Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I recently ran across an article in the Huffington Post promoting yet another Psi study as a breakthrough that may open the door to more acceptance of psi. The article, titled It’s About Time: The Scientific Evidence for Psi Experiences had a catchy by line: Could the Scientific Evidence for Psi Finally Be Here? I read that and my eyes almost rolled back in my head. Within the scientific parapsychological community, hope springs eternal I guess. The problem is that they are bringing a rubber chicken to a sword fight; they won’t be taken seriously. More evidence, published in important journals is not going to change anything because it doesn’t deal with the underlying cause psi skepticism: fear of irrationality. It is a trait that psi researchers share with their skeptics.
Fear of irrationality is closely associated with the fear of losing control; which is one of the most powerful fears there are. It is not a stretch to tie this fear to skepticism, as it shows up pretty much everywhere in skeptical literature. The CSI website has the mission statement:
The mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.
Note the term “use of reason” in that statement. Reason is closely associated with being rational. This mission statement could have easily substituted the word “evidence” to the same effect. Under the term “Critical Thinking” the Skeptic’s Dictionary contains the following:
The goal of critical thinking is to arrive at the most reasonable beliefs and take the most reasonable actions. We have evolved, however, not to seek the truth, but to survive and reproduce. Critical thinking is an unnatural act. By nature, we’re driven to confirm and defend our current beliefs, even to the point of irrationality. We are prone to reject evidence that conflicts with our beliefs and to attack those who offer such evidence.
Note the terms “most reasonable beliefs” and “most reasonable actions.” According to the article, this is what we are supposed to achieve. The skeptical literature is peppered with statements like this and the message is very clear: reason and logic are very important to skeptics.
It is not just skeptics that buy into this belief system, (and that’s what it is, a belief system) but scientists as well and this may possibly be one of the main reasons why psi has not achieved general acceptance in the scientific community as a whole. The accusation of irrationality is very serious for scientists and can ruin their careers and psi is inherently irrational. The people who are most psychic are irrational and when we come in contact with the scientific community it scares them. There is far less acceptance of psi in the scientific community than society as a whole and this is a reflection of the sort of personality that is attracted to science. Roughly 70% of ordinary Americans believe in psi while about 25% of elite scientists do. The number of scientists who privately believe is psi is higher. The more important rationalism is to people, the lower the acceptance of psi. For ordinary people, the fear of irrationality isn’t really all that high, so this allows acceptance of psi without conflict.
The fear of irrationality is most evident in the disparaging terms that skeptics use to describe psychic people or the acceptance of psi. As this is a well known phenomena, I won’t bother to go into examples, just read nearly any skeptical literature. When skeptics attack, it is because they are afraid, and the attacks of skeptics all run along the same lines; they are accusations of irrationality of one form or another. It is believed by skeptics that believers in psi are fooling themselves and are deluded. (i.e. not rational)
In the area of parapsychology, scientists occasionally come into contact with actual psychic people, but they prefer not to. Most of their science today is far removed from gifted individuals and focuses on the psychic ability of ordinary people. A quick perusal of the website for the highest profile psi research lab, The Institute of Noetic Sciences yields exactly no information on psychic people or even any indication that they exist. Thus, the people who are most likely to be interested in this subject are disenfranchised immediately. There is a statement in an article by the director of the institute:
My proposition here is that we work to figure out what. Let’s take the lid off of the box and use the power of science, reasoning and systematic observation to explore this realm of our human experience. Why? Because experiences of “psi,” real or imagined, have profound influences on people’s lives.
First of all there’s that term “reasoning” popping up again. Second, she is referring to psi experiences as “real or imagined.” Exactly how a psi experience can be imagined instead of real isn’t exactly clear. What is clear is the attempt to distance herself from people with strong psychic abilities and the irrationality that naturally comes with it. This kind of condescending language is common to scientists; it comes from their fear of being seen as irrational.
Using reason is of course, a good and necessary part of our lives, but only to a point and that point does not extend very far. Most of the decisions that we make in life must be accomplished with very little data and a lot of irrational decision making. The more important the decision, the more important it is to include an element of irrationality. We can buy bread based on rational decision making, but we cannot choose our mates or our careers that way. We can apply rationality to the process, but not the decision. for example we can apply rationality to buying a car. We can choose the make, model and year of the vehicle and we can perform due diligence when buying, but we are limited on the time we can spend doing this. Every single car ever made is different and some information about the car will not be known. We cannot possibly know which exact car available for sale most perfectly meets our needs and desires. At that point, we have to make an irrational decision. Similarly in science, rationality is only part of the process and is the less important. Exploring the irrational, such as questioning long held scientific truths and being guided by instincts and hunches is how science actually progresses.
Psi of course, bypasses the ability to reason altogether. People with strong psychic tendencies are exposed to the irrational from a very early age and either learn to accept it as part of their lives or suffer intense emotional pain as a consequence. I have to deal with this as much as any other psychic person; it is so blended into my life that I barely notice. My life has not collapsed because of it and if anything, the irrational decision making and experiences have made my life fuller and more enjoyable.
The point is that if you go overboard on rationality, you are in the grip of a belief system that ironically, is not rational. Once you have a belief system about rationality, you are now vulnerable to fears about not being rational enough. That is what skepticism is really about; defending a belief system of hyperrationality.