Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center
While parapsychology is an underdeveloped academic field, many of us involved in it have been concerned for years about the lack of proper training and education in the field (for my distinctions between training and education click here). Recent discussions of the problems with this enterprise and the need to improve and expand it have been presented by Harvey J. Irwin in his monograph Education in Parapsychology and by Nancy L. Zingrone in her video “Education in Parapsychology: Context, Problems, Needs” (see also one of my blogs).
While there are lists presenting places where courses (click here and here) and some general thoughtful advice can be found, my interest here is to offer some practical advice regarding choosing courses.
Unfortunately the Web is full of courses that seem to be of low quality and that do not represent the serious scientific parapsychological literature. For this reason prospective students need to do their own research to decide what to do. I am suggesting the following criteria as general guidelines, and not as definitive statements. But bear in mind that I am concerned here with parapsychology as a scientific and scholarly field and not with amateur investigations or with psychic development.
Where is the Course Offered?
The first thing to consider is where are these courses offered? What type of institution or organization is behind the courses? Is this a fly-by-night place, or a place of some reputation such as an accredited college or university? There are respectable private organizations of good standing that are not colleges or universities. These organizations also offer good courses, even if they are not accredited (bear in mind that accreditation may involve factors other than course quality). But there are other places—including unaccredited universities and colleges—that lack such standing.
The point here is to investigate the organization, to find out if they have a history of good work. It is easy to check the website of any organization to see their philosophy. If, for example, they mix occultism with parapsychology, or they do not have a scientific approach, then the courses may not be for you.
Who is Teaching?
Perhaps even more important than the institution or organization hosting the course is the often neglected question of who is teaching it. If possible, and this is not always the case, you can obtain biographical information about instructors that will help you assess the quality of the course. An obvious question here is the educational background of the teacher. Generally in academia individuals with doctoral level training have a better handle on a field (in terms of theories, methods, and findings) than individuals without such backgrounds. Presumably they also have a better sense of the advantages and limitations of the tools used to explore psychic phenomena than persons without such training.
And of course you need to see if this person has a good track record in the field. Has she or he conducted work in the topic of the course? We have a right to have some misgivings about someone who teaches about the history of and research methods of the field, or about theoretical ideas coming from anthropology, medicine, physics, or psychology if that person does not have training in the area. It is common sense to prefer to have someone with some experience in the field teach you rather than someone who has no experience at all, and this is particularly important in a controversial area such as parapsychology. Of course in real life sometimes you have to teach or lecture about something that is not your specialty, and many newly-minted PhDs have to teach university courses outside of their specialties, such as 101 level courses. That’s also true in our field. Nonetheless, these are useful questions to help you decide about which courses you may want to take and which teachers you want to trust.
You may also ask if this person’s work has been presented in peer-reviewed publications. I am not saying that persons without peer-reviewed publications (or doctoral degrees) cannot be good teachers. In fact, some may be better than those with doctoral degrees (because some academics can be kind of stuffy). But in general you want to have information that assures you that the teacher has been well-trained in the topic in question.
When you are assessing a potential teacher and examining their publications you need to make a difference between academic and popular work. Academic publishing gives some assurance that the work is generally acceptable and of quality because it is peer-reviewed (while bearing in mind the subjectivity of the process, the many differences of opinion within academia, and the prejudices against parapsychological work). Again, this is a question of degree, there are some individuals who are very capable and do not have an academic publishing record, so we need to bear that in mind. This includes those who are in essence pure educators or who have no pretensions or interest in being researchers. But in general, if a potential teacher is only blogging, or writing articles for magazines or newspapers, or blogging on YouTube or elsewhere and does not have any academic publications, they may not be the right teacher for you.
Another useful piece of information to consider is whether the person teaching the course is a member of the Parapsychological Association , the professional association of parapsychological researchers and scholars. This is more impressive if the person is a Full Member, because such level of membership requires more accomplishments. Similarly you may talk to other people in the field about their views of the reputation of capabilities of the teacher. Again, these criteria may be useful, but they are not necessarily conclusive. There are many researchers in the field who are not Full members of the Association, or not members of the PA at all, or who are not prominent enough to be known by others, but still they may have a lot to offer.
Finally, I would suggest being careful with those teachers who have set answers for everything, either on the believing or on the skeptical side. Some, inspired by personal experiences, philosophical systems, or just plain panache, claim to know more than the rest of us and sometimes are too sure of their facts. This is a big indicator of possible problems because parapsychology is an uncertain field. It is possible that they are right, but more likely that they are wrong if they take the “my way or the highway” approach to the material. So definitely keep this in mind and compare this individual’s perspective with what you have read and with the approaches of others.
Then there is the obvious issue of course content. It is important to investigate whether the course represents generally accepted scientific knowledge in the field, or at least general topics found in the literature, many of which are controversial. Of basic importance here is that the course should be based on scholarly and scientific work published in the main journals and best books in the field.
Currently we have very few courses (if any) that may be labeled as professional education in parapsychology, even if based on serious work. What we have are a handful of good general introductions, either overviews or discussions of specific topics available from various sources.
A general problem are those courses that focus only on the teachers’ own research and theories, especially if they are unpublished in the academic literature. If the course is presented as an overview of parapsychology, or of a particular area, it should represent scholarship and research in the field as a whole and not only the work of the instructor. This does not means there are no good courses that focus mainly on the teacher’s work, but such courses are far from being representative of the field at large. Of course this objection does not apply if the course is openly advertised as one based on the teacher’s work.
Some courses are labeled parapsychology, but they seem to be an excuse to discuss occult practices, psychic development, and many other topics. Be cautious of those courses than present parapsychology solely as the study of hauntings and poltergeists, and particularly when they place much emphasis on the use of “detectors” of spirits, and all sorts of psychic forces. All those topics deserve investigation, but many popular courses present them in exaggerated ways.
Similarly, be sure to distinguish courses based on scientific research from those based on psychic or spiritual sources of information. While fulfilling and important to many people, and possibly containing insights and truths, these are not parapsychology courses. The point is not to put down alternate views and approaches to psychic phenomena, just to establish differences between these approaches and parapsychology.
While much of what I have said may be common sense to some, I believe many are not aware of these issues. I do not oppose courses on some of the topics I have critiqued as long as they are not presented as parapsychology. The field shares things with many practices and psychic movements, but its approach is different.
I am aware that some people may see my ideas and attitude as too stuffy or rigid. But I believe these are important considerations if your interest lies in scholarly and scientific approaches. People use the term parapsychology differently, but we should not be confusing the field with the wider psychic world of beliefs and practices.
I would like to emphasize again that the points I have made are to be considered as general guidelines, not as strict criteria to evaluate courses. It is certainly possible that you can find a good course coming from an organization or a teacher with little or no track record in the field. A teacher may present a good course even if he or she has no graduate education, academic publications, or even if he or she has not conducted research in the area or is a member of the Parapsychological Association. My aim has been to present some general indicators and what I suggest is to use them as a checklist, so that you may decide on courses on the basis of several joint criteria.