The Continuing Evolution of Parapsychology. (Guest Editorial)

The Journal of Parapsychology, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Continuing Evolution of Parapsychology. (Guest Editorial)


Robert L. Morris

John Palmer has kindly invited me to provide a guest editorial to this issue of the Journal of Parapsychology, reflecting on the changing scene in parapsychology. This past summer I spent 2 months at the Rhine Research Center (RRC), participating in the last Summer Studies Program to be taught in its present location and consulting on their future plans. By the same time next summer, the RRC will have moved into its new location, probably the very first building constructed specifically for the purpose of parapsychological research, teaching, and publication. This dramatic change, coupled with the advent of the new millennium, provides strong impetus to consider parapsychology's likely future in the United States and elsewhere.

In September I had occasion to give a talk on the Duke University campus on the topic, "Parapsychology's Problems and Prospects: Implications for the History of Science." In preparing the talk, I was led to consider the ongoing evolution of parapsychology, as a continuation of the views I presented in the 1990-1991 issue of the European Journal of Farapsychology and updated last year in the June issue of the Journal of Parapsychology. One of the important functions parapsychology or any other controversial area of science can serve is to inform the study of science itself, as conducted through the history, philosophy, sociology, and, most recently, the psychology of science.

In fact, parapsychology had already served as a case study in the history of science in a 1980 book, The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychical Research, written by my host at Duke University, Dr. Seymour Mauskopf, and his colleague, Dr. Michael McVaugh, of the University of North Carolina. A major part of their study was to assess the extent to which J. B. and Louisa Rhine had succeeded in establishing parapsychology as a part of the academic and scientific scene. Mauskopf and McVaugh concluded that there were several factors contributing to the difficulties the Rhines and others had encountered. Three had to do with the phenomena themselves: They were very uncommon, at least in such a way as to be identified as good instances; they appeared to have unsettling implications for our existing scientific knowledge and methodologies; and they were so far difficult to control and replicate. Six others were social factors emerging during the course of the initial academic efforts: There were no consensu ally accepted criteria for replicability such that opponents and proponents were free to adopt different criteria; other researchers were led to have initial high expectations for success which then tended not to be met; most independent researchers decided that their initial results were insufficient to justify further effort; there was insufficient presentation to other researchers within an academic or scientific context; there was too much emphasis on an antimaterialist philosophy by some of the key researchers; and establishment of a separate research laboratory at Duke had led to diminished contact with other academics and reduced opportunities to train new researchers.

In the Rhines' Afterword, they argued that if one extended the time of coverage to the present (e.g., 1980), there had indeed been good progress in gaining scientific acceptance of the evidence for the existence of psi and that there were several academic institutions that now had staff members conducting parapsychological research (Rhine & Rhine, 1980) The Parapsychological Association, formed in 1957, had been an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 1969. Perhaps reflecting an increased confidence in the academic potential of the field, when Arthur and Cynthia Koestler died in 1983, they had provided in their wills for the endowment of a Chair of Parapsychology to be established at a British university. It was accepted by the University of Edinburgh and begun in late 1985, with myself as first holder. …

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