Skeptics, Believers, and the Purposes of Parapsychology: Thoughts on Two Experiments in Unseen Realities
I’m afraid there is something missing in our cultural discussion of psi phenomena. With both sides (skeptics and the pro-psi crowd) mired in a battle of believers, and with scientific exploration devolving into polemical argumentation, the fact that parapsychology is an exploration of human potential and the boundaries of experience receives frequent lip service but isn’t actually kept at the forefront of the debate. The irony of this state of affairs is especially glaring in light of the terminology that parapsychologists have deliberately adopted for the purpose of establishing a neutral and disinterested realm of discourse. As Dale Graff, a physicist and former Director of the STARGATE Remote Viewing program, points out in his article “Resistances to Psi”:
Parapsychology is the science that examines phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP), telepathy, clairvoyance, remote viewing, and precognition. It also explores psychokinesis and distant healing, interactions that seem to be mediated by mental intention alone. These phenomena are referred to as “psi” — the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, meaning “unknown.” This neutral label helps minimize judgments about explanatory mechanism and cultural biases that might be associated with some of the older terms.
— Dale Graff, “Resistances to Psi,” 2009
The gap between the real scientific study of parapsychology and the ideologically slanted pursuit of foregone conclusions was illustrated in October by two separate and very interesting tests that were conducted on the phenomenon of mediumship. Each took a radically different approach from the other. One was conducted by three people — Chris C. French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, London, Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, and science writer Simon Singh — who designed an experiment that they presented to popular UK performers as a “challenge” to prove their mediumship. In the other experiment, Leonard George, a psychology professor at Capilano University, decided to try mediumship himself with the help of some training from the famous Spiritualist community at Lily Dale, NY.
As you may imagine, the differences in approach led to distinctly different results. It is really striking to consider George’s work immediately alongside the “psychic challenge” presented by French, Marshall, and Singh, because the difference in methodology brings out many important issues associated with the question of what exactly we’re seeking to prove with such experiments. Although experimental design should seek to explore deeper implications of the data, preconceived ideas about the data can lead to experiments that are designed to foster ideologically relevant results instead of providing a true picture of what is going on. This obviously occurs on both sides of the debate over the existence of psi, and it’s a problem that needs to be seriously considered.
In the cases at hand, we should first consider the identities of the people involved in the experiments. The “psychic challenge” was designed and carried out by a skeptical psychologist, a member of the skeptical subculture, and a science writer. As indicated by the experiment’s popular name, it was designed and presented as a “challenge” to the purported reality of psi. By contrast, the experiment at Lily Dale was carried out by a skeptical but open-minded psychologist who took an almost ethnographic approach. Immediately, we begin to see the inherent motivations that were at play in each experiment, starting from the very fact of who conducted the research.
French described the background to the “psychic challenge” and the procedures he and his colleagues used in a column at The Guardian:
As regular readers of my column might remember, in 2009 Pat [i.e., Patricia Putt, an experienced medium] took part in a preliminary test for the James Randi Educational Foundation Million Dollar Challenge. The test took place at Goldsmiths, University of London and was administered by myself and Professor Richard Wiseman. Although her previous test failed to show evidence of her mediumship, Pat’s involvement in our latest challenge clearly speaks to her sincere belief in her abilities as a medium.
This year’s test was carried out on 21 October under the supervision of myself, Simon Singh and Michael Marshall, once again at Goldsmiths. We could not have carried out the test without a small army of volunteer helpers, five volunteer “sitters” and, of course, our two psychics. We would like to take this opportunity to express our sincere thanks to all concerned, but especially our psychics.
The test was simple. Our psychics each did a reading for each of the five sitters, all of whom were women between the ages of 18 and 30. The sitters sat concealed behind a screen while the psychics wrote down their readings. These could contain any information that the psychics felt would help our volunteers recognize themselves in the reading. Meanwhile the sitters were instructed to sit and think about the kind of issues that they might expect a psychic to tell them about.
— Chris French, “Halloween challenge: psychics submit their powers to a scientific trial,” The Guardian, October 31, 2012
Especially telling is his decision to bring in Marshall, a member of the skeptical subculture who had no real expertise or authority to comment on the findings, and who represented an obviously biased perspective. One might validly observe that somebody whose media persona is defined by his having a leadership role in a local skeptics’ group has already placed himself in a position that rules out any meaningful involvement in the field beyond serving as a media pundit for a narrowly defined worldview. But Marshall was indeed brought in as a co-organizer, and his central role, at least as described in the media reporting of the event, immediately calls into question the validity of the experimental results. Similarly, Simon Singh, who is simply a science writer, was given a deeper level of engagement in the experiment than would appear to have been necessary from his journalistic credentials. More than being listed as an observer, he was reported as a full collaborator.
While membership in a subculture club doesn’t automatically raise questions or concerns about a person’s participation in a scientific experiment, when such membership is the sole reason for his or her involvement, and when the person is actually brought in on the experimental design, this raises red flags. Historically, especially in the early days of psychical research, an assorted group of collaborators on a project like this would have included top-level scientists from a variety of fields. But the creators of the UK “psychic challenge” were a motley group indeed, in which only one person — and one with an admitted bias, no less — possessed any kind of expertise that would have been helpful in making the experiment an honest inquiry into the targeted phenomenon.
From this, what we begin to take away is a recognition that the main impetus here was not on scientific knowledge-gathering but on publicity — it sounds like the opening line of a joke, after all: “A club organizer, a science writer, and a popular scientist with a Guardian column come up with a ‘psychic challenge'” — and also on the experiment’s social implications. This is further indicated by the media reportage, which framed the experiment as a kind of gauntlet thrown in the face of performance artists who claim psychic abilities. One begins to picture P.T. Barnum, and not any reputable scientist, as the ideological forefather of this approach. Dramatic presentations like this were the failing of psychical researchers like Harry Price, whose intermixing of scientific investigation with, at times, ill-thought showmanship has caused his analyses to be called into question. We should be no less ready to bring the same critique against skeptical investigations that show the same disregard for proper protocols.
This comes even before we can begin to look at the methodology of any given experiment itself, which may be entirely sound. However, these are still compromised if there are extended circumstances that would lead even a good methodology to reproduce unreliable conclusions. All of the prior research shows that designing a test in the way that French and his cohorts designed theirs will lead to poor results. Their approach is equivalent to picking two random people from a junior high basketball team and testing them as if they were Olympic level athletes, and then, when they don’t perform well, declaring that this was the highest level of achievement possible.
Inadequacies in this approach have been recently highlighted by the tests on Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who is demonstrating “unheard of” neurological results during his meditation trials. Here we see direct proof that not all minds are the same, and that proper training can lead to vastly different results in objective scientific measurements of consciousness. What’s more, when we consider this information in light of the long history of skepticism from both scientists and the media regarding the very tangible brain changes that occur in frequent meditators, we see even more clearly how biased research can cloud progress even when it comes to phenomena that aren’t as controversial as psi. It’s also important to recognize how this affects social policy. How many decades have been wasted designing and implementing social programs based on supposedly scientific findings that don’t properly map to reality?
“With both sides (skeptics and the pro-psi crowd) mired in a battle of believers, and with scientific exploration devolving into polemical argumentation, the fact that parapsychology is an exploration of human potential and the boundaries of experience receives frequent lip service but isn’t actually kept at the forefront of the debate.”
What might have come out of this most recent experiment conducted by French et. al., and what may be available from the data collected, is useful information about how belief in psychic abilities can be mapped out in the psychological profiles of the participants. After all, what other possible information could you hope to get by testing someone (Patricia Putt) who was willing to submit to a test of her psychic abilities when she had already failed a previous and similar test of her psychic abilities? One is reminded of the Soviet-era trials, in which the verdict was preordained and expert witnesses were brought in by the prosecution simply to confirm it.
In other words, one possibility for a productive alternate use of the “psychic challenge” would be to examine not the possibility of psychic abilities as such but the persons of the self-proclaimed psychics themselves, and to try to garner data that can show why they feel their claims are sound despite evidence to the contrary. This has been an approach explored by scientists such as Christine Simmonds-Moore at the University of West Georgia, Chris Roe at the University of Northampton, and a number of other psychologists who have been furthering investigation into clinical approaches for investigating anomalous human experiences while developing a better understanding of the psycho-social factors relevant to these experiences. This direction holds great promise for uniting skeptical researchers with psi-sympathetic ones, since those who identify closely with the skeptical subculture could still operate within their existing prejudice while providing a valuable function within the larger field of research by approaching these issues using a clinical model.
In his recent book The Rational Psychic, Jack Rourke has some interesting bits about running personality profiles on people who purport to be psychic, and about how certain anomalies present in “borderline personality disorder,” such as increased empathetic response, can often be correlated with claims of experiencing anomalous intuition. The point is an important one: to start with purported psychics and then test them as if they can really perform doesn’t tell us anything except for whether or not they can really perform. And this, in itself, doesn’t even begin to give us the really important knowledge that we should be seeking to gain from such research. The level of analysis that needs to be done prior to the actual testing of psychic performance is extensive, in order to see exactly where a person’s psychological profile fits and what factors might be leading to his or her experiences of anomalous perception. Only then, when enough people have been tested along these lines, can it be determined who the best candidates are for putting in control groups and who the best ones are for submitting to tests for “legit” psychical experiences. This is the procedure followed at, for example, the Windbridge Institute for Applied Human Potential prior to testing mediums in any area indicative of their claimed abilities. Designing experiments that really test the phenomena in question, as opposed to designing experiments that are really nothing but polemical tools for debunking, requires that researchers vet effective experiencers to see if their skill set is adequate for further testing.
The fact that [spiritual medium and healer] Kim [Whitton] and Pat have both been successful professional psychics for many years, and no doubt have many satisfied clients, appears to be at odds with the results of our test. It is possible that they really do have psychic powers but that the particular conditions of our test were such that they could not operate on the day. However, both of our psychics expressed high levels of confidence after each reading.
Instead, it seems more likely that both Kim and Pat are highly intuitive individuals who unconsciously use a form of cold reading when giving readings in their daily lives. In other words, their readings are based upon information they have picked up from their clients using their ordinary senses, even though they are not consciously aware of it.
[…] For this year’s Halloween challenge, then, the conclusion has to be that we have yet to find any plausible evidence that psychics can do what they say they can do. But we are extremely grateful to our two psychics who were prepared to put their claims to the test. I wonder, is there any chance that next year Sally Morgan will follow in their footsteps?
— French, “Halloween challenge”
This focus on performance artists like Sally Morgan can serve as a valuable critique when kept in its proper place, but the issues surrounding figures like Morgan are separate from scientific research into anomalous human experiences. As part of the media buildup to the challenge, French wrote a powerful article on just how lucrative psychic fraud can be:
Making reasonable guesses about these costs, her net revenue for the month of February still appears to be over £450,000. And that does not include any income from the sale of programmes, books, DVDs, and so on. A huge amount of merchandise is sold, with payment in cash, both before and after the shows, not to mention sales of these products through other outlets (including online sales) not directly associated with her tour.
Sally even has her own jewellery range. And then there is the income from her psychic text and phone lines, not to mention the money she makes from her TV series that is screened in several countries. As Martin’s figure of £450,000 for April is based upon 18 shows, that means on average she makes £25,000 per show — just short of £26,000, which is the average annual income of households in the UK.
The bottom line is that if Sally tours for, say, 10 months of the year, she is almost certainly making at least £5m per annum, just from her stage shows. If you were her, would you agree to take part in a test that you’d almost certainly fail unless you had genuine psychic powers — and that would only reward you with a paltry million dollars even if you managed somehow to pass it?
— Chris French, “Why won’t psychic Sally Morgan accept our invitation to test her powers?” The Guardian, October 22, 2012
This is an important issue that truly needs to be addressed. However, without a careful methodology and a clear focus to establish what issues are being investigated, a focus on it falls outside the realm of scientific experimentation as such. The weaknesses apparent in the design of the “psychic challenge” are nowhere clearer than in a statement from Marshall in the BBC coverage of the experiment, where he flatly claims that the experiment “showed that claims to have special abilities ‘aren’t based in reality.'” This, from testing two self-proclaimed “professional” psychics in an experiment that was admittedly designed to demonstrate fraud in professional performers. This is rather disheartening in its logic-chopping for a conclusion that is supposed to be coming from those who are seeking scientific honesty and rational investigation. It negates any claim Marshall may have had to pursuing these tests under the auspices of sound scientific inquiry.
The fact is that with only two people included in the pool of test subjects, there is no way to legitimize any conclusions arising out of the psychic challenge that go beyond the personal psychology these individuals. If the researchers had focused their attention and efforts on the broader realm of science in general, and if they had insisted on an experimental design that would yield relevant data for this broader focus, their test would have had much greater value. But instead, it seems to have been designed to focus on how the inevitable failure of their test subjects could be highlighted in the media to further a social agenda.
One of the most damaging aspects of the debunking mindset — which is clear in the specific focus of this test on popular figures like Sally Morgan, and also in the unclarified reductionist materialism that attends so much skeptical investigation — is that it limits the insights we can gain from the data surrounding exceptional human experiences. When conducting initial research, there is no a priori reason to limit the causal mechanisms that may be at work in a given area. But as Rupert Sheldrake has pointed out for years, reductionist materialism is a metaphysical worldview resting on underlying assumptions that do not necessarily correlate with the data being gathered. Our self-imposed boundaries set the limits for our development within a certain context. In fact, boundaries, by their very nature, define that context.
What lies beyond them is the potential for change and growth into new contexts. However, since this “beyond” exists outside the context of the familiar pattern, this is where a truly scientific approach to the data is necessary. And this is what has been lacking in much of the contemporary research and discourse surrounding psi. Unfortunately, it’s this very lack that has provided much of the impetus on both the skeptical and pro-psi sides to reach conclusions prior to gaining a full understanding of the data. One of the consistent failings of the radical skeptical movement has been a failure to develop a coherent explanation for the data gathered in their research. On the other side, and in the same way, pro-psi researchers have not yet been able to develop a causal explanation that fully embraces all of the information gathered in their own research.
While ethnographic approaches are not exactly suited to produce replicable scientific results, one is nevertheless left with the feeling that, in any comparison of the UK psychic challenge to Leonard George’s experimental engagement with the Spiritualist community at Lily Dale, George’s experiment is the more authentically scientific of the two. He admits the methodological weaknesses in his approach where they are present, and he draws the conclusion that more structured study is necessary in order to explain the anomalous experiences that he had during his Spiritualist training, and later during his direct mediumship trials. This, and nothing more nor less, is what was available and could be concluded from the data he collected through his experiences. He does not draw unwarranted conclusions based on what he found. Rather, he admits where the limitations exist, and he calls for further investigation:
Weighing the various philosophical options, George reflected hard on whether his image of a black woman named Mabel, of his father on a marble bench and of celestial lights as his spirit guides provided evidence of an afterlife. They had a strong personal resonance, for certain. But was George ultimately convinced that it is possible to communicate with spirits of dead people?
“I didn’t cross the Rubicon,” was his answer.
He has not adopted spiritualist metaphysics since his summer apprenticeship as a medium. And he did not come away feeling he had “scientific proof” humans can psychically connect with people, including beings in an afterlife. But that doesn’t mean he is not open to the possibility. “There is an unseen reality,” George said confidently. “But I’m not committed to what spiritualists say it is.”
— Douglas Todd, “The medium’s apprentice,” The Vancouver Sun, October 30, 2012
It is important to note that George obviously came to his research with some prior experience in these areas that inclined him toward a worldview where psi-phenomena remain a possibility. Significantly, his professional specialization in abnormal psychology is attended by an interest in Neo-Platonism and theories of mind that were developed by Renaissance thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino:
George made his pilgrimage to Lily Dale after publishing two related books, The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics and Alternative Realities: the Paranormal, the Mystic and the Transcendent in Human Experience. Since he retains a scientific mindset, George seeks evidence for the unexplained. He teaches courses on abnormal psychology (for example, mental illness) and biological psychology (e.g.: neuroscience). His office is jammed with conventional books on psychology.
He also has a small skull on display in his small office, which looks out on towering North Vancouver evergreens. The skull reminds him of “memento mori,” which is Latin for how our time on Earth “is limited.” There is on the wall, in addition, a poster of his favourite philosopher, the Second Century Syrian known as Iamblichus, an admirer of Plato’s theories about the nature of reality and divinity.
— Todd, “The medium’s apprentice”
Unlike Marshall’s association with the skeptical subculture, which limits the possibilities of engagement with anomalous phenomena, George’s broader focus allows him to adequately understand the development of our experiences in these areas. In either case, we need to be aware of how these preexisting biases might affect the results of experimentation.
It is also important to remain aware of how such biases have played into past cultural events. Consider, for example, the official attitude toward parapsychology that was taken by both the government of the Soviet Union and one of America’s leading skeptical organizations. L.L. Vasiliev, of the Leningrad Institute for Brain Research, was Russia’s foremost parapsychologist and the author of Experiments in Mental Suggestion. In the introduction to the 1976 edition of his book, Anita Gregory, a lecturer in psychology and philosophy at the Polytechnic of North London, included a very poignant view of the Soviet idea of psi research:
In the 1956 edition of the Soviet Encyclopaedia the entry under “telepathy” called it “an anti-social, idealist fiction about man’s supernatural power to perceive phenomena which, considering the time and place, cannot be perceived.
Compare this with the famous 1985 statement from America’s über-skeptical Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal (CSICOP) on psi-phenomena:
Belief in paranormal phenomena is still growing, and the dangers to our society are real.
— Quoted by George P. Hansen in “CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview,” The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research Vol. 86, No. 1 (January 1992), reprinted at The Trickster and the Paranormal
Note how the specter of authoritarian ideologies is raised first in the official Soviet labeling of telepathy as “anti-social” (in the context of rejecting its reality) and then in the bias that openly underlies the skeptical worldview represented by one of radical skepticism’s most prominent and vocal organizations. Also recall that this trend can even be seen in the cultural context that surrounded the Renaissance thinkers who are of such interest to Leonard George. These individuals were very focused on scientific inquiry into human potential, and this put them at dangerous odds with the religious orthodoxy of the time. In today’s skeptical movement, which claims to stand in defense of proper science, there is a strange continuance of the kind of authoritarian mindset that science has so long opposed. One of the most disturbing things one experiences when investigating the history of psychical research is to witness how the level of debate around these issues has degenerated since the advent of CSICOP in the 1970’s. Serious, sober skepticism has been replaced by the most pedantic, silly, and closed-minded polemics. And this is occurring in an area that, as I stated at the outset, is devoted to exploring one of the most important subjects imaginable, that of human potential.
In his book The Science of Seership (1929), Theosophist and psi-proponent Gregory Hodson gave a description of the “anti-social” values — as the Soviets or CSICOP might call them — that are recommended to be embraced by believers in anomalous psychic functioning:
Any expansion of consciousness is valueless unless the personal vehicles of thought, feeling and action are sufficiently refined to receive and express its results. In order to achieve refinement of the vehicles a strictly ethical and aesthetic mode of life must be adopted; everything which is contrary to the highest ethical and cultural ideals must be avoided. All tendency to coarseness and self-indulgence must be gradually eliminated. The mind must be purified by pure thinking, and the feelings cleansed by resistance to every impure emotion. The body, in its turn, must be made healthy, responsive and as pure as possible by scrupulous personal cleanliness, a pure diet, and complete obedience to the laws of health.
… The law of life is the law of love, not of death. If we choose the way of life its laws must be obeyed, for disaster will quickly follow disobedience. These laws may be summed up as purification of thought, refinement of feeling, and control of bodily conduct. The neophyte must settle down to steady self-training, never forgetting the object in view, which is the development to the highest possible degree of will power, wisdom and knowledge, and the attainment of the glorious goal of ever-widening fields of service.
Hodson’s words illustrate one of the consistent areas of confusion that I’ve discovered while investigating the history of psychical research: at all points, those investigating psi who err on the side of an overly positive advance attitude toward it have tied it to an extreme advance in our understanding of human existence, while those who err on the side of skepticism speak of superstition, social dangers, and other extremely negative consequences.
I deliberately chose to quote here from a Theosophist, because the same hesitancy that we face in accepting the possible objectivity of such a source should come into play when we consider those who are proponents of radical skepticism, which is really no different from the non-religious but belief-based ideology held by Theosophists. These polarities have been heightened in today’s public discourse due to the increased speed of the media cycle, and by the distinct lack of attendant increase in the media’s ability to handle information effectively. This makes it even more vital for researchers to clarify and address any ideological issues inherent in their approaches.
“Without a proper understanding of why we are investigating these areas, these things, these phenomena, these experiences, any information that we gather becomes quickly confused. It’s vitally important to ask the overarching “why” questions, especially when we currently stand at a crossroads in terms of technology and human potential.”
Following the lead of theorists such as Jeffery Kripal of Rice University, who is trying to open the conversation around these issues through a broader, multidisciplinary focus, George says he plans on utilizing his personal experience of Spiritualism by creating specific college courses about these subjects. No matter what we believe about psychic functioning, the centuries of anecdotal data and the continued reports of anomalous experiences and phenomena in the contemporary world need to be addressed, and George aids in this by bringing back a deeper understanding of what we mean when we talk about imagination, an understanding that fits closer to what people historically meant when they used this term in serious discussion, and that can help to mitigate undue enthusiasm on either side of the issue. As reported in the Vancouver Sun article, George
was…convinced most spiritualists are having meaningful experiences that provide what he calls “personal proof” of another realm. These experiences tend, he noted, to make them more confident and resilient than most people.
Building on some of the themes about the parapsychological that he touches on in his Halloween lecture, George is planning to offer a unique psychology course called Concepts of the Imagination in the fall of 2013. One thing George will propose during the credit course will be that people who employ their spiritual imaginations are “actually making contact with something real,” which could include parapsychological phenomena.
When people in the everyday world develop a relationship with the realm of the unseen, George said, it is almost inevitable that “sparks will fly” – just as they do when two sticks are rubbed together.
— Todd, “The medium’s apprentice”
To return to our original dichotomy — Leonard George’s training in a modern-day Spiritualist community vs. the UK’s recent “psychic challenge” — we can clearly see a divergence of purpose between these two experiments. George focuses on how the extraordinary experiences of inner vision, spiritual communication, and the like can be studied to further our understanding of the human condition no matter what their source. He also emphasizes the positive aspects of the experiences — which, not incidentally, are supported by the data on exceptional human experience — and on keeping the final question open until further study can be done. French, on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on debunking popular performers, with the two psychics who submitted to his testing acting as stand-ins for prominent celebrity psychics who would not agree to public tests of their performance.
Without a proper understanding of why we are investigating these areas, these things, these phenomena, these experiences, any information that we gather becomes quickly confused. It’s vitally important to ask the overarching “why” questions, especially when we currently stand at a crossroads in terms of technology and human potential. Movements such as Trans- and Post-Humanism will not wait for believers to hash out their disputes before supporting radical changes in the way technology interfaces with our lives, and in the interim we are losing sight on what we may capable of prior to any such technological augmentations.
The differences in the approaches taken by Leonard George and Chris French provide an important starting point for reassessing the purpose and scientific viability of our investigations of human potential. Recognizing them should be seen as a starting point for renewing proper scientific review of these areas. Debunking fraud should not be the sole impetus for scientific experimentation, nor should undue credulity form the basis for our conclusions. We need clear vision to see the proper outlines for observation and phenomena, and also a clear idea of our biases, in order to get past the current deadlock in the media surrounding the scientific community. When the radical skeptics begin sounding like, and in some ways acting like, Soviet-era propagandists and/or apologists for religious orthodoxy during the Renaissance, we need to seriously reconsider the drift our cultural conversation is taking and the value of realigning our exploration toward more fruitful avenues.
Posted on November 14, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged Chris C. French, Experimental Protocols, Leonard George, Lily Dale, Mediumship, Psi, Psychic Challenge. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.