Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is Parapsychology a "Taboo" Subject in Science?

Parapsychology has been a controversial subject from its very inception. Many scientists have expressed doubts that psi – the broad term for paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis – is real or that parapsychology is a genuine science. On the other hand, some scientists support parapsychology, and in fact an opinion piece recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, endorsed by 100 signatories calls for a more “open-minded” consideration of the subject. What particularly struck me about this piece was the claim that investigation into the subject is not just controversial, but actually “taboo”. Examination of the history of parapsychology indicates that the scientific mainstream has shown considerable open-mindedness towards the subject, and that claims that it has been treated as some sort of “forbidden” topic are both hyperbolic and disingenuous.

Does "Theresa" possess forbidden knowledge that scientists are not allowed to investigate?

Although parapsychology has been studying paranormal phenomena for over 130 years, currently it exists mainly at the fringes of scientific institutions. Mainstream science largely ignores psi, e.g. physics textbooks make no mention of the possibility that mental events might influence physical objects at a distance and science funding agencies generally will not financially support parapsychology research (Alcock, 1987).[1]

Naturally parapsychologists object to this state of affairs and the authors of the opinion piece (Cardeña, 2014) “call for an open, informed study” of the subject. However, they do not explain what specifically prompted such a call at this particular time. Signatories to the piece include such mainstream psychology notables as Daryl Bem and Phil Zimbardo, as well as researchers into more fringe oriented topics like Dean Radin and David Luke[2]. The article starts off, apparently quite reasonably, arguing that scientists need to consider all evidence in an open-minded manner and “recognise that scientific knowledge is provisional and subject to revision.” This is in contrast to deciding things dogmatically or by appeal to authority figures. No argument from me so far. The author then goes on to bemoan the fact that purported phenomena such as telepathy and precognition have not been embraced by mainstream science. A set of claims is then made to the effect that parapsychology is a valid science and that there is evidence to support the existence of psi. Sceptics such as Ray Hyman on the other hand argue that they find the evidence unconvincing because attempts to reliably replicate initially successful psi experiments have had a history of repeated failure. I have also expressed scepticism about parapsychology in previous posts (see here and here. However, this is not particularly what I wish to focus on here.

What exactly the author and the signatories hope to achieve by publishing this article is not entirely clear. However, the following statement provides some clues: “This research has continued for over a century despite the taboo against investigating the topic, almost complete lack of funding, and professional and personal attacks” (emphasis added). Lack of funding and professional and personal attacks I can well believe. Funding bodies have limited resources and so may have good reasons for declining to fund a field they consider unpromising. Professional and personal attacks, however regrettable, occur in many fields of endeavour, and are hardly unique to parapsychology. But claiming that there is an actual taboo against investigating the topic is a very puzzling one indeed for which the article offers no evidence or even any definition of what this is supposed to mean.[3] In fact, the article actually cites survey evidence to the effect that only a minority of scientists dismiss parapsychology as pseudoscience or an illegitimate area of study. If this is correct, then how could parapsychology actually be taboo? Does this minority group of parapsychology-deniers have some special veto power that they can impose on the majority?

Taboo implies that investigating the topic is strictly forbidden and that anyone who dares to defy the taboo can expect severe punishment. This is a pretty serious charge, as it implies that mainstream scientists have actively prohibited curious investigators from studying the subject with an open mind, contrary to the whole spirit of scientific inquiry. Some parapsychologists have gone so far as to accuse mainstream scientists of being prejudiced against the subject or even having an irrational fear of psi. A google search of “parapsychology taboo” reveals that this claim is not new and has been widely repeated by parapsychologists. Dean Radin, one of the article’s signatories, in particular once gave a lecture called “Science and the taboo of psi” in which he claims flatly that the “This taboo has been sustained for over 100 years.” (About 4:35 in the video.) He also states that “it is extremely difficult to get accurate reporting of this topic in the science media”[4] and implies that the media selectively reports only studies that disconfirm parapsychology but is strangely silent about ones that validate it. (An informative critique of this video can be read here.) A few years after Radin’s lecture, Daryl Bem’s (2011) paper that claimed to provide evidence that people can “feel the future” received an enormous amount of media attention (e.g. in Discover magazine[5]). Perhaps parapsychology is no longer so “taboo” as it was a few years ago? Alternatively, maybe it never was taboo in the first place. The fact that mainstream science tends not to take parapsychology seriously is not proof of an irrational taboo, as scientists may have good reasons for being unconvinced of its claims. Cardeña and company enjoin sceptics to consider the evidence with an open mind, so it would be helpful to examine just what evidence there is that parapsychology has ever been a taboo topic.

According to Alcock (1987), when parapsychology research began in the 1880’s, a number of prominent psychologists, such as Pierre Janet and William James, along with scientists from other fields, were involved in looking for evidence of paranormal phenomena and psychical research societies were set up in France, America and Britain. The Fourth International Congress of Psychology held in 1900 in Paris had an entire section devoted to psychical research and spiritualism. Much of this research focused on investigating the alleged powers of spiritualist mediums, many of whom turned out to be frauds. As a result, many psychologists lost interest in the subject.

Parapsychology attracted attention again in the 1930’s with the pioneering experimental research into ESP by JB Rhine at Duke University. A 1938 poll of psychologists found that 89% of them thought that the study of psi was a legitimate scientific exercise (Alcock, 1989). I suppose they were not aware that this was supposed to be a taboo subject. Unfortunately, methodological problems in Rhine’s studies were exposed that invalidated his conclusions, and psi research failed to gain mainstream scientific support.

Parapsychology received mainstream attention in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1969, the Parapsychology Association became an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS is a well-respected international institution of mainstream science, rather than some fringe organisation. (It is worth noting that a 1982 survey of “elite” scientists in the AAAS found that only 4% of 339 thought that ESP had been scientifically established (Alcock, 1987).) In 1974, Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, agreed to publish a paper by Targ and Puthoff (1974), which presented results of a series of experiments apparently showing evidence of paranormal phenomena such as clairvoyance and remote viewing. Several of these experiments used the notorious Uri Geller as their test subject. This paper was preceded by an editorial ("Investigating the paranormal," 1974) which noted a number of shortcomings of the paper identified by the peer reviewers, such as weaknesses in design and presentation, “uncomfortably vague” details about the safeguards and precautions against conscious and unconscious fraud, and the criticism that the paper seemed more “a series of pilot studies… than a report of a completed experiment.” The editors go on to say that in spite of these criticisms, two of the three reviewers of the paper felt that it should be published because it was a serious attempt to “investigate under laboratory conditions phenomena which, while highly implausible to many scientists, would nevertheless seem to be worthy of investigation even if, in the final analysis, negative findings are revealed.” The editor goes on to explain that although Nature is a highly respected journal, they occasionally publish “high-risk” papers, and that “the unusual must now and then be allowed a toe-hold in the literature, sometimes to flourish, more often to be forgotten within a year or two.”

What the quotes from the editorial show is that the editors and reviewers of one of the world’s most highly respected journals, far from demonstrating their dogmatic prejudice against a “taboo” topic, went out of their way to be open-minded and allow informed discussion of a controversial topic, even though it was regarded by many scientists as “highly implausible”.

A similar incident occurred again in 2011, when Daryl Bem, one of the signatories to the Frontiers article claiming that parapsychology is taboo, published his paper on precognition (Bem, 2011) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This journal is considered the flagship publication in its field, and news of this paper generated an enormous media response, even before it was officially published. Once again, the editors of the journal were moved to write an editorial explaining the reasons why such a paper was accepted and including this statement:
We openly admit that the reported findings conflict with our own beliefs about causality and that we find them extremely puzzling. Yet, as editors we were guided by the conviction that this paper—as strange as the findings may be—should be evaluated just as any other manuscript on the basis of rigorous peer review. (Judd & Gawronski, 2011)
Yet again, the editors of a respected mainstream journal have gone out of their way to ensure that parapsychological research receives a fair and informed hearing, even though in this case the editors acknowledge that they find the reported findings very hard to believe. Admittedly, it is a rare event for papers on parapsychology research to be published in such top-tier journals. However, the fact remains that they were published. Alcock (1987) also notes that between 1950 and 1987 over 1500 parapsychological papers were abstracted in Psychological Abstracts, which is published by the American Psychological Association. Research on the subject has hardly been suppressed by the mainstream then.

In summary, the claim by Cardeña and colleagues that investigating parapsychology has been taboo, and Dean Radin’s claim that “this taboo has been sustained for over 100 years” due to dogmatic prejudice and close-mindedness appears to be nonsensical. Parapsychology has had multiple opportunities for over a century to earn mainstream acceptance. Furthermore, when parapsychologists have had studies published in mainstream journals, scientists have responded to them by subjecting them to careful scrutiny rather than ignoring them. As this Discovery article points out, after Daryl Bem published his paper on precognition, other teams of scientists (see here for example) independently attempted their own experiments to see if Bem’s results could be replicated. In 2012 a meta-analysis of all known attempts to replicate Bem’s findings was published (Galak, LeBoeuf, Nelson, & Simmons, 2012) which concluded that the average effect size for precognition was no different from zero. Some parapsychologists such as Dean Radin, have accused critics of parapsychology of being “scientific fundamentalists” who are unwilling to consider that their model of the world might be wrong. On the contrary, Smith (2011) points out that mainstream science has actually advanced by accepting challenges to its model of the world. He gives the recent example of the discovery of dark energy. Prior to this discovery, the conventional view in cosmology was that the expansion of the universe was slowing down. However, astronomical observations led to the observation that the rate of the universal expansion was actually accelerating instead, suggesting that a previously unknown antigravity force exists. Five years of observation was all that was needed to completely revise our understanding of cosmology and now dark energy is being studied intensively and receives massive funding. Compare this to the over 130 years that parapsychologists have had to establish the existence of psi. It seems to me that if parapsychology has not won widespread acceptance it is most likely because of the emptiness of the subject itself and its repeated failures to create an evidence base rather than because of alleged bigotry on the part of scientists or some supposed unspecified taboo for which no evidence has been provided.


[1] On the other hand the United States government provided millions of dollars of funding into military uses of psi research, particularly remote viewing, for over 20 years, only to abandon it in 1995 after it had produced no useful applications.
[2] Examples of David Luke’s interest in fringe topics include this paper on non-human entities perceived under the influence of psychedelic drugs (see here and here for my own, less esoteric, views on the subject) and this paper “Parapsychology as a science of magick: An occult perspective on psi.”
[3] The quote from the article includes a citation by Cardeña (2011) which gives examples of professional and personal attacks against (and by) parapsychologists, but contains no mention of a “taboo” or issues with funding.
[4] As an example of faulty reporting of parapsychology in the “science media” he cites an article from The Boston Globe, an online newspaper. Why he considers a general news source to represent the “science media” is not exactly clear.
[5] Which has a more credible claim to represent “science media” than The Boston Globe which Radin cites.


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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

My previous articles on parapsychology:

Precognition: Science or Fanta-Psi? Science meets Alice in Wonderland - has parapsychology gone mainstream?

Further reading 
Editorial by psi researchers calls for open mindedness - interesting take on the Frontiers letter by Doubtful News site.

There is no taboo on studying psychic phenomena, just boredom - this was written before the Frontiers letter, but provides a good debunking of claims about a "taboo."

The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology by Dr Susan Blackmore. A remarkable account of how a parapsychologist became disillusioned by the search for psi after a decade of sincere but fruitless attempts to find evidence for it.

Image credits: Psychic by John Stephen Dwyer via Wikipedia; Zener Cards via Wikipedia

Alcock, J. E. (1987). Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or search for the soul? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 10(4), 553-643.
Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(3), 407-425. doi: 10.1037/a0021524
Cardeña, E. (2011). On Wolverines and Epistemological Totalitarianism. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 25(3), 539–551.
Cardeña, E. (2014). A call for an open, informed study of all aspects of consciousness. [Opinion] Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00017
Galak, J., LeBoeuf, R. A., Nelson, L. D., & Simmons, J. P. (2012). Correcting the past: Failures to replicate psi. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029709
Investigating the paranormal. (1974). Nature, 251(5476), 559-560. doi: 10.1038/251559a0
Judd, C. M., & Gawronski, B. (2011). Editorial Comment. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 100(3), 406.
Smith, J. C. (2011). A challenge to psi researchers Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit: Wiley-Blackwell.
Targ, R., & Puthoff, H. (1974). Information transmission under conditions of sensory shielding. Nature, 251, 602-607. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/251602a0