“Everybody knows parapsychology is not a real science”: Public understanding of parapsychology

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Renaud Evrard1 
1University of Lorraine Nancy, France 

Introduction: Parapsychologists purport to apply scientific method to the investigation of commonly reported exceptional experiences and phenomena. Despite over a hundred years of associated research effort, “the status of parapsychology as a scientific endeavour is disputed by a substantial section of the contemporary mainstream scientific community” (Irwin, 2007). This situation seems less regrettable when it is placed in a larger context. In fact, many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific (Lilienfeld, 2012). This author argued that psychological science is experiencing a public perception problem that has been caused by both public misconceptions about psychology, as well as the psychological science community’s failure to distinguish itself from pop psychology and questionable therapeutic practices. Ferguson’s article (2015) used this quote in its title: “Everybody knows psychology is not a real science”, and currently several researchers are searching to document this public skepticism of psychology. For instance, Newman, Bakina and Tang (2012) developed this framework to understand (a) the forms that skepticism about psychological science can take, (b) the roots of such skepticism, and (c) how one might address or even undermine it. 

My purpose is to encourage the development of a similar perspective, within the research topic of “public understanding of science,” but regarding the skepticism against parapsychology as a matter worth of empirical studies. The scientific legitimacy of parapsychology has been shown to be rejected most strongly by some members of the ‘scientific elite’ (McClenon, 1982), and more strongly by psychologists than by other scientists (Wagner & Monnet, 1979). This does not have to be taken a priori as the result of a specific demarcation expertise, because a closer look reveals the presence of numerous biases. In Wagner and Monnet’s survey, this skepticism is most often based on prejudices about to the impossibility of such phenomena. Butzer (2020) conducted a study of the bias in the evaluation of identical abstracts framed as parapsychological” or as “neuroscientific”. The results revealed that participants rated the neuroscience abstract as having stronger findings and as being more valid and reliable than the parapsychology abstract, despite the fact that the two abstracts were identical. Preferred beliefs reinforced these biases. This confirmed the notion that belief-contradictory information is resisted, which is supported by a great deal of research in the area of biased assimilation (Munro, 2010). Preliminary research on these potential biases suggests that even scientists are subjected to confirmation biases, and anomalistics makes these issues very obvious (Koehler, 1993; Roe, 1999; Hergovich, Schott & Burger, 2010). Sometimes, following the “scientific impotence excuse” (Munro, 2010), people discount scientific evidence that disconfirms an important belief by endorsing the idea that scientific methods are unable to address the topic.  

The same aspects of public understanding need to be explored with over-enthusiastic reception of parapsychological research, often merged with all kinds of paranormal and supernatural claims (Evrard & Ouellet, 2019). Indeed, public understanding of parapsychology invite us in a “reflexive anomalistics” (Schetsche, Mayer, Schmied-Knittel, 2015) which can be characterized as follows: Being aware of (a) the epistemic features of the phenomena being researched, (b) the methodological problems of scientific investigation related to these features as well as (c) the areas of tension between subjective evidence, scientific proof and social discourse – features which characterize this research field – and taking these factors systematically into account. As responsible and reflexive scientists, we should attempt to understand why and how people appraise our research and how this affects the very way we do and communicate them. 

Butzer, B. (2020). Bias in the evaluation of psychology studies: A comparison of parapsychology versus neuroscience. Explore16(6), 382-391.  

Evrard, R., Ouellet, E. (2019, dir.). Vers une sociologie anomalistique : le paranormal au regard des sciences sociales. Nancy : Presses Universitaires de Nancy / Editions universitaires de Lorraine. 

Ferguson, C.J. (2015). “Everybody knows psychology is not a real science”: Public perceptions of psychology and how we can improve our relationship with policymakers, the scientific community, and the general public. American psychologist70(6), 527-542. 

Hergovich, A., Schott, R., Burger, C. (2010). Biased Evaluation of Abstracts Depending on Topic and Conclusion: Further Evidence of a Confirmation Bias Within Scientific Psychology. Current Psychology29(3), 188-209. 

Irwin, H.J. (2007). Science, nonscience and rejected knowledge: The case of parapsychology. Australian Journal of Parapsychology, 7(1), 8-32.  

Koehler, J. J. (1993). The influence of prior beliefs on scientific judgments of evidence quality. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 56(1), 28-55. 

Lilienfeld, S.O. (2012). Public skepticism of psychology: why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American psychologist67(2), 111-129. 

McClenon, J. (1982). A survey of elite scientists: Their attitudes toward ESP and parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology46, 127-152. 

Munro, D. G. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Applied social psychology40(3), 579-600. 

Newman, L.S., Bakina, D.A., Tang, Y. (2012). The role of preferred beliefs in skepticism about psychology. American Psychologist67(9), 805-806. 

Roe, C. A. (1999). Critical thinking and belief in the paranormal: A re-evaluation. British Journal of Psychology, 90(1), 85-98. 

Schetsche, M., Mayer, G., Schmied-Knittel, I. (2015). Scientific Anomalistics: an Introduction. In: G. Mayer, I. Schmied-Knittel, M. Schetsche, D. Vaitl (Eds.), An den Grenzen der Erkenntnis. Handbuch der wissenschaftlichen Anomalistik (pp. 1-11). Stuttgart: Schattauer. 

Wagner, M.W., Monnet, M. (1979). Attitudes of college professors toward extra-sensory perception. Zetetic Scholar, n°5, 7-16. 

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“Everybody knows parapsychology is not a real science”: Public understanding of parapsychology

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