Interlitq. What are the KPU's projects for the short and medium term? Tell us something about your partnerships with other such organizations around the world--as well as your own research.
CW. Parapsychology is quite a small world so we have many international collaborations. One important partnership is with Jim Kennedy, who’s based in Colorado. Jim has a lifetime’s experience in parapsychological research and specialises in methodological issues (indeed he was one of the researchers who exposed a fraudulent experimenter in J.B. Rhine’s1 lab in the 1970s). In 2012 Jim and I launched a registry for parapsychology studies. Study registration is a way to eliminate or detect questionable research practices such as data mining or selective reporting of results that can otherwise distort the published data. If a study is pre-registered in a quality registry, this is a hallmark of methodological rigour. We’re proud that in launching this registry, parapsychologists were leading the way for psychologists who only recently have begun to recognise and grapple with similar issues of researcher bias. This is not the first time that the challenges facing parapsychologists have stimulated methodological developments that have wider scientific application.
Another long-term collaborator is Professor Richard Wiseman, who I first met in the late 1980s when he took his PhD at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit under the supervision of the then Koestler Professor Robert (Bob) Morris. Richard is a psychologist and a magician, and his thesis was on the psychology of deception. I agree with Bob that if parapsychologists wish to be taken seriously they should be aware of the pitfalls or even deliberate strategies that can lead to something being ‘not psychic while looking like it’. Recently Richard and I published a paper on the history of ‘registered reports’ - this is another method somewhat complementary to study registration, that aims to improve methodological rigour. We noted that although psychologists only recently developed registered reports, the European Journal of Parapsychology started running this publishing model in the mid-1970s - another example of parapsychologists being pioneers of methodological excellence.
So far I’ve been discussing research; however I regard public engagement as another important aspect of our work. The internet is a blessing but also a curse because any old dross can be presented as ‘information’ about parapsychology. However making good use of the internet, in 2008 I designed and launched an online introduction to parapsychology course that is still going strong. Of course we teach parapsychology to undergraduate psychology students here at the University of Edinburgh, but I particularly enjoy reaching out to people across the world who are curious about parapsychology but who don’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn more about the topic. Our course includes specialist readings and interviews from both psi-skeptics and psi proponents, so I hope it succeeds in providing a balanced overview of the field. You can find out more about the course on the KPU website. Also for the general public, my latest book is Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide2.
Regarding short-term research projects: One of my PhD students is about to submit her thesis. She’s been working on replicating and extending recent work that applies what you might call a synchronistic-based theoretical approach to controlled lab tests of psychokinesis. This so-called ‘correlation matrix method' is a relatively new theory-based approach that, if supported by empirical data, should help resolve parapsychology’s difficulties with obtaining replicable evidence for psi (‘psi’ is the neutral umbrella term that parapsychologists use to refer to hypothesised psychic abilities such as psychokinesis and extrasensory perception). My student has recently obtained funding to continue this work based at the University Hospital Freiburg which together with Freiburg's Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene is one of the few European centres for parapsychological research. I hope that will strengthen our links with our Freiburg colleagues. We also have a partnership with Professor Thomas Rabeyron who, I’m delighted to say, recently became France’s youngest professor of clinical psychology and heads a research unit at the University of Lorraine. I co-supervised Thomas’s PhD, and he is an Honorary Fellow of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit who still participates in our regular research meetings via Skype.
In the medium term, we have embarked on a project to use a mild sensory isolation procedure called the ‘ganzfeld’ to test for extra-sensory perception (ESP). This is not the first time that Edinburgh researchers have conducted ganzfeld studies, indeed ganzfeld methods have been used since the 1970s and the results have been fairly positive and have shown some interesting internal patterns. Particularly, results are best when working with selected participants (creative, prior psychic experiences, practice of a mental discipline such as meditation). Our plan is only to work with selected participants, to try to maximise the possibility of above-chance scoring at the ESP task, while at the same time pre-registering so as to reduce the methodological debate that has typically followed previous reviews of ganzfeld research. This project will probably take 3-5 years to complete. Many parapsychologists have turned away from the ganzfeld method, mainly because it is quite laborious. However given its positive track record I think that it’s important to follow up on this work systematically.
Interlitq. What do you see as the great challenge, and the most intriguing opportunity, facing investigators in your field? What do you say to skeptics who argue that psychical research has historically lacked methodological rigor?
CW. For me, the greatest challenge is the chicken-and-egg situation. Resources are scarce, there are few active researchers, therefore progress in understanding psi is slow. Without that understanding, results are inconsistent, and further resources won’t be allocated to parapsychology. Skeptics often complain about a lack of progress in parapsychology. To help put things into perspective, the former co-editor of the European Journal of Parapsychology, Sybo Schouten, once estimated that the ‘manpower’ dedicated to parapsychology research throughout its history was equivalent to about two months of effort in psychology in the USA.
Historically, parapsychology has faced a lot of scrutiny both internally and from skeptics; it also has had to deal with replication issues pretty much since its inception. This has driven up methodological standards relative to other related disciplines such as psychology which have faced less scrutiny. These disciplines have only recently started to realise they share similar methodological problems (try googling ‘psychology’s replication crisis’ to find out more). So actually I would argue that there are strong historical examples of pioneering methodological rigour coming from parapsychology - such as the examples I gave above. So aside from the obvious intrigue of possibly extending our understanding of the capabilities of human consciousness, I’d say there are also fascinating methodological lessons to be learned from investigating the paranormal.
Interlitq. Brian Inglis3 regarded psi as the major underreported story of his era, and he began his new career as advocate in a mood of militancy. As time passed, he adopted a more conciliatory approach, urging people to unlock potential and sources of inspiration within themselves. How would you describe your own personal odyssey? If you had to give a brief, two-sentence justification of your work to an audience of skeptical newcomers, what issues would you emphasize?
CW. I was attracted to the field by curiosity - what lies behind people’s ‘psychic’ experiences? I’ve stayed with it due to the challenge, and the accompanying scientific rewards, of trying to answer that question.
Interlitq. What paranormal experiences have you personally had, if any? Have you found such experiences pleasant, distasteful, or a mix of the two?
CW. My most memorable experience occurred when I was a child, probably only about 6 or 7 years old. It’s hard to describe but I think would be best understood as a kind of ‘transcendental’ experience that I had while I was running on grass in the dappled sunshine below some trees. It was very pleasant, and I immediately tried to repeat the experience by re-tracing my steps and running along again. I tried several times but sadly nothing happened. Decades later, when I told Bob Morris about it, he said I had acted like a scientist by trying to recreate the conditions associated with the event.
Interlitq. What does the name "Koestler" mean to you? Which values does it connote?
CW. For me it means stability. Many researchers interested in the paranormal, if they are lucky enough to have an academic position, manage to squeeze in some parapsychological research alongside their ‘day job’. Although my academic position comes with the usual time-consuming teaching and managerial responsibilities, I’m fortunate that the Koestler Bequest in effect gives me security and ‘permission’ to dedicate my research time to parapsychology. Without that, I probably could not contemplate a 3-5 year research programme. My job is not to promote Koestler, but to promote parapsychology through the legacy left to parapsychology by Arthur and Cynthia Koestler.
Interlitq. In the "me-too" era, we can no longer ignore accounts of Koestler's treatment of women (the double suicide with Cynthia, the rape of Jill Craigie4, etc.). My late father, Brian Inglis, would have urged readers to consider the historical context, possibly invoking the excuse that with great men, one must take the rough with the smooth; in essence, "Darkness at Noon" is a more important legacy than long-forgotten sexual misdeeds. What are your views on the subject?
CW. There is no excuse; the consequences of such misdeeds and offences can reverberate down the generations. One can only say that in some domains, such as writing about creativity, or the paranormal, or against capital punishment, Koestler excelled; but in his treatment of women, he tragically failed.
Interlitq. Can you point to a single individual in the history of psi, or a single event, that you regard as the most persuasive proof of the existence of the Occult force?
CW. I don’t know how the Occult force is defined. If it is something supernatural then by definition I don’t think it would be amenable to scientific enquiry. I think psychic abilities, if they exist, are human abilities that are naturally capricious and unstable like many other human abilities such as creativity. As a result it can be difficult to study them. Only a gradual accumulation of rigorously controlled research can lend persuasive support to the hypothesised existence of these abilities.
Interlitq. Word association -- Uri Geller (recently on the cover of Psychic News).
1[Ed.: Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1990) who founded the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, and pioneered the use of Zener cards in ESP testing.]
3[Ed.: Irish historian of psi (1916-1993), and father of Neil Langdon Inglis.]