article by Carlos Alvarado Ph.D. was originally published in the
Parapsychology, Vol. 67, Fall 2003 (pp. 211-248). It is presented here with
the kind permission of the author, Prof. Alvarado, and
John Palmer, Ph.D.,
editor of Journal of Parapsychology.
A 12-part version of this article is also
There are many aspects of being a
parapsychologist. The most satisfying are our contributions to knowledge, which
stand even in the face of controversy. Other issues include types of individuals
in parapsychology, education and training, conceptual approaches, how we
experience working in parapsychology, reasons for being in the field and
legitimation strategies used by parapsychologists. While some are in
parapsychology because of the potential support of non-materialistic aspects of
personality, others believe they may find conventional explanations still not
recognized by science. Parapsychologists harm their cause when they make
excessive claims about their research results, when they do no publish in
refereed journals and when they fail to follow up specific lines of research.
All of these issues are a part of the identity and work of parapsychologists.
ALTHOUGH THERE is an international community devoted to the study of psi
phenomena, there are few discussions about aspects of parapsychology as a
profession and about our experiences as parapsychologists. In what follows I
would like to offer some thoughts about some of these issues. The address is not
meant to be a systematic or exhaustive discussion of the topic. Instead I
present it as thoughts designed to raise issues, many of which may not have a
clear cut answer. My comments will focus on such topics as the accomplishments
of our profession, the variety of parapsychologists, education and training, how
it feels to be in the field, why we are in the field, approaches and strategies
of parapsychologists, and problematic behaviors of parapsychologists.
For some exceptions see McClenon (1982), McConnell and Clark (1980), Milton
(1995), J. B. Rhine (1944), Schmeidler (1971), and Smith (1999). Go to
2. The Parapsychological Community and their
would like to start with a positive message. Our efforts as parapsychologists
have contributed to knowledge in significant ways. I argue that we can be proud
of the following:
First: The findings of parapsychology serve as a reminder that there is much
more to learn about human functioning than the behavioral sciences suggest. Over
a hundred years ago Frederic W. H. Myers (1900) stated that the duty of
psychical researchers was "the expansion of science herself" (p. 123). Much of
our work suggests that the communication with the environment we refer to as ESP
and PK requires at least an extension of current physics and psychology. In
other words, there is more to human capabilities than official science teaches.
Parapsychological research serves as a reminder of other possibilities, of
challenges we only hope science at large will take on. Certainly official
science has not accepted that we have established the reality of phenomena that
require an expansion of physical and psychological principles. Nonetheless, I
Emily Kelly (2001) when she states: "If psychical research does
nothing more than continually shake complacent assumptions about fundamental
questions concerning mind, consciousness, volition, that alone is a significant
contribution to science" (p. 86).
Second: In addition to extending the reach of human abilities, parapsychology
has documented the frequency and complexity of the features of the phenomena it
studies and has thus contributed to the overall knowledge of experiences studied
by psychology and psychiatry. Our studies show that claims of psychic
experiences are more common than previously realized. In addition these studies
document the variety of human experience and thus expand the views of their
range derived from the behavioral sciences. This includes such "new" experiences
as waking and dream ESP, apparitions of the dead, deathbed visions,
poltergeists, out-of-body experiences (OBEs), and near-death experiences (NDEs).
When one gets into the study of the features of the experiences, the forms ESP
takes, the complex patterns of features found in apparitions and in OBEs and
NDEs, one realizes our field has contributed much to the cataloging and mapping
of a variety of experiences and states of consciousness (Alvarado,
1994). Some of this work, including Sybo Schouten's (1979) analyses of ESP
experiences and my own work with OBEs (Alvarado &
1998-99), shows the
further complexity of the experiences by documenting the interaction of its
features with other features and with external variables.
This view of complexity is further enhanced when we pay attention to our past
history and study the investigations conducted around mental mediums. The
detailed studies that Théodore Flournoy (1900) conducted with medium
Smith and Eleanor
Sidgwick's (1915) analyses of work conducted with medium
Leonora Piper have taught us much about psychological personation, stages and
features of trances, and the imagery involved in the mentation.
Third: Parapsychology has contributed to the development of ideas in psychology.
Some historians of psychology, such as Régine Plas (2000), have argued that
interest and research in psychic phenomena were an important element in the
development of psychology. In fact, Plas argues that interest in the
subconscious mind in France was intimately related to interest in telepathy and
the like, as seen in the work of Pierre Janet and
Charles Richet, among others.
The early work of members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England
contributed much to the development of ideas of the subconscious mind as well as
to the study of dissociation. This was particularly true of the work of
Gurney and Frederic W. H. Myers (Alvarado,
Furthermore, parapsychology has contributed much to the development of ideas
about the mind, particularly those which treat the mind-body problem and ideas
of the non-physical. Examples of this are the ideas Myers (1903) stated in his
hundred-year-old classic Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death as
well as the later speculations made by such figures as
William McDougall (1911)
J. B. Rhine (1947),
Robert Thouless and B. P. Wiesner (1947),
John Beloff (1990).
There is also a beginning of studies of the transformative effects of
parapsychological experiences, a topic parapsychologists have been reticent to
study. But we have made contributions to the study of personal transformations
related to psychic experience, as seen in the work of
Palmer (1979), Kennedy and Kanthamani (1995), and in my own work with OBEs (Alvarado & Zingrone,
of which have been published in parapsychological journals.
In recent times most of the studies on the relationship of out-of-body
experiences to psychological processes or experiences such as dissociation
2000) and dreams (Alvarado & Zingrone, 1999), as well as studies of the
features of the experience (Alvarado & Zingrone,
1998-99, 1999), have been
published in parapsychology journals. There is no doubt that, as I have argued
elsewhere, most of the contributions to our understanding of the psychology of
OBEs have come from parapsychologists (Alvarado, 1992). In fact OBE work
represents one of our most recent contributions to psychology and to the more
specific area of altered states of consciousness. This is evident in Imants
Baruss's (2003) recently published book Alterations of Consciousness. In fact,
in this book, published by the American Psychological Association, the
contributions of parapsychologists to the study of consciousness are presented
in more detail than I have ever seen before in psychological publications.
Fourth: The results of parapsychological research have helped to combat
superstition and to evaluate popular claims. There are many ideas and traditions
about psychic phenomena that have been regarded as superstitions. One of them is
the relationship between death and psychic phenomena, a relationship supported
in the case of apparitions in such early studies as the Census of Hallucinations
(e.g., Sidgwick et al., 1894). In addition, these associations have been
reinforced, although by work that admittedly suffered from sampling problems.
This includes case collections studies of death-related phenomena by
Ernesto Bozzano (1923) and
Camille Flammarion (1920-1921/1922-1923), and more recent
work by Graziela Piccinini and Gian Marco Rinaldi (1990) and Sylvia Hart Wright
The claim that mediums can communicate with the dead has not been substantiated,
but a variety of studies from the nineteenth century to our own time have
produced evidence for the acquisition of veridical statements by mediums (for an
overview see Gauld, 1982). In other instances, such as the investigations of the
levitation claims of practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, there has been
no supportive evidence to back the claims in question (Mishlove, 1983).
The evaluation of Transcendental Meditation claims brings us to the testing of
psychic development claims. Two studies done in the 1970s did not support the
claims of followers of Silva Mind Control (Brier, Schmeidler, & Savits, 1975;
Vaughan, 1974). This is an important line of research in which parapsychologists
may contribute useful information to consumers of development programs.
In addition, many of the early discussions in which automatic writing was seen
as the production of the subconscious mind were published in psychical research
journals by Frederic W. H. Myers (1884) and
William James (1889). This
contributed to the idea that not everything that appears to come from discarnate
spirits is necessarily so. Our contributions to demystify all kind of claims are
particularly important in terms of public education.
Fifth: Our researchers have used and pioneered statistical techniques to study
phenomena. Philosopher and skeptic Ian Hacking (1988) has argued that early use
of randomization and probability calculations took place in the context of
nineteenth-century studies of telepathy. A particularly influential paper was
that published by Charles Richet (1884) in the Revue Philosophique which
inaugurated the use of probability theory in psychical research at a time when
psychologists were using statistical methods only infrequently. Following this,
British researchers continued the use of statistical calculations in such
classic works dealing with spontaneous experiences as Phantasms of the Living
(Gurney, Myers, & Podmore, 1886) and the Census of Hallucinations (Sidgwick, et
al., 1894), not to mention experimental work. Later parapsychologists, from H.
F. Saltmarsh and S. G. Soal (1930), J. Gaither Pratt (1936), and Charles Stuart
(1942), and later contributions (summarized by Burdick and Kelly, 1977),
developed methods by which to evaluate experimental free-response material
quantitatively. It may be argued that the best of our current techniques may be
adapted to aspects of the study of subliminal perception, unconscious learning,
and dream and waking imagery.
Sixth: Parapsychology has also contributed to the study of fraud and
self-deception. Instructive cases have been reported since the nineteenth
century. This includes a mediumship case with no apparent motivation of fraud
reported by Henry Sidgwick (1894) and the efforts taken by several members of a
community to convince one individual of poltergeist manifestations discussed by
Hereward Carrington (n.d., pp. 2-19). More recently we could mention the
writings of Ejvegaard and Johnson (1981) on an apparition case, Delanoy (1987)
on metal bending, and Stevenson and colleagues (Stevenson, Pasricha &
Samararatne, 1988) on cases of the reincarnation-type.
It is important to recognize that the above-mentioned contributions have been
made under extremely difficult conditions. Individuals coming from other
disciplines such as medicine, physics, psychology, or biology are often unaware
of how easy they have it in their fields, enjoying all kinds of resources
supportive of their work. Regardless of the usual problems with resources
everywhere, I do not think anyone tan dispute that, in a large measure, they
enjoy much higher levels of funding than we do. Furthermore, except in small or
developing research specialties, mainstream scientists have never faced the
serious personnel problems we face in parapsychology. We have never had enough
people working in the field, especially full-time workers.
3. Personnel in Parapsychology
his Presidential Address to the Society for Psychical Research in 1900,
W. H. Myers noted that the early work of the Society had only a "small company
of labourers" that was not enough to accomplish the necessary work (Myers, 1900,
p. 123). In 1955 J. Fraser Nicol said that there were less than ten full-time
parapsychologists (Nicol, 1955). In the mid 1970s Lawrence LeShan (1976)
estimated that there were less than 30 full-time workers in the field. More
recently, Matthew Smith (1999) argued that the number of full-time
parapsychologists in the field was less than the number of people employed in a
medium-sized McDonald's fast food restaurant.
Historically speaking, the field of parapsychology has always depended on small
groups of individuals. During the early years of the SPR most of the research
work was conducted by Edmund Gurney and
Frederic W. H. Myers, as well as by
Eleanor Sidgwick and
William Barrett. The magnitude and range of this early work
was remarkable, as was its depth and quality. One only has to examine the two
major nineteenth century works of the Society (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886;
Sidgwick et al., 1894) to realize how much attention was given by a small group
of psychical researchers to studies that helped to shape the course of
The dependence of parapsychology on the work of a few individuals can be
documented in other countries and organizations. In the United States there was
a period when James H. Hyslop ran the American Society for Psychical Research.
An analysis I conducted of authors of the journal of the society for the
1907-1920 period when Hyslop was active showed that out of 331 articles, 220
(67%) were authored by Hyslop. Similarly, in 1926 French researcher
mentioned that he was the only researcher at the Institut Métapsychique
International at Paris, and he was only joined occasionally by other
collaborators (Osty, 1926, p. 23).
Similarly, another small group at Duke University constructed a new
parapsychology by carrying on an experimental research program of unprecedented
magnitude. Like the SPR, the work conducted at
J. B. Rhine's Parapsychology
Laboratory centered around a small group: Betty Humphrey, J. G. Pratt, J. B.
Rhine, L. E. Rhine (on occasion), and Charles Stuart (Mauskopf & McVaugh, 1980).
Their work focused on methodological and psychological issues and paved the way
for the development of modern experimental parapsychology.
Current research units and organizations around the world work with very small
staffs. Examples include the Rhine Research Center, the Division of Personality
Studies, and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory in the
United States, the Koestler Parapsychology Unit in Scotland, Inter Psi and the
Centro Integrado de Parapsicologia Experimental in Brazil, and the Instituto de
Psicología Paranormal in Argentina. Many modern examples of the relatively
important influence of a few individuals on the course of our field may also be
cited. There is no question, for example, that the systematic work of Gertrude
Schmeidler on beliefs in ESP and ESP scoring (Schmeidler & McConnell, 1958), of
Ian Stevenson (1974a) with reincarnation cases, of
William Roll (1972) with
poltergeist cases, and of
Charles Honorton with experimental explorations (e.g.,
1997) and with discipline-building literature reviews of ESP and
altered states of consciousness (e.g., Honorton, 1977), did much to develop the
field and to build research specialties in modern times. This reliance on a few
individuals encourages creativity from a few gifted researchers, but it also
brings us problems. Whole lines of work may surfer greatly or even disappear
with the death or retirement of a single individual. Such reliance on a few
workers deprives us of the work force and community that more established
disciplines have. This community is essential to produce basic research, to
replicate research, to refine our techniques and instruments, and to provide the
general correctives that other disciplines have but that are underdeveloped in
Most of the parapsychologists who are PA members and who present papers at PA
conventions are not full-time workers in the field. In a paper Tart presented in
1967 in which he surveyed PA members he found they spent only 10% of their time
in parapsychology (Parapsychology in 1967, 1969, p. 7). More recently,
(1989) reported an average percent working time in parapsychology of 49%, out of
a small sample of 18 parapsychologists. It seems that most of us only devote a
fraction of our working time to parapsychology. This is not surprising
considering the following well known facts. First, we have almost no
institutions that can afford to employ someone full-time. Second, there are very
few opportunities for financial support in parapsychological research. Third,
those employed in academia are usually expected to do more than parapsychology,
such as teaching other subject matters. Fourth, in many circles association with
parapsychology is a social and an intellectual stigma. As we all know, the
consequences of such a small work force are serious, and only a handful of
research projects are conducted every year, something that hinders our progress.
I believe that, under such conditions, we deserve to feel especially proud of
what we have accomplished.
4. The Variety of Members in the Parapsychological
are other interesting aspects of the profession besides its low numbers of
members. In what follows I focus on
PA parapsychologists, but we should keep in
mind that there are many individuals that are involved in parapsychological
research that do not belong to our Association.
We may refer to some individuals in our community as public workers; that is,
they dare to publicly defend the field or identify themselves with research. In
comparison, there are those individuals who, while helpful privately on
occasion, are not willing to take a stand in public due to such consequences as
losing prestige, jobs, and funding. One wonders what would be the effect of
having those silent allies speak up and more actively defend the field. Support
from formerly silent groups has traditionally been valuable in fights for social
causes and it should not be an exception here. If at least they were willing to
argue for the importance of further research I believe they would make a
difference and would provide a significant help to those of us who have dared
(sometimes paying the price) to identify ourselves with parapsychology. While we
can understand the reasons for a lack of public involvement, there is certainly
little to admire in such individuals, considering the courage and sacrifices
continuously shown by many more public parapsychologists.
In my experience this lack of involvement sometimes is accompanied by a tendency
to offer liberal advice and criticism in private.
We may also talk about those few whose main intellectual identity is in
parapsychology and those whose identity lies in other fields. The former
includes such figures as past PA presidents
John Palmer and
and the latter such individuals as
Daryl Bem and Etzel Cardena. As I see it,
both types of workers are important to keep the field going. Research is not
necessarily better because it comes from one group or the other. Important
contributions may come from either group. Still, we need to recognize the
strength of each group. To maintain a professional field we need the first
group. These are the individuals who present research yearly at PA conventions,
a smaller number of whom make the administration of the PA possible and who edit
the journals of the field. The second group I refer to is usually in a good
position to help us reach the wider scientific world because of their political
connections and prestige. This was evident in the publication of the initial Bem
and Honorton (1994) ganzfeld paper in the Psychological Bulletin and in the
recent book Varieties of Anomalous Experience published by the American
Psychological Association and edited by Cardena and others (Cardena, Lynn &
There is, of course, another group of individuals that have mixed identities.
Half of their time they are psychologists, psychiatrists, physicists, or other
professions, and the other half they are parapsychologists.
Another interesting and sometimes discussed distinction is made between
professionally trained and amateur workers.
J. B. Rhine (1953a) drew that
distinction and argued for the importance of amateurs. Certainly we have to be
careful to avoid the arrogant position that claims only those persons with
specific formal university training can contribute to parapsychology. I would
prefer the sagacity, talent and experience of some field investigators who
research hauntings and mediumship claims (e.g., Cornell,
2001) over the opinion
of many other workers who hold graduate degrees from universities but have no
experience in the field. Having specific training and degrees are no guarantee
of common sense or creativity, particularly in such a difficult discipline as
our own. At the same time, we also need to use the best techniques and
approaches of science in order to understand better our phenomena. In today's
modern world it is difficult to make sense of something like ESP or PK without
drawing on the accumulated knowledge of the sciences and their research
techniques, efforts which require formal training. Sometimes this creates
problems when some individuals argue that research is too technical, full of
methods, techniques, and terms that are not understood by the uninitiated. Part
of the problem here may be that, as Emilio Servadio (1966) once said,
parapsychology attracts people who do not have scientific training and who may
not care about the requirements of science. Servadio complained about amateurs
performing "experiments" that in reality "have as much in common with science as
a child's scrawl with an architect's carefully studied blueprint" (p. 68).
Sometimes these issues arise in the context of understanding the importance of
conducting research that teaches us something about a phenomenon as opposed to
research done only to document dramatic performances or the mere existence of a
1996d). In any case, amateurs may still exist in our field
more than they do in other such fields such as psychology and physics because
these other fields have had the acceptance of society and, consequently, the
possibility and the means of becoming a professional discipline. The lack of professsionalization in parapsychology sets us apart from those other
disciplines. This leads us to the topic of the next section, the problem of
education and training.
5. Education and Training in Parapsychology
all know the profession of parapsychology is not regulated. There are no
certification programs or organizations, nor any way to control the use of the
term parapsychologist. In many phone books, and on the Internet, the term
parapsychologist is used as a synonym for psychic. In some places, such as
Brazil, there have been attempts to define the profession legally, but without
success (Hiraoka, 2002).
Most parapsychologists come to the field from other areas of science or of
academia. As is well known, most people in the field do not have an educational
background in parapsychology in the same way that members of other disciplines
have in their own fields.
McConnell and Clark (1980) reported in their survey of
PA members that only five out of 203 respondents claimed doctoral training in
parapsychology as their main area of training. The situation is better now due
to Robert Morris's efforts at the University of Edinburgh, as well as to the
efforts of Deborah Delanoy and others at universities in the UK (Smith,
But most researchers in the field today have not been trained in parapsychology
and basically conduct research based on their training in psychology,
psychiatry, physics, and other disciplines, as well as on their own private
study of the parapsychological literature. This is all good in terms of
techniques and general scientific philosophy. Formal training in research from
another field can certainly be applied to parapsychology, as many of us know
from personal experience. In fact, this is essential for progress. In addition,
it is not uncommon for some scientists to shift research areas, for which they
self-train themselves by gaining knowledge of the relevant literature and
methodology through personal study.
While I do not doubt training from other disciplines applies well to
parapsychology, I worry about the lack of a parapsychological education in some
of the workers in the field. I am using the word education here as a wider
construct than training to include an overarching perspective that is formed out
of a sense of identity, and of general knowledge of the field. It is unfortunate
to note that some individuals active in our field are so highly specialized that
they barely know anything outside of their own narrow specialty area. This
produces serious problems. For example, there are some experimental ESP
researchers and researchers in areas related to the concept of survival of
bodily death that have little or no idea what goes on in the rest of
parapsychological research. However, both sides could learn from each other
about the complexity of psychic phenomena. Views about the nature of ESP that
come from experimental studies and nothing else provide only part of the picture
1996c). As seen in such studies as
Steve Braude's (2003) recently
published analysis of survival evidence, psi functioning in survival contexts is
certainly different in the way it manifests in the laboratory and shows
different levels of complexity, at least in terms of the forms of the
manifestations. While this work may expand the views of experimentalists,
experimental work is also important to the evaluation of survival evidence. This
work tells us something about the capabilities of the living that will help us
evaluate survival evidence. Unfortunately, some people interested in survival
are not aware of this work.
Do we have a general view of the variety and origins of theoretical concepts?
What relevant work was conducted on our subject by the previous generation? As I
documented 21 years ago in a paper published in the Journal of the Society for
Psychical Research (Alvarado,
1982), there are many examples of publications in
our field that show lack of familiarity with the history of our methods, and
with previous findings and concepts. This is why I have devoted part of my
career in parapsychology to reminding others of the richness of the literature
of the past, be this in terms of specific phenomena or issues (e.g., Alvarado,
1989a), of more general considerations of social aspects (e.g., Alvarado,
1989c), or of the importance of particular concepts or agents of change (e.g.,
It has been disappointing to me that younger workers in the
field still have to be reminded of the existence and careers of recently
deceased parapsychologists, or that these younger workers still have to be told
that some of their interests have been discussed before in great detail by those
that preceded them. Unfortunately, this lack of perspective is not limited to
the youngest workers of the field. Some experienced researchers also show this
tendency to myopia, nor is this a historical situation uncommon in other
scientific fields. Still, one would expect that anyone who considered themselves
a practicing parapsychologist would want to have a general knowledge, if not a
detailed one, of the history of one's own specialty and of areas of the field
outside of it. The lack of familiarity with our shared past has practical
implications in that much of what has gone before would help current researchers
to generate hypotheses, and to refine theoretical models and evaluate the work
of others (see Alvarado,
This criticism should not be taken to imply that everyone should be a scholar in
the past literature of parapsychology, nor that this will solve out current
problems. As I argued in the twenty-one-year-old paper cited above, I do not
consider the study of our past literature to be a substitute for contemporary
research. The issue instead is one of context; current work should be carried
out by those who are well-informed about the relevant past developments of the
But more than this is included in the meaning of the word education. Being
educated not only means knowing how best to collect and analyze data, nor having
simple knowledge of antecedents in the literature. Instead, being educated means
being aware of continuities and discontinuities in the development of
parapsychological ideas and having a familiarity with philosophical,
psychological, and general existential issues of the field. In other words,
being educated means having a commitment or at least an understanding to the
collective identity of parapsychology as a field, even to the point of
acknowledging the well-known difficulties to the achievement of consensus on
many substantive issues.
There is a parapsychological culture and identity that you find in some workers
in the field but not in others. It is a quality that allows us to go beyond our
research specialty, beyond the technical aspects of our research to the wider
picture of our professional identity, and, of course, to the implications of our
work. Having this sense of the field is an identity that stands in stark
contrast to the identity of those who see the field just as a technical
specialty for data crunching, or a mere intellectual curiosity.
The lack of this deeper sense of what the profession is comes, to some extent,
from the contemporary tendency of specialization or overspecialization in our
professions. But also it comes from the lack of organized educational programs
that provide systematic exposure to different aspects of the field. In terms of
professionalization parapsychologists are hybrids; we are a community formed
from a combination of self-teaching and extrapolation from the training programs
of other disciplines. In spite of recent educational developments and past
discussions of education in the field (Shapin & Coly, 1976; Smith, 1999), the
fact is that there are not many educational programs where a student can be
exposed to a wide range of parapsychological literature. By this I mean
systematic exposure to the range of phenomena of the field, to their
classifications and terminology, to the classic and the contemporary literature,
to the various methods and techniques used in the field now and in the past, to
the historical development of the discipline, and to the wide range of theoretical models presented so far. It is unfortunate that at the moment no single
educational and training program in existence can achieve this goal.
Of course, the lack of educational programs depends to a great extent on the
lack of a numerous and well organized parapsychological profession.
We must also be aware that training and education in parapsychology are
particularly problematic in those geographical regions or countries where
parapsychology is even more underdeveloped than it is in the States and parts of
Europe. In previous writings I have discussed several problems Latin American
parapsychologists face (e.g., Alvarado,
1996b, 2002b). One of these is the lack
of general training in scientific research. Some of those engaged in research do
not have training in data collection and analysis, a situation that is rapidly
changing in such countries as Argentina and Brazil. Consequently, compared to
the United States and parts of Europe little scientific research gets done in
Latin America. Instead, most parapsychological work is limited to discussions
from the old literature, to literature reviews, and to conceptual and
theoretical discussions. To further complicate matters many of these
parapsychologists have difficulties reading English. Because most current
research in parapsychology is published in English, this creates additional
serious difficulties in training and educating Latin American
On the wider issue of the language barrier in parapsychology see Alvarado
6. How Does it Feel to be a Parapsychologist?
you can identify with the language barrier faced by Latin American
parapsychologists you will have an idea of the frustrations some members of that
community feel as they attempt to stay current with the literature of the field.
But there are many other aspects to our experiences as parapsychologists.
Many of us, myself included, feel that we are working in an area full of great
potential. In fact, some may even feel that they are pioneers because they are
exploring areas that have great implications for humankind. While S. David Kahn
(1976, p. 213) has suggested that with better replication rates
parapsychologists will lose the romance of being lonely workers in an
unrecognized field, I believe that most of us will not miss his so-called
romance. One of the worst aspects of being a parapsychologist is, in fact,
working in a field where one gets little respect from science and society at
large. Let me illustrate with some personal experiences.
Soon after I returned to Puerto Rico in 1997 after having acquired a Ph.D. in
psychology at the University of Edinburgh for work on a parapsychological topic,
a member of my family handed me a newspaper clipping about local
"parapsychologists" who had recently been convicted and sent to jail. The
clipping in question described how some charlatans had obtained money from some
people under the promise of helping them to use some occult procedures (Cordero,
1997). How would you feel when you find the profession described in such a way
in the press? I felt that I had come home to be identified with charlatans.
In Great Britain, obtaining a Ph.D. in psychology with Robert Morris nets you a
conventional academic job in psychology with the prospects of a conventional
career unfolding before you. In Puerto Rico my degree branded me as a
parapsychologist with little to offer to psychology. I sent my CV to a
university well-known for their federally funded science programs through a
family friend who had contacts at the university only to have the CV returned
almost immediately. From the comments of the family friend, it was obvious that
the university wanted nothing to do with a parapsychologist. In another
institution I was able to teach a graduate level parapsychology course a few
times but it was eventually canceled for lack of students because someone in the
registrar's office who found parapsychology distasteful had told the students
that the course had been closed when it was still open. While others in the
field have had much worse experiences than mine (see Hess,
1992), the ones I had
made my life difficult, especially financially. Even more, such rejections made
me feel marginal in society, and I found myself needing to bolster my spirits by
reminding myself of my belief in the importance of parapsychology.
Another problem we sometimes encounter as parapsychologists is that some
individuals we have contact with want to tell us about our subject matter. As
Charles Richet (n.d./ca 1928) said in the 1920s, when dealing with psychical
research "everybody regards himself as qualified to utter negative or
affirmative opinions which have no more value than if, without being a chemist,
one were to speak to a chemist of the derivations of pyridine, or to a
physicist, of the waves of radium, or to an astronomer, of the heat of the
stars" (p. 28).
You may encounter issues of this sort especially if, as a parapsychologist, you
have contact with the public, many of whom do not like the way in which we study
psychic phenomena. Common objections to us are the overuse of statistical
analyses and the lack of studies with special subjects. Some of those who come
from spiritism, to give a particular example in my experience, are adamant that
we need to go back to the phenomena of mediumship as well as to the ideas of
Gustave Geley, and others. When we take a look at the other pole,
that is, at the critics, we find all kind of skeptical attitudes equally
critical of out work, but in different ways, with emphases on methodological
flaws and logical inconsistencies. The end result is that we feel that we are
stuck in the middle of a battlefield, being attacked on all sides, from New
Agers and spiritists, from well-meaning members of the general public, from an
increasingly hostile mainstream scientific community, and from organized
skepticism. We are in a situation that is far from being pleasant or
comfortable, particularly when it is realized that, with very few exceptions, we
are the only group that takes an empirical approach to the problem by conducting
am aware that the members of the other communities also claim similar problems
and disadvantages (Hess, 1993).
Perhaps the worst parts of being a parapsychologist are the accusations of
fraud. The classic case in modern times is that of George R. Price (1955), who
accused parapsychologists of fraud in the pages of Science. We still find
accusations of fraud directed at researchers who have particularly good results
in the laboratory but more recently such accusations are not published where
they can be refuted. They are merely disseminated through gossip, through
correspondence, or in on-line chat rooms. These accusations are particularly
distressing because they often question someone's integrity without any
evidence. Such accusations are irresponsible and libelous. But the problem is
that once the rumor is out reputations are damaged beyond repair, particularly
outside the field. Price (1972) publicly recanted over 20 years later. But who
remembers that? The damage had been done.
Parapsychologists have cited frequently
Henry Sidgwick's (1882) statement: "We
have done all we can when the critic has nothing left to allege except that the
investigator is in the trick" (p. 12). But wearing this as a badge of honor does
not nullify the negative effects such views can have on our profession. In fact,
incidents of this sort are demoralizing because they remind us how vulnerable we
are to the tactics of irresponsible and unethical critics.
7. Why are we in Parapsychology?
the face of all these unpleasant experiences one may ask why some of us stay in
parapsychology. Obviously many of us must obtain something from the field or
have specific motivations if we stay in it though faced with so many
difficulties. In a recent paper James Carpenter (2002) listed three reasons: to
explain unexplained phenomena, to eventually make practical use of the
phenomena, and to learn more about human nature. In an international survey
published in Spain by Francisco Gavilan Fontanet (1978), the proportion of the
most frequently endorsed reasons given for interest in parapsychology were: 31%
to explain phenomena through the use of the scientific method, 24% to answer
questions about the nature of man, and the meaning of life, death and the
beyond, and 23% personal experiences or the experiences of others.
For some, involvement in the field is certainly a scholarly pursuit of the first
magnitude due to its great intellectual challenge. Perhaps this is why such
philosophers as C. D. Broad (1962) have been concerned with the field. Several
writers have stated that the intellectual and methodological difficulties of
parapsychology make the field particularly challenging, especially as regards
critical thinking. F. C. S. Schiller (1927) argued that for anyone "who wished
to apprehend the real method of science and to appreciate its real difficulties,
there is no better training ground than Psychical Research" (p. 218).
Rhine (n.d., p. 3) commented on the value of parapsychology as a discipline in
which to learn to evaluate new claims and criticisms, a context that provides an
excellent opportunity to develop a scientific mind. Similarly, years later
John Beloff referred to the educational value of parapsychology in this way:
teaches us ... how difficult it is to arrive at any definitive conclusions about
it. It raises for us, in its most acute form, the eternal question: 'What can I
believe?' ... At one instant it will open up for us exciting vistas of new
worlds to be conquered; at the next, it will cause them to vanish again in a
haze of doubts. It forces us to reckon with the almost bottomless duplicity of
our fellow creatures, and yet it forbids us to take refuge in any easy cynicism
no matter how fantastic the case under consideration. In a word, it plays
tug-of-war with us so that we can enjoy neither the peace of mind of the
committed believer nor the complacency of the skeptic (Beloff, 1990, p. 55).
However, there are other reasons. For me it is a question of reminding myself,
and others, of the potential of humankind. It is greatly satisfying to
participate in research as well as to teach students about what may be the most
exciting possibilities of the human mind. It does not matter if we are talking
about ESP scores in the lab or reports of spontaneous cases. Regardless of the
final explanation we will be learning something about the abilities of the mind
to process information in what now seem to us to be unconventional ways. This
will certainly extend our current knowledge. Furthermore, I see parapsychology
as part of the emerging field of positive psychology, a psychology devoted to
growth and strengths, to positive abilities. Unfortunately, however, like other
related areas of psychology, those who identify with positive psychology do not
acknowledge the contributions of parapsychology (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger,
Probably one of the most frequent motivations to be in parapsychology is the
search for different forms of transcendence of physical limitations. The
question here, and one for which such critics as James Alcock (1987) take us to
task, is the use of parapsychology to demonstrate or to suggest that human
beings have a component beyond our material constitution. There is no question
that this has been a driving force in parapsychology. In his seventeenth-century
work Saducismus Triumphatus Joseph Glanvil (1682) saw poltergeists, apparitions,
and other phenomena as evidence of a spiritual world. In his Human Personality
and Its Survival of Bodily Death,
Myers (1903, Vol. 2, p. 257) concluded that
psychic phenomena "prove that between the spiritual and the material worlds an
avenue of communication does in fact exist." Others such as
(1911), J. B. Rhine (1947), Joseph Gaither Pratt (1964),
Charles T. Tart (1979),
John Beloff (1990), and
Ian Stevenson (1981) have emphasized how ESP and other
phenomena are indicative of the existence of the mind independent of the body.
In J. B. Rhine's words: "The psi researches show the natural human mind can
escape physical boundaries under certain conditions ... Accordingly a distinct
difference between mind and matter, a relative dualism, has been demonstrated by
the psi experiments ..." (J. B. Rhine, 1947, p. 205). More recently, Charles
Tart (2002) argued for the importance of the spiritual implications of
However, not everyone is in parapsychology to provide support for dualism or
spirituality. Some have had a physicalistic outlook that does not emphasize the
mind, the spirit, or any form of transcendence. Italian Ferdinando Cazzamalli
(1954) was highly critical of Rhine's emphasis on nonphysicality, preferring to
follow the old psychic force model prevalent in the spiritualistic and some of
the psychical research literatures. Such Soviet scientists as Dubrov and Pushkin
(1982) also upheld physicalistic assumptions. Others, like Dick Bierman (1996),
have been critical of dualism, assuming that physics will eventually explain
psi. For Irvin Child (1976), the fact that parapsychology shows the independence
of the mind from the body was not proved. In his words: "We may eventually
arrive at an understanding of paranormal phenomena that is just as dependent on
physics and chemistry as our understanding of color perception" (p. 117).
8. Approaches to Parapsychology
reasons for being in parapsychology may also inform our approaches to the field.
Those interested in showing the existence of aspects which transcend the
physical existence of human beings may conduct a type of parapsychological
research designed to support those ideas. The studies of Alan Gauld (1968) and
Silvio Ravaldini (1983) on the life and work of
Frederic Myers and
Ernesto Bozzano, respectively, offer us insights on the methods they followed to explore
their passion for the survival issue. Both researchers conducted extensive
bibliographical studies that attempted to combine different types and gradations
of cases in away that would favor the survival perspective. In addition,
Bozzano's (n.d.) desire to prove survival led him to develop his concept of
psychic rapport which separated telepathy from spirit communication through
mediums. In his view, telepathy worked only when there was some type of link
between persons, such as an emotional link or an object in common. In
mediumistic communications it was not unusual to find veridical cases with no
links between the medium and living persons. In these cases, Bozzano argued,
telepathy would not work and the case indicated discarnate agency. More
recently, others have proposed other demarcation criteria between ESP from the
living and survival-related influences (Schwartz, Russek, Nelson, & Barenstsen,
2001; Stevenson, 1974b). Regardless of the validity of these ideas, the point
here is how different conceptual approaches in survival have guided work in the
J. B. Rhine's work is a reminder of the use of parapsychology for particular
purposes. Anyone who has read J. B. Rhine's New World of the Mind (1953b) will
remember that Rhine did not limit his work to a defense of a nonphysical
conception of the human mind from the results of experimental psi research. He
also attempted to extend the implications of his card and dice tests to
religion, philosophy, and more practical issues such as an ethic of behavior and
a rejection of communism.
Another more extreme example is the Catholicism-based parapsychology developed
by Oscar González Quevedo, a Spanish parapsychologist and Jesuit priest living
in Brazil. He argues that parapsychology allows us to arrive at particular
demarcation criteria between the supernatural and the parapsychological
(González Quevedo, 1996; see also Omez, 1956/1958). I believe most of us would
agree that the concept of the supernatural (or the direct influence of God on
the world) is a problematic one, especially in terms of the constant expansion
of science. Furthermore, González Quevedo has argued that phenomena such as ESP
are properties of the soul. Granted this, the powers cannot be manifested
consistently through the human body because the body had lost the property (or
state of grace) for channeling them ([González] Quevedo, 1969/1971, Chapter 36;
see also Wiesinger,
1948/1957). Religious reasoning explains in part why this
author postulates we should not induce nor develop psychic phenomena. Followers
of this system do not conduct empirical studies, depending instead on analyses
of published material. I have also been informed by one of our Brazilian PA
members (Wellington Zangari) that members of González Quevedo's parapsychology
group are not allowed to question his theoretical explanations and that only
members of his inner sanctum are allowed to use his library, which is reputed to
be rich in historical materials. So the religious influence (or mentality)
extends beyond the conceptual into the structure of his organization and the
social roles allowed to his followers. Fortunately for the future of
parapsychology in Brazil, this archaic form of the field is rapidly declining.
The last ten years have seen the rise of a new breed of scientific
parapsychologists in Brazil, all PA members, who are changing the field (Zangari
2001). The most prominent members of this group include Fatima Regina
Machado, Fabio da Silva, and Wellington Zangari.
Another important conceptual issue which divides some parapsychologists from
others is the current dichotomy between those who conduct work following
unconventional or conventional explanatory models (see
Palmer, 1986). For some
the only real parapsychological work is that which is conducted using procedures
that emphasize the interpretation of results as due to such new principles as
novel forms of communication. This explains why parapsychology is defined in the
glossary of the Journal of Parapsychology as the study of "certain paranormal
phenomena," and in turn paranormal is defined as a phenomenon that "exceeds the
limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific
assumptions" (Glossary, 2002, p. 427). Does this mean that to do parapsychology
or to be a parapsychologist one has to focus only on research based on models or
assumptions assumed to represent new forms of communication or new principles of
If we agree to this view we will be defending the idea that it is proper to
define a scientific field by a particular model or at least by a specific
overarching concept. But this is unnecessarily narrow and limiting. Psychology,
for example, has always been formed by a variety of concepts that have coexisted
with other ideas and, on occasion, some have simply been more dominant than
1986). While some practitioners define psychology by their
preferred theoretical orientation it is clear that the field is more than
particular models favored by some of us. For example, traditionally, hypnosis
researchers have been divided between those who claim that hypnosis is an
altered state or a form of dissociation and those who define the phenomena as
social roles (Lynn & Rhue, 1991). No one will say that one perspective is "real"
or "proper" hypnosis research over the other; what we have here are different
ways of explaining phenomena. Psychology encompasses different views of the
nature of the mind, or of human behavior, and the important overarching goal is
to understand the subject matter through any conceptual framework that is
helpful as opposed to defining and limiting the research enterprise to a single
In terms of parapsychology it would be more productive if we defined the field
as the study of some phenomena that we do not understand but that may have a
variety of explanations. One can be a parapsychologist and conduct research
without assuming paranormality as previously defined. Parapsychologists study a
group of phenomena science still does not understand by trying to learn more
about the characteristics of the phenomena and their relationships to other
variables. This work need not be limited to particular assumptions. The task of
parapsychology is to understand the phenomena whether or not their final
explanation is conventional or unconventional. This wider perspective was
evident in the initial goals set by the SPR.
In the now classic Objects of the Society (1882) it was stated that to be in
psychical research "does not imply the acceptance of any particular explanation
of the phenomena investigated, nor any belief as to the operation in the
physical world, of forces other than those recognised by Physical Science" (p.
4). There are different approaches one may take to try to explain psi phenomena.
All are valid and necessary as long as they bring an understanding of the
subject matter. This is why defining a whole field of study only on the basis of
the paranormality of experiences (as previously defined) is short-sighted and may
prevent progress along different fronts. While it is valid to prefer and to
focus on testing specific theoretical models or processes, the tasks of
parapsychology as a whole should be centered on understanding the phenomena
whatever their nature may be and not in solely validating a single explanatory
model. Our task as scientists is to follow the data wherever it takes us.
Science in general has sometimes failed to do this when confronted with claims
such as those of ESP. Parapsychologists should not make the same mistake in
failing to follow alternative explanatory processes just because they are not
Having said this, we also need to remember the importance of those theoretical
views and approaches that challenge our worldviews and that seem unlikely to be
explained by the usual sensory-motor mechanisms; in other words, the paranormal
as defined before. It is precisely those ideas that may bring change and
important discoveries by challenging the established paradigms. I am not arguing
for the abandonment of such views, as long as they are kept empirical. Neither
am I proposing a parapsychology based only on conventional explanations. What I
propose is avoiding a definition of the field solely as a paranormal science, as
9. Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists
may be argued that the emphasis on conventional hypotheses is a strategy some
parapsychologists have used to legitimize our field. Whether or not this is
true, it is important to be aware of the strategies parapsychologists have used
to establish their field, in addition to our understanding of their research
efforts, as McClenon (1982) has said. In fact, legitimizing strategies are the
internal means that researchers use to render the field more acceptable in the
face of so much criticism. One of these devices relates to the way our current
research or concerns are depicted in light of our past. Sometimes our current
work is validated by comparing it to previous work, even to the extent of
distorting the record. An example here is the way in which
J. B. Rhine and
Louisa E. Rhine discussed the work they conducted while they were at Duke
University. In one of her papers L. E. Rhine (1967) argued that it was only
during the modern period that ESP was established enough so as to be used as an
alternative explanation for mediumistic communications, something that could not
be done in the 1920s. But as I have argued in more detail elsewhere (Alvarado,
2003), ESP explanations were certainly taken seriously in the old days. Such a
point of view was clearly not a development coming only from the experimental
work conducted by the Rhines and their associates. Another example: both J. B.
and Louisa Rhine argued that the unconscious nature of ESP only became evident
because of experimental work conducted during the 1940s (J. B. Rhine, 1977; L.
E. Rhine, 1971). While it is true that this work may have supported the idea,
the concept that psi is an unconscious function had been clearly articulated
before the Duke work, as can be seen in Myers's (1903) work. But the Rhines
discussed the idea as if it had been an original invention coming out of their
work, possibly to enhance the importance of the developments related to the Duke
work. The reinvention of concepts and the rewriting of history have been
important in the construction of a modern identity for parapsychologists.
Another way psychical researchers have traditionally tried to deal with their
phenomena has been to draw analogies to other processes of the physical world.
The purpose here has been to show that psychic functioning is part of the
natural world (on the use of metaphors see Williams & Dutton,
1998). The concept
of physical and biological radiations has been applied throughout the history of
mesmerism, Spiritualism, and psychical research to explain ESP, PK, healing,
materializations, and other phenomena. In his recent history of telepathy Luckhurst (2002, pp. 75-92) chronicled some of the early attempts to present
this phenomenon as a force of nature similar to light, electricity and
magnetism. Early exponents of this movement included
William Barrett, who
speculated of telepathy's similarity to electrical induction (1876), and
Crookes, who drew an analogy with such radiations as X rays (1897). Invocation
of the analogies to radio (Warcollier, 1938) also served this function.
The use of value-free terminology has been another method by which we have
attempted to legitimize our field (on terminology in general see Zingrone and
1987). Call it anomalous cognition, delta-afferentation,
perception, paranormal cognition, or ultra perceptive faculty, the attempt here
has been to present a scientific sounding and sometimes theory-free term. But
terms have been used on purpose to emphasize particular views as well. To refer
to processes which transcend the physical world while at the same time interact
with it Myers (1903) gave us such terms as metheterial, psychical invasion, and
psychorrhagy. Richet's (1922) crypthesthesia, Sudre's (1926) prosopopesis and
Roll and Pratt's recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (Pratt & Roll, 1958) were
designed to separate the conceptualization of our phenomena from spiritual
connotations. In the past other terms have been proposed to separate the field
from the occult and from Spiritualism. This seems to have been
(1905) intention (at least in part) when he introduced the term metapsychics to
refer to psychical research. Later on
William McDougall (1937) adopted and
redefined the term parapsychology from the German literature to differentiate
the field from psychical research with its traditional study of mediums and
spontaneous cases. He used parapsychology to refer to "the more strictly
experimental part of the whole field implied by psychical research" (p. 7).
On other occasions it seems that the use of new terms is believed to be of help
in the acceptance of our work because they separate the writer, albeit
temporarily and superficially, from the parapsychological tradition. Possible
examples of this are such terms as remote viewing and anomalous cognition. This
attempt to disconnect the work from parapsychology is sometimes seen in the use
of neutral names for our organizations. Some past and present examples of this
Division of Personality Studies,
Laboratories for Fundamental
Research, Mind Science Foundation, Science Research Unlimited, and
Psychophysical Research Laboratories. On occasion, both in private and in print
1982, p. 22; Honorton, 1976, p. 218), there have been suggestions to
drop the "Parapsychological" out of the name of the PA. There is no question
that there may be advantages to this strategy, an important one being
facilitating the acquisition of grant money. While the latter may work for a
while, I believe once the outside world knows that we are dealing with the same
old ESP and PK and with other traditionally parapsychological phenomena, we will
be in the same position because we may be perceived as trying to deceive
mainstream science by camouflaging parapsychology in the protective coloring of
a neutral name. While there may be associations with traditional
parapsychological terminology that range from the controversial to the
sensational and unacceptable, the main issue is the implications others perceive
in our claims.
Another strategy to obtain credibility is to show the outside world that we are
aware of alternative explanations of psychic phenomena. While this is part of
normal scientific discourse, it also projects a good image of our critical
abilities, something that is particularly useful when one is identified with
parapsychology professionally. In fact, one can find this in some of the
classics of parapsychology. Much space was devoted to the problems with human
testimony and consideration of chance coincidences in Phantasms of the Living
(Gurney, Myers &
Podmore, 1886, Vol. 1, Chapter 4, Vol. 2, Chapter 13).
Similarly, in his 1934 monograph Extra-Sensory Perception, J. B. Rhine (1934,
Chapter 9) devoted sections to alternative explanations, if only to counter
them. Later examples included Robert Tocquet's (1970/1973, pp. 147-149, 219-227)
discussion of fraudulent miraculous healings and stigmata and
(1975, pp. 18-44) analysis of sources of error in the study of
I became aware of the rhetorical value of writing about fraud and other normal
explanations while I was crafting a paper published 16 years ago on luminous
phenomena around mediums, mystics, saints and other individuals (Alvarado,
1987). I knew I was writing about a topic that was rare and unconventional, even
among parapsychologists, and I was worried about the reception of the paper.
While a section on fraud and other normal explanations should always be part of
examinations of cases such as the ones I discussed, including that section was
also a strategy to establish credibility.
More recently, Robert Morris has devoted much time to what looks psychic but is
not. I believe that Morris's success in revitalizing parapsychology in academic
circles in Great Britain (Smith,
1999) comes to some extent from this strategy
of showing the world of psychology that he is aware of a wide range of pitfalls
in behavioral research, not to mention some that are specific to parapsychology
(Morris, 1986; see also Wiseman & Morris,
Another way in which we try to enhance our credibility as scientists is by
confining most of our efforts to such conservative phenomena as ESP. A quick
look at the research papers presented at the last four PA conventions
(2000-2003) shows that the preferred research topic of PA members was ESP (see
Table 1, below). Much less attention was paid to PK or to OBEs, mediumship, hauntings,
or poltergeists. Certainly scientists have to focus their efforts in order to
make advances. In some ways this process started in modern parapsychology with
J. B. Rhine's (1934) monograph Extrasensory Perception, in which, while
discussing a classificatory scheme of psychic phenomena, Rhine reduced
parapsychology to ESP. Regardless of the scientific reasons for this strategy,
the fact is that traditionally modern parapsychology has focused most of its
efforts on ESP and has neglected a wide variety of other phenomena, even if they
can be related to ESP when one speculates on their mechanisms. While such a
strategy has focused our research, it has also limited our knowledge of the
variety of experiences people report. We know much less than we should about
other psychic experiences, their impact on people, and their relation to mental
health concerns, among other issues. So we have paid for our strategy of
limiting the range of topics studied (Alvarado,
Topics of Research Papers at Recent Parapsychological Association
Variety of psychic experiences[b]
Recollections of previous lives
Some of these may be classified as ESP.
[b] These are questionnaire studies considering a variety of experiences (e.g.,
waking and dream ESP, OBEs).
In addition to a strategic separation from specific phenomena there is also a
tendency among some of us to want to drop survival research in general from the
agenda of parapsychology. There have always been attempts to disconnect survival
from parapsychology for a variety of reasons. Réne Sudre (1951) argued that
survival was not demonstrated by the facts and that it was a topic outside the
scope of science, part of the "inaccessible refuge of religious beliefs" (p.
389, my translation). George Zorab (1983) had a similar view when he referred to
survival research as the "forlorn quest." Because survival is so difficult to
test for scientifically, several figures in the field - such as J. B. Rhine
(1974), Gerd Hövelmann (1983) and Harvey J. Irwin (2002) - have branded the
subject as untestable and consequently an unproductive area of research. While
this may be debated by arguing that there are ways to investigate difficult
topics if one follows approaches or analyses that are more subtle than those
providing a simple "yes" or "no" decision on the testability issue (e.g.,
2003), I am concerned here with views that see interest in survival as a
contaminant in the quest to be seen as scientific. The most recent example is
Irwin's (2002) statement that interest in survival may "compromise ... the
standing of parapsychological research as a legitimate scientific endeavour" (p.
25). This position, however, is problematic and should not satisfy most
parapsychologists because similar political concerns have affected and are still
affecting the whole field of parapsychology in terms of its relationship to
We would do well to consider that such conservative attitudes are in the eye of
the beholder and that, consequently, demarcation strategies flow in different
directions. While some parapsychologists may feel that interest and research on
survival contaminate their more elegant and controlled work that follows from
physics or psychology, we need to be aware that others have similarly dismissed
parapsychology in general whether or not they perceive survival research to be
part of the enterprise. Psychologists, as Deborah Coon (1992) has argued, have a
long history of trying to separate their field from the general public's
conception that psychic phenomena are studied by psychologists. A good
historical example of this was American psychologist Joseph Jastrow's comments
in his book Fact and Fable in Psychology, published in 1900. He wrote:
Pernicious is the distorted conception, which the prominence of Psychical
Research has scattered broadcast, of the purposes and methods of Psychology. The
status of that science has suffered, its representatives have been
misunderstood, its advancement has been hampered, its appreciation by the public
at large has been weakened and wrongly estimated, by reason of the popularity of
the unfortunate aspects of Psychical Research, and of its confusion with them (Jastrow,
1900, pp. 75-76).
Attempts to separate out work from specific phenomena and topics present a
multitude of agendas and self-interests. So while some of our own shun specific
areas of the field because they want their own areas to appear more scientific,
others outside the field do the same thing to the whole discipline. As Michael
Winkelman (1982) has said, "Academia's failure to include parapsychology is
mirrored in parapsychology's failure to respond in a responsible manner to the
general population's concern with the areas popularly referred to as occult" (p.
It is regrettable that we feel that we need to deny parts of out subject matter
for political purposes, especially when the most conservative experimental ESP
studies are similarly disregarded by others outside the field. In our efforts to
be accepted, we have become worse than our critics, we have dissociated
ourselves from some part of the basic claims of our field by employing the
strategy of denial used by outside critics. It is almost as if our traumatic
experiences with criticism and rejection have forced us to excise parts of out
nature in order to be acceptable to outsiders, and to ourselves. As with other
types of traumatic experiences, such defense mechanisms are not necessarily
completely conscious nor are they adaptive. By abandoning traditions, areas and
problems we are merely turning our backs on important issues, and we are
condemning ourselves and everyone else to ignorance on questions that may be of
As I have argued before, and here I am referring to issues and phenomena not
necessarily connected to survival, we should research such problems so as to
increase our empirical knowledge of neglected issues (Alvarado,
& Zingrone, 1996). It is true that some problems obtain more attention than
others because they are more easily testable and that some research programs are
more productive or progressive than others. But not everything that is important
is easily testable. After all, parapsychology has traditionally been about the
hard problems. Let us form our identity as parapsychologists not through
artificial prescriptions of neglect or demarcation, but by attempts to study
systematically any relevant problem the best way we can. The combined knowledge
of the behavioral and natural sciences has enough methodologies to study any
problem scientifically and critically. This is not to say we are capable of
testing or measuring anything we want, but we can at the very least try to learn
something about the features and correlates of all the phenomena that fall into
our purview. Let us not be conservative at the expense of knowledge.
This may include controversial and dramatic phenomena such as auras,
materializations and religious miracles.
10. When Parapsychologists Harm Their Cause
conservatism some express about particular areas of parapsychology can be, in my
opinion, harmful to the field. But parapsychologists exhibit many other
behaviors that also hinder the field in a variety of ways. One such behavior
encompasses statements about the existence of the phenomena we study. Let me
give some examples from the old days. In 1913
Hyslop stated that survival was
"proved and proved by better evidence than supports the doctrine of evolution
..." (Hyslop, 1913, p. 88). In 1921
Gustave Geley wrote: "Today we know well the
genesis of materializations" (Geley, 1921, p. 174). In 1923
stated that "telepathy ... is as certain as the existence of London, Sirus and
oxygen ..." (Flammarion, 1923, p. 22). These, and many more recent statements
such as overenthusiastic evaluations of the value and role of meta-analysis in
parapsychology (Broughton, 1991) and statements predicting the acceptance of
parapsychology by science in a relatively short time period (e.g., Honegger,
1982, p. 21; Murphy & Kovach, 1972, p. 475; Stanford, 1974, p. 160) do not help
Certainly we have a right to express our opinions and to evaluate our evidence
as we see fit, and it is important to express what we believe. But we need to
strike a balance between exaggerated claims and the need to present our claims
in a convincing way. After all, if we do not project a positive feeling in our
writings, how can we expect to convince others to engage in meaningful
discussions of our findings? What worries me is that sometimes we present a too
positive and rosy picture of the field, forgetting to acknowledge the difference
between our personal hopes and the state of the field as a whole. A view of the
field that does not acknowledge the social reality we surfer under does not help
parapsychology among other scientists because we appear to be ignoring the
obvious and exaggerating the replicability of our research.
But to promote our views, be they bold or conservative, we need to do something
even more basic. We need to increase the frequency of formal publication of our
research. Most of our research work stays in PA proceedings and does not get
published in refereed journals, whether they are parapsychological journals or
the journals of other disciplines. This creates serious problems in the
diffusion of information. While journals are abstracted in a variety of
databases, the privately printed PA proceedings are not. Consequently, if
someone does not attend a PA convention, or if one does not buy a copy of the
proceedings (sold almost exclusively to PA members), he or she will not have
access to current research information. Do we really think it is in the best
interests of parapsychology to allow only a very small group of individuals to
have access to our research reports? We always complain that out work is not
cited nor widely read, but to some extent this is out own fault.
The fact that some of this research can be found now in personal websites, or
that it may appear in the future on the PA website is helpful, but it is no
substitute for formal journal publication. Outsiders do not value websites as
reliable publication outlets. If we allow our research to remain only in such
private venues, no matter how many hits such a site would get, we will project
the image that parapsychologists do not follow the standard publication
practices of science, and like the occultists, provide out materials only to
those few "in the know."
Another problem, and one that may be explained by the low number of research
workers in our field, is the lack of replication and extension on promising
leads and on specific theoretical models. There have been few attempts to follow
Thouless and Wiesner's (1947) model of psi psychophysical interaction, Hans
Eysenck's (1967) model of cortical arousal and ESP, Harvey Irwin's (1979, 1985)
ESP information-processing model and his absorption-synesthesia OBE model, or
Roll and colleagues' rotating beam model of poltergeists (Roll, Burdick & Joines,
1973). There is a general lack of follow-up in some of our most important areas.
One wonders if the same will happen to other lines of research, such as attempts
to replicate, extend, and understand the correlations between ESP and
geomagnetism or local sidereal time. Of course, we have to acknowledge once
again that some of this may be explained by the lack of human and financial
resources in the field. But when one sees parapsychologists abandoning their own
promising research areas and coming up with new projects when there is so much
basic research to be done on the questions they previously asked, one wonders if
our profession sometimes has an undisciplined tendency towards the pursuit of
In addition, as Rex Stanford (2003) has suggested, there is a need for research
that goes beyond relationships between two variables. The great bulk of our
experimental psychological studies have tried to relate ESP to belief in its
occurrence, as well as to introversion-extroversion, altered states of
consciousness, creativity, experimenter effects, and other variables. But there
is much to do to understand why, for example, an altered state may induce ESP.
It may be argued that an altered state affects ESP by producing psychophysiological changes, nonlinear thinking, or changes in a person's belief
systems, or by reducing ownership resistance (Alvarado, 2000). Furthermore, one
or more of the variables probably interacts with a variety of other mediating
and moderating variables (Stanford,
Another important research-related issue is that of wasted opportunities. It is
unfortunate to see that most recent free-response ESP researchers have done
nothing with the rich imagery of participant's mentation other than use it for
defining hits and misses statistically. While explorations of this sort have
been conducted by Deborah Delanoy (1989), and more recently by James Carpenter
(1995) and Adrian Parker (Parker, Persson & Haller,
2000), they are exceptions. Almost all of our recent free-response ESP work has not been conducted with
these interests in mind. In other words, as parapsychologists we limit what we
can learn by the way we analyze our data.
See also Hastings's (2001) and White's (1964) analyses.
 This is further complicated by the practice of only using first-time
participants. While it may be argued that this comes from the belief that
first-timers are more spontaneous and that this may produce better results, such
practice does not allow us to study possible recurrent patterns in our
participant's mentations, such as symbols and distortions.
Similarly, other research areas are also affected by what we chose to emphasize
in our research. Most of the questionnaire research of spontaneous experiences
is generally limited to the experience's prevalence or frequency as the unit of
analysis (e.g., Irwin, 1994). This may project a simplistic view of the
phenomena because we can easily forget the different features of the experiences
and ignore possible interactions between those features (Alvarado,
11. Concluding Remarks
the topics in this address may look somewhat disconnected, all of them touch on
a central issue. I am referring to aspects of our identity as parapsychologists:
who we are and what we do. Reflections on who we are and what our common
problems are go a long way towards revitalizing and empowering us, especially in
the light of the ever-present hostility and indifference of mainstream science.
Issues such as what types of persons become involved in the field, how effective
our training and education is, our feelings, our motivations, our conceptual
approaches to phenomena, and the strategies by which we seek to legitimize our
field, should always be kept in mind as we chart our future, especially as we
enter this new millennium. Awareness of these issues allows us to consider the
resources we have to go forward.
There is no doubt that, regardless of how few we are, we can claim to have
contributed to knowledge even if our findings are not completely accepted by
science at large. I have argued that our efforts as parapsychologists have
contributed to: keep open the range of our potential as human beings, our
understanding of the prevalence and features of a variety of experiences, the
development of ideas in psychology, the fight against superstition and the
evaluation of popular claims, the development of statistical techniques, and the
study of varied forms of deceptive behaviors.
While we may be poor in numbers and in resources, we are not poor in talent,
creativity or energy. It is possible that we look foolish in the eyes of some
and heroic in the eyes of others. Regardless of how we are seen, we ourselves
need to keep in mind our own goals and our own sense of the function we play in
society. While our problems as a profession may not be solved in our lifetime,
we need to go forward with our work. Our efforts are an important attempt to
expand human knowledge and to understand human potential by considering
phenomena and concepts that go unnoticed by other sciences. In time, as we can
draw from the expanding knowledge of other fields, we will make further advances
that will lead to the improvement of our profession and the expansion of our
currently limited knowledge.
C. S. Alvarado: This is an expanded version of
the Presidential Address delivered at the 46th Annual Convention of the
Parapsychological Association held at Vancouver, August 2-4, 2003. I wish to
thank Nancy L. Zingrone for useful editorial suggestions that improved this
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