Editorial by psi researchers calls for open mindedness

An opinion piece in a journal catering to fringe claims calls for open mindedness in reassessing parapsychological phenomena. I have to say it leaves me scratching my head… Give us your thoughts.


Science thrives when there is an open, informed discussion of all evidence, and recognition that scientific knowledge is provisional and subject to revision. This attitude is in stark contrast with reaching conclusions based solely on a previous set of beliefs or on the assertions of authority figures. Indeed, the search for knowledge wherever it may lead inspired a group of notable scientists and philosophers to found in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research in London. Its purpose was “to investigate that large body of debatable phenomena… without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems.” Some of the areas in consciousness they investigated such as psychological dissociation, hypnosis, and preconscious cognition are now well integrated into mainstream science. That has not been the case with research on phenomena such as purported telepathy or precognition, which some scientists (a clear minority according to the surveys conducted1) dismiss a priori as pseudoscience or illegitimate.

The authors state that there is still ongoing research by professionals, that the current results can not be dismissed, problem with phenomena that cannot be produced on demand is not much different than other complex human behavior and performance study areas such as psychology and medicine, that the results do not violate physical laws, also — QUANTUM PHYSICS. Signers include familiar names like Daryl BemRobert Jahn [also see PDF link below] and Dean Radin.

So, the author(s) are attempting to justify restoration of parapsychological studies to the rightful place as a scientific field. I don’t find this to be compelling. I find pretty good reasons to give up on this line of inquiry, closed-minded rejection is not one.

Science progresses in understanding, eventually. If a field stagnates, then there is something amiss. There was certainly something amiss with psi research and it petered away for a good reason – it was unproductive. If psi researchers can come up with a new and different research plan that takes them forward, perhaps by partnering with quantum physicists – that is, people who actually understand how this might work – more power to them. Nothing prohibits that. They are free to publish (and to be criticized) like all other research. I don’t see a prejudice that would be any different from criticism for another field that is coming up short on convincing results.

Psi researchers want to change science to suit their needs [PDF]. Nope. The process works well as can be expected. I don’t see results being hidden or repressed. It’s not “science’s” fault that you haven’t quite found what you’re looking for. Many have given psi a fair shake since the 19th century and we are still no wiser about it. How much longer do we entertain this idea without definitive results?

There are so many points of dispute in this piece, I’d be here all day addressing each one. I thought it was an interesting look into the mindset of parapsychology researchers. Do they have valid points amid the muck? Is the new path of anomalistic psychology the more productive route?

Addition: Some responses from those who study Anomalistic Psychology

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  22 comments for “Editorial by psi researchers calls for open mindedness

  1. January 14, 2014 at 9:07 AM

    As in the case of intelligent design proponents, they seem to think this can be legislated. My suggestion would be to follow the historical example of Darwin and Huxley. When the work on evolutionary theory was still so new and controversial that it had a hard time getting a hearing in existing journals, Huxley founded his own. The first didn’t survive, but the second did, and became a platform for the development of evolutionary science. The key point was that, after a while, the success of specific results led others in the community to join in. It was by this route that evolution became widely considered a truly scientific discipline. Both the ID folks and the parapsychology folks have set up their own journals. The fact that they have not been able to generate interest from other scientists is, so far, the measure of their sterility.

    Huxley’s second try, by the way, was called Nature. I think it’s still around.

  2. Chris Howard
    January 14, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    As long as they understand the difference between open-mindedness and credulity, and don’t assume the conclusion, and are serious about following proven protocols, practices, and methodologies they should be fine. ;-D

  3. Angela
    January 14, 2014 at 9:22 AM

    In a word…no. To elaborate–they try to redefine what words and phrases mean. They bring up the ‘extraordinary claims’ criteria as if it is ‘misunderstood’. What in sweet hell is there to misunderstand? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s very simple. They want to complicate it so they can justify what they are trying to accomplish–which is to be able to continue this research regardless of the fact that it stagnated years ago. And I do mean YEARS ago.

    Henry Sidgwick said right before his death that we would probably never get definitive proof of an after life. It broke his heart to say that, I am sure. He struggled with his common sense side and the side of him that wanted to believe. In the end, he saw that he hadn’t proved anything. All these years later..still nothing has been shown that is true evidence of paranormal. I am fascinated by the thoughts, the opinions, and even some of the anecdotal experiences, but the problem is, it can never be left at that. It has to become something that sounds, to quote you–‘sciencey’. And the further it goes into that realm–the para~crappier it sounds.

    I may comment more later..this has gotten me fired up..

  4. Pete Ford
    January 14, 2014 at 9:32 AM

    True scientists ARE open-minded. They look at the evidence. If it has merit, they continue investigating, REGARDLESS OF THEIR PERSONAL BELIEFS. If the evidence stands up, it will be respected – because scientists want to know the truth. On the other hand, if no compelling evidence appears after a long time of looking, that line of inquiry is – quite rightly – abandoned. No amount of wishful thinking can make something true if it isn’t.

    After something like a century of looking at claims for Psi, nothing concrete has been found. But, as I said, true scientists are open-minded; if someone were to find compelling evidence, scientists would be all over it. (By “compelling evidence” I don’t mean, “Dean Radin said he bent a spoon with his mind at a party, and he wrote it in a book so it must be true”.)

    Psi researchers: produce some solid evidence. Something compelling. Something reproducible. Do that, and I guarantee scientists will look.

  5. spookyparadigm
    January 14, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    They only get to practice Victorian Science if they cosplay as steampunk Victorian spiritual researchers.

  6. Statistique
    January 14, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    Speaking of serendipity: link to io9.com

  7. January 14, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    “understand the difference between open-mindedness and credulity”

    Exactly. One should never be so open minded your brain falls out.

  8. WMcCreery
    January 14, 2014 at 11:52 AM

    You could build a bridge with the irony!

  9. Lukas
    January 14, 2014 at 12:47 PM

    The post is well written. Parapsychology is with us for a long time. So far they have not moved a inch as I can see it. Dr. Sam Parnia wanted to prove to the skeptics we have a soul and failed:

    “During the AHA meeting, Dr. Sam Parnia, head of intensive care at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York, reported early results of a 25-hospital study of how frequently cardiac arrest survivors see or hear things while their hearts are stopped. Of 152 survivors interviewed, 37 percent said they had recollections from the unconscious period. Only two recalled actually seeing events and one described any events that could be verified. None saw images mounted in the treatment room as part of the experiment.”

    Its from: link to newsnet5.com

    Experiments like this were done millions times over. Even in the Skeptic Dictionary in the Near-Death experience section it is written that the experiment which Dr. Sam Parnia did was done by Bruce Greyson in the past but it had not luck with it and even others like Penny Sartori. It is sad to say but parapsychology became more like a cult of loyal believers because many people like Dean Radin have nothing to give only hope in a afterlife and nothing more because there is actually no evidence to support their claims and so far what I read all their experiments ended in the same way like Dr. Parnias.

    I therefore think that parapsychology should be placed into the bin and let other science discipline try their luck with consciousness and if they are not able to crack it then we could look again for the dualism model but so far we should take all what is connected with parapsychology with great skepticism because if their claims are true then many things we have so far learned are not true and that would be a lot things – psychology would have to change, physics if we count telepathy and telekinesis or ghosts. Therefore they need extraordinary evidence to convince scientists that parapsychology is not a faith but science.

  10. January 14, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    An open mind? That’s just what the aliens want you to think. Much safer to have a closed mind, or even better, this:

    link to stopabductions.com 🙂

  11. Chris Howard
    January 14, 2014 at 1:33 PM

    You made me laugh so hard that I spit out ectoplasm.

  12. January 15, 2014 at 12:58 AM

    “they try to redefine what words and phrases mean.” That sure sounds familiar (I have some experience and have since done lots of reading on “high-demand, coercive groups,” AKA the C word). I recall being in such a “group” where the phrase (among many others) “Keep an open mind” was repeated many times. But then I heard this one heretic who once said “it’s fine to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

    I heartily endorse Susan Blackmore’s writings, especially her first book “Searching For The Light/The Adventures of a Parapsychologist.” “They” don’t like her, as she’s so Psi-negative!

  13. January 15, 2014 at 3:12 AM

    It’s just like the UFO people: we have lots of evidence gathered over several decades but not a single proof, therefore, the problem is:

    1) our investigation of the phenomenon sucks
    2) the evidence for the phenonemon sucks
    3) our explanation of the phenomenon sucks
    4) the people who aren’t studying the phenomenon suck

    Which one does the diehard fringe believer always pick?

  14. Dave
    January 16, 2014 at 4:33 AM

    I spent 4 years doing a PhD in psychology. My thesis was an empirical investigation into precognitive effects in visual attention. 2 out of 5 of my experiments were positive, the rest null. Do I think this topic is worth investigating further? Yes! There are enough hints of a real phenomena both from human experience and laboratory evidence to carry on. Most importantly however, there are theoretical hints coming from physics that should encourage parapsychology a great deal. In 2006 and 2011, the AAAS organised two symposiums on retrocausation. The symposiums were attended by parapsychologists and physicists normally unconnected with parapsychological research. According to professor Daniel Sheehan (chair of symposiums, physicist), retrocausation is the most parsimonious explanation for the results loosely labelled as precognition. He has also criticised Wagenmakers for setting an unreasonable a priori odds for the existence of ESP in his now infamous (well in parapsychological circles at least) paper in response to the Bem experiments. According to Sheehan, the question is not whether retrocausation exists but under what condition it can be said to occur. If it can occur in the brain, then you have a potential basis for a system-wide range of precognitive effects (which incidentally is what the evidence suggests, if you believe the evidence that is). I think this is the kind of open mindedness that Cardena is calling for in the Frontiers paper. The kind of open mindedness that sets a reasonable a priori odds for the existence of ESP (more specifically precognition, which can potentially account for all forms of reported extrasensory experience).

    On a less important note, let’s not generalise unnecessarily. Sharon says that “psi researchers want to change science to suit their needs” and refers to a paper by two authors! Why assume that all psi researchers agree with Jahn and Dunne? Lots of different researchers with different assumptions and beliefs engage in parapsychological research. And a range of experiences and claims are investigated that may have nothing to do with each other and have differing levels of legitimacy, in my opinion.

  15. January 20, 2014 at 4:02 AM

    > retrocausation is the most parsimonious explanation for the results loosely labelled as precognition

    So one unverified phenomenon explains another unverified phenomenon. Clever!

  16. Dave
    January 21, 2014 at 2:45 AM

    I think this is a matter of putting 2 and 2 together (and eventually making 4).

    Sheehan has this to say (AIP Conference Proceedings 1408, 1, (2011)):

    “Every valid quantum interpretation must account for the same phenomenology – the same experimental facts – and at present there is no objective way to validate one over the others; thus, their adoption is largely a matter of personal taste and aesthetics. By extension, retrocausation is also somewhat in the eye of the beholder. That is, although many experiments can be clearly explained with retrocausation – e.g., Wheeler’s delayed choice – most can also be understood via standard causation through proper reframing. Even so, there are advantages to granting equal status to causation and retrocausation as tools for parsing the relationship between events. And where possible, Ockham’s Razor should be invoked to decide between competing interpretations. Just as the Copernican heliocentric model eclipsed the Ptolemaic geocentric model because of its greater
    simplicity and elegance, sometimes retrocausation will be the most parsimonious explanation. Nowhere is this clearer than in the broad experimental evidence for retrocausal behavior in living systems.”

  17. January 21, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    I do not believe you addressed my point. Has retrocausation for mental events been established? Or is retrocausation just a term poached from physics by psychical researchers who can’t explain how, when or why it works?

    “Broad experimental evidence” is not convincing either. We’ve seen all fringe science topics boast about the great mass of their evidence but not of the exceptionally high quality of their peer-reviewed, frequently replicated work.

    The comparison with heliocentrism is not valid. That model could produce predictions of motion and location — years out! — that any astronomer could confirm (or disprove) through observation.

  18. January 21, 2014 at 1:30 PM

    Just to be clear, Dave, I’m not saying this stuff should never be studied, I’m just saying fringe science researchers should stop using rhetorical tricks to inoculate themselves from their failures. Blaming outsiders for their problems is especially egregious.

  19. Dave
    January 22, 2014 at 2:54 AM

    Well, Cardena lists several reasons why he considers the field to be a success. So it is unlikely he is using rhetoric in the way that you describe, unless his article doesn’t actually express his real views. If your comment is really just a disagreement over the quality of the evidence then his article is unlikely to sway those who already think the evidence is poor (presumably yourself). His appeal to open mindedness is likely to have the most impact on those who hold the middle ground in terms of belief about these phenomena. I’m not sure what proportion of the science research community hold that middle ground, but it is encouraging to see symposiums discussing the findings of parapsychology that are also attended by ‘conventional’ researchers not normally involved in that kind of thing.

  20. Dave
    January 22, 2014 at 3:33 AM

    I don’t think retrocausal cognition has been established as an explanation for precognition. That would require a fleshed out theory and mechanism with clear predictions that have been confirmed, etc. I believe that retrocausality is a potential explanation based on what I have read (I’m not a physicist). The term ‘retrocausation’ has been used by parapsychologists who are trained in physics (e.g., Dick Bierman, Daryl Bem, Ed May), parapsychologists who are trained in psychology (e.g., Dean Radin, Daryl Bem) and physicists (e.g., Daniel Sheehan, Garret Moddel). They are all using the term speculatively as an explanation for precognition. The AAAS symposiums were a chance for these researchers and theorists to get together to discuss the evidence and progress their ideas. It’s probably fair to say that some of the physicists are already convinced enough by the evidence from parapsychology to start theorising along these lines. The reason I mentioned the symposiums was to provide an example of the kind of open mindedness that I think Cardena is appealing for. So I’m not sure what your point is…

  21. Georg"e
    February 28, 2014 at 8:28 PM

    While reading these responses, I had a sudden psychic flash! Terry the Critic, like all critics is just a fly in the ointment.

  22. terry the censor
    March 3, 2014 at 3:11 AM


    You have acted just as I pointed out earlier: to you, parapsychology’s crap results aren’t the fault of parapsychologists, they’re (somehow) the fault of people like me who are not involved in parapsychology experiments.

    Predicted and confirmed.

    Parapsychologists: Quit whining! That’s not how science is done.

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