It seems that stories of the paranormal sprout up every day, and everywhere, in pop culture and the media. Weird news websites number in the hundreds, and there are entire television series dedicated to psychic abilities, hauntings and paranormal investigation.
But that’s all showbiz, really. The actual academic study of parapsychology — the established term for phenomena such as clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy and precognition — has seemingly disappeared since its heyday in the mid-20th century. So what happened to parapsychology?
It hasn’t gone anywhere, said John Kruth, executive director of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, N.C. It’s just become disorganized, underfunded and — in the realm of traditional science — largely ignored. The Rhine is one of a handful of privately funded groups in the United States still doing active research into parapsychology, sometimes called “psi phenomena.”
“People have never stopped doing research in these areas,” Kruth said. “But the skeptic community is strong and vocal, and they’re much better at working the media.” Kruth attributes much of the field’s decline in the United States, during the 1970s and 1980s, to media-savvy debunkers such as James Randi.
“Certainly there are fraudulent practitioners out there, and we’re always watching for that,” Kruth said. “It’s like we have the frauds on one side and the debunkers on the other, and we’re in the middle, still trying to do science.”
Critics respond that, as a field of scientific study, parapsychology has much bigger issues. In short, the science has a fundamental evidence problem.
“It’s fallen into disuse due to the fact that there’s just nothing there,” said Michael Shermer, editor of the quarterly journal Skeptic and columnist for Scientific American. “Parapsychology has been around for more than a century. (Yet) there’s no research protocol that generates useful working hypotheses for other labs to test and develop into a model, and eventually a paradigm that becomes a field. It just isn’t there.”
Questions of validity aside, it’s certainly true that parapsychology research continues, in at least in one historically significant locale. At a recent presentation on the campus of Duke University, three parapsychology researchers presented results from their latest studies. The presentation topics:
“Synesthesia, Time and the Geography of Anomalous Experiences”
“Synchronicity and Psi: A Controlled Comparison”