Science and Psychic Phenomena

Book Excerpt – Science and Psychic Phenomena – by Chris Carter

Chapter Nine

The Roots of Disbelief

Say this about assertions that aliens have been, are or will soon be landing on Earth: at least a scenario like that of “Independence Day” would not violate any laws of nature. In contrast, claims in other fringe realms, such as telepathy and psychokinesis, are credible only if you ignore a couple or three centuries of established science.

–Sharon Begely, “Science on the Fringe,” Newsweek, July 1996


Remarks such as the one from Sharon Begely’s article are common in the skeptical literature. Such remarks are based on the assumption that the existence of psi phenomena is somehow incompatible with fundamental, well-established scientific principles. So, no matter what evidence the parapsychologists produce, the skeptics stoically maintain their denial and doggedly search for any possible counterexplanation. As we have seen, Ray Hyman has simply run out of plausible counterexplanations, yet he refuses to accept the latest results from a long line of experiments as conclusive. He seemed to consider himself the spokesperson for mainstream scientists when he wrote recently in the Skeptical Inquirer: “What seems clear is that the scientific community is not going to abandon its fundamental ideas about causality, time and other principles on the basis of a handful of experiments whose findings have yet to be shown to be replicable and lawful.” (At the time Hyman wrote this article [1996] the “handful of experiments” included 61 independent Ganzfeld experiments, 2,094 PK experiments using random event generators, and hundreds of other experiments involving tossing dice, dream research, and remote viewing.) Although surveys consistently show that most people either accept the reality of ESP or have had psychic experiences themselves, remarks such as this in the skeptical literature can give one the impression that all such phenomena are “scientifically impossible.”


But many mainstream scientists do not hold this opinion. Two surveys of more than 500 scientists in one case and more than 1,000 in another were made in the 1970s. Both surveys found that the majority of respondents considered ESP “an established fact” or “a likely possibility”: 56 percent in one and 67 percent in the other. Yet if most scientists are open to the possibility of psi, how can we account for the following story?

Robert Jahn was dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University and a noted authority on aerospace engineering with a long record of work for NASA and the Department of Defense when he decided that certain parapsychological problems were worth investigating. Did his colleagues applaud his pioneering spirit? Not exactly. They as much as said he was crazy and a disgrace to science and the university. The university even convened an ad hoc committee to oversee his research–something unheard of for a scientist of his stature.


And yet not all scientists reacted this way, as Jahn pointed out in a 1983 address to the Parapsychology Association. Referring to his Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program, he said, “We have had commentary on our program from no less than six Nobel laureates, two of whom categorically reject the topic, two of whom encouraged us to push on, and two of whom were categorically evasive. So much for unanimity of high scientific opinion.”


However, despite the willingness of many scientists to express favorable opinions toward psi research, parapsychology courses are not routinely taught at universities; there are only two labs conducting full-time psi research in the United States, and only a handful of such labs in the entire world. One explanation for this (and for Robert Jahn’s experience) is that skeptical opinions of psi seem more common among the administrative elite than among ordinary working scientists. Sociologist Dr. James McClenon surveyed the council and selected section committees of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1981. He found that these scientists were more skeptical of ESP than scientists in general, with just under 30 percent believing that ESP was “an established fact” or “a likely possibility.” Surveyed members in the social sciences (where parapsychology courses would normally be categorized) were even more skeptical (20 percent believers) than those in the natural sciences (30 percent believers). Worried about the reputation of their schools and labs, administrators seem far more reluctant to express favorable opinions of psi research than ordinary working scientists.


The skepticism of those who run the scientific establishment is surely one reason why, throughout its history, the resources devoted to psi research have been extremely meager. Psychologist Sybo Schouten compared the funding directed toward parapsychology over the one hundred years spanning 1882 to 1982 and found that it was approximately equal to the expenditures of two months of conventional psychological research in the United States in 1983. The other reason funding is difficult to come by is that many private and public funding agencies have no wish to be associated with what the skeptics call “pseudoscience.” Is it any wonder they feel this way? Not when scientific journals continue to publish hostile attacks on the scientific validity of parapsychology. For instance, the prominent journal Nature published the following in a commentary by skeptical psychologist David Marks:

Parascience has all the qualities of a magical system while wearing the mantle of science. Until any significant discoveries are made, science can justifiably ignore it, but it is important to say why: parascience is a pseudo-scientific system of untested beliefs steeped in illusion, error, and fraud.

Clearly then, many scientists find the claims of parapsychology disturbing. The existence of psi implies that the minds of people can sometimes communicate, perceive events, and influence objects without the use of the five ordinary senses or their limbs. Science in its present state cannot explain these phenomena. This in itself should not be a problem: there are plenty of other phenomena that science cannot currently explain, such as consciousness, the placebo effect, and the fact that the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating. But is the existence of psi in conflict with well-established scientific principles?

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