Should We Teach About the Paranormal?

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.

17 Comments

Filed under General Thoughts

17 responses to “Should We Teach About the Paranormal?

  1. If you have a chapter on evaluating experimental evidence, why not include an example of popular and empirically tested paranormal claims – showing how they were tested and what the tests showed.

    If the example is presented as one of two or three (the others being more mainstream hypotheses that have been rejected for lack of evidence), then you aren’t elevating the paranormal claims above other claims. Meanwhile, you’re showing how easy it is to dismiss such claims if the evidence fails to support them.

  2. podblack

    Absolutely. I’d say that there’s several courses world-wide crying out for such a textbook. I attended the online Parapsychology course by Dr Caroline Watt and thought it was a fantastic opportunity. Balancing the curriculum with several contributors from ‘both sides’ made it really engaging and very useful.
    http://www.koestler-parapsychology.psy.ed.ac.uk/cwatt/OSTeach.html

  3. podblack

    Actually, I’d be interested in your opinion of Parapsychology vs Anomalistic Psychology. What does it say when you ‘change the label’ somewhat and the approach? Could you appease the critic you had by saying ‘well, I’ll do an Anomalistic chapter…’?

    • brucehood

      Chris French addresses this in his article but I think that basically parapsychologists tend to be interested in testing the reality of the phenomena (with a strong inclination that there is something to be investigated) whereas anomalistic psychologists are more interested in understanding the origin of the belief. So guess that makes me a bit of anomaly! never considered myself so.

  4. Lu

    I love that: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” That made me chuckle.

    Are you still up for that interview, one of these days? Time definitely got away from me this summer!

  5. I think it’d be fascinating. As someone who suffered the most tedious psychology lectures in the Western hemisphere at university, I’d have welcomed a few goblins and witches into the mix to liven things up. Or turn the lecturer into a toad, either or.

  6. jacarandamimosafilia

    I just really want to know how someone’s Auntie got to be called Angus. There’s a backstory about men in kilts in there somewhere.

    The plural of anecdote is, surely, ‘grant opportunities’.

    • brucehood

      LOL… you should be my copy editor though the way the current controversy over the African runner is going, then maybe it is Auntie Angus!

  7. I agree with Tim Mills.

    A few examples of how skepticism can be applied to demonstrate the possible reality behind strange phenomena would be enlightening.

  8. Autymn D. C.

    Ghosts are more than anecdotes. They show up on magnetic and elèctric gear, film, tape, thermometers. Dogs see them. Kids see them.

    Reincarnation also leaves behind paranomic/juxtanormic clues in kids: birthmarks of past death, csenoglossy, past memories.

    Homeopathy had a few journal papers in support of watter’s memory effects after succussion, and its allotropism. After John Benneth of theproving@eGroups gave his experiment to Randi, he wouldn’t take, and said it was too long or complicated…

  9. At the same time, I’ve seen more and more the idea that “A strange experience, or strange perception of an experience does NOT equal pathology.” is becoming common.

    “Hey, sometimes weird stuff happens, or we perceive something as weird when it isn’t that unusual, and it’s OK.”

    People used to be AFRAID to get medical or psyc eval if they had a haunting experience… and sometimes that experience can tell something is going on either medically (sleep apnea!) or psychologically (stress, unresolved grief) and these things can be treated, and the subject told, “it’s X, and whether or not your mom’s ghost came to your room and talked to you, IT IS OK and within the normal range of experience.”

  10. Mark

    I think whether or not the inclusion of parapsychological studies lends credence to them depends entirely on how you treat those studies. You might get a positive result if you point out which studies started with the preconception that the phenomenon they were investigating was real, or point out the reasons against doing research into claims for which the prior probability is extremely low.

    Or maybe even point out the many kinds of phenomena which were once considered paranormal, but which are now seen as completely normal, even if not fully understood (e.g., sleep paralysis).

    And I think we should cover goblins, witches and ghosts. Not as real phenomena, but as the subjective experiences of real people. As part of psychology as a whole, not parapsychology. Which is part of what you do, isn’t it, Bruce?

    • brucehood

      I agree Mark, in fact, I am introducing such a course next year for 3 year undergraduates – guess what their required reading will be! shameless I know but I need to sell books🙂

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