27 June 2016


Caroline Watt. Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide. OneWorld, 2016

In a field increasingly dominated by rival certainties, many seemingly fuelled by America’s culture wars, it was a pleasant surprise to read this admirably even-handed introduction to parapsychology. Caroline Watt was a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh and at the time of writing the holder of the Perrott-Warwick Scholarship, and is also the partner of Richard Wiseman.
In this book she examines first of all the rise of interest in psychical research and parapsychology, then examines the claims of psychics and mediums, pointing out the roles of cold reading and selective memory. She then examines the role of spontaneous anomalous experiences in the form of out of the body and near death experiences and of ghosts and hauntings, noting there the role of individual psychology and memory. She then goes on to discuss the history and development of laboratory studies of telepathy and clairvoyance and psychokinesis.

She concludes that far from being a flaky pseudoscience, regardless of whether ESP etc. exist or not, parapsychology is not just a respectable science but one that has often been pioneering in the development of forms and control and analysis which can be extended to other disciplines, for example the science based study of medical treatments. As for the topics themselves, her position is that the evidence is intriguing but by no means proven and that as to whether these abilities are genuine or not the jury is still out.

This would be my own position and in general I find myself in agreement with almost everything in this book. The only point of dissent is her dismissal of interest in 'UFOs and Bigfoot', not perhaps of great relevance to laboratory parapsychology but of much relevance to the study of anomalous personal experiences, whatever their ultimate nature or natures. 
  • Peter Rogerson.

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