I reviewed Debating Psychic Experience here a year or so ago, and another review is coming out in the current issue of the SPR Journal. Meanwhile, parapsychologist Chris Roe sends me a copy of a recent exchange in the UK Skeptic magazine.
As usual the critics, represented here by Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, want parapsychology to declare itself dead. Hyman contests the claim, based on ganzfeld meta-analyses and supported by Dean Radin and Jessica Utts, among others, that the reality of psi has been established. Wiseman argues that parapsychology is by now 'confined to the fringes of academia'.
However Wiseman also generously offers parapychologists 'one last chance' to prove themselves. They need to focus on one or two of the most promising approaches, he says, aiming for replications in a number of different labs, and pre-registering details in order to avoid the problems that arise with retrospective analysis.
If this approach yields a significant and replicable effect then the scientific mainstream would be forced to take the topic seriously and allow parapsychology in from the cold. If it fails the field needs to have the courage to accept the null hypothesis. In short, the time has come to put up or shut up.
Counter-arguments are put forward by Caroline Watt and Chris Roe. Watt, from the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, points out that parapsychology hardly exists as a discipline: there are fewer than 100 researchers working full time in the world, and many of those study not psi itself but other areas such as paranormal belief.
Roe, a psychology lecturer and psi-experimenter at the University of Northampton, adds that at least 16 UK universities have academic staff whose doctoral training is in parapsychology. Parapsychology has featured regularly at conferences organised by the British Psychological Society, and he personally has had papers accepted by its annual conference. Interestingly, the largest of the A-level (the standard pre-university qualification) examination boards for psychology includes 'Anomalistic Psychology' in its specification, including elements on testing of ESP and PK. This means, Roe says, that 'future undergraduates will come to university with a grounding in parapsychology and an expectation that the subject will be represented on any comprehensive undergraduate syllabus' - hardly characteristics of a subject confined to the fringes.
Roe vigorously contests Hyman's claim that parapsychology doesn't look scientific. According to what criteria, he asks. For instance, studies show that the use of double blind methods are common in parapsychology at a level of 85%, but hardly at all in physics and biology and only 25% in medical sciences.
When it comes to arguments about replication, Hyman picked a poor study but could just as easily have chosen a good one, Roe says. Also, there is a very strong correlation between standardness and effect size, and where the focus in meta-analyses is on standard studies you get something that looks very like replication.
So why aren't there more of these? In such a tiny field, the active players tend to be innovators looking for interesting new approaches, Roe continues, not technicians engaged in replication exercises. This rather reinforces Wiseman's point, and Roe agrees there need to be changes, but then there's the problem of funding.
These arguments are by now quite familiar, and many were covered in Debating Psychic Experience. It's worth noting, though, that Hyman hardly ever talks about flawed methodology these days in the way that he used to. An alert reader might wonder why, if psi-researchers' experimental methodology is no longer the target of critics' attention, they are still often getting highly significant results.
But Hyman does have a new gambit, and it strikes me as one that goes to the heart of the matter. He claims that some psi-researchers themselves agree that parapsychology has failed. These neoparapyschologists, as he calls them - he mentions Dick Bierman, Walter von Lucadou and Robert Jahn - appear to concede that psi fails to meet scientific criteria, and that the evidence for it will never satisfy scientific standards. In that case, he argues, the goal set by the founders of psychical research, that psi be accepted by mainstream science, is clearly unattainable.
Since the time of Calileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Newton, modern science has flourished just because it focused only on phenomena that were available for public scrutiny, were lawful, and could be independently replicated.
Quite so, and for science to restrict its focus in this way has made sense. But it does not follow that a phenomenon for which there is abundant evidence in a number of areas - often anecdotal, to be sure, but also confirmed by careful investigation - does not exist, merely on the grounds that it does not fully meet these three criteria. On the contrary, an entity that arises from consciousness would surely be expected to be fitful and elusive.
Jahn notes that psi's primary correlates appear to be subjective in character, including such nebulous factors as
teleological intention (need, desire); emotional resonance (bonding, meaning, personal importance); attitude (confidence, playfulness, low ego involvement); masculine/feminine distinctions (both psychological and biological); and perceived uncertainty or complexity, all of which may function at the unconscious as well as the conscious level'. ('Change the Rules!', Journal of Scientific Exploration), 2008.
Such an entity is likely to evade detection as long as it fails to conform to scientific objectivity, he says.
This is what Hyman's neoparapsychologists are really talking about. If psi lies outside science, as science is presently conceived, then as far as they're concerned, so much the worse for science. It's time, as Jahn says, to change the rules. In particular - as Rupert Sheldrake too argues in his new book - scientists need to abandon the illusion that what they do is somehow purely objective, as if human subjectivity never entered into it.
The problem, then, is how a methodology designed to deal with material entities can be modified so that it can also deal with immaterial ones. And how can its guardians be persuaded to relax their vigilance?
For Jahn there are plenty of precedents. Change is a characteristic of human endeavour, for instance in sports competitions, where a modification of rules can often lead to improvement. There's a similar process of continuous change and development in the creative arts, religion and spirituality, psychology and philosophy, he notes. (Also in politics of course; there are good reasons why the American constitution has been amended so often.) So why should not change also come to science?
A rather obvious reason is its sheer authority and prestige. Science continues to be a fertile source of new technologies, and continues to attract huge public interest in areas like cosmology and neuroscience. So why tinker with it? For critics like Hyman, changing the rules would destroy science: if you let in psi, you risk endorsing other, equally dubious claims, like N-Rays, cold fusion and polywater. Indeed, from his point of view, an article with the title Change the Rules! might almost have been a spoof penned by a satirical critic.
He surely has a point. Yet all this further exposes the ideological nature of science, as an institution based on nineteenth-century positivism. Reality is held to be synonymous with what is lawful, and psi's irregular and subjective nature puts it beyond the pale. It's as much about the reality that we want than the one we're in.
So the psi debate has shifted to a new and more interesting phase, to the nature and purpose of science itself. And at bottom it's driven by the same differences of temperament and vision that drive political arguments. The Hymans and Alcocks are the reactionaries, for whom the unstable, unlawful nature of psi is intolerable and want to prevent change at all costs. The Jahns and Sheldrakes are the visionary pioneers, mapping paths to a future in which the spiritual components of humans are at last recognised.
History tells us that their time will come, because change always comes eventually - whether we like it or not. Positions that once were defended to the death are overrun and disappear, and with hindsight it's incredible that anyone took them seriously. That will happen with the resistance to psi - of that we can be sure. What we don't know is how long it will take.