Saturday, 25 February 2012

Parapsychologists have clearly failed

Although there has been over a century of formal empirical inquiry,myself and other parapsychologists have clearly failed to produce a single reliable demonstration of “paranormal,” or “psi,” phenomena. Although many parapsychological research projects have been carried out under what have been described as well-controlled conditions, this does not by itself make a science, for unless and until it can be demonstrated that paranormal phenomena really exist, there is no subject matter around which a science can develop. Indeed, parapsychologists have not even succeeded in developing a reasonable definition of paranormal phenomena that does not involve, or imply, some aspect of mind-body dualism. Moreover, parapsychology has developed several principles (such as the experimenter effect) which can be used to explain away failures, and the use of these principles contributes to making the psi-hypothesis unfalsifiable.

The “anything goes” attitude in parapsychology, which seems to lend credence to virtually any “paranormal” claim, serves to weaken the credibility of parapsychological endeavors in the eyes of critics. This general willingness to suspend doubt is another indication that parapsychology is more than the quest to explain anomalous experiences, as is claimed. It is argued in this paper that parapsychological inquiry reflects the attempt to establish the reality of a nonmaterial aspect of human existence, rather than a search for explanations for anomalous phenomena.

Many researchers have examined psychological differences between people who believe in the paranormal and people who do not believe in the paranormal (see, e.g., French, 1992; Irwin, 1993). For example, such beliefs have been found to be positively correlated with creativity and sensation seeking (Davis, Peterson, & Farley, 1974), hypnotic susceptibility (Wagner & Ratzeburg, 1987), neuroticism (Windholtz & Diamant, 1974), fantasy proneness (Irwin, 1991a), and ostensible psi ability (Lawrence, 1993).
One focus of this research has been to assess whether those who believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena are cognitively inferior to those who disbelieve such phenomena. For example, Alcock and Otis (1980) asked participants to complete Watson and Glaser's (1964) Critical Thinking Appraisal Scale and found that paranormal believers demonstrated a significantly lower level of critical thinking than disbelievers. In addition, Wierzbicki (1985) found that believers made more errors on a test of syllogistic reasoning than did disbelievers. However, other studies cast doubt on these findings. For example, Irwin (1991b) found no correlation between paranormal belief scores and reasoning skills, Thalbourne & Nofi (1997) found no evidence of a correlation between belief and performance on an IQ test, while Jones, Russell, and Nickel (1977) reported a positive relationship between paranormal belief and intelligence.
One possible reason for the disparity in these empirical findings concerns the context in which the studies were conducted. Some evidence suggests that the degree to which individuals express belief in the paranormal may be to some extent dependent on the social and intellectual context in which it is measured. For example, Fishbein and Raven (1967) found that belief in ESP could be influenced by prior exposure to positive or negative information about ESP. They found that participants' expressed beliefs were increased after reading an article that promoted such phenomena, while participants presented with an article that stressed the methodological weaknesses of ESP experiments showed lower belief scores. In addition, Layton and Turnbull (1975) and Crandall (1985) found that participants tested by an experimenter who displayed a personal belief in ESP and a positive evaluation of ESP research expressed higher belief than did participants tested by an experimenter who showed a negative opinion of ESP. These studies suggest that individuals' paranormal belief is participant to demand characteristics of the test situation. Irwin (1985, 1991b, 1993) has proposed that such interventions do not necessarily change participants' views; rather, they affect participants' willingness to express that belief. If so, this may have considerable implications regarding the validity of purported correlates of paranormal belief.
Irwin (1991b) has speculated that context effects may explain why he did not find a difference in reasoning skills between believers and disbelievers as reported by earlier researchers. He argued that all of the earlier studies had been conducted by publicly professed skeptics whose implicit objective was to show that paranormal believers were credulous, uncritical, and foolish people. Given this as the case, Irwin (1991b) suggests that this is likely to be an important factor in the outcome of such research:
Specifically, it is suggested that critically minded participants in previous
studies were aware of the investigators' skeptical attitude toward the
paranormal and may well have taken this as a cue to be reticent about their
own paranormal beliefs. Participants who perform highly on a test of critical
thinking may thus present with relatively low paranormal belief merely
because they are more alert to the experimenter's own skepticism. (p. 289)
The result of such a context effect would be a spurious negative correlation between reasoning ability and paranormal belief due to believers with high reasoning ability presenting lower belief scores. Irwin, on the other hand, describes himself as being perceived as open-minded in his approach to parapsychology. He suggests that participants in his study did not feel that they needed to hide their belief in the paranormal and so gave more honest answers on the belief questionnaire, perhaps giving a truer picture of the relationship between reasoning ability and paranormal belief. It follows that, according to this model, a spurious positive relationship between paranormal belief and reasoning ability might be expected in a context which actively encourages a belief in the paranormal (assuming it is only those participants who score high on the reasoning task who inflate their belief scores accordingly).
It is also possible that participants' scores on tests of cognitive ability are influenced by the context in which the tests are taken. ...

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