Heroic Skeptical Odysseys Into Parapsychology

Scientific Method Challenges Extraordinary Claims Part I


Beliefs about the paranormal in Yankeedom

Believers in the paranormal, according to Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn in their book How to Think About Weird Things include the following statistics in a  Gallup poll:

55% believe in psychic healing

41% believe in ESP

32% believe that ghosts can come back to certain places and situations

31% believe in telepathy (mind-to-mind communication)

26% believe in clairvoyance (knowing the future)

24% believe that extraterrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past

21% believe they can communicate with someone who died

If discovered to be correct, what parapsychology might result in

If these claims are true The Parapsychological Association has listed a number of possibilities:

  • The current scientific view of the universe, space, time and energy in information may be revolutionized.
  • Show that human capacities for perception and memory have been underestimated.
  • Beliefs about the mind being dependent on the brain would be wrong.
  • Fundamentalist monotheistic religions would have to make room for human powers it had previously dismissed as demonic.
  • There may be a greater, nonmaterialist spiritual world.
  • There may exist a nonmaterial human soul that survives death.
  • Paranormal historians and forecasters may obtain information by directly travelling to or viewing the past and future.
  • Paranormal archeologists could locate hidden treasures.

On the more practical level parapsychology could:

  • May enhance human decision-making
  • May assist in locating missing persons
  • May assist in psychotherapy and counseling
  • Paranormal market investors could help people make stock choices

 Are these numbers and prospects signs that a New Age is upon us? Are the implications of how the world could be different realistic or pollyannish? For some, the amount of interest in the paranormal is troubling. 

Rise of the skeptical movement

When Marxists first heard of parapsychology, they paid no attention to it. It was almost always dismissed as more capitalist distraction from political organizing. They believed that ESP, telepathy and UFO’s don’t exist and the whole subject is for kooks. But a number of scientists were not so cynical and although they were skeptical, they wanted to understand why parapsychology is unscientific.

Throughout the 1960s in Yankeedom, there had been a growing dissatisfaction with mainstream science, as it was perceived either as part of the capitalist system of part of a deep state apparatus to control people. Interest in the mysterious and exotic was attractive to middle class and upper middle class people who were apathetic or cynical about international and domestic politics or the “materialism” of life in Yankeedom. In the mid-1970s, interest in the paranormal phenomenon blossomed along with a larger New Age movement which promised to bring back the mysterious and the exotic without traditional religion.

At first scientists were surprised at how many highly educated people would choose the paranormal over mainstream science and its methods. A growing group of scientists and philosophers decided to fight back. Led by Paul Kurtz, a collection of skeptics began to join together to form their own organization called The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Kurtz began a publishing house, Prometheus books, to house skeptical writers. A monthly magazine and conferences followed. Some outstanding contributors over the years included psychologists, physicists and  stage magicians. James Randi, Susan Blackmore (in the cover image of this article) James Alcock, Martin Gardner, Joe Nicoll and Ray Hyman are just some of the people who developed a scientific methodology specifically for the study of the paranormal. Their story is told in the wonderful book Skeptical Odysseys edited by Paul Kurtz. This article describes their method.

In part I of this article I distinguish the difference between the paranormal and the superstitious. I then follow the lead of Jonathan C. Smith in his book Pseudoscience and the Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal and group the paranormal phenomenon into a spectrum of eight categories from the least to the most expansive claims. I then identify two types of questions skeptics ask about parapsychology. One is why believe something and the second is are there scientific explanations? Under the category of why believe something, part one reviews three topics:

  • Are the sources credible?
  • Is the logic sound?
  • Are the claims based on good observation?

In part II of this article, I answer the last five critical thinking questions which have to do with what alternative explanations are offered. After offering a summary table of all weaknesses in parapsychological research I identify some of the qualities of what a good scientific theory entails. I close with the reasons why believing in the paranormal can be dangerous to the individual and to society.

Difference Between Paranormal, Supernatural and Superstition

The tamest paranormal belief need not be superstitious or even supernatural provided it accept natural laws and simply claims parapsychology is just an extension of these laws that haven’t been discovered yet. Other more ambiguous parapsychologists might believe that parapsychology violates natural laws of matter and energy but they may not be superstitious. Furthermore, superstitious people may be uninterested in either the paranormal or supernatural. They may be atheists. Superstitions are beliefs and actions rooted in an imaginative, invisible connection between objects, places and people. These can bring about positive or negative results and introduce predictability into unpredictable situations.

The Spectrum of the Paranormal

At the beginning of his wonderful book Jonathan Smith identifies eight types of paranormal claims. These are laid out on a horizontal spectrum moving from the least to the most challenging to science. They are:

  • Borderline, gratuitous paranormal claims which may or may not violate the laws of physics

These included Big Foot, the Loch Ness monster, flying saucers

  • Simple superstitions based on coincidence, folklore and similarities.

Examples include magic charms, rabbit’s foots and, stepping on cracks. People do not find careers on the study of these things.

  • Paranormal patterns including secret messages and special information

Examples are palm reading, tarot cards, some astrology, numerology and the I Ching

Some people can develop a career by doing this.

  • Paranormal powers which clearly violate the laws of physics

ESP, psychokinesis, astral projection, out-of-body experience and dowsing

  • Simple energies which do not direct guide or show purpose. They lack psychological characteristics.

Examples are Chi, magnetic field therapy, homeopathy, traditional acupuncture and faith healing, karma, fate, dark energy, quantum physics.

Clearly people make a living doing this,

  • Intelligent forces/entities. These do direct and guide people and may have psychological characteristics and consciousness

Here we find spirits, werewolves, witches, demons.

  • Afterlife entities including ghosts and reincarnation

Lastly, we find the spectrum of the paranormal that claims the most extensive power. It goes beyond the paranormal and beyond challenging natural laws.

Included are organized religions which consists of hierarchies of gods, afterlife places life heaven and hell.

It includes the miraculous such as virgin birth and resurrections.

The Problem of Ontological Fusion in Parapsychology

In science there are three levels in nature.

  • The world of physics, material objects that have volume, occupy space and can transmit physical energy.
  • The world of biology in which living creatures, who require food, reproduce, transmit diseases, get sick and die.
  • The world of psychology where living beings have choice, make decisions and have a conscious mind.

What parapsychologists do is cross these boundaries in:

  • Mixing physics and psychology, claiming that rocks can have thoughts and that thoughts can move rocks.
  • Mixing physics with biology, claiming you might get sick by standing next to a broken rock.
  • Mixing biology with psychology by claiming you can make someone sick by thinking about them.

Eight Steps in Critical Thinking to Access Paranormal Claims

There are two types of questions to ask:

  • Why believe something?
  • Are there other scientific explanations?

In “why believe something” there are three kinds of support of the paranormal claim:

  • Are the sources credible – not hearsay, tabloid newspapers or misuse of sources?
  • Is the logic sound? What is true or false? What is possible or impossible?
  • Are claims based on observation?

 Are there other scientific explanations?

  • Are we misinterpreting oddities of nature and the world of numbers?
  • Most people don’t understand statistics and as a result we have mistaken ideas about what is probable and what is unlikely.
  • Is their potential error or trickery?
  • The night is a little cloudy and the city lights a bit distracting.
  • Is there potential for memory error?
  • Might the placebo effect may be at work (sugar pill)? It can effect genuine psychological and physiological changes through nothing more than suggestion. Was it just the vibrations? Perhaps it was the music that made you happy.
  • Are we misinterpreting sensory anomalies or hallucinations?
  • The human brain and nervous system is quite capable of conjuring up false percepts that appear convincingly real.

Psychology of Anomalous Experience

This is a field of psychology which focuses on extraordinary events and provides us with psychological, as opposed to parapsychological explanations. Smith gives us the following  examples. Instead of haunted houses we have the normal settling of older buildings or changes in our air pressure and temperature that can cause doors to slam and walls to creak. Instead of ghosts, it actually is reflected light from passing cars or aircraft that can appear as “ghostly faces”. Random patterns, especially in low-light conditions, can be construed into medium patterns through something called “pareidolia”. Pareidolia involves projecting recognizable forms in an ambiguous object. Sound frequencies lower than 20 Hz are inaudible but may cause a person to sense a nonspecific presence and create anxiety, for example seeing a ghost. Cameras used to detect ghosts are notorious for producing various strange optical distortion effects. Apophenia is a term from the field of anomalous psychology where we see connections and find meaning in unrelated things.

Anyone who is serious about parapsychology must have a full command of this field and exhaust all the possibilities for anomalous experience before claiming something is paranormal. While it is reasonable to imagine that some professional parapsychologists are knowledgeable about the field of anomalous psychology, it is highly unlikely that the public who supports parapsychology knows anything about the field of anomalous psychology.

The remainder of this article addresses  how well parapsychology does with the first three steps.

Questionable Sources

  • Ancient wisdom—The field of parapsychology often has a romantic theory of history

For example, claiming astrology is true because it is 4,000 years old. Astrology has changed over the centuries, but astrologers behave as if since it is old it must be true.

It does not mean that the early priesthoods got it right the first time. We should ask – do the claims about the stars make sense in the light of our current knowledge about the stars? This is the fallacy known as appeal to tradition.

  • Testimonials and anecdotal evidence

One case does not prove something is true. Carroll has offered a succinct evaluation of anecdotal and testimonial evidence. Stories are prone to contamination by beliefs, later experience, feedback, and selective attention to details. Stories get distorted in the telling and retelling. Events get exaggerated and time sequence get confused. Details get muddled. Memories are imperfect and selective as we shall see in part II. They are also filled in after the fact. Some stories are delusional and there is always the possibilities of deception.

  • Popularity and common use

Amazon lists twice as many books for astrology as for the Ten Commandments. A Google search reveals 30 million hits for astrology. They can’t all be wrong – right?  In critical thinking, this is the fallacy of appeal to the people. Many interpretations can be part of a popular fad and be completely wrong.

  • Mass media and the internet

Standards for getting information in the mass media are lower than for professional publications. Programs about the paranormal are notorious for editing out disconfirming evidence. Paranormal topics  are a thriving business. Mass media has a stake in keeping its businesses alive. They would lose money if they revealed the truth of scientific research. In drug studies, research supported by pharmaceutical companies reports more positive results than research supported by public funds. Once a study is submitted for publication, a journal has an incentive to publish positive results. There is a publication bias for positivity. Neither they nor the public are interested in failures. Journals do the same thing. This is one reason why scientific findings of negative research don’t get much air time.

The Question of Individual Authorities

Things to consider in evaluating an individual expert include do have they the education and training from a relevant and up-to-date program? Are they experienced and have accomplishments in their area of claimed expertise? It is common in paranormal research that a licensed person in one field (like Deepak Chopra) will claim to be an authority in a field in which he is not trained, like physics. Is the authority up with current research? Are they respected by peers, other experts in the area? Another common problem is that are not respected by other authorities in the same field. Because much parapsychology often appeals to the public, the public does not know what other experts think if these expects do not have a public reputation. Is there a conflict of interest in what parapsychologists have to say? In other words, are they making money from pushing false memories – as in claims of alien abductions or claims about past lives?

Further Grounds for Scientific Suspicions

The mainstream scientific community is suspicious of its claimed experts when parapsychologists:

  • Make exaggerated and unqualified claims full of superlatives like “breakthrough”, “revolutionary” or “pioneering”.
  • They have a record of gullibility in regard to paranormal that has been clearly shown to be fraudulent in the past.
  • Fail to distinguish a well-designed study from a badly designed one where there is possibility of fraud
  • Have a record of failing to report breaches in good design, whether their own or others. This can include an entire project that might have been conducted by relatively novice assistants.
  • Resort to ad hominin arguments – accusing scientists of being mean-spirited, narrow-minded and dogmatic.

How Sound is the Logic?

  • Confusing a necessary with a sufficient condition

As many of you know who have taken critical thinking classes, there are both formal and informal fallacies. A typical formal fallacy that parapsychologists often commit is confusing a necessary and sufficient condition. In a statement that is not fallacious such as:

If the color of ice cream is white,

It is vanilla flavor, then b is true.

The color of ice cream is white, it is therefore vanilla

A fallacy of confusing a necessary and sufficient condition (affirming the consequent) in parapsychology goes like this:

If the stars and the planet are aligned properly you will recover from your cold quickly.

You recovered quickly form your cold.

Therefore the stars and planets have been aligned properly.

This ignores the fact that (you could have taken cold medication).

Here is another one:

If a psychic can read your thoughts, he can tell if you are skeptical.

The psychic you are visiting correctly observed that you are skeptical.

Therefore, the psychic can read your thoughts.

The problem here is they could simply be reading your body language.


  • Fallacies in chain arguments

The typical form of chain arguments go like this:

  • All A is B.
  • All B is C.
  • Therefore all A is C.

In paranormal arguments one of the links in the chain doesn’t follow the others. Here is an example from the relationship between subatomic particles and consciousness:

Subatomic interactions may appear at a distance far away (true).

The human brain is made of atoms (true).

The human thought generated from the brain follows the rules of quantum physics (true).

Therefore human thoughts follows the same quantum rules as subatomic particles in the brain (not true).

Here is another one:

All atoms possess some gravity(true).

Our brains are made of atoms (true).

Thought are generated by in the brain (true).

Thoughts travel by means of gravity (not true).

Thoughts that travel to other dimensions return to our dimension instantaneously (questionable).

This results in telepathic communication (questionable).

Last one:

A mysterious dark energy forces some galaxies apart (true).

They travel at a speed faster than light (true).

When human thoughts come into contact with dark energy they can travel at a speed faster than the speed of light (questionable).

Therefore, this proves telepathy exists (not true).

  • Weasel words

Weasel words are very common in parapsychology. These words can make passionate claims, but in looking at their track record, there is a loophole which gives parapsychologists  an out in case their claim is challenged. For example, the use of the word “some” can mean the same as “most” on the one hand and as little as one exception on the other. More specifically you might say “some” scientists believe UFOs have landed on earth, when the reality might be only 1%.

Paranormal psychologists use the word “healing” in tricky ways. Smith points out that healing generally means returning to physical health. But alternative medicine practitioners smuggle the world of psychology into what healing means. Then alternative medicine can claim to heal people when research shows only that it was because of the placebo effect (people wanted it to work). In the case of faith healers, they can wriggle out of promises. Your spirit has been healed if your body hasn’t. How can you measure what a healing spirit looks like?

The words controversial and debatable are popular weasel words in paranormal literature. Usually, controversial means there is good evidence on both sides. However, parapsychologists can use controversy to bring in claims that might not have good evidence but they stir argument. Velikovsky and his followers did this in the field of astronomy. For skeptics, having sound evidence is a precondition or necessary condition for having a controversy. No claim is accepted as a candidate for a controversy if their evidence is not sound.

  • Equivocation

Parapsychologists use the word faith in equivocal ways. For example, the formal definition of faith is contrasted to logical truth or material evidence. It’s fair to say that parapsychologists might have faith they will eventually produce evidence that is public and can be replicated. But parapsychologists claim that science is also based on faith. However, it is unfair to call scientific hope faith. What scientists have is confidence in the values of the expansion of the natural laws that have already been discovered.

  • Appeal to ignorance

This is an especially important one for students of the paranormal. Lack of evidence against something does not make it reasonable for something that is paranormal to be true. Absence of normal explanation does not require an extraordinary explanation. There can be many normal explanations. For example, every careful scientific exploration of dark shapes in abandoned houses has found an alternative to the ghost explanation. They can be found in shadows of objects like drapes, reflections of moving lights or the activity of rodents.

If there is no evidence that a claim is false it can mean that the claim is unfalsifiable or that currently mundane explanations don’t exist yet. It could be that mundane explanations do exist, but paranormal researchers haven’t heard of them. For example UFO sightings can be explained naturally as:

  • Reflections of the moon
  • Ball lightening
  • Aircraft
  • Missile Launchings
  • Satellite
  • Balloons
  • Searchlights
  • Test clouds
  • Flares
  • Elmo’s Fire
  • Optical camera distortions
  • Fraud
  • Confusing Correlation with Cause

Just because an event came right before another event does not mean it was caused by that event. The causes of events could have occurred deep in the past and the most recent events could be surface rippling which have nothing to do with what really happened. Furthermore, if events A and B occurred at the same time, we don’t know if A may have caused B or B caused A. It could also be possible that both A and B were due to chance. An example of A and B being caused by a third variable is the following. If we notice that in a city there is growth in the number of churches and the number of brothels. We could imagine that the growth of brothels caused more churches to be built. Or the growth of sex-negative Churches produced more prostitution as a reaction from desperate priests. But both the rise of prostitutes and churches could have been caused by a growth in population of a new city which causes both more houses of prostitution and more churches to be built.

The Tricks and Tribulations of Observations: How Trustworthy are the Senses?

Let us take three paranormal circumstances and see whether what is attributed to psychic phenomenon might be something else.

  • Channelers sit silently in a darkened room waiting for communication with the dead.
  • UFO watchers sit in a quiet field at night silently awaiting the arrival of spacecraft.
  • Haunted house investigators sit in the basement at night with the hall lights turned off.

Autokinetic effect

Ordinary neurophysiological states can evoke experiences easily misidentified as paranormal. Jonathan Smith encourages us to go outside and look at a darkness area of the sky with only one or two stars. Gaze for 5 minutes at the stars. In time, you will see it move. It isn’t a flying saucer or a waking dream.

Autokinetic effect is a small point of light in a dark and featureless background. It appears to move because of minor, involuntary eye movements, eye fatigue or simple suggestion. (204)

Yet a friend may claim they  can move small distant objects by simply looking at them.

Pupil dilation

Another physiological reaction of the eyes is pupil response. In darkness the pupils dilate to let in light and bright colors while they constrict to keep lights out. This protects the retina from overexposure. It may seem as if the lights were being turned down or shades drawn. Shaded areas may suddenly emerge while dark areas grow darker and seem as if they are moving. So the next time you are in haunted house and someone surprises you by whispering “look a ghost”, you may well see a shadowy form emerge and move, but it’s all because of a pupil response.

Coming Attractions

If you flip a coin and it comes up heads three times in a row, on the next flip is tails more likely to come up? Understanding how to reason quantitatively (gauging probability) is foundational for science. Yet psychics, like most everyone else, interpretation patterns of connection which aren’t there and we underestimate the probability of rare negative events. This compromises parapsychology investigation.

Your horoscope predicts that you are conflicted about your work, feeling that some of your skills aren’t being utilized. In your relationship you are happy but feel that parts of you are not understood by your partner. Emotionally you are cautiously optimistic but sometimes you have fits of demoralization. Why do so many people feel like the astrologer is very good and understands them?

Memories are like tape recorders that record everything. If a person has a traumatic experience those memories are buried as psychological protection. True or False? Both these statements are the foundation for claims of alien abduction and reincarnation. We discuss this in part II.

In the mind-body relation, how much does the body control the mind and how much does the mind control the body? Can the mind act independently of the brain? Under what conditions can we say wishing something to be true can make it so?

How might we test whether claims of ghosts, extraterrestrials and angels are real or whether they are hallucinations? Hallucinations are the result of sensory deprivation, sensory orchestration or drugs such as LSD. Which form of hallucination might go with ghosts, extraterrestrials or angels?

In spite of all the skeptical criticism of parapsychology, the sad truth is that these results do not put a dent in the public’s interest in parapsychology. Why might this be? Does research uphold the parapsychologists’ claim that they are more open than mainstream scientists when their claims are challenge? What is the harm of believing in the paranormal? Why not just let people believe what they want to believe? Skeptics seem so uptight and crabby. Why don’t they just loosen up?

Finally after reviewing the eight steps of critical thinking tests, what are the characteristics of a good scientific theory? What are the conditions of a good experimental design? When the results come in, what are the five characteristics of an adequate theory? Do all five characteristics have to be met? Are some more important than others? All this is covered in part II.

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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