When Science and Psi Collide

Kendrick Frazier

Two issues ago, we published without comment here an important special report with the provocative title “Why the Claims of Parapsychology Cannot Be True.” Scientists are generally loathe to make absolute statements, for good reason. But our article’s authors, Arthur S. Reber and James E. Alcock, both respected psychological scientists and longtime critical observers of parapsychology, stepped back from all the detailed and often arcane arguments about the data. Instead they presented a broader view based on fundamental principles of science. Their article was blunt. It was courageous. They said the entire field of parapsychology is bankrupt. Its claims violate causality, time’s arrow, thermodynamics, and the inverse square law. The claims cannot be true.

            One thing we pride ourselves on with the Skeptical Inquirer is that we have always had a substantive Letters to the Editor section. Seminal debates about issues of concern to skeptics often play out there. Once again that is so. The article has stimulated several concerned yet thoughtful letters published in this issue. As expected, most of the letter writers, while expressing their own doubts about psi claims, question the authors’ use of cannot and impossible.

             I hope you will read Reber and Alcock’s reply. It is a masterpiece of lucidity. They eloquently defend their conclusion. I relate here just two key points of their rebuttal. They understand that many scientists “may take umbrage” at their declaration about the impossibility of psi. “And yet,” they write, “such offense is not taken when a scientist declares that perpetual motion machines are impossible, that accelerating a body to speeds greater than that of light is impossible, and that water cannot retain a ‘memory’ of a substance that has been diluted out of existence. ‘Impossibility’ is a hallmark of science.” Their conclusion follows a famous dictum of Hume and, they write, “is, in fact, a simple statement concerning the coherency of fundamental principles of science that apply across domains.”

            A formal journal article by Reber and Alcock relating their arguments in detail has been accepted by American Psychologist and should appear soon. Its title is “Searching for the Impossible: Parapsychology’s Elusive Quest.” It will be interesting indeed to see how the rest of the psychological community reacts to their blunt assessment.

In my view, Reber and Alcock have made a valuable contribution, seeing clearly through decades of confusion. They say that 150 years of parapsychological research “has established nothing,” and it may be time to pull the plug. That probably won’t happen, but now you know why most scientists have always been so dubious about the whole field.

* * *

We are used to various lists of guidelines for living, but most are subjective and flawed. In this issue, Australian clinical psychologist Gary M. Bakker presents one based on the evidence. His “Nine Evidence-Based Guidelines for a ‘Good Life’” draws upon psychological research to focus only on those proven effective. When you peruse them, I think you will find them also to be the essence of common sense. That’s a refreshing situation.

—Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.


Two issues ago, we published without comment here an important special report with the provocative title “Why the Claims of Parapsychology Cannot Be True.” Scientists are generally loathe to make absolute statements, for good reason. But our article’s authors, Arthur S. Reber and James E. Alcock, both respected psychological scientists and longtime critical observers of …

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