Parapsychology: Play It Again

In science, proof means obtaining the same pattern of results time and again—but not for parapsychology.

By Keith Harary, published on November 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In virtually all areas of experimental science, proof means obtaining the same pattern of results time and again. If scientists conducting an experiment arrive at particular results just once, the "one-hit wonder" is relegated to the realm of coincidence or the dustbin of anomaly—interesting, perhaps, but proof of nothing at all.

Therein lies the problem in parapsychology, according to University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman, who's been critiquing the field for 50 years. Although parapsychologists may report significant findings in any given experiment, Hyman says, "the pattern needs to be the same every time." And that has never been accomplished in the study of psi.

To those immersed in psi research, the criticism is hardly a death knell for the field. Psychologist Nancy Sondow, president of the ASPR, states that "careful experiments and spontaneous observations throughout history suggest something worth studying." She believes consistent experimental patterns will emerge when factors such as the feelings, beliefs and interactions of all participants, including experimenters, are better understood. "But perfect psi predictability may always be as unlikely as perfect weather forecasting because the system of helping and hindering forces may be too complex," she says.

None of this excuses a lack of experimental consistency, Hyman insists. "Psychology also has trouble with replication, but still has hundreds of experiments that can be repeated. Parapsychology doesn't have a single one. Especially in the absence of a theory, you must show there is no normal explanation before you call it ESP."