Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

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Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

Semester 1, Thursday 11:10am-1:00pm

BPS core topics: Individual Differences, Cognitive Psychology


What will be covered?

No previous knowledge of parapsychology is assumed, though some familiarity with statistics and scientific methodology is expected. Topics that will be covered in the course include: Parapsychology's history and terminology; Experimental research methods; Meta-analytic reviews of research into hypothesised Extrasensory Perception, Psychokinesis, and Direct mental interaction with living systems; Replication issues; Experimenter fraud and error; Psychological factors in paranormal belief and experience; Wider methodological implications of studying claimed paranormal abilities.

How will it be delivered?

Each topic will be explored through studying a particular controversy in-depth, including in-class discussions. The wider scientific and methodological implications arising from these controversies will be considered. The best way to learn is to do the reading in advance, attend the classes, and actively engage with your lecturer and classmates. 

Lecture recording policy: Lectures will be recorded, however, Prof Watt will pause the recordings during the in-class demos, discussions and Q&A periods.

Weekly in-class discussions enable students to explore, develop, and consolidate their understanding of more complex concepts and check this with each other and with the course organiser. These discussions are termed 'pause for reflection'. There will be approximately three 'pauses' during each class, with the discussion being focused on the material just presented by the instructor, with the help of a reflection question posed by the instructor. This also helps to vary the texture of the class and keep students engaged and alert.

What skills will be gained?

This course will help students to develop the following skills: listening, discussing and reading to acquire foundational knowledge of a new topic; learning how to think critically about knowledge claims; understanding methods that may be used to resolve or progress scientific controversies; organising and presenting an argument in writing, supported with appropriate evidence.  

Learning outcomes: 

1. Knowing parapsychology's terminology, recognising landmarks in parapsychology's history and reasons for the move towards laboratory-based research.

2. Understanding the strategies used by pseudo-psychics to simulate psychic abilities, recognising the psychological factors that underpin many of these, and thinking critically about how to test paranormal claims.

3. Knowing and understanding the principal methods employed for controlled laboratory testing of claims of anomalous information transfer or influence ('psi'), being able to identify the key meta-analytic reviews of this research, and understanding how and why these findings are debated.

4. Appreciating the methodological challenges involved in controlled tests of hypothesised anomalous communication or influence, recognising how these challenges often also apply to psychological research, and understanding ways to address these challenges.

5. Understanding the models that have been proposed to account for the development of paranormal belief and their limitations.


30% Mid-course MCQ test (40, 5 answer option; in class Thursday 31st October)

Covering lectures and priority readings from weeks 1-5 (1hr duration). The mid-term MCQ test is a summative assessment (so the mark will provide numerical feedback as to grade). Also, as the MCQ test is designed to assess foundational knowledge about the course topic, performance on the MCQ test will provide formative feedback as to whether students have a good grasp of the foundations or need to do some more study to consolidate knowledge and provide the necessary basis for more advanced parts of the course.  

70% End of course essay (max 3000 words; submission deadline Monday 16th December, 12.00 noon)

One answer from a choice of three topics set by the course organiser. The essay questions will be released in the final lecture of the course and Prof Watt will give essay advice during the final lecture. 

Relationship Between Assessment and Learning Outcomes

LO1: MCQs will assess knowledge of terminology and historical landmarks. Essay will assess understanding of parapsychology's scientific development.

LO2: MCQs will assess knowledge of the types of pseudo-psychic claims. Essay will assess understanding of challenges of testing claimants.

LO3: MCQs will assess knowledge of methods. Essay will assess deeper understanding of methodological issues in lab psi research, of the research database and meta-analytic reviews thereof, and limitations of the lab research literature.

LO4: Essay will assess the deeper understanding of wider methodological ramifications of parapsychological research and relevance to psychology and scientific endeavour more broadly.

LO5: Essay will assess the understanding of how therapies have relevance across different clinical populations and presentations.

Reading resources

Indicative reading:

Hyman, R., & Honorton, C. (1986). A joint communiqué: The psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50(4), 351-364.

O'Keeffe, C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 165-179.  

Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Kornbrot, D. (2019). Registered reports: An early example and analysis.PeerJ.  

Resource list:

27/08/2019 - 2:05pm