Across the Great Divide

“What does science have to fear from parapsychology?”

Last month we discussed some interesting points about science and the unanswered questions raised by parapsychology; a noted professor even attempted to explain some of the principles studied by researchers through the application of mathematical reasoning.

However, the underlying question remains: just why, more than 100 years later, does mainstream science still laugh off members of the field as one would their wacky uncle at Thanksgiving dinner?

The clichéd question many skeptics like to use is that if psychics are real, why do none of them ever win the lottery?

In “Science & Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics,” Chris Carter contends that psychic powers have not been conclusively proven because scientists are either blissfully ignorant of the available research or they simply refuse to take what is published seriously.

Why? Just what do they have to fear from opening their minds to new possibilities? Isn’t that what science is supposed to be all about?

The hardline opponents most often refuse to acknowledge the existence of paranormal phenomenon because to do otherwise would cause a paradigm shift in how the universe is viewed through the collective mind of humanity’s adolescent intellectual level.

Skeptics and scientists are as deeply committed to maintaining the status quo of their belief structure as anyone else is. There’s a psychological defense- a certain comfort level- involved in the avoidance of a possibility, however improbable, that they could be wrong.

This belief results in closed minds, but this adherence to the status quo only applies to theories presented by members of the study of parapsychology; in mainstream scientific circles a theory that could shatter long-standing laws of physics isn’t laughed off so readily.

In September 2011, news shot around the world that Italian physicists had measured particles traveling faster than light. If validated, it would have violated the fundamental laws of physics and completely change our understanding of the Universe.

The reaction from the scientific community to the news was not one of ignorance- they didn’t brand the scientists hoaxers and quacks; they didn’t shout, “Blasphemy, ye witch! Burn!”

Instead, they did what any reputable scientists does when confronted with such a challenge: they took a closer look and tried to replicate the research. As it turned out, the anomaly was caused by measurement and mechanical errors in the original experiment.

Such scientific brotherhood is not generally the case when it comes to theories presented by psychical research; every now and then, though, an exception is made.

A study published in a 2011 edition of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Cornell professor Daryl J. Bem claimed to have found strong evidence for the existence of psychic powers such as ESP; it quickly made headlines around the academic world for its implication that psychic powers had been- finally- scientifically proven.

Bem’s claim wasn’t ridiculed or ignored; instead it was taken seriously and tested by scientific researchers; replication, being the benchmark of any valid scientific research, should be able to replicate the findings. If not, then the findings could be summarily written off as random variations and errors.

So, a team of researchers set out to replicate Bem’s experiment and found no evidence for psychic powers. Their results were published and Bem publicly acknowledged that the findings did not support his claims and wrote that the researchers had “made a competent, good-faith effort to replicate the results of one of my experiments on precognition.”

While this was a heartwarming exception to the “black-sheep-of-the-family rule,” the reason that research looking into psychic powers and hauntings are rejected by the scientific community is simply because there hasn’t been that jaw-dropping discovery to make the world scream in unison, “Holy crap! Sorry, dude, we were wrong. Our bad.” (Yes, some major players in the scientific community do talk like that- they aren’t all stiffs with accents and bow ties)

The evidence for psychical phenomenon, like anything else, rests solely on its own merits. Better research follows with better evidence; and as technology readily catches up with the theories that began over a century ago, the answers may finally come. So we patiently await that Nobel prize moment that changes the course of human understanding. It may not be tomorrow, next week, or next year, but the possibility, however slight, should not rule out the quest for it as absurd or wasteful.

There’s no reason that science should fear or dismiss the study of the unknown. That’s the one thing that unites us all- our insatiable desire to question everything and the adventure essential to the quest.


© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions