Professor Chris French is the Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is also a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society. His main current area of research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. He frequently appears in the media casting a skeptical eye over paranormal claims. He edited The Skeptic magazine for more than a decade and sometimes writes for the Guardian’s online science pages.
Ever since records began, people have reported strange experiences that appear to contradict our conventional scientific understanding of the universe. These have included reports that appear to support the possibility of life after death, such as near-death experiences, ghostly encounters and apparent communication with the dead, as well as claims by various individuals that they possessed mysterious powers such as the ability to read minds, see into the future, obtain information from remote locations without the use of the known sensory channels, or to move objects by willpower alone. Such accounts are accepted as veridical by most of the world’s population in one form or another and claims relating to miraculous healing, alien abduction, astrological prediction and the power of crystals are also accepted by many. Belief in such paranormal claims is clearly an important aspect of the human condition. What are we to make of such accounts from a scientific perspective?
Should we accept at least some of these claims more or less at face value? That is to say, should we accept that extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK), and life after death are all real? Parapsychologists have systematically investigated such phenomena for around 130 years but have so far failed to convince the wider scientific community that this is the case. The eminent scientists and intellectuals who founded the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 were convinced that, with the tools of science at their disposal, they would settle the issue one way or another within a few years. Clearly, that has not happened. Instead, parapsychology has been characterised by a series of ‘false dawns’ during which it has been declared that at last a technique has been developed which can reliably show under well-controlled conditions that paranormal effects are real. With time, however, the technique falls out of favour as subsequent research fails to replicate the initially reported effects and methodological shortcomings become apparent.
The latest candidate for such a ‘false dawn’ is a series of relatively straightforward experiments reported by Daryl Bem in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In eight of nine experiments, involving more than a thousand participants in total, Bem reported significant results suggesting that human beings are able in some way to sense events before they happen. For example, the study which produced the largest effect size appeared to show that participants are able to recall more words if they rehearse them than if they do not – even if the rehearsal does not take place until after recall has been tested! As so often happens, these controversial findings received widespread coverage in the mainstream science media. However, subsequent attempts at replication have failed, including a study involving three independent replication attempts carried by Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire), Stuart Ritchie (University of Edinburgh), and myself (Goldsmiths, University of London).
If paranormal forces really do not exist, how are we to explain the widespread belief in them and the sizeable minority of the population who claim to have had direct personal experience of paranormal phenomena? One possible answer is that there are certain events and experiences which may appear to involve paranormal phenomena but which can in fact be fully explained in non-paranormal, usually psychological, terms. This is the approach adopted by anomalistic psychologists. In general, anomalistic psychologists attempt to explain such phenomena in terms of known psychological effects such as hallucinations, false memories, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, placebo effects, suggestibility, reasoning biases and so on. It is noteworthy that anomalistic psychologists have, in just a few decades, produced many examples of replicable effects that adequately explain a range of ostensibly paranormal phenomena.
Anomalistic psychology is definitely on the rise. Not only is it now offered as an option on many psychology degree programmes, it is also an option on the most popular A2 psychology syllabus in the UK. Every year more books and papers in high quality journals are published in this area and more conferences and symposia relating to topics within anomalistic psychology are held. There is no doubt that anomalistic psychology is flourishing.
And what of parapsychology? The health of this discipline is somewhat harder to assess but apart from the occasional ray of hope offered by the latest false dawn, the situation does not look encouraging for parapsychologists. Funding for such research is inevitably more difficult to obtain in times of economic uncertainty. Scarce research funding will be invested in areas where the probability of success is high – and the history of parapsychology shows all too clearly that studies in this area often involve huge investments of time and resources and produce nothing in return. Without a genuine breakthrough in the near future, can parapsychology survive for much longer? Without psychic powers, it’s difficult to know but I certainly would not bet on it.