A Dilemma for parapsychologists: Wahts is Going On Here?

Suppose you are a legitimate scientist (parapsychologist), and you are doing a card-guessing experiment. You run the experiment like J.B. Rhine did (almost 70 years ago0, and have a subject attempt to guess which card is being held up (by the “sender”) in a remote location. Suppose you find a subject who scores many sigmas above the chance level. what effect is going on?
Is it:
-telepathy (transmission of thought by the brain)
-psyco-kinesis (the sender is making cards reaarage themselves, at a distance
-pre-cognition: the receiver has perecived the order of the cards ahead of time
-or a combination of all three?
How would a hard headed scientist resolve this? has anyone exhibited any of these abilities?


Or just a lucky run of events.

I hope this doesn’t offend any parapsychologists who happen to be members, but I thought that parapsychology wasn’t really thought of as a “legitimate” science, much in the way a homeopathic medicine isn’t considered to be a real medical practice.

Well, if we assume that it’s happening and there’s no cheating then there’s no way to tell with your setup.

So you conduct more experiments to narrow it down. Telepathy can be ruled out by having the subject predict the results ahead of time. A third party could look at (or order) the cards beforehand to ensure that they’re not rearranged. Other tests could be constructed to rule out/confirm other abilities.

In short you can’t tell with one experiment, but if the result was significant there would be a lot of follow up experiments to work out whats going on. Of course you’ve got to get a significant result first – which has never been done in years of trying as far as I know.

And, Lissa, as I understand it parapsychology is a perfectly valid science (have a look at Edinburgh University’s Parapsychology site to see what they do). As long as someone is following the scientific principals and doing proper controlled experiments then I don’t think they’re any less ‘legitimate’ just because what they’re searching for is very unlikely to exist. In fact it’s necessary to have people looking into these effects just to make sure they don’t exist (rather than dismiss things out of hand).


To eliminate psychokinesis, you’d just have to make sure the deck is under constant observation–or maybe even that each individual card is being constantly observed individually in a seperate container* to eliminate the possibility that somehow the cards are changing places instantanesouly rather than literally moving aroud to change places with each other.

To distinguish between telepathy and precognition, you would do the experiment two ways. First, the guy writes down the selections before the selections are made. Second, the guy writes down the selections after the selections have been made. If the performance in each case is good, it looks to me like precogntion. If the performance in the first case is worse than in the second case case, then it looks to me like telepathy.


And here’s the link that I meant to include.

Or you just throw out any trials that don’t show positive results.

Rhine did all three. Or had people do them to him.

You can say that people can legitimately try to determine whether these abilities exist, but the attempt proves to be self-defeating. If you approach it legitimately instead of the way Rhine did it you get no results. Ever. So to say that parapsychology is a legitimate scientific discipline gets you into one of those ludicrous philosophical debates, like asking if you can ever really “know” something.

The point of any legitimate science is that you can reproduce the results.
So you would test the subject again.
That’s how we discovered telephones, microwaves, penicillin etc.

It would be great if this ever happened, but so far it hasn’t.
Just as claims of perpetual motion machines, dowsing and homoepathy have failed so far…

I disagree. If we assume that all legitimate, scientifically rigorous tests show no evidence of any kind of ESP or psychic powers, that’s still a result. Parapsychology can be just as much a scientific discipline as any other field, again assuming excellent testing methods.

I think this is just an example of correct scientific methods, not a field of expertise.
Instead of accepting anecdotes like “my brother-in-law told me he saw a demonstration of telepathy”, we test under scientific conditions.

Suppose I set up the British Institute of Levitation, get people to pay me a membership fee, have a website with a well-researched history of levitation claims and how magicians have done it and claim that I can levitate at will but only if no sceptics are present (because their mental waves of disbelief affect my parapowers).
Are you then going to accept me as a scientist with expertise in Levitation? :confused:


I just knew my grandfather shouldn’t have sold his telephone mine.

I was going to say basically what everyone has said, you do more test and other varied test to confirm that you are getting consistant positive results and once that happens, you’re on to something.

I disagree back at ya.

If what you are testing for is purely imaginary, then how can you devise a scientific test? What does it even mean to do scientific testing? Can you devise a test to show the existence or lack of same of the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

If psi powers are imaginary then how does anyone know what the proper test might be? Guessing at hidden objects is prove of what, exactly?

This is a philosophical point in a way, which makes me very uneasy, philosophy being defined as the discipline in which you can argue any viewpoint and be entirely correct. But a test that does not show an imaginary object is a null test. I suppose you have to do it, just to show that a test has been done, but one circles back to the dismissal of all negative tests because they are utterly futile gestures that never affects the believers. Ask anyone whether a test of God’s existence would satisfy them.

Right. Which is why I added that stuff about there being scientifically rigorous testing.

No, because you’ve done no scientific testing, nor shown any research of scientific testing. In fact, you’d be against any form of objective test. So no, you wouldn’t be a scientist.

If, however, you had a background in conducting actual scientific tests on levitation, then yes, you would be.

No, you can’t. But then you can’t perform a test to show the existence of gravity, or of evolution. You cannot just devise a single test to prove a very large field. So you perform a test to show that on Earth, objects are pulled towards the centre of the planet at a specific rate. You take your assumption and provide evidence for it, not seek to prove it beyond all doubt in all cases.

So with tests for psychic powers, you don’t go out and do a test that would prove “yes, all humans are psychic”. You look at a particular area - like the example in the OP with Zener cards. Can someone correctly guess what type of cards are being seen by another person? Certainly that can be studied on a scientific basis.

Proof that you can, in some way, divine what it on said cards without you yourself looking at them. Is it not that? You do the test (scientifically), you get results, and the results prompt you to design better tests that can focus on different areas or suggest reasons for why the results went as they did. Just like any kind of scientific research.

No, it isn’t. Assuming it’s a well-done test, then the results are just as useful as ones that would indicate the imaginary object does exist. After all, until scientific tests have been done, all you’re basing your opinion that psychics/precognitives/whatever exist is your opinion - that you seem to be quite happy to disregard parapsychology without the need for any kind of scientific research doesn’t seem very objective of you.

And no, I don’t believe in psychics/precognitive/whatever. But then I base that on scientifically based research.

That it won’t convince the believers is neither here nor there with regards to the question of “Is this a legitimate field of research?”

It’s impossible to distinguish any of these phenomena. Furthermore, there are more hypotheses you haven’t even accounted for. Suppose that, as a parapsychologist, you test a subject using all the supposed ways of distinguishing telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, and every other sort of weirdness you can think of. The subject scores well beyond chance. You not only publish this in a scientific journal, but you write a book about it in cooperation with a moderately well-known science writer, and it becomes a best seller. I read the book and enjoy it. Now perhaps you unconsciously used telekinesis to influence the tests because you desperately wanted to become famous for proving psychic powers exist. Perhaps the science writer unconsciously used telekinesis to influence the test because he desperately needed the money from a best-selling book. Perhaps I unconsciously used telekinesis to influenced the tests because I’d always wanted to read about a real case of psychic powers.

For the word “legitimate” to work in this context, I think we need to take a larger contextual view of “legitimacy” in scientific research, beyond simply the notion of whether the researcher is operating in methodological good faith. If someone is going to great and elaborate lengths to research something for which there is not a single shred of solid evidence, at some point the endeavors can (and should) be be called into question as to it’s “legitimacy”. In sum, you can go through the motions of performing methodologically “legitimate” science, but if your area of study has proven to be wholly imaginary over time, at some point the credibility of your science should be called into question.

Yeah, I agree. If someone keeps on with the same research over and over again in the faint hope that something will turn up this time that didn’t last time, they’d certainly not be approaching the subject with an open mind (despite that claim being made by every nutcase under the sun). It would be legitimately performed research, but it would be pretty desperate of the parapsychologist to keep on doing it, so their reasons would likely not be legitimate.

OK, so I claim I can levitate at will.
And I get my mate to check there are no wires or rocket packs involved.
Then my mate films me trying to levitate under these scientific conditions.
And I fail.
(I tell him that it’s strange because I’ve always been able to levitate before.)

At this point, you would state my mate can claim to be a scientist with expertise in Levitation (indeed the World’s leading expert )?
Would you agree that he could apply for grants to study Levitation?

Of course not. Yet again I point out to you that i’ve said the tests must be scientifically rigorous; “checking for wires and rocket packs” doesn’t really qualify under those conditions.

There is no such scientific field as “parapsychology.” In order to subject something to scientific analysis, it first has to be proven to exist. You can use scientific methods to test claims regarding so-called paranormal abilities but thus far, no such ability has ever been shown to exist under laboratory conditions and there is no field of science dedicated to examining phenomena which cannot be shown to exist.

In answer to the OP:

The most likely answer would be amazing coincidence. That might seem like an unlikely explanation but an extremely unlikely explanation is still preferable to that which is physically impossible (like ESP).

Nothing which has ever been scientifically verified. Alleged “psychics” always fail when tested under scientific conditions.