Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Parapsychology needs a good theory

Research in parapsychology delivers solid evidence for the existence of psi, ( another term for psychic phenomena.) Research Techniques such as meta-analysis allow for a combination of data from many different studies.  Long-term performance of psi abilities can be measured over many trials, increasing the efficacy and confidence levels of experimental results.    It is fascinating that the field of parapsychology reaches replicated results comparable to many other fields—even physics!  It is also heartening to consider the variability of human psychic performance—although because some scientists consider it an “extraordinary” ability natural variability does not create adequate evidence.  This does mean, though, that because we are human, psychic performance can vary on any given day. Parapsychology has everything that many more mainstream sciences can boast of—good experimental design based on the scientific method, high confidence levels in the results, statistically significant results, high levels of replicated experiments (despite the fact that 50% of replicated experiments statistically will fail!) and good evidence as a result of meta-analysis.  All of this despite the constraints that “soft sciences” tend to encounter (many psychological factors, such as experimenter effects) and the known variability and spontaneous nature of many psi experiences.  While this seems rather extraordinary, many factors inherent in the scientific established order combine to make the findings of parapsychology quite overlooked.
Yet it seems that what parapsychology lacks most is a comprehensive theory that enables the data to be rationally interpreted (after all, science is a means of explaining phenomena.)  Without this theory, many scientists simply have a difficult time accounting for the evidence (if the evidence is honored as what would occur beyond chance.) As dean Radin points out in his work, this theory-driven view (as well as pre-existing beliefs) also hinders scientists from seeing beyond their own theoretical paradigms.
Why do we lack the theory?  Although we can deduce that evidence for the existence of psi is well-established, more work needs to be done before a truly adequate and comprehensive theory can be developed.  One major area of work needs to be education surrounding the existence and evidence of psi, among scientists as well as the general population.  Without this basis, and directly addressing the very real tendencies of parapsychology to be dismissed for lots of reasons, any interesting theories that are developed will probably not be taken seriously. While parapsychology can continue to play by the rules of science, and certainly amass more evidence (as it is clear that the implications of the evidence are still not very well understood,) I argue that it is perhaps even more important that, based on Radin’s critiques, the information is not only more widely distributed but also in a sense “marketed.”
It is in part a matter of acquiring more information, in particular a variety of studies that can measure different theoretical aspects of psi.  For example, useful studies may include an examination of how psychic information may be filtered through consciousness, and the mechanisms of how this works.  Good theory as broad as the field of parapsychology will require many different types of experiments based on observed and hypothesized results—not just experiments that are still attempting to prove that psi exists.  We need more evidence to be able to adequately explain how it works.  At the same time, it will be essential to attempt to actively work against and directly address the biases that largely keep parapsychology in the fringe—despite the best evidence.


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