The two main sources of evidence in psychical research
and parapsychology, as in other sciences, are observation and
experiment. The question of observation is a peculiarly difficult
one. Because claimed paranormal phenomena of a spontaneous
nature, often produced by human beings, are involved, it
is difficult to devise conditions that will preclude fraud or a
misreading of what is observed. The borderlines between preconception,
expectation, and actual observation are often very
fuzzy, and even well-trained scientific observers have been deceived
by hoaxes or by their own conscious or subconscious desire
to prove or disprove the reality of claimed phenomena.
Even the best of scientific observers are but amateurs in the arts
of conjuring and stage magic and may easily be deceived by the
skillful tricks of amateur or professional conjurers, and it is
often dangerous to trust the apparent evidence of ones senses.
The special effects developed by the movie industry, and available
at some levels to the general public, now make the obserEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Evidence
vation of various kinds of psychic phenomena even more questionable.
It is also not surprising that the observations of believers
tend to endorse the paranormal, while the observations of
skeptics tend in the opposite direction. Skeptics will go out of
their way to protect their comfortable world. However, psychical
researchers are frequently less than rigorous in applying
Occams razor (i.e., the simplest of competing theories is the
preferred) and seeking the most parsimonious explanation for
what is observed.
Experimenting with the psychic also presents a unique set
of problems. Paranormal phenomena are not producible at the
experimenters will as in a chemical laboratory, and the human
element involves numerous difficulties. One good experiment,
said Humphrey Davy, is of more value than the ingenuity
of a brain like Newtons. Facts are more useful when they
contradict, than when they support received theories. Because
nearly all the facts that psychical research has tried to establish
contradict received theories, the importance of experimental
data cannot be overemphasized.
From Psychical Research to Parapsychology
Although many areas of psychical research and parapsychology
are virtually identical, their main distinction is one of
emphasis, with psychical research emphasizing observation
and parapsychology focusing upon experiments under laboratory
conditions. It has been the hope of parapsychology that
paranormal realities might be demonstrated or disproved
under control conditions and evaluated by quantitative statistical
methods. This approach came to the fore in the 1930s when
championed by J. B. Rhine (18951980) and his associates in
the United States, although the groundwork for such an approach
had been laid by such British psychical researchers as
G. N. M. Tyrrell (18971952), W. W. Carington (18841947),
and S. G. Soal (18891975). It has to be admitted, however,
that after decades of thousands of laboratory experiments over
a wide range of claimed paranormal faculties and phenomena,
there is still little generally accepted scientific evidence. This
does not mean that the paranormal is disproved, only that it remains
difficult to capture within the rigorous demands of laboratory
scientific method and evidence. Such a situation has led
many to move toward more open methods used successfully in
the various branches of psychology.
The search for scientific understanding of paranormal experiences
such as spiritual healing, out-of-the-body travel, telepathy,
clairvoyance, seeing phantoms, and various forms of
mystical states of consciousness may seem irrelevant to some.
In such personal instances, objective scientific evidence is inaccessible.
However, the qualitative nature of the experience itself,
often accompanied by special knowledge, exaltation, wonder,
or inspiration, is convincing to the person having the
experience, even if unsatisfactory to observers.
Although there are obvious dangers in overemphasizing
subjective experience at the expense of objective evidence, they
need not be mutually exclusive approaches. Too great an emphasis
on experimental data glosses over the problem that scientists
are often as prejudiced as the general public, and it is
now possible to discuss the experimenter effect, where the
hostile skepticism or uncritical beliefs of scientific investigators
may respectively inhibit or enhance paranormal phenomena.
Moreover, there is disturbing evidence that scientists can also
cheat; review of the evidence for the paranormal has disclosed
some probable manipulation of data.
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