a flight from Singapore to London, I zipped a text message to my husband
asking him to quickly sign me up for the first round of an online course
in parapsychology before places ran out. I knew that when I landed,
I was going to have to explain myself. For thirteen hours of flight
time, I had some time to ponder it myself!
I eagerly talked about what I planned to do, close acquaintances exclaimed
in bemused horror: “But they’re the weirdos
who believe it all,
aren’t they?” One even pointed out that when she heard I was studying
anything to do with the paranormal in the first place, she thought
I must be certifiably mad: “If you come out of this tipping tables
and flashing those funny-shape cards everywhere you go . . .”
what led me to try a ten-week online course called “Introduction to
Parapsychology”? First, the course is run by the Koestler Parapsychology
Unit, based in the Psychology Department at the University of Edinburgh.
Although it offers a non-accredited course, meaning that there is no
formal assessment or qualification gained, the department appears
to be valuable as an authoritative unit on the subject of parapsychology.
The course coordinator, Caroline Watt, even coauthored the fifth edition
of “An Introduction to Parapsychology,” the most frequently
adopted text by those presenting academic courses on parapsychology
and anomalistic psychology. I had come across her work in conjunction
with well-known skeptical figure Richard Wiseman while doing my own
MEd studies on paranormal belief. In fact, Wiseman did his PhD in Psychology
under the supervision of Edinburgh’s first Koestler professor of
parapsychology, Robert L. Morris.
the U.K. and on the European continent, there appears to be a well-established
number of parapsychology research groups situated within higher education
institutions, for example, the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological
Processes at the University of Northampton and the Anomalistic Psychology
Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London (the
alma mater of another researcher I greatly admire, Krissie Wilson
of the University of Tasmania). With representatives of these and many
other institutions contributing to the MP3 digitally recorded interviews
featured in the course, it just wasn’t a resource I was going to pass
course offers insights not only by those who work within parapsychology
but also its critics, with contributors such as James Alcock, Stephen
Braude, Donald West, Chris French, Dean Radin, and Deborah Delanoy.
Every week we looked at a different aspect, such as the history of parapsychology,
theories of psi and ESP, testing ESP and PK in the lab, and belief in
the paranormal and testing psychic claimants.
course comes with several specialist readings to download and message
boards where students were allocated a topic to discuss. There are also
optional informal self-assessment quizzes, which draw upon the set text
for the course.
addition, early on in my studies on paranormal belief, Caroline Watt
herself kindly forwarded me a paper by Harvey J. Irwin, the other coauthor
of the course textbook. She sent me a copy of a paper later published
in the European
Journal of Parapsychology,
“The Measurement of Superstitiousness as a Component of Paranormal
Belief: Some Critical Reflections.” It concluded with:
of a psychometrically adequate index of superstitiousness as a component
of paranormal belief would therefore be a challenging project but not
a daunting one. Had I the funds, statistical resources, and youthful
energy, I would happily undertake this work myself, but now in semi-retirement
I live in the hope that other researchers will take up the challenge.1
books like Spook:
Science Tackles the Afterlife
by Mary Roach has also been quite encouraging in this regard; years
ago she wrote an article on the late Robert L. Morris of the University
of Edinburgh’s telepathy work and mentioned how he had cooperated
with the skeptic group CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal, now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
[CSI]).2 She talked with eager curiosity and even a certain amount of
affection about her adventures investigating spiritualists and the Princeton
Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) labs, including a humorous account
of testing Gary Schwartz’s claims. If Mary Roach can do it, then why
comment Roach made in her book has lingered with me: “The debunkers
are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with.”
So how much fun are parapsychologists anyway? Because I already knew
that I enjoy the company of skeptics who investigate paranormal claims.
Would parapsychologists be even more enjoyable? An even bigger question:
would I discover evidence that would change my mind?
course began with signing onto the University of Edinburgh’s WebCT,
joining a class of twenty individuals from all over the world, including
Australia, Quebec, Greece, Portugal, and Costa Rica. Split into teams
of two, we brainstormed names for our groups (“Gorillas United,”
“Robbie Williams’ Pants,” and “Pelicans Ahoy” did not, tragically,
make the cut). My own group, “Pilot Minds,” settled into the weekly
paper readings and MP3 downloads. Since I was traveling during the months
that the course was run, it was very useful to load my iPod with the
lectures and keep the PDFs on my laptop hard drive for reading on long
course set a timetable of assignments, for which each student was asked
to write one blog entry (a brief statement of the student’s thoughts
and opinions on a topic) in order to get a discussion going. Having
run a skeptical blog, PodBlack Cat, for over a year, it seemed like
a fairly straight-forward request. I was allocated a week that looked
at the question “Are parapsychologists just jumping on the ‘weird
physics’ bandwagon?”—a very challenging topic that required additional
reading just to figure out what quantum physics involved in the first
place! The blogs were posted on a standard forum board that was threaded
so we could keep track of each other’s responses.
was very fortunate to have the classmates I did; from the start it was
obvious that we were a very mixed bunch. My class was comprised of magicians
and psychics, keen psychology buffs, and those who were just plain curious
about the course. I did notice that one participant in the other group
had some rather passionate pro-ESP views that were accompanied by equally
passionate over-application of punctuation marks, but overall the people
were highly respectful, literate, and keen to click on links and references
that defended views on each topic. I regret that the course concluded
before I could fully respond to a fellow student who discussed what
he saw as flaws in skeptical approaches to parapsychology and explained
why he challenged the views of one of the course’s interviewees.
was quite intrigued by an optional questionnaire posted at the beginning
and conclusion of the course, which investigated our own beliefs about
the paranormal. I mused openly on the course forum that it could be
an interesting paper topic in itself, and I hope that it is considered
in the future. By the conclusion of the course, I was probably not any
more convinced about the existence of psi or ESP. However, since the
course encouraged the terms advocates and counter-advocates to describe people defending their
beliefs and disbeliefs, respectively, I feel I am more committed to
seeing skepticism as a true “middle position” on claims of the paranormal.
Mary Roach might very well have to change her conclusions to say that
mixing skeptics and the believers can make for a very fascinating and
Abrassart, a fellow podcaster and blogger at
Scepticisme Scientifique who signed up in 2009 after hearing a report
about the course on The
Skeptic Zone podcast,
had this to say about it:
is well-balanced between skeptics and proponents. As a fan of Chris
French, Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman, James Alcock
or C.E.M. Hansel, I really enjoyed this “Introduction to Parapsychology.”
There is a huge gap between the parapsychological and the skeptic community:
Dr. Watt’s course may be able to build some bridges between those.
I just hope that skeptics who want to be able to speak about parapsychology
in an informed manner will take it too.
site for the course is hosted at www.koestler-parapsychology.psy.ed.ac.uk/
teachingOpenStudies.html, and the unit will be open again for students
on April 12, 2010, and again in September 2010.
Watt was also kind enough to grant me an interview about the course,
which should also air on the podcast The
Watt: If you are interested
in parapsychology, then there are some good reasons why you might be
interested in the course. Firstly, because the course is online, there
are no geographical limitations to participation; so long as you have
a reliable Internet connection, you can join in. Secondly, it is
a non-accredited course, so no prior qualifications are required to
join. This is wonderful for members of the public who want to expand
their personal knowledge about parapsychology.
most importantly, I think it is quite difficult to get reliable information
about parapsychology; there’s a lot of nonsense written about this
subject. But this course comes from a highly respected center for parapsychological
research and is designed to provide a balanced picture of the field
and to stimulate critical thinking about ostensibly paranormal experiences.
Sturgess: What struck
me first about the course description was your own views on psi, where
although you point out that research into psi should be taken seriously,
you also say “parapsychologists do not yet have a good understanding
of the factors associated with above-chance psi task performance.”
What do you consider will help take study of psi to this next level?
Watt: The field has to be better organized.
There are so few people doing parapsychology research, and there are
lots of different research questions and methods being used. I think
progress would be helped if researchers formed groups and worked systematically
on a small number of areas that they agreed were most promising. Also,
more funding would be a great help, since it would bring more researchers
into the field.
Sturgess: One of the big questions that
I had from the course was whether it was true that parapsychology is
becoming “re-branded” as anomalistic psychology or if people were
unaware that parapsychology issues and topics are cropping up in many
different disciplines. Are people on the whole resistant to parapsychology
as a science?
Watt: I see parapsychology as an interdisciplinary
problem area, involving psychology, physics, and philosophy, amongst
others. I think quite a few researchers use alternative terms such as
anomalistic psychology because such terms are quite broad, encompassing
both the psi hypothesis, as well as other possible explanations for
paranormal experiences such as misjudgments of probability, etc.
Sturgess: What do you attribute to the “boom”
in studying parapsychology in the U.K.?
Watt: Parapsychology has been studied
in U.K. universities for years, and I think researchers have worked
well to integrate themselves with their academic colleagues. In Edinburgh,
at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, literally dozens of students
have obtained psychology PhDs focusing on parapsychological topics.
Many of these have gone on to work in psychology departments elsewhere
in the U.K., and because they received good training in methodology
and critical thinking under the supervision of the former Koestler professor
Robert Morris, they can make a useful academic contribution in their
new posts, both in teaching and in research.
Sturgess: You mention in your FAQ (on the
course Web site) that you have not personally experienced paranormal
phenomena. How many people, in your experience, seek out serious study
of parapsychology due to a personal experience?
Watt: I would say less than half. Many—like
myself—are simply driven by intellectual curiosity and a desire to
know what science has to say about people’s paranormal beliefs and
experiences. Also, it is just plain interesting!
Sturgess: The interviews with a range of
psychologists, parapsychologists, skeptical investigators, and scientists
were a prominent feature and a highly informative aspect of the course.
What was it like to get everyone’s input? And were there any hurdles?
(I personally got a good laugh from the sound of a “tiger growling”
turning out to be a coffee cup being placed down during one interview;
technology can be a factor, I guess!)
Watt: Yes, that was one of my earlier
interviews before I learned about the acoustic hazards of coffee cups!
I am glad to say that every person I asked for an interview was most
gracious and enthusiastic about participating. I really enjoyed speaking
to such a diverse, informed, and interesting group of individuals, and
from the feedback I got from students on the course, I was delighted
to see how much they valued the interviews.
Sturgess: “Netiquette,” or behaving respectfully,
can be difficult for anyone online; from my own experiences, I saw no
upset reactions, but it is possible for an off-the-cuff participant
remark like “people who haven’t experienced psi are liars” to
be taken personally. With a subject like parapsychology, was it a challenge
to provide discussion topics that would promote productive discussion
rather than “flame wars”?
Watt: It probably depends a lot on the
composition and dynamics of each discussion group. So far I haven’t
had any problems; students are well-advised beforehand about appropriate
behavior. Also, the discussion groups are moderated, and if anything
unpleasant kicks off, the relevant posts would be removed and the group
would be reminded about netiquette. If anyone persisted in misbehaving,
I could prevent them from participation altogether. However, I think
most individuals are smart enough to realize that lively but respectful
discussion is to everyone’s benefit. There are so many interesting
issues in parapsychology that it is really not difficult to find topics
that stimulate discussion.
Sturgess: The course description explicitly
said, “What the course will not teach you: how to be ‘psychic’;
how to read minds; how to hunt for ghosts etc.,” yet one of the discussions
within the course touched upon the way some people might contact parapsychologists
because they may believe they have these abilities or be distressed
about phenomena. What might skeptics not know about what parapsychology
can offer to the community?
Watt: Most parapsychologists are not
themselves clinicians and therefore should not attempt to “treat”
people who are seriously distressed about their ostensibly paranormal
experiences. However, many parapsychology units are approached in this
way by distressed members of the public and have formed links with suitably
qualified colleagues, such as clinical psychologists, to whom distressed
individuals can be referred. There is a growing field called clinical
parapsychology, which focuses more on the clinical aspects of paranormal
experiences. One issue is that individuals who are in the early stages
of psychotic disorders may experience hallucinations or delusional beliefs
and interpret these as paranormal experiences. These individuals may
contact parapsychology units rather than clinicians in the first instance.
Parapsychologists could help in the early detection of problems in these
individuals. These issues are discussed further in the following article
by my colleagues in the Koestler Unit: Coelho, Tierney, and Lamont.
“Contacts by distressed individuals to U.K. parapsychology and anomalous
experience academic research units—a retrospective survey looking
to the future.” European
Journal of Parapsychology
23.1 (2008): 31–59.
Sturgess: Finally, does parapsychology need
the skeptical? And vice versa? There was some discussion within the
course about what constituted a helpful skeptical attitude and how skeptical
parapsychologists really were on the whole.
Watt: Yes, skeptics are crucial to parapsychology,
with one important caveat: they must be well-informed about the actual
published research literature in parapsychology, both methodology and
findings. Uninformed skeptics are wasting their own and everyone else’s
time. As to your second question, skepticism is wider than parapsychology,
but for those skeptics focusing on the paranormal, I suppose they need
parapsychology (narrowly defined as the field that attempts to use controlled
scientific methods to test the psi hypothesis) to provide something
to get their teeth into that is less easy to dismiss than everyday experiences
that are often misinterpreted as being paranormal. However, I have a
quibble about your question! It assumes that skeptics and parapsychologists
are mutually exclusive groups. Some of the best and most detailed criticism
of parapsychological research comes from parapsychologists themselves.
If we are being good scientists, we should all be questioning and attempting
to think critically whenever we tackle the paranormal. So in that sense,
we should all be skeptics!
Irwin, H.J. 2007. The measurement of superstitiousness as a component
of paranormal belief—some critical reflections. European
Journal of Parapsychology, 22(2),
Roach, M. 2005. Spook:
Science Tackles the Afterlife.
Text Publishing, Melbourne.