Reflections on the Experimenter Problem in Parapsychology

By Tart, Charles T. | The Journal of Parapsychology, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Experimenter Problem in Parapsychology


Tart, Charles T., The Journal of Parapsychology


This has been a very difficult editorial to write, as I want to advance our field, but fear I will inadvertently offend my valued colleagues, so please, give me some space here.

I began my first formal parapsychology experiment in the fall of 1956, while still a student at MIT, trying to produce veridical out-of-body experiences with hypnosis. I was thrilled to be supported by my first grant, from the Parapsychology Foundation. With the retrospective wisdom of age, I can say the design and execution was quite good for a self-taught young man hardly out of his teens, and although the planned evaluation was crude, our field hadn't really gotten good at the art of objective evaluation of qualitative results back then. At a more personal level, for more than 50 years I have been able to use the appellation so exalted in scientific circles, Experimenter, E. I will stick with the abbreviation E here, for not only are acronyms and abbreviations part of the jargon of science, E carries implications of status, intelligence, and objectivity in science, and I want us to keep those imputed qualities in mind as I share some reflections. I have functioned in many E roles since those early days and have done a lot of thinking about my role and that of others as Es. Some of these are difficult to express in a way that does not arouse emotional feelings and resistance, so please bear with me, knowing that my intention is to help advance our field.

Worldview and Experimental Design

The classical, materialistic worldview that modern science evolved and is largely rooted in is very convenient for developing current sciences. Materialism assumes that nothing exists but material objects, whose properties can be or are known, interacting in lawful ways through known kinds of physical energies. A billiard ball, as a classic example, lies still on the table top, subject to the law of inertia. When it is hit it acquires the energy of movement in a precise way determined by the angle it was struck at, the material it's composed of, the material of the cue, the intensity and exact direction of the force it was struck with, and so on. The law of inertia says a still object remains still until acted upon by a force, then once in motion remains in motion until acted upon by other forces. So the ball rolls, energy slowly being drained by the friction of the table top, and then, for this example, eventually it comes to rest again. Every parameter of material objects and forces can be measured and/or calculated with precision, and Newtonian mechanics ties it all together for both precise understanding and practical control. Physics is an "easy" science in allowing all relevant forces and matters to be measured and calculated.

Let a person sit on that table top and life gets much more complicated. Like a material object with physical inertia, he or she may sit there unmoving until struck by something, but just as or more likely, may move on his or her own volition, unrelated to known external forces or stimuli. And if you hit the person with a pool cue, you are likely to get a far more complex reaction than rolling across the table! The study of people, psychology, is a much "harder" science than a field like physics, as it's often quite difficult or impossible to specify either the nature of the "material," the person, or the "forces"--the mechanical forces, stimuli, and communications to the person.

We have made some progress in developing a psychology by making things somewhat more like a physics experiment. We can put our test subject, S, in an isolated, quiet room, that is, with no other external stimuli/ forces applied to the person than what the Experimenter, E, says to him or her, and we can deliberately limit what we will observe, such as only the person's verbal responses to what E says, ignoring the physical movements. S is still being "moved" in ways by his or her own internal stimuli, thoughts, and feelings, and his or her particular interpretations of what E says, so this makes a single trial in this psychological experiment much more variable in outcome than a physics experiment hitting a billiard ball, but we can cleverly do this experiment with many Ss and average the results, dismissing all the real, live idiosyncrasies of our Ss as "noise," and so we may find, on average, a significant relationship between stimulus and response. …

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