When did science give up studying the paranormal?
If you pay for the look a little dated official site of the Society for Psychical Research visit, you are greeted with a quote meant to make skeptics think: “I will not commit the fashionable stupidity of treating anything I cannot explain as a fraud.” The quote alone might not fit without the character it’s attributed to: Carl Jung.
“The Society for Psychical Research once had titans of science and culture among its members, including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle, and WB Yeats.”
Yes, than Carl Jung. By the early 1900s he was a proud member of society, along with other titans of science and culture including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, Lewis Carroll, and Henry Sidgwick. The organization was established in 1882 to study paranormal phenomena “without prejudice or prejudice of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and passionless inquiry that has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once no less neither obscure nor less hotly debated ”.
Nowadays, that heat of debate has cooled significantly, and the study of telepathy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has remained a much weaker area. Although it was never exactly the mainstream, the talk of paranormal research rarely makes its way onto the scientific agenda. The number of universities offering parapsychology courses barely breaks into two digits, and when they make the news, Even this bastion of impartiality, the BBC can’t help but give the report a slightly wacky tone (just look at the captions).
Sigmund Freud (front row, left) and Carl Jung (front row, right) with contemporaries at Clark University in 1909. Both were early members of the Society for Psychical Research.
When did the subject stop being taken seriously? Why is the study in decline? Is it because the big names are gone? Is there a lack of funding? Or, as many cynics would say, is it because we live in a more enlightened age where the only people who believe in paranormal activity are gullible cranks?
This latter point of view is certainly the one shared by many members of the scientific community. “Most mainstream scientists say, ‘Why are you interested in all this? “We all know this is rubbish,” says Christopher French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University. “Well, I don’t think that’s a sufficiently open-minded scientific attitude.”
Close an open mind
“Today the study of telepathy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has been left to a much weaker field.”
French is a skeptic but he thinks that abnormal psychology – the study of human behavior in relation to the paranormal – is worth persisting because, even though the scientific community is closed-minded, many people believe (until one in three Britons, according to one recent YouGov poll, believe in ghosts) and it is important to discover the causes of this belief.
“Skeptics like me will often point out that there has been systematic research in parapsychology for over a century, and so far the wider scientific community is not convinced. But they [believers] I would say if you look at the combined efforts of all this parapsychological research, it comes down to the man-hour equivalent of about two weeks – and that’s a valid point. It really is. “
One of the reasons for this is funding. While governments and institutions can see real and tangible benefits in pushing funding for medical and technological research, the same cannot be said for parapsychology. French quickly lists a handful of funding sources, including the Society for Psychical Research and the Parapsychological Association, but the number can be counted on one hand.
“While governments and institutions can see real and tangible benefits in encouraging funding for medical and technological research, the same cannot be said for parapsychology. “
One oddity in the list is The Bial Foundation – a Portuguese pharmaceutical company which funds research on the unusual combination of parapsychology and psychophysiology. French speculates that this makes the organization a “bigger fish in a small pond” rather than simply funding more “direct medical research”.
Dr Caroline Watt of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit in Edinburgh is more optimistic. She also mentions the Bial Foundation and the more than 30 doctorates that have emerged from the unit, as well as a recently funded professorship at Lund University.
“I think the funding situation is relatively healthy in parapsychology. As in any other field of research, parapsychologists must apply and compete for funding, ”she explains. However, this is not a general public domain, and the keyword here is “relatively”. As French dryly puts it: “The fact that I can more or less list the lot should show that the funding is pretty slim. “
A Ganzfeld telepathy experiment, via YouTube
As a result, a lot of research is either unfunded or self-funded, even doctorates. Doctorates shouldn’t be a problem in theory, but enthusiastic amateurs certainly don’t do anything for the reputation of the subject: “The word ‘parapsychology’ can be used very loosely,” says Watt.
“Enthusiastic amateurs certainly do nothing for the reputation of the subject.
“It’s hard for the public to know if they are dealing with a university-trained scientist or someone just looking to make a little extra cash and tap into the public’s natural curiosity for the paranormal.
Ah yes, the charlatans. It’s fair to say that in this regard, the domain’s reputation has been hampered in several ways – not just by trashy TV shows such as Most haunted (where the parapsychologist resides once managed deceiving medium Derek Acorah into channeling the mind of a “Kreed Kafer” – an anagram of Derek Fake) but also by a number of well-documented hoaxes.
Professor Richard Wiseman – a renowned skeptic – on parapsychologists and zero results.