Parapsychology is a field of study concerned with the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena. Parapsychologists study telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, apparitional experiences, and other supernatural and paranormal claims.
Modern parapsychology is largely conducted by private institutions in several different countries and funded through private donations. Parapsychological research rarely appears in mainstream science journals, most is published in a small number of niche journals.
Many scientists regard the discipline a pseudoscience. Parapsychology has been criticised for continuing investigation despite not having demonstrated conclusive evidence of psychic abilities in more than a century of research.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 History
- 3 Research
- 4 Scientific reception
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
The term parapsychology was coined in or around 1889 by philosopher Max Dessoir. It was adopted by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s as a replacement for the term psychical research in order to indicate a significant shift toward experimental methodology and academic discipline. The term originates from the Greek: παρά para meaning "alongside", and psychology.
In parapsychology, psi is the unknown factor in extrasensory perception and psychokinesis experiences that is not explained by known physical or biological mechanisms. The term is derived from the Greek, ψ psi, 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet; from the Greek ψυχή psyche, "mind, soul". The term was coined by biologist Berthold P. Wiesner, and first used by psychologist Robert Thouless in a 1942 article published in the British Journal of Psychology.
The Parapsychological Association divides psi into two main categories: psi-gamma for extrasensory perception and psi-kappa for psychokinesis. In popular culture, "psi" has become more and more synonymous with special psychic, mental, and "psionic" abilities and powers.
Early psychical research
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882. Its formation was the first systematic effort to organize scientists and scholars to investigate paranormal phenomena. Early membership included philosophers, scholars, scientists, educators and politicians, such as Henry Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour, William Crookes, Rufus Osgood Mason and Charles Richet.
Areas of study included telepathy, hypnotism, Reichenbach's phenomena, apparitions, hauntings, and the physical aspects of Spiritualism such as table-tilting, materialization and apportation. The Society for Psychical Research published a Census of Hallucinations, which researched apparitional experiences and hallucinations in the sane. The census was the Society's first attempt at a statistical evaluation of paranormal phenomena, and the resulting publication in 1886, Phantasms of the Living is still widely referenced in parapsychological literature today. The SPR became the model for similar societies in other European countries and the United States during the late 19th century. Largely due to the support of psychologist William James, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) opened its doors in Boston in 1885, moving to New York City in 1905 under the leadership of James H. Hyslop. The SPR and ASPR continue research in parapsychology.
In 1911, Stanford University became the first academic institution in the United States to study extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK) in a laboratory setting. The effort was headed by psychologist John Edgar Coover, and was supported by funds donated by Thomas Welton Stanford, brother of the university's founder. In 1930, Duke University became the second major U.S. academic institution to engage in the critical study of ESP and psychokinesis in the laboratory. Under the guidance of psychologist William McDougall, and with the help of others in the department—including psychologists Karl Zener, Joseph B. Rhine, and Louisa E. Rhine—laboratory ESP experiments using volunteer subjects from the undergraduate student body began. As opposed to the approaches of psychical research, which generally sought qualitative evidence for paranormal phenomena, the experiments at Duke University proffered a quantitative, statistical approach using cards and dice. As a consequence of the ESP experiments at Duke, standard laboratory procedures for the testing of ESP developed and came to be adopted by interested researchers throughout the world.
The publication of J.B. Rhine's book, New Frontiers of the Mind (1937) brought the laboratory's findings to the general public. In his book, Rhine popularized the word "parapsychology," which psychologist Max Dessoir had coined over 40 years earlier, to describe the research conducted at Duke. Rhine also founded an autonomous Parapsychology Laboratory within Duke and started the Journal of Parapsychology, which he co-edited with McDougall.
Rhine, along with associate Karl Zener, had developed a statistical system of testing for ESP that involved subjects guessing what symbol, out of five possible symbols, would appear when going through a special deck of cards designed for this purpose. A percentage of correct guesses (or hits) significantly above 20% was perceived as higher than chance and indicative of psychic ability. Rhine stated in his first book, ExtraSensory Perception (1934), that after 90,000 trials, he felt ESP is "an actual and demonstrable occurrence."
The parapsychology experiments at Duke evoked much criticism from academics and others who challenged the concepts and evidence of ESP. Rhine's experiments were discredited due to the discovery that sensory leakage or cheating could account for all his results such as the subject being able to read the symbols from the back of the cards and being able to see and hear the experimenter to note subtle clues.
Illusionist Milbourne Christopher wrote years later that he felt "there are at least a dozen ways a subject who wished to cheat under the conditions Rhine described could deceive the investigator". According to Christopher, Rhine did take precautions against cheating in response to criticisms of his methods, but once he did, he was unable to find the same high scores reported in earlier trials. Another criticism, made by chemist Irving Langmuir, among others, was one of selective reporting. Langmuir stated that Rhine did not report scores of subjects that he suspected were intentionally guessing wrong, and that this, he felt, biased the statistical results higher than they should have been.
Rhine and his colleagues attempted to address these criticisms through new experiments described in the book Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years (1940). In 1957, Rhine and Joseph Gaither Pratt wrote Parapsychology: Frontier Science of the Mind. When Rhine took precautions in response to criticisms of his methods, he was unable to find any high-scoring subjects. Because of the methodological problems, parapsychologists no longer utilize card-guessing studies. Rhine's experiments into psychokinesis (PK) were also criticized. John Sladek wrote:
His research used dice, with subjects 'willing' them to fall a certain way. Not only can dice be drilled, shaved, falsely numbered and manipulated, but even straight dice often show bias in the long run. Casinos for this reason retire dice often, but at Duke, subjects continued to try for the same effect on the same dice over long experimental runs. Not surprisingly, PK appeared at Duke and nowhere else.
Joseph Gaither Pratt was the co-experimenter in the Pearce-Pratt and Pratt-Woodruff experiments at the Duke campus. C. E. M. Hansel visited the campus where the experiments took place and discovered the results could have originated through the use of a trick so could not regarded as supplying evidence for ESP.
The Turner-Owenby long distance telepathy experiment was discovered to contain flaws. Frances May Turner positioned herself in the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory whilst Sarah Owenby claimed to receive transmissions 250 miles away. For the experiment Turner would think of a symbol and write it down whilst Owenby would write her guesses. The scores were highly successful and both records were supposed to be sent to J. B. Rhine, however, Owenby sent them to Turner. Critics pointed out this invalidated the results as she could have simply written her own record to agree with the other. When the experiment was repeated and the records were sent to Rhine the scores dropped to average.
A famous ESP experiment at the Duke University was performed by Lucien Warner and Mildred Raible. The subject was locked in a room with a switch controlling a signal light elsewhere, which he could signal to guess the card. Ten runs with ESP packs of cards were used and he achieved 93 hits (43 more than chance). Weaknesses with the experiment were later discovered. The duration of the light signal could be varied so that the subject could call for specific symbols and certain symbols in the experiment came up far more often than others which indicated either poor shuffling or card manipulation.
The administration of Duke grew less sympathetic to parapsychology, and after Rhine's retirement in 1965 parapsychological links with the university were broken. Rhine later established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM) and the Institute for Parapsychology as a successor to the Duke laboratory. In 1995, the centenary of Rhine's birth, the FRNM was renamed the Rhine Research Center. Today, the Rhine Research Center is a parapsychology research unit, stating that it "aims to improve the human condition by creating a scientific understanding of those abilities and sensitivities that appear to transcend the ordinary limits of space and time."
Establishment of the Parapsychological Association
The Parapsychological Association (PA) was created in Durham, North Carolina, on June 19, 1957. Its formation was proposed by J. B. Rhine at a workshop on parapsychology which was held at the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University. Rhine proposed that the group form itself into the nucleus of an international professional society in parapsychology. The aim of the organization, as stated in its Constitution, became "to advance parapsychology as a science, to disseminate knowledge of the field, and to integrate the findings with those of other branches of science".
In 1969, under the direction of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the Parapsychological Association became affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest general scientific society in the world. In 1979, physicist John A. Wheeler said that parapsychology is pseudoscientific, and that the affiliation of the PA to the AAAS needed to be reconsidered. His challenge to parapsychology's AAAS affiliation was unsuccessful. Today, the PA consists of about three hundred full, associate, and affiliated members worldwide.
MKULTRA and The Stargate Project
Beginning in the early 1950s, the CIA started extensive research into behavioral engineering. Various experiments were undertaken in the process of this research, including some using various hallucinogenic substances. The findings from these experiments led to the formation of the Stargate Project, which handled ESP research for the U.S. federal government.
The Stargate Project was terminated in 1995 with the conclusion that it was never useful in any intelligence operation. The information was vague and included a lot of irrelevant and erroneous data. There was also reason to suspect that the research managers had adjusted their project reports to fit the known background cues.
The 1970s and 1980s
The affiliation of the Parapsychological Association (PA) with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with a general openness to psychic and occult phenomena in the 1970s, led to a decade of increased parapsychological research. During this period, other related organizations were also formed, including the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (1970), the Institute of Parascience (1971), the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, the Institute of Noetic Sciences (1973), the International Kirlian Research Association (1975), and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (1979). Parapsychological work was also conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) during this time.
The scope of parapsychology expanded during these years. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson conducted much of his research into reincarnation during the 1970s, and the second edition of his Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation was published in 1974. Psychologist Thelma Moss devoted time to the study of Kirlian photography at UCLA's parapsychology laboratory. The influx of spiritual teachers from Asia, and their claims of abilities produced by meditation, led to research on altered states of consciousness. American Society for Psychical Research Director of Research, Karlis Osis, conducted experiments in out of body experiences. Physicist Russell Targ coined the term remote viewing for use in some of his work at SRI in 1974.
The surge in paranormal research continued into the 1980s: the Parapsychological Association reported members working in more than 30 countries. For example, research was carried out and regular conferences held in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union although the word parapsychology was discarded in favour of the term psychotronics. The promoter of psychotronics was Czech scientist Zdeněk Rejdák. Rejdák kept enforcing the psychotronics as a physical science on the world-wide scale and for many years, he organized conferences on research in psychotronics. The psychotronics of this era is being understood as a new science in the terms of human bionics. The main objectives of psychotronics were to verify and study distant interactions human organism and its information and energy expressions and subsequently the phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis, to discover new principles of nature.
In 1985 a Chair of Parapsychology was established within the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Robert Morris, a respected experimental parapsychologist from the United States took up the position, and with his research associates and PhD students pursued a comprehensive research programme. Since Professor Morris' death in 2004 the Chair of Parapsychology has remained vacant.
Since the 1980s, contemporary parapsychological research has waned considerably in the United States. Early research was considered inconclusive, and parapsychologists were faced with strong opposition from their academic colleagues. Some effects thought to be paranormal, for example the effects of Kirlian photography (thought by some to represent a human aura), disappeared under more stringent controls, leaving those avenues of research at dead-ends. Many university laboratories in the United States have closed, citing a lack of acceptance by mainstream science as the reason; the bulk of parapsychology research in the US is now confined to private institutions funded by private sources. After 28 years of research, Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR), which studied psychokinesis, closed in 2007.
Two universities in the United States currently have academic parapsychology laboratories. The Division of Perceptual Studies, a unit at the University of Virginia's Department of Psychiatric Medicine, studies the possibility of survival of consciousness after bodily death, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences. The University of Arizona's Veritas Laboratory conducts laboratory investigations of mediums. Several private institutions, including the Institute of Noetic Sciences, conduct and promote parapsychological research.
Over the last two decades some new sources of funding for parapsychology in Europe have seen a "substantial increase in European parapsychological research so that the center of gravity for the field has swung from the United States to Europe". Of all nations the United Kingdom has the largest number of active parapsychologists. In the UK, researchers work in conventional psychology departments, and also do studies in mainstream psychology to "boost their credibility and show that their methods are sound". It is thought that this approach could account for the relative strength of parapsychology in Britain.
As of 2007, parapsychology research is represented in some 30 different countries and a number of universities worldwide continue academic parapsychology programs. Among these are the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh; the Parapsychology Research Group at Liverpool Hope University (this closed in April 2011); the SOPHIA Project at the University of Arizona; the Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology Research Unit of Liverpool John Moores University; the Center for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton; and the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Research and professional organizations include the Parapsychological Association; the Society for Psychical Research, publisher of the Journal of Society for Psychical Research; the American Society for Psychical Research, publisher of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (last published in 2004); the Rhine Research Center and Institute for Parapsychology, publisher of the Journal of Parapsychology; the Parapsychology Foundation, which published the International Journal of Parapsychology (between 1959 to 1968 and 2000–2001) and the Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research, publisher of the Australian Journal of Parapsychology. The European Journal of Parapsychology ceased publishing in 2010.
Parapsychological research has also been augmented by other sub-disciplines of psychology. These related fields include transpersonal psychology, which studies transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human mind, and Anomalistic psychology, which examines paranormal beliefs and subjective anomalous experiences in traditional psychological terms.
Parapsychologists study a number of ostensible paranormal phenomena, including but not limited to:
- Telepathy: Transfer of information on thoughts or feelings between individuals by means other than the five classical senses.
- Precognition: Perception of information about future places or events before they occur.
- Clairvoyance: Obtaining information about places or events at remote locations, by means unknown to current science.
- Psychokinesis: The ability of the mind to influence matter, time, space, or energy by means unknown to current science.
- Near-death experiences: An experience reported by a person who nearly died, or who experienced clinical death and then revived.
- Reincarnation: The rebirth of a soul or other non-physical aspect of human consciousness in a new physical body after death.
- Apparitional experiences: Phenomena often attributed to ghosts and encountered in places a deceased individual is thought to have frequented, or in association with the person's former belongings.
The definitions for the terms above may not reflect their mainstream usage, nor the opinions of all parapsychologists and their critics.
According to the Parapsychological Association, parapsychologists do not study all paranormal phenomena, nor are they concerned with astrology, UFOs, Bigfoot, paganism, vampires, alchemy, or witchcraft.
Journals dealing with parapsychology include the Journal of Parapsychology, Journal of Near-Death Studies, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and Journal of Scientific Exploration.
Parapsychologists employ a variety of approaches for the study of apparent paranormal phenomena. These methods include qualitative approaches used in traditional psychology, but also quantitative empirical methodologies.
The Ganzfeld (German for "whole field") is a technique used to test individuals for telepathy. The technique—a form of moderate sensory deprivation—was developed to quickly quiet mental "noise" by providing mild, unpatterned stimuli to the visual and auditory senses. The visual sense is usually isolated by creating a soft red glow which is diffused through half ping-pong balls placed over the recipient's eyes. The auditory sense is usually blocked by playing white noise, static, or similar sounds to the recipient. The subject is also seated in a reclined, comfortable position to minimize the sense of touch.
In the typical Ganzfeld experiment, a "sender" and a "receiver" are isolated. The receiver is put into the Ganzfeld state or Ganzfeld effect and the sender is shown a video clip or still picture and asked to mentally send that image to the receiver. The receiver, while in the Ganzfeld, is asked to continuously speak aloud all mental processes, including images, thoughts, and feelings. At the end of the sending period, typically about 20 to 40 minutes in length, the receiver is taken out of the Ganzfeld state and shown four images or videos, one of which is the true target and three of which are non-target decoys. The receiver attempts to select the true target, using perceptions experienced during the Ganzfeld state as clues to what the mentally "sent" image might have been.
The ganzfeld experiment studies that were examined by Ray Hyman and Charles Honorton had methodological problems that were well documented. Honorton reported only 36% of the studies used duplicate target sets of pictures to avoid handling cues. Hyman discovered flaws in all of the 42 ganzfeld experiments and to access each experiment, he devised a set of 12 categories of flaws. Six of these concerned statistical defects, the other six covered procedural flaws such as inadequate documentation, randomization and security as well as possibilities of sensory leakage. Over half of the studies failed to safeguard against sensory leakage and all of the studies contained at least one of the 12 flaws. Because of the flaws, Honorton agreed with Hyman the 42 ganzfeld studies could not support the claim for the existence of psi.
Possibilities of sensory leakage in the ganzfeld experiments included the receivers hearing what was going on in the sender's room next door as the rooms were not soundproof and the sender's fingerprints to be visible on the target object for the receiver to see. Hyman reviewed the autoganzfeld experiments and discovered a pattern in the data that implied a visual cue may have taken place. Hyman wrote the autoganzfeld experiments were flawed because they did not preclude the possibility of sensory leakage.
In 2010, Lance Storm, Patrizio Tressoldi, and Lorenzo Di Risio analyzed 29 ganzfeld studies from 1997 to 2008. Of the 1,498 trials, 483 produced hits, corresponding to a hit rate of 32.2%. This hit rate is statistically significant with p < .001. Participants selected for personality traits and personal characteristics thought to be psi-conducive were found to perform significantly better than unselected participants in the ganzfeld condition. Hyman (2010) published a rebuttal to Storm et al.
Remote viewing experiments test the ability to gather information about a remote target consisting of an object, place, or person that is hidden from the physical perception of the viewer and typically separated from the viewer by some distance. In one type of remote viewing experiment, a pool of several hundred photographs are created. One of these is randomly selected by a third party to be the target. It is then set aside in a remote location. The remote viewer attempts to sketch or otherwise describe that remote target photo. This procedure is repeated for a number of different targets. Many ways of analytically evaluating the results of this sort of experiment have been developed. One common method is to take a group of seven target photos and responses, randomly shuffle the targets and responses, and then ask independent judges to rank or match the correct targets with the participant's actual responses. This method assumes that if there were an anomalous transfer of information, the responses should correspond more closely to the correct targets than to the mismatched targets.
Several hundred such trials have been conducted by investigators over the past 25 years, including those by the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR) and by scientists at SRI International and Science Applications International Corporation. Many of these were under contract by the U.S. government as part of the espionage program Stargate Project, which terminated in 1995 having failed, in the government's eyes, to document any practical intelligence value. PEAR closed its doors at the end of February 2007. Its founder, Robert G. Jahn, said of it that, "For 28 years, we’ve done what we wanted to do, and there’s no reason to stay and generate more of the same data." However, physicist Robert L. Park said of PEAR, "It’s been an embarrassment to science, and I think an embarrassment for Princeton".
Psychokinesis on random number generators
The advent of powerful and inexpensive electronic and computer technologies has allowed the development of fully automated experiments studying possible interactions between mind and matter. In the most common experiment of this type, a true random number generator (RNG), based on electronic or radioactive noise, produces a data stream that is recorded and analyzed by computer software. A subject attempts to mentally alter the distribution of the random numbers, usually in an experimental design that is functionally equivalent to getting more "heads" than "tails" while flipping a coin. In the RNG experiment, design flexibility can be combined with rigorous controls, while collecting a large amount of data in very short period of time. This technique has been used both to test individuals for psychokinesis and to test the possible influence on RNGs of large groups of people.
Major meta-analyses of the RNG database have been published every few years since appearing in the journal Foundations of Physics in 1986. PEAR founder Robert G. Jahn and his colleague Brenda Dunne say that the effect size in all cases was found to be very small, but consistent across time and experimental designs, resulting in an overall statistical significance. The most recent meta-analysis on psychokinesis was published in Psychological Bulletin, along with several critical commentaries. It analyzed the results of 380 studies; the authors reported an overall positive effect size that was statistically significant but very small relative to the sample size and could be explained by publication bias.
Direct mental interactions with living systems
Formerly called bio-PK, "direct mental interactions with living systems" (DMILS) studies the effects of one person's intentions on a distant person's psychophysiological state. One type of DMILS experiment looks at the commonly reported "feeling of being stared at." The "starer" and the "staree" are isolated in different locations, and the starer is periodically asked to simply gaze at the staree via closed circuit video links. Meanwhile, the staree's nervous system activity is automatically and continuously monitored.
Parapsychologists have interpreted the cumulative data on this and similar DMILS experiments to suggest that one person's attention directed towards a remote, isolated person can significantly activate or calm that person's nervous system. In a meta-analysis of these experiments published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2004, researchers found that there was a small but significant overall DMILS effect. However, the study also found that when a small number of the highest-quality studies from one laboratory were analyzed, the effect size was not significant. The authors concluded that although the existence of some anomaly related to distant intentions cannot be ruled out, there was also a shortage of independent replications and theoretical concepts.
Near death experiences
A near-death experience (NDE) is an experience reported by a person who nearly died, or who experienced clinical death and then revived. NDEs include one or more of the following experiences: a sense of being dead; an out-of-body experience; a sensation of floating above one's body and seeing the surrounding area; a sense of overwhelming love and peace; a sensation of moving upwards through a tunnel or narrow passageway; meeting deceased relatives or spiritual figures; encountering a being of light, or a light; experiencing a life review; reaching a border or boundary; and a feeling of being returned to the body, often accompanied by reluctance.
Interest in the NDE was originally spurred by the research of psychiatrists Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, George G. Ritchie, and Raymond Moody. In 1975, Moody wrote the best-selling book Life After Life and in 1977 he wrote a second book, Reflections on Life After Life. In 1998 Moody was appointed chair in "consciousness studies" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The International Association for Near-death Studies (IANDS) was founded in 1978 to meet the needs of early researchers and experiencers within this field of research. Later researchers, such as psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, psychologist Kenneth Ring, and cardiologist Michael Sabom, introduced the study of near-death experiences to the academic setting.
Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia, conducted more than 2,500 case studies over a period of 40 years and published twelve books. He found that childhood memories ostensibly related to reincarnation normally occurred between the ages of three and seven years then fade shortly afterwards. He compared the memories with reports of people known to the deceased, attempting to do so before any contact between the child and the deceased's family had occurred, and searched for disconfirming evidence that could provide alternative explanations for the reports aside from reincarnation.
Some 35 per cent of the subjects examined by Stevenson had birthmarks or birth defects. Stevenson believed that the existence of birth marks and deformities on children, when they occurred at the location of fatal wounds in the deceased, provided the best evidence for reincarnation. However, Stevenson has never claimed that he had proved the existence of reincarnation, and cautiously referred to his cases as being "of the reincarnation type" or "suggestive of reincarnation". Researchers who believe in the evidence for reincarnation have been unsuccessful in getting the scientific community to consider it a serious possibility.
Stevenson retired in 2002, and psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker took over his work. Tucker, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, presented an overview of Stevenson's research into reincarnation in Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives.
A number of surveys have found that many people report having had experiences that could be interpreted as telepathy, precognition, and similar phenomena. Variables that have been associated with reports of psi-phenomena include belief in the reality of psi; the tendency to have hypnotic, dissociative, and other alterations of consciousness; and, less reliably so, neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience. Although psi-related experiences can occur in the context of such psychopathologies as psychotic, dissociative, and other disorders, most individuals who endorse a belief in psi generally have normal intellectual functioning and lack serious psychopathology.
Scientists such as Donovan Rawcliffe (1952), C. E. M. Hansel (1980), Ray Hyman (1989) and Andrew Neher (2011) have studied the history of psi experiments from the late 19th century up until the 1980s. In every experiment investigated flaws and weaknesses were discovered so the possibility of sensory leakage and trickery were not ruled out. The data from the Creery sister and the Soal-Goldney experiments were proven to be fraudulent, one of the subjects from the Smith-Blackburn experiments confessed to fraud, the Brugmans experiment, the experiments by John E. Coover and those conducted by Joseph Gaither Pratt and Helmut Schmidt did not rule out the possibility of sensory cues or trickery.
According to critics, psi is negatively defined as any effect that cannot be currently explained in terms of chance or normal causes and this is a fallacy as it encourages parapsychologists into using any peculiarity in the data as a characteristic of psi. Parapsychologists have admitted it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of non-paranormal causes in their experiments. There is no independent method to indicate the presence or absence of psi. There is no known mechanism for psi. Psi would contradict laws of science such as the conservation of energy.
On the subject of psychokinesis the physicist Sean M. Carroll has written that both human brains and the spoons they try to bend are made, like all matter, of quarks and leptons; everything else they do is emergent properties of the behaviour of quarks and leptons. And the quarks and leptons interact through the four forces: strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational. Thus either it's one of the four known forces or it's a new force, and any new force with range over 1 millimetre must be at most a billionth the strength of gravity or it will have been captured in experiments already done. This leaves no physical force that could possibly account for psychokinesis. In the 1970s the physicist John Taylor in a series of experiments was concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for psi but his experiments were negative and after failing to find it, wrote there could not be any other explanation in physics. The parapsychologist John Palmer has written of "the source of psi problem" which states that even if there is evidence for psi in an experiment there is no way of knowing where it originates from.
The first president of the Parapsychological Association R. A. McConnell wrote "psi phenomena are "non-physical" and thus show the existence of a non-physical realm in which the existence of a "God" becomes a possibility." The parapsychologist Charles Tart has written that psi is non-physical in basis and does not operate to known physical laws.
According to a report in the Skeptical Inquirer in 1997 no credible theory of psi has yet been presented. Koneru Ramakrishna Rao, a past President of the Parapsychological Association, has written that the lack of any agreed-upon theory of parapsychology is one reason for the general skepticism of the scientific community regarding the existence of paranormal phenomena. Skeptics such as Antony Flew have cited the lack of such a theory as their reason for rejecting parapsychology.
The parapsychologist John Beloff in his book Parapsychology: A Concise History (1997) has written that in the Western world parapsychology has been "driven by desire to confound materialism or reductionism" and that there has only been a minority of parapsychologists who have advocated physical theories for psi. No accepted theory of parapsychology currently exists, and many competing and often conflicting models have been advocated by different parapsychologists in an attempt to explain reported paranormal phenomena. Terence Hines in his book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (2003) wrote:
Many theories have been proposed by parapsychologists to explain how psi takes place. To skeptics, such theory building seems premature, as the phenomena to be explained by the theories have yet to be demonstrated convincingly.
In 2003, James Alcock Professor of Psychology at York University published Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi, where he claimed that parapsychologists never seem to take seriously the possibility that psi does not exist. Because of that, they interpret null results as indicating only that they were unable to observe psi in a particular experiment, rather than taking it as support for the possibility that there is no psi. The failure to take the null hypothesis as a serious alternative to their psi hypotheses leads them to rely upon a number of arbitrary "effects" to excuse failures to find predicted effects, excuse the lack of consistency in outcomes, and to excuse failures to replicate.
Basic endemic problems in parapsychological research include amongst others: insufficient definition of the subject matter, total reliance on negative definitions of their phenomena (E.g.- psi is said to occur only when all known normal influences are ruled out); failure to produce a single phenomenon that can be independently replicated by neutral researchers; the invention of "effects" such as the psi-experimenter effect to explain away inconsistencies in the data and failures to achieve predicted outcomes; unfalsifiability of claims; unpredictability of effects; lack of progress in over a century of formal research; methodological weaknesses; reliance on statistical procedures to determine when psi has supposedly occurred, even though statistical analysis does not in itself justify a claim that psi has occurred; and failure to jibe with other areas of science. Overall, he argues that there is nothing in parapsychological research that would ever lead parapsychologists to conclude that psi does not exist, and so, even if it does not, the search is likely to continue for a long time to come. "I continue to believe that parapsychology is, at bottom, motivated by belief in search of data, rather than data in search of explanation."
In January 2008 the results of a study using neuroimaging were published. To provide what are purported to be the most favorable experimental conditions, the study included appropriate emotional stimuli and had participants who are biologically or emotionally related, such as twins. The experiment was designed to produce positive results if telepathy, clairvoyance or precognition occurred, but despite this no distinguishable neuronal responses were found between psychic stimuli and non-psychic stimuli, while variations in the same stimuli showed anticipated effects on patterns of brain activation. The researchers concluded that "These findings are the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of paranormal mental phenomena."
According to Robert Todd Carroll research in parapsychology has been characterized by "deception, fraud, and incompetence in setting up properly controlled experiments and evaluating statistical data." The psychologist Ray Hyman has pointed out that some parapsychologists such as Dick Bierman, Walter Lucadou, J. E. Kennedy, and Robert Jahn have admitted the evidence for psi is "inconsistent, irreproducible, and fails to meet acceptable scientific standards." Some parapsychologists have also claimed psi is not amenable to investigation by the scientific method.
In a review of parapsychological reports Hyman wrote "randomization is often inadequate, multiple statistical testing without adjustment for significance levels is prevalent, possibilities for sensory leakage are not uniformly prevented, errors in use of statistical tests are much too common, and documentation is typically inadequate". Parapsychology has been criticized for making no precise predictions. The physicist Robert L. Park has written "No proof of psychic phenomena is ever found. In spite of all the tests devised by parapsychologists like Jahn and Radin, and huge amounts of data collected over a period of many years, the results are no more convincing today than when they began their experiments." Some researchers have become skeptical of parapsychology such as Susan Blackmore and John Taylor after years of study and no progress in demonstrating the existence of psi by the scientific method.
Parapsychological theories are viewed as pseudoscientific by the scientific community as they are incompatible with well established laws of science. As there is no repeatable evidence for psi, the scientific community consider it a pseudoscience. The philosopher Raimo Tuomela summarized why much of parapsychology is considered a pseudoscience in his essay "Science, Protoscience, and Pseudoscience".
- Parapsychology relies on an ill-defined ontology and typically shuns exact thinking.
- The hypotheses and theories of parapsychology have not been proven and are in bad shape.
- Extremely little progress has taken place in parapsychology on the whole and parapsychology conflicts with established science.
- Parapsychology has poor research problems, being concerned with establishing the existence of its subject matter and having practically no theories to create proper research problems.
- While in parts of parapsychology there are attempts to use the methods of science there are also unscientific areas; and in any case parapsychological research can at best qualify as prescientific because of its poor theoretical foundations.
- Parapsychology is a largely isolated research area.
The methods of parapsychologists are regarded by critics, including those who wrote the science standards for the California State Board of Education, to be pseudoscientific. Some of the more specific criticisms state that parapsychology does not have a clearly defined subject matter, an easily repeatable experiment that can demonstrate a psi effect on demand, nor an underlying theory to explain the paranormal transfer of information. James Alcock has stated that few of parapsychology's experimental results have prompted interdisciplinary research with more mainstream sciences such as physics or biology, and that parapsychology remains an isolated science to such an extent that its very legitimacy is questionable, and as a whole is not justified in being labeled "scientific". Alcock has written "Parapsychology is indistinguishable from pseudo-science, and its ideas are essentially those of magic... There is no evidence that would lead the cautious observer to believe that parapsychologists and paraphysicists are on the track of a real phenomenon, a real energy or power that has so far escaped the attention of those people engaged in "normal" science.
The scientific community considers parapsychology a pseudoscience because it continues to explore the hypothesis that psychic abilities exist despite a century of experimental results that fail to conclusively demonstrate that hypothesis. A panel commissioned by the United States National Research Council to study paranormal claims concluded that "despite a 130-year record of scientiﬁc research on such matters, our committee could ﬁnd no scientiﬁc justiﬁcation for the existence of phenomena such as extrasensory perception, mental telepathy or ‘mind over matter’ exercises... Evaluation of a large body of the best available evidence simply does not support the contention that these phenomena exist."
There is also an issue of non-falsifiability associated with psi, on this subject Terence Hines has written:
The most common rationale offered by parapsychologists to explain the lack of a repeatable demonstration of ESP or other psi phenomena is to say that ESP in particular and psi phenomena in general are elusive or jealous phenomena. This means the phenomena go away when a skeptic is present or when skeptical “vibrations” are present. This argument seems nicely to explain away some of the major problems facing parapsychology until it is realized that it is nothing more than a classic nonfalsifiable hypothesis... The use of the nonfalsifiable hypothesis is permitted in parapsychology to a degree unheard of in any scientific discipline. To the extent that investigators accept this type of hypothesis, they will be immune to having their belief in psi disproved. No matter how many experiments fail to provide evidence for psi and no matter how good those experiments are, the nonfalsifiable hypothesis will always protect the belief.
The philosopher Mario Bunge has written that research in parapsychology for over a hundred years has produced no single firm finding and no testable predictions. All parapsychologists can do is claim alleged data is anomalous and lying beyond the reach of ordinary science. The aim of parapsychologists "is not that of finding laws and systematizing them into theories in order to understand and forecast" but to "buttress ancient spiritualist myths or to serve as a surrogate for lost religions."
Questionable validity of parapsychology research
Scientists critical of parapsychology state that its extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence if they are to be taken seriously. Many analysts of parapsychology hold that the entire body of evidence to date is of poor quality and not adequately controlled. In their view, parapsychology has not produced conclusive results. In support of this view, critics cite instances of fraud, flawed studies, and cognitive biases (such as clustering illusion, availability error, confirmation bias, illusion of control, magical thinking, and the bias blind spot) as ways to explain parapsychological results. Skeptics have also contended that people's desire to believe in paranormal phenomena causes them to discount strong evidence that it does not exist.
The existence of parapsychological phenomena and the scientific validity of parapsychological research is disputed by independent evaluators and researchers. In 1988, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published a report on the subject that concluded that "no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena." In the same report, however, they also recommended monitoring some parapsychological research, such as psychokinesis on random number generators and ganzfeld effects, for possible future studies. The studies at the PEAR lab, recommended for monitoring by the report, have since concluded. These studies likewise failed to elicit a positive response by the scientific community despite numerous trials. A 2008 study tested participants repeatedly for 90 minutes in a magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) environment and showed no detectable psi effect, no baseline measure outside of the fMRI was collected for comparison.
Additionally, Richard Wiseman has criticized the parapsychological community for widespread errors in research methods including cherry-picking new procedures which may produce preferred results, explaining away unsuccessful attempted replications with claims of an "experimenter effect", data mining, and Retrospective data selection. Carl Sagan suggested that there are three claims in the field of parapsychology which have at least some experimental support and "deserve serious study", as they "might be true":
- (1) that by thought alone humans can affect random number generators in computers;
- (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images "projected" at them;
- (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have know about in any other way than reincarnation.
There have been instances of fraud in the history of parapsychology research. In the late 19th century the Creery Sisters (Mary, Alice, Maud, Kathleen, and Emily) were tested by the Society for Psychical Research and believed them to have genuine psychic ability however, during a later experiment they were caught utilizing signal codes and they confessed to fraud. George Albert Smith and Douglas Blackburn were claimed to be genuine psychics by the Society for Psychical Research but Blackburn confessed to fraud:
|“||For nearly thirty years the telepathic experiments conducted by Mr. G. A. Smith and myself have been accepted and cited as the basic evidence of the truth of thought transference...
...the whole of those alleged experiments were bogus, and originated in the honest desire of two youths to show how easily men of scientific mind and training could be deceived when seeking for evidence in support of a theory they were wishful to establish.
The Soal–Goldney experiments of 1941–1943 (suggesting precognitive ability of a single participant) were long regarded as some of the best in the field because they relied upon independent checking and witnesses to prevent fraud. However, many years later, statistical evidence, uncovered and published by other parapsychologists in the field, suggested that Dr. Soal had cheated by altering some of the raw data.
In 1974, a number of experiments by Walter J. Levy, J. B. Rhine's successor as director of the Institute for Parapsychology, were exposed as fraud. Levy had reported on a series of successful ESP experiments involving computer-controlled manipulation of non-human subjects, including eggs and rats. His experiments showed very high positive results. Because the subjects were non-human, and because the experimental environment was mostly automated, his successful experiments avoided criticism concerning experimenter effects, and removed the question of the subject's belief as an influence on the outcome. However, Levy's fellow researchers became suspicious about his methods. They found that Levy interfered with data-recording equipment, manually creating fraudulent strings of positive results. Rhine fired Levy and reported the fraud in a number of articles.
In 1974 Rhine published the paper Security versus Deception in Parapsychology in the Journal of Parapsychology which documented 12 cases of fraud that he had detected from 1940 to 1950 but refused to give the names of the participants in the studies. Massimo Pigliucci has written:
Most damning of all, Rhine admitted publicly that he had uncovered at least twelve instances of dishonesty among his researchers in a single decade, from 1940 to 1950. However, he flaunted standard academic protocol by refusing to divulge the names of the fraudsters, which means that there is unknown number of published papers in the literature that claim paranormal effects while in fact they were the result of conscious deception.
Martin Gardner claimed to have inside information that files in Rhine's laboratory contain material suggesting fraud on the part of Hubert Pearce. Pearce was never able to obtain above-chance results when persons other than the experimenter were present during an experiment making it more likely that he was cheating in some way. Rhine's other subjects were only able to obtain non-chance levels when they were able to shuffle the cards which has suggested they used tricks to arrange the order of the Zener cards before the experiments started. Rhine's assistant James D. MacFarland was also accused of fraud. Louisa Rhine wrote "Jim [James D. MacFarland] had actually consistently falsified his records... To produce extra hits Jim had to resort to erasures and transpositions in his records of his call series."
Some instances of fraud amongst spiritualist mediums were exposed by early psychical researchers such as Richard Hodgson and Harry Price. In the 1920s, magician and escapologist Harry Houdini said that researchers and observers had not created experimental procedures which absolutely preclude fraud.
Criticism of experimental results
Critical analysts, including some parapsychologists, are not satisfied with experimental parapsychology studies. Some reviewers, such as psychologist Ray Hyman, contend that apparently successful experimental results in psi research are more likely due to sloppy procedures, poorly trained researchers, or methodological flaws rather than to genuine psi effects. Within parapsychology there are disagreements over the results and methodology as well. For example, the experiments at the PEAR laboratory were criticized in a paper published by the Journal of Parapsychology, in which parapsychologists independent from the PEAR laboratory concluded that these experiments "depart[ed] from criteria usually expected in formal scientific experimentation" due to "[p]roblems with regard to randomization, statistical baselines, application of statistical models, agent coding of descriptor lists, feedback to percipients, sensory cues, and precautions against cheating." They felt that the originally stated significance values were "meaningless".
A typical measure of psi phenomena is statistical deviation from chance expectation. However, critics point out that statistical deviation is, strictly speaking, only evidence of a statistical anomaly, and the cause of the deviation is not known. Hyman contends that even if psi experiments could be designed that would regularly reproduce similar deviations from chance, they would not necessarily prove psychic functioning. Critics have coined the term The Psi Assumption to describe "the assumption that any significant departure from the laws of chance in a test of psychic ability is evidence that something anomalous or paranormal has occurred...[in other words] assuming what they should be proving." These critics hold that concluding the existence of psychic phenomena based on chance deviation in inadequately designed experiments is affirming the consequent or begging the question.
In 1979, magician and debunker James Randi engineered a hoax, now referred to as Project Alpha to encourage a tightening of standards within the parapsychology community. Randi recruited two young magicians and sent them undercover to Washington University's McDonnell Laboratory where they " fooled researchers ... into believing they had paranormal powers." The aim was to expose poor experimental methods and the credulity thought to be common in parapsychology. Randi has stated that both of his recruits deceived experimenters over a period of three years with demonstrations of supposedly psychic abilities: blowing electric fuses sealed in a box, causing a lightweight paper rotor perched atop a needle to turn inside a bell jar, bending metal spoons sealed in a glass bottle, etc. The hoax by Randi raised ethical concerns in the scientific and parapsychology communities, eliciting criticism even among skeptical communities such as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which he helped found, but also positive responses from the President of the Parapsychological Association Stanley Krippner. Psychologist Ray Hyman, a CSICOP member, called the results "counterproductive".
Selection bias and meta-analysis
Selective reporting has been offered by critics as an explanation for the positive results reported by parapsychologists. Selective reporting is sometimes referred to as a "file drawer" problem, which arises when only positive study results are made public, while studies with negative or null results are not made public. Selective reporting has a compounded effect on meta-analysis, which is a statistical technique that aggregates the results of many studies in order to generate sufficient statistical power to demonstrate a result that the individual studies themselves could not demonstrate at a statistically significant level. For example, a recent meta-analysis combined 380 studies on psychokinesis, including data from the PEAR lab. It concluded that, although there is a statistically significant overall effect, it is not consistent and relatively few negative studies would cancel it out. Consequently, biased publication of positive results could be the cause.
The popularity of meta-analysis in parapsychology has been criticized by numerous researchers, and is often seen as troublesome even within parapsychology itself. Critics have said that parapsychologists misuse meta-analysis to create the incorrect impression that statistically significant results have been obtained that indicate the existence of psi phenomena. Physicist Robert Park states that parapsychology's reported positive results are problematic because most such findings are invariably at the margin of statistical significance and that might be explained by a number of confounding effects; Park states that such marginal results are a typical symptom of pathological science as described by Irving Langmuir.
Researcher J. E. Kennedy has said that concerns over the use of meta-analysis in science and medicine apply as well to problems present in parapsychological meta-analysis. As a post-hoc analysis, critics emphasize the opportunity the method presents to produce biased outcomes via the selection of cases chosen for study, methods employed, and other key criteria. Critics say that analogous problems with meta-analysis have been documented in medicine, where it has been shown different investigators performing meta-analyses of the same set of studies have reached contradictory conclusions.
Organizations that encourage a critical examination of parapsychology and parapsychological research include the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer; the James Randi Educational Foundation, founded by illusionist and skeptic James Randi, and the Occult Investigative Committee of the Society of American Magicians a society for professional magicians that seeks "the promotion of harmony among magicians, and the opposition of the unnecessary public exposure of magical effects."
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- Simon Hoggart, Mike Hutchinson. (1995). Bizarre Beliefs. Richard Cohen Books. p. 145. ISBN 978-1573921565 "The trouble is that the history of research into psi is littered with failed experiments, ambiguous experiments, and experiments which are claimed as great successes but are quickly rejected by conventional scientists. There has also been some spectacular cheating."
- Robert Cogan. (1998). Critical Thinking: Step by Step. University Press of America. p. 227. ISBN 978-0761810674 "When an experiment can't be repeated and get the same result, this tends to show that the result was due to some error in experimental procedure, rather than some real causal process. ESP experiments simply have not turned up any repeatable paranormal phenomena."
- Charles M. Wynn, Arthur W. Wiggins. (2001). Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends...and Pseudoscience Begins. Joseph Henry Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-0309073097 "Extrasensory perception and psychokinesis fail to fulfill the requirements of the scientific method. They therefore must remain pseudoscientific concepts until methodological flaws in their study are eliminated, and repeatable data supporting their existence are obtained."
- Terence Hines. (2003). Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. p. 144. ISBN 1-57392-979-4 "It is important to realize that, in one hundred years of parapsychological investigations, there has never been a single adequate demonstration of the reality of any psi phenomenon."
- Jan Dalkvist (1994). Telepathic group communication of emotions as a function of belief in telepathy. Dept. of Psychology, Stockholm University. Retrieved 5 October 2011. "Within the scientific community however, the claim that psi anomalies exist or may exist is in general regarded with skepticism. One reason for this difference between the scientist and the non scientist is that the former relies on his own experiences and anecdotal reports of psi phenomena, whereas the scientist at least officially requires replicable results from well controlled experiments to believe in such phenomena - results which according to the prevailing view among scientists, do not exist."
- Willem B. Drees (28 November 1998). Religion, Science and Naturalism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 242–. ISBN 978-0-521-64562-1. Retrieved 5 October 2011. "Let me take the example of claims in parapsychology regarding telepathy across spatial or temporal distances, apparently without a mediating physical process. Such claims are at odds with the scientific consensus."
- Victor Stenger. (1990). Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses. Prometheus Books. p. 166. ISBN 0-87975-575-X "The bottom line is simple: science is based on consensus, and at present a scientific consensus that psychic phenomena exist is still not established."
- Eugene B. Zechmeister, James E. Johnson. (1992). Critical Thinking: A Functional Approach. Brooks/Cole Pub. Co. p. 115. ISBN 0534165966 "There exists no good scientific evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena such as ESP. To be acceptable to the scientific community, evidence must be both valid and reliable."
- Donovan Rawcliffe. (1952). The Psychology of the Occult. Derricke Ridgway, London.
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- James Alcock. (2003). Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi. Journal of Consciousness Studies 10: 29–50. "Parapsychology is the only realm of objective inquiry in which the phenomena are all negatively defined, defined in terms of ruling out normal explanations. Of course, ruling out all normal explanations is not an easy task. We may not be aware of all possible normal explanations, or we may be deceived by our subjects, or we may deceive ourselves. If all normal explanations actually could be ruled out, just what is it that is at play? What is psi? Unfortunately, it is just a label. It has no substantive definition that goes beyond saying that all normal explanations have apparently been eliminated. Of course, parapsychologists generally presume that it has something to do with some ability of the mind to transcend the laws of nature as we know them, but all that is so vague as to be unhelpful in any scientific exploration."
- Charles M. Wynn, Arthur W. Wiggins. (2001). Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends...and Pseudoscience Begins. Joseph Henry Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-0309073097 "One of the reasons scientists have difficulty believing that psi effects are real is that there is no known mechanism by which they could occur. PK action-at-a-distance would presumably employ an action-at-a-distance force that is as yet unknown to science... Similarly, there is no known sense (stimulation and receptor) by which thoughts could travel from one person to another by which the mind could project itself elsewhere in the present, future, or past."
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- "Precognition violates the principle of antecedence ("causality"), according to which the effect does not happen before the cause. Psychokinesis violates the principle of conservation of energy as well as the postulate that mind cannot act directly on matter. (If it did no experimenter could trust his own readings of his instruments.) Telepathy and precognition are incompatible with the epistemological principle according to which the gaining of factual knowledge requires sense perception at some point."
- "Parapsychology makes no use of any knowledge gained in other fields, such as physics and physiological psychology. Moreover, its hypotheses are inconsistent with some basic assumptions of factual science. In particular, the very idea of a disembodied mental entity is incompatible with physiological psychology; and the claim that signals can be transmitted across space without fading with distance is inconsistent with physics."
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- The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
- Institute of Noetic Sciences A nonprofit organization that sponsors research in parapsychology.
- Parapsychological Association An organization of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of psychic phenomena, affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969.
- Rhine Research Center A historical parapsychological research center featuring the first building ever made for experimental work in parapsychology. The Rhine Research Center is a hub for research and education in Parapsychology.
- Society for Psychical Research Founded in 1882, the SPR was the first society to conduct organised scholarly research into parapsychology and other human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models. It continues its work today.
- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Organization formed in 1976 to promote scientific skepticism and encourage the critical investigation of paranormal claims and parapsychology.
- James Randi Educational Foundation The James Randi Education Foundation(JREF) was founded to promote critical thinking in the areas of the supernatural and paranormal. The JREF has provided skeptical views in the area of parapsychology.
- FindArticles.com Index Large number of articles about parapsychology, from publications such as the Journal of Parapsychology and the Skeptical Inquirer.
- Parapsychology on the Open Directory Project