I am currently working on a textbook for psychology undergraduates. One of the reviewers who commented on the original proposal I submitted recommended that it should include a section on parapsychology. They have a point. One of the reasons I was so interested in psychology as a student was that I was wanted to learn about the paranormal. At that point, I had not yet developed a skeptical view and still held open the possibility that there was something to it. It did not take long to discover that parapsychology was pretty much discredited in the scientific community though I hasten to add there are still a small number of parapsychologists working in university departments up and down the country. (I met a number of them at the Beliefs conference I organized at Trinity College, Cambridge back in March)
Interest in the paranormal is not going to go away so maybe the best way to address it is to cover the topic in a textbook. Last week Chris French wrote a piece in The Guardian about the plan to introduce teaching on parapsychology as part of the A-level syllabus in the UK. Chris works in the field of anomalistic psychology which according to his website at Goldsmith’s College in London is,
“.. the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those which are often labelled “paranormal”. It is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved. It entails attempting to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors.”
In other words, trying to understand why people believe in the unbelievable! I think that this is a welcome development as it pretty much addresses critical thinking and how best to go about designing experiments to test the validity of paranormal claims. That could be a valuable lesson for science students to learn as the methodology and statistics involved in analysing evidence for the paranormal is often very sophisticated.
On the other hand, paranormal claims have been tested over and over and over again with no reliable evidence for anything that cannot be explained by natural accounts. And before any of you start sending me your “explain that then” stories, the plural of anecdote is not data. Everytime I get a public lecture, I invariably get the “Prove it doesn’t exist” (logical impossibility) or “So how does your theory explain my Auntie Angus story?”
So my concern is that by writing about paranormal studies in a textbook is simply going to lend credibility to the notion that parapsychology is worthy of being taken seriously. And where does one draw the line? Should we also cover ghosts, witches and goblins? As much as I enjoy writing about it and as entertaining and fascinating as belief in the supernatural is, I don’t think that it will make my textbook.