Parapsychology

Parapsychology is the study of paranormal activity associated with the mind. Topics concerning parapsychologists are often considered to be supernatural and include phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis. Parapsychology is an attempt to study psychic occurrences formally and methodically. There have been many criticisms against parapsychology for its lack of stringent methodology and weak evidence. It has also been labelled a pseudoscience. Parapsychology is often studied in such a ways that it is irrefutable, so it is not a genuine science. This may lead to issues for some, such as financial problems.

Background


History


Throughout history different civilizations have had different beliefs regarding the human mind and supernatural phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis. The first formal attempt to study this field from a scientific perspective came in 1882 when the Society for Psychical Research was founded in London, England. The goal of the society was to systemize the study of telepathy, apparitions and Odic force (a form of psychic energy) (Beloff, 1993). The society carried out the first wide scale statistical study of hallucinations in the sane. The Census of Hallucinations was meant to study hauntings and visions. Following the foundation of the Society of Psychical Research, many other similar organizations appeared around the world in different universities (Beloff, 1993).
The study of parapsychology underwent an increase in the 1970s. There was growing interest in Eastern spiritualism which fueled study into reincarnation and meditation. Research of altered states of consciousness was common and studies were conducted into the link between altered consciousness and ESP (Beloff, 1993). The heightened interest lasted into the late 1980s, but afterward research began to wane. A growing focus on rigorous method led to more controlled experimental conditions, which led to many phenomena being disproved and ruled out (Beloff, 1993). Furthermore many topics studied by parapsychology have been subsumed into other fields of research. For example, the study of religious experiences and reincarnation is mainly studied under the field of transpersonal psychology, which studies the psychology of spirituality (Beloff, 1993).

Theoretical Principles


Parapsychology is the study of paranormal phenomena of the mind. It focuses on abilities of the mind which are considered supernatural. The phenomena which are commonly studied include telepathy (the ability to read and/or transfer thoughts to another mind), precognition (perception of future events), psychokinesis (the ability of the mind to influence the material world without the aid of the body) and clairvoyance (knowing information of distant places without directly experiencing or being told) (Beloff, 1993). The field of research generally studies perception beyond the classical senses and phenomena of the mind which seem to contradict the current scientific understanding. Parapsychology has no definitive theoretical framework. There have, however, been attempts made at providing a physical mechanism for paranormal events, although the explanations often rely on physical phenomena which are still not yet completely understood.
Developments in quantum physics have been used by parapsychologists to try and provide a hypothetical framework for psychic abilities. The explanations rely on entanglement. Quantum entanglement occurs when two particles interact and then are separated but remained linked despite the distance between them. It has been shown that when something happens to one particle, the other will also react simultaneously, which means information travelled from one particle to the other faster than light (Clarke, 2007). This has been incorporated by parapsychologists into explanations of telepathy. Chris Clarke, postulates that particles in some person A’s brain can become entangled with particles in some person B’s brain. The two individuals would then be linked despite the physical distance between them. Brain activity in person A would then affect person B allowing for thoughts to pass between the two without any explicit communication (Clarke, 2007). William Roll and Bryan Williams extend this explanation of telepathy to precognition. They state that precognition may be the result of two brains in different points in time becoming entangled with one another. According to this hypothesis the brain of a person may become entangled with his own brain and some future point. When the future version experiences some event, the thoughts are transferred to the mind in the past, giving the person a warning of future events (Roll and Williams, 2008).
In addition to quantum mechanics, parapsychological explanations have also incorporated particle physics. Tachyons are hypothetical particles which travel faster than light and may be used to explain precognition. Tachyons travel faster than light, which, according to special relativity, means they would theoretically be able to travel back in time, which may allow for communication from the future to the past (Dobbs, 1965). Adrian Dobbs proposes the existence of particles he calls “psitrons”. These psitrons, like tachyons, travel faster than light, allowing them to travel backwards in time and contact the brain. The particles would travel from a mind experiencing some event, to an earlier point in time and give a warning of the future (Dobbs 1965).

Public Perception


Despite the fact that the scientific community has rejected parapsychology and claims of the supernatural, the majority of the population still believes in the paranormal. According to a study conducted by Susan Blackmore, 59% of the population believe in some sort of paranormal events (Blackmore, 1997). Furthermore, Michael Thalbourne conducted research to find if there are certain qualities which correlate with belief in the paranormal. He found that paranormal beliefs are significantly associated with magical ideation, dogmatism, neuroticism and an external locus of control (Thalbourne et al. 1995).

But is Parapsychology a Science?


Experimental Results


Parapsychological research was at its height in the 20th century and many experiments were devised and conducted. Papers were published which reported positive result, however there were potential issues in methodology with many studies. Positive results were found in the case of telepathy with the Ganzfield experiment. The experiment involves filling the senses with unpatterned stimuli, which the brain blocks out, resulting in sensory deprivation (Hyman, 1985). The hypothesis is that in this state of consciousness, the mind will be more receptive to psi phenomena. Experiments were conducting in which a receiver is put into the Ganzfield state and a sender is shown a picture while mentally projecting it to the receiver. The receiver is then shown 4 pictures and asked to pick which one the sender saw. Multiple experiments found positive results, however a meta-study concluded that the data is too weak to confirm telepathy. Firstly, the experimenters conducted multiple tests without using the correct statistical methods which resulted in raising the significance level, causing false positives. Also, there were errors in randomization and documentation, which invalidates the tests results (Hyman, 1985).
A Subject undergoing the Ganzfield Procedure
A Subject undergoing the Ganzfield Procedure

In addition to telepathy, experiments have been conducted to research psychokinesis. One experiment involves having a subject attempt to influence the results of a random number generator. If the chosen number is significantly more common that it should be if random, a psychokinetic effect may have been observed (Bosch et al. 2006). A meta-study was led to examine multiple experiments which found evidence corroborating psychokinesis. The study found that in all the experiments the effect sizes were very small compared to the sample sizes. The researchers ran a Monte Carlo simulation, which is a mathematical simulation which can be used to analyze the statistics of possible results. The simulations found that the results of the experiments on psychokinesis were likely due to a publication bias (Bosch et al. 2006).
A common experiment used to test for clairvoyance involves having subjects guess the next card in a deck. Initial experiments found significant results; however there were many criticisms raised over the validity of the experiment due to how easy it was to cheat (Cox, 1936). A study was conducted to see if the results can be replicated under more stringent conditions. The study was conducted using a regular deck of 52 playing cards and no significant results could be found across the average, or in any one particular person (Cox, 1936). Not one of the participant was able to guess the next card any more successfully than it would be expected if done at random. Parapsychological claims have been largely found to be untrue under more stringent control and are generally rejected by the scientific community.

Theoretical Framework


Many criticisms held against parapsychology is that there is no underlying and widely accepted theory. Attempts have been made to explain the mechanism for some cases of extrasensory perception, though they are merely conjecture and do not rest on firm reasoning. One explanation relies on quantum entanglement as the cause of telepathy. The first issue is that two particles become entangled when they are produced together, which is not the case for the particles in two different people’s brains. Secondly, quantum entanglement describes the quantum states of subatomic particles and does not describe the macroscopic world. Furthermore the application of quantum entanglement to precognition is flawed because entangled particles react simultaneously, not across points in time. The psitron hypothesis relies on a particle that is only hypothetical and never been experimentally verified and also there is no neurological evidence that the brain interacts with particles aside from those in everyday matter (i.e. protons, neutron and electrons) which could not act as tachyons because tachyons must have imaginary mass in order to allow them to travel faster than light. The lack of a solid theoretical framework is detrimental to parapsychology because there are no hypotheses which can be tested. Parapsychological experiments are usually attempts to find specific phenomena which results in data mining. Science is usually trying to explain observed phenomena, whereas parapsychologists are trying to observe unexplainable phenomena.

Why Parapsychology is a Pseudoscience


Demarcation Criteria


In order to determine whether or not parapsychology is truly a science, there must be criteria to delineate between science and pseudoscience. Verificationism holds scientific claims are distinguished from unscientific claims by their verifiability. Claims which are unscientific cannot be verified because they are untrue. Likewise, if something could be verified, then it must be science. Karl Popper (1963) rejected this claim, postulating that falsifiability, not verifiability, is the criterion separating science and pseudoscience.
Popper denied that verification was what makes something science. Popper argued that verification is often used by obviously pseudoscientific sources and is usually their claim to legitimacy. He states that verification can be used to support any theory. When one is looking to prove a theory correct, they can go through large amounts of information and pick out of it the few points that support their claim and discard everything which stands against it (Popper, 1963). For example, if one wishes to prove that astrology is true, one can look through vast amounts of cases involving horoscopes and then point to situations where the horoscope did come true. Many people will remember a few instances where their own horoscope came true, but will exclude every other day when it did not come true. Also, there are many cases where any circumstance can be explained through the lens of a particular theory. Popper gives the example of Freudian and Adlerian psychology. Two opposite circumstances, one where a man drowns a child and one where a man risks his life to save the child, can both be explained by both schools of psychology (Popper, 1963). This cannot be used to support the claims of one psychologist over the other. If one is looking for verification, one will find instances to verify any theory, even if it is unscientific.
Popper claims that falsification is the mark of truly scientific theories. He states that a hypothesis is scientific if it can conceivably be falsified. This is in contrast to unscientific claims which are unfalsifiable, such as metaphysical and religious claims (Popper, 1963). For example claims such as “the world is a computer simulation” or “an omnipotent being created the universe” are unscientific because there is no possible test which could come back with a result that would falsify the hypotheses. Certain studies attempt to look scientific but are made to be irrefutable, so they are pseudoscience. Popper gives the example of astrology, which has numerous observations but cannot be falsified. Horoscopes are written to be so vague, that they could match any scenario, they are made to be irrefutable (Popper, 1963). Also, pseudoscientific claims can account for any contrary evidence. For example, if one finds a horoscope that does not properly describe their day, an astrologer could always claim that it was read to literally, or even that their skepticism unbalanced the energies of the stars, or something equally vague. Due to a lack of explanation for their beliefs, any discrediting evidence can be dismissed. Truly scientific claims can be falsified, Popper gives the example of the theory of general relativity, which describes the way in which objects of mass bend space-time. The theory makes very specific predictions about the way in which the path that light takes should bend when travelling through gravitational fields. An eclipse offered an opportunity to observe whether the apparent position of a distant star would have changed due to the sun’s gravity. If the star’s position did not change, relativity would be falsified (Popper, 1963). Furthermore, falsification is deductive because if a hypothesis H implies a prediction P and P is untrue, by modus tollens, the hypothesis is untrue. The star’s position did change, which corroborates but does not confirm general relativity (Popper, 1963). Scientific theories make bold predictions which can be falsified, in contrast to pseudoscience which is irrefutable and accounts for all disproving evidence.
Popper rejected verificationism. He argued that any theory can find and bend evidence into verification. Also, verification is inductive, so there is no way to know for sure what is true. On the other hand, falsification rests on deduction, so falsified theories can be known to be false. By this way science is constantly self-correcting. Incorrect theories are disproved and rejected in favour of theories with high degrees of corroboration.

Why Parapsychology does not Meet this Criteria


Parapsychology is a pseudoscience because it does not fit the above criteria. Firstly, Parapsychology does not follow Popper’s criteria of falsification and maintains beliefs which are contrary to the established body of scientific evidence.
Parapsychology is not science because it does not fulfill Popper’s criterion of falsification. Popper rejects verification as a condition of science, yet parapsychology is focused on finding instances which confirm the existence of paranormal phenomenon. Popper rejected verificationism because it can be used to filter information in order to prove a point. Numerous experiments have been done to prove the existence of psychokinesis, yet a meta-analysis found that the effect size was always small compared to the sample size and the verifications were most likely due to publication bias. Finding positive instances will not ensure that parapsychology is not pseudoscience, however falsifying the claims should discredit the study. At first, parapsychology may seem falsifiable, but the concepts which it aims to prove are so loosely defined and the explanatory mechanism is non-existent so refutations can easily be accounted for. In the 20th century there were studies which supported parapsychological claims and warranted further investigation, however under better conditions and a revised methodology many reported phenomena, such as telepathy, psychokinesis and clairvoyance, were disproved. Parapsychologists can find ways around this, for example, it could be that the subjects were not “sensitive” or there was a disturbance in psychic “energies”. Since there is no established meaning to being “sensitive” or what psychic “energy” is, there is no way to refute these explanations. Parapsychology is a pseudoscience because it is focused on verifying the existence of unexplained phenomena which are so loosely defined that they are irrefutable.
Furthermore, parapsychology is pseudoscientific because in goes against the entire established scientific body of knowledge. Science is a process used to accumulate an ever growing body of information. New discoveries can be made in light of the established knowledge. For example, Einstein could only discover special relativity after it was known that the speed of light is the same, regardless of the frame of reference. An essential feature of science is that it involves using newly discovered facts to see even farther and discover more. Parapsychology disregards the established facts and supports claims which are considered impossible, such as telepathy or psychokinesis. Scientific knowledge should not be treated as dogma and is always open to falsification, however very concrete evidence is necessary and the small amounts of evidence found by parapsychologists have been refuted. More so, the claims of parapsychology have no natural explanation and appeal to supernatural ideas, which does not fit into science’s existing network of knowledge. Overall, parapsychology claims that established laws of physics can be broken and has no theoretical or empirical basis for this hypothesis.

Why Parapsychology is a Problem


Parapsychology is empirically unfounded and a pseudoscience, but is still believed by many people. This is problematic because it is not in accordance with the facts and may result in financial issues. Firstly, a belief in parapsychology is not in accordance with facts. There is an inherent benefit in being in agreement with reality. Humans are naturally curious and driven towards knowledge. Parapsychological research is pseudoscientific and claims of paranormal phenomenon have been disproven. By believing in something which is incorrect people are distancing themselves from the truth, despite the fact that there is an abundance of evidence which give reason not to believe in parapsychology. In addition there may be financial repercussions to believing in parapsychology. If one spends money on psychics and mentalists who claim to have special psychic abilities, they are wasting their money on fraud. All in all, parapsychology is a pseudoscience which should be avoided to live according to the facts and prevent financial problems.

Conclusion


Overall, parapsychology is a pseudoscience. Science should constantly be seeking out and testing new hypotheses and ideas, even if they seem absurd. It would have been unscientific had parapsychology been ignored as a possible field of research. Claims of telepathy and psychokinesis warrant investigation. More so, the positive results in the early history of parapsychology rationalize further research into these topics. However, as methodology increased, claims of psychic powers were refuted at which point parapsychology should have been abandoned. To avoid falsifications, several ad hoc explanation can be used, which makes parapsychology irrefutable, and a pseudoscience. This is problematic because many people continue to believe in parapsychology and allow it to influence their lives, which can cause problems, such as financial issues.

References

  1. Beloff, J. (1993). Parapsychology: A concise history. (1st ed.). New York (NY): St. Martin’s Press.
  2. Blackmore, S.J. (1997). Probability misjudgment and belief in the paranormal: a newspaper survey. British Journal of Psychology, 88, 683-689.
  3. Bosch, H., Steinkamp, F. and Boller, E. (2006). Examining Psychokinesis: The interaction of human intention with random number generators – a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 142 (4), 497-523.
  4. Clarke, C. (2007). A new quantum theoretical framework for parapsychology. European Journal of Parapsychology, 23(1), 3-30.
  5. Cox, W. S. (1936). An experiment on extra-sensory perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 19 (4), 429-437.
  6. Dobbs, H. (1965). Time and extrasensory perception. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 249–361.
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  8. Roll, W.G., Williams, B.J. (2008). Parapsychology and quantum entanglement. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention
  9. Thalbourne, M.A., Dunbar, K.A. and Delin, P.S. (1995). An investigation into correlates of belief in the paranormal. Journal of the American Society of Psychical Research. 89, 215-231.