Education in Parapsychology: Student and Instructor Perspectives

By Roe, Chris A. | The Journal of Parapsychology, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Education in Parapsychology: Student and Instructor Perspectives


Roe, Chris A., The Journal of Parapsychology


Education in Parapsychology: Student and Instructor Perspectives by Harvey Irwin. Foreword by Nancy Zingrone. Gladesville, NSW, Australia: AIPR Mongraphs, 2013. Pp. xv + 106. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-9870772-1-9.

Harvey Irwin has excellent credentials for writing a guide to education in parapsychology, having taught such a programme at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, since the late 1970s (he retired in 2003) and having authored (lately co-authored) the highly influential textbook An Introduction to Parapsychology, now in its fifth edition (Irwin & Watt, 2007). Notwithstanding this publication, and one or two others aimed at providing an overview for the student (e.g., French & Stone, 2013; Holt, Simmonds-Moore, Luke, & French, 2012), Irwin is correct in identifying a need to provide accurate and practical guidance for education in parapsychology. This is not only to provide a pathway for the training of the next generation of parapsychologists but also to better educate their "mainstream" peers. Too much time is devoted by parapsychologists to arguing with intractably established sceptics rather than focusing on those whose views have not yet ossified. As Max Planck (1949) famously observed, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it"(pp. 33-34). This slim volume is divided into two sections, with Part 1 oriented to the student's concerns and Part 2 to the tutor's. Part 1 begins with a chapter on "Misconceptions and Preconceptions" that recognises (based in part, it seems, on the author's personal experience) that prospective students can be drawn to courses in parapsychology with "wildly inaccurate" ideas about what the subject entails, such that they can easily become dismayed on discovering its actual scientifico-mathematical nature. Here Irwin offers a rather narrow definition of parapsychology that privileges the experimental method and the laboratory setting, which may be slightly out of kilter with a discipline that is witnessing a revival of interest in field work and qualitative methods of discovery and analysis. He notes that some phenomena may be included under the banner of parapsychology for political purposes, as a means to undermine credibility by association with dubious phenomena such as crop circles and Bermuda Triangle disappearances. Irwin concedes that their inclusion might be justified on the grounds that they reflect "mysteries" that resist conventional explanation, but this seems unnecessary given parapsychology's origins in psychical research that clearly set out the scope, as expressed in the inside front cover of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, "[to investigate] without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man [emphasis added], real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis." Whatever the ultimate explanations of crop circles and the Bermuda Triangle mystery, it seems highly unlikely to expand our understanding of human capabilities. In my view parapsychology should properly distance itself from the kinds of topic that feature in Tobacyk's Paranormal Belief Scale (including astrology and UFOlogy) and thereby deny the relevance of much of the research on correlates of paranormal belief, which has been based on such flimsy measures of superstitiousness. At the same time, Irwin argues against the inclusion of mystical and occult practices such as Tarot, I Ching, and magic in the sense of spell-casting. To be sure no respectable education programme in parapsychology would include any kind of apprenticeship or training in these methods, but insofar as success with these can be interpreted as involving psi they would seem to me to be fair game (indeed, I have collaborated on a number of projects that have used Tarot and I Ching protocols as means of testing for PK, and am currently looking at Pagan spell-casting as a possible form of noncontact healing--Martin, Drennan, and Roe, 2010; Roe, 1994). …

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