Why Has There Not Been More Study of the Paranormal?

by Tom Butler

A 2005 Gallup survey shows that just about three in four Americans believe in the paranormal. So the question that needs to be asked is, “With such a large percentage of our population interested in the paranormal, why has there not been more study of the paranormal?” The scientific community is largely funded with public money. For instance, the US Department of Energy Office of Science, NASA and National Science Foundation each received $62.5 million, much of which is earmarked for education.1 Tuition fees do not cover the cost of universities and public funding is required. This means that science degrees are subsidized by the public.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a department of the Federal Government chartered to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare by way of funding research and development. It is funded by the public at the annual rate of around $7 billion. Yet according to the NSF in the 2006 annual Science and Technology report, “A recent study of 20 years of survey data collected by NSF concluded that ‘many Americans accept pseudoscientific beliefs,’ such as astrology, lucky numbers, the existence of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), extrasensory perception (ESP), and magnetic therapy (Losh et al. 2003). Such beliefs indicate a lack of understanding of how science works and how evidence is investigated and subsequently determined to be either valid or not.”2

“Losh et al” is a reference to an article in the Skeptical Inquirer. A further comment about “pseudoscientific beliefs” is based on a reference from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOPS) now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which states: “According to one group studying such phenomena, pseudoscientific topics include yogi flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo magical thinking, alternative medicine, channeling, psychic hotlines and detectives, near-death experiences, unidentified flying objects and alien abductions, the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation.” The celebrity skeptic, James Randi, is one of the founders and is the publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer.

According to the NSF, “The federal government provided 59% ($32.6 billion) of the $54.9 billion of academic spending on S&E R&D in FY 2009.” and “In FY 2009, the federal share of support for all academic research equipment funding was 55%.” and “Throughout the 1973–2008 period, fewer than half of full-time S&E faculty received federal support, whereas the share of postdocs who received federal support was more than 70%.” 3

So the answer to the question is that the organizations we are paying to help us understand and live with nature are the same ones that think we are uneducated about these subjects and misguided. Well, it is actually worse than that. The publicly funded organizations such as universities and the NSF are also very much aligned with the skeptical community which is determined to protect the intellectually naive masses (that is three in four Americans) from belief in anything that is not specifically supported by mainstream science. Their assumption is that, “if it is not accounted for in mainstream science, it is impossible and therefore cannot be.” The skeptical community has little or no research supporting their view of frontier subjects such as EVP and mediumship, so the net result is that they win their point by being the dominant group and discrediting research that does support the subject. In a very real sense, social pressure brought by the skeptics to potential research donors and scientists has and continues to prevent research that might prove or disprove our hypotheses. That is simply stopping progress to preserve the status quo.

One technique used to discredit a subject such as psi functioning is to put it in the same group as belief in a flat earth and the moon landing conspiracy theories. If one must be seen as unlikely, then all must be equally unlikely. But there is another factor involved in the success of the skeptical community. Many of the concepts involved in psychic ability (psi functioning) and survival are shared by religions. This leads to people thinking of such concepts as ghosts in religious terms such as demons and possession, rather than in terms of what is empirically supported. In his short essay, The Fallacy of Paranormal Democratic Science, David Wood* explores the idea that some people assume knowledge of a subject by ignoring those who are possibly more experienced. The real answer to the question might be that we are not very clear about what we believe. (*Essay has been removed from David’s website.)

Psi studies are fairly well represented by parapsychology. It is true that parapsychologists are shunned by mainstream science, but they at least have a culture of collaboration and peer-reviewed journals. There are even doctoral programs in some universities. Parapsychology claims to study survival, but other than reincarnation, near-death and out-of-body experiences, that community shuns etheric studies as much as mainstream science shuns them.

The skeptical community will only change its mind about survival of personality if mainstream science begins to openly study the evidence and conclude that the evidence indicates a real effect, rather than our delusion. Mainstream science will not study our subject if we do not present it in a rational manner. Making research funds available for projects conducted with good science is one way that we can attract mainstream science, but the most important thing we can do is to develop a community in which evidence-based reports are held in high regard, and collaboration amongst researchers is seen as a natural part of learning. It is important that we learn how to talk about our subject so that we can accurately report our experiences and research results. Peer review will only be possible when we learn to respect knowledge. If we do not develop the culture of a scientific community, there is little hope that we will gain the respect of mainstream science.

You are a member of this community and in a very real sense, you control if or when our field will attract serious research. Learn all you can; avoid “assuming knowledge.”

  1. American Institute of Physics, “Success: President Signs Bill Providing Additional Science Funding.” aip.org/fyi/2008/072.html
  2. National Science Foundation, “Science and Engineering Indicator 2006: Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” nsf.gov/statistics/seind06/c7/c7s2.htm Reviewed 30 December 2012
  3. National Science Foundation, “Science and Engineering Indicator 2012: Chapter 5: Academic Research and Development: Financial Resources for Academic R&D,” nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/c5/c5h.htm Reviewed 30 December 2012


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