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A Skeptic Gets Schooled: An Introduction to Parapsychology

Kylie Sturgess

Volume 20.1, March 2010

While boarding a flight from Singapore to London, I zipped a text message to my husband asking him to quickly sign me up for the first round of an online course in parapsychology before places ran out. I knew that when I landed, I was going to have to explain myself. For thirteen hours of flight time, I had some time to ponder it myself!

When I eagerly talked about what I planned to do, close acquaintances ex­claimed in bemused horror: “But they’re the weirdos who believe it all, aren’t they?” One even pointed out that when she heard I was studying anything to do with the para­normal in the first place, she thought I must be certifiably mad: “If you come out of this tipping tables and flashing those funny-shape cards everywhere you go . . .”

So what led me to try a ten-week online course called “Introduction to Parapsy­chol­ogy”? First, the course is run by the Koest­ler Parapsychology Unit, based in the Psychology Department at the University of Edinburgh. Although it offers a non-accredited course, meaning that there is no formal assessment or qualification gained, the de­part­ment appears to be valuable as an authoritative unit on the subject of parapsychology. The course coordinator, Caroline Watt, even coauthored the fifth edition of “An Intro­duction to Parapsy­chol­ogy,” the most frequently adopted text by those presenting academic courses on parapsychology and anomalistic psychology. I had come across her work in conjunction with well-known skeptical figure Richard Wise­man while doing my own MEd studies on paranormal belief. In fact, Wiseman did his PhD in Psychology under the supervision of Edin­burgh’s first Koestler professor of parapsychology, Robert L. Morris.

Within the U.K. and on the European continent, there appears to be a well-established number of parapsychology research groups situated within higher education institutions, for example, the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton and the Ano­malistic Psychology Re­search Unit at Gold­smiths College, University of Lon­don (the alma mater of another researcher I greatly admire, Krissie Wil­son of the University of Tasmania). With representatives of these and many other institutions contributing to the MP3 digitally recorded interviews featured in the course, it just wasn’t a resource I was going to pass up!

The course offers insights not only by those who work within parapsychology but also its critics, with contributors such as James Alcock, Stephen Braude, Donald West, Chris French, Dean Radin, and Deborah Delanoy. Every week we looked at a different aspect, such as the history of parapsychology, theories of psi and ESP, testing ESP and PK in the lab, and belief in the paranormal and testing psychic claimants.

The course comes with several specialist readings to download and message boards where students were allocated a topic to discuss. There are also optional informal self-assessment quizzes, which draw upon the set text for the course.

In addition, early on in my studies on paranormal belief, Caroline Watt herself kindly forwarded me a paper by Harvey J. Irwin, the other coauthor of the course textbook. She sent me a copy of a paper later published in the European Journal of Para­psychology, “The Measurement of Super­­stitiousness as a Component of Para­normal Belief: Some Critical Reflections.” It concluded with:

The construction of a psychometrically adequate index of superstitiousness as a component of paranormal belief would therefore be a challenging project but not a daunting one. Had I the funds, statistical resources, and youthful energy, I would happily undertake this work my­self, but now in semi-retirement I live in the hope that other researchers will take up the challenge.1

Reading books like Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach has also been quite encouraging in this regard; years ago she wrote an article on the late Robert L. Morris of the Uni­versity of Edinburgh’s telepathy work and mentioned how he had cooperated with the skeptic group CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now the Com­mittee for Skep­tical Inquiry [CSI]).2 She talked with eager curiosity and even a certain amount of affection about her adventures investigating spiritualists and the Prince­ton Engineer­ing Anomalies Research (PEAR) labs, including a humorous account of testing Gary Schwartz’s claims. If Mary Roach can do it, then why can’t I?

One comment Roach made in her book has lingered with me: “The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with.” So how much fun are parapsychologists anyway? Because I already knew that I enjoy the company of skeptics who investigate paranormal claims. Would parapsychologists be even more enjoyable? An even bigger question: would I discover evidence that would change my mind?

The course began with signing onto the University of Edinburgh’s WebCT, joining a class of twenty individuals from all over the world, including Australia, Quebec, Greece, Portugal, and Costa Rica. Split into teams of two, we brainstormed names for our groups (“Gorillas United,” “Robbie Williams’ Pants,” and “Pelicans Ahoy” did not, tragically, make the cut). My own group, “Pilot Minds,” settled into the weekly paper readings and MP3 downloads. Since I was traveling during the months that the course was run, it was very useful to load my iPod with the lectures and keep the PDFs on my laptop hard drive for reading on long flights.

The course set a timetable of assignments, for which each student was asked to write one blog entry (a brief statement of the student’s thoughts and opinions on a topic) in order to get a discussion going. Having run a skeptical blog, PodBlack Cat, for over a year, it seemed like a fairly straight-forward request. I was allocated a week that looked at the question “Are parapsychologists just jumping on the ‘weird physics’ bandwagon?”—a very challenging topic that required additional reading just to figure out what quantum physics involved in the first place! The blogs were posted on a standard forum board that was threaded so we could keep track of each other’s responses.

I was very fortunate to have the classmates I did; from the start it was obvious that we were a very mixed bunch. My class was comprised of magicians and psychics, keen psychology buffs, and those who were just plain curious about the course. I did notice that one participant in the other group had some rather passionate pro-ESP views that were accompanied by equally passionate over-application of punctuation marks, but overall the people were highly respectful, literate, and keen to click on links and references that defended views on each topic. I regret that the course concluded before I could fully respond to a fellow student who discussed what he saw as flaws in skeptical approaches to parapsychology and explained why he challenged the views of one of the course’s interviewees.

I was quite intrigued by an optional questionnaire posted at the beginning and conclusion of the course, which investigated our own beliefs about the paranormal. I mused openly on the course forum that it could be an interesting paper topic in itself, and I hope that it is considered in the future. By the conclusion of the course, I was probably not any more convinced about the existence of psi or ESP. However, since the course encouraged the terms advocates and counter-advocates to describe people defending their beliefs and disbeliefs, respectively, I feel I am more committed to seeing skepticism as a true “middle position” on claims of the paranormal. Mary Roach might very well have to change her conclusions to say that mixing skeptics and the believers can make for a very fascinating and challenging experience.

Jean-Michel Abrassart, a fellow podcaster and blogger at Scepticisme Scientifique who signed up in 2009 after hearing a report about the course on The Skeptic Zone podcast, had this to say about it:

The course is well-balanced between skeptics and proponents. As a fan of Chris French, Richard Wiseman, Susan Black­more, Ray Hyman, James Alcock or C.E.M. Hansel, I really enjoyed this “Intro­­duction to Parapsychology.” There is a huge gap between the parapsychological and the skeptic community: Dr. Watt’s course may be able to build some bridges between those. I just hope that skeptics who want to be able to speak about parapsychology in an informed manner will take it too.

The Web site for the course is hosted at www.koestler-parapsychology.psy.ed.ac.uk/
teachingOpenStudies.html, and the unit will be open again for students on April 12, 2010, and again in September 2010.

Caroline Watt was also kind enough to grant me an interview about the course, which should also air on the podcast The Skeptic Zone.

Caroline Watt: If you are interested in parapsychology, then there are some good reasons why you might be interested in the course. Firstly, because the course is online, there are no geographical limitations to participation; so long as you have a reliable Internet connection, you can join in. Sec­ond­ly, it is a non-accredited course, so no prior qualifications are required to join. This is wonderful for members of the public who want to expand their personal knowledge about parapsychology.

Perhaps most importantly, I think it is quite difficult to get reliable information about parapsychology; there’s a lot of nonsense written about this subject. But this course comes from a highly respected center for parapsychological research and is de­signed to provide a balanced picture of the field and to stimulate critical thinking about ostensibly paranormal experiences.

Kylie Sturgess: What struck me first about the course description was your own views on psi, where although you point out that research into psi should be taken seriously, you also say “parapsychologists do not yet have a good understanding of the factors associated with above-chance psi task performance.” What do you consider will help take study of psi to this next level?

Watt: The field has to be better organized. There are so few people doing parapsychology research, and there are lots of different research questions and methods being used. I think progress would be helped if researchers formed groups and worked systematically on a small number of areas that they agreed were most promising. Also, more funding would be a great help, since it would bring more researchers into the field.

Sturgess: One of the big questions that I had from the course was whether it was true that parapsychology is becoming “re-branded” as anomalistic psychology or if people were unaware that parapsychology issues and topics are cropping up in many different disciplines. Are people on the whole resistant to parapsychology as a science?

Watt: I see parapsychology as an interdisciplinary problem area, involving psychology, physics, and philosophy, amongst others. I think quite a few researchers use alternative terms such as anomalistic psychology because such terms are quite broad, encompassing both the psi hypothesis, as well as other possible explanations for paranormal experiences such as misjudgments of probability, etc.

Sturgess: What do you attribute to the “boom” in studying parapsychology in the U.K.?

Watt: Parapsychology has been studied in U.K. universities for years, and I think researchers have worked well to integrate themselves with their academic colleagues. In Edinburgh, at the Koestler Parapsy­chology Unit, literally dozens of students have obtained psychology PhDs focusing on parapsychological topics. Many of these have gone on to work in psychology departments elsewhere in the U.K., and because they received good training in methodology and critical thinking under the supervision of the former Koestler professor Robert Morris, they can make a useful academic contribution in their new posts, both in teaching and in research.

Sturgess: You mention in your FAQ (on the course Web site) that you have not personally experienced paranormal phenomena. How many people, in your experience, seek out serious study of parapsychology due to a personal experience?

Watt: I would say less than half. Many—like myself—are simply driven by intellectual curiosity and a desire to know what science has to say about people’s paranormal beliefs and experiences. Also, it is just plain interesting!

Sturgess: The interviews with a range of psychologists, parapsychologists, skeptical investigators, and scientists were a prominent feature and a highly informative aspect of the course. What was it like to get everyone’s input? And were there any hurdles? (I personally got a good laugh from the sound of a “tiger growling” turning out to be a coffee cup being placed down during one interview; technology can be a factor, I guess!)

Watt: Yes, that was one of my earlier in­terviews before I learned about the acoustic hazards of coffee cups! I am glad to say that every person I asked for an interview was most gracious and enthusiastic about participating. I really enjoyed speaking to such a diverse, informed, and interesting group of individuals, and from the feedback I got from students on the course, I was delighted to see how much they valued the interviews.

Sturgess: “Netiquette,” or behaving re­spectfully, can be difficult for anyone online; from my own experiences, I saw no upset reactions, but it is possible for an off-the-cuff participant remark like “people who haven’t experienced psi are liars” to be taken personally. With a subject like parapsychology, was it a challenge to provide discussion topics that would promote productive discussion rather than “flame wars”?

Watt: It probably depends a lot on the composition and dy­namics of each discussion group. So far I haven’t had any problems; students are well-advised be­forehand about ap­propriate behavior. Also, the discussion groups are moderated, and if anything unpleasant kicks off, the relevant posts would be removed and the group would be reminded about netiquette. If anyone persisted in misbehaving, I could prevent them from participation altogether. However, I think most individuals are smart enough to realize that lively but respectful discussion is to everyone’s benefit. There are so many interesting issues in parapsychology that it is really not difficult to find topics that stimulate discussion.

Sturgess: The course description explicitly said, “What the course will not teach you: how to be ‘psychic’; how to read minds; how to hunt for ghosts etc.,” yet one of the discussions within the course touched upon the way some people might contact parapsychologists because they may believe they have these abilities or be distressed about phenomena. What might skeptics not know about what parapsychology can offer to the community?

Watt: Most parapsychologists are not them­selves clinicians and therefore should not attempt to “treat” people who are seriously distressed about their ostensibly paranormal experiences. However, many parapsychology units are approached in this way by distressed members of the public and have formed links with suitably qualified colleagues, such as clinical psychologists, to whom distressed individuals can be referred. There is a growing field called clinical parapsychology, which focuses more on the clinical aspects of paranormal experiences. One issue is that individuals who are in the early stages of psychotic disorders may experience hallucinations or delusional beliefs and interpret these as paranormal experiences. These individuals may contact parapsychology units rather than clinicians in the first instance. Parapsychologists could help in the early detection of problems in these individuals. These issues are discussed further in the following article by my colleagues in the Koestler Unit: Coelho, Tierney, and Lamont. “Contacts by distressed individuals to U.K. parapsychology and anomalous ex­perience academic re­search units—a retrospective survey looking to the future.” European Journal of Para­psychology 23.1 (2008): 31–59.

Sturgess: Finally, does parapsychology need the skeptical? And vice versa? There was some discussion within the course about what constituted a helpful skeptical attitude and how skeptical parapsychologists really were on the whole.

Watt: Yes, skeptics are crucial to parapsychology, with one important caveat: they must be well-informed about the actual published research literature in parapsychology, both methodology and findings. Unin­formed skeptics are wasting their own and everyone else’s time. As to your second question, skepticism is wider than parapsychology, but for those skeptics focusing on the paranormal, I suppose they need parapsychology (narrowly defined as the field that attempts to use controlled scientific methods to test the psi hypothesis) to provide something to get their teeth into that is less easy to dismiss than everyday experiences that are often misinterpreted as being paranormal. However, I have a quibble about your question! It assumes that skeptics and parapsychologists are mutually exclusive groups. Some of the best and most detailed criticism of parapsychological re­search comes from parapsychologists themselves. If we are being good scientists, we should all be questioning and attempting to think critically whenever we tackle the paranormal. So in that sense, we should all be skeptics!

Notes

1. Irwin, H.J. 2007. The measurement of superstitiousness as a component of paranormal belief—some critical reflections. European Journal of Parapsychology, 22(2), 95-120.

2. Roach, M. 2005. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Text Publishing, Melbourne.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.