From Psychology to Parapsychology
Are psychologists right to be skeptical about ESP?
Posted May 07, 2014
Recently I wrote an article called ‘Do Psychic Phenomena Exist?’ in which I expressed an open-minded attitude to telepathy and pre-cognition. I expected that the article would attract negative responses from skeptical readers—but on the contrary, all of the comments and responses were supportive, from people who believed that telepathy and pre-cognition are real, and expressed frustration that mainstream scientists and psychologists often reject them out of hand. This has led me think more deeply about the reasons why some scientists—and psychologists in particular—are often hostile towards the possible existence of psychic phenomena.
Interestingly, it appears that psychologists are more skeptical about ESP than other scientists and academics. In one survey of 1,100 university professors, almost half as few psychologists believed that ESP is a ‘recognised fact or a likely possibility’ as other academics such as natural scientists and arts and humanities professors.
Why should psychologists be more resistant to the possibility of ESP? A skeptic might argue that this is because psychologists are more familiar with the workings of the human mind and so better able to understand how people can delude themselves into believing in paranormal phenomena. However, as someone who is open-minded about the possibility of ESP, I would suggest that this may be related to psychology’s status as a science. There has been a long debate about whether psychology genuinely is a ‘science’, and some ‘hard’ natural scientists have been reluctant to accept it as such. Perhaps as a result, psychologists have traditionally been keen to assert their scientific credentials, partly by zealously refusing to admit ‘unscientific’ phenomena such as telepathy or pre-cognition into their domain. At least subconsciously, they may fear that this would undermine psychology’s scientific credentials further.
Does ESP Contravene the Laws of Physics?
Psychologists—and skeptics in general—often call upon the ‘hard’ sciences to support the argument that ESP is impossible. They sometimes say that telepathy and pre-cognition cannot exist because they contravene the laws of physics. However, as I commented in my last blog, this is not a valid argument. It may apply to classical Newtonian physics, but that was superseded many decades ago. In relation to pre-cognition, concepts in modern physics such as four dimensional space-time and ‘backwards causation’ (or retro-causation) suggest that our common sense notion that time flows forward - from the past, through the present to the future - may be naïve. Crazy though it might sound, inside the smallest particles of matter, cause and effect can be reversed so that event can literally take place before its cause. Noting this phenomenon, the physicist Pascual Jordan—one of the pioneers of quantum physics—remarked that: ‘This has enormous implications for psychology and parapsychology, since such reversal of the cause-and-effect sequence are proved possible and philosophically valid.’ (In my last blog, I also mentioned the phenomenon of ‘entanglement’ in quantum physics, which is compatible with the idea of telepathy.)
In view of these phenomena, it’s not surprising that other physicists have been open-minded about the possibility of pre-cognition and telepathy. Although unconvinced by some of the experimental evidence for telepathy available during his life time, even Einstein was aware that it was not possible to reject it on the basis that they had no place in science. As he remarked, ‘We have no right to rule out a priori the possibility of telepathy. For that the foundations of our science are too uncertain and incomplete.’ (1)
The Problem of Replication
If you’re not particularly knowledgeable about parapsychology, you might be surprised to learn that scientific tests of psychic phenomena frequently do yield positive results. Recent examples have been Daryl Bem’s experiments with pre-cognition in 2011, and their successful replications over the last three years (2). Honorton and Ferrari analysed the results of 309 ‘forced choice’ precognition experiments published between 1935 and 1977, involving more than 50,000 participants. They found a highly significant success rate, which far outweighed any possible bias due to selective reporting. (3) A meta-analysis of more recent presentiment experiments (between 1978 and 2010) found an even more significant positive result (4).
Replication is a very important part of the scientific process. Research findings can’t be seen as valid unless they are successfully replicated by other researchers. Skeptical psychologists sometimes complain that, even if ESP experiments do yield significant positive results, this means little, because often the experiments can’t be reliably replicated. Skeptics sometimes claim to be waiting for investigators to design an experiment which is completely predictable and can be replicated with a high success rate.
This is understandable, but it may be unrealistic and unfair. In every area of science, replication is a thorny issue. In other areas, research is often given tacit acceptance without repeated successful replication. In fact, in a lot of cases, replication is never even attempted, and when it is, there isn’t usually a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy. One unsuccessful replication does not invalidate the original research findings. Across the whole of science, rates of successful replications are relatively low. According to one 1994 survey, the success rate for replication across all social and physical sciences was only 41 percent. In other words, it appears that the replication criteria applied to ESP experiments are unduly harsh.
Another important point here is that psychic phenomena are not, by their nature, completely constant or reliable. Testing for telepathy or pre-cognition is not comparable to testing ‘standard’ psychological phenomena or processes such as attention, perception or memory. If they exist, psychic ‘abilities’ vary from person to person. In some people, they don’t appear to exist all, whereas others may possess them to a high degree. Psychic abilities may also be situational; even with a person who normally demonstrates them to a high degree, there may be some circumstances when they fail—for example, when they are nervous or stressed.
In this sense, you could compare ESP abilities to creative abilities like painting or writing poetry. Some people have very little ability in these areas, perhaps none at all. Some people might be able to do them passably, and some people—perhaps the smallest group—are very skilled in them. And whether people do demonstrate their creative abilities is situational. Even a very skilled creative person may not be able to demonstrate his or her creativity in an uncongenial environment, in which they feel uneasy. Both ESP and creative abilities worked best in states of calm and relaxation.
As a result, it’s not surprising that sometimes ESP experiments are not successfully replicated. To expect otherwise would be like expecting all human beings to reliably demonstrate poetic abilities in laboratory experiments.
The Enlightenment Project
In my last blog, I mentioned two reasons why some scientists may be reluctant to accept the existence of telepathy and pre-cognition—because many of us have a need for ‘narrative cohesion’, for a complete and coherent framework to explain our existence and the world we live in; and because some of us may also feel that to be able to explain the world gives us a sense of control and power.
I also believe that some psychologists and skeptics make the ‘category error’ of associating phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition with ‘irrational’ phenomena such as fundamentalist religion, witchcraft, tarot cards and fortune-telling. Many scientists and intellectuals see themselves as a part of a historical ‘enlightenment project’ whose aim is to overcome superstition and irrationality.
The ‘enlightenment’ was originally a process of liberation from the hegemony of the church and monarchy, replacing dogma and myth with scientific knowledge. There is no doubt that this project has been massively beneficial to the human race—medicine, technology, freedom from social and intellectual oppression, a more truer and more evidence-based concept of reality. But the problem is that many of those who identify themselves with laudable project have a blanket opposition to the ‘irrational’, ignoring the massive distinctions between the hosts of different phenomena which don’t appear to make sense according to their paradigm of reality.
The philosopher Ken Wilber’s concept of a ‘pre/trans fallacy’ can be applied here. Fundamentalist religion can be categorized as a ‘pre-rational’ phenomenon, since it wilfully ignores the evidence of science (with respect to evolution and the origins of the universe, for example) and clings to a mythic view of reality. But phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition – for which there is some empirical evidence and which do accord with some interpretations of quantum physics and theories of consciousness—are better seen as ‘trans-rational.’ That is, they aren’t related to ignorance or superstition, but to unknown phenomena or forces which are—at least at present—beyond the limits of our awareness. They are not beneath us, but beyond us. But materialists fall victim to the ‘fallacy’ of interpreting the ‘trans-rational’ as ‘pre-rational’, because of the superficial similarities between the two.
In fact, skeptics who rigidly hold to their particular paradigm of reality may have become their own enemies. Their reluctance to consider evidence against their beliefs, and to be open to the possibility that there must be more phenomena in existence than we are aware of, is in itself irrational. It has more in common with the dogmatism of religious fundamentalists than the curious, open-minded approach which scientists should ideally follow.
Perhaps the most irrational approach is to assume that human beings have an objective and complete awareness of reality, and that there are no natural laws or phenomena or forces beyond those we can presently detect or conceive of. There is no reason why psychology cannot be ‘scientific’ at the same time as accepting this.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and Back to Sanity. www.stevenmtaylor.com
1) Many other prominent physicists were (and are) open to the possibility of ESP, including several Nobel prize winners such as Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, Wolfgang Pauli, Joseph Thomson, Eugene Wigner and Arthur Compton and Brian Josephson.
2) Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407–425.
Bem, D., Tressoldi, P. E., Rabeyron, T. & Duggan, M. (2014). Feeling the Future: A Meta-Analysis of 90 Experiments on the Anomalous Anticipation of Random Future Events (April 11, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2423692 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2423692
3) Honorton, C., & Ferrari, D. C. (1989). “Future telling”: A meta-analysis of forced-choice precognition experiments, 1935-1987. Journal of Parapsychology, 53, 281–308.
4) Mossbridge J, Tressoldi P and Utts J (2012) Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. Frontiers of Psychology 3: 390.