BS00847A.gif (3051 bytes) Why is parapsychology so controversial?

Parapsychology has remained controversial, even with a substantial body of scientifically valid results, for three main reasons:

First, the media and much of the public often confuse parapsychology with sensational, unscientific beliefs and stories about "the paranormal." Such widespread confusion has led many scientists to dismiss the field as being unworthy of serious study, thus they think it is not even worth their time to examine the existing evidence.

In addition, thoroughly understanding the nature of the existing evidence in parapsychology is not easy. While the meta-analytic results are persuasive, meta-analysis requires an appreciation of statistical reasoning to understand that form of evidence. For people who are not familiar with statistics, or don't trust it (which is usually a sign of misunderstanding), the evidence will not seem very persuasive. Those same people may then go looking for the big stuff , the psi-in-your-face, self-evident proofs, and they will find enormous amounts of anecdotal evidence but almost no scientifically credible data. They may view lengthy discussions, such as the one in this FAQ, as proof that no one really knows what is going on, and that scientists are still basically waffling and indecisive about this topic.

Our response is simple: The scientific evidence for some forms of psi is indeed persuasive. By the same standards used to establish proof in other areas of science, we can say with confidence that psi does exist, and we are beginning to learn a little about it, and who has it.

Second, if someone wanted to study the evidence, much of the persuasive, technical details are published in limited circulation professional journals. These can be found in most large university libraries, but in many cases, scholars must request reprints and technical reports from authors. This FAQ was produced partially to alleviate the problem, and to provide references to various resources. (See Where can I get more information?)

Third, some people are afraid that psi might be true. For example, fear about psi arises for the following reasons:

bulletIt is associated with diabolic forces, magic and witchcraft.
bulletIt suggests the loss of normal ego boundaries.
bulletPeople might be able to read your mind and know that you secretly (or unconsciously) harbor sexual and aggressive thoughts, or worse.
bulletIf you talk about it, people might think you're crazy.
bulletIf you think you experience psi, maybe you are crazy.
bulletBefore you were six years old, your parents provided negative reinforcement for your little demonstrations of telepathy.
bulletThinking about psi leads to a medieval superstitious mentality, which will in turn support a rising tide of dangerous, primitive thinking.
bulletWith ESP, you might learn things that you do not want to know about yourself or other people -- i.e., accidents that are about to happen, and things you would rather not be responsible for knowing about.
bulletPsi might interfere with the normal human process of ego separation and development. Therefore, we have devised subtle strategies for cultural inhibition.
bulletIf you are telepathic, how will you distinguish other people's thoughts from your own? Perhaps this will lead to mental illness.
bulletMany people have a self-destructive streak to their personality. What damage would result if psi were used in the service of this factor? Psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud wrote about this in his book Parapsychology and the Unconscious.
bulletIf psi exists, how many of my other cherished beliefs will I have to give up?
bulletIf psi exists, does that mean that a psychic could watch me while I am using bathroom facilities?
bulletIf psi exists, then perhaps I cannot wall myself off so easily from the pain and suffering in the world.

Above list courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, Director of the Intuition Network, Institute of Noetic Sciences.

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PE01799A.gif (1627 bytes) What is the state-of-the-evidence for psi?

To be precise, when we say that "X exists," we mean that the presently available, cumulative statistical database for experiments studying X, provides strong, scientifically credible evidence for repeatable, anomalous, X-like effects.

With this in mind, ESP exists, precognition exists, telepathy exists, and PK exists. ESP is statistically robust, meaning it can be reliably demonstrated through repeated trials, but it tends to be weak when simple geometric symbols are used as targets. Photographic or video targets often produce effects many times larger, and there is some evidence that ESP on natural locations (as opposed to photos of them), and in natural contexts, may be stronger yet.

Some PK effects have also been shown to exist. When individuals focus their intention on mechanical or electronic devices that fluctuate randomly, the fluctuations change in ways that conform to their mental intention. Under control conditions, when individuals direct their attention elsewhere, the fluctuations are in accordance with chance.

Note that we are using the terms ESP, telepathy and PK in the technical sense, not in the popular sense. See What do parapsychologists study?

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BS00864A.gif (2535 bytes) What is the state-of-the-theory for psi?

Opinions about mechanisms of psi are wide-ranging. Because the field is multidisciplinary, there are physical theories, psychological theories, psychophysical theories, sociological theories, and combinations of these.

On one end of the spectrum, the "physicalists" tend to believe that the "psi sensing capacity" is like any other human sensory system, and as such it will most likely be explained by known principles from biophysics, chemistry, and cognitive science. For these theorists, psi is expected to be accommodated into the existing scientific structure, with perhaps some modifications or extensions.

On the other end of the spectrum, the "mentalists" assert that reality would not exist if it were not for human consciousness. For these theorists, the nature of the universe is much more effervescent, thus accommodating psi into existing scientific models will require significant modification of science as we know it. Strong theoretical debates are common in parapsychology in part because spirit, religion, the meaning of life, and other philosophical conundrums commingle with quantum mechanics, probability theory, and neurons.

Some theorists have attempted to link psi phenomena with similar-sounding concepts from quantum mechanics, including non-locality, instantaneous correlations at a distance, and other anomalies. Such suggestions always spark vigorous debates, and at some point it seems the critics are inevitably accused of not properly understanding quantum mechanics. This is why we do not discuss quantum mechanical theories of psi here. See, however, the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge University) and Entangled Minds (April 2006, Simon & Schuster).

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BS00865A.gif (2933 bytes) Where can I get more information?

See the books The Conscious Universe, Entangled Minds. And check here for more references.

There is an excellent CD-ROM on parapsychology called Psi explorer.

International scientific societies interested in parapsychology include the following:

bulletParapsychological Association, a AAAS affiliate since 1969
bulletScientific and Medical Network
bulletSociety for Scientific Exploration
bulletSociety for Psychical Research, London, UK
bulletAmerican Society for Psychical Research, New York, NY, USA
bulletSee our LINKS pages

The primary peer-reviewed parapsychological journals today include the following:

bulletEuropean Journal of Parapsychology
bulletJournal of Parapsychology
bulletJournal of the American Society of Psychic Research
bulletJournal of the Society of Psychical Research
bulletZeitschrift fur Psychologische Grenzgebiete

Other journals that have published parapsychological articles include:

bulletFoundations of Physics
bulletJournal of the Society of Psychical Research
bulletJournal of Scientific Exploration
bulletProceedings of the IEEE
bulletPsychological Bulletin
bulletStatistical Science
bulletSubtle Energies

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PE01644A.gif (2627 bytes) Questions about popular phenomena

Are ghosts real?

The prevailing view today is that the mysterious physical effects historically attributed to ghosts (disembodied spirits), such as movement of objects, strange sounds, enigmatic odors, and failure of electrical equipment, are actually poltergeist phenomena (see below). Apparitions that occur without accompanying physical effects are thought to be either normal psychological effects (i.e., hallucinations), or possibly genuine information mediated by psi.

Are poltergeists real?

Poltergeists (from the German, "noisy ghosts") usually manifest as strange electrical effects and unexplained movement of objects. At one time, these phenomena were thought to be due to ghosts, but after decades of investigations by researchers, notably by William G. Roll, the evidence now suggests that poltergeists are PK effects produced by one or more individuals, usually troubled adolescents. The term "RSPK," meaning "Recurrent Spontaneous PK," was coined to describe this concept.

Why aren't psychics breaking the bank in Las Vegas casinos?

The theoretical house advantage for some casino games is fairly small, e.g., about 1% for optimally-played craps. This means that over the long term, a good craps player might get back 99 cents for each dollar they play. If they hit a "hot streak," they might even win some money. In practice, the actual house take for most games is fairly large (about 25% for table games) because people rarely play consistently, they reinvest their winnings, and the casino environment is intentionally designed to be noisy and visually distracting. Thus, for a given psychic to make any notable differences in long-term casino profits, they would have to (a) understand the strategies of each game they play, (b) consistently play according to those strategies, (c) stop when they are ahead, and (d) consistently apply strong, reliable psi.

Over the long term casino profits are predictably stable, but given that some psi effects are known to be genuine, in principle a good, consistent psychic (who knows how to play the casino games) might make some money by gambling. In addition, many people applying weak psi may cause small fluctuations in casino profits, but testing this would require analyzing an enormous amount of casino data, and such data is difficult to obtain.

Is channeling real?

Channeling is the claim that a departed spirit, or other non-physical entity, can speak or act through a sensitive person. In the late 1800s, this was called mediumship; similar claims of communicating with departed spirits can be found throughout history and across most cultures. Some researchers believe that cases of exceptional prodigies, like Mozart in music, or Ramanujan in mathematics, provide evidence of genuine channeling.

While some of the material supposedly channeled by departed spirits, or other-worldly beings, is clearly nonsense, other works have inspired large numbers of people and serve as continuing sources of illumination. Revealed religions, and some visionary experiences, for example, are versions of channeled information. However, whether the information came from a genuinely paranormal source, or from the channeler's unconscious, is a perennial topic of debate.

Are large-scale effects, like levitation or spoon-bending real?

Throughout history there have been many reports of spectacular events, such as individuals levitating, holy people materializing objects out of thin air, and people who are able to move, bend or break objects without touching them. Unfortunately, in most cases individuals who make such claims hope to capitalize on their "abilities." Because the potential for fraud is high, and it is relatively easy to create convincing effects that closely mimic paranormal ones (with conjuring techniques), trustworthy evidence for such large-scale effects is very poor. There are a few cases of apparently genuine movement of small objects, and of anomalous metal-bending, but in general the existence of large-scale, or macro-PK, is still open to serious question.

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PE01805A.gif (1199 bytes) Where can I get a degree or a job in parapsychology?

Many people would like to study human consciousness, parapsychology, transpersonal psychology, or some combination of these fields. While these topics are of great interest, the number of courses and degrees available in these topics are - surprisingly - very few. People often believe that there are undergraduate or graduate-level programs at universities known for having parapsychology labs, especially Duke University.  And while it is not widely known, both Harvard and Stanford Universities have fellowships endowed explicitly for psychical research (but they don't advertise it, and most of the available funds have been usurped for other purposes).

Historically, academia has regarded psychic phenomena as an embarrassment due to the sensational spin that the entertainment industry puts on this topic, along with the often outrageous claims made by proponents of New Age ideas.  As a result, while funds to create programs and courses have been available, they've languished for years.  

The bottom line is that there is not a single accredited academic program in parapsychology offered anywhere in the United States.

 This is not to say that classes in parapsychology aren't offered occasionally, even at major universities (such as the University of California, Davis), or that you cannot work on an accredited PhD with emphasis in parapsychology - because you can.  The point is that you cannot earn an accredited degree in this topic.  If you were really desperate to get a PhD in parapsychology, you could always buy one from any number of diploma paper mills.  But you might as well save your money and print one up yourself. 

A "Chair of Consciousness Studies" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) was launched with great fanfare in 1997, but just as similar positions at Harvard and Stanford quickly faded away, the UNLV program quietly disappeared three years later.  In contrast, perhaps the best-known, actively endowed chair specifically on parapsychology is the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology, within the Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.  This permanent teaching and research Chair, currently held by Professor Robert Morris, has supported over a dozen graduate students into earning their doctorates with emphasis on parapsychological topics.  Most of these graduates now hold teaching and research posts at accredited universities in Great Britain.

If your interest in consciousness research can be focused on a relatively accepted aspect of it (say, biofeedback research) you may be able to find a professor at some mainstream university doing research that you could work with.  Check reference sources like PsychInfo, Psychological Abstracts and MedLine to see who is doing work in these areas and what institutions they are at, then write to them. If your primary interest is parapsychology, things get much tougher. You can forget virtually all mainstream academic institutions if you want to get seriously involved in this topic at the professional level.

In terms of realistic career advice, you must realize that parapsychology is considered "marginal" at best by mainstream psychology, at least within the US. If your goal is to achieve a tenured faculty position at a major university, with plenty of time for research, then any degree with an emphasis in parapsychology will not be looked upon with favor (to put it mildly).  Fortunately, the situation is dramatically different in some European countries, especially Great Britain and Germany, where parapsychology is rapidly becoming a respectable academic topic.

Most parapsychologists (and by this we mean professionally trained scientists, not "paranormal investigators") usually make a living teaching or doing some other conventional job.  Only 30 to 40 people in the entire world are employed full time in this field as researchers, and fewer still are actually paid reasonable salaries to do so.  Realistically, the chances of landing a decent job are extremely small, although as already mentioned, the situation in Europe is much better than in the United States.  If you are so dedicated that this doesn't stop you, that's great!

Most students solve the problem of wanting the advantages offered by a mainstream academic position, but without giving up their interests in parapsychology, by going to a recognized school (where they are wisely discrete about their deeper interests).  They learn how to conduct research in some well-accepted discipline, they get their degree, and then quietly join the Parapsychological Association and start reading the primary parapsychological journals.  This may not satisfy the student's passion, but at the present time many academicians today do not consider this topic a legitimate academic pursuit.

This are a few exceptions: Psychological and sociological studies about belief in psychic phenomena are marginally acceptable topics of research, as are anthropological studies of psychic practices and rituals in indigenous societies.

Pursuing parapsychology as a career requires (1) strong entrepreneurial skills, (2) enormous persistence, creativity and resourcefulness, (3) solid training in one of more of the mainstream sciences or in a scholarly discipline, and (4) the ability to acknowledge but not acquiesce to the fads of conventional wisdom and academic dogma.  This is not a career track for the faint-hearted or for the orthodox.

The payoff is that parapsychology, like other scientific frontiers, is an extremely challenging discipline with plenty of room for exploring creative ideas and making significant advancements to the state-of-the-art.  If you expect fast solutions to easy problems, or absolute answers to clear questions, then parapsychology is definitely not for you.  If you enjoy exploring the full range of human potential and pushing your creative talent to its limit, then there is no better discipline than parapsychology.

Portions of the above discussion courtesy of Dr. Charles Tart, with additions by Dean Radin.

For more information on institutions offering advanced degrees, coursework, or credit in parapsychology or related areas, see:

bulletAssociation for Transpersonal Psychology
bulletCommon Boundary
bulletDepartment of Consciousness Studies, JFK University
bulletThe Union Institute
bulletRhine Research Center, summer study program, to be held at IONS in 2005
bulletInstitute of Transpersonal Psychology
bulletCalifornia Institute of Integral Studies 
bulletAmerican Society for Psychical Research
bulletThe Parapsychology Foundation
bulletFranklin Pierce College
bulletSaybrook Institute 
bulletUniversity of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland (UK). The Koestler Parapsychology Unit
bulletUniversity of Northampton, Northampton, UK. The Center for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes
bulletUniversity of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, England (UK). Prof. Richard Wiseman 
bulletUniversity of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Department of Psychology
bulletSee our general links page

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TR00262A.gif (1715 bytes) Where are some of the active psi research facilities?

bulletAnomalous Cognition Program, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
bulletUniversity of Virginia, Division of Perceptual Studies,  Department of Psychiatric Medicine
bulletCognitive Sciences Laboratory, Palo Alto, CA
bulletIONS Consciousness Research Laboratory, Petaluma, CA
bulletUniversity of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland (UK). The Koestler Parapsychology Unit
bulletUniversity of Northampton, Northampton, UK. The Center for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes
bulletUniversity of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, England (UK). Prof. Richard Wiseman 
bulletUniversity of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Department of Psychology
bulletEotvos Lorand University of Budapest, Hungary
bulletLaboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health, University of Arizona, USA
bulletInstitute for Parapsychology, Rhine Research Center, Durham, NC, USA
bulletMind-Matter Unification Project, Cambridge University, UK
bulletPEAR Laboratory, Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
bulletInstitut fuer Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene, Freiburg i. Br., Germany

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Who were the main contributors to this FAQ?

bulletEditor, Dean Radin, Ph.D., Institute of Noetic Sciences, Petaluma, CA, USA
bulletCarlos Alvarado, Ph.D., Parapsychology Foundation, New York City
bulletDick Bierman, Ph.D., Anomalous Cognition, University of Amsterdam
bulletTopher Cooper, BSc., Voice Processing Corporation, Cambridge, MA, USA
bulletEdwin May, Ph.D., Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, Palo Alto, CA, USA
bulletRoger Nelson, Ph.D., PEAR Laboratory, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
bulletEphraim Schechter, Ph.D., Durham, NC, USA
bulletJames Spottiswoode, BSc., James Spottiswoode & Assoc., CA
bulletCharles Tart, Ph.D., Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,  CA, USA

Standard Disclaimer: All contributions to this FAQ are personal opinions and do not imply official positions of any organizations, corporations, or universities.

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Last Updated: January 1, 2007

Copyright 1995-2007 by Dean Radin