Whatever Happened to Parapsychology?

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A scene from Altered States

Parapsychology: Did it ever leave?

via Discovery

It seems that stories of the paranormal sprout up every day, and everywhere, in pop culture and the media. Weird news websites number in the hundreds, and there are entire television series dedicated to psychic abilities, hauntings and paranormal investigation.

But that’s all showbiz, really. The actual academic study of parapsychology — the established term for phenomena such as clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy and precognition — has seemingly disappeared since its heyday in the mid-20th century. So what happened to parapsychology?

It hasn’t gone anywhere, said John Kruth, executive director of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, N.C. It’s just become disorganized, underfunded and — in the realm of traditional science — largely ignored. The Rhine is one of a handful of privately funded groups in the United States still doing active research into parapsychology, sometimes called “psi phenomena.”

“People have never stopped doing research in these areas,” Kruth said. “But the skeptic community is strong and vocal, and they’re much better at working the media.” Kruth attributes much of the field’s decline in the United States, during the 1970s and 1980s, to media-savvy debunkers such as James Randi.

“Certainly there are fraudulent practitioners out there, and we’re always watching for that,” Kruth said. “It’s like we have the frauds on one side and the debunkers on the other, and we’re in the middle, still trying to do science.”

Critics respond that, as a field of scientific study, parapsychology has much bigger issues. In short, the science has a fundamental evidence problem.

VIDEO: Two Rats Communicate Brain To Brain

“It’s fallen into disuse due to the fact that there’s just nothing there,” said Michael Shermer, editor of the quarterly journal Skeptic and columnist for Scientific American. “Parapsychology has been around for more than a century. (Yet) there’s no research protocol that generates useful working hypotheses for other labs to test and develop into a model, and eventually a paradigm that becomes a field. It just isn’t there.”

Questions of validity aside, it’s certainly true that parapsychology research continues, in at least in one historically significant locale. At a recent presentation on the campus of Duke University, three parapsychology researchers presented results from their latest studies. The presentation topics:

“Synesthesia, Time and the Geography of Anomalous Experiences”

“Synchronicity and Psi: A Controlled Comparison”

“The Bio-Energy Lab at The Rhine and The O.B.E. (Out of Body Experience) Project”

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  • mike_93

    What ever happened to parapsychology? Well, none of the studies turned up anything exciting. No serious researchers are willing to continue pouring funds and resources into something that obviously doesn’t turn up any sort of proof or hypothesis or answer.

    The only people continuing this area of research are pseudo-scientific quacks. People who have been thoroughly discredited. They rail about the “dogmatic” science establishment, but ultimately none of them have turned up anything remotely interesting (or convincing). They have no model or theory, they are just obsessed with trying to replicate the same old experiments which turn up nothing.

    But this is disinfo after all, so of course we can expect plenty of ‘believers’ to come out of the wood work and testify…

    • Juan

      You know dude, there are plenty of places on the intertubes where you could go where there are fundamentalists just like you. They will agree with you and validate your views and opinions.
      Do us all a favor and fuck off.

      • mike_93

        There was another article here about whether psychic phenomena are all mental or not. I didn’t even have to participate in that discussion, because plenty of other people commented to say it was ridiculous.

        Plenty of smart, logical, free-thinking people out there. If you don’t like it, that’s not my problem. Don’t cry to me because you don’t live a Harry Potter book.

        • Adamas Macalz

          the funniest thing is the fact that you are almost a caricature of a modern skeptic… how does it feel to be completely two dimensional?

          • mike_93

            Caricature? And this, coming from someone who only chimes in to defend an irrational belief… Well, I’d rather be a ‘caricature’ of critical thinking any day, over a disempowered nerd who sits at home pretending to have psychic powers or talking to ghosts.

            You say I am the one being two dimensional, but these comments are all so typical. You guys are the epitome of ‘true believers’… Now get your wizard buddies to chime in, because I know I have never heard it all before…

    • Amacai Zerand

      I knew you were going to say that!
      ;-)

  • Tchoutoye

    As soon as something studied by parapsychologists can be explained it is renamed and claimed by conventional scientists, thus leaving the field of parapsychology empty-handed and without recognition.

    • mike_93

      Name one thing which has shifted from the realm of “parapsychology” into the realm of credible science. And please don’t say dianetics.

  • astrofrog

    “the skeptic community is strong and vocal….”

    My, that didn’t take long.

    Meanwhile, meta-analyses have shown psi effects at significant at statistical confidence levels that would make most medical researchers jump for joy. But, as with any evidence that contradicts deeply-held convictions about the nature of reality, it makes no difference to the true believers. Paradigms don’t change because evidence becomes stronger, they change because the old guard dies off.

    mike_93′s tone really just says it all, in perfect skeptic form. As for me (I’m an astrophysicist by the way), I really would prefer that you all stopped speaking for science. So would most actual scientists I know. You’re making us look bad. As discussed at length in this piece recently written by a former comrade who saw reason, and therefore left your ranks, the skeptic community is an ugly bunch of racist, sexist, classist bullies.

    http://plover.net/~bonds/nolongeraskeptic.html

    • mike_93

      Skepticism is not some political party or terrible ideology. It’s a word, describing someones attitude or philosophy. Everyone should display some level of skepticism. In reality a skeptic is just someone who questions and maintains a level of uncertainty. That’s all. Skeptics are often a real thorn in the side of religious believers who are dead certain about things. A skeptic generally maintains that you can’t be too certain about anything.

      Theories about the universe involving magic powers and spirits are actually much much older paradigms than skepticism. There has been absolutely no evidence to point to anything even remotely “paranormal”, so I can’t imagine what you are talking about. Yours is the old superstitious and dogmatic perspective.

      All i can say for your “meta-analysis” is that if it’s not being widely accepted, that it’s either because they can’t repeat the experiments and get the same results every time in a controlled environment, or because they are not a very credible body of researchers. If something significant were happening, it would get attention.

      I don’t care whether you are a physicist, and believe in silly things like unicorns and magic powers. There is also a small portion of the scientific community which denies evolution and climate change. You do not speak for, or represent the scientific community (the majority of which would disagree with you anyway).

      • astrofrog

        It’s all in the tone, mike_93. As Adamas points out below, you’re behaving like a 1D caricature of a self-described Skeptic (I capitalize the term only to distinguish the subculture from the philosophical position, and I quite agree with you by the way, one should be skeptical of everything … including reflexive Skepticism). This includes resorting to ad hominems, dismissive remarks (e.g. “unicorns and magic powers”, putting scare-quotes around “meta-analysis”), and invoking logical fallacies (“some scientists don’t believe in evolution or climate change” = “any scientists who disagree with the mainstream are kooks”).

        I certainly don’t claim to speak for the scientific community. I speak for myself, and those I know who have expressed similar sentiments to me. Would that Skeptics behaved with similar circumspection.

        Tell us, mike_93: is your dismissive attitude towards this field of research the result of your own exploration of the research, a careful examination of the results therein, an objective and cool-headed appraisal of the evidence? Or do you just assume it’s all bunk, and so you don’t need to bother reading up on it? It’s fine to be ignorant about something … no one is omniscient. But it is very bad form to bark on about quackery in a field one knows absolutely nothing about. Perhaps this is not true in your case, but it is certainly very typical of Skeptics at large … Dawkins, Dennett, Randi, and the rest of the alpha males most certainly included.

        • mike_93

          “Tell us, mike_93: is your dismissive attitude towards this field of research the result of your own exploration of the research, a careful examination of the results therein, an objective and cool-headed appraisal of the evidence? Or do you just assume it’s all bunk, and so you don’t need to bother reading up on it?”

          Believe it or not, I have spent a long time exploring these topics for myself. I have even managed to be present for, or otherwise self induce, what many would consider “phenomenal experiences”. As a youngster, I heard ghost stories and saw many movies, just like you. I was raised in a semi religious environment as well.

          I have never been quite satisfied with a paranormal or supernatural explanations for the phenomena I’ve experienced (and I’ve experienced plenty). In every instance, I was always able to reason that there was a perfectly good explanation for what I experienced. Luckily I am in good health and I don’t just hallucinate for no reason. I am certainly not gullible, or likely to give in to flights of fancy. I’ve experimented with drugs, music, sex, yoga, etc. when I was younger, just to explore the matter for myself. I always suspended belief and waited until “after the fact” to analyze an experience.

          In addition to reading all the variety of religious and mythical explanations for these experiences, I have kept up on the modern scientifically developments being made. There are a variety of causes for why people experience what they do.

          Maybe a religious or spiritual explanation makes sense to you, but to me it’s nonsense. I believe I have a good reason to place my “faith” in modern science. It’s gotten us medicine, technology, evolution, etc. What have these religious or superstitious world views done for us lately? How many religious theories or prophecies have been proven accurate?

          • astrofrog

            Who said anyone here believed in the supernatural? Maybe some do. I certainly don’t. If a phenomenon exists, it is by definition natural, psi included. I’m not going to insist that the world conform to my preconceived notions of what ‘natural’ entails … history is too full of phenomena once snickered at by scientific elites as hooey, only for it to be confirmed as all too real. Skeptics forget this all the time, and make absolute arses of themselves as a consequence.

            Skepticism, properly used, is a way of thinking, not the contents of thought. A skeptical attitude is central to practices in many spiritual traditions (e.g., Buddhism). Speaking of which, “what have they done for us lately” … well, why don’t you go read up on the neurobiology of meditative practice, to see what effect several thousand years of such traditions have had on the lives of individuals and, thus, on society as a whole. Babies =/= bathwater.

    • Juan

      Preach on, brother.

      • mike_93

        believing in crazy crap seems to be your religion, juan.

        • Juan

          Fuck off, troll.

          • mike_93

            Classy guy! Why don’t you cast a spell and see if that works?

          • astrofrog

            Funny, isn’t it, how you never catch “true believers” with all their nasty irrationality and such trolling Skeptics, yet you catch Skeptics trolling all the time. What sad little men they are.

          • mike_93

            Are you kidding me? I guess you don’t spend a lot of time on skepticism/atheism forums. They are constantly visited by christians and others who offer their own detracting views. As far as I am aware, disinfo is for everyone. They have lots of content that covers a variety of topics.

            Of course you would interpret any ‘skeptic meddling’ to be trolling.

          • astrofrog

            Skepticism is fine, my friend, so long as you keep your tone civil. Which you haven’t been at all (quite typical for skeptics). As to Christians, well, the evangelical fundies are kind of the fun-house mirror image of Skepticism.

          • mike_93

            That’s all you’ve got – my tone is too harsh? Well nuts to that! Of course I’m going to have a condescending tone. This shit is ridiculous… And it’s even more ridiculous that anyone still falls back on these primitive explanations of the universe.

            Now give me some real evidence; say something convincing, or else deal with my opinion.

          • astrofrog

            Troll is as troll does.

          • Juan

            Word!

    • Juan

      Thanks for the link. I saved it.
      Is that your work? Whoever did it, kudos! I found it to be a very well articulated piece.

      • astrofrog

        Ha, no That was posted here on Disinfo like last week.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Isn’t all psychology parapsychology?

  • http://pneumerology.com/ pneumerology

    Elsewhere on disinfo there are remarks about democrats continuing to support Obama despite his record of anti-democratic actions. People see what they want to see and don’t see what they don’t want to see. Research on parapsychology is alive and well. The science has gotten more rigorous. Follow up from here if you actually want to know… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Utts

  • alizardx

    The most interesting thing about parapsychology is that there is an organized, well funded lobby to discredit it.

    The only other academic field where the same thing is true is climate research. We know the motivations of the anti-science lobby attack on climate research.

    What are the motivations of the people funding parapsychology debunking?

    Disinterested search for truth doesn’t seem to be in the running.

  • http://www.Cosmic-Soup.com/ Michael Straus

    There’s plenty of evidence contradicting The Skeptic’s assertion that “there’s just nothing there” – as a starting point, I’d offer this interesting presentation, “Men Who Stare at Photons” by Dean Radin, Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences: http://cosmic-soup.com/men-who-stare-at-photos-part-1/

    • mike_93

      Institute of “noetic” Sciences? Are they an accredited university? I saw their website and it looks like it was designed by a jr. high class.

      • http://www.Cosmic-Soup.com/ Michael Straus

        Hey Mike. IONS (www.Noetic.org) is a research group started in the early 1970s by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell. One of their main areas of focus is the relationship between “consciousness and the physical world.” Here’s a good summary: http://noetic.org/research/research-lab/

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