Monthly Archives: November 2010

Researching psychic claims

‘Psychic’ or ‘medium’ is a term used to describe someone who claims to have a special ability or to use a ‘sixth sense’ to receive information which cannot easily be gleaned through normal human senses. A person may claim to do this with the assistance of spirit (as in mediumship) or they may claim to have special powers of perception either gifted to them or that they have honed.

Those who do not wish to describe themselves as psychic sometimes use other, less grandiose terms such as ‘sensitive’ to describe an increased ability to receive information using means alternative to our known senses.

It is reasonable when presented with such claims to seek to prove whether the claimant can do that which they profess to be able to do. A scientific approach to psychic claims may include formal or informal research aimed at proving such claims.

Once clear about the claim being made the researcher needs to design a research methodology which they think can capture the claimed skill and convert it into data. The data can then be analysed to determine whether the claimant can, in fact, achieve a hit rate above chance when set the task of performing their claimed psychic ability.

Researchers usually work with the claimant to agree the parameters of the study and will agree, before the study takes place, the threshold for concluding that the claim is upheld. This means agreeing how the research will be conducted and how the results will be analysed as well as where the line can be drawn to determine that the claimant has succeeded in proving their claim. In sceptical circles the burden of proof is said to fall upon the claimant since they are claiming to be able to do something extraordinary.

In general, the evidence presented for psychic phenomena has not been sufficiently verified to reach the threshold for scientific acceptance. Alternative explanations such as chance, coincidence, cold reading, suggestion and many other non-paranormal techniques have been put forward and demonstrated.

When embarking on a piece of research to attempt to prove psychic ability it is important to develop a research question or hypothesis. This is a statement of what it is you are asking or attempting to prove. Research tools are available for use and can add credibility to your research and assist in the process of answering your question. Michael Thalbourne’s Sheep-Goat scale lends itself very readily to the study of ESP, for example. He has produced a questionnaire which enables us to determine an individual’s level of belief. His theory says that believers in the paranormal (‘Sheep’) perform better than non-believers or ‘Goats’ because ‘Goats’ actively avoid hits in order to prove their theory of non-belief and have been evidenced to score below average in ESP tests. We need to approach research with an open mind but also with a theory to test. Essentially when conducting research we not only want to discover whether a phenomena exists but we also want to discover how it occurs and to be able to discuss some possible explanations.

Parapsychology is the name used to describe the scientific study of anomalous phenomena and typically includes the study of ESP, psychokinesis, mediumship and other claims of Psychic ability. Parapsychologists are sceptics in the true sense of the word. In other words they are not necessarily non-believers but they do apply rationalism and logic to their research. Parapsychology also challenges the assumption that subjective experience is ‘truth’. There can be no clear distinction between objective and subjective experience. What happens to me is not necessarily ‘truth’ as in a true reflection of what happens outside of myself as experienced by others. In fact the notion of truth itself can be challenged. In other words, parapsychology acknowledges that everything we experience is filtered through our own subjectivity and cannot be treated as fact.

It is easy and fun to conduct informal research into all the areas covered in this article. For example, Extra Sensory Perception (ESP), the act of telepathic transfer of images is traditionally practiced using Zenner cards but any image or object which can retained out of sight of the person trying to determine what it is can be used.

The most highly regarded research into psychic phenomena is that which uses a double-blind methodology. This method which is commonly used in drug trials, attempts to remove bias and influence which can flaw the study. The ‘double’ part of this term means that both the experimenters and the participants have no knowledge of the target and they do not even know who belongs to the control group and the experimental group until after the research has been completed and analysed.

Double-blind research is an excellent way to conduct research into psychic phenomena because the claim that unconscious bias and subtle unintended cues can explain positive results is a real and credible explanation. If the experimenters do not know what the target is then they cannot influence the participants. In a single-blind experiment the participants are blind but the experimenters are not. There remains a high risk that subjects are influenced by experimenter bias when using this methodology.

In simple terms, when designing a study, for example, to evidence ESP, if the experimenters know what the target object is then an explanation for any positive results will be that the experimenter communicated the target to the participants either consciously or unconsciously. Double-blind is therefore considered to be a much stronger method and the possible explanations for any results are narrowed.

Lastly, the bigger the sample size or number of people taking part in your experiment, the more generalisable your results will be. If you have a strong methodology your research can continue on more than one occasion so long as the method remains the same and this provides an opportunity to obtain more data.

If you would like to learn more about designing your own research I recommend a visit to any of the websites below for more information on the scientific study of psychic claims.