Carlos S. Alvarado Ph.D.

Carlos S. Alvarado Ph.D.

Past president (1995) and President-Elect (2002-2003) of the Parapsychological Association. Conducted research on the psychology and the features of OBE experiences (and other parapsychological phenomena) in Puerto Rico, Scotland and in the US. Alvarado is also known for his reviews of the historical literature of the field. He is currently working at the Parapsychology Foundation, where he is the Chairman of Domestic and International Programs, the series editor of the Foundation's Parapsychological Monographs and the Associate Editor of the International Journal of Parapsychology.

Reflections on Being a Parapsychologist

 - Carlos S. Alvarado Ph.D. -

5. Education and Training in Parapsychology

As we all know the profession of parapsychology is not regulated. There are no certification programs or organizations, nor any way to control the use of the term parapsychologist. In many phone books, and on the Internet, the term parapsychologist is used as a synonym for psychic. In some places, such as Brazil, there have been attempts to define the profession legally, but without success (Hiraoka, 2002).

Most parapsychologists come to the field from other areas of science or of academia. As is well known, most people in the field do not have an educational background in parapsychology in the same way that members of other disciplines have in their own fields. McConnell and Clark (1980) reported in their survey of PA members that only five out of 203 respondents claimed doctoral training in parapsychology as their main area of training. The situation is better now due to Robert Morris's efforts at the University of Edinburgh, as well as to the efforts of Deborah Delanoy and others at universities in the UK (Smith, 1999). But most researchers in the field today have not been trained in parapsychology and basically conduct research based on their training in psychology, psychiatry, physics, and other disciplines, as well as on their own private study of the parapsychological literature. This is all good in terms of techniques and general scientific philosophy. Formal training in research from another field can certainly be applied to parapsychology, as many of us know from personal experience. In fact, this is essential for progress. In addition, it is not uncommon for some scientists to shift research areas, for which they self-train themselves by gaining knowledge of the relevant literature and methodology through personal study.

While I do not doubt training from other disciplines applies well to parapsychology, I worry about the lack of a parapsychological education in some of the workers in the field. I am using the word education here as a wider construct than training to include an overarching perspective that is formed out of a sense of identity, and of general knowledge of the field. It is unfortunate to note that some individuals active in our field are so highly specialized that they barely know anything outside of their own narrow specialty area. This produces serious problems. For example, there are some experimental ESP researchers and researchers in areas related to the concept of survival of bodily death that have little or no idea what goes on in the rest of parapsychological research. However, both sides could learn from each other about the complexity of psychic phenomena. Views about the nature of ESP that come from experimental studies and nothing else provide only part of the picture (Alvarado, 1996c). As seen in such studies as Steve Braude's (2003) recently published analysis of survival evidence, psi functioning in survival contexts is certainly different in the way it manifests in the laboratory and shows different levels of complexity, at least in terms of the forms of the manifestations. While this work may expand the views of experimentalists, experimental work is also important to the evaluation of survival evidence. This work tells us something about the capabilities of the living that will help us evaluate survival evidence. Unfortunately, some people interested in survival are not aware of this work.

Do we have a general view of the variety and origins of theoretical concepts? What relevant work was conducted on our subject by the previous generation? As I documented 21 years ago in a paper published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (Alvarado, 1982), there are many examples of publications in our field that show lack of familiarity with the history of our methods, and with previous findings and concepts. This is why I have devoted part of my career in parapsychology to reminding others of the richness of the literature of the past, be this in terms of specific phenomena or issues (e.g., Alvarado, 1989a), of more general considerations of social aspects (e.g., Alvarado, 1989c), or of the importance of particular concepts or agents of change (e.g., Alvarado, 2003). It has been disappointing to me that younger workers in the field still have to be reminded of the existence and careers of recently deceased parapsychologists, or that these younger workers still have to be told that some of their interests have been discussed before in great detail by those that preceded them. Unfortunately, this lack of perspective is not limited to the youngest workers of the field. Some experienced researchers also show this tendency to myopia, nor is this a historical situation uncommon in other scientific fields. Still, one would expect that anyone who considered themselves a practicing parapsychologist would want to have a general knowledge, if not a detailed one, of the history of one's own specialty and of areas of the field outside of it. The lack of familiarity with our shared past has practical implications in that much of what has gone before would help current researchers to generate hypotheses, and to refine theoretical models and evaluate the work of others (see Alvarado, 1982).

This criticism should not be taken to imply that everyone should be a scholar in the past literature of parapsychology, nor that this will solve out current problems. As I argued in the twenty-one-year-old paper cited above, I do not consider the study of our past literature to be a substitute for contemporary research. The issue instead is one of context; current work should be carried out by those who are well-informed about the relevant past developments of the field.

But more than this is included in the meaning of the word education. Being educated not only means knowing how best to collect and analyze data, nor having simple knowledge of antecedents in the literature. Instead, being educated means being aware of continuities and discontinuities in the development of parapsychological ideas and having a familiarity with philosophical, psychological, and general existential issues of the field. In other words, being educated means having a commitment or at least an understanding to the collective identity of parapsychology as a field, even to the point of acknowledging the well-known difficulties to the achievement of consensus on many substantive issues.

There is a parapsychological culture and identity that you find in some workers in the field but not in others. It is a quality that allows us to go beyond our research specialty, beyond the technical aspects of our research to the wider picture of our professional identity, and, of course, to the implications of our work. Having this sense of the field is an identity that stands in stark contrast to the identity of those who see the field just as a technical specialty for data crunching, or a mere intellectual curiosity.

The lack of this deeper sense of what the profession is comes, to some extent, from the contemporary tendency of specialization or overspecialization in our professions. But also it comes from the lack of organized educational programs that provide systematic exposure to different aspects of the field. In terms of professionalization parapsychologists are hybrids; we are a community formed from a combination of self-teaching and extrapolation from the training programs of other disciplines. In spite of recent educational developments and past discussions of education in the field (Shapin & Coly, 1976; Smith, 1999), the fact is that there are not many educational programs where a student can be exposed to a wide range of parapsychological literature. By this I mean systematic exposure to the range of phenomena of the field, to their classifications and terminology, to the classic and the contemporary literature, to the various methods and techniques used in the field now and in the past, to the historical development of the discipline, and to the wide range of theoretical models presented so far. It is unfortunate that at the moment no single educational and training program in existence can achieve this goal.[4]

[4] Of course, the lack of educational programs depends to a great extent on the lack of a numerous and well organized parapsychological profession.

We must also be aware that training and education in parapsychology are particularly problematic in those geographical regions or countries where parapsychology is even more underdeveloped than it is in the States and parts of Europe. In previous writings I have discussed several problems Latin American parapsychologists face (e.g., Alvarado, 1996b, 2002b). One of these is the lack of general training in scientific research. Some of those engaged in research do not have training in data collection and analysis, a situation that is rapidly changing in such countries as Argentina and Brazil. Consequently, compared to the United States and parts of Europe little scientific research gets done in Latin America. Instead, most parapsychological work is limited to discussions from the old literature, to literature reviews, and to conceptual and theoretical discussions. To further complicate matters many of these parapsychologists have difficulties reading English. Because most current research in parapsychology is published in English, this creates additional serious difficulties in training and educating Latin American parapsychologists.[5]

[5] On the wider issue of the language barrier in parapsychology see Alvarado (1989b).

Next part: 6. How Does it Feel to be a Parapsychologist?


Parts 1-12 of "Reflections on Being a Parapsychologist"


 Abstract and Introduction
 Parapsychologists and their Accomplishments
 Personnel in Parapsychology
 The Variety of Members in the Parapsychological Community
 Education and Training in Parapsychology (current page)
 How Does it Feel to be a Parapsychologist?
 Why are we in Parapsychology?
 Approaches to Parapsychology
 Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists
 When Parapsychologists Harm Their Cause
 Concluding Remarks

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