Hans J. Eysenck


Hans J. Eysenck (pictured left): One of Britain's leading social scientists. Established a worldwide reputation for his encyclopaedic contribution to the popular understanding of psychology. Head of the Department of Psychology at the Maudsley Hospital Institute of Psychiatry, University of London.

Carl Sargent: Gained his PhD in Experimental Parapsychology in 1979. His post-doctoral research was concerned with ESP in the ganzfeld. He was a member of the Parapsychological Association and author on numerous papers on parapsychology. He was widely regarded as an authority on the paranormal.

Psi, Science and the Future

Psi: the historical problem | The repeatability issue | Answering the critics | The future of psi research

 - Hans J. Enysenck and Carl Sargent -

           AS WE have seen already, a clear majority of scientists believe that ESP is either an established fact or a likely possibility, and that parapsychology is a bona fide scientific enterprise. We have also seen that a flat assertion that psi is incompatible with physics is ill-judged.

On the other hand, it is clear that most scientists do not feel that parapsychology has made much progress, and some remain hostile to it. Why is this? The consensus view of poor progress can only really be put down to ignorance. We have shown that modern research areas (like the 'altered state' experiments and the covert psi testing) are superior to older experiments on several counts. First, they are more repeatable. Second, the psi effects are generally more powerful. Third, there has been a development of clear theories and models underpinning the new research. Now, maybe some scientists would say 'The effects still aren't repeatable enough: the effects aren't strong enough: the theories are unconvincing.' Fine (although subjective and not our view): but the point is, parapsychology has clearly made progress on all these counts. That many scientists do not realise this can only be ascribed to ignorance: they don't read the journals, they don't seek out the facts.

Psi: the historical problem

In our experience many scientists become very uncomfortable when parapsychology is discussed. They know they know little about it; they realise that they ought to know more about it; yet they fight shy of it. Why is this?

One factor must be the dubious history of parapsychology. Mediumship has been riddled with fraud since time immemorial. Parapsychology has emerged from a shady background. Yet this is true for other areas of science too: hypnosis would be an obvious example. Further, modern experimental techniques for studying psi in the laboratory eliminate almost any possibility of subjects' cheating. This anxiety is surely misplaced.

Sceptics point with glee to the one established case of fraud by a researcher in parapsychology (in 1974: he had worked on psi in animals). However, this is certainly not unique to parapsychology. Is all I.Q. testing dubious because of the probable fraud of Sir Cyril Burt? Is cancer research to be viewed as suspicious because of the fraud of the Sloan-Kettering research institute (also in 1974)? Is genetics suspicious because of the faking of results by Mendel or his assistants? Hardly. When one finds that a particular experimental result has been replicated by ten different experimenters in five different countries (as is the case with the ESP/extraversion correlation), then fraud by the researchers is hardly a credible explanation of the findings as reported. One of us wrote a quarter of a century ago:

Unless there is a gigantic conspiracy involving some thirty University departments all over the world, and several hundred highly respected scientists n various fields, many of them originally sceptical to the claims of the psychical researchers, the only conclusion that the unbiased observer can come to must be that there does exist a small number of people who obtain knowledge existing either in other people's minds, or in the outer world, by means yet unknown to science.

The only revision necessary now would be that the number of people involved is larger than it was then!

To have a concern about fraud in science is reasonable. To try and 'explain' everything in terms of fraud is disreputable.

Another historical factor which concerns some scientists is that parapsychology reeks of magic, long declared an enemy of science. Some scientists fear that the very attempt to set psi on a scientific basis will somehow encourage a superstitious, irrational anti-scientific attitude. The perfect reply to this has been given by the astronomer Carl Sagan, attacking a repressive editorial in the (American) Humanist about astrology:

The fundamental point is not that the origins of astrology are shrouded in superstition. This is true as well for chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only three.

The repeatability issue

Some sceptics also profess a concern about repeatability. They claim that, if an experiment is conducted on a particular theme, examining some hypothesis, then it should generally be counted upon to produce the same results. The nearest we get to this in parapsychology, is probably the Ganzfeld/relaxation studies, where some 50-60 per cent of experiments do produce results well above chance: 10-12 times more than chance would predict. This is claimed by the sceptics to be too low; a higher percentage of success is required.

But just what is that higher percentage, and can it be justified? How high can we expect? How repeatable is repeatable? One cannot expect from human beings behaviour as predictable as that of chemicals in flasks or electrons in cloud chambers. Just what yardstick are we going to use for deciding whether the results of ESP experiments are repeatable enough to be deemed up to a scientifically acceptable standard?

In the complete absence of any sceptical writing on this topic we have to do some clear thinking here. We might, say, compare ESP experiments with other areas of research in psychology - perhaps on a weak sensory system, like the sense of smell. If we do that we find something very interesting: psychologists do not actually pay much attention to repeatability. T. X. Barber, a noted methodologist of psychology, has shown that only 10 per cent of introductory textbooks of psychology even include the word 'repeatability' in the index! Now, since repeatability is supposed to be a criterion of scientific acceptability for experimental research, which is the better group of scientists here. Who is paying more attention to the real issues? Obvious: Barber's comment is that parapsychology is easily the most sophisticated branch of experimental psychology.

We would not profess to know for sure whether the results of the best ESP experiments are adequately repeatable or not, for there are no objective rules to judge this by. What we do know is that progress is being made here, and that all the discussion of evidence and standards on this issue is being produced by parapsychologists, rather than their critics.

Answering the critics

Finally, scientists have queried the research methods and statistics of parapsychologists - in isolated skirmishes. This seems to be a symptom of their concern rather than part of it. The statistical issues were settled many years ago, and whilst some researchers occasionally make slips, parapsychologists generally are extremely careful and even over-conservative in their evaluations of experiments. Similar comments would apply to methods of experimenting: the average standard is better than it was, say, 30 years ago, and a pinnacle of achievement like Schmidt's work has produced many laudatory comments from parapsylchologists and sceptics alike. Anyone trying to mount a comprehensive critical attack on parapsychology from a statistical viewpoint would be doomed to failure (no-one has tried for the last 30 years). An attack based solely on criticism of research methods could not survive without extensive appeal to fraud (which, as we've seen, is all unscientific and corrupting argument - like heroin once get the taste for it you can't stop).

This exhausts all the rational sceptical arguments which are brought to bear on parapsychology. However, it is clear that a purely rational perspective will not suffice to explain scientific attitudes. What makes John Taylor utter emotive (and amusing) phrases like 'ESP is dead'? What made one colleague of Sargent's say to him, after a discussion of his, and other researcher's, Ganzfeld-ESP work, 'The results you presented would convince me of anything else, but this: I just cannot believe it and I don't know why? A story told to us by Dr Bernard Dixon, an ex-editor of New Scientist and someone broadly sceptical about parapsychology, which really brings this irrational component home is this. After a lecture at the Royal Institution on PK metal-bending, one physicist sitting close to Dixon leapt to his feet and shouted, 'It's all nonsense. Nonsense! Heard it all before! Nonsense!' Dixon stated that he was so purple that he, Dixon, worried for a moment about whether the man might have a corollary or not. What is it that drives normally sane enough people to such extremes of virtually speechless irrationality?

We are familiar enough with irrational belief. There are some people who will believe almost anything. But, on the other hand, there are people who will refuse to believe anything. A perfect example would be the great scientist Helmholtz: 'Neither the testimony of all the Fellows of the Royal Society, nor even the evidence of my own senses, would lead me to believe in the transmission of thought from one person to another independent of the recognised channels of sense.' Here we have irrational disbelief: just another Lavoisier. Helmholtz has put himself beyond the pale of science: not the testimony of every single Fellow of the Royal Society would persuade him to revise his irrational disbelief. In short, Helmholtz has stated: My mind is made up and no evidence is going to change it. Now, whatever rules science has (and these, are constantly debated), this nonsense violates most of them.

So, why is irrational disbelief not seen for what it is? Why do newspapers detail excesses of gullibility but remain silent on this issue? Possibly because the irrational disbelievers have played a classic con-trick on us: they have pretended to be the 'real' scientists, defending the purity of science against the dangerous nonsense of parapsychology. But they may be seen, on closer inspection, to be nothing of the kind. Indeed they are not sceptics at all!

Consider what the irrational disbeliever is saying. First, there are certain Laws of nature (and the sceptic will frequently use the disreputable tactic of appealing to authority, in Inquisitional vein, here) - and psi contradicts them (which cannot be stated, as we've seen). Therefore psi cannot possibly occur, and one can dismiss any 'evidence' for it on ally grounds which happen to be convenient - bad experiments, fraud, conspiracy, that kind of thing ('arguments' which contravene all rules of scientific discourse).

The parapsychologist is the true sceptic. He says, 'There is evidence, of the existence of Phenomena not generally accepted by science, and not incorporated into scientific theories. I am not prepared to accept it on the word of some authority (or group thereof) that these things cannot possibly exist. I question orthodoxy, and if you define dissent as heresy, so much the worse for science. I'm going to look at the facts without preconceptions.

New knowledge is often acquired by people who refused to accept the so-called Laws of nature, and authoritarian pronouncements about what was possible and impossible. Parapsychologists are in this tradition. They have generated new knowledge.

The future of psi research

The parapsychologist has earned a place in the scientific research laboratories of the future. He will have to measure up to scientific standards - and he will make sure that other people do too! As an example, recently a journal of parapsychology has been initiated in which, to get a paper published, it is strongly advantageous to submit a design for an experiment and state exactly what results you expect before you do the experiment (they may ask you to change something, which stops you from doing the experiment and then sending in the proposal). This ensures that statistical malpractice, for example, is eradicated. The reactions of certain of our psychological colleagues to this can be easily summarised: (1) It's good that parapsychologists do this, and (2) I'm damn glad I don't have to. Certainly the parapsychologist's colleagues will keep him on his toes - and he'll keep them on theirs.

The parapsychological research laboratory of the future will have to contain researchers from many disciplines. Since human beings will be tested there, psychologists will be essential; physicists will be needed, as will physiologists, electronics workers, and so on. Such laboratories are just coming into existence, at Duke University in North Carolina and the McDonnell laboratory at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. It is the work of researchers in laboratories like these which will explain the unexplained and reveal more and more about the mysterious human faculties we denote with a simple three-letter word: psi.


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