4 Mar, 2015

“Parapsychology – The Forbidden Research”

Universities downplay research on all things paranormal for the benefit of studies in psychology on why people want to ”believe in strange things”.

Text: republished with the permission by Guy Lyon Playfair
Original title: One of our professors is missing [FT224:58-59]

Thinking of leaving your fortune to parapsychology or psychical (psi) research? Read this before you sign your will, for the chances are your money will not be spent as you intended. It may end up in the hands of people who do not believe in psi, do no research, and instead do their best to rubbish the whole subject out of existence. It may even not be spent at all after vanishing into some university black hole. With one or two distinguished exceptions, the history of private funding of psi research over the past century has not been a happy one.

Photo by Darren W. Ritson
– The Ghost Hunter

Early in the twentieth century three major American universities, Stanford, Clark and Harvard, received healthy sums clearly intended for research into such subjects as telepathy, clairvoyance and life after death. At Clark, president Spencer Hall made it clear that he disapproved of psi, preferring to describe what the money was to be spent on as psychological research. This included a study of the social behaviour of chickens. There was a psi symposium and an occasional lecture, but as far as is known no original psi research was ever done at Clark, although it kept the money. Indeed, it pioneered what has become a recurring gambit – the hijacking of bequests intended for psi research by psychologists who have no intention of doing any and just want the money for their departments.

At Stanford and Harvard they got off to a good start, appointing research fellows John Coover and Leonard Troland respectively. The former carried out a series of telepathy tests which he wrote up in a huge book described by one reviewer as ‘hardly meant to be read’. Although later researchers went over his results and found them to be significantly positive, Coover himself claimed they weren’t, leading the Stanford authorities to conclude that there was no point in going on. Again, they kept the money and Coover retained his fellowship for another twenty years. No successor was ever appointed although the fellowship is still said to exist.

At Harvard it took some years before the funds donated in memory of pioneer researcher Richard Hodgson to be spent on anything at all, though Troland did manage to do some experiments using a fully automated test procedure. The results of his first series failed to make the significance level and he too decided not to go on. The university kept the money, of course, and some of this was indeed well spent, financing the early research of Gardner Murphy, who was to become one of the leading parapsychologists of his time. However, as historians of psi research Seymour Mauskopfand Michael McVaugh conclude in their definitive book The Elusive Science the work of both Coover and Troland was judged to be ‘far from fulfilling the intentions in which their fellowships had been established’.

The same could be said of all too many of their successors; funds specifically intended for psi research have been diverted into conventional psychology at Uppsala (the Sydney Alrutz bequest), Freiburg (the Asta Holler fund) and most recently at Lund, where the professorship in ‘parapsychology and hypnology’ that benefactor Poul Thorsen wanted is now described by the university as a chair of psychology, though I should add that the appointed professor, Etzel Cardeña, clearly intends to respect his benefactor’s wishes.

The distinguished exceptions mentioned above include the Parapsychology Foundation, set up in 1951 by the mediumEileen Garrett and funded initially by her wealthy friendFrances Payne Bolton and still going strong in the capable hands of her grand-daughter Lisette Coly, with an excellent track record of funding research, organising conferences and publishing the International Journal of Parapsychology; the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia where Ian Stevenson was able to pursue his ground-breaking research into reincarnation, and the Foundation for Research into the Nature of Man in Durham, North Carolina, both funded by bequests from xerox inventor Chester Carlson. Honourable mention must also be made of the Portuguese BIAL foundation, currently the most generous benefactor of psi research.

In Britain there have been two major sources of psi funding, the estate of writer Arthur Koestler and the Perrott-Warrick studentship endowed by two members of the Society for Psychical Research and administered (reluctantly, it sometimes seems) by Trinity College, Cambridge. Some of the money has been well spent – the current recipient, Rupert Sheldrake, is the country’s highest-profile and most prolific psi researcher who continues to produce compelling evidence for telepathy in both humans and animals.

Easy money to skeptics and debunkers

Yet much P-W money has also been given in the past to self-declared sceptics including Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman and Nicholas Humphrey, whose three years’ funding (an estimated £75,000) produced no original research at all and a book, Soul Searching, notable for the absence of any reference to any published psi research. Clever exploitation of loopholes in the wording of the P-W bequest has enabled opportunistic sceptics to get away with this kind of thing.

Koestler’s wording, on the other hand, left no room for argument – his money was ‘for parapsychology and parapsychology alone’, and for nearly twenty years, with Professor Robert Morris in charge at Edinburgh University, his wish was obeyed to the letter (see FT201). Yet with Morris’s sudden and premature death in 2004, strange things began to happen. Applications were invited for what appeared to be the post of his successor, though the Koestler Chair had somehow been quietly renamed the Robert Morris Chair (without, it later emerged, the consent of trustee John Beloff, thanks to whom the Chair had come to Edinburgh in the first place). More about that later.

Applications duly came in from a dozen or so of the great and good of the psi research community including no less than six past presidents of the Parapsychological Association as well as from three high-profile sceptics and a little-known sociologist. The short list of four was announced in December 2005 and – you’ve guessed it – these were the three sceptics and the sociologist. The fact that Nicholas Humphrey was the assessor might have been a factor.

This aroused a fair amount of fury from several of Koestler’s and Morris’s friends and admirers, who fired off a barrage of complaints to the appropriate head of department, with copies to the university ombudsman, rector and principal. That these had some effect can be assumed since in a mere week or two (an incredibly short time by academic standards) it was announced that all four of the finalists had been rejected, a measure unheard of, I am told, in academic circles where to be put on a short list is presumably tantamount to recognition of your fitness for the job.

So what was going on at what until recently was regarded as the centre of excellence for properly conducted psi research? A year on there was still no sign of a new professor, and attempts even by Edinburgh graduates to find out why failed, without even an acknowledgment apart from one of those ‘Vicky is out of the office’ reply emails (I got one of those and heard no more). A request from one senior academic to see the minutes of the meeting at which it was (presumably) decided not to replace Morris was rejected ‘on the grounds that this ‘might violate privacy’ – an excuse hard to justify in the case of a public position at a state-funded university.

There have been mutterings, I gather from usually reliable moles, about the money having run out, which is curious in view of the fact that the BIAL Foundation has offered to help keep the Koestler Chair occupied. In a final twist to this sorry tale, it was revealed in January 2007 that the £5,000 bequeathed by Koestler trustee John Beloff to the department he had done so much to help establish never reached it. His executors were apparently not satisfied that the money could be spent as he wished – on the Koestler Chair – if there wasn’t one.

Yet to add to the confusion, there was and still is one, and that’s official. ‘The Robert Morris Chair in Parapsychology is a new chair, funded in part by the BIAL Foundation. It is not a renamed Koestler Chair’, the new head of the psychology department, Dr Morag Donaldson, told me in March 2007, adding ‘although the Koestler Chair has not been disestablished we expect it to remain vacant for the foreseeable future’. This, she explained, was because ‘after appropriate consultation and discussion, we decided that the original intention of Koestler’s would be best fulfilled and maintained by using the limited income arising from the endowment to fund two lecturer/senior lecturer appointments in the area of parapsychology rather than one professor.’

Fair enough, but isn’t it unusual to have two chairs of parapsychology at the same university and to keep both of them empty – it is unlikely that the Koestler one will ever be occupied since just about everybody best qualified for it has already applied (for the Morris Chair) and has been rejected? It is beginning to look as though the real purpose of the Morris Chair (still unoccupied in 2009) is to circumvent the tight strictures imposed by Koestler when he insisted that his money should go to ’parapsychology alone’. It seems to be the same old story – money earmarked for psi research gets gradually diverted into safer fields, in this case probably ‘anomalistic psychology’, the study of why people are crazy enough to be believe in psi. And so yet again the wishes of a benefactor, in this case the most generous one there has ever been to British psi researchers, have not been respected. Plus ça change…


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