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.
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
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
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.