Controversy and the Problems of Parapsychology

Article excerpt

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In what follows, I discuss the lessons that I have learned from a reading of the science studies literature, lessons that I believe we can apply profitably to parapsychology. Because of the reaction of some listeners to this paper when I delivered a previous version as my Presidential Address in New York City in 2001, I would like to anticipate a possible misapprehension of my points and my motives. I consider myself to be a working social scientist in parapsychology, although it has been some years since I have had the pleasure of conducting research, whether experimental or survey or questionnaire-based. I have spent far too many years in this field as a social scientist to be equivocal about the existence of the natural world as a whole. Neither am I in doubt about the possibility that scientific progress can be made in my own small corner of the scientific enterprise, the study of the psychology of successful experimental participants and of those who report psychic experiences in their lives. I believe scientific methodology of all types possesses an unsurpassed power for amassing knowledge. I am not, in any way, someone who believes that scientific knowledge is entirely socially constructed. However, neither am I a person who believes that objective reality imposes itself on the scientific community in such a way as to preclude error or interpretation. Reality exists, but like raw sensation, it comes to conscious understanding through the imposition of perception, and perception--however, it happens--is an essay in complexities.

In this article, I briefly describe some of the work that science studies has done on the problem of controversy. I have tried to do the following: draw some lessons for the parapsychological community; tell some inspirational tales (because that is a function of Presidential Addresses these days, it seems); and make some cautionary statements about some social practices in which we as a community regularly engage, social practices that are, I think, debilitating to our sense of self as individual scientists and to our shared identity as scientific parapsychologists. Under no circumstances should the seriousness with which I take the work of the science studies community be construed as a negation of science and its power, nor as a negation of the importance of "the scientific method" as an ideal in parapsychological research.

THE STUDY OF CONTROVERSY IN SCIENCE STUDIES

For some decades in all the various subdisciplines of science studies, from history and philosophy of science to sociologies of science and knowledge to the anthropology of science to the rhetoric and psychology of science, the deep examination of controversy has been a growth industry. At one point, in the prehistory of this collection of subdisciplines in science studies, scholars believed that controversy was an aberrant moment on the way to some grand consensus. This consensus was then imagined to hold sway over all practitioners of "true" science. As one psychologist of science (McMullin, 1987) put it:

Classical theories of science, whether of Aristotle, of Descartes, of Kant, or of the positivists, all took for granted two theses: foundationalism (that science must be built on a foundation of propositions, themselves unproblematically true), and logicism (that science possesses a logical method that will allow one to determine which of two theories is the better one in any given case. (p. 50)

As the various disciplines of science studies developed, this simplistic view of scientific practice was repeatedly challenged, replaced by the understanding that controversy is itself "continual and essential" (McMullin, 1987, P. 50) to the refinement of scientific methodology and to the development of scientific knowledge. Controversy can then be defined as a "publicly and persistently maintained dispute ... in which the difference is one of belief, of knowledge claim . …