This morning, with great excitement, I decided to visit the web page for the University of Edinburgh’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit. Anyone with a tremendous passion for the study of parapsychology, the ‘paranormal’ or the study of consciousness has heard of this research unit, and many of us have entertained the idea of earning our degree in this field. Many of the presidents of the Society for Psychical Research have some association with the Psychology program at Edinburgh. I have always searched for a university-affiliated program that would provide me with the academic credentials to be taken seriously as an investigator and researcher of the paranormal. However, there is no formal degree offered in something called “parapsychology” or the “paranormal”, only traditional psychology degrees with various emphases or concentrations in psi research. There are centers, units or divisions such as The Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia or the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Virginia, but these programs are all part of a larger, academic discipline.
So what’s the problem? Without a thoroughly interdisciplinary program in the field of psi research, you end up with the particular biases and assumptions of the ‘parent’ field, such as psychology. A degree in psychology is unlikely to prepare you to study consciousness as separate from brain functions, for example. An academic degree prepares represents, almost by definition, a thorough training in materialism and skepticism. The use of language for the Koestler Parapsychology Unit is particularly fascinating to me; there is such a disdain and fear of affirming the independent existence of psi phenomena that you have to read between the lines to find anything that might allow for a non-material interpretation of human experience. There are an abundance of disclaimers, subordinate clauses, circumlocutions and careful phrasings. There is even a reference to studies that require researchers to follow naive and credulous ghost hunters in the vaults of Edinburgh, purporting to show how easily they are fooled into believing a site is haunted based upon magnetic fields and the size and illumination of the vaults.
The operating trope is division. The very name of the University of Virginia’s program exemplifies this: the DIVISION of Personality Studies. Indeed, as researchers, we are divided. A great many so-called ‘ghost hunters’ have taken it upon themselves to conduct what they consider research, in the absence of programs that would train them to do this across disciplines. These investigators are a diverse group, but they tend to cut across class lines and represent all levels of education. Paranormal investigations are open to everyone; therefore, the entire field is democratic by nature. This is threatening to those who run programs in parapsychology, since the public at large is inclined to consider seriously the evidence presented on television shows, radio programs, blog and social media sites that these ‘non-experts’ have promoted. The attitude in academia towards anyone interested in psi or consciousness studies remains poor and overly critical. In fact, my academic reputation has taken a hit due to my interests in this area.
I certainly agree that there are ‘investigators’ who know little or nothing about the scientific method and are creating their own version of data gathering and data analysis. Most are not trained in any particular methodology for gathering and interpreting information that could point to paranormal effects. However, regardless of the fact that most investigators do not have degrees in pertinent areas for the study of psi phenomena, it seems irresponsible to ignore their findings and study them as subjects in experiments designed to prove their lack of competence for serious research. Once again, academia has found a way to maintain its exclusive, class-based entitlement to the truth and ‘ways of knowing’.
If that previous statement sounds harsh, I make it from within the confines of an academic institution. I have spent my entire adult life in a university or college environment. It was, up until a few years ago, all I knew. I have my PhD from Yale University in the area of Spanish literature and language. I was required to learn Italian, French, Latin and Portuguese. I took several courses in linguistics and literary theory. I had to pass excruciating oral and written exams on Romance literature. For years, I was surrounded by the best critics, authors and professors in the world, representing a variety of fields, programs and disciplines. Never once did anyone discuss the topic of consciousness, spirituality, psi research, survival of physical death or anything related to a non-material interpretation of ourselves and our world. Anyone who dared enter such fraught territory was a target for ridicule, criticism or pity. I suppose that the School of Theology was the only acceptable venue for such considerations, and even then, they maintained an historical approach to such questions rather than a considered exploration of real possibilities.
It was only in 2008 that I decided to expand my horizons and join a group of paranormal investigators, none of whom had advanced degrees. In the last four or five years, I have worked with a tremendously diverse group of people who—with only a few exceptions—are logical, practical, intelligent and principled regarding their collection and analysis of data. For that reason, it is painful to see that ‘ghost hunters’ have been lumped into one category along with gullible members of the general public who are looking primarily for entertainment. My experience with academia—particularly with the Ivy League colleges—has been one of division and separation. It is ‘us’ versus the general public. The public can be the subject of study and analysis, but they will never know how misguided and misinformed they truly are, since they won’t read the reports about them that appear in journals of anthropology, psychology and sociology.
I belong to both sides of this coin, and I do not see the necessary separation. Academics have much to learn from a democratic and diverse population that seeks no outside approval of their epistemology and instead relies on qualities that most of us share when discerning the value of data: logic, common sense, critical approaches to their results and interpretations and a willingness to include psychic impressions as part of the bigger picture (for the latter, some teams, not all). Independent investigators also could benefit from understanding the history of their quest, studying more effective procedures for data collection and analysis and staying current on the research available through the few units, divisions, centers and societies that collect, analyze and disseminate what is new in the field.
I have been the skeptical academic who laughs at New Age channelers, and I have also been the investigator who believes she captured a ghost on film only to discover it was the reflection of her own hand in a pane of glass. I understand the necessity of training and critical thinking, but I also know that the popular investigative groups have much to contribute to our understanding of life after death and psi effects without having to become a subject of inquiry and study themselves.
Much of the difficulty is concerns epistemology and authority. Institutions with money for grants and research often determine the course of inquiry. The determining factors regarding our authority to make claims in the area of the paranormal are those institutions that sanction what we know and are responsible for the dissemination of information. ‘Ghost hunters’ want to take back a sense of personal agency and control over the ‘big questions’ of existence; in that sense, we are all philosophers, scientists and theologians.
Some of the vitriol directed towards the home-grown investigator comes from the fact that she is operating beyond anyone’s or any organization’s control and supervision. We can lament the lack of standard practices or interpretations of data, but in the end, we stand to lose a valuable body of possible evidence for trans-personal consciousness if we ignore the catalogs of EVP, photos, videos and anomalous data collected from such apparently silly sources as the ‘Ghost Radar’ on the iPhone. Technology has progressed to a point where odd findings can show up in strange places.
The bigger issue is simply that there is nowhere for all this data to be housed, interpreted or analyzed. All of us have our web pages, blogs, social media sites and so forth with our collected “odd data,” but no one really knows what to do with it all; so, the flood of possibly paranormal phenomena overwhelms us all and ends up ignored, and simply more wasted audio clips in cyberspace.
I don’t propose a solution. I am deeply thankful that the trend appears to favor paranormal researchers in certain academic disciplines. My greatest hope is that we help bridge the gap between the academic researchers and the tireless, independent investigators working in all those dark corners of disturbed buildings. Perhaps there is a better, third option between the PhD with a lab and the intrepid ghost hunter with little idea what she is doing beyond what she sees on TV; just what that might look like is a conversation worth having.
–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD/PHW