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Guests on Paranormalia

Since I seem to be on a sort of extended semi-hiatus I thought it would be a good idea to get other people to provide some comment from time to time. First up is Matthew Colborn, a freelance writer and artist with an MSc. in cognitive science and a doctorate in mainstream experimental psychology.

Although not blind to the problems of experimental parapsychology, Matthew thinks that there is more than enough positive evidence to justify serious research, especially given the lack of a convincing theory of consciousness.

Matthew posts below on Richard Wiseman's latest research.

Skeptics: more media savvy?

by Matthew Colborn

Richard Wiseman is at it again. He's just done a remote viewing study on Twitter with 7000 participants that, suprise surprise, has got negative results (New Scientist, 13 June 2009, p. 23).

Some thoughts:

1. Why is it that skeptics in the UK at least seem to have a far higher profile in the pop science literature than academic parapsychologists? Most controversies on psi in magazines like the New Scientist are fielded by Wiseman, French, etc., who seem a lot more media savvy than, say, the Northampton people.

2. I've come to see these sort of experiments as disconformatory propaganda e.g. high profile 'skeptics' claiming that they've looked into ESP and found nothing. Historically, mass-testing has proved a poor way of eliciting psi, but a negative result this way is a very effective way of persuading fellow scientists that there's nothing in parapsychology.

3. Ok, I'll be blunt; I think that academic parapsychology is absolutely lousy at self-promotion, especially when compared to those in the skeptical camp, who are far more articulate and media friendly. I suspect that Nancy Zigrone was right when she said that parapsychologists have let the skeptics set the agenda too much. The price is that parapsychologists tend to remain always on the offensive.

Secondly, academic parapsychologists seem a very timid bunch, who would rather hide and preserve reputations than stick their necks out and advocate their research. This also allows skeptics to gain the upper hand.

Another consequence for short-term timidity is a longer term closing of departments and the sidelining from serious academic discussion.

4. I'll be even blunter. I think that parapsychologists are losing the fight to be a visible and viable part of the academic research programme. This is despite the fact that there are probably more academic parapsychologists scattered through the UK that there have ever been. The spokespeople, however, remain far too apologetic and silent during critical moments, such as during the closing of the Edinburgh labs, or after the recent Perrott-Warwick day, where, once more, the skeptics dominated and set the agenda.

And it's not that the New Scientist necessarily censors 'pro' pieces; on the same pages (pp. 22--3), there's a piece by a chiropractor defending the profession against Singh's allegations.It's that professional proponents often lack the skeptics' initiative as far as the mass media is concerned. (This is ignoring the amateurs on shows like 'Haunted homes, 'etc., who often portray parapsychologyin a poor light, anyway.)

We all know who speaks for skepticism; they lose no opportunity for publicity and voice. But who, precisely, is speaking up for academic parapsychology?