Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
In a previous blog I referred to the problem of having people in parapsychology that are not knowledgeable about the literature of the field. In the blog I cited the following comment by Larry Dossey: “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” (see Dossey, L. (2008). Healing research: What we know and don’t know. Explore: Journal of Science and Healing, 4, 341-352).
In an editorial published in 2012 in the Journal of Scientific Exploration Steve Braude stated that a “discouraging trend (revealed even more clearly from my privileged perspective as a journal editor) is that too many people publish (or try to publish) books and articles about parapsychology (pro and con), or conduct their own experiments, with little or no grounding in the field’s extensive literature, both empirical and theoretical” (see Braude, S.E. (2012). Editorial. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 26, 763-766).
Motivation and training in some discipline sometimes is not enough to come into parapsychology to conduct work. Like in any other field you need to know about the conceptual and research tradition of the field you are getting into. As Braude continued in his editorial referring to lack of background knowledge, “this form of naïveté—if not outright hubris—is regrettably quite common, and I encounter it repeatedly in manuscripts submitted to the JSE.”
Unfortunately I have to agree that this problem is widespread. Furthermore, it is not limited to individuals coming from outside parapsychology, some workers in the field also show this problem. Here are some anonymous examples.
*An individual I know is always making comments about what he thinks are “new” contributions, and about their importance, not being aware his points are highly questionable in light of previously published parapsychological research. As a consequence what this person says is ill-informed and many times incorrect.
*Someone recently complained about a particular individual’s lack of knowledge of previous work (even when told about this) shown in presentations and publications. Unfortunately this person gets considerable attention in the press and publishes in high impact journals.
*A group of researchers published a paper about subjective aspects of psychic functioning without mentioning a single similar observation recorded by past researchers.
Dossey referred to this problem in his comment about healing-related research: “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.” Braude put it in stronger terms in his editorial, pointing out how this practice damages parapsychology. In his view, “as a result, simplistic and ignorant opinions (pro and con) about psi research spread and perpetuate.” Furthermore, he wrote, such situation “can only impede the dissemination and recognition of sensible and informed work in the area.”
Braude’s comments are reason enough for worrying about this problem. But the situation is worse when some of these individuals teach others, presenting misconceptions and incomplete perspectives. Furthermore, such ignorance blocks the use of past knowledge to make sense of current work. While there are sociological and historical reasons to question views of the development of science solely as an enterprise based on cumulative knowledge, it is true that those of us who have engaged in research have received useful methodological and conceptual guidance by being informed by previous work on the subject (even when admitting this past may bring its own set of blinders).
Is it too much to ask these individuals to do their homework and become familiar with what they are talking about? No, this is common practice and should also be common sense. The fact this takes place suggests there are several possible explanations I cannot discuss here in any detail. In addition to the arrogance mentioned by Braude, I will just mention belief in one’s brilliance (perhaps a form of arrogance), laziness, or intentional strategies to separate your work from previous parapsychological developments to avoid the perceived stigma some see in parapsychology, or to situate yourself as a pioneer and a central figure. But these speculations are topics for future discussions.
In the meantime at the very least we need—as Dossey and Braude remind us—to be aware of the problem and try to be constructive in terms of providing help to others, which is one of the motivations behind my constant postings about: recent publications in various journals (for examples click here, here , and here), sites with pdf articles (click here, here , and here), and, regarding the historical literature, virtual libraries (for examples click here, here, and here). In the past, I have compiled works providing bibliographies, among them those posted years back in the website of the Parapsychology Foundation (click here).
This problem cannot be solved overnight. But regardless of what we do—such as paying attention to general information sources (bibliographies, textbooks, article reviews), or the efforts of journal editors and referees, or annoying blogs such as this one—the main thing is to recognize the problem. Due to the lack of formal educational and training programs in parapsychology the only solution is to take responsability and improve ourselves via self-study. This, it seems to me, is common sense when it comes to any discipline. Even those with formal education and training programs need to keep up their studies because no program can be completely comprehensive and every field continues to develop after our personal graduation. Keeping up with our field is a never-ending process, which is a good thing. And having a good foundation, makes keeping up with new research and theory, all the more enjoyable and effective.