Parapsychology: When did science give up on paranormal study?

If you pay the slightly dated-looking official website for the Society for Psychical Research a visit, you’re greeted by a quote intended to give sceptics pause for thought: “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” The quote on its own might not register if it weren’t for the figure it’s attributed to: Carl Jung.

“The Society for Psychical Research once counted titans of science and culture in its membership including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle and WB Yeats.”

Yes, that Carl Jung. In the early 1900s he was a proud member of the society, along with other titans of science and culture including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, Lewis Carroll and Henry Sidgwick. The organisation was set up in 1882 to study paranormal phenomena “without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated”.

Nowadays, that heat of the debate has distinctly cooled, and the study of telepathy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has been left a much weaker field. Although it was never exactly mainstream, discourse on paranormal research rarely makes its way onto the scientific agenda. The number of universities providing courses in parapsychology barely breaks into double figures, and when they make the news, even that bastion of impartiality the BBC can’t resist giving the report a slightly wacky tone (just look at the captions).


Sigmund Freud (front row, left) and Carl Jung (front row, right) with contemporaries at Clark University in 1909. Both were early members of the Society for Psychical Research.

When did the subject cease to be taken seriously? Why is the study in decline? Is it because the big names have gone? Is there a lack of funding? Or, as many cynics would state, is it because we’re living in a more enlightened age where the only people who believe in paranormal activity are gullible cranks?

The last view is certainly one that many in the scientific community share. “Most mainstream scientists say, ‘why are you interested in all this? We all know it’s rubbish,’” says Christopher French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University. “Well, I don’t think that’s a properly open-minded scientific attitude.”

Closing the open mind

“Nowadays the study of telepathy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has been left a much weaker field.”

French is a sceptic but he feels that anomalistic psychology – the study of human behaviour in relation to the paranormal – is worth persisting with because, even if the scientific community is closed-minded, many people do believe (as many as one in three Brits, according to a recent YouGov poll, believe in ghosts) and it’s important to find out what causes that belief.

“Sceptics like myself will often point out that there’s been systematic research in parapsychology for well over a century, and so far the wider scientific community is not convinced. But they [believers] would counter that if you look at the combined efforts of all this parapsychological research, it comes to the equivalent in terms of person hours of around two weeks – and that’s a valid point. It really is.”parapsychological_experiment

One reason for this is funding. While governments and institutions can see real, tangible benefits to pushing funding in medical and technology research, the same can’t be said for parapsychology. French quickly lists a handful of funding sources, including the Society for Psychical Research and the Parapsychological Association, but the number can be counted on one hand.

“While governments and institutions can see real, tangible benefits to pushing funding in medical and technology research, the same can’t be said for parapsychology.”

One oddity in the list is The Bial Foundation – a Portuguese drug company that funds research into the unusual combination of parapsychology and psychophysiology. French speculates that this makes the organisation a ‘bigger fish in a small pond’ rather than if it simply funded more ‘straight medical research’.

Dr Caroline Watt from the Edinburgh Koestler Parapsychology Unit is more upbeat. She too mentions the Bial Foundation and the 30-plus doctorates that have come out of the unit, as well as a recent funded professorship at Lund University.

“I think the funding situation is relatively healthy in parapsychology. Just like any other field of research, parapsychologists have to apply and compete for funding,” she explains. Still, it’s not a mainstream area, and the keyword here is ‘relatively’. As French dryly points out: “The fact that I can more or less list the lot should demonstrate that funding is pretty thin.”ganzfeld_experiment

A Ganzfeld telepathy experiment, via YouTube

Enthusiastic amateurs

As a result, a lot of research is either unfunded or self-funded – even PhDs. The PhDs shouldn’t be a problem in theory, but the enthusiastic amateurs certainly do nothing for the subject’s reputation: “The word ‘parapsychology’ can be used very loosely,” explains Watt.

“Enthusiastic amateurs certainly do nothing for the subject’s reputation.”

“Anyone can call themselves a parapsychologist, and there are loads of amateur ‘ghost hunting’ groups that use the term. It’s difficult for the public to know whether they are dealing with a university-trained scientist or someone who is just out to make a bit of money and exploit the public’s natural curiosity about the paranormal.”

Ah yes, the charlatans. It’s fair to say that in this respect the field’s reputation has been held back from several quarters – not just by trashy TV shows such as Most Haunted (where the resident parapsychologist once managed to trick medium Derek Acorah into channelling the spirit of one ‘Kreed Kafer’ – an anagram of Derek Fake) but also by a number of well-documented hoaxes.

Professor Richard Wiseman – a renowned sceptic – on parapsychologists and null results.

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