Investigating the Paranormal: Part II

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Parascience has so far failed to produce a single repeatable finding and, until it does, will continue to be viewed as an incoherent collection of belief systems steeped in fantasy, illusion and error.

Originally appeared in Nature Vol. 320, 13 March 1986, pp. 119-124. 
The first part of this article is here.

Psychological Factors

Many factors of a psychological nature foster paranormal beliefs and make them a common feature of human thinking and behaviour. Our cultural traditions are steeped in religion and magic, many features of which lend themselves to belief in supernatural agencies. Scientific thinking is a recent departure in human history and scientific ideas have had little time to affect the magical thinking from which science itself evolved.

Sociologist D. O’Keefe argues that paranormal research has evolved from within the traditions of magic which themselves evolved from religion51. The current occult revival is seen as a reaction to the excessive rationalism which many perceive in science. O’Keefe argues that religion created the ‘cloud-cuckoo land’ in which magic, and thence the paranormal, can flourish. Yet scientists are often ill-prepared to provide the necessary counterbalancing rational account of the paranormal. Against this background of magi co-religious entrenchment, there are some extra psychological processes that make paranormal beliefs an inevitable characteristic of human consciousness and thinking.

Mental Imagery

A mental image is a quasi-perceptual experience in the absence of an objective stimulus. There are huge individual differences in the reported vividness and controllability of images. In Western cultures 1-5% of the population appears regularly to experience fantasies which seem as real as actual events even though they are entirely fictional52. Such individuals often experience vivid, uncontrollable ‘eidetic’ images of almost hallucinatory quality53, are highly suggestible and can be easily hypnotized52. They report more putatively paranormal experiences, such as telepathy, precognition, ghosts and out-of-the-body experiences. While mental imagery has a large number of practical uses in thinking, memory and problem solving, it can also occur in altered states of consciousness in which the normal level of lucidity is no longer present53.

Research conducted a century ago by E. Gurney and F. W. H. Myers described 27 cases of ‘spirit communication’ from deceased persons54. Eighteen of the apparitions occurred in sleep-related states normally associated with highly vivid and autonomous images which are easily mistaken for reality. The remaining cases occurred in subjects who were fully awake and these could easily have been structural eidetic images stimulated by thought-processes of the daydreaming kind53. H. Sidgwick noted that 9.9% of 17,000 subjects had experienced at least one vivid visual, auditory or tactile image of a living being or object while completely awake55. The appearance of ghosts is shaped by cultural expectancies and beliefs about what a ghost should look like56. Mental images can be easily misinterpreted in terms of pre-existing beliefs57.

Expectancy

Otherwise known as mental set, expectancy provides the framework within which we organize new experience. Human cognition is not a simple copying process but entails a constructive striving or ‘effort after meaning’. What we experience is often more a confirmation of belief than a matter of plain fact. Beliefs are not automatically updated by the best evidence available, but have an active life of their own and fight tenaciously for their own survival. They tell us what to read, what to listen to, who to trust and how to rationalize contrary information4,5,57.

Selective exposure protects beliefs from more dramatic forms of contradiction. When the mentalist U. Geller visited the city of Dunedin in New Zealand there were seven different opportunities to obtain information abut his alleged psychic abilities: four media interviews, two newspaper stories and one stage performance. Of 17 subjects who, before Geller’s visit, were already ‘believers’ 15 selected three or more of the available exposures. Of 20 ‘non-believers’, only 10 selected as many as three exposures (X2(1) = 6.13; P<0.02).

A further problem is that when we are exposed to relevant information, our opinion revisions are often less than optimal, and we act like conservative Bayesians58, with a confirmation bias59. In a recent ‘ESP’ demonstration to a class of 226 psychology students, presented as an exercise in observation, I performed five mentalists’s tricks consisting of: (I) correctly naming a colour written out of sight; (2) correctly transmitting a colour name to a volunteer who, like me, had not previously seen it; (3) helping a volunteer correctly to read messages sealed inside envelopes or to appear to transmit messages to me; (4) producing bent keys which I had not previously touched; and (5) moving or stopping the hands of a watch in a mysterious manner.

Although at no time did I claim to be psychic, 90% of the class stated that I had demonstrated psychic ability. When the results from subjects who had previously been classified as ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ were analysed separately, 79% of believers thought at least three of the five effects were psychic compared with only 43% of sceptics (P < 0.001).

Naturally, we often encounter information that is unexpected or ambiguous. In such instances, there is a second line of defence: the data can be selectively perceived or even misperceived so that they still appear to support our beliefs by ‘subjective validation’4. One illustration of this powerful cognitive defence in the context of ESP research is the strong conviction that one has successfully viewed a complex target site by ESP in a remote-viewing experiment even when one is completely wrong (Fig. 2).

There are many now-classic examples of subjective validation: the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle and Nostradamus60, the discovery of N-rays61, phlogiston, Vulcan, the canals on Mars, flying saucers, Freud’s interpretation of dreams, prejudice, faith-healing, the placebo effect, bone pointing and the ‘evil eye’. Beliefs of all kinds tend to be self-perpetuating.

Coincidences

Psi phenomena consist of an experience, image or thought matched by some other similar experience, image or thought. Collections of such coincidences have been published by A. Koestler62, L. Rhine,63 and others based on the assumption that odd-matches of events cannot occur purely by chance.

Probability theory shows that an event which is improbable over a short run can become highly probable over the long run. If five coins are tossed all at once on a single occasion the probability of obtaining five heads is 2 -5 or approximately 0.03. If the coin tossing is repeated 100 times the probability of five heads somewhere in the series is approximately 0.96.

The principle of the long run is easy to grasp in simple situations but much less visible in the more chaotic world of spontaneous human experience. Calculation shows how easily Koestler could obtain his 40-plus odd-match anecdotes. Assuming that in an ordinary day a person can recall 100 distinct events, there are 100Cor 4,950 pairs of events per day. Odd-matches can be remembered for years, perhaps 10 yr or 3,650 days. If Koestler knew 1,000 people, he could draw upon a total pool of 4,950 x 3,650 x 1,000, or more than 18 x 109 pairs of events. That Koestler obtained 40 striking odd-matches seems hardly surprising.

Koestler’s fallacy (see ref. 4) is certainly not unique to him, although he was one of a small group of analysts who wanted to make a scientific revolution out of it. The fallacy is widespread and several biases contribute to it. First, we notice and remember odd-matches. Second, we do not notice non-matches. This triggers the short-run illusion that makes the oddmatch seem improbable. Third, we are normally poor estimators of probabilities, especially for combinations of events.

Unseen Causes

Another class of psychic-looking experiences is generated by invisible chains of cause and effect which bias the probabilities away from chance levels. Failure to randomize target stimuli properly in ESP experiments is a good example of this. Thus, Tart reported a successful ESP experiment in which his subjects learned to score above chance in guessing which of 10 digits was displayed by an apparatus in another room following the presentation of feedback)4. The random number generator mistakenly avoided using the same digit twice in succession, a bias which is matched by the pervasive ‘gambler’s fallacy’. When Tart removed this bias, the ‘ESP’ also disappeared65.

Another unseen factor, used by illusionists, is the ‘population stereotype’. The performer ‘sends a message to the audience, saying “I am thinking of a number between 1 and 50, both digits are odd, and different“. Controlled experiments show that the most common response for the 1-50 problem is 37, which accounts for 30-35% of all responses, and the second most common response is 35 (20- 25%)4. If the performer always says he had been thinking of 35 and then changed his mind to 37, at least 50% of the audience will be thinking of the ‘correct’ number.

Human beings never behave randomly. Our experiences contain many culturally shared elements such that particular items are associated with particular verbal contexts. This causes associative networks to be set up and a tendency towards nonrandom, stereotypical responses even when there is freedom to choose.

Other unnoticed causes of putatively psychic effects include subliminal and non-verbal sensory cues66 which may lead to common thought patterns in different people, presenting the illusion of telepathy.

The ‘Will to Believe’

What factors differentiate believer from sceptic? Psychologists down the ages have puzzled over the question of what motivates different world-views and the so-called will to believe. Research conducted by J. Waugh used Kelly’s personal construct theory. In this framework67, people vary in the quality and extent of their investigatory procedures so that, while some may be working to establish an ordered and meaningful world which is not highly predictable or readily explained, others may be content that they already have all the necessary explanatory constructs.

In Kelly’s theory, each individual deals with the world in terms of a hierarchial system of constructs with which people, objects and events are compared, contrasted and predicted. Core constructs have relatively superordinate positions and a large range of convenience while peripheral constructs are relatively subordinate and more easily altered. Waugh compared the personal construct systems of sceptics and believers in the paranormal using a belief questionnaire. Ten subordinate and ten superordinate67constructs were generated using standard procedures and each subject’s constructs were tested for their relative resistance to change and the number of implications entailed by changing the subject’s preferred pole on the 20 constructs and 10 paranormal beliefs (Fig. 3).

Believers’ core constructs were significantly more resistant to change and there was a parallel difference in the number of implications resulting from changes at the superordinate level. Compared with sceptics, believers seem to possess much tighter construct systems in which any change at the core level implies a significantly greater upheaval or threat. Waugh also found that believers had significantly higher neuroticism scores than sceptics (see also ref. 68). These data are congruent with those reported by Zusne and Jones57 who found that believers are less flexible than sceptics when confronted with disconfirming evidence. Content analyses of believers’ construct systems indicate the presence of spiritual, non-materialist constructs at superordinate level. Such core constructs are not easily shaken because they are closed off from empirical considerations and appear to be impermeable to rational persuasion. Hence the feeling of futility experienced in trying to hold rational discussion between believer and sceptic; one could well be arguing about the existence of God. Belief in the paranormal is metaphysical and therefore not subject to the constraints of empirically based science.

Parascience has all the qualities of a magical system while wearing the mantle of science. Until any significant discoveries are made, science can justifiably ignore it, but it is important to say why: parascience is a pseudo-scientific system of untestable beliefs steeped in illusion, error and fraud.

I thank Jerry Andrus, Bob Audley, Ray Hyman, A. R. Jonckheere, Peter McKellar, J. Randi, Christopher Scott, Jean Waugh and many colleagues in CSICOP for useful discussions and information. The late Richard Kammann contributed substantially in the earlier stages of this research.

Notes

  1. Kurtz, P. Skeptical Inquirer 3, 14-32 (1978).
  2. Diaconis. P. Science 201, 131-136 (1978).
  3. Hansel. C. E. M. ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Reevaluation(Prometheus, Buffalo. 1980).
  4. Marks. D. & Kammann, R. The Psychology of the Psychic (Prometheus, Buffalo, 1980).
  5. Alcock. J. E. Parapsychology: Science of Magic? (Pergamon, Oxford, 1981).
  6. Frazier. K. (ed.). Paranormal Borderlands of Science(Prometheus, Buffalo. 1981).
  7. Gardner, M. Science Good Bad and Bogus (Prometheus, Buffalo. 1981).
  8. Randi. J. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP. Unicorns. and Other Delusions(Prometheus. Buffalo. 1982).
  9. Kurtz. P. Skeptical Inquirer 8, 239-246 (1984).
  10. Frazier. K. (ed.) Science Confronts the Paranormal (Prometheus. Buffalo, 1985).
  11. Kurtz, P. (ed.) A Skeptics Handbook of Parapsychology (Prometheus. Buffalo, 1985).
  12. Bunge, M. Skeptical Inquirer 9, 36-46 (1984).
  13. Tiller, W. A. New Scient. 62, 160-163 (1974).
  14. Pehek, J.O.,Kyler, H.J. & Faust. D. L. Science 194, 263-270 (1976).
  15. Houdini Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (Prometheus, Buffalo, 1981).
  16. Leikind, B. J. & McCarthy, W. J. Skeptical Inquirer 10, 23-34 (1985).
  17. Vogt, E. H. & Hyman, R. Waterwitching USA 2nd edn (Chicago University Press. 1979).
  18. Randi, J Skeptical Inquirer 8, 329-333 (1984).
  19. Martin. M. Skeptical Inquirer 8, 138-140 (1983).
  20. Randi, J. The Magic of Uri Geller (Ballantine, New York, 1975).
  21. Fuller, U. Confessions of a Psychic (Karl Fulves, Box 433, Teaneck, New Jersey, 1975).
  22. Fuller, U. Further Confessions of a Psychic (Karl Fulves, New Jersey, 1980),
  23. Marks, D. &Kammann. R. Zetetic 1(2),9-17 (1977).
  24. Hyman, R. Zeteric 1(2). 18-37 (1977).
  25. Soal, S. G. & Goldney, K. M. Proc.. Soc. psychical Res. 47, 21-150 (1943).
  26. Scott, C. & Haskell, P. Nature 245, 52-54 (1974).
  27. Marwick, B. Proc.. Soc. psychical Res.56, 250-281 (1978).
  28. Hoebens, P. H. Skeptical Inquirer 6, 32-40 (1981).
  29. De Mille, R. Castandeda’s Journey2nd ed (Capra. Santa Barbara, 1978).
  30. Skinner, B. F. Science and Human Behavior (Macmillan, New York, 1953),
  31. Bunge, M. Method, Model and Matter (Reidel, Dordrecht, 1973).
  32. Schmeidler, G. R. & McConnell, R. A. ESP and Personality Patterns (Yale University Press, 1958).
  33. Collins, H. M. & Pinch. T. J. Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982).
  34. Taylor, J. Superminds: An Inquiry into the Paranormal (Macmillan, London, 1975).
  35. Barratt, W. Proc.. Soc. psychical Res34, 275–297 (1924)..
  36. Rhine, J. B. The Reach of Mind, 209-214 (Sloane. New York, 1947).
  37. Tart, C. T. Psi: Scientific Studies of the Psychic Realm, vii-viii (Dutton. New York, 1977).
  38. Flew. A. in Science, Pseudo-Science and Society (edsHanen, M. P., Osler, M. J. & Weyant, R. G.) 55-75 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, 1980).
  39. Cooper. D. E. in Philosophy and Psychical Research (ed. Thakur, S. C.) 59-80 (Allen & Unwin. London, 1976).
  40. Scriven, M. in Philosophy and Psychical Research (ed. Thakur, S. C.) 181-194 (Allen & Unwin. London. 1976).
  41. Wolman, B. J. (ed.) Handbook of Parapsychology (Van Nostrand. New York. 1977).
  42. Beloff, J. Zetetic Scholar 6, 90-94 (1980).
  43. Morris. R. L. J. Am. Soc. psychical Res. 74, 425-443 (1980).
  44. Akers, C. in Advances in Parapsychological Research Vol. 4 (ed. Krippner, S.) 112-164 (McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1984).
  45. Hyman, R. J. Parapsychol. 49, 3-49 (1985).
  46. Targ, R. & Puthoff, H. E. Nature 252, 602-607 (1974).
  47. Marks, D: F. & Kammann, R. Nature 274. 680-681 (1978).
  48. Hyman, R. Skeptical Inquirer 9, 125~ 145 (1984-5).
  49. Tart, C. T.. Puthoff, H. E. & Targ, R. Nature 284. 191 (1980).
  50. Marks, D. F. Skeptical Inquirer 6, 18-29 (1982).
  51. O’ Keefe, D. Stolen Lightning (Robertson, Oxford, 1982).
  52. Wilson, S. C. & Barber, T. X. in Imagery: Current Theory, Research and Application (ed. Sheikh, A. A.) 340-387 (Wiley. New York, 1983).
  53. Marks, D. & McKellar, P. J. mental imagery 6, 1-124 (1982).
  54. Gurney, E. &Myers, F. W. H. Proc. Soc. psychical Res. 5, 403-485 (1889).
  55. Sidgwick, H. Proc. Soc. psychical Res. 10, 25-422 (1894).
  56. Finucane, R. C. Appearances of the Dead (Prometheus, Buffalo. 1985).
  57. Zusne, L. & Jones, W. H. Anomalistic Psychology (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1982).
  58. Edwards, W. in Formal Representation of Human Judgement (ed. Kleinmuntz, B.) 17-52 (Wiley, New York, 1968).
  59. Nisbett, R. & Ross, L. Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Clills. 1980).
  60. Hoebens, P. H. Skeptical Inquirer 7, 38-45 (1982).
  61. Klass, P. J. Zetetic 2, 57-61 (1977).
  62. Koestler, A. The Roots of Coincidence (Hutchinson, London, 1972).
  63. Rhine, L E. J. Parapsychol. 15, 164-190 (1951).
  64. Tart, C. T. Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  65. Tart, C. T., Palmer, J. & Redington, D. J. J. Am. Soc. psychical Res. 73, 151-165 (1978).
  66. Dixon, N. F. Preconscious Processing (Wiley, Chichester, 1981 ).
  67. Franselle. F. & Bannister. D. A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique (Academic, London, 1977).
  68. Windholz, G. & Diamant. L. Bull. psycnon. Sci. 3, 125-126 (1974).

View or download original article here.

The Paradox of Coincidence

The Paradox

By the Principle of the Long Run, a coincidence is always deemed to be a chance event, no matter how tiny the odds. If paranormal coincidences exist, the normal scientific approach means that they would be mixed in with chance events and made invisible.

Science rules out of existence the very phenomenon that it should be investigating: that some coincidences may be caused by an undefined non-chance process, X.

This assumption that coincidences must always created by chance means that the conventional criterion for statistical significance does not work for coincidences. Null hypothesis significance testing (NHST) is not applied.

P < .000000000001 Not Significant, says the accepted scientific view

The standard criterion for rejecting a null hypothesis H0 is p<.05 or p<.01. For coincidences, however, this probability can be as low as p<.000000000001 (10-12) or even smaller and the occurrence is accepted as falling within chance levels.

This double standard in evaluating the statistical significance of coincidences is interesting: no matter how improbable the outcome, the event is said to be consistent with the null hypothesis.

Escaping the Paradox

How can we escape this paradox? I wish to suggest a hypothesis that my totally skeptical friends and readers will find apocryphal. To avoid miscounting paranormal events as chance events, and defining them out of existence, it is necessary to hypothesise two populations of coincidental events, those due purely to chance, and those that have a putative paranormal source.

Imagine a coincidence with an odds of 10 to the minus 12. This is one chance in a million million. Consider the  possibility that there is an alternative to the normal, null hypothesis, which we can call the ‘paranormal hypothesis’:

H0: The null hypothesis – what occurred was purely chance

H1: The paranormal hypothesis – what occurred was too improbable to be caused by chance

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 18.38.29.pngPlausibility of events with different odds with a duplex of distributions for normal (chance) and paranormal (non-chance) coincidences. The shape of the distributions is normal and, speculatively, the dispersions are set to provide a cross-over point with odds of 10-12  where the Bayes factor is one (thin vertical line). Events with odds to the left of this line have Bayes Factors < 1.0 and to the right of this line, Bayes Factor > 1.0. The two dotted lines indicate events with odds of 10-6 and 10-18 where the Bayes factor is .20 and 5.0 respectively.

According to this hypothetical framework, a cross-over point with a Bayes Factor of 1.0 occurs with an odds value of 10-12. In order to specify the form of these distributions it would be necessary to collect large numbers of data points with exact odds values.The hypothesised existence of a separate population of paranormal events places N Theory and P Theory on an equal footing as explanations and avoids a double standard.

Is the theory correct?  It is impossible to say.

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Uri Geller: Self-Proclaimed ‘Psychic’

A flash-back to 1975 when Uri Geller came to town.  Super-psychic or super-charlatan? Who to Believe?

On the one hand, a scientific report published in Nature verifying Geller’s psychic abilities under supposedly cheat-proof conditions, and on the other, a highly speculative but critical attack published simultaneously in New Scientist. While Targ and Puthoff’s reply … would seem to invalidate his explanations of their significant results, it is difficult to disregard the doubts Hanlon has raised about the “circus atmosphere” that he believes surrounded the SRI experiments. Frankly, at the end of 1974, we were puzzled and confused. Weighing all the evidence available at that time, it seemed impossible to decide whether Geller was a genuine psychic or an ingenious and highly skilled hoaxer. Clearly, the Geller effect had to be taken seriously as, in either case, there would be much of interest to learn about the mechanics of psychic performance. Clearly, what was needed was more experimentation.

First Encounter

Our first live encounter with Geller was accidental. On 23 March 1975 Geller arrived in New Zealand from Australia to begin a series of four “lecture-demonstrations” of his psychic powers. To facilitate communications, I ( David Marks) checked into the same hotel as Geller in the Dominion capital, Wellington. Hopefully we could obtain a sufficient level of cooperation to complete a series of laboratory tests. I left a letter for Geller at the hotel reception inviting his participation in some experiments.

I had been told by Geller’s local agent, Bruce Warwick, that Geller was due to arrive on the ten o’clock plane, and so an arrangement was made to talk with Geller the next morning after a press conference. At eight o’clock on the evening of the 23, I went down to dinner in the almost empty hotel restaurant. At about nine o’clock a party of noisy, flamboyant people sat down at the table next to me in the quiet dining room. From their accents, some were obviously Americans, others Australians, and others sounded like Americanized Israelis.

Suddenly, as I idly scanned their faces, to my utter amazement, I saw Uri Geller. Apparently, he had materialized himself into New Zealand prior to the aircraft’s arrival! He was sitting with his back to me, not more than ten feet away, opposite a woman with blond hair who spoke loudly and clearly with a distinct American accent.

Geller’s Faux Pas

Although I was dying to meet Geller, my first reaction was to leave, as the last thing I wanted to do was invade Geller’s privacy. However, it was I who had been there first, and they had sat next to me, not vice versa, so I decided to finish my dinner and then leave.

To this day I can still hardly believe what took place in the next few moments. The American woman (whom I knew later to be Miss Solveig Clark, one of Geller’s personal assistants) asked Geller in a clear and distinctive voice whether he had “read the letter from Dr. Marks.” Like most other people, I find it hard not to tune in to a conversation when my name is mentioned. I heard Geller reply: “Keep that guy away from me; he’ll pick up the signals (sic).”

No words can describe how I felt at that moment. What signals? Could these be the signals described in the New Scientist? Who was Geller’s female confidante? Was Puharich there, or Shipi Shtrang? Although I couldn’t answer all these questions, Geller had already told me more than I ever imagined would be possible. Yet Geller was blissfully ignorant of this major faux pas. I couldn’t help feeling that if Geller were truly psychic, he’d certainly have sensed my presence and avoided giving away trade secrets!

Postscript:

No question about it, from that moment I sensed that Uri Geller was nothing more than a not-so-clever trickster.

Anybody can bend a spoon, as long as you have a firm grip. Try it without touching, however, and its a very different story.

Geller successfully conned pretty much the whole world into believing he had special powers.

He does. It’s called sleight-of-hand!

Flashback: an extract from “The Psychology of the Psychic”.

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.

Investigating the Paranormal: Part I

This post reproduces an article I wrote 35 years ago. My current position as a zetetic is less dogmatic than I was then, a died-in-the wool skeptic.


 

Parascience has so far failed to produce a single repeatable finding and, until it does, will continue to be viewed as an incoherent collection of belief systems steeped in fantasy, illusion and error.

Originally published in Nature Vol. 320, 13 March 1986, pp. 119-124.

The second part of this article is here.


The Paranormal

Few fields of inquiry capture the attention of the public as much as the paranormal. Newspapers, books, films and television have all cashed in and promoted it. Yet after millennia of experience and more than a century of controlled investigation, since the founding in 1882 of the Society of Psychical Research, the paranormal remains as controversial as ever. While credence in extrasensory perception (ESP) and precognition is widespread, parapsychology has failed to produce a single repeatable demonstration. In the face of such a dearth of hard evidence, how can such widespread belief in the paranormal be accounted for?

The importance of rigorous analysis of the evidence for parascientific claims cannot be underestimated. The establishment of ESP could conceivably require a paradigm shift (in Kuhn’s sense) of the most fundamental kind and our concepts of mind-brain relationships and consciousness would need radical alteration. Our whole approach to psychology as an empirical science, based as it is on the time-honoured assumption that perception can result only from sensory activity, would be brought into question.

The conventional response of many scientists to the paranormal is to ignore the evidence on a priori grounds, believing it to be of basically poor quality. This attitude is allied to the Humean stance that a lie is more probable than a miracle. Although this scepticism is certainly justified, it could be argued that such a blanket response is counterproductive. First, it is hardly scientific to reject a claim purely because of its a priori improbability. Second, a division is created between aligned groups of committed ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ and the resulting adversarial positions inhibit proper discourse and the possibility of an account which satisfies all parties. Third, it leaves the field open for undisciplined exploitation, which is irresponsible; there are many examples of financial loss, suffering and even death resulting from fraudulent paranormal claims (for example, the Jonestown massacre, psychic surgery, the Transcendental Meditation levitation programme, firewalking, scientology and other pseudoscientific cults). For scientists passively to ignore such developments is, to say the least, uncharitable.

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was established in 1976 with the aim of increasing the quality of scientific investigations into the paranormal by constructive criticism and the exposure of invalid or fraudulent claims. Over this 10- year period, an inordinate amount of fraud, error and incompetence in paranormal investigations has been brought to light1-11. But pseudo-sciences are remarkably stable and tradition-bound; their presence on the edges of science can be expected indefinitely12.

Areas of experimental psychology can shed light on the paranormal, especially the study of consciousness and cognition. Such investigation indicates that the many anomalies of putatively paranormal experience are an inevitable consequence of normal selective and constructive processes in perception, memory and imagery. I summarize here what seem to be the common assumptions on which claims of the paranormal are based.

Theoretical Assumptions

Paranormal phenomena are negatively defined. A phenomenon is defined as paranormal only if it contravenes some fundamental and well-founded assumption of science. Hence, to establish an effect as paranormal, all possible ‘normal’ explanations must be shown to be invalid. Any paranormal claim thus also remains provisional; a normal explanation, not previously thought of, may be discovered at some future time.

Mysteriousness per se is a necessary but insufficient condition for adjudging an event as paranormal. There will always be limits to knowledge, so that new phenomena that initially appear anomalous will be given a natural explanation following systematically controlled observations. Bona fide paranormal effects, on the other hand, are supposed to contravene established assumptions as though from another order of existence and not simply for lack of explanation. ‘Contranorrnal’ would be a more precise technical term.

Examples of effects which until recently were claimed to be paranormal but which can now be explained from within orthodox science include:

  1. Kirlian photography, the photographic recording of coronal discharges around living or non-living objects produced by high-voltage, (20-100 kV), high-frequency (75 kHz-3 MHz) electrical fields13 14 Variations in the images of the corona can be explained in terms of normal physical factors such as moisture, pressure or distance, all of which influence circuit resistance.
  2. Fire-walking, if conducted briskly on hot materials of low thermal capacity and poor thermal conductivity, does not produce burns15 16. The Leidenfrost effect created by an insulating layer of water or sweat may also reduce energy transfer to the surface of the body.
  3. Dowsing is based on sensory cues, expectancy effects and probability. Controlled trials fail to produce above-chance results8,17-19.
  4. Psychic surgery, thought photography and metal bending all involve sleight-of-hand and can be duplicated by skilled magicians 8,20-22.The first differs from the others in respect of the associated false hopes and financial loss, but all three are fraudulent.
  5. ‘Gellerized’ watches2l,22, thought to be broken, are purportedly repaired by illusionist Uri Geller by ‘psychic concentration’. In about 50% of cases, simply holding the watch in a clenched fist and shaking it provides a sufficient stimulus to free the mechanism23.
  6. Astrology, graphology, tea-leaf and tarot card readings, the I Ching and other forms of divination are all types of ‘cold reading’ or ‘sleight-of-mouth’ 24. They depend upon ambiguous, wish-fulfilling and general advice, the use of prior or presented information and cues obtained by verbal ‘fishing’. A strong feeling of personal validation often accompanies such readings. Various forms of ‘mediumship’ and ‘psychometry’ as practised by D. Collins and D. Stokes are also examples of cold reading.

Laboratory Studies

In some cases, field observations can be checked under laboratory conditions and the sensori-motor features of the original performance reproduced using a delayed control group of non-psychic subjects; for example, Geller’s watch-starting procedure and ability to draw the contents of sealed and apparently opaque envelopes were matched by that of non-psychic controls” (Fig. 1). Clearly, the tendency to judge a mysterious event as paranormal in the absence of controlled observations can be quite misleading.

The most dramatic evidence for the paranormal has been based on either fraud or methodological error. Apparent frauds that have been uncovered include University of London mathematician S. G. Soal’s manipulation of his recording sheets25-27, University of Utrecht Professor Tanhaeff’s evidence on Croiset, the Dutch ‘psychic’ detective28, and the description by C. Castaneda (University of California at Los Angeles) of the paranormal teachings of Don Juan29. C. E. M. Hansel3 has provided a valuable review of the history of trickery, fraud and error in parapsychology. However, outright fraud is not the only vehicle in which the paranormal cause can travel, and it is a serious mistake to assume it is a necessary part of any paranormal investigation.

No Theories

There are no theories to account for paranormal effects or their properties.There are some undesirable implications of this aspect. First, investigators are unable to conduct properly controlled experiments on the properties of psi phenomena because they have no idea what the relevant variables are. In particular, there is no procedure by which psi can be deliberately switched on or off, and so there is no possibility of examining the effects of psi on other variables. All that can be done is to establish whether a given performance in some particular set of circumstances differs from a baseline; if so, psi is assumed to be the cause.

Oddly, neither the subject nor the experimenter can state which of the successful trials in a psi experiment result purely from chance guessing and which are generated by psi, so that there is no basis for distinguishing between a high score in a psi experiment and a lucky run in a game of chance. Also, the persistence of psi investigators in the face of variable but mainly negative results could have a similar motivational basis to that of addicted gamblers; both show high resistance to extinction following variable ratio schedules of reinforcement 30.

A more fundamental problem with the paranormal’s atheoretical status is that of untestability. Failure to observe a particular effect can be readily attributed to a host of ad hoc, hypothetical factors. Vivid imagination is no substitute for testability, however, and if ad hoc hypotheses are not independently testable, nor is the original claim31.

It has been stated that the participants in any experiment may unconsciously determine the results according to whether they themselves believe in psi, the so-called ‘sheep-goat’ effect32. Hence, psi can be held to be present whatever the results, unless the belief of the investigators is itself independently controlled.

In an extreme version of the ‘sheep-goat’ hypothesis, some investigators have even proposed that the participants in an experiment need not be restricted to the individuals in the laboratory but could also include all of the readers of the journal which subsequently publishes the results33! In this case the proportion of sceptics and believers among the eventual readership would determine the experimental outcome through backward causality. Similar in kind is the ‘shyness effect’, the tendency of metal not to bend psychically while it is being observed34.

Evidence of the Paranormal Incompatible with Materialism

Investigators throughout history have been convinced that evidence of the paranormal proves that materialism must be wrong. This was assumed by the Society of Psychical Research, one of whose early presidents, Sir William Barrett, spoke of parapsychology ‘as the most valuable handmaid to religion’35. J. B. Rhine36, the founder of the Parapsychology Association and C. Tart37, a former president, have both reiterated the religio-spiritual motive for pursuing psi research.

An immaterial ‘soul’ has passed out of the formal language of parapsychology, but anti-materialism is still the backbone of the underlying philosophy. A. Flew has described the profound logical difficulties with an immaterial, immortal entity which somehow discriminates its own mental experiences from that of all others38. But even putting that issue to one side, it is curious how seldom the anti-materialist assumption has been properly explained. D. E. Cooper indicated one way in which the anti-materialist argument can be constructed as a reductio ad absurdum, but he found this to be incoherent39. In fact, it seems doubtful that materialism and ESP would be incompatible, should real evidence of ESP ever be found. As M. Scriven has pointed out, materialism can always be enlarged to absorb newly substantiated phenomena, “since the very act of substantiation demonstrates that the phenomena are indeed part of the material world, and hence that a current version of materialism must embrace them40.”

Methodological Problems

The failure of paranormal investigators to produce a single repeatable effect despite 100 years of published research is a serious matter. The hoped-for results have been described in thousands of reports, but not one can be repeated in a properly controlled replication. Yet in addition to the huge literature of unrepeatable findings, there is an inestimable number of unpublished and presumably negative results.

The most systematically investigated area is undoubtedly parapsychology. The field is professionally organized, with its own associations of accredited members and journals. Since 1969 the Parapsychological Association has been an affiliated division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. On the surface, the research sophistication of many parapsychologists seems to be as high as that of other professional researchers. The University of Edinburgh now has its own Koestler Chair of Parapsychology. Yet parapsychology is unique in that it remains permanently in search of a reliable finding. In spite of the long history of error, fraud and negative results, the practitioners remain confident that a positive result will soon be obtained. While many abortive leads have been reported in its major publications (for example, Advances in Parapsychological ResearchHandbook of Parapsychology 41Journal of Parapsychology), there is no paradigmatic experiment in the Kuhnian sense, and every new investigator must start afresh, as though he or she is the first worker in the field.

Leading parapsychologists acknowledge the unrepeatability and admit that no single experiment has been free of error. J. Beloff42 and R. Morris43 have concluded that the best case for psi rests on collections of experiments which, although individually flawed, reveal the undeniable presence of psi. But badly con-trolled experiments prove nothing, no matter how large the collection.

If any genuinely repeatable effect is ever discovered, then existing science would be modified to accommodate the new finding, which would then become an integral part of materialist science. The continued existence of ‘parascience’ as a separate field depends upon the investigators’ creativity in searching for new, unexplained anomalies of a singularly unrepeatable kind.

How close are we to a repeatable paranormal finding? Examination of the literature suggests, not very. In systematic reviews of parapsychological experiments, C. Akers44and R. Hyman45 have independently come to the same conclusion: that the research methods and evidence are too weak to establish the existence of a paranormal phenomenon.

Akers reviewed a representative sample of 54 published experiments which used unselected subjects and reported significant results. The sample included 11 experiments using the ganzfeld technique (in which the eyes and ears receive unpatterned sensory inputs), 12 hypnosis experiments, 12 studies of personality correlates, 10 studies of attitude correlates, 5 relaxation experiments and 4 meditation experiments. Akers identified seven sources of methodological error and the majority of experiments included one or more errors (see Table 1).

Hyman’s analysis included 42 ganzfeld experiments reported during 1974-81. Twenty-three (55%) claimed significant evidence of psi on at least one performance measure. Giving consideration to what ca n he counted as an independent study, Hyman concluded that the true success rate was at most 31 %. Moreover, many studies had conducted multiple statistical testing by analysing more than one performance measure and Hyman suggested that a more realistic significance level would have been as high as 0.25 instead of the nominal 0.05 level. Hence, the effective significance level and percen-tage of significant results are approximately equal.

Hyman’s tally of procedural flaws is shown in Table I. None of his sample was judged to be free of flaws, while Akers adjudged only eight of his sample to be flawless, but stated that none could be considered ideal.

The much-publicized experiments on remote viewing by Puthoff and Targ46 are also invalid because of the many sensory cues47 non-randomization47 and inappropriate statistics48. Tart organized a reanalysis of this research and claimed to have removed all of the sensory cues and obtained the same highly significant results49. However, he did not in fact remove all of the cues as he had stated. Attempted replications of the remote-viewing research are either flawed or, in the case of well-controlled studies, show no evidence of ESP50.

This review leads to only one conclusion: there is no scientific evidence of ESP. Yet millions of people throughout the world believe in the reality of ESP and other paranormal phenomena. How can these two facts be reconciled? Is science mistaken, or are folk beliefs manufactured from error and illusion?

Notes

  1. Kurtz, P. Skeptical Inquirer 3, 14-32 (1978).
  2. Diaconis. P. Science 201, 131-136 (1978).
  3. Hansel. C. E. M. ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Reevaluation(Prometheus, Buffalo. 1980).
  4. Marks. D. & Kammann, R. The Psychology of the Psychic (Prometheus, Buffalo, 1980).
  5. Alcock. J. E. Parapsychology: Science of Magic? (Pergamon, Oxford, 1981).
  6. Frazier. K. (ed.). Paranormal Borderlands of Science(Prometheus, Buffalo. 1981).
  7. Gardner, M. Science Good Bad and Bogus (Prometheus, Buffalo. 1981).
  8. Randi. J. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP. Unicorns. and Other Delusions(Prometheus. Buffalo. 1982).
  9. Kurtz. P. Skeptical Inquirer 8, 239-246 (1984).
  10. Frazier. K. (ed.) Science Confronts the Paranormal (Prometheus. Buffalo, 1985).
  11. Kurtz, P. (ed.) A Skeptics Handbook of Parapsychology (Prometheus. Buffalo, 1985).
  12. Bunge, M. Skeptical Inquirer 9, 36-46 (1984).
  13. Tiller, W. A. New Scient. 62, 160-163 (1974).
  14. Pehek, J.O.,Kyler, H.J. & Faust. D. L. Science 194, 263-270 (1976).
  15. Houdini Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (Prometheus, Buffalo, 1981).
  16. Leikind, B. J. & McCarthy, W. J. Skeptical Inquirer 10, 23-34 (1985).
  17. Vogt, E. H. & Hyman, R. Waterwitching USA 2nd edn (Chicago University Press. 1979).
  18. Randi, J Skeptical Inquirer 8, 329-333 (1984).
  19. Martin. M. Skeptical Inquirer 8, 138-140 (1983).
  20. Randi, J. The Magic of Uri Geller (Ballantine, New York, 1975).
  21. Fuller, U. Confessions of a Psychic (Karl Fulves, Box 433, Teaneck, New Jersey, 1975).
  22. Fuller, U. Further Confessions of a Psychic (Karl Fulves, New Jersey, 1980),
  23. Marks, D. &Kammann. R. Zetetic 1(2),9-17 (1977).
  24. Hyman, R. Zeteric 1(2). 18-37 (1977).
  25. Soal, S. G. & Goldney, K. M. Proc.. Soc. psychical Res. 47, 21-150 (1943).
  26. Scott, C. & Haskell, P. Nature 245, 52-54 (1974).
  27. Marwick, B. Proc.. Soc. psychical Res.56, 250-281 (1978).
  28. Hoebens, P. H. Skeptical Inquirer 6, 32-40 (1981).
  29. De Mille, R. Castandeda’s Journey2nd ed (Capra. Santa Barbara, 1978).
  30. Skinner, B. F. Science and Human Behavior (Macmillan, New York, 1953),
  31. Bunge, M. Method, Model and Matter (Reidel, Dordrecht, 1973).
  32. Schmeidler, G. R. & McConnell, R. A. ESP and Personality Patterns (Yale University Press, 1958).
  33. Collins, H. M. & Pinch. T. J. Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982).
  34. Taylor, J. Superminds: An Inquiry into the Paranormal (Macmillan, London, 1975).
  35. Barratt, W. Proc.. Soc. psychical Res34, 275–297 (1924)..
  36. Rhine, J. B. The Reach of Mind, 209-214 (Sloane. New York, 1947).
  37. Tart, C. T. Psi: Scientific Studies of the Psychic Realm, vii-viii (Dutton. New York, 1977).
  38. Flew. A. in Science, Pseudo-Science and Society (edsHanen, M. P., Osler, M. J. & Weyant, R. G.) 55-75 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, 1980).
  39. Cooper. D. E. in Philosophy and Psychical Research (ed. Thakur, S. C.) 59-80 (Allen & Unwin. London, 1976).
  40. Scriven, M. in Philosophy and Psychical Research (ed. Thakur, S. C.) 181-194 (Allen & Unwin. London. 1976).
  41. Wolman, B. J. (ed.) Handbook of Parapsychology (Van Nostrand. New York. 1977).
  42. Beloff, J. Zetetic Scholar 6, 90-94 (1980).
  43. Morris. R. L. J. Am. Soc. psychical Res. 74, 425-443 (1980).
  44. Akers, C. in Advances in Parapsychological Research Vol. 4 (ed. Krippner, S.) 112-164 (McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1984).
  45. Hyman, R. J. Parapsychol. 49, 3-49 (1985).
  46. Targ, R. & Puthoff, H. E. Nature 252, 602-607 (1974).
  47. Marks, D: F. & Kammann, R. Nature 274. 680-681 (1978).
  48. Hyman, R. Skeptical Inquirer 9, 125~ 145 (1984-5).
  49. Tart, C. T.. Puthoff, H. E. & Targ, R. Nature 284. 191 (1980).
  50. Marks, D. F. Skeptical Inquirer 6, 18-29 (1982).
  51. O’ Keefe, D. Stolen Lightning (Robertson, Oxford, 1982).
  52. Wilson, S. C. & Barber, T. X. in Imagery: Current Theory, Research and Application (ed. Sheikh, A. A.) 340-387 (Wiley. New York, 1983).
  53. Marks, D. & McKellar, P. J. mental imagery 6, 1-124 (1982).
  54. Gurney, E. &Myers, F. W. H. Proc. Soc. psychical Res. 5, 403-485 (1889).
  55. Sidgwick, H. Proc. Soc. psychical Res. 10, 25-422 (1894).
  56. Finucane, R. C. Appearances of the Dead (Prometheus, Buffalo. 1985).
  57. Zusne, L. & Jones, W. H. Anomalistic Psychology (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1982).
  58. Edwards, W. in Formal Representation of Human Judgement (ed. Kleinmuntz, B.) 17-52 (Wiley, New York, 1968).
  59. Nisbett, R. & Ross, L. Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Clills. 1980).
  60. Hoebens, P. H. Skeptical Inquirer 7, 38-45 (1982).
  61. Klass, P. J. Zetetic 2, 57-61 (1977).
  62. Koestler, A. The Roots of Coincidence (Hutchinson, London, 1972).
  63. Rhine, L E. J. Parapsychol. 15, 164-190 (1951).
  64. Tart, C. T. Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  65. Tart, C. T., Palmer, J. & Redington, D. J. J. Am. Soc. psychical Res. 73, 151-165 (1978).
  66. Dixon, N. F. Preconscious Processing (Wiley, Chichester, 1981 ).
  67. Franselle. F. & Bannister. D. A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique (Academic, London, 1977).
  68. Windholz, G. & Diamant. L. Bull. psycnon. Sci. 3, 125-126 (1974).

To be continued…


View or download original article here.

Improbability and Impossibility in Nature

The Science of the Impossible

When the sun, moon and earth all fall into alignment, something improbable happens – a solar eclipse. A solar eclipse in improbable but it is not impossible, because it actually can happen. Not very often, of course, but on a few rare, predictable occasions. On average a solar eclipse occurs in any particular location only once every 375 years.

This example indicates the need to keep an open mind because there are phenomena in Nature that are rare and some that were once thought impossible, but have later been observed or made to happen. French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote about the stars that: “We can never learn their internal constitution, nor, in regard to some of them, how heat is absorbed by their atmosphere.” Comte said of the planets: “We can never know anything of their chemical or mineralogical structure; and, much less, that of organized beings living on their surface.”

Yet William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer independently discovered that the spectrum of the Sun contained a great many dark lines which, by 1859 had been shown to be atomic absorption lines. Each chemical element present in the Sun could be identified by analysing the lines, making it possible to discover what a star is made of.

 

616px-Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR.jpg

Another example is teleportation.

Teleportation

This word was coined by Charles Fort in his book Lo! and was subsequently copied by legions of science fiction writers including the “transporter” in Star Trek. Thanks to entanglement, physicists have achieved teleportation  Particles that are entangled behave as if they are linked together no matter how wide the distance is between them. If you change the “spin” of one entangled electron, the spin of the twin electron will also change.

Entangled particles therefore  “teleport” information. In 2002 a theoretical way of entangling  large molecules, was described. “Classical teleportation” even occurs when a beam of rubidium atoms disappear in one place and reappear in another. This method transmits all the information about the atoms through a fibre optic cable so that they can be “reconstructed” elsewhere.

Yet entangled particles, it can be argued, are part and parcel of ‘one thing’ and teleportation may not be valid in this context. If by unfortunate accident somebody severs a finger from their hand, the finger is still a part of their hand. A severed finger can survive for 12 hours or more in a warm environment and up to a couple of days if refrigerated. It can be re-attached to the hand by reconnecting the arteries and restoring the blood flow. So the finger and the hand remain a part of one body.

Precognition

Julia Mossbridge and Dean Radin (2018) review the evidence for precognition or ‘prospection’  in a recent paper  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cns0000121 As they point out, scientists generally consider prospection involving influences from the future to be ‘flatly impossible’. They present empirical evidence challenging the assumption. If this evidence can be replicated using preregistered designs and analyses, then the consequences would be profound.   Such replication studies are keenly awaited.

My review of the literature shortly to be published suggests that we may be waiting in vain if we are looking for evidence inside the laboratory.

Impossible Today, Possible Tomorrow?

The paranormal is the investigation of phenomena that are thought, on current knowledge, to be IMPOSSIBLE.  Yet some of those very things may be possible in the future. The question is which ones?

The field of the paranormal has changed enormously in the last half-century with a massive growth in numbers of investigators and publications on extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis, precognition and homeopathic medicine (Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2018-11-23 at 12.21.34

FIGURE 1. Growth in numbers of research publications about specific topics within the paranormal in 20-year periods, 1960-2019.

What is Here

The ‘Anomalist Psychology’,  ‘Paranormal’ and ‘Coincidence’ sections of this blog site present authentic, first-person accounts of anomalistic phenomena and their often compelling nature along with laboratory studies, research syntheses, and critical analyses.

This blog site covers the entire field of Anomalistic Psychology – ESP, psychokinesis, precognition, ganzfeld, dissociative states, out-of-the-body experiences, near-death experiences, hypnotic trance,  and their relevance to theories of consciousness.  Many of the same psychological processes are involved in these different areas, i.e. the will to believe, magical thinking, subjective validation, confirmation bias, expectation and placebo effects, and many more.

The blog site is supported by a new book, Psychology and the Paranormal, to be published in 2020.

108875_book_item_108875

Some of the most common obstacles in teaching students in this field are: readiness to believe almost anything without sound reasons, misunderstanding of laws of chance and probability, lack of statistical sophistication or understanding of scientific methodology. The critical tools necessary for scientific appraisal of the paranormal are not generally available.

On the surface paranormal phenomena all appear to defy rational explanation. The blog encourages readers to acquire the critical skills to appraise scientific claims for the paranormal.  After reading both ‘sides of the story’, readers should be in a position to express informed opinions and have the tools and methods for critical thinking about the paranormal and scientific claims more generally.

The blog is geared to the needs of teachers, researchers and students interested in Anomalistic Experience, Parapsychology and Consciousness. These are exciting, challenging and fun areas on the fringes of mainstream science.

The Requirement of Impartiality

Here I do not take a fixed believing, sceptical or disbelieving stance on the paranormal. I offer a neutral gaze which seeks the evidence both pro and con. This approach keeps the door open to whatever conclusions the evidence leads.

The best evidence from studies and meta-analyses across a wide range of areas are reviewed. A particular focus will be studies from the post-2000 period up to and including 2019 as other books adequately review the history of the field (e.g. Caroline Watt: Parapsychology. A Beginner’s Guide).

There are instances where the evidence is so strong that I have changed my own position over recent years. For half of my life I was a dyed-in-the-wool ‘skeptic’ or, to put it more plainly, a disbeliever. That situation changed. I steadfastly maintain the neutrality of the dispassionate scientist, neither believing nor disbelieving, attending to the evidence. I hope that other ‘skeptics’ will strive to keep their minds untainted by prejudice and show the moral courage to go where the evidence takes them.

I humbly encourage every reader to avoid being ‘intellectually whipped’ into any fixed view of the truth. Comfortable though it may be to have a fixed view, that view could well be misplaced, and, unwittingly, lead into a cul-de-sac.

Be aware of the streetlight effect or drunkard’s search principle, the bias that occurs when we search only where it is easiest to look:

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

F1.large.jpgLooking where it is easiest to look

We must learn to look where the evidence is, not where it is easiest to look.

This blog provides critical analysis and motivation to challenge, defend and justify scientific claims of the paranormal.

If the evidence is there to guide you, changing your mind is a strength not a weakness.

Let’s stop acting like the drunk who is looking where the light is brightest; let’s look with sobriety in the cold daylight where there might be something significant to be discovered.

Increasing Prevalence of Paranormal Belief

Belief in paranormal phenomena is widespread everywhere around the world including colleges and universities. There is evidence from the US that belief rates are increasing. According to Lindeman and Aarnio (2006) more than a third of Americans believed in psychic powers and extrasensory perception at that time.

Recent figures produced by the Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 5 (2018) who explored the fears of a US random sample of 1,190 adults. The sample were asked about their level of fear about 94 different phenomena such as crime, the government, the environment, disasters, personal anxieties, technology and they were also asked about their paranormal beliefs. The sample showed high and, compared to previous years, increasing rates of paranormal beliefs ranging from belief in aliens and psychic powers to Bigfoot and haunted houses. The results are shown in Figure 2.1.

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 16.03.37Prevalence of beliefs in the paranormal in a US sample in 2018.

57% of US people believe in hauntings, and in Atlantis

Currently the most common paranormal belief in the US is spirit haunting (57.7%), followed by the belief that ancient, advanced civilizations, such as Atlantis once existed (56.9%). More than two out of five Americans (41.4%) believe that that aliens visited Earth in our ancient past and more than a third believe aliens are visiting now (35.1%). US Americans are the most skeptical about fortune tellers, with only approximately 17.2% believing that others can see the future.

Paranormal beliefs are the norm in the US

From seven different paranormal items only a quarter of US Americans (24.1%) do not hold any of the seven beliefs.  Slightly more than 75% of US Americans believe in at least one paranormal phenomenon, as listed below:

Number of Paranormal Beliefs (2018) Percent
No paranormal beliefs 24.1%
1 paranormal belief 15.2%
2 paranormal beliefs 14.7%
3 paranormal beliefs 12.0%
4 paranormal beliefs 12.4%
5 paranormal beliefs 9.2%
6 paranormal beliefs 7.5%
All 7 paranormal beliefs 4.8%

Rising levels of paranormal belief

The Chapman University Survey has included the same set of questions about paranormal beliefs in three waves of the survey. It is striking is how rapidly such beliefs are rising. Belief in six of the seven paranormal items increased between 2017 and 2018, the only exception being the belief that fortune tellers and psychics can foresee the future. All seven items have risen in levels of belief since 2016. US citizens in 2018 are fourteen percent more likely to believe that aliens once visited the earth than they were in 2016. US people have become seven percent more likely to believe in Bigfoot in only two years. It is uncertain what is causing these changes in belief prevalence.

Paranormal Beliefs

(2016-2018)

2016 2017 2018 Change 2016-2018
Ancient, advanced civilizations, such as Atlantis, once existed 39.6 55.0 56.9% 17.3%
Aliens have visited Earth in our ancient past 27.0 35.0 41.4% 14.4%
Places can be haunted by spirits 46.6 52.3 57.7% 11.1%
Aliens have come to Earth in modern times 24.7 26.2 35.1% 10.4%
Bigfoot is a real creature 13.5 16.2 20.7% 7.2%
Some people can move objects with their minds 19.1 25.0 26.2% 7.1%

Paranormal beliefs in the UK

Castro, Burrows and Wooffitt (2014) surveyed a nationally representative sample of 4,096 adults aged 16 years and over across Great Britain in 2009. They found that 37 per cent of British adults reporting at least one paranormal experience and that women, middle-aged or individuals resident in the South West are more likely to report such experiences.

A study in a northern English metropolitan university by Dagnall et al. (2016) included 1215 adults, 75.7% (920) of whom were female and 24.3% (295) were male. The most frequently reported subjective paranormal experiences (SPEs) were ESP (23%), astrology (15%), haunting (14%), and contact with the dead (13%).  The majority who reported ESP (73%), Haunting (69%) and Witchcraft (67%) related experiences, recalled more than one experience. Incidence of PK (46% vs. 54%), Contact with the Dead (46% vs. 54%), and Astrology (44% vs. 56%) contained roughly equal proportions reporting single vs. multiple experiences.

Of the respondents claiming an SPE, 43% reported one experience type, while 57% reported different types of SPEs. Within multiple experiencers, 94% identified between 2-5 experience types and 6% more than 5 experience types.

It is logical to expect that belief in the paranormal would tend to be based on personal experiences and belief without any confirmatory subjective experience would differ in kind. We discuss the social and cognitive factors that are hypothesised to influence paranormal beliefs in later posts.