Parapsychology: When did science give up on paranormal study?

The early big-name backers of psychical study must have been pleased to catch the “psychic” Creery Sisters using signal codes in their experiments, but the same cannot be said for George Albert Smith and Douglas Blackburn, who the Society for Psychical Research believed to be genuine. Blackburn later claimed that for nearly 30 years he had been playing the scientists. “The whole of those alleged experiments were bogus, and originated in the honest desire of two youths to show how easily men of scientific mind and training could be deceived when seeking for evidence in support of a theory they were wishful to establish,” he said.

“One explanation for the area’s tenacity is the sheer breadth of seemingly unconnected topics that come under its umbrella.”

A 1974 paper titled Security versus deception in parapsychology claimed to have uncovered 12 instances of fraud between the years 1940 to 1950, although ironically it refused to provide names to verify the claim. Still, there was no shortage of cases that were obviously fraudulent, ranging from mediums with fake limbs to ‘ectoplasm’ made of muslin, none of which helped the discipline’s reputation.

With all this fraud and few solid results emerging, you may wonder why parapsychology hasn’t died out completely. One explanation for the area’s tenacity is the sheer breadth of seemingly unconnected topics that come under its umbrella. Even if a researcher were to prove beyond all doubt that ghosts don’t exist, for example, that wouldn’t discount the possibility of reincarnation, precognition, near-death experiences or telekinesis.silver_belle_fraud

Spirit medium Ethel Post-Parrish. The mysterious figure to the right turned out to be a cardboard cutout.

The proof problem

And that’s another reason why the discipline has refused to die. While believers have found it difficult to prove their hunches, systematically disproving them is equally problematic. A believer could plausibly argue, for example, that proving one medium to be a fraud doesn’t mean all of them are.

“Very visible instances of fraud often get caught up unfairly in respectable research, however.”

The subject’s persistence has led plenty of sceptics to argue that parapsychologists lack the discipline and objectivity to concede they’re wrong. As renowned sceptic James Alcock concluded in Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi, I continue to believe that parapsychology is, at bottom, motivated by belief in search of data, rather than data in search of explanation.” Selection bias is a common accusation made by those who are suspicious of paranormal researchers.

Dr Andreas Sommer, a historian of human sciences at the University of Cambridge, says the very visible instances of fraud often get caught up unfairly in respectable research, however. In a paper for Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical sciences, Sommer writes, “the standard sceptical literature shows a remarkable lack of interest to distinguish between obvious self-immunisation strategies [of frauds] and observations by critical and experienced investigators with flawless scientific and clinical reputations and credentials.” From his research into the subject, Sommer believes that apparitions, telepathy, mediums and children citing specific information about past lives post “massive challenges” to science, the last of which he covers in detail on his Forbidden Histories blog. 311px-britsh_journal_of_psychical_research He’s not alone here. Even the late Carl Sagan offered support for certain aspects of the discipline. Writing in his sceptics’ bible, The Demon-Haunted World, he said that, “At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone human can (barely) affect random number generators in computers: (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”

“Accepting the results of peer-reviewed papers is not the same thing as accepting the conclusions that its researchers reach.”

That was in 1995, and a year before Sagan died, but the same can largely be said today, according to French – although he qualifies this by mentioning that he has his own reasons for doubting the research into all three. Nonetheless, he argues, “It’s just wrong to say there is no evidence in favour of, say, telepathy. There is evidence, it’s just a question of the quality of the evidence and what the best explanation for it is.”

That’s a subtle difference but an important one. Accepting the results of peer-reviewed parapsychological papers is not the same thing as accepting the conclusions that its researchers reach. Over the years, many explanations for the paranormal have become better understood by science, from the demonic sightings associated with sleep paralysis to infrasound sometimes creating a sense of presence and dread in humans.basement_of_lawang_sewu_2011

Building B of Lawang Sewu – a former prison and the location of repeated ghost sightings. 

The stigma of study

There is undoubtedly a stigma attached to studying this – and even in appearing open-minded to paranormal explanations. As Sommer writes in his paper, plenty of scientists “simply do not want to be associated with fields of research whose subject matter public opinion has equated with quackery, folly, intellectual vulgarity and mental illness”.

French agrees: “A lot of scientists would avoid getting involved, just because they’d see it as being damaging to their reputation.”

“Its given me a lot more respect for parapsychologists who have the courage to nail their colours to the mast and say ‘you know, I think there might be something in this,’” he explains. “They know they face ridicule and contempt from the wider scientific community, and sometimes that’s from those who have never bothered to look at the evidence at all – they just know in their own mind that these things are impossible, so they don’t need to look at it’.”stanislawa_tomczyk_and_william_marriott

Magician William Marriott exposes a levitation trick. Pearson’s Magazine, June 1910.

“While the noisy amateurs, historical hoaxes and shortage of funding are unhelpful, this lack of respect could be the biggest cause of the discipline’s decline.”

While the noisy amateurs, historical hoaxes and shortage of funding are unhelpful, this lack of respect could be the biggest cause of the discipline’s decline. But for anyone who’s worried that their haunted house will never receive thorough scrutiny, French has some advice: “As a kid, I was terrified of the dark, but these days I often find myself in pitch black filled with night cameras, and it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry.

“If you think your house is haunted, you don’t need an exorcist, you just need a sceptic. Because I guarantee if I come along, nothing will happen.”

READ NEXT: The elephant in the lab – how much science is fabricated?

Images: Mikhail Ryazanov, Harry Price, Jack Edwards, LuckyLouiePublic Domain, Pearson’s Magazine and Crisco 1942 used under Creative Commons. 

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