By Benjamin (with Leah)
More than once I have heard paranormal investigators say they believe that within the next five to ten years “ghost hunting” will be truly scientific. While I would love for that to be true, that overly optimistic statement reveals a certain naivete about how scientific studies are funded, the rigor and research demanded by the scientific mainstream, and the main priorities of the scientific community. It also expresses a lack of awareness about the way that related subjects, such as Parapsychology, have been given a handwave by the majority of scientists. Worse, I am a little pessimistic that many paranormal investigators will not use scientific findings when it is applicable.
I have learned various applications in parapsychology classes that are incredibly useful in an investigation. While helpful in an investigation, the applications are particularly useful in remedying various types of hauntings that create nuisances for a homeowner. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of paranormal investigators are completely unaware that the applications exist. I will discuss some in detail, along with practical ways to apply them, in a class on Basic Paranormal Research that will soon be available via the world wide web within the next couple of months. This likely has less to do with incompetence on the part of paranormal investigators, and more to do with the fact that parapsychology has become an almost forgotten science that few pay attention to.
One of the less sinister political reasons that parapsychology has become a forgotten science is simply a matter of funding. While people often complain that their tax dollars are unnecessarily spent on endeavors that they do not believe are useful, the fact is that most scientific studies are underfunded. Multiple cancer societies exist because unfortunately private donations and foundations are needed to better understand pathologies and to study various treatments. Public funding for cancer treatment is just not enough. When decisions are made by universities or legislators regarding which subjects to issue research grants to, social sciences of any stripe are given less priority than other scientific studies that are more politically popular.
Like most other sectors of our culture, academia has become more and more politicized since the 1970s along with funding. Fairly recently, people have become critical of space exploration funding and NASA does not receive nearly as much funding as it did a generation ago. Unlike space exploration, parapsychology has always had trouble receiving funds, in part due to its unpopularity among the academics who consider it a pseudoscience. However, it almost disappeared from American universities completely in the early 1980s. Of every scene in the original Ghostbusters movie the most historically accurate ones happened early in the movie.
The original movie shows Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd doing parapsychological research in an academic environment. Upon discovering that the parapsychology department is still receiving funding, academic superiors eject them from campus. While the scenario is close to accurate, in reality parapsychologists never had it as good as they did in the movie. In reality, there were never parapsychology departments at universities. Parapsychologists were typically psychologists and scientists who were hired by their universities to teach and conduct research in other subjects, but later became interested in the paranormal. The academic discipline was first called by its name in the late 1800s.
Despite its name Parapsychology was not named because of its relation to the paranormal. It was so named to mean “alongside psychology.” Although what paranormal researchers do can be said to be applying parapsychology, the two are not the same. Most parapsychologists are quick to distance themselves from ghost hunting shows. However, parapsychology and the methods of most modern paranormal investigators have their roots in the Society for Psychical Research, which formed in the 1800s to link scientists together to study the paranormal. Influential American philosopher and psychologist William James was an early president.
In 1930, due to the influence of botanist Louis Rhine, Duke University began conducting studies on ESP and Psychokinesis. Their studies emphasized quantitative measures used in the hard sciences using statistics. Dr. Rhine published studies that included subjects who yielded results using dice and cards in studying ESP that were statistically impossible to be considered chance. Other universities began conducting studies and research on apparitions, poltergeist activity, reincarnation and near death experiences. Despite the influence of Dr. Rhine, the academic staff at Duke University was never really supportive of the research. Similarly, if a Biologist at a major university published a book promoting the scientific evidence for Bigfoot, his or her faculty peers would be embarrassed.
From the start, Parapsychology has been criticized and has had trouble receiving funding. Critics today often consider it a pseudoscience, despite the fact that the Parapsychological Association has been a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Critics often note that few hard findings have emerged from a “Hundred Years of Research.” This criticism ignores the fact that at the peak of Parapsychology’s research on campuses, very few universities seriously studied the subject and very little funding was issued for its study. The lack of serious academic study can be seen as reflected in the very few scholarly journals that exist regarding Parapsychology compared to other scientific disciplines.
There are about three academic journals left that are dedicated to Parapsychology, compared to hundreds dedicated to Abnormal and Social Psychology. Currently only two American universities study Parapsychology in a laboratory environment. No accredited American universities offers a degree in Parapsychology, while a few such as Saybrook and Atlantic University offer individual classes. The universities that do offer the subject as part of other degrees typically do it in Transpersonal Psychology, which is related, but lacks the stigma.
The political unpopularity of the subject has resulted in fewer scientists willing to risk their academic reputations, especially if they want tenure. Nonscientists do not realize that gone are the days when a person like Isaac Newton or George Washington Carver can make a discovery, and it becomes accepted science. Scientific theories become accepted after multiple scientists in multiple settings have replicated studies. One or two studies of any subject are not enough for the scientific community to take a finding seriously. Without more study, Parapsychology will not become mainstream.
Importantly, the study of paranormal investigating will continue to be considered pseudoscience given that the political environment regarding science is unlikely to change. Apparitions, hauntings, the poltergeist phenomenon, etc., are just part of the study of Parapsychology. Ghosts have been scientifically studied much less than have other aspects of the broader science such as ESP, Telekinesis and Precognition. Topics studied by parapsychologists are, with rare exception, studied in nonacademic laboratories that are funded entirely by private donations, which receive grants that are miniscule in comparison to other scientific research.
Likewise, the scientific findings by Parapsychologists in studies helpful to paranormal investigators have gone under the radar. Most paranormal investigators state on their websites when various types of hauntings are discussed that nothing can be done regarding the activities of many intelligent spirits. In my upcoming class, inexpensive and practical means to cut out such activities will be discussed. Finally, I hope that I am wrong that paranormal research will not be considered scientific anytime soon.