26 September 2015


Etzel Cardena, John Palmer and David-Macusson-Clavertz (Editors.) Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century. McFarland, 2015.

This large, 400-plus page work presents 31 papers under nine headings, which seeks to update the original Handbook of Parapsychology, edited by Benjamin Wolman and published by McFarland in 1985, itself an update of a work first published in 1977.
The present volume, like its predecessor, is aimed at a specialist readership, university trained parapsychologists and much of it is devoted to experimental parapsychology and is highly dependent on statistics, so it is clearly at the Nature level rather than the New Scientist. A relatively small number of the papers are more accessible to the general reader; these will be found in part 7, devoted to research on survival of bodily death. In this section those dealing with reincarnation, ghosts and poltergeists and electronic voice phenomena should be of interest to Magonia readers.

This book will no doubt, along the original, be indispensable to those wishing to take university level courses in parapsychology, and to those with a university level scientific education who wish to begin a serious study of the topic. However when it comes to the more general scientific community, I am not sure that it will be very successful.

The reason for this, is that the general impression throughout is that parapsychology has become even more insular than it was. The language, vocabulary and basic concepts are not those of mainstream science. In many of the papers a whole set of a priori assumptions are made. Of course in many sciences there are specialised vocabularies, but they are, essentially inter-learnable. Furthermore they are not ideologically based; studies of high energy physics, polymer chemistry, or the search for extra-solar planets, can be undertaken by people with a wide range of philosophical, religious or political views. Even in highly contentious debates such as those or the role of inheritance versus environment in intelligence or on climate change, the two sides at least have a common vocabulary and an agreement that at least in broad terms ‘intelligence’ or ‘climate’ exist.

Parapsychology on the other hand involves sets of phenomena and concepts that many mainstream scientists would deny exist, and that these contentious ideas are used to build a deeper infrastructure. There seems little interest to relate the alleged phenomena of parapsychology to concepts rooted in other scientific fields, and in many (though not all) of the papers there is an implicit ideological programme to provide evidences (in the theological sense) for forms of Cartesian dualism. This biases both the range of anomalies discussed (the chapter on ghosts includes grey aliens and Bigfoot for example), and the research strategies employed (still no attempts to see if psi like correlations exist between powerful computers), and in the reluctance to seek greater integration with mainstream science.

It is telling that there is almost no input in this volume from a sceptical position. The only exception is a curious paper by Douglas Stokes which argues that the evidence accumulated suggests that the best explanation for the actual pattern of results in experimental parapsychology is experimenter fraud by a number of charismatic and possibly psychopathic individuals (or more likely, I would add, those who are employed by or subordinate to them). I am not entirely certain whether this is meant as a serious proposition or as an ironical reductio ad absurdum of the sceptics’ position.

The result is the sort of defensiveness one sees in the introduction, which constantly adopts the tone of “we really are a science, despite what the nasty critics say”, along with the whining and rather self-pitying tone, which adds nothing to the dignity of the subject. In a world in which millions of people are fleeing real and horrendous persecution, the use of that world to describe parapsychologist’ little local difficulties with skeptics is gratuitous and offensive.

Reading through this and many other works on parapsychology suggests to me that it is not an ordinary science at all. It is not however an ordinary pseudo-science either. For example it commands a much higher order of scholarship than pseudo-science. I suggest that we think of parapsychology as an example of what we might call “testimonial science”, by analogy with political parties, which exist not to actually compete for power, but to represent particular client groups or simply to preserve the purity of an ideological position and not to make the messy compromises of the day to day politics. My suspicion is that though parapsychologists often use the language and conventions of science their heart is not really in it and that they see their main role as cultural warriors against ‘materialism‘, often itself a shorthand for a variety of moderneties,.

It is sometimes thought, often by themselves, that parapsychologists long for a return to Cartesian dualism. Nothing could be further from the case, Descartes project of radical dualism had as it aim the complete disenchantment of the material world, which could be seen entirely in terms of mechanism, while a separate ‘spiritual’ world, which only interacted with the material world through the human pineal gland, was envisaged in order to preserve a ghost of human dignity and Catholic doctrine. The aim of at least some parapsychologists’ is the radical re-enchantment of the world. If the price of that is believing , as Stephen Braude suggests in this volume, that it is at least a theoretically possibility that mega-PK might cause storms, earthquakes, plane crashes (and presumably economic collapse), I suspect the price of that re-enchantment would be immeasurably too high.

It might be better for parapsychology to present itself as something related; a another form of testimonial scholarship, that is to say scholarship the primary purpose of which is to provide a voice for groups, cultures, experiences which have historically been neglected (e.g. women’s studies, African-American studies, LBGT history etc.).

If this is the case then it might well be better to concentrate on studying anomalous personal experiences, without making any assumptions as to their nature and causation, rather than engaging in ever more recondite laboratory research, in the vain hope that by make ever obeisance to the sacred totem of statistics, cargo in the form of scientific recognition will fall from the sky or the academic ivory tower. 
  • Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

Erika A. Pratte said...

Peter, I enjoyed reading your review. Your last paragraph regarding parapsychology studying personal anomalous experiences is much in line with the study of exceptional experiences, which some call a branch of parapsychology. This field has been gaining popularity in parapsychology, especially in this decade, but it really began in the 90s with Rhea White and perhaps before that with William James, et al, in the 1890s.
Thanks for the read,