Refusing to Look at the Scientific Evidence for Psi Phenomena


Closing One’s Eyes, Plugging One’s Ears,
and Shouting “La la la la la!”

by the Editors


The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, by Dean I. Radin (Harper, San Francisco, 1997), is a forceful presentation of the scientific evidence for psi phenomena.

Faced with this book, why don’t the skeptics simply give up and admit the reality of psi?

There are two possible reasons.

First, Radin limits himself to the experimental side of parapsychology. There are no spirit visitations or poltergeists, no near-death or out-of -body experiences, no alien visitors. But because these topics can be conveniently lumped together with serious laboratory research, the whole subject of parapsychology remains vulnerable to skeptical attack.

Secondly, there is the nature of skepticism itself.

In his chapter “A Field Guide to Skepticism”, Radin examines skepticism, its history, tactics and possible motivation. The following is a summary.

Skeptical comment on psi research tends to be of an extreme nature, based on the conviction that psi is impossible.

Academic interest has been affected by skeptical treatment of the research in the literature. It is clear, however that almost all the skeptical arguments against psi have become untenable in the face of overwhelming positive evidence.

Doubt is indispensable to science. No scientific claim can be taken seriously unless it is backed by substantial reliable and repeatable evidence. The process of peer review is one of science’s foundations. But the popular of view of science as a logical, analytical and impersonal discipline can be misplaced. It is also adversarial, and when unusual claims are involved, frequently emotional. Scientists engaged in psi research apply the full rigour of scientific doubt. Nonetheless, Radin is speaking from experience when he says that sometimes the extreme reactions of skeptics have inhibited further research.

The results of key experiments have been replicated repeatedly in laboratories around the world. But the myth persists that there is no valid evidence that psi phenomena exist at all. It has even been suggested, that, whereas ‘naïve’ scientists might be hoodwinked, professional magicians would know better. In fact, the evidence is that the majority accept that psi is probably real.

For many years it was claimed that experimental psi evidence was due to chance or fraud. Advances in the design of experiments have disposed of such criticisms. The methods in use today satisfy the most rigorous skeptical requirements. It is no longer possible that outcomes of modern experiments are due to chance.

This has led the hard core to fall back on old arguments. Usually these involve the claim that after 100 years, parapsychology has failed to provide convincing evidence for psi phenomena. It is proposed that whilst the results are real and unexplainable, they could not possibly be due to psi . Therefore parapsychology is a failure.

In the normal way, the peer review process in science takes place amongst researchers working in related areas. The psi controversy is different. Here, whilst skeptics write about the plausibility of alternative hypotheses, they almost never test their ideas. This is in the nature of a religious dispute. It is not science.

Beyond the “century of failure” argument, some skeptics insist that parapsychology is not a “real science.” In fact some skeptics have assisted the development of progressively stronger evidence by identifying design loop-holes, and by insisting upon stronger empirical evidence.

Because skeptics can no longer propose tenable alternative explanations, they have been forced to fall back on the defence of a priori beliefs. Extreme skeptics have deployed a repertoire of techniques to show that all psi experiments are flawed. These include accusations that even if real, psi effects are trivial, statements of frank prejudice, scientifically invalid criticisms, and distorted descriptions of psi experiments which make psi researchers appear to be incompetent.

Some skeptics reluctantly accepted that psi effects may be genuine. But then they attempted to suggest that psi is too weak to be interesting. On the contrary any genuine psi effect, weak or strong, is a revolution for our understanding of the natural world.

Prejudice continues to haunt psi researchers. It is assumed that psi is incompatible with physics. Some critics have acknowledged that they simply do not wish to believe the evidence, because psi was clearly impossible.

Fraud is the best, and really the only remaining explanation for psi effects. It is more convenient to believe that parapsychologists cheat than that ESP is real. The skeptical philosopher David Hume argued that since we know that people sometimes lie, but we have no independent evidence of miracles, then it is more reasonable to believe that claims of miracles are based on lies than that miracles actually occurred.

In 1987, the National Research Council published a study commissioned by the U. S. Army Research Institute evaluating a variety of unconventional training techniques. These included amongst others, parapsychology. Announcing the results it was stated that the The Committee found no scientific justification for the existence of parapsychological phenomena. On examination of the final report it was found that the Committee had been unable to offer any plausible explanations to the research it surveyed. Further it was recommended that the Army continue to monitor psi research in the United States and the former Soviet Union, even proposing specific experiments to be conducted. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the conflict between the public announcement of the report and the actual contents had to do with political expediency.

Only one allegation about laboratory psi research is valid in terms of the criteria for scientific criticism, have independent, successful replications been achieved? We now know that the answer is yes, so the criticisms should stop here. Other arguments against psi research fail because they do not meet the criteria.

Parapsychology is the victim of constant distortions. Those in the popular press commonly assert that “claims in other fringe realms, such as telepathy and psychokinesis, are credible only if you ignore a couple or three centuries of established science.” These critics never specify which laws of nature are meant, or why they are fixed absolutes. It is difficult to deal adequately with complex subjects within the space constraints of the press. Some distortions are to be expected. A more thorough and neutral treatment might be expected in academic textbooks. This is not always the case.

There are many examples of introductory psychology textbooks which present flawed descriptions of psi experiments. Not infrequently it is implied that fraud was the likely explanation. A recent survey shows that a large minority of psychology texts do not mention parapsychology.

Skeptics like to suggest that psi researchers are influenced by a desire to justify their spiritual convictions. There must therefore be “something wrong” with parapsychology. Apart from the researchers, how do skeptics account for the widespread public belief in parapsychology? If there is no scientific evidence that psi exists, it must be mass delusion. A majority of American adults, regardless of religious conviction reported psychic experiences in a 1987 survey. But there was no evidence that they were unconsciously creating hallucinations to confirm their prior beliefs. Their persistence in the face of all the evidence prompts the question of what drives the skeptics themselves in their attempts to discredit the results of psi research, perhaps hostility to spirituality in general, or a fear that psi might be real.

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