Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

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Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

 

This course aims to promote an appreciation of methodological issues in psychological research via case studies in parapsychology (the scientific study of paranormal beliefs and experiences). 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.

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.

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.  

Surveys show that approximately 50% of the public report belief in the paranormal, and about half of these people say they have had a paranormal experience. What lies behind these beliefs and experiences? This course provides an introduction to the study of claimed anomalous experiences and paranormal beliefs through case studies of controversies in the field, and a consideration of the wider scientific and methodological relevance of this work.

BPS core topics: Differential, Cognitive

 

  • Week 1: Foundations.
    Parapsychology's historical background, terminology, methods and concepts. And - why bother studying parapsychology?
     
  • Week 2: Is there anybody there?
    Methodological challenges when testing claims of paranormally acquired knowledge.
     
  • Week 3: Extra-Sensory Perception or Error Some Place?
    The ‘ganzfeld debate’ – laboratory research investigating hypothesized telepathic abilities; collaborations with skeptics.
     
  • Week 4: Psychokinesis: Can people influence objects by thought alone?
    Why PK research moved from metal-bending to random number generators. The perils of participant fraud and publication bias.
     
  • Week 5: Men who stare at goats.
    Methodological pitfalls to avoid when testing the hypothesis that people can detect when they're being stared at.
     
  • Week 6: Mid-course in-class MCQ test (paper and pencil); 1hr
    Predicting unexpected future events.

    Why are passenger numbers lower on trains doomed to crash? (recorded lecture)
     
  • Week 7: Why believe?
    Measurement, origins and functions of paranormal belief (4 models); psychology of apparitional experiences.
     
  • Week 8: Paranormal experience or Normal experience?
    The role of psychological factors in seemingly paranormal experiences (continued). Case study: precognitive dream experiences.
     
  • Week 9: Replication matters.
    Replication issues in parapsychology. How the ganzeld debate demonstrates limitations of meta-analysis. The need for study registration, and the surprising history of Registered Reports.
     
  • Week 10: Is the methodological revolution in psychology over, or just beginning?
    How Bem's 'feeling the future' studies helped to trigger psychology's replication crisis. What next for psychology?

 

20/02/2019 - 11:05am
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.

 

Additional Information: 

 

Readings 

Week 1: Foundations
Historical background, terminology, concepts in parapsychology, and: Why bother studying parapsychology?
Key readings:
Edge, H.L., Morris, R.L., Palmer, J., & Rush, J.H. (1986). Foundations of Parapsychology: Exploring the Boundaries of Human Capability.  Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Chapters 1-4.
Watt, C. (2005). 2005 Presidential Address: Parapsychology’s contribution to psychology: A view from the front line. Journal of Parapsychology, 69, 215-232.

Week 2: Is there anybody there?
Methodological challenges when testing claims of paranormally acquired knowledge.
Key readings:
Kelly, E.W. & Arcangel, D. (2011). An investigation of mediums who claim to give information about deceased persons. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 199, 11-17.
O'Keeffe ,C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 165-179.
Pratt, J. G. & Birge, W. R. (1948). Appraising verbal test material in parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology, 12, 236-256.

Week 3: Extra-Sensory Perception or Error Some Place?
The ‘ganzfeld debate’ – laboratory research investigating hypothesized telepathic abilities; collaborations with skeptics.
Key readings:
Bem, D. J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4–18.
Hyman, R., & Honorton, C. (1986). A joint communiqué: The psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50(4), 351-364.
Milton, J., & Wiseman, R. (1999). Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 387–391.
Storm, L., Tressoldi, P.E., & Di Risio, L. (2010). Meta-analysis of free-response studies, 1992-2008: Assessing the noise reduction model in parapsychology.  Psychological Bulletin, 136, 471-485.

Week 4: Psychokinesis (PK): Can people influence objects by thought alone?
Why PK research moved from metal-bending to random number generators, and the perils of participant fraud and publication bias.
Key readings:
Truzzi, M. (1987). Reflections on “Project Alpha”: Scientific experiment or conjuror’s illusion? Zetetic Scholar, 12(13), 73-98.
Bosch, H., Steinkamp, F., & Boller, E. (2006). Examining psychokinesis: The interaction of human intention with random number generators – A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 497-523. (also followed by commentaries)

Week 5: Men who stare at goats.
Methodological pitfalls to avoid when testing the hypothesis that people can detect when they’re being stared at.
Key readings:
Sheldrake, R. (1998). The sense of being stared at: Experiments in schools. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62(851), 311-323.
Colwell, J., Schröder, S., & Sladen, D. (2000). The ability to detect unseen staring: A literature review and empirical tests. British Journal of Psychology, 91(1), 71-85.
Schmidt, S., Schneider, R., Utts, J., & Walach, H. (2004). Distant intentionality and the feeling of being stared at: Two meta‐analyses. British Journal of Psychology, 95(2), 235-247.

Week 6: Mid-course in-class MCQ test (paper and pencil); 1hr, 40 MCQs, 5 answer options

Predicting unexpected future events.
Why are passenger numbers lower on trains doomed to crash? (recorded lecture)
Key reading:
Cox, W. E. (1956). Precognition: An analysis, II. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 50, 99-109.

Week 7: Why believe?
Measurement, origins and functions of paranormal belief (4 models); psychology of apparitional experiences.
Key readings:
Irwin, H.J. (1992) Origins and functions of paranormal belief: The role of childhood trauma and interpersonal control. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 85, 317-331.
Perkins, S. L. & Allen, R. (2006). Childhood physical abuse and differential development of paranormal belief systems. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194(5), 349-355.
Watt, C., Watson, S., & Wilson, L. (2007). Cognitive and psychological mediators of anxiety: Evidence from a study of paranormal belief and perceived childhood control. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 335-343.

Supplementary reading:
Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. (2006). Belief in psychic ability and the misattribution hypothesis: A qualitative review. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 323-338.

Week 8: Paranormal experience, or Normal experience?
The role of psychological factors in seemingly paranormal experiences (continued). Case study: precognitive dream experiences
Key readings:
Watt, C., Ashley, N., Gillett, J., Halewood, M. & Hanson, R. (2014).  Psychological factors in precognitive dream experiences:  The role of paranormal belief, selective recall and propensity to final correspondences.  International Journal of Dream Research, 7, 1-8.
Valášek, M., Watt, C., Hutton, J., Neill, R., Nuttall, R. & Renwick, G. (2014). Testing the implicit processing hypothesis of precognitive dream experience. Consciousness and Cognition, 28, 113- 125.

Week 9: Replication matters.
Replication issues in parapsychology. How the ganzeld debate exposes limitations of meta-analysis. The need for study registration, and the surprising history of Registered Reports.
Key readings:
Bem, D. J., Palmer, J., & Broughton, R. S. (2001). Updating the ganzfeld database: A victim of its own success? Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 207–218.
Watt, C.& Kennedy, J. E (2015). Lessons from the first two years of operating a study registry. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 173.
Watt, C., & Kennedy, J. E. (2017). Options for prospective meta-analysis and introduction of registration-based prospective meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:2030.
Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Kornbrot, D. (2019). Registered reports: An early example and analysis. PeerJhttps://peerj.com/articles/6232/

Week 10: Is the methodological revolution in psychology over, or just beginning?
How Bem’s ‘Feeling the Future’ studies helped to trigger psychology’s replication crisis. What next for psychology?
Key readings:
Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407-425.
Kennedy, J. E. (2016). Is the methodological revolution in psychology over, or just beginning? Journal of Parapsychology, 80(2), 156-168.
Kennedy, J. E. (2017). Experimenter fraud: What are appropriate methodological standards? Journal of Parapsychology, 81(1), 63-72.
Supplementary readings:
John, L. K., Loewenstein, G., & Prelec, D. (2012). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth telling. Psychological Science23(5), 524-532.
Wagenmakers, E. J., Wetzels, R., Borsboom, D., & Van Der Maas, H. L. (2011). Why psychologists must change the way they analyze their data: the case of psi: comment on Bem (2011). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(3), 426-432.
 

Further readings.

Parapsychology textbooks:
Cardeña, E., Lynn, S. J. & Krippner, S.  (Eds) (2014). Varieties of Anomalous Experiences 2nd Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Cardena, E., Palmer, J., & Marcusson-Clavertz, D. (2015).  Parapsychology:  A Handbook for the 21st Century.  New Jersey:  McFarland.  (picks up from where Wolman’s Handbook left off).
Irwin, H.J. (2009). The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher’s Handbook. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Irwin, H.J. & Watt, C. (2007). An Introduction to Parapsychology. Fifth Edition. London:  McFarland.
Kurtz, P. (1985). A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Prometheus.
May, E., & Marwaha, S. (2015). Extrasensory Perception: Support, Skepticism, and Science. Westport: Praeger. (2 volumes)
Wolman, B. B. (Ed.) (1977). Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Replication issues:
Utts, J. (1991). Replication and meta-analysis in parapsychology. Statistical Science, 6, 363-403.
Alcock, J., Burns, J., & Freeman, A. (Eds) (2003). Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal. (Can be found online in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, numbers 6-7; several useful articles).

Detailed Assessment Information

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.

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.  

Formative feedback 

Each week there will be in-class discussions exploring the topic and allowing opportunity to clarify understanding.

Assessment 

Mid-course  MCQ test. 40 MCQs with 5 answer options presented in class, covering lectures and priority readings from weeks 1-5 (1hr duration) 30%.

End of course essay (max 3000 words), answering 1 of 3 questions, 70%.

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 knowledge of the models of paranormal belief development and understanding of the limitations of these models.