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. -

9. Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists

It may be argued that the emphasis on conventional hypotheses is a strategy some parapsychologists have used to legitimize our field. Whether or not this is true, it is important to be aware of the strategies parapsychologists have used to establish their field, in addition to our understanding of their research efforts, as McClenon (1982) has said. In fact, legitimizing strategies are the internal means that researchers use to render the field more acceptable in the face of so much criticism. One of these devices relates to the way our current research or concerns are depicted in light of our past. Sometimes our current work is validated by comparing it to previous work, even to the extent of distorting the record. An example here is the way in which J. B. Rhine and Louisa E. Rhine discussed the work they conducted while they were at Duke University. In one of her papers L. E. Rhine (1967) argued that it was only during the modern period that ESP was established enough so as to be used as an alternative explanation for mediumistic communications, something that could not be done in the 1920s. But as I have argued in more detail elsewhere (Alvarado, 2003), ESP explanations were certainly taken seriously in the old days. Such a point of view was clearly not a development coming only from the experimental work conducted by the Rhines and their associates. Another example: both J. B. and Louisa Rhine argued that the unconscious nature of ESP only became evident because of experimental work conducted during the 1940s (J. B. Rhine, 1977; L. E. Rhine, 1971). While it is true that this work may have supported the idea, the concept that psi is an unconscious function had been clearly articulated before the Duke work, as can be seen in Myers's (1903) work. But the Rhines discussed the idea as if it had been an original invention coming out of their work, possibly to enhance the importance of the developments related to the Duke work. The reinvention of concepts and the rewriting of history have been important in the construction of a modern identity for parapsychologists.

Another way psychical researchers have traditionally tried to deal with their phenomena has been to draw analogies to other processes of the physical world. The purpose here has been to show that psychic functioning is part of the natural world (on the use of metaphors see Williams & Dutton, 1998). The concept of physical and biological radiations has been applied throughout the history of mesmerism, Spiritualism, and psychical research to explain ESP, PK, healing, materializations, and other phenomena. In his recent history of telepathy Luckhurst (2002, pp. 75-92) chronicled some of the early attempts to present this phenomenon as a force of nature similar to light, electricity and magnetism. Early exponents of this movement included William Barrett, who speculated of telepathy's similarity to electrical induction (1876), and William Crookes, who drew an analogy with such radiations as X rays (1897). Invocation of the analogies to radio (Warcollier, 1938) also served this function.

The use of value-free terminology has been another method by which we have attempted to legitimize our field (on terminology in general see Zingrone and Alvarado, 1987). Call it anomalous cognition, delta-afferentation, extrasensory perception, paranormal cognition, or ultra perceptive faculty, the attempt here has been to present a scientific sounding and sometimes theory-free term. But terms have been used on purpose to emphasize particular views as well. To refer to processes which transcend the physical world while at the same time interact with it Myers (1903) gave us such terms as metheterial, psychical invasion, and psychorrhagy. Richet's (1922) crypthesthesia, Sudre's (1926) prosopopesis and Roll and Pratt's recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (Pratt & Roll, 1958) were designed to separate the conceptualization of our phenomena from spiritual connotations. In the past other terms have been proposed to separate the field from the occult and from Spiritualism. This seems to have been Charles Richet's (1905) intention (at least in part) when he introduced the term metapsychics to refer to psychical research. Later on William McDougall (1937) adopted and redefined the term parapsychology from the German literature to differentiate the field from psychical research with its traditional study of mediums and spontaneous cases. He used parapsychology to refer to "the more strictly experimental part of the whole field implied by psychical research" (p. 7).

On other occasions it seems that the use of new terms is believed to be of help in the acceptance of our work because they separate the writer, albeit temporarily and superficially, from the parapsychological tradition. Possible examples of this are such terms as remote viewing and anomalous cognition. This attempt to disconnect the work from parapsychology is sometimes seen in the use of neutral names for our organizations. Some past and present examples of this strategy are: Division of Personality Studies, Laboratories for Fundamental Research, Mind Science Foundation, Science Research Unlimited, and Psychophysical Research Laboratories. On occasion, both in private and in print (Honnegger, 1982, p. 22; Honorton, 1976, p. 218), there have been suggestions to drop the "Parapsychological" out of the name of the PA. There is no question that there may be advantages to this strategy, an important one being facilitating the acquisition of grant money. While the latter may work for a while, I believe once the outside world knows that we are dealing with the same old ESP and PK and with other traditionally parapsychological phenomena, we will be in the same position because we may be perceived as trying to deceive mainstream science by camouflaging parapsychology in the protective coloring of a neutral name. While there may be associations with traditional parapsychological terminology that range from the controversial to the sensational and unacceptable, the main issue is the implications others perceive in our claims.

Another strategy to obtain credibility is to show the outside world that we are aware of alternative explanations of psychic phenomena. While this is part of normal scientific discourse, it also projects a good image of our critical abilities, something that is particularly useful when one is identified with parapsychology professionally. In fact, one can find this in some of the classics of parapsychology. Much space was devoted to the problems with human testimony and consideration of chance coincidences in Phantasms of the Living (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886, Vol. 1, Chapter 4, Vol. 2, Chapter 13). Similarly, in his 1934 monograph Extra-Sensory Perception, J. B. Rhine (1934, Chapter 9) devoted sections to alternative explanations, if only to counter them. Later examples included Robert Tocquet's (1970/1973, pp. 147-149, 219-227) discussion of fraudulent miraculous healings and stigmata and Ian Stevenson's (1975, pp. 18-44) analysis of sources of error in the study of reincarnation-type cases.

I became aware of the rhetorical value of writing about fraud and other normal explanations while I was crafting a paper published 16 years ago on luminous phenomena around mediums, mystics, saints and other individuals (Alvarado, 1987). I knew I was writing about a topic that was rare and unconventional, even among parapsychologists, and I was worried about the reception of the paper. While a section on fraud and other normal explanations should always be part of examinations of cases such as the ones I discussed, including that section was also a strategy to establish credibility.

More recently, Robert Morris has devoted much time to what looks psychic but is not. I believe that Morris's success in revitalizing parapsychology in academic circles in Great Britain (Smith, 1999) comes to some extent from this strategy of showing the world of psychology that he is aware of a wide range of pitfalls in behavioral research, not to mention some that are specific to parapsychology (Morris, 1986; see also Wiseman & Morris, 1995).

Another way in which we try to enhance our credibility as scientists is by confining most of our efforts to such conservative phenomena as ESP. A quick look at the research papers presented at the last four PA conventions (2000-2003) shows that the preferred research topic of PA members was ESP (see Table 1, below). Much less attention was paid to PK or to OBEs, mediumship, hauntings, or poltergeists. Certainly scientists have to focus their efforts in order to make advances. In some ways this process started in modern parapsychology with J. B. Rhine's (1934) monograph Extrasensory Perception, in which, while discussing a classificatory scheme of psychic phenomena, Rhine reduced parapsychology to ESP. Regardless of the scientific reasons for this strategy, the fact is that traditionally modern parapsychology has focused most of its efforts on ESP and has neglected a wide variety of other phenomena, even if they can be related to ESP when one speculates on their mechanisms. While such a strategy has focused our research, it has also limited our knowledge of the variety of experiences people report. We know much less than we should about other psychic experiences, their impact on people, and their relation to mental health concerns, among other issues. So we have paid for our strategy of limiting the range of topics studied (Alvarado, 1996c).

Topics of Research Papers at Recent Parapsychological Association Conventions
2000-2003 (N=63)

Topic N %


ESP 38 60.3
PK/DMILS[a] 9 14.3

Spontaneous Cases

Variety of psychic experiences[b] 9 14.3
Hauntings 2 3.2
NDEs 1 1.6
Recollections of previous lives 1 1.6
Apparitions 1 1.6
Poltergeists 1 1.6
Mediumship 1 1.6

[a] Some of these may be classified as ESP.
[b] These are questionnaire studies considering a variety of experiences (e.g., waking and dream ESP, OBEs).

In addition to a strategic separation from specific phenomena there is also a tendency among some of us to want to drop survival research in general from the agenda of parapsychology. There have always been attempts to disconnect survival from parapsychology for a variety of reasons. Réne Sudre (1951) argued that survival was not demonstrated by the facts and that it was a topic outside the scope of science, part of the "inaccessible refuge of religious beliefs" (p. 389, my translation). George Zorab (1983) had a similar view when he referred to survival research as the "forlorn quest." Because survival is so difficult to test for scientifically, several figures in the field - such as J. B. Rhine (1974), Gerd Hövelmann (1983) and Harvey J. Irwin (2002) - have branded the subject as untestable and consequently an unproductive area of research. While this may be debated by arguing that there are ways to investigate difficult topics if one follows approaches or analyses that are more subtle than those providing a simple "yes" or "no" decision on the testability issue (e.g., Braude, 2003), I am concerned here with views that see interest in survival as a contaminant in the quest to be seen as scientific. The most recent example is Irwin's (2002) statement that interest in survival may "compromise ... the standing of parapsychological research as a legitimate scientific endeavour" (p. 25). This position, however, is problematic and should not satisfy most parapsychologists because similar political concerns have affected and are still affecting the whole field of parapsychology in terms of its relationship to psychology.

We would do well to consider that such conservative attitudes are in the eye of the beholder and that, consequently, demarcation strategies flow in different directions. While some parapsychologists may feel that interest and research on survival contaminate their more elegant and controlled work that follows from physics or psychology, we need to be aware that others have similarly dismissed parapsychology in general whether or not they perceive survival research to be part of the enterprise. Psychologists, as Deborah Coon (1992) has argued, have a long history of trying to separate their field from the general public's conception that psychic phenomena are studied by psychologists. A good historical example of this was American psychologist Joseph Jastrow's comments in his book Fact and Fable in Psychology, published in 1900. He wrote:

Pernicious is the distorted conception, which the prominence of Psychical Research has scattered broadcast, of the purposes and methods of Psychology. The status of that science has suffered, its representatives have been misunderstood, its advancement has been hampered, its appreciation by the public at large has been weakened and wrongly estimated, by reason of the popularity of the unfortunate aspects of Psychical Research, and of its confusion with them (Jastrow, 1900, pp. 75-76).

Attempts to separate out work from specific phenomena and topics present a multitude of agendas and self-interests. So while some of our own shun specific areas of the field because they want their own areas to appear more scientific, others outside the field do the same thing to the whole discipline. As Michael Winkelman (1982) has said, "Academia's failure to include parapsychology is mirrored in parapsychology's failure to respond in a responsible manner to the general population's concern with the areas popularly referred to as occult" (p. 15).

It is regrettable that we feel that we need to deny parts of out subject matter for political purposes, especially when the most conservative experimental ESP studies are similarly disregarded by others outside the field. In our efforts to be accepted, we have become worse than our critics, we have dissociated ourselves from some part of the basic claims of our field by employing the strategy of denial used by outside critics. It is almost as if our traumatic experiences with criticism and rejection have forced us to excise parts of out nature in order to be acceptable to outsiders, and to ourselves. As with other types of traumatic experiences, such defense mechanisms are not necessarily completely conscious nor are they adaptive. By abandoning traditions, areas and problems we are merely turning our backs on important issues, and we are condemning ourselves and everyone else to ignorance on questions that may be of great importance.

As I have argued before, and here I am referring to issues and phenomena not necessarily connected to survival,[7] we should research such problems so as to increase our empirical knowledge of neglected issues (Alvarado, 1996c; Alvarado & Zingrone, 1996). It is true that some problems obtain more attention than others because they are more easily testable and that some research programs are more productive or progressive than others. But not everything that is important is easily testable. After all, parapsychology has traditionally been about the hard problems. Let us form our identity as parapsychologists not through artificial prescriptions of neglect or demarcation, but by attempts to study systematically any relevant problem the best way we can. The combined knowledge of the behavioral and natural sciences has enough methodologies to study any problem scientifically and critically. This is not to say we are capable of testing or measuring anything we want, but we can at the very least try to learn something about the features and correlates of all the phenomena that fall into our purview. Let us not be conservative at the expense of knowledge.

[7] This may include controversial and dramatic phenomena such as auras, materializations and religious miracles.

Next part: 10. When Parapsychologists Harm Their Cause


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?
 Why are we in Parapsychology?
 Approaches to Parapsychology
 Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists
 When Parapsychologists Harm Their Cause
 Concluding Remarks

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