Parapsychology in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

ROBERT L. MORRIS [1]

ABSTRACT: Ten years ago the author identified ten areas of potential difficulty facing parapsychology as it approached the last decade of the 20th century: (1) Parapsychology is linked to problematic metaphysical origins; (2) Parapsychology is linked with concepts that have been exploited and misused in the past; (3) Parapsychology can he easily linked with delusional systems; (4) Parapsychology threatens the tidiness of our scientific methodology; (5) Parapsychology forces us to look at some theoretical concepts that science has found problematic in the past; (6) Parapsychology threatens fixed beliefs about how the world works; (7) Parapsychology's most obvious potential research projects often raise ethical issues; (8) Parapsychology involves the study of complex, open systems; (9) Parapsychology has difficulty in generating and testing theory-based hypotheses; (10) Parapsychology has often been labeled a pseudoscience by philosophers and sociologists of science. This paper revisits each of these ten areas and offers six strategies for parapsychology to adopt as it enters the 21st Century: (1) We need to evaluate more completely what we have learned; (2) We need to learn more from our negative results; (3) We should focus on measures that have a good track record in terms of effect sizes and consistency; (4) We need to break down the divisions between "skeptic" and "researcher"; (5) As we attract more interest from experts in other areas, we need to integrate more effectively with them and their expertise; (6) We need as individuals and as groups to be more effective at interacting with the media.

What might the future hold for us, or rather, what could the future hold for us if we are adequately proactive? Arbitrary temporal divisions such as millennia always provide a convenient excuse for planning ahead. In fact, at the beginning of this decade I published an editorial essay in the European Journal of Parapsychology entitled "Parapsychology in the 1990's: Addressing the Challenge" (Morris, 1990-1). It discussed several problematic aspects of parapsychology and how we at the Koestler Chair were planning to deal with them. I will start by summarizing them, followed by commentary, as by some criteria we have had some successes during the past decade. We have had thirteen people complete Ph.D.s specializing in parapsychology, and there are now related parapsychology units at several additional British universities: Hertfordshire, Coventry, Liverpool Hope, and University College, Northampton. All have programs started by former Edinburgh students, in addition to The University of the South Pacific, in F iji. Each of these universities is encouraging the development of potential centers of excellence in psychology/anomalistic psychology. In fact, there are two staff at Liverpool Hope and three at University College, Northampton, with strong parapsychology backgrounds; Deborah Delanoy was recently appointed a professor of psychology at UCN. Several additional British universities also have active parapsychology research. It is increasingly seen as a legitimate topic for academic research; several more include the topic in coursework, and recently I was honored to serve as President of the Psychology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. A new Open University textbook (Hayes, 1999) devotes half a chapter (seventeen pages) to parapsychology. The point is that we appear to be regarded as doing something worthwhile by our own academic peers who know us well, for example, those in Britain.

At the start of this decade, my essay identified ten problematic aspects of parapsychology which I felt needed to be addressed, if our field was to advance. It then presented strategies which we hoped to use in addressing each of them. The first six are conceptual, the last four linked more with methodological issues.

TEN PROBLEMATIC ASPECTS OF PARAPSYCHOLOGY

Problem 1: Parapsychology Is Linked to Problematic Metaphysical Origins

One of the problems parapsychology faces is that it is generally identified with the spiritualist aspects of psychical research, in which it had its roots, and with occultism, with which it is indirectly associated; the public tends to regard parapsychology as an attempt to use the tools of science to prove the existence of a nonphysical soul or to prove that we all have special occult powers. …