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. -

6. How Does it Feel to be a Parapsychologist?

If you can identify with the language barrier faced by Latin American parapsychologists you will have an idea of the frustrations some members of that community feel as they attempt to stay current with the literature of the field. But there are many other aspects to our experiences as parapsychologists.

Many of us, myself included, feel that we are working in an area full of great potential. In fact, some may even feel that they are pioneers because they are exploring areas that have great implications for humankind. While S. David Kahn (1976, p. 213) has suggested that with better replication rates parapsychologists will lose the romance of being lonely workers in an unrecognized field, I believe that most of us will not miss his so-called romance. One of the worst aspects of being a parapsychologist is, in fact, working in a field where one gets little respect from science and society at large. Let me illustrate with some personal experiences.

Soon after I returned to Puerto Rico in 1997 after having acquired a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Edinburgh for work on a parapsychological topic, a member of my family handed me a newspaper clipping about local "parapsychologists" who had recently been convicted and sent to jail. The clipping in question described how some charlatans had obtained money from some people under the promise of helping them to use some occult procedures (Cordero, 1997). How would you feel when you find the profession described in such a way in the press? I felt that I had come home to be identified with charlatans.

In Great Britain, obtaining a Ph.D. in psychology with Robert Morris nets you a conventional academic job in psychology with the prospects of a conventional career unfolding before you. In Puerto Rico my degree branded me as a parapsychologist with little to offer to psychology. I sent my CV to a university well-known for their federally funded science programs through a family friend who had contacts at the university only to have the CV returned almost immediately. From the comments of the family friend, it was obvious that the university wanted nothing to do with a parapsychologist. In another institution I was able to teach a graduate level parapsychology course a few times but it was eventually canceled for lack of students because someone in the registrar's office who found parapsychology distasteful had told the students that the course had been closed when it was still open. While others in the field have had much worse experiences than mine (see Hess, 1992), the ones I had made my life difficult, especially financially. Even more, such rejections made me feel marginal in society, and I found myself needing to bolster my spirits by reminding myself of my belief in the importance of parapsychology.

Another problem we sometimes encounter as parapsychologists is that some individuals we have contact with want to tell us about our subject matter. As Charles Richet (n.d./ca 1928) said in the 1920s, when dealing with psychical research "everybody regards himself as qualified to utter negative or affirmative opinions which have no more value than if, without being a chemist, one were to speak to a chemist of the derivations of pyridine, or to a physicist, of the waves of radium, or to an astronomer, of the heat of the stars" (p. 28).

You may encounter issues of this sort especially if, as a parapsychologist, you have contact with the public, many of whom do not like the way in which we study psychic phenomena. Common objections to us are the overuse of statistical analyses and the lack of studies with special subjects. Some of those who come from spiritism, to give a particular example in my experience, are adamant that we need to go back to the phenomena of mediumship as well as to the ideas of Allan Kardec, Gustave Geley, and others. When we take a look at the other pole, that is, at the critics, we find all kind of skeptical attitudes equally critical of out work, but in different ways, with emphases on methodological flaws and logical inconsistencies. The end result is that we feel that we are stuck in the middle of a battlefield, being attacked on all sides, from New Agers and spiritists, from well-meaning members of the general public, from an increasingly hostile mainstream scientific community, and from organized skepticism. We are in a situation that is far from being pleasant or comfortable, particularly when it is realized that, with very few exceptions, we are the only group that takes an empirical approach to the problem by conducting research.[6]

[6] I am aware that the members of the other communities also claim similar problems and disadvantages (Hess, 1993).

Perhaps the worst parts of being a parapsychologist are the accusations of fraud. The classic case in modern times is that of George R. Price (1955), who accused parapsychologists of fraud in the pages of Science. We still find accusations of fraud directed at researchers who have particularly good results in the laboratory but more recently such accusations are not published where they can be refuted. They are merely disseminated through gossip, through correspondence, or in on-line chat rooms. These accusations are particularly distressing because they often question someone's integrity without any evidence. Such accusations are irresponsible and libelous. But the problem is that once the rumor is out reputations are damaged beyond repair, particularly outside the field. Price (1972) publicly recanted over 20 years later. But who remembers that? The damage had been done.

Parapsychologists have cited frequently Henry Sidgwick's (1882) statement: "We have done all we can when the critic has nothing left to allege except that the investigator is in the trick" (p. 12). But wearing this as a badge of honor does not nullify the negative effects such views can have on our profession. In fact, incidents of this sort are demoralizing because they remind us how vulnerable we are to the tactics of irresponsible and unethical critics.

Next part: 7. Why are we in Parapsychology?


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
 How Does it Feel to be a Parapsychologist? (current page)
 Why are we in Parapsychology?
 Approaches to Parapsychology
 Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists
 When Parapsychologists Harm Their Cause
 Concluding Remarks

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