The Role of Skepticism in Parapsychology
Parapsychology is supported by twin pillars: open-minded scientific study and rigorous doubt. Both are necessary. Our membership includes individuals who lean more toward one or the other, but together we hold up the edifice. Contributions in these directions from outside of our membership are also vital for our healthy growth.
Organized skepticism does a valuable service when it is focused on educating the public to detect and reject unscrupulous practitioners who prey on gullible people. Equally valuable is the unflinching and clear-eyed assessment of experiments in difficult frontier areas such as parapsychology. But we must also be skeptical of some who call themselves skeptics. Unfortunately some organizations and individual skeptics fail to do their homework and neglect or misapply the scientific methods they want to protect. The result is arguments that fail when tested against facts that are readily available. We need a clear-minded look at frontier research by observers willing to give it serious attention. A second opinion from someone not involved is valuable. A dispassionate, objective critique can make the difference between a successful experiment from which we learn, and a failed attempt which wastes an opportunity.
The Parapsychological Association invites critical comments and seeks collaborations with interested skeptics. We know from experience how much this can add to our efforts. For example, Marilyn Schlitz and Richard Wiseman conducted an experiment in which they both ran the same remote staring experiment with the same protocol and subject pool (Schlitz, et al., 2006). The outcome indicated a correspondence of results with experimenter expectation in the first experiment and again in a replication, while a third experiment had ambiguous results. The effort advanced our knowledge about the experimenter effect, and showed the value of collaborations involving psi researchers and skeptics.
Within the ranks of professional parapsychologists there is a broad range of attitudes and plenty of educated skepticism, and this diversity results in useful critiques. More of this, from a still wider range of expertise, is desirable. We encourage other scientists to take a look at our research from an objectively skeptical point of view and give clear, constructive criticisms that can help make the work more productive.
This general invitation is a recent initiative, but recognition of the value of skepticism is hardly new, as is evident from Sir Alister Hardy's trenchant remarks (1965) on two opposing perspectives:
“The scientist who has vision, who has fertile ideas, is not unlike the artist in having a certain, perhaps misplaced, affection for the children of his creative thoughts. He devises experiments to see if they will survive tests of validity; although he may pretend not to care one way or the other, yet, secretly, he hopes they will live. Just because of this his experiments may later be found to have been unconsciously biased in their design.”
"Now, if we look at the opposition party we shall, I think, find some of them just as biased and blind for another emotional reason. They also, with an almost religious passion, are fighting to stamp out the last vestiges of the 'superstition' that they feel to be lurking in the minds of some who call themselves scientists."
The way forward is to recognize the reality of Hardy's two parties, and to combine forces to achieve a productive balance. We focus here on consciousness-related research, but the principles apply very broadly. All science, but especially science at the edges of what we know, needs rigorous and constructive criticism to do its job well. We wish to encourage clear minded, educated critique as a replacement for what sometimes looks like ideologically driven pseudo-skepticism. To the extent we can discern the difference, all good scientists can breathe a sigh of relief.
The annotated links below are intended for people who prefer informed conclusions about the growing edges of science. We will highlight examples of low-level, uneducated skepticism, but also describe cases where the skeptical perspective was correct and helped make an experiment better or showed how mistakes or omissions may render a conclusion suspect.
- Skeptical Concepts is a collection of examples and articles that touch on the questions we raise here. It is the repository (in English) for illustrations of the best and worst in skepticism relevant to consciousness research.
- Skeptical Investigations provides perspective and resources for people interested in making skepticism more effective. It includes dossiers on well-known skeptics to help media people get an honest picture, with information about where skeptics are coming from. It helps differentiate “skeptics” with a personal agenda from those who more fairly represent the broader science community.
- Alex Tsakiris hosts a podcast called Skeptiko: Science at the Tipping Point, which promotes intelligent debate featuring cutting edge scientists and capable skeptics. The Skeptiko website maintains a discussion forum and a growing collection of excellent interviews.
- For parapsychologists working in France, an excellent resource is Pseudo-Skepticisme. This site examines recent articles and pronouncements by nominal skeptics and provides an objective, fact based assessment. The effect is to help identify false and misleading claims and provide counterpoint.
Hardy, A., (1965). The Living Stream (London: Collins, 1965), p.156 & 159.
Schlitz, M., Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Radin, D. (2006). Of two minds: Sceptic–proponent collaboration within parapsychology, British Journal of Psychology, 97, 313–322.