Saturday, November 11, 2006

Why I Quit Parapsychology

The question of whether the paranormal is real has always concerned me, ever since I was a small boy. Early on, I developed a love of science, which fostered in me the ability to critically evaluate the world and I rejected outright, notions of God and the teachings of religion. However based on the personal reports of people whom I loved and respected, I was open to the possibility that the paranormal was real. At the age of sixteen, I joined the Society for Psychical Research, and began to immerse myself in the evidence for paranormal claims. Impressed as I was by the variety of different authors who were convinced that more needed to be explained, I undertook to pursue vigorously the underlying question as to the veracity of paranormal claims. I was never really interested in why people believe (because it was obvious to me that a great many people claim a great many extraordinary beliefs, which science readily dismisses out of hand). However the question of the paranormal and life after death, seemed to me to be very important questions which needed to be answered, to understand our place in the universe. At the beginning of my PhD (studying at Goldsmiths College, under sceptic Professor Chris French) I would describe myself as very much convinced by the empirical and anecdotal nature of psi (and specifically the body of evidence suggestive of precognition) although there was a great deal of parapsychological research which I was willing to dismiss outright (such as much of the survival research).

Proof that I have not always been as sceptical as I am today can be seen in the conference publications which were based on my early research (e.g. Savva & French, 2001). Despite not producing any real evidence for the paranormal, the conclusions of these initial reports were often overly open to further significant research providing better evidence in the future, rather than the overall opinion which I now espouse, that the results of my research are only supportive of the null hypothesis. I was also awarded the Eileen J. Garrett Scholarship in 2001, a Bial Foundation grant and later a Perrott-Warrick grant.

After completing the experimental phase of my PhD thesis, I obtained a rare research assistant post at Liverpool Hope University (one of the few universities in the UK with a dedicated group of parapsychological researchers). Employed for one year researching the ganzfeld effect, I had an opportunity to work on what is often declared the best evidence for parapsychology and at the same time conduct a range of other parapsychological investigations, including helping to develop a precognition test using visual-noise . I was also involved in the informal testing of a number of other parapsychological claims (e.g. telephone telepathy) none of which showed a significant paranormal effect and none of which were written up and communicated to a wider audience. I also continued to investigate precognitive claims from the perspective of using spider stimuli (e.g. Savva, Child & Smith, 2004), but to continued non-success.

At the end of my one year contract, with the ganzfeld research not completed (and that particular large-scale study is still uncompleted), I gained another rare parapsychological research-assistant post at another UK centre for parapsychological research (at the University of Northampton) where I was involved in a large-scale dream ESP test and continued further testing of the precognitive habituation effect using spider stimuli. Along side my formal research investigations of parapsychology, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of self-professed psychics and be involved in spontaneous investigations of haunted locations. I have had the opportunity to examine a wide variety of paranormal claims; from analysing photos of ghosts that members of the public had sent to me (hearing of my interest through the local media), to working with some of the most famous and reputed psychics (through a participation with a number of televisions shows on the paranormal). None of the spontaneous or evidential claims of the paranormal have ever impressed upon me a need for recourse to a paranormal explanation and in fact the very obvious is apparent; that any connection between events in our mental life can tally, with shocking coincidence, so much so, that those who are prone to magical thinking believes has a paranormal basis.

In the summer of 2005, I served as programme chair for the Parapsychological Association convention. Part of the function of the programme chair is to put out a call for papers to the wider community and then gather together a committee to assess the contributions and thus build up that year’s selection. As parapsychology is a small field, it was hugely interesting to examine the variety and quality of different parapsychological research throughout the world. What struck me was that the quality of this work was so very poor and that there was a lot of bad research being conducted in the hope of proving a paranormal effect. I myself had been honest in the job of conducting research (or at least I hoped that I have never made any strong claims in favour of a paranormal hypothesis given the little empirical support that I have found). However many of the papers I was sent showed gaping flaws which left their conclusions open to suspicion. Many papers were rejected by the committee (and it is interesting that there are researchers conducting seemingly guerrilla parapsychology; that is parapsychology that is too ‘far out’ for main-stream parapsychology) as these may also represent a kind of file-drawer source. This raw view of the evidence shook my trust in parapsychology. Any area is a group of researchers who are interested in similar questions and hope to find the answer. However this dirty and unsanitary form of evidence looked too shaky to be of evidential value to science.

Evaluating parapsychology as a whole, it seems best described as a house of cards and one whose very foundations are extremely shaky and yet people continue to build on top, regardless. The ultimate motivation, as I have now concluded, seems to be a failure to completely understand the implications of evolution (and thus to some degree parapsychology is a thinly veiled, theistic domain; not interested in finding out the impassionate, scientific reality, but allowing a belief in god, a design and a purpose to influence opinion). Fortunately, science already dismisses those concepts out of hand and thus parapsychology should be too. And with that I promptly left the field (leaving the dream study I had been working on to be carried on without me, although again, despite seeing remarkable coincidences between targets and dreams, I never witnessed any empirical results which required a paranormal explanation).

Like Susan Blackmore had done a few years before, I left, neither making much noise or difference.

Finally, I had intended not to write up my PhD, in the light of the fact that there seems no apparent audience. The parapsychologists will continue to ignore null findings (on the basis already discussed) and the sceptics will say ‘so what’. I was finally motivated to finish it, in the hope that I might dissuade others who are interested in the question of the paranormal, from pursuing it any further.

If, ‘ifs’ and ‘ans’ were pots and pans: but alas, they never were.

Publications & Presentations:

Savva, E., & Savva, L. (2001). The enigma of Florence Cook. The Skeptic, 14(1), 16-17.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2001). Investigating the presentiment effect as an adapted behaviour. Evolution and psi. 25th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. Clare College, Cambridge, 14th - 16th September 2001.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2002). Is there time-reversed interference in Stroop-based tasks? Proceedings of the 45th Annual Convention of the Parapsychology Association, pp. 194-205.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2002). Use of a complex psi-mediated timing task. 26th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. Manchester Conference Centre, 30th August – 1st September 2002.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2003). An investigation into precognitive dreaming: David Mandell, the man who paints the future? 27th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. Manchester Conference Centre, 5th – 7th September 2003.

Savva, L., Child, R., & Smith, M. D. (2004). The precognitive habituation effect: An adaptation using spider stimuli. Proceedings of the 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, pp.223-229.

Smith, M. D., & Savva, L. (2004). Experimenter effects and Ganzfeld-ESP performance. 28th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. West Downs Conference Centre, 3rd – 5th September 2004.

Cole, S. A., Savva, L., & Smith, M. D. (2004). Schizotypy, Psi and Immersive Sensory Noise. 28th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. West Downs Conference Centre, 3rd – 5th September 2004.

Roe, C. A., Sherwood, S. J., Savva, L., & Baker, I. (2005). Assessing the Roles of the Sender and Experimenter in Dream ESP Research. Proceedings of the 48th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (L Savva Program Chair), pp.242-245.

Savva, L., Roe, C. A., & Smith, M. D. (2005). Further Testing of the Precognitive Habituation Effect Using Spider Stimuli. Proceedings of the 48th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (L Savva Program Chair), pp.163-170.

Savva, L., Roe, C. A., & Smith, M. D. (2006). Further testing of the precognitive habituation effect using spider stimuli. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 885, 225-234.