the relevant psychological processes, present scientific arguments, and produce a final balance sheet at the end.

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Out soon:

“Psychology and the Paranormal

Exploring Anomalous Experience”


June 2020 | 400 pages | SAGE Publications Ltd