Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

Dr. Harvey J. Irwin

Dr. Harvey J. Irwin

In a recent article psychologist Harvey J. Irwin reported the results of a survey of parapsychologists’ opinions:  “The Views of Parapsychologists: A Survey of Members of the Parapsychological Association” (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2014, 78, 85-101).

Here is the abstract:

“The popular stereotype of a parapsychologist may well be a negative one, based in large part as it is on the characterization of parapsychologists’ views by skeptical commentators and in the popular media. On the other hand there is little empirical information from which to infer the real views of contemporary parapsychologists. An online survey of members of the Parapsychological Association was therefore undertaken to ascertain some of their background characteristics and their views on diverse topical issues in parapsychology. A sample of 114 people participated in the survey. Some issues, such as the reality of psi and the importance of specialist training in parapsychology, attracted substantial consensus, but a disparity of views was evident on other issues (e.g., the unity of ESP and PK); somewhat surprisingly, developments in anomalistic psychology and mainstream concerns over probabilistic evaluation of hypotheses appear to be of limited interest to parapsychologists. The findings of the project are presented primarily as a matter of information, but they also raise a few policy implications.”

Respondents were asked about their estimate of the reality of psi using a scale ranging from 0 to 100%. The question yielded a mean of 78.91.

When asked about the possibility that their interests were motivated by spiritual concerns, replies were “strongly” 21%, “moderately” 29%, “slightly” 24%, and “not at all” 26%.” No agreement here.

Regarding belief in survival of death, Irwin wrote: “The distribution of responses was as follows: “strongly disagree” 3%, “disagree” 10%, “somewhat disagree” 1%, “neither agree nor disagree” 36%, “somewhat agree” 16%, “agree” 18%, and “strongly agree” 17%. Thus, while about half of the membership have some belief in post-mortem survival, many are agnostic and a minority reject the belief.”

 Agreement with the following topics (combining the percentages of somewhat agree, agree, and strongly agree, were: Ganzfeld now less effective (18%), survival research essential (45%), significance testing unsatisfactory (48%).

“Three survey items related to the use of constructs from the philosophy of science to discount some findings of parapsychological research . . . Although there was some variation in responses, approximately half of the sample deemed commentators’ use of the concepts of the need for replication and the principle of parsimony to be purely rhetorical devices in the criticism of parapsychological research. On the other hand, over 40% of respondents evidently saw more than rhetoric in the critics’ demand for replicability. Views were rather more cohesive on the third issue: only 13% of the sample believed parapsychologists were using the concept of psi-missing primarily to explain away inconvenient experimental findings.”

An open-ended question about current problems of parapsychology elicited mention of low financial support, resistance from institutions to research, the views of critics, and other issues.

Irwin detects a problem in that many respondents did not have opinions about some issues, showing perhaps lack of knowledge of some topics. He mentions anomalistic psychology and current discussions about probabilistic evaluations, and suggests the need for some “remedial” education, perhaps via the Parapsychological Association’s online bulletin. These issues, I believe, are present in other topics and areas. For example I think that many experimental parapsychologists and spontaneous case researchers sometimes lack knowledge of the other area. I also wonder if lack of knowledge is related to particular opinions. To give an example, how much do those who are negative about survival research really know about that literature? For this reason it is useful to measure as well familiarity with the literature (if only via self-reports) to evaluate opinions about specific topics.

In my view Irwin has made a good contribution to our knowledge of the ideas of parapsychologists, at least in terms of members of the Parapsychological Association.