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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. Read the rest of this entry