Parapsychology: How To Make Something Out of Nothing

By: Ray Hyman, Ph.D.

November 3, 2006, 7:30 PM
Portland State University ~ Science Building 1, Room 107

Abstract: Psychical Research began as an attempt to investigate scientifically paranormal phenomena.However, the evidence was gathered from surveys and observing mediums. This made it impossible to objectively determine if a seemingly inexplicable event was due to coincidence, delusion, fraud, or true psychic cause. Such evidence relied on prima facie impact. Parapsychology, initiated in the early 1930s, attempted to convert psychical research into a laboratory science using experimental controls and sophisticated statistics. My talk will assess the status of this field after 75 years of data collection. Some major parapsychologists such as Jessica Utts and Dean Radin have declared that parapsychologists have established scientifically that psi exists. On the surface, this seems to conflict with recent assessments by other parapsychologists such as Kennedy, Ludacou, and Bierman. These latter researchers have done independent evaluations and report that the effect sizes in all fields of parapsychology have been declining over the years and approaching zero. In addition, the findings are inherently unreplicable. However, none of these latter parapsychologists draw the obvious conclusion that the quest for psi has failed. Instead, each of them has devised an elaborate theory to explain why the nature of psi is such as to exhibit this interesting property of eluding ordinary scientific standards for confirmation.

I will look at this bizarre situation from an autobiographical perspective. I published my first serious critique of parapsychological research in 1957. Since then I have been involved in several investigations and critiques of parapsychological claims. I was dumfounded when I first examined the best research in the field. The methodology and statistics were far more s ophisticated than what the critics, many of them my friends, had led me to believe. At first I was at a loss to explain some of the findings. With perseverance, and sometimes with luck, I eventually discovered serious weaknesses in the evidence. This pattern has repeated itself with each of my investigations.

Biography Ray Human:
Ray Hyman is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Oregon. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree at Boston University in 1950, his Master of Arts degree at The Johns Hopkins University in 1952, and his Ph.D. degree at The Johns Hopkins University in 1953.

Hyman's published research has been in such areas as pattern recognition, perception, problem solving,creativity, and related areas of cognition. He has written and published extensively on the psychology of deception and critiques of paranormal and other fringe claims. His books include Mathematics for Psychologists [1955, coauthored with R.Bush and R.P. Abelson]; Water Witching U.S.A. [1959; 1979, and 2000] coauthored with E.Z. Vogt], The Nature of Psychological Inquiry [1964]; and The Elusive Quarry: a scientific appraisal of psychical research[ 1989]. He is currently working on a book How Smart People Go Wrong: Cognition and Human Error.

He has served on a variety of governmental committees and has done editorial work for most of the major psychological journals as well as for Nature, Science, and other general scientific magazines. From 1985 through 1991 he served on the National Research Council Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance. During that period the NRC Committee published two books. In the first, Enhancing Human Performance, Hyman wrote the chapter on the evaluation of paranormal claims and the government's involvement with paranormal claimants. In the second volume, In the Mind's Eye, he coauthored the two chapters on hiding and detecting deception. He also coauthored the chapter evaluating the evidence for subliminal perception and the possibilities of using training programs based upon it.

In 2003 CSICOP presented Hyman its In Praise of Reason award. In 2000, he was voted, along with James Randi, Martin Gardner, and Carl Sagan, as one of the ten outstanding skeptics of the 20th Century.

Copyright (c) 2006 Oregonians for Science and Reason