This is a great article that EVERY wannabe and current “Paranormal Investigator” should read. I have always told people not everything is a Demon or even a spirit. And everyone who knows me know what a Jung fan I am. I always say, if you haven’t read his “The Red Book” it is well worth the 300 bucks.
In the 1800s, giants of science were open-minded towards scientific paranormal research. What happened?
If you visit the slightly dated-looking official website for the Society for Psychical Research, you’re greeted by a quote intended to give sceptics pause for thought: “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” The quote on its own might not register if it weren’t for the figure it’s attributed to: Carl Jung.
“The Society of Psychical Research once counted titans of science and culture in its membership including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle and WB Yeats.”
Yes, that Carl Jung. In the early 1900s he was a proud member of the society, along with other titans of science and culture including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, Lewis Carroll and Henry Sidgwick. The organisation was set up in 1882 to study paranormal phenomena “without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated”.
Nowadays, that heat of the debate has distinctly cooled, and the study of telepathy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has been left a much weaker field. Although it was never exactly mainstream, discourse on paranormal research rarely makes its way onto the scientific agenda. The number of universities providing courses in parapsychology barely breaks into double figures, and when they make the news, even that bastion of impartiality the BBC can’t resist giving the report a slightly wacky tone (just look at the captions).
Sigmund Freud (front row, left) and Carl Jung (front row, right) with contemporaries at Clark University in 1909. Both were early members of the Society for Psychical Research.
When did the subject cease to be taken seriously? Why is the study in decline? Is it because the big names have gone? Is there a lack of funding? Or, as many cynics would state, is it because we’re living in a more enlightened age where the only people who believe in paranormal activity are gullible cranks?
The last view is certainly one that many in the scientific community share. “Most mainstream scientists say, ‘why are you interested in all this? We all know it’s rubbish,’” says Christopher French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University. “Well I don’t think that’s a properly open-minded scientific attitude.”
“Nowadays the study of telepathy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has been left a much weaker field.”
French is a sceptic but he feels that anomalistic psychology – the study of human behaviour in relation to the paranormal – is worth persisting with because, even if the scientific community is closed-minded, many people do believe (as many as one in three Brits, according to a recent YouGov poll, believe in ghosts) and it’s important to find out what causes that belief.
“Sceptics like myself will often point out that there’s been systematic research in parapsychology for well over a century, and so far the wider scientific community is not convinced. But they [believers] would counter that if you look at the combined efforts of all this parapsychological research, it comes to the equivalent in terms of person hours of around two weeks – and that’s a valid point. It really is.”
One reason for this is funding. While governments and institutions can see real, tangible benefits to pushing funding in medical and technology research, the same can’t be said for parapsychology. French quickly lists a handful of funding sources, including the Society for Psychical Research and the Parapsychological Association, but the number can be counted on one hand.
“While governments and institutions can see real, tangible benefits to pushing funding in medical and technology research, the same can’t be said for parapsychology.”
One oddity in the list is The Bial Foundation – a Portuguese drug company that funds research into the unusual combination of parapsychology and psychophysiology. French speculates that this makes the organisation a ‘bigger fish in a small pond’ rather than if it simply funded more ‘straight medical research’.
Dr Caroline Watt from the Edinburgh Koestler Parapsychology Unit is more upbeat. She too mentions the Bial Foundation and the 30-plus doctorates that have come out of the unit, as well as a recent funded professorship at Lund University.
“I think the funding situation is relatively healthy in parapsychology. Just like any other field of research, parapsychologists have to apply and compete for funding,” she explains. Still, it’s not a mainstream area, and the keyword here is ‘relatively’. As French dryly points out: “The fact that I can more or less list the lot should demonstrate that funding is pretty thin.”
As a result, a lot of research is either unfunded or self-funded – even PhDs. The PhDs shouldn’t be a problem in theory, but the enthusiastic amateurs certainly do nothing for the subject’s reputation: “The word ‘parapsychology’ can be used very loosely,” explains Watt.
“Enthusiastic amateurs certainly do nothing for the subject’s reputation.”
“Anyone can call themselves a parapsychologist, and there are loads of amateur ‘ghost hunting’ groups that use the term. It’s difficult for the public to know whether they are dealing with a university-trained scientist or someone who is just out to make a bit of money and exploit the public’s natural curiosity about the paranormal.”
Ah yes, the charlatans. It’s fair to say that in this respect the field’s reputation has been held back from several quarters – not just by trashy TV shows such as Most Haunted (where the resident parapsychologist once managed to trick medium Derek Acorah into channelling the spirit of one ‘Kreed Kafer’ – an anagram of Derek Fake) but also by a number of well-documented hoaxes.
The early big-name backers of psychical study must have been pleased to catch the ‘psychic’ Creery Sisters using signal codes in their experiments, but the same cannot be said for George Albert Smith and Douglas Blackburn, who the Society for Psychical Research believed to be genuine. Blackburn later claimed that for nearly 30 years he had been playing the scientists. “The whole of those alleged experiments were bogus, and originated in the honest desire of two youths to show how easily men of scientific mind and training could be deceived when seeking for evidence in support of a theory they were wishful to establish,” he said.
“One explanation for the area’s tenacity is the sheer breadth of seemingly unconnected topics that come under its umbrella.”
A 1974 paper titled Security versus deception in parapsychology claimed to have uncovered 12 instances of fraud between the years 1940 to 1950, though ironically it refused to provide names to verify the claim. Still, there was no shortage of cases that were obviously fraudulent, ranging from mediums with fake limbs to ‘ectoplasm’ made of muslin, none of which helped the discipline’s reputation.
With all this fraud and few solid results emerging, you may wonder why parapsychology hasn’t died out completely. One explanation for the area’s tenacity is the sheer breadth of seemingly unconnected topics that come under its umbrella. Even if a researcher were to prove beyond all doubt that ghosts don’t exist, for example, that wouldn’t discount the possibility of reincarnation, precognition, near-death experiences or telekinesis.
Spirit medium Ethel Post-Parrish. The mysterious figure to the right turned out to be a cardboard cutout.
And that’s another reason why the discipline has refused to die. While believers have found it difficult to prove their hunches, systematically disproving them is equally problematic. A believer could plausibly argue, for example, that proving one medium to be a fraud doesn’t mean all of them are.
“Very visible instances of fraud often get caught up unfairly in respectable research, however.”
The subject’s persistence has led plenty of sceptics to argue that parapsychologists lack the discipline and objectivity to concede they’re wrong. As renowned sceptic James Alcock concluded in Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi, “I continue to believe that parapsychology is, at bottom, motivated by belief in search of data, rather than data in search of explanation.” Selection bias is a common accusation made by those who are suspicious of paranormal researchers.
Dr Andreas Sommer, a historian of human sciences at the University of Cambridge, says the very visible instances of fraud often get caught up unfairly in respectable research, however. In a paper for Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical sciences, Sommer writes, “the standard sceptical literature shows a remarkable lack of interest to distinguish between obvious self-immunisation strategies [of frauds] and observations by critical and experienced investigators with flawless scientific and clinical reputations and credentials.” From his research into the subject, Sommer believes that apparitions, telepathy, mediums and children citing specific information about past lives post “massive challenges” to science, the last of which he covers in detail on his Forbidden Histories blog.
He’s not alone here. Even the late Carl Sagan offered support for certain aspects of the discipline. Writing in his sceptics’ bible, The Demon-Haunted World, he said that, “At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone human can (barely) affect random number generators in computers: (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”
“Accepting the results of peer-reviewed papers is not the same thing as accepting the conclusions that its researchers reach.”
That was in 1995, and a year before Sagan died, but the same can largely be said today, according to French – although he qualifies this by mentioning that he has his own reasons for doubting the research into all three. Nonetheless, he argues, “It’s just wrong to say there is no evidence in favour of, say, telepathy. There is evidence, it’s just a question of the quality of the evidence and what the best explanation for it is.”
That’s a subtle difference but an important one. Accepting the results of peer-reviewed parapsychological papers is not the same thing as accepting the conclusions that its researchers reach. Over the years, many explanations for the paranormal have become better understood by science, from the demonic sightings associated with sleep paralysis to infrasound sometimes creating a sense of presence and dread in humans.
There is undoubtedly a stigma attached to studying this – and even in appearing open-minded to paranormal explanations. As Sommer writes in his paper, plenty of scientists “simply do not want to be associated with fields of research whose subject matter public opinion has equated with quackery, folly, intellectual vulgarity and mental illness”.
French agrees: “A lot of scientists would avoid getting involved, just because they’d see it as being damaging to their reputation.”
“Its given me a lot more respect for parapsychologists who have the courage to nail their colours to the mast and say ‘you know, I think there might be something in this,’” he explains. “They know they face ridicule and contempt from the wider scientific community, and sometimes that’s from those who have never bothered to look at the evidence at all – they just know in their own mind that these things are impossible, so they don’t need to look at it’.”
Magician William Marriott exposes a levitation trick. Pearson’s Magazine, June 1910.
“While the noisy amateurs, historical hoaxes and shortage of funding are unhelpful, this lack of respect could be the biggest cause of the discipline’s decline.”
While the noisy amateurs, historical hoaxes and shortage of funding are unhelpful, this lack of respect could be the biggest cause of the discipline’s decline. But for anyone who’s worried that their haunted house will never receive thorough scrutiny, French has some advice: “As a kid, I was terrified of the dark, but these days I often find myself in pitch black filled with night cameras, and it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry.
“If you think your house is haunted, you don’t need an exorcist, you just need a sceptic. Because I guarantee if I come along, nothing will happen.”