Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
In a previous comment I summarized the content of E. Cardeña, J. Palmer, and D. Marcusson-Clavertz’s edited work Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015). Here I would like to summarize a chapter I wrote with others for the book. I was the second author, with N.L. Zingrone and G.H. Hövelmann, of “An Overview of Modern Developments in Parapsychology”(pp. 13-29).
The chapter was somewhat difficult to write because we were asked to review the field from 1977 to the present, and this period literally includes hundreds of relevant publications (this was the case because the book was, to some extent, a follow-up to Benjamin B. Wolman’s Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977). Unlike most other chapters focusing on a particular topic, we had to cover almost everything related to parapsychology. But we only had to focus on trends, not on details about the topic as done in other chapters, something that facilitated our task somewhat. Furthermore, and as stated in the chapter, we were not trying to write a history of modern parapsychology. We aimed at presenting an outline, with references, of some developments.
The chapter had the following sections:
Research Topics and Approaches
Scholarly Work: History, Religion and Other Disciplines
Conceptual and Disciplinary Approaches
Influential Conceptual Frameworks
Methodological and Statistical Developments
Social Aspects: Criticism and Institutional Developments
Under “Research Topics and Approaches”we covered some ESP and PK experiments, as well as selected laboratory and non-laboratory work on out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, mediumship, and other phenomena (surveys of various experiences, poltergeists, previous lives). Some of these topics were covered in more detail in chapters by other authors.
The “influential conceptual frameworks” we discussed were anomalistic psychology, quantum mechanics, and ideas about a nonphysical mind. “Methodological and Statistical Developments” were about the impact of computers and other technology, statistics, and qualitative research.
We discussed the impact of criticism in our field, paying attention to self-appointed critics. We wrote: “From our perspective, parapsychology has taken internal and external criticisms . . . and conceptual prescriptions . . . very seriously. Because of criticism, ESP-testing methodology was been improved by advances in automated ESP-testing systems . . . psychophysiological measurements were refined . . . and the recording of PK experiments has been modified . . . An active tradition of self-criticism . . . also exists and detailed replies to critics have been undertaken . . . This mix of internal and external criticism has had some definitional consequences, however: A proper distinction between ‘parapsychologist’ and ‘skeptic’ is lacking and seems to be anybody’s guess . . .”
There was also an attempt to summarize institutional developments around the world. For example, we wrote that the Parapsychology Foundation has made many important contributions over the years, such as hosting international conferences. “The University of Edinburgh is still a seat of research in the field. The Koestler Parapsychology Unit, a research group in the Department of Psychology, owes its existence to the endorsement of the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology. The late Robert L. Morris held the chair from 1985 through his untimely death in 2004, after which the University decided not to seek a new candidate. However, two faculty members attached to the KPU obtained permanent faculty appointments ensuring the persistence of research relevant to the field in the department at least while they still hold their positions. As for Morris . . . his principle achievement at Edinburgh was mentoring more than 20 doctoral students. Because a good number of these new PhDs have been able to obtain mainstream faculty positions in psychology the UK and elsewhere, new research units have been established as well as new sites for post-graduate student supervision . . . In 2005, another important chair was established at Lund University . . . Etzel Cardeña, holds the Thorsen Professor of Psychology at Lund and is also the head of the research group called Centre for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology . . .”
Also mentioned was the problematic issue of funding and institutional developments in France, Germany, and Brazil. The latter includes the work at the University of Sao Paulo of Wellington Zangari, Fatima Regina Machado, and others.
At the end of the article we listed the work of several individuals that represent a sustained effort in research on specific topics for many years. “One of these is the systematic program of research that was carried on by Robert Jahn, Brenda Dunne, Roger Nelson, and others at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Laboratory for over 25 years. The PEAR Laboratory focused primarily on a very
productive line of PK research, and to a lesser extent pursued remote perception research . . . Another remarkable line of research that was active for over 35 years was the work of Ian Stevenson who focused mainly on spontaneous cases, especially on the study of children claiming to remember previous lives . . .” Other individuals mentioned were William Braud, Bruce Greyson, and Charles Honorton. One person that we inadvertently omitted was Edwin May, whose work in remote viewing and other areas has spanned several decades. His work was, and is still, very important to the field.
“Although we have not performed a systematic analysis of trends in the literature, it seems to us that the shape of the field has not changed much since the earlier period. Not only are we still emphasizing experimental and quantitative work over spontaneous cases and qualitative approaches, we are still battling armchair skeptics who refuse to do research—a fact that makes the skeptics who do conduct research . . . all the more appreciated. Our primary problems remain: the lack of researchers; the difficulty of obtaining or maintaining a normal academic or scientific life while dedicated to the field; the unavailability of mainstream funding; and the social, financial and intellectual disadvantages of being involved with a hotly contested science.”
“We can say that parapsychological research is more varied, more interdisciplinary, and more international than in the earlier period. More of our articles now appear in mainstream journals in psychology, physics, and other disciplines . . . Our research constituencies have also broadened: Instead of the small group of parapsychologists who published mainly in parapsychology journals, today researchers in our field have wider professional identifications and broader agendas.”
“While proof-oriented studies are still conducted, many of us have set that issue aside to investigate the features of claimed experiences, and the psychological correlates of experients and successful experimental participants. The importance of clinical research and its integration into clinical practice has also increased.”
“Still, with the weight of continued criticism and the debilitating advent of organized skepticism, it does not seem likely that the field will be accepted as a part of any mainstream science any time soon.” We believe that we are realistic, and not pessimistic. Nonetheless, there has been growth in the field. Some areas not focusing on evidentiality, we wrote, may fare better.
In addition to casting a wide net and going beyond research, we also tried to transcend the English-language bias prevalent in the field. That is, we included references to work published in languages such as French, Italian, and German. Examples include citations to Belz, Biondi, Bouflet, Cassoli, Evrard, Hövelmann, Iannuzzo, Machado, and Zangari.
Due to space limitations we were not able to cover everything we wanted, but it is fair to say that one of the editors gave us some extra and greatly appreciated pages. Our work was mainly one of summarizing trends, of presenting the big picture and offering plenty of bibliographical references for those wishing to explore the topics in more depth. As one of the authors I can only wonder what developments will come a few decades from now.