The Real Science Behind Paranormal Phenomena

By Damien BroderickDecember 17, 2015

The Real Science Behind Paranormal Phenomena

Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century by John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz, and Etzel Cardeña
Extrasensory Perception: Support, Skepticism, and Science by Sonali Bhatt Marwaha and Edwin C. May

MANY PEOPLE ACCEPT AS TRUE, or at least partially true, numerous assertions that seem laughable or absurd to critics. A Harris poll a few years back reported that only 47 percent of adult Americans accepted the reality of evolution: more than half the population still denies the basic lynchpin of scientific biology. Meanwhile, 42 percent accept the reality of ghosts, 29 percent put their faith in astrology, and a quarter of the population think they’ll be reincarnated in another body. Others think they’ll go to heaven or perhaps suffer eternal punishment in hell.

What of the paranormal? Popular acceptance of telepathy (fetching knowledge directly from somebody else’s mind), remote viewing (detecting data from afar), precognition (accurately foretelling the future), and psychokinesis (moving stuff by wishing it) has been clocked at 41 percent and above.

It turns out that paranormal believers are right to accept the reality of at least some anomalous phenomena. This review examines two formidable books presenting evidence and preliminary theory for psi (the catch-all term for such apparent impossibilities). One comes in two hefty volumes, while the other is a monstrous paperback.

The evidence is impressive. I say this with some confidence, even in the face of the claptrap often associated with claims of the paranormal and the dull or cunning shysters who try to sell bogus “psychic readings” or inflated “remote viewing courses.” There’s substantial evidence — both anecdotal and laboratorial — for some paranormal phenomena, but it takes scientific savvy to sort out the trustworthy from the vast piles of dross.


Although the professional organization of academically qualified psi specialists has been an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 1969, its discipline remains the target of shrugs and eye-rolling from most scientists. For example, a cadre of devoted uberskeptics ensures that this attitude of caustic dismissal penetrates Wikipedia, where the first sentence of the entry on psi research begins: “Parapsychology is a pseudoscience.” The two tomes under review, and others recent and forthcoming, might help illuminate the legitimate work being accomplished by various psi investigators.

The vexed history and development of psychical research is revealed in the opening chapters of both books, which address the rise toward the end of the 19th century of spiritualist cults, mediums, ghost-hunters, mind-readers, and levitators of tables and mystics alike. By the 1930s, this magical excitement attracted the interest of some serious scholars, especially those — like the famous Dr. J. B. Rhine at Duke University — who set out to apply the investigative techniques of the new disciplines of psychology and statistics to the study of psychical phenomena.

The new studies therefore came to be termed “parapsychology,” and they adopted techniques more suited to the lab than to the medium’s dimly lit séances. Accounts of spontaneous wonders did not cease, but the emphasis turned to a species of Psych 101 bean counting — the routinized quest for the parameters of what Rhine dubbed “extrasensory perception” and “psychokinesis.” Promising extreme deviations from randomness reported in spontaneous psychic events fairly quickly shrank under this onslaught of dreary card-guessing and the like. Even so, the modest lab stats, with their small shifts from chance, did pile up, indicating the action of some mysterious process unknown even to the then-new physics of relativity and quantum theory.

It’s important to note that by “extrasensory” Rhine did not mean “an additional sense.” He and his colleagues were not looking for an extra lobe in the brain bathed by miraculous subtle energies activating an extra sense. He meant “outside of the senses” in the same way that “extramarital sex” means “outside the marriage bed.” Indeed, these capacities were seen as beyond the limits not only of the known senses but also of space and time. Rhine spoke of “the reach of the mind” and hoped to find an explanation of humanity that surpassed the meaningless behaviorism of that benighted epoch, with its staggeringly limited stress on “rats & stats.”


Was Rhine looking for salvation in psi? Maybe, but by the 1970s, the world had moved on to a more complex, richer investigation of the paranormal. Both the Soviet and the US governments were deeply invested in efforts to develop psychic spying. The American program was tasked and funded for two decades, under intense and regular scrutiny, by the Department of Defense as well as the CIA, DEA, NSA, NSC, and the Secret Service. For the final decade (1985–’95), the scientific wing of this effort was directed by Edwin C. May, a PhD in low-energy nuclear physics, who helped shape the multimillion-dollar program until it was shut down in 1995.

Lately, May and his colleagues have been documenting all this formerly top-secret and classified material in what will be a 10-volume archive of both data and somewhat redacted operational records. May co-edited Anomalous Cognition (the neutralized term for perceptual psi) and ESP Wars: East and West, both released in 2014. In Extrasensory Perception: Support, Skepticism, and Science (hereafter ESP), he and Dr. Sonali Bhatt Marwaha, an Indian psychologist, continue to offer expert summaries of the range of recent research into these phenomena at the fringe of orthodox science along with a dizzying variety of potential explanations.

Simultaneously, a different but convergent endeavor called Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (hereafter Handbook) has also appeared, edited principally by Etzel Cardeña, PhD, Thorsen Chair of Psychology at Sweden’s University of Lund and Director of its Center for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology. His main co-editor is Dr. John Palmer, Director of Research at the Rhine Research Center in North Carolina and editor of the Journal of Parapsychology. Most of the other contributors to these two stout volumes hold doctorates in related fields. Each book has a detailed early chapter on suitable methods for psi research and attempted replications by Jessica Utts, PhD, Professor of Statistics at the University of California at Irvine. In 2016, she will be the 111th president of the American Statistical Association. This is, to be sure, not an assembly of mall-front fortune tellers.


Four chapters in the Handbook explicitly confront purported evidence for life beyond death: mediumship, reincarnation field studies, ghosts and poltergeists (often seen as anomalous perturbation or angst-driven psychokinesis rather than cavorting dead people), and supposed “electronic voice phenomena,” where random sounds seem to form a few seconds of postmortem or maybe demonic utterance. There’s a word for this: pareidolia, the trick of the mind that lets the devout see the Blessed Virgin scorched into a slice of toast. The EVP chapter writers are candid enough to report that “confidence in one’s interpretation does not usually reflect that other people will hear the same thing.”

In contrast, a quite impressive Handbook attempt to demonstrate that the mind can’t possibly be identical with the embodied brain is made by Edward F. Kelly, PhD, a research professor in the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. The mind is undetectable by instruments, must be neither material nor energetic, and may be able to survive death. How, then, can it couple to the brain and other organs? Via psi, maybe? Some call this doctrine promissory immaterialism. It’s an opinion seldom heard from neuroscientists, but nonetheless has increasing cachet among panpsychist philosophers such as Galen Strawson and David Chalmers. It is the basis of Hindu theology and also a background assumption in the understanding of some parapsychologists, such as Stephan Schwartz and Charles Tart, who consider that mind not only permeates the universe but is also its source and substrate. Others regard the notion as a category mistake, a term from Gilbert Ryle’s most famous book The Concept of Mind, where he introduced the notion of the ghost in the machine (or here, we might say, the machine in the ghost).

The most valuable parts of these books are the substantial and various treatments of physicalist theories of psi: how does it work, why does it often fail to work, and how might the tremendously powerful “ways of knowing” of advanced science accommodate their equations to statistical intrusions that seem both ridiculous and impossible? Attempts are made in both books to address these questions. Consider this: quantum theory is equally baffling, yet it’s an accepted foundation of contemporary science. Consider entanglement — when the condition of correlated particles remains undecided or superposed until one happens to interact with the outside universe and decoheres into definiteness. Amazingly, the other particle instantly follows suit even if it’s a light year distant. Is that a key to faster-than-light knowledge of the future and distant events outside the light cone? No, unfortunately. The correlations are real, but there’s no known way to modulate them into a signal that conveys useful information. The so-called observational theories, based on a somewhat antiquated version of quantum theory, do propose that superposed reality congeals from its multiple states only when we observe it, and is discussed in both books by Dr. Brian Millar, as if in a demonstration of that very theory.

The theorists in both books try with all their might to solve the problem of reconciling psi and established science. In ESP Vol. 2, Bernard Carr, professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of London, invokes hyperspatial dimensions like those posited by string theory. May and Joseph Depp, PhD, founding president and CEO of Accuray, Inc., ponder wormholes through space-time like those postulated by general relativity. The late Richard Shoup, a computer science PhD, takes an even stranger step sideways. Shoup more or less invented programmable logic and reconfigurable hardware, and he is probably the only psi researcher to win an Emmy and an Oscar for his technical work. At the Boundary Institute, he mapped the outlines of a research program that replaces causality with correlation based on the time reversibility of fundamental physics. Daniel P. Sheehan, PhD, professor of Physics at the University of San Diego, argues for a link between precognition and just such retrocausation.

German researcher Walter von Lucadou, PhD, Senior Lecturer at the Furtwangen Technical University, presents a model of pragmatic information that claims that psi must get weaker (or at least more dispersed) as it gets closer to actually working usefully. Why? Because the universe can’t abide time loops and paradoxes. It’s an amusing notion, but one which seems to come entirely unstuck when we turn to the vivid account by Joseph McMoneagle (in ESP Vol. 1), the best-known and perhaps most successful remote viewer from the Star Gate program. His ability to sketch and describe distant military and other objectives with high, but not perfect, accuracy extends satisfactorily into the future.

Is there any way to capture the dynamics of such mysterious processes? Edwin May’s chapter on entropic gradients as a key to precognition hovers, for the lay reader, on the brink of intelligibility and may be beyond the edge. So also does Dutch professor Dick J. Bierman’s “Consciousness-Induced Restoration of Time Symmetry.” Still, while it’s too soon to be sure, it seems that something like one of these models must certainly account for the mysteries of psi.


Remarkably, ESP and Handbook each contain a substantial chapter by critics of the evidence for psi. May and Marwaha’s chosen debunkers are Dr. Eric Jan Wagenmakers, professor at the Psychological Methods Unit at the University of Amsterdam (the same department as Bierman, curiously enough), and four of his associates. Using Bayesian stats rather than traditional old-fashioned frequentist analysis, Wagenmakers includes his preexisting judgments or biases, gained from the complex experience of all other assessments he’s ever done, and modifies these as necessary by the deviations from chance found in the latest experiment.

A Bayesian is forbidden to have a prior likelihood estimate of zero — after all, if anything might turn out to be true, then perhaps we all inhabit a prankish Second Life–type virtual cosmos — but we are allowed to maintain a probability of 0.00000000001 or lower that the world is actually flat, or that psi is real. Given such a starting point, it is effectively impossible to change your mind, no matter how strong and consistent the evidence (and psi is rarely either strong or stable, mostly just cumulative in the long run). Wagenmakers’s interest is frankly this: “[I]f our standard scientific methods allow us to prove the impossible” — as parapsychology does — then “these methods are surely up for revision.”

Cardeña’s skeptic is Dr. Douglas M. Stokes, a mathematical psychologist and former associate editor of the Journal of Parapsychology, who has become disenchanted with the whole domain of inquiry. He is convinced that there’s more hanky-panky possible than meets even the astute eye. It’s a position supported by recent convulsions in the social sciences, where a scandal erupted over Questionable Research Practices (QRPs). There are lots of ways to bias your results to achieve a desired outcome, many of them unconscious or apparently nontoxic: optional stopping when the numbers look good, filing away experiments with poor outcomes so only the winners get published, a dozen more. As I write, a paper is forthcoming that simulates all these QRPs for research in meta-analyses of Ganzfeld data (psi during sensory deprivation), dragging the significance levels down from amazingly impressive six sigma scores to a chance probability of 0.003.

That’s still moderately strong evidence for an anomaly — three chances in 1000 of getting this result by sheer fluke — and it depends on assuming that parapsychologists are guilty in the same degree as their worst mainstream colleagues. Scornful doubters will proclaim they are more guilty, on the assumption that psi just doesn’t exist. Actually, psi journals were among the first to insist on publishing failed experiments alongside successful ones — a policy that contrasts favorably to the unwritten but powerful rule, in the loftiest major journals like Nature and Science, that only startling new results are worth the paper or electrons they’re printed on.


There’s a great deal I’ve had to leave out — results that are startling and call for an expanded science. The Handbook has chapters by Dr. Dean Radin on presentiment or presponse, a detectable physiological jolt in skin conductivity or blood pressure or subtle brain states prior to a random shock. It might be that presentiment effects save us from the even greater road carnage one might expect from driving on a murderous freeway. Psychotherapist Dr. James Carpenter explains his model of First Sight, which posits an ongoing unconscious responsiveness to the world guiding us away from danger and toward benefits. No matter how slight this influence is, it gives evolutionary selection a lever to fix psi in our genome.

One chapter in ESP Vol. 1, however, is genuinely thrilling: it offers a transcript account of military remote viewer McMoneagle’s actual 1979 search, tasked by the National Security Council, through his present and future for details of a hidden Soviet weapons program. Step by slow double-blinded step, he walked his hallucinated spectral body through a great landlocked concrete building in what proved to be the incomplete and unknown Typhoon submarine base. The Typhoon (or Shark) was a huge nuclear-powered ballistic missile sub of unusual design. McMoneagle described it in some detail, but CIA’s chief of the Russian desk, Robert Gates, dismissed the report as “Total Fantasy!” McMoneagle got word of this and wrote, “The fantasy will be launched in approximately 112 days! J. M.” Admiral Stewart carried this back to the NSC, and a search of the site was conducted 114 days later. A huge channel had been cut to the sea, and a Typhoon sat at the harbor’s dock. Gates’s response was, “Lucky Guess!”

Years later, in 1995, Robert Gates was involved in closing down the Star Gate program, publicly declaring with a straight face that nothing useful had ever come from its decades of research and operational advice. In 2006, he became the 22nd US Secretary of Defense. Today, Joe McMoneagle is working with Ed May’s Laboratories for Fundamental Research, and he is still doing surprisingly effective remote viewing. Diehard skeptics, like evolution deniers, will remain convinced that it’s all just Total Fantasy and Lucky Guesses.



Damien Broderick, PhD, is a science and SF writer and critic.

LARB Contributor

Damien Broderick, PhD, is a science and SF writer and critic. He has published four books on parapsychology, including Outside the Gates of Science: Why It’s Time for the Paranormal to Come in from the Cold, the data-heavy Evidence for Psi (co-edited with Ben Goertzel, PhD) and, just released, Knowing the Unknowable: Putting Psi to Work.


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