Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide, by Caroline Watt

Caroline Watt’s Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide (2016) provides an accessible introduction to the current state of knowledge in what can at times be a technical subject.  Watt was a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, working with Bob Morris, and currently holds the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology there (though this is now a personal rather than a departmental chair).  She has long taught a highly-regarded online parapsychology course.

Despite Watt’s reputation as a sceptic, she does not push an overtly anti-parapsychology agenda but looks at the phenomena from a variety of perspectives.  Although she does not consider the research to have produced compelling results, she stresses how the innovative techniques developed in a field subjected to rigorous scrutiny by critics have helped to improve methods in other scientific areas.

Unsurprisingly, she stresses dangers in reaching false conclusions such as misperception, poor estimates of probability, questionable research practices (both in conducting experiments and analysing them) and fraud.  On the plus side, she shows that parapsychologists have tightened procedures to try to rule these problems out, and have themselves exposed instances of fraud, rather than having it done by outsiders.  Standards, she acknowledges, are higher than in many other areas of science.

Watt starts with basics, discussing terminology, before examining the roots of parapsychology in a longer tradition of psychical research.  She marks out what it is not, such as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, instead emphasising ‘the capabilities and experiences of living human beings’ (the word living hinting at the ambivalent attitude to survival in parapsychology).  Then she delves into the discipline in more detail, breaking her treatment into three main sections: testing psychic claims; anomalous experiences; and laboratory research.

Under testing psychic claims she looks at macro-PK, psychic readings, remote viewing, animal psi (presumably honorary human beings for the purpose), and survival issues, including mediumship, super-psi, cold reading and reincarnation.  Anomalous experiences cover out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences (neither of which she judges to be particularly evidential), hauntings, apparitions and the psychology of psychic experiences.  Problems she highlights include fraud and insufficient precautions against sensory cueing.

Moving into the laboratory, chapters cover the evolution of experiments investigating telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis, with good discussions on ganzfeld, dream research, and the role of meta-analysis.  Pre-registration of experiments is stressed to help guard against data manipulation, and Watt runs such a registry at Edinburgh.  Concluding remarks assess the progress of parapsychology and the influence it has had on mainstream psychology in terms of methodology.

For those who fancy trying research themselves, an appendix describes informal and more formal tests for ESP and PK that can be conducted at home, the contrast in the way they are conducted highlighting the need for a rigorous approach in order to prevent counter-explanations being advanced for positive results.  There is a brief glossary and suggestions for further reading.

The book’s coverage is broad, but the necessity to compress the information obliges Watt to skate over topics, a lack of detail and nuance the reader possessing some background knowledge will find frustrating and at times even misleading.  The overall impression given is that while in general parapsychology does not live up to the claims made by its proponents, its pursuit has not been wasted effort because of its beneficial influence in other fields.

Said proponents would probably deem her at best too cautious in her estimate and at worst wrong, while there is nothing to persuade those predisposed to dismiss the subject to change their assessment based on the evidence presented.  It is thus clear what Watt’s position is, despite her attempt to be even-handed.  With that caveat, anyone interested in parapsychology who wants an overview before diving deeper will find this a useful primer.


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