Why is parapsychology so controversial?

Parapsychology has remained controversial, even with substantial, persuasive, and scientifically palatable 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." This widespread confusion has led many scientists to simply dismiss the field as being unworthy of serious study, and thus they think it is not 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 both substantial and persuasive, meta-analysis requires specialized knowledge 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 then 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 extremely persuasive. By the same standards used to establish proof in other areas of science, we can say with high confidence that psi does exist, and we are beginning to learn a little about it, and who has it.

Second, even if someone wanted to study the evidence, much of the persuasive work is 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:

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

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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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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.)

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Where can I get more information?

Check here for more references. Also be sure to see the book, The Conscious Universe, by Dean Radin, available now in all bookstores, from HarperCollins Publishers.

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

International scientific societies interested in parapsychology include the following:

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

Other journals that have published parapsychological articles include:

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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, but in general the existence of large-scale, or macro-PK, is still open to serious question.

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Where can I get a degree in parapsychology?

Many students and adults 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 active undergraduate or graduate-level programs at universities known for having parapsychology labs. Unfortunately, this is not true. At present the only university in the United States with an endowed professorship in consciousness studies - in this case specifically meaning parapsychology - is the Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and this was established in 1997. Classes will eventually be taught under the auspices of this Chair, but development of an academic program leading to an accredited degree, will take several years, if ever.

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 Psychological Abstracts and MedLine to see who is doing work in these areas and what institutions they are at, then write them. If your primary interest is parapsychology, things get much tougher. You can forget most mainstream academic institutions if you want to get seriously involved in this topic at the professional level.

In terms of realistic career advice, note that parapsychology is considered "marginal" by mainstream psychology. If your goal is a tenured faculty position at a major university, with plenty of time for research, any degree with an emphasis in parapsychology will not be looked upon with favor. Parapsychologists usually make a living teaching or doing another conventional job.

Some students solve the problem of wanting the advantages offered by a mainstream academic position, but without giving up their greater interests in parapsychology, by going to a mainstream school (where they are wisely discrete about their deeper interests), learning how to conduct research in some well-accepted discipline, and then quietly joining the Parapsychological Association and/or reading the primary parapsychological journals.

But note that scientific parapsychology is a minuscule field, with only a few dozen people in the entire world working in it. At present, the chances of landing a decent job are very small indeed. If you are so dedicated that this doesn't stop you, wonderful! But please be realistic.

Pursuing parapsychology as a career also requires strong entrepreneurial skills, enormous persistence and creativity, resourcefulness, solid training in one of more of the conventional sciences or in a scholarly discipline, and the ability to withstand the tides of conventional wisdom. 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 challenging the status quo, then there is no better discipline than parapsychology.

Portions of the above discussion courtesy of Dr. Charles Tart.

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

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Where are some of the active psi research facilities?

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Who are the contributors to this FAQ?

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

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Last Updated: November 23, 1997
Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Dean Radin