Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
This is a question that comes up every so often, and there is no simple answer. Craig asked me a while back to write an article for his blog about the good and bad aspects of being a study participant for Psi/PK research. It’s taken me some time to get back to him on this. I have mixed feelings about my own experiences with researchers. I’ve taken part in Psi research a number of times with a variety of researchers, and even under the best of circumstances it can be a challenging experience. I couldn’t in good conscience tell people to do this kind of thing without pointing out a few potential risks.
To begin with, it’s important to make sure you are working with actual scientists involved in research likely to lead to peer-reviewed published work. I hate to bring up the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, but it’s thrown in the face of psychics all too often despite the fact it is an unscientific endeavor. The MDC is a publicity stunt, not a scientific study. Any pretense that the MDC is designed to produce scientifically defensible work is unethical. If a self-proclaimed skeptic asks “why haven’t you applied to do the MDC?”, tell them it’s because you would prefer to contribute to the better understanding of Psi experiences through the use of proper scientific methodology instead.
It’s important to know the track record of any scientists you might choose to work with. Are they scientists or are they politically motivated debunkers? A case in point is that of Natasha Demkina, a Russian schoolgirl who was treated deplorably by well-known media skeptics, Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. Despite the fact that they presented themselves to Natasha as “scientists”, it was clearly a CSICOP (now known as CSI ) debunking exercise rather than a scientifically defensible study of her abilities.
Natasha Demkina, a 17-year-old Russian schoolgirl celebrated in her home town of Saransk for making accurate diagnoses of people’s medical ailments just by looking at them, was brought to New York (a grueling 24-hour journey by train, flight and bus) to have her ‘paranormal claims’ tested by the self-styled world authorities. She was required to match seven written diagnoses against seven corresponding test persons wearing black-lens spectacles to avoid any eye contact. She said from the outset that two of the diagnoses were outside her range, but she was kindly reassured by Wiseman that she would pass her test if she scored five out of five on the other trials. Under these fairly taxing conditions she was in fact correct in four out of the seven trials, a result yielding a significant p value of .02, an outcome calling for a fair degree of congratulation.
But there were no congratulations for Natasha. While noting (in passing) that the odds against this result being due to chance were around 50 to 1, Wiseman told her that she had failed, and the patronizing Hyman advised that she should forget her delusions and pursue her proposed medical studies (his own delusion being presumably that the diagnoses of medical practitioners are invariably correct). The commentator crowed that the girl would now return to Russia discredited. Mission accomplished!
Natasha admirably stepped up and did her best to contribute to the scientific understanding of Psi. Even under the difficult circumstances presented to her by debunkers Hyman and Wiseman she produced results above what would be expected purely by chance. Anyone with the tiniest smidgen of real scientific curiosity would have seen that as an indication that something interesting was going on, something worthy of a more comprehensive study. But the role of a debunker is to quash any scientific interest in Psi, and that was what the CSICOP members attempted to do. There has certainly been criticism of their handling of this case, but it comes too late for Natasha. She learned the hard way that not everyone who claims to be a scientist has any interest in doing a proper scientific investigation of a case involving ostensible Psi. My heart really goes out to this young woman.
So now that the obvious things to avoid, such as CSICOP fellows and JREF representatives, have been covered, what’s left? Well, I have to be honest here, there are not a lot of well-qualified researchers with the funding available to study Psi. The better known researchers are often inundated by emails from people who have had unusual experiences. I’ve never found it easy to admit to having anomalous experiences. It’s even more difficult to do so in a clear, concise, not-too-emotional tone that won’t be off-putting to researchers.
It’s good to be clear on why you want to talk to a researcher. Many people contacting parapsychologists want help in coping with anomalous experiences. Most parapsychologists are not mental health professionals. And participating in research is not a substitute for health care. I would recommend anyone wanting that kind of help should instead consider talking to a therapist who has experience in dealing with spiritual experiences.
I contacted the first researcher who I worked with through the message boards of the Parapsychological Association. Without a PA membership, it’s not likely I would have made such a contact. I had a student membership at the time, and the researcher was impressed that I had taken an interest in learning as much as I could about Psi/PK from the available literature.
That brings up another important bit of advice I have for anyone interested in participating in parapsychological research. Familiarize yourself with the literature. There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, you might discover that just reading the literature is enough for you. Many people go to researchers looking for answers, without realizing that there already is an established body of work out there just waiting to be discovered. Reading the literature taught me that I wasn’t alone, that other people have these experiences too and that having unusual experiences doesn’t make you crazy.
Familiarity with the literature will also tell you who the researchers are and what specific areas of interest they work on. There is nothing wrong with sending a well-informed email to a researcher to ask questions about their work. I’ve made some very helpful contacts by doing so.
Finally, a better-informed participant makes better research possible. I want to be more than just a passive subject of research. I’ve tried to learn about Psi so I can contribute to the success of whatever work I’m involved with. Good parapsychological researchers are interested in how Psi works and people who have frequent Psi experiences can provide important insights. And don’t forget to read the published work by the researchers in question before agreeing to participate in a study. (It’s OK to ask questions too.)
Do a bit of internet research before committing to a project. Check out references too. Make sure the researchers follow guidelines for the ethical treatment of human subjects in scientific experiments and read the guidelines before agreeing to participate. They should protect your privacy, anonymity, and dignity. I didn’t do this in my first experience as a research participant, and there were some issues. (My husband still jokes that if a scientist doesn’t make me sick to my stomach, maybe he isn’t a real scientist.) If you don’t find a suitable researcher to work with, then consider the option of doing your own research and publishing it yourself.
On a personal level, it’s quite exciting to be away from home, working with researchers and feeling “special” instead of “different” for a change. My first experience as a research participant took me away from a stressful situation at graduate school, where I didn’t dare talk about my experiences to anyone, and put me in a place where it was OK to admit to what I saw and felt. I had a nice little old parapsychologist to discuss PK with over breakfast at the hotel. And afternoons were spent being fussed over by grad students, who were very excited about the research possibilities. The hours were long, and it was pretty exhausting, but it was still pretty cool. After a few days it was over and I was back home. I found it hard to go back to the same old same old after all was said and done. Emotionally, when it was over there was this terrible let down that I wasn’t expecting.
It’s important to keep in mind that unless you live close to a research facility, it will just be a few days working with researchers and then you are on your own again. I quickly realized that those few days were not necessarily representative of my abilities or experiences, even when getting positive results in the lab. The stuff I live with every day is much more important. That led to a certain amount of frustration with the limitations of short term studies done under the supervision of established researchers. In the end, the only remedy I could come up with was to do my own experiments at home.
Doing your own research at home can start off as simply as keeping a journal. I’ve learned a lot from from logging my day-to-day experiences. It’s helped me feel more in control and better about having unusual experiences. I’ve also set up simple experiments that can be done at home on a daily basis. That has opened up more opportunities to work with various researchers because I have a much better idea of what can be done successfully in tests. But truthfully, the main reason I do my own work is that I hated the feeling of it all being over after just a few days in a lab. I couldn’t get my answers in just a few days. And I couldn’t wait for the next researcher to come along with answers to my questions either.
In spite of the pitfalls, I’m glad that I’ve participated in Psi research. It’s had a positive effect on my life and helped me to better accept who I am. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to work with some well-qualified scientists who were interested in learning about Psi/PK. I’ve made contacts with researchers and I’ve initiated my own research into Psi/PK, which I hope to start getting published soon. I’ll admit that I didn’t follow all the advice listed in this post. And I did run into a few mishaps along the way. But I’ll leave those stories for another day.