The field of parapsychology has been seeking acceptance in the scientific community for quite some time. From the first experiments of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), through J.B. Rhine’s ground-breaking work at Duke University in the 1930s and to the end of the 20th century, psi research has struggled to be taken seriously by the establishment. However, in the last 15 years the psi community has gone on an offensive, and the tide appears to be turning.
This has been a gradual affair, with important steps such as Charles Honorton’s Ganzfeld research making sizeable contributions. Perhaps the watershed though, was the research carried out on remote viewing at Stanford Research Institute (later to be carried on by that respectable scientific establishment, the CIA). The bulk of this research was reviewed in 1995 by a 2-person panel commissioned by the US congress, composed of statistician Professor Jessica Utts and noted skeptic Professor Ray Hyman. Utts’ suprising conclusion was that…
Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance…there is little benefit to continuing experiments designed to offer proof, since there is little more to be offered to anyone who does not accept the current collection of data.
Hyman’s conclusion differed slightly, but it gave an insight into the tactics that skeptical organisations such as CSICOP were going to have to start resorting to in the future ‘battle’ against the scourge of parapsychology. Hyman found that the…
…experiments are well-designed and the investigators have taken pains to eliminate the known weaknesses in previous parapsychological research. In addition, I cannot provide suitable candidates for what flaws, if any, might be present. Just the same, it is impossible in principle to say that any particular experiment or experimental series is completely free from flaws.
In other words, Hyman could find no reason to dismiss the positive results – but could not accept them into his philosophy and thus implied that there could well be some flaw that explained the anomalous result. Utts’ conclusion though points out the obvious – if Hyman was to apply the standards as expected of ‘any other area of science’, then it must be taken as valid.
So while previously scientists had found flaws in experimental set-ups, or other areas of the research, at this point an important change had occurred. Parapsychology had been forced by constant criticisms into making their experimental set-ups perhaps even more strict than any other branch of science. For example, in 1975 the Parapsychological Assocation instituted a policy to combat selective reporting of experimental outcomes – commonly referred to as the ‘file-drawer problem’ – well before many other scientific disciplines.
This left pseudo-skeptics – those motivated more by their own beliefs than by the scientific method – cornered, and recently the arguments against parapsychology have become increasingly flawed. Other than Hyman’s caveat mentioned above, other ‘excuses’ include that the effect is too small to bother about studying (if the effect is significant, then further analysis may enhance our understanding), and that these experiments haven’t been replicated elsewhere (they have). In the last 10 to 15 years, parapsychology has produced hit after hit – Princeton’s Global Consciousness Project, the University of Nevada’s pre-cognition experiments, the University of Arizona’s ‘afterlife experiments’. The latest surprise revelation, which has certainly left pseudo-skeptics against the ropes is the ‘sense of being stared at’.
Experiments on the sense of being stared at are not new, and neither are positive results. However, in the past decade the flag-bearer for this research has been scientist and author Rupert Sheldrake. The focus is back on Sheldrake’s work, now more than ever, after widespread reporting of the results of a study undertaken by Germany’s Freiberg University. Dr Stefan Schmidt and his team carried out two experiments: the first consisted of one volunteer watching a second volunteer in another room via CCTV, and monitoring the electrical activity of the seond volunteer’s skin via electrodes. In the second experiment, the first volunteer concentrated on making the second feel uncomfortable or relaxed from within the sealed cell.
The research “concluded that there are hints of an effect” after a small but significant positive result was obtained in both experiments. Interestingly, the current ‘media skeptic’ of note, Dr Richard Wiseman, chose to ignore the experimental setup and quantifiable evidence and attempted to refute the research simply by referring back to the argument against the intuitive hunch:
The number of times you turn around and find someone not looking at you far outnumber the times when you do but you only remember the times you turned round to see someone looking.’
Wiseman and a number of other researchers had already taken issue with Sheldrake’s earlier research (for a good overview, see Sheldrake’s book The Sense of Being Stared At, available from Amazon US and UK). Skeptical publications such as The Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer happily printed these ‘refutations’ of Sheldrake’s research. Unfortunately for them, in a recent response Sheldrake effectively demolishes their arguments.
Sheldrake concluded his response with a succinct indictment of the state of skepticism today:
To accept [the existence of psi] would not involve the abandonment of science and reason, and the collapse of civilization as we know it; rather it would extend the scope of science and of evolutionary understanding….like Marks, I am a sceptic, but of a different kind. His scepticism is directed towards anything he regards as “paranormal”, taking as normal that which lies within the limits of current scientific understanding. My scepticism is directed towards the assumption that we know enough to proclaim what is possible and what is not.
In posting Sheldrake’s reply, The Skeptic added the following pertinent editorial comment: “Is it possibly the case that Sheldrake is even more sceptical than the sceptics?” If we’re talking about the garden variety CSICOP pseudo-skeptic…then the resounding conclusion would have to be ‘yes’.