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Parapsychology is the supposedly scientific study of paranormal phenomena involving the human mind. This includes such things as psychic powers (including but not limited to psychokinesis, clairvoyance, and telepathy), near-death experiences, and more.

The goal is to apply the rigors of the scientific method and the advancements learned in studying the human mind learned in psychology to the world of the paranormal. In practice, most of the experiments are of very poor quality design. They use poor controls (if any at all), usually have small sample sizes, ill-defined terms and procedures, and rarely apply the concepts of double-blind studies.

And remember, just because it's called parapsychology, doesn't mean it has the slightest thing to do with psychology. Some critics of psychology don't understand that.


Parapsychologists study a number of paranormal phenomena, including:


Psi is the reason you must construct additional pylons vague term for the phenomenon claimed to underpin parapsychology.[1] On the definition of psi, the psychologist James Alcock has written:

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.[2]

Psi has never been demonstrated to exist.[3] 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.[4] According to a scientific investigation (Moulton and Kosslyn, 2008):

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used in an effort to document the existence of psi. If psi exists, it occurs in the brain, and hence, assessing the brain directly should be more sensitive than using indirect behavioral methods (as have been used previously). To increase sensitivity, this experiment was designed to produce positive results if telepathy, clairvoyance (i.e., direct sensing of remote events), or precognition (i.e., knowing future events) exist. Moreover, the study included biologically or emotionally related participants (e.g., twins) and emotional stimuli in an effort to maximize experimental conditions that are purportedly conducive to psi. In spite of these characteristics of the study, psi stimuli and non-psi stimuli evoked indistinguishable neuronal responses-although differences in stimulus arousal values of the same stimuli had the expected effects on patterns of brain activation. These findings are the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of paranormal mental phenomena.[5]

Practical scientific problems[edit]

Parapsychology is a pseudoscience. Sloppy practice is tolerated, verifiable positive results are perennially lacking,[6] the publication of negative results or disconfirmation of positive results is suppressed, parapsychologists who continue to get negative results get gently pushed out of the field,[6] and parapsychological hypotheses routinely contradict extremely well-understood and empirically verifiable science. The entire history of parapsychology has been scientifically unsuccessful. No experiment showing the existence of paranormal phenomena has been consistently replicated by scientists in other laboratories with the same results. According to the parapsychologist Gardner Murphy, the failure of parapsychology is to "produce any truly repeatable experiment".[7]

Parapsychologists such as Dean Radin and Charles Tart have written that psi is real, that it is non-physical in basis, and that is does not operate by known scientific laws, but despite this, still claim that psi has been proven by science in repeatable experiments and refuse to classify psi as metaphysical. How can non-physical psi that does not operate by known scientific laws be tested by empirical science via physical experimentation and testing? This contradiction has been noted.

Most parapsychologists are in agreement that psi is non-physical, but 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. On this issue, 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."[8]

The philosopher Raimo Tuomela summarized why much of parapsychology is considered a pseudoscience in his essay "Science, Protoscience, and Pseudoscience":[9]

  • 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.

James Alcock in his book Parapsychology: Science or Magic? (1981) wrote, "parapsychology is indistinguishable from pseudo-science and its ideas are essentially those of magic."[10] According to the skeptic Robert Todd Carroll, research in parapsychology has been characterized by "deception, fraud, and incompetenceWikipedia in setting up properly controlled experiments and evaluating statistical data."[11]

In a review of parapsychological reports, Ray 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".[12] The parapsychologist Dean Radin has written the results from psi research are as consistent by the same standards as any other scientific discipline but according to Ray Hyman many parapsychologists such as Dick Bierman, Walter Lucadou, J.E. Kennedy, and Robert Jahn, openly admit the evidence for psi is "inconsistent, irreproducible, and fails to meet acceptable scientific standards".[13]


The psychologist Andrew Neher has written there are four key criticisms of parapsychology:[14]

  1. The possibility that sensing of subtle sensory cues creates the appearance of psychic ability[note 2]
  2. The possibility that favorable outcomes are a result of chance and coincidence
  3. The possibility[note 3] of fraudWikipedia
  4. The failure of many researchers to obtain results that support the psi hypothesis

Stuart Holroyd (a believer in psi) in his book Psi and the Consciousness Explosion (1977) summarized the main objections from the scientific community to parapsychology:[16]

  • Psi phenomena have not been shown to exist.
  • Psi may exist but are irrelevant to science, their nature being that they are not amenable to investigation by the scientific method.
  • Psi hypotheses fail to qualify as science because they cannot be disproved.
  • Parapsychology does not constitute a body of scientific knowledge, with a coherent rationale or framework, but is merely a collection of anecdotal evidence.[note 4]

Most parapsychologists have not addressed these issues; for example, psi and most of the concepts associated with it are not falsifiable, there is no agreed framework or theory for psi, and the supposed evidence for psi is mostly anecdotal and has not been repeatable. 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 psi. Some parapsychologists have become skeptical of parapsychology such as Susan Blackmore and John G. Taylor after years of study and no progress in proving the existence of psi by the scientific method.[17][18][19]

Fundamental scientific problems[edit]

The big problem with parapsychology as a field is that science is all of a piece. Thus, physics is consistent with chemistry, biology, and so on. So the question is not "what knowledge can we derive on the assumption that we know nothing?" but "what knowledge can we derive given what we know already?"

Basic physics leaves parapsychology as a field to be completely impossible. Sean Carroll points out[20] 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.[21] So either it's electromagnetism, gravity, or something weaker than gravity.

This leaves no force that could possibly account for telekinesis, for example. Telepathy would require a new force much weaker than gravity that is not subject to the inverse square law,Wikipedia and also a detector in the brain evolved to use it for signaling. Precognition, the receipt of information transmitted back in time, would violate quantum field theory.[22][23]

What this means is that these ideas have pretty much no chance of being right even before we test them directly.


The field of parapsychology is filled with deception, fraud, and tricks. Modern day books supportive of parapsychology are still promoting paranormal deception and lies. Parapsychology has a long history of fraud. The Creery Sisters (Mary, Alice, Maud, Kathleen, and Emily) were tested in 1881 by the psychical researchers William Barrett, Frederic Myers, and Edmund Gurney of the Society for Psychical Research and announced them to have genuine psychic ability. However, during a test in 1888 they were caught utilizing signal codes and they confessed to fraud.[24][25] The psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers would sleep with the mediums he investigated to biasedly vote in their favor. The British parapsychologist S. G. Soal was charged with fraud as he had manipulated the data on the score sheets of his experiments.[26][27]

G. A. Smith and Douglas Blackburn were endorsed as genuine psychics by the Society for Psychical Research, but Blackburn later 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.[28]

Walter J. Levy, who was the director of the Institute for Parapsychology, was caught falsifying data. Levy confessed to tampering with a computerized apparatus to make it look like rats had psychokinetic abilities, and resigned his position.[29] H. N. Banjerjee, director of the Seth Sohan Lal Memorial Institute of Parapsychology, was also caught tampering with data.[30]

Dean Radin's parapsychology book The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (2009), is known for containing many errors and promoting discredited experiments into psychic phenomena with poor controls as genuine scientific evidence for psi. Radin did not perform the file-drawer analysis correctly, made fundamental errors in his calculations, and ignored possible non-paranormal explanations for the data.[31] The book Randi's Prize: What Sceptics say about the Paranormal: Why they are Wrong and Why it Matters (2010) describes itself as a book documenting "the truth of the paranormal" and debunking the skeptics, but contains lies on almost every page. The author, Robert McLuhan, even dedicates an entire chapter (over 40 pages) to the mediumship of Eusapia Palladino and concludes she was genuine. In reality, she had been exposed in every country she was investigated in as using tricks, which McLuhan does not mention. Similar deception occurs in the book Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics (2012), by Chris Carter. In the book, Carter ignores any data which contradicts the paranormal based on his personal belief.


Not everything studied within parapsychology is the result of fraud or tricks. According to the scientific community, paranormal phenomena have naturalistic explanations resulting from psychological and physical factors which have sometimes given the impression of paranormal activity to some people when, in fact, where there have been none.[32]

The British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, in his book Natural Causes and Supernatural Seemings (1886), wrote that so-called supernatural experiences could be explained in terms of disorders of the mind, and were simply "malobservations and misinterpretations of nature".[33] Recent psychologists have explained in detail how reported phenomena such as mediumship, precognition, out-of body experiences, and psychics can be explained by psychology without recourse to the supernatural.[34]

Researchers involved with anomalistic psychology try to provide plausible non-paranormal accounts, supported by empirical evidence, of how psychological and physical factors might combine to give the impression of paranormal activity when there had been none. Apart from deception or self-deception, such explanations might involve cognitive biases, anomalous psychological states, dissociative states, hallucinations, personality factors, developmental issues, and the nature of memory.[35] Most parapsychologists are very critical towards anomalistic psychology, as they deny the paranomal can be explained by any naturalistic explanation and have written that paranormal phenomena (which they term psi) is real.


Martin Gardner has written that if psychokinesis existed, then one would expect players to be able to influence the outcome of gambling games; however, no effect has been observed. In Chicago, a game called "26" has been played for decades in bars and cabarets, and tally sheets year after year show the percentage of house take allowed by the laws of chance.[36]

Parapsychologists have written that psychokinesis has been proven in scientific experiments with subjects influencing the output of a random number generator. In an investigation of 380 studies, a group of scientists (Bösch et al, 2006) have written a meta-analysis on the subject. In their paper, they wrote "statistical significance of the overall database provides no directive as to whether the phenomenon is genuine or not" and came to the conclusion that "publication bias appears to be the easiest and most encompassing explanation for the primary findings of the meta-analysis."[37] So contrary to what you might read in a parapsychology book, psychokinesis has not been scientifically proven.

Specific programs[edit]

The most famous example of bona fide parapsychology is probably the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research LabWikipedia (PEAR). PEAR attempted to prove that human thought could manipulate the functioning of machines. They used devices designed to generate random phenomena, and then had subjects focus on disrupting that random pattern. They claimed to have shown that the experimental group of subjects focusing on disruption made the machine perform non-randomly in the direction the person was focusing. However, review of their procedures and data put that conclusion into serious doubt. All of the "effects" were witnessed by a single observer, who was a member of the lab. The PEAR group is no longer in operation.

Mention must also be made of Joseph B. Rhine,Wikipedia a professor at Duke University in the mid-20th century, who did extensive work on parapsychology and was responsible to a great degree for the field's sloppy protocol design. Rhine designed a special deck of cards containing five visually distinct shapes for use in telepathy and clairvoyance experiments, but also seemed blind to the consistent failure of experiments done under proper controls.

Uses of parapsychology[edit]

Parapsychology provides useful teachable examples of ideas that can't possibly be right and how such wishful thinking persists well past mere physical impossibility.

Allan Crossman suggests on LessWrong that parapsychology can serve as the control group for science itself:[38] a field using the methods of science but where the null hypothesis is always true. If they come up with positive results (as they occasionally do), this shows where the methods of science need improving.

This does have the philosophical problem that it would require dismissing out of hand any positive results, rather than properly evaluating them as merely ridiculously unlikely. Fortunately, this is unlikely to be a practical problem while well-designed tests show no positive results, and the only tests showing any positive results tend to exhibit the (incompetent) research design and analytical skills displayed in Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.[39]

Notable parapsychologists[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Alcock, James. Parapsychology: Science or Magic?, 1981.
  • Douglas, Alfred. Extra-sensory Powers: A Century of Psychical Research Overlook TP, 1995 ISBN 0879511605
  • Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, 1981.
  • Goran, Morris. Fact, Fraud and Fantasy: Occult and Pseudosciences Gazelle Book Services Ltd, 1980 ISBN 049802122X
  • Hansel, C.E.M. (1989) The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited. Prometheus Books.
  • Frazier, Kendrick (ed.) (1986) Science Confronts the Paranormal. Prometheus Books.
  • Kurtz, Paul. A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology, 1985.
  • Marks, David (2000) The Psychology of the Psychic. Prometheus Books.
  • Milton, J. and Wiseman, R. (1999) Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin 125:387-391.
  • Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination Dover Publications. 2011 ISBN 0486261670.
  • Smith, Jonathan. Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit Wiley-Blackwell; 5 edition, 2009 ISBN 1405181222
  • Wiseman, Richard. Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there Spin Solutions Ltd, 2011 ISBN 0956875653.


  1. Specifically the psionic/magical kind that entails lifting oneself or other objects via psychokinesis, like what Silver does in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Magnetic levitation has been demonstrated to be possible, albeit only for objects composed of substances that are receptive to magnetic forces (which sadly excludes human flesh).
  2. See, for example, the story of Clever HansWikipedia and the ideomotor effect.[15] (That's an example of an animal being thought to be smarter than it actually was rather than alleged psychic activity, but it's a similar principle of a mundane (and underwhelming) explanation for something that was supposedly miraculous.) Another related concept is the "thin-slice judgment" (judgments made on the basis of subtle cues which are only noticed subconsciously), which we discuss in our article on intuition.
  3. Or should we say "inevitability"?
  4. Not directly stated: anecdotes are often collected by people who have no idea what they're observing or how to observe it properly.


  1. Psi in The Skeptic's Dictionary
  2. Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance by James Alcock
  3. See, e.g., physics, the James Randi $1 million challenge, etc.
  4. Ray Hyman. Evaluating Parapsychological Claims in Robert J. Sternberg, Henry L. Roediger, Diane F. Halpern. (2007). Critical Thinking in Psychology. Cambridge University Press. pp. 216-231. ISBN 978-0521608343
  5. Moulton, S. T., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2008). Using neuroimaging to resolve the psi debate. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 182-192.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Susan Blackmore. "The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology." The Skeptical Inquirer 1987, 11, 244-255.
  7. Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. Dover Publications; 2011 p. 148 ISBN 0486261670.
  8. Terence Hines Pseudoscience and the Paranormal Prometheus Books; 2 Sub edition, 2003, p. 146 ISBN 1573929794
  9. Raimo Tuomela Science, Protoscience, and Pseudoscience pp. 83-102 in Joseph C. Pitt, Marcello Pera Rational Changes in Science: Essays on Scientific Reasoning Springer Netherlands, 1987 ISBN 9401081816
  10. James Alcock. (1981). Parapsychology: Science Or Magic?. Pergamon Press. p. 196
  11. Skepdic Website
  12. Ray Hyman. (1988). Psi experiments: Do the best parapsychological experiments justify the claims for psi?. Experientia, 44, 315-322.
  13. Ray Hyman. (2008). Anomalous Cognition? A Second Perspective. Skeptical Inquirer. Volume 32.
  14. Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination Dover Publications. 2011 p. 140 ISBN 0486261670.
  15. Clever Hans phenomenon, The Skeptic's Dictionary
  16. Stuart Holroyd Psi and the Consciousness Explosion The Bodley Head Ltd, 1977, pp. 126-127 ISBN 0370105036
  17. Taylor, J. G. & Balanovski, E. (1978). Can electromagnetism account for extra-sensory phenomena?. Nature 276, 64-67.
  18. Taylor, J. G. & Balanovski, E. (1979). Is there any scientific explanation of the paranormal?. Nature 279, 631-633.
  19. The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology by Susan Blackmore
  20. Carroll, Sean M. "Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory." Discover Blogs: Cosmic Variance 2008-02-18.
  21. Life and the forces of nature (Sean M. Carroll, Preposterous Universe, 2004-05-03)
  22. Physics FAQ (Scott I. Chase)
  23. Unless you warp spacetime sufficiently closely around a black hole or something.
  24. Ray Hyman. (1989). The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research. Prometheus Books. pp. 99-106
  25. Gordon Stein. (1996). The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. p. 688
  26. Markwick, B. (1978). "The Soal-Goldney experiments with Basil Shackleton: new evidence of data manipulation". Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 56: 250-280.
  27. Soal-Goldney experiment
  28. Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination Dover Publications. 2011 p. 220 ISBN 0486261670.
  29. Walter J. Levy
  30. Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination Dover Publications. 2011 p. 144 ISBN 0486261670.
  31. Victor Stenger. (2002). Meta-Analysis and the Filedrawer Effect. Skeptical Inquirer. Volume 12.
  32. Nicola Holt, Christine Simmonds-Moore, David Luke, Christopher French Anomalistic Psychology (Palgrave Insights in Psychology). Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 ISBN 0230301509.
  33. Ivan Leudar, Philip Thomas Voices of Reason, Voices of Insanity: Studies of Verbal Hallucinations 2000, pp. 106-107
  34. Graham F. Reed The Psychology of Anomalous Experience: A Cognitive Approach. Prometheus Books, Rev. Sub. edition, 1988. ISBN 0879754354.
  35. What is Anomalistic Psychology?
  36. Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination Dover Publications. 2011 p. 146 ISBN 0486261670.
  37. Examining Psychokinesis: The Interaction of Human Intention with Random Number Generators. A Meta-Analysis
  38. Allan Crossman. "Parapsychology: the control group for science." LessWrong 2009-12-05.
  39. Understanding uncertainty: ESP and the significance of significance