Forums Forums Answering Skeptics and Debunking Cynics Bias of skeptics – Evaluation of Parapsychology as a Scientific Enterprise

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    Pam B

    From: An Introduction of Parapsychology: Chapter 17:Evaluation of Parapsychology as a Scientific Enterprise

    Some critics (e.g., Hyman, ¡980) have argued for the need to respond to parapsychology in a sober and proper manner, but nonetheless a common tactic of skeptics is the use of ridicule. Parapsychological phenomena are derided as nonsensical and primitive folk beliefs and parapsychological research is belittled as occultism in pseudoscientific garb. This approach especially is characteristic of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal ( CSICOP ). CSICOP is a group of scientists and other people originally founded to examine objectively the evidence for paranormal phenomena (Frazier, ¡996), but it has maintained an inflexible stance against research into the paranormal (Hansen, ¡992), some of its a liates even resorting to deception in experimental reports (Pinch & Collins, ¡984); many of its more evenhanded members consequently have resigned.

    Articles published in the Humanist and in CSICOP ‘ S own periodical the Skeptical Inquirer (see Frazier, ¡98¡, ¡986, ¡99¡) amalgamate parapsychological research with astrology, vampires, UFO s, pyramid power, numerology, the Bermuda triangle, witchcraft, the Tarot, the Abominable Snowman and the like, encouraging an impression of parapsychology’s guilt by association. Parapsychology has been depicted by some skeptics as a spiritualist or occultist movement seeking to maintain popular support by adopting a facade of scientific methodology; for example, the discipline is said to be a “pseudoscience” (Alcock, ¡98¡) and “a prime example of magical thinking” (Bunge, ¡99¡, p. ¡36), its researchers “closet occultists” (Romm, ¡977), and its concepts “a reversion to a prescientific religio-mystical tradition” (Moss & Butler, ¡978, p. ¡077). The results of parapsychological research are dismissed out of hand or are patently misrepresented. Bunge (¡99¡, p. ¡33), for example, makes the bald declaration, “all of the well-designed parapsychological experiments have produced negative results.” Similarly, in a major report commissioned at the request of the US Congress Hyman (¡995, p. 325) asserted, “Only parapsychology, among the fields of inquiry claiming scientific status, lacks a cumulative database.”

    Although parapsychologists deplore these rhetorical devices the fact of the matter is that this is how scientific controversy is waged. As Feyerabend (¡975) maintains, it is not so much the logic of the case that determines the outcome of a scientific controversy but rather the rhetorical skills of the advocates for each side.

    Other more specific criticisms of parapsychology have been noted in earlier chapters. Some scientists reject the ESP data because while the results may be statistically significant the deviation from chance is so small that it is not convincing of an extrasensory access to information. Others believe that parapsychology cannot be accorded the status of a science as long as it lacks a widely endorsed theory of its phenomena (Churchland, ¡987; Flew, ¡980). Still other commentators maintain that parapsychology is not a science because its experiments are not guaranteed to be replicable upon demand (Belo , ¡994).

    Possibly these aspects of parapsychology could be interpreted as characteristic of a young science, one that has yet to achieve the desired level of control over its phenomena. But again, perhaps psi phenomena are inherently weak or little open to conscious production (Belo , ¡985). Certainly in recent years there are indications that theories of psi are becoming more viable and that experimental findings may be becoming more replicable. Many parapsychologists had hoped that meta-analyses of the findings of psi experiments would silence critics’ claims on the issue of replicability (Krippner et al., ¡993); when this did not happen, parapsychologists seemingly abandoned much of their e ort to assure conventional scientists on this point (Hess, ¡993).

    It is not impertinent to note that the above criticisms might equally be applicable to other accepted areas of scientific research. In psychology, for example, many experimental results comprise small but statistically significant e ects, and often the replicability of these e ects is either poor or untested. This is not to say that e ect size and repeatability are unimportant, but merely that critics’ emphasis upon them in the parapsychology debate is fundamentally for rhetorical purposes (McClenon, ¡984, pp. 89­9¡). One cannot help but feel that many psychologists’ antagonism toward parapsychological research is in some measure a projection of anxieties over their own discipline.

    The motivations of parapsychology’s critics have been the object of considerable speculation (e.g., LeShan, ¡966; McConnell, ¡977; Wren-Lewis, ¡974). Critics undoubtedly believe in the rationality of their case against parapsychology, yet this in itself seems inadequate to account for the belligerence and vehemence of their attacks. Although some parapsychologists regard the implications of psi phenomena to be so far-reaching as to augur a major revolution in materialistic science, there is little indication that critics see the fabric of science to be under serious threat and thus this would not appear to be a significant motive.

    Tart (¡982) proposes that the critics’ behavior is fueled by a very strong unconscious emotion, a “fear of psi.” Many people are concerned that if psi really were to exist, social interaction would be disrupted, their personal privacy invaded, and their independence open to unfair manipulation by others. For these people it is too awful that psi should exist, so its existence simply
    must not be conceded. In support of Tart’s hypothesis that critics are motivated by a fear of psi, Irwin (¡985c) reports a significant relationship between a measure of the fear of psi and the respondent’s attitude to the appropriateness of parapsychological research. There is considerable scope for further research into the psychodynamics of attitudes to parapsychological research.

    Criticism is intrinsic to academic science, of course. It plays an important role in the refinement of theories and empirical techniques and thereby serves to stimulate further, more incisive, research. Indeed, some skeptical analyses of parapsychological research have proved very constructive (e.g., Hyman, ¡985; Hyman & Honorton, ¡986). On the other hand, the scientific establishment’s reactions to parapsychology tend to go further than this in using criticisms as grounds for maintaining parapsychology’s marginal status and denying it the privileges of a scientific discipline. That is, certain activities of skeptical scientists seem designed to create and maintain a cultural boundary between parapsychology and the rest of science (Hess, ¡993).

    One instance of this is the inhibition of parapsychologists’ access to orthodox journals. Publications such as Science and Nature have been shown to be extremely unwilling to publish articles favoring parapsychological concepts (Collins & Pinch, ¡979, pp. 257­258; McClenon, ¡984, pp. ¡¡4­¡¡8; Rockwell, ¡979). One fascinating documentation of this is provided by Honorton et al. (¡975). Honorton submitted to Science a report of a study on experimenter e ects in ESP . After it had been revised in the light of earlier comments, the manuscript was scrutinized by four referees, three of whom favored its publication. The dissenting referee clearly was not familiar with parapsychological research, being unable, for example, to countenance the observation of a mean ESP score that was significantly below chance. The editors of Science decided not to publish the paper.

    Those articles that are accepted for publication in Science or in Nature frequently are diluted by negative comments made in an accompanying editorial or in a commentary by scientists outside the field (Collins & Pinch, ¡979, pp. 258­259); often such commentaries do not appear to have been subjected to the usual editorial processes. Psychology journals also appear to publish a higher proportion of unsuccessful psi experiments than do parapsychological journals (Billig, ¡972), while in introductory psychology texts the tendency is either to ignore parapsychological research altogether (Child, ¡985; Irwin, ¡99¡b; Lamal, ¡989) or to describe only weak and outdated studies (Rogo, ¡980; Roig, Icochea & Cuzzocoli, ¡99¡).

    Recently, however, a paper by Bem and Honorton (¡994) on the psi-ganzfeld e ect was accepted for publication in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin . Some parapsychologists have interpreted this acceptance as a suggestion of an emerging evenhandedness toward parapsychological research reports among the editors of mainstream psychological journals. On the basis of past experience, other parapsychologists do not share this optimistic outlook.


    This is perfect! We’ve known this all along, but here it is finally in print. The critics of psi belittle and become derogatory in their statements about the subject for several reasons, and there is underlying bias. I always compare those cynics who wallow in the mud slinging – so to speak – to kids on a playground who don’t get their way and start name calling and sticking out their tongues and making faces. Somehow too I think of the term “nervous laughter”, you know how you really don’t want to acknowledge something so you just laugh it off and ignore it? You keep laughing until that thing you ignored bites you in the butt or is out of sight.

    Great article. Thanks for sharing!

    Pam B

    I know this is already long, but check this out too:

    A related movement in the philosophy of science has its roots in feminism. Feminist scientists such as Bleier (¡984), Harding (¡986, ¡987) and Keller (¡983) see modern science as an uncompromising expression of androcentric or “masculine” values. For example, scientists are essentially in pursuit of power; they seek to dominate, subdue, and control nature. Scientists also use methods which emphasize an objective, impersonal, and dispassionate (“logical”) approach at the exclusion of subjective, personal, and emotional (“feeling”) elements. Even in the social sciences researchers seek to assert control over experimental subjects rather than to engage participants in a collaborative exercise. At the same time as they are adopting a detached methodology scientists tend to be adversarial, highly competitive with their peers and exploitative of their subordinates (Utts, ¡994; Zingrone, ¡994).

    In parapsychological research this dualism is instantiated by the contrast between J. B. Rhine’s relentless drive for experimental control over ESP and Louisa E. Rhine’s sensitivity to the personal dimensions of spontaneous extrasensory experiences. Stereotypical “feminine” values perhaps may be more evident in parapsychology than in most other disciplines; [for appreciations of women’s contributions to parapsychology see Alvarado (¡989b), Coly and White (¡994), Hess (¡989b), and Zingrone (¡988)]. Certainly some parapsychologists’ preoccupation with the subjective and the “intuitive” aspects of human behavior (Powers, ¡99¡) is extremely irksome to the (almost exclusively male) skeptics.

    In any event, a more extensive accommodation of “feminine” values in general science, as advocated by feminists, may provide a context in which a greater variety of parapsychological studies are received as scientifically legitimate. The feminization of science would in part entail the implementation of a pluralistic approach (White, ¡992), that is, a recognition of the value of many di erent research paradigms and a rejection of the view that the laboratory experiment is the epitome of the scientific method. White (¡99¡, ¡994) has urged parapsychologists to join in the process of transforming contemporary science to this end. Thus parapsychology could be the first point of implementation of a significant revolution in the philosophy of science.

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