Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center
It is common among some workers in parapsychology to find a lack of familiarity (sometimes even a general superficial familiarity) with the literature of parapsychology. This is especially the case of newcomers that approach the field from other disciplines.
Larry Dossey put it this way (1998): “Research involving human intentionality has been done in the field of parapsychology for decades, including hundreds of careful studies in a variety of living systems . . . However, prayer and healing researchers generally appear oblivious to this work. For example, one can read the literature review sections of healing papers and see no mention of prior intentionality studies in parapsychology.”
Such neglect has consequences. As Dossey has argued further: “This willful ignorance is dreadful, because psi researchers have dealt for decades with issues that are critical in healing research. Decline phenomena and experimenter effects are examples. Moreover, theory development and hypothesis formation in the psi literature is leagues ahead of the situation in healing research in medicine.”
The problem is also present in the parapsychological community, particularly when we refer to the older literature the range of which varies according to the age of the person. As I have argued before the literature from the past, far from being superseded, or being merely historical, has many practical uses today, among them guiding research by speaking directly to methodology and hypothesis generation (Alvarado, 1982, 2005).
Most workers engaged in research with psi phenomena come from other areas of science or of academia. As is well known —regardless of whether one identifies with other approaches and labels such as parapsychology, consciousness research, or anomalistic psychology, among others—, most people in the field do not have an educational background in the topic in the same way that members of other disciplines have in their own fields. They conduct research based on their training in psychology, psychiatry, physics, and other disciplines, as well as on their own private study of the parapsychological literature. This is all good in terms of techniques and general scientific philosophy. Formal training in research from another field can certainly be applied to parapsychology, as many of us know from personal experience. In fact, this is essential for progress.
While I do not doubt training from other disciplines applies well to parapsychology, I worry about the lack of a parapsychological education in many of the workers in the field. I am using the word education here as a wider construct than training so that education in this context can be seen to include an overarching perspective that is formed out of a sense of identity as well as from general knowledge. It is unfortunate that some individuals who are active in our field are so highly specialized that they barely know anything outside of their own narrow area.
Do we have a general view of the variety and origins of theoretical concepts? What relevant work was conducted on our subject by the previous generation? As I documented over thirty years ago in a paper published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (Alvarado, 1982), there are many examples of publications in our field that show lack of familiarity with the history of our methods, our previous findings, our foundational concepts. This is why I have devoted part of my career in parapsychology to reminding others of the richness of the literature of the past, be this in terms of specific phenomena or issues (e.g., Alvarado, 1989), of more general considerations of social aspects (e.g., Alvarado, 1989), or of the importance of particular concepts or agents of change (e.g., Alvarado, 2003).
It has been disappointing to me that younger workers in the field still have to be reminded of the existence and careers of recently deceased parapsychologists, or that these younger workers still have to be told that some of their interests have been discussed before in great detail by those who preceded them. Unfortunately, this lack of perspective is not limited to the youngest workers of the field. Some experienced researchers also show this tendency to myopia, nor is this a situation uncommon in other scientific fields. Still, one would expect that anyone who considered themselves a practicing researcher would want to have a general knowledge, if not a detailed one, of the history of one’s own specialty and of areas of the field related to it. The lack of familiarity with our shared past has practical implications in that much of what has gone before would help current researchers to generate hypotheses, not the least of which is that it makes it harder to refine theoretical models and evaluate the work of others (see Alvarado, 1982).
This criticism should not be taken to imply that everyone should be a scholar in the past literature of parapsychology, nor that this alone will solve our current problems. As I argued in my 1982 paper cited above, I do not consider the study of our past literature to be a substitute for contemporary research. The issue instead is one of context: current work should be carried out by those who are well-informed about the relevant past developments of the field.
But we need to consider as well the wider meaning of the word education. Being educated does only mean that one knows how best to collect and analyze data or has simple knowledge of antecedents in the literature. Instead, being educated means being aware of continuities and discontinuities in the development of parapsychological ideas and having a familiarity with philosophical, psychological, and general existential issues of the field. In other words, being educated means having a commitment to, or at least an understanding of, the collective identity of parapsychology as a field, even to the point of acknowledging the well-known difficulties that prevent the achievement of consensus on many substantive issues.
There is a parapsychological culture and identity that you find in some workers in the field but not in others. It is a quality that allows us to go beyond our research specialty, beyond the technical aspects of our research to the wider picture of our professional identity, and, of course, to the implications of our work. Having this sense of the field embedded in the identity of some of us stands out in stark contrast to the identity of those who just see the field as a fruitful technical specialty for data crunching, or a mere intellectual curiosity.
The lack of this deeper sense of what the profession is comes, to some extent, from the contemporary tendency towards overspecialization in the professions. But also it comes from the lack of organized educational programs in our field, programs that could provide systematic exposure to the most important aspects of the field. Without this level of professionalization parapsychologists are hybrids. We are a community formed from a combination of self-teaching and extrapolation from the training programs of other disciplines.
In spite of fairly recent educational developments and past discussions of what is needed in education in the field, the fact is that there are not many educational programs in which a student is systematically exposed to a wide range of parapsychological literature (and here I include as well literature relevant to the topic published outside the field of parapsychology). Few curricula, if any, exist in which, by design, students find themselves immersed in the full range of phenomena of the field, in classifications and terminology, in classic and contemporary literature, in the various methods and techniques used in the field now and in the past, in the historical development of the discipline, and in the wide range of theoretical models presented so far. It is unfortunate to stand at this point in our history and not be able to list any single program that has been designed to achieve this goal. And, of course, that this lack of educational programs depends, to a great extent, on the lack of opportunities to make a living in our field.
We must also be aware that training and education in parapsychology are particularly problematic in those geographical regions or countries where an academic or scientific variety of parapsychology is even more underdeveloped than it is in the UK, Europe or the States.
In essence, it is up to each of us to be aware of this glaring deficit in our education and to take whatever measures are possible to correct it.
Alvarado, C.S. (1982). Historical perspective in parapsychology: Some practical considerations. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 51, 265-271.
Alvarado, C.S. (1989a). ESP displacement effects: A review of pre 1940 concepts and qualitative observations. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 83, 227-239.
Alvarado, C.S. (1989b). The history of women in parapsychology: A critique of past work and suggestions for further research. Journal of Parapsychology, 53, 233-249.
Alvarado, C.S. (2003). The concept of survival of bodily death and the development of parapsychology. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 67, 65-95.
Alvarado, C.S. (2005). The usefulness of past literature in parapsychology. Parapsychology Foundation Lyceum: http://www.pflyceum.org/103.html
Dossey, L. (2008). Healing research: What we know and don’t know. Explore: Journal of Science and Healing, 4, 341-352.