Parapsychology - fact or fiction?

During a somewhat prolonged sojourn on Malta I filled in my time with promoting scepticism. Consequently my opinion was sought whether parapsychology should be included in the curriculum psychology of the local university. As I regard parapsychology as a misguided effort at best, my first inclination was to advise against it. But then I realised that that was not good enough. Rather than trust the authorities to rely on my personal opinion (which in some circles is regarded after all as pure prejudice), I felt that giving some background might assist in coming to a decision on more scientific grounds, more so as Malta can boast of an exemplary educational establishment.

I offered to give a talk on the subject, in very general terms, as I did not have sufficient time to prepare a paper. Also I had to reach a larger audience: the assembled students psychology. So I used some notes only (now lost or destroyed), filling in some details and definitions of terms if and when requested. It also explains why no references are given.

Below an approximate rendering of my talk, taking the opportunity of adding odds and ends where clairity is served.


Between heaven and earth

Way back in the late forties of the 19th century in a rural village in the state of New York mysterious sounds were heard in the humble abode of a family by the name of Fox. Kind of a rapping. It was not an unknown phenomenon. Superstition had so far ascribed these or similar sounds to so-called polstergeists, simply a german word for ‘knocking ghosts’. What was unusual however was the fact that this polstergeist appeared to be deceased, and reacted to questions by giving answers. One knock for ‘yes’, two knocks for ‘no’. A salient feature was that these sessions only took place when one particular early teen-aged daughter was present.

This daughter and her sisters decided to put their show on the road, and their stage-performances paid off very handsomely, in fame and finance. And soon all the houses in the neighbourhood of the Foxes had their own knocking ghosts. This happening is usually taken as the beginning of what was initially called spiritism, which in its turn later blossomed into what is now called para-psychology.

Then as now there were scepticists. The Fox show also came to Buffalo in the state of New York, and here a committeee of concerned citizens voiced their doubts about the super-natural source of the rappings. One of its members, a physician, knew from experience that that type of sound could be produced by manipulating the knee-joint. It may come as less than a surprise that the Fox-sisters allowed the committee to investigate the phenomenon at close quarters: Sis did not produce the sound with her knee (which was held on to by the physician!), but with her ankle.

All the same the truth came out in due course, and the Fox sisters admitted their deception. End of story? By no means! Enter the (in my opinion) real inventor of spiritism/para-psychology: the person who took pity on the red faces of both the Fox sisters and on all those who had believed them. He (or was it may-be a she?) suggested that the guilty sister was in fact a trait d’union between heaven and earth, in short a medium.

As Shakespeare wrote: "There is more between heaven and earth . . . "


The first result was that the Fox sisters retracted their confession. They felt vindicated, and so would you! It also ushered in the heyday of the mediums and their so-called seances, usually conducted in ill-lit rooms. And the fad soon took hold of Europe as well. My personal favourite medium: the Italian signora Eusapia Palladino. Compared to her an Uri Geller is a rank amateur. She produced all kinds of super-natural phenomena on demand, thus constituting a kind of one-man (one-woman if you so prefer!) circus. To give an example of Eusapias versatility: to prevent her from using her foot under the table to ring a bell during a seance, an observer was encouraged to place his foot upon hers. Mrs Palladino had taken care however to wear shoes with reinforced toes, enabling her to slip her foot out of the footwear. Etc, etc. In spite of being unmasked time and again, she remained popular. There always could be found apologists who maintained that she (and others of her ilk) cheated on occasion, but that she was above suspicion the rest of the time . .

Spiritualism vs spiritism?

All the same it did not take long before some well-meaning respected academics started to pay attention. They were primarily motivated by concern about the progressive secularisation of society. And a scientific investigation into a simple thing like thought transference should not constitute an insurmountable problem, whether it be between the living and the living or the living and the dead. It resulted in 1885 in the establishment of the Society for Psychical Research in England. It also constituted a challenge to produce some real science instead of philosophic speculation about the human psyche. The founding of the American counter-part to the SPR a number of years later, was in large part due to the philosopher Willam James, who by some is regarded as the founder of psychology as a science. His attitude towards the ‘mystical’ as he called it is somewhat ambiguous. In his opinion the facts supported the SPR, but science held sway if it came to theory. He was well placed to study the subject at first-hand, for he maintained a life-long friendship with the female medium Mrs Piper. Alace, scientists profess to believe in observation, but they are usually better in believing than in observing. Added to that, James hated practical psychology and never set foot in his own well-equipped psychological laboratory.

The majority of psychologists did not join the band-wagon however. They agreed with the highly respected professor Hugo Munsterberg (a protégé of - and successor to - James!), who labelled the utterances of the 15 year old SPR as no more than a recipe for stirring the contents of a witches cauldron. This drew a vituperative 25-page ad hominum reaction (full of self-pity) from the SPR chairman, in which he boasted of the accomplishments of the SPR, without detailing even one of them. If anything, it showed the aridity of the approach of the SPR.

(Note, added in 2004:
It did not deter some philosopher/psychologists however. As late as 1919 a serious investigation into clairvoyance was conducted in the Netherlands. See "The clairvoyant dog" >>>)

Now you may well ask, what about Freud and Jung? I spent (or wasted if you will) quite some time in trying to fathom the psychology (or speculations?) of these two psycho-analysts. As far as Freud is concerned, it appears that he kept some distance to the super-natural. After all, there was little need to incorporate some or all features of para-psychology into his jealously guarded private pantheon of the sub-conscious, Id, Ego, Libido, penis-envy, Oedipus- and Electra-complexes. And in his scheme of things dreams played a very different role, that of acting as a kind of lightning-conductor, and not as a vehicle for pre-cognition as some para-psychologists posed. Nor is Jung credited with an interest in para-normal matters. On the contrary, you may well regard his two working principles of synchronicity and the collective sub-consciousness as a competing system. These mechanisms replaced mundane matters as causality and coincidence, and their existence would very neatly at least explain telepathy. Proof of their existence is lacking to this day however, and it did not result in para-psychologists flocking to Switserland. At the most you could regard a Rupert Sheldrake with his morphogenetic fields and morphic resonance as a present day convert. For the rest this episode appears to belong to the realm of religion.

A maverick

Still, mediums appealed to human needs: communication with the departed and offering consolation, because mediums unfailingly reported that the dead had found peace. They were very much in demand during and after the first world war, in which so many promising youths were killed. In economic terms one could speak of demand-driven. Until the late twenties the position remained as it had been from the beginning: the main-stream psychologists stuck to the origins of psychology such as Fechner or embraced the new-fangled behaviourism, and progressed step by step towards a respectable science, while the para-psychologists were mainly engaged in unmasking cheats while assembling a lot of anecdotal data. Consequently, para-psychology as an emerging science went into decline. Time for a spectacular shift! This was the time in which all kinds of weird scientific concepts began to gain wider acceptance: X-rays, relativity, quantum mechanics, radioactivity, you name it. Weird because counter-intuitive. But true nevertheless. Came along a rank outsider called Dunne. His reasoning appeared to be: why not start at the other end, and graft some aspects of the the super-natural onto accepted science? Kind of playing piggy-back. It assured affinity or at least correspondence to regular science. Dunne was fascinated by pre-cognition, the ability of foreseeing the future. He took foreseeing literally: visit the future and have a look around. For him, unlike for para-psychologists so far, no need for dreams in which the things-to-come were revealed. The trick he employed was to make use of relativity, be it his own particular brand of relativity. How? Let me try to repeat here how it was explained to me by my father who had attended a lecture by a Dunne-acolyte.

"The world as we know it has three dimensions. We call them length, width and height. If you want to add a direction, you may speak of east-west, north-south and up-down. Making use of these dimensions you can get anywhere you want. Go to the radio over there in the corner? Three meters east, four meters south, one meter up. Now you may object that it would have been shorter if you had walked in a straight line towards the radio. That’s true, but only because you can see that radio. If it were pitch-dark, and you had a compass with a luminous dial, the first method would be the only one possible to reach your object. But now things get complicated. Just imagine that there were another dimension! You certainly can’t see it, that’s for sure. Is it there? Well, a very clever scientist, called Einstein, says there is. What could that fourth dimension be? According to him it is time! Of time we know that there is a past, a present and a future. In other words: it has direction just like the other three dimensions. Now you may think: the past, that’s easy: I remember it. But that is something different from being in the past. Where you are in time? Just in the present, and in the present only. And a second later this present is already past. And so on, and so on. So to be fair, you cannot visit the past, only remember it. With the future it’s even more limited. You cannot visit it, so you cannot even remember it. In short: there is no way of knowing what the future is like. All you can do is guess. And now we go back to Einstein! If our three-dimensional world moves in the fourth dimension, the future is already there. And it is there to know, as if you were living there for a moment. And now there is a fellow called Dunne, as clever as Einstein, who found a way of moving in time. Not like you and I move, but at will, whenever he wants to and as far as he likes. And that way one can know what’s in store for us."

I don’t remember whether I had any difficulty in accepting that the world according to this story is deterministic. All I wanted to know was, how this genius Dunne accomplished this time-travel in practice. I don’t recollect getting an answer. May-be my father also had his doubts. And so do I. Any physicist would laugh at this representation of the facts. As if the fourth dimension is not a dimension but a string of happenings on a rosary. Or, to adhere to the earlier metaphor derived from animal husbandry: this piggy did not get to market. All the same, Dunne deserves more than oblivion. His flirt with science was repeated much later as I shall mention further on. One could say that he was gifted if not with pre-cognition then at least with prognostication! Looking back on this episode, it leaves me with one worry: how can I be sure that I’m not in the future right now? Come to that, aren’t you worried a little bit too?

Time for a rethink

Of course the effort of Dunne – aberration if you wish – did not advance para-psychology in any significant way. If para-psychology wished to lay claim to scientific respectibility, some of the aspects that had to be resolved were

* lack of replicability
* no predictability
* it required action at a distance, while the magnitude of the action was independent of the distance. In other words, unlike gravity and other natural phenomena, where the strength is inverse proportional to the square of the distance.
* and did transfer of information not depend on transfer of energy?

Not only did para-psychology lack affinity or at least correspondence to ‘normal’ science, worse: it lacked a testable hypothesis. And without it, testing was useless. It is regarded as a sin against the accepted procedure in science, for a ‘test’ does not lead to a reliable theory explaining the findings.

According to some, the lack of replicability and predictability was inherent to the field of study, something like astronomy. But astronomy is at least probabilistic, and even that could not be said for ESP. So these apologists were begging the question.

But was there not missing more than just that? To be more specific: were the supposed phenomena real? To establish at least that, some answers to awkward questions might be useful.
To mention a few:

* how to distinguish between telepathy and clairvoyance?
* how to prevent fraud and guard against sensory leakage?
* is self-report possible?
* which parameters apply?
* does one observe the super-natural or cause it?
* how to get unambiguous data?
* how to assign a numerical value to observations?

In other words: investigate in a laboratory-setting.


So far most investigations into supernatural phenomena had concentrated on ‘gifted’ mediums.
In 1934 an entirely different approach was taken by prof Rhine of the Duke University. In one fell swoop he put the research back on the rails.His reasoning: if clairvoyance etc (by him gathered under the name of Extra Sensory Perception) were a part of human capabilities, then we should all be ‘gifted’ to a greater or lesser extent.
This approach appealed to many. Not only to those who had thought of an old school-comrade, and read of his death a week later. Or those who worried about their mother’s health, just before she phoned. Or the ones who had picked a lottery-ticket with a number corresponding to the year of their birth and would have won the main prize if only they had been born a year earlier. In short those who had a sneaking suspicion that they themselves were gifted from time to time.
It also appealed to the public in general. It had gotten sick of the continuous bickering over dancing tables, postergeists, clairvoyants, dowsers, etc. (As far as I know, spoon-benders had not been invented yet).
All Rhine needed was a means of testing ESP that was fool-proof. He founded a psychological laboratory and introduced so-called Zener-cards. The Zener-cards contained each one out of five simple bold symbols. These should be easiest to ‘read’. A set was made up out of five of each kind. All you had to do was pick up the cards one by one and ‘guess’ which symbol it contained and note it down. This way you could afterwards ascertain the number of correct ‘guesses’. If the whole game consisted indeed out of pure guessing, your score should statistically avarage out at 5 out of 25. If consistently higher something had to be going on. Beating the odds!
It was a streak of genius. The beauty of the idea: everybody could test himself at home by employing ordinary playing-cards. Take four cards each of each suit, start guessing and see whether you can beat the 4:16 odds consistently.
Let’s regard the ‘proofs’ for the existence of the phenomena I enumerated just now one by one.

telepathy or clairvoyance: if the person being tested turned over the cards himself it would be clairvoyance. With another person turning over the cards it might very well be telepathy.
prevent fraud and sensory leakage: the process could be observed from beginning to end, in clear daylight
self-report: by declaring beforehand that a person felt inspired to perform well
parameters: hypnosis, personality, drugs, test-circumstances, payment for good results, etc
observe or cause the super-natural: here I am stumped. Did the testee observe correctly or did he ‘change’ the card? This would be proof of telekinese!
unambiguous data: the result was a simple correct/incorrect. No may-be’s, no subjective judgment.
assign numerical values: from the data. As a French scientist once remarked: "If you can measure it, it is science; all the rest is poetry".

The decline effect

Thousands upon thousands of tests were taken with Zener-cards, with variable results. It is obvious that with such a large number of tests, boredom was a risk. This manifested itself only too soon. Testees who had made a promising start gradually performed less succesful, and this became known as the decline-effect. On the other hand there were testees who performed regularly below the expected 5 out of 25. This was explained by posing that these persons did this on purpose, and that they were in other words also ‘gifted’. The expressions ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’ were coined to distinguish between the two groups.
A larger problem formed those testees that performed irregularly. It was noticed that this was often the case if a sceptic was present.
Of course all these troubles could also be explained by pointing out that it was simply the effect of statistical chance. And a few skeptics who doubted Rhine’s expertise in this field had to admit that his statistical methods at least were impeccable.
There is well-founded doubt about the figures that were used for statistical manipulation however.
I started off be stating that thousands upon thousands of tests were performed. In fact Rhine boasted that millions upon millions were taken; he must have included reports of tests performed by others, possibly even overenthousiastic laymen. In other words tests possibly not performed under controlled circumstances. In addition chances are that only positive results are reported. It is human not to report disappointing results. This bedevilled later para-psychologists as well.
The law of averages did apparently not apply to all testees however. They kept on performing well above chance-level. One assistant of Rhine was caught cheating. All reports based on previous tests with this person were not withdrawn however, nor was the scientific community warned of this lapse.
The effect of remuneration turned out to be astronomical. One of Rhine’s assistants who was promised a large sum of money if he neared a perfect score did so on command: 25 out of 25. (Rhine never payed up, defended himself by saying that he had made a joke. The assistant never repeated this feat. It remains an unsolved mystery to this day. You are at liberty to make your own assumptions).
And the others? Perfunctory shuffling of the cards could hardly play a role.
What could be responsible: sloppy procedures and (in the beginning at least) a wrong base level for the statistics. I started of stating that the statistical base-line was 5 out of 25, in other words 20% correct answers. But that is only true if the real values remained secret till the end of the test. Should however a test-leader take cognizance of the correct answer, and convey this, knowingly by saying correct/incorrect or by unintended signs such as a slight nod, so-called sensory leakage, the statistical base-line shoots up to 26.5%! Things get even worse if the test-leader reports the actual sign (or if the testee looks himself!) after each card is turned. The base-line then rises to an astounding 34.6%!
Another awkward fact was uncovered later. The original Zener cards (and some sets are still in existence) were produced by a printing process called letter-press, emphasis on press. And what was pressed was a so-called plate that was ‘inked’. It gave a clear impression of the symbol on the one side. And a faint unevenness on the reverse of the card, visible under certain light-conditions. Here the simplicity of the Zener cards turned out to be a disadvantage in stead of an advantage . . .

No wonder that with all these imperfections this whole line of research suffered. I’m inclined to call this the true decline effect. It culminated in the closing down of Rhine’s laboratory at Duke.

What next?

So far this story appears to have been a summing up of misguided efforts. Could at least some of them have been prevented? May-be. To give an example: one should have listened to a certain Langmuir, Nobel-prize winning chemist who had made it his hobby to investigate ‘the science of things that aren’t so’, by him labelled as ‘pathological science’. Alace he became generally known only much later, around 1953.
One of his first victims had been Rhine, in 1934! It turned out that Rhine had at the time only a vague idea of what he was after. Inclusion of negative evidence as positive evidence, disregarding a large body of negative test-results, inability to distinguish between clairvoyance, telepathy and telekinesis, etc.

Have there been no breakthroughs then the last fifty years? Certainly, but not where you might expect.
In a certain sense they may well have been counter-productive!

The first one was that para-psychologists reluctantly agreed with an American magician called James Randi that the prevention of fraud during parapsychological testing should be left to a magician, in other words somebody who knew the tricks of the trade. Unnecessary negative about the ethics of certain scientists? No. I already mentioned an assistant of Rhine. He was later joined by professor Soal and the parapsychologist Pratt who also falsified figures to ‘prove’ their point. As a wise man once said:
fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

(I don’t want to argue that fraud in science was limited to para-psychologists; around the same time the famous professor Burt was unmasked as the inventor of a large number of identical twins. The tests supposedly performed upon them bolstered his thesis that most of our psyche is inherited and not formed after birth, the nature/nurture debate.)

The second one was that a group of knowledgeable para-psychologists became concerned about the reproach that tests with a negative result went unreported (as had been the case with Rhine), thus distorting the overall picture. Opponents of para-psychology had dubbed it the bottom-drawer effect, because that was the location where these reports reputedly resided. The solution of the concerned para-psychologists: report every test beforehand, and report regardless of the result.

For the rest the history of para-psychology repeated itself.

In quantum mechanics, the science of the super-small, one comes across a phenomenon whereby two particles appear to retain ‘knowledge’ of each other when separated. I know too little of this field to explain it. Some para-psychologists maintain that they understand the subject-matter perfectly, and hold it responsible for telepathy. I doubt whether my father would have understood. How they make the jump from the super-small to our world. It looks to me that they took a leaf out of the book of Dunne and his flirt with relativity.
Another an instance of belief masquerading as science.

Then there was the game of outguessing a random-generator. Now thát should be the ultimate test! The experimental set-pup was not open to inspection however, so enough said about that one.

The silliest proposal came from Hans Eysinck, the psychologist who introduced to mainstream psychology a test for what he called intro- and extraversion. He had started his career by showing the fallability of the Freudian concept. It was a blemish on his further career that he did not distantiate himself from his tutor Burt forementioned. Still, Eysinck could be regarded as a respectable scientist. Until he became interested in para-psychology. His first feat was to ascertain that ‘gifted’ persons were extrovert. Then he devised a do-it-yourself test to find out whether you were ‘gifted’ too. The test was full of holes. And of course completely redundant! Wasn’t extroversion enough?
Finally he proposed to go back to the study of ‘gifted’ mediums. And whom did he mention specifically? Eusapia Palladino!

In all honesty I must report the recent joint protocol of Hyman and Honorton. Hyman, a psychologist very well versed in statistics, was a long-time critic of para-psychology. As he stated himself, he became more skeptical the more he investigated the goings-on in that field. Honorton on the other hand had built a reputation as an integer and knowledgeable para-psychologist. Together they devised a tamperproof test that should separate the sheep and the goats once and for all. Initial (positive) results stumped Hyman. He went so far that he expressed doubts about the statistical method used!
It all concerned experiments with Ganzfeld, the mental experiences that can occur when somebody is deprived of external stimuli. Para-psychologists apparently assume that the mental representations that present themselves originate from external(!) stimuli, too faint to play a role normally. An unwarranted assumption. In the meantime Honorton died, and one hears little if anything of progress.

If the results are consistently positive I would have expected a call for an investigation by James Randi – yes, the same - who put up a prize of $ 1.000.000 to anyone who could demonstrate para-normal gifts under controlled circumstances. So far there have been no takers. The most-heard excuse is, that wonders need no remuneration.

So should one go on with para-psychology? I believe that I have shown that it is a haven for fraud, bad science, unfertile speculations, human weaknesses. It may be of interest, that a recent opinion-poll established that of all the scientists who are sceptical of the super-natural, psychologists score the highest.
Universities are closing down their departments of para-psychology. The new-fangled metaanalysis cannot rehabilitate the tainted inheritance. Indeed, where there is smoke, there is just that: smoke.

Para-psychology might just make a suitable study-object in philosophy, in a science-course how to devise appropriate tests and how hypothesis and experiment relate and in a study of anomalistic psychology. And a word of warning to those who all the same wish to continue with the investigation of wonders before embarking on the first step.

They should take to heart the story of St Denis who died for his ‘sins’ – whatever they were - by decapitation. Sainthood was bestowed on him because he had then picked up his head and walked off with it. The hagiografy ends with the words that in cases like that only the first step counts.