ROBERT MORRIS held the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at Edinburgh University from 1985 until his sudden death in August. He was a central figure in the field for nearly 40 years.
Parapsychology is the scientific study of those anomalous interactions between minds, or between minds and the physical world, which cannot be explained in conventional terms. Laboratory research in the subject was initiated by Joseph Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s and it has remained a controversial field ever since. Even today many mainstream scientists deny the existence of the phenomena which it purports to study. However, thanks largely to Morris's pioneering efforts as the first holder of a chair in the subject in the UK, parapsychology is now achieving academic respectability.
His success may be attributed to two factors. The first is the distinctive style of research that he promoted. This attempts to link parapsychology to other more established branches of psychology and never overstates the evidence for the phenomena. This is important because parapsychology is inevitably associated with a wide range of more extreme "paranormal" phenomena, of the kind which are sensationalised in less critical branches of the press. Morris was only too aware of the dangers of misconstruing normal events as paranormal. Indeed he was able to apply his sophisticated knowledge of the psychology of deception to explain how people can either unpurposefully deceive themselves or purposefully be deceived by others.
He also encouraged dialogue with sceptics, or "counter- advocates" as he preferred to describe them (since he believed that all parapsychologists should be sceptical) and this helped to defuse the antipathy towards the subject. As a humorous means of getting critics on board, he used to joke that ESP was an acronym for "Error Some Place", although he would then usually proceed to show why this was not a good counter-explanation for the laboratory findings. His cautious approach won the subject new-found respect, as emphasised by the fact that he served as President of the Psychology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
The second factor in his success was the academic lineage which he established. During his time at Edinburgh he supervised 32 PhD students in parapsychology, 12 of whom have gone on to obtain permanent academic positions in university departments, where they give lecture courses in parapsychology and continue to pursue their research in the area. Indeed, many of his former students now have their own PhD students, so his total academic progeny now exceeds 40.
There are currently 10 departments in the UK where parapsychology is pursued and two of his former students are now professors. This is an important development because it means that parapsychological research is no longer dependent upon the whims of private benefactors. This contrasts with the situation in the United States, where very few PhDs have been awarded and consequently even the most active parapsychologists can find their careers curtailed when their benefactors die or lose interest in the subject.
Robert Morris was born in Canonsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1942. After taking a BSc in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1963, he specialised in comparative psychology, obtaining his PhD at Duke University in 1969. His doctoral thesis was on "Factors Affecting the Maintenance of the Pair Bond in the Blond Ring Dove" or, as he liked to put it, "How birds kiss". During this time he also did research at the Center for the Study of Ageing and Human Development at Duke University.
However, alongside these mainstream research activities, Morris was developing an interest in parapsychology. Indeed, while studying for his PhD he was spending evenings, weekends, and summers at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of …