An Anomaly of Ceaseless Wonder

Psi is an anomaly of ceaseless wonder and mystery. The psi hypothesis remains neither confirmed nor disconfirmed but it connects us to our fellow beings, to nature and the cosmos at large.

David F Marks, Psychology and the Paranormal, 2020, p. 313.

A recent post featuring Adrian Parker shows the openness of a thought leader to a new scientific idea. The new scientific idea is that psi is an unpredictable anomaly of human experience that occurs spontaneously and cannot be controlled inside the laboratory. The view runs counter to the tradition of experimental research in parapsychology, founded by Joseph Banks Rhine, and does not rest easily with those who have invested in this tradition – i.e. the mainstream Parapsychology community. The epitome of that mainstream is the Society of Psychical Research founded in 1882.

Resistance to New Ideas

Resistance to new ideas seems to be an enduring human characteristic, and scientists –despite extolling the virtues of objectivity– have often proved themselves very human in this respect. Many of the great breakthroughs of modern science were initially rejected or ignored, sometimes for decades, and mainly because of bias. It is instructive to consider a few examples of scientific advances that were originally rejected.

Science for the Public 2022

Either the resistance to the ideas in my latest book is too strong or, I fear, I have failed to get my point across. In either case, there is a lot more work to be done.

In the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume 85, Number 3, Issue 944, July 2021, p. 159 this review by Mr Chris Little is long (4600 words) and tedious. Sadly, it reveals major misreadings of my book and the zetetic position it offers. I do not mince words. I refer to the review as a “distorted carbuncle that does a disservice”. I believe these words are a valid description of Mr Little’s expatiations about my book.

The book review editor, Mr Nemo Mörck, sent along a draft version of Mr Little’s piece in March 2021 and I submitted a response the following month. Because of “a few behind the scenes problems”, the JSPR publication was held up for 18 months.

To continue our fruitful dialogue, I have accepted the invitation of the SPR President, Professor Adrian Parker, to give an address at the SPR’s next conference.

Below I reproduce my letter to the JSPR.

Review of a Review

by Little, C. (2020). Review of PSYCHOLOGY AND THE PARANORMAL by David F. Marks. London: Sage. 2020. 402 pp. £29.99. ISBN 9781526491053.

Dear Editor,

Thank you for this opportunity to respond to the JSPR review (Little, 2020) of ‘Psychology and the Paranormal: Exploring Anomalous Experience’ (Marks, 2020). I explain here why I consider Chris Little’s review to be distorted carbuncle that does a disservice to your readership and to this author. Your reviewer appears to have read a different book to the one that I wrote.

Your  reviewer begins by misdescribing the title and author. The title is: ‘Psychology and the Paranormal. Exploring Anomalous Experience’ (PPEAE ) not as stated in the copy sent to me by your Book Review Editor, Mr Nemo Mörck: ‘Psychology and the Paranormal’. The missing words, ‘Exploring Anomalous Experience’ are essential to the book’s purpose and, by this omission, your reviewer reveals precisely how he could so misunderstand the book’s message. I asked Mr Mörck to restore the full title to the review before publication and hope he managed to do so.

In the first sentence, your reviewer characterises me as “a retired academic psychologist who has been a prominent sceptic regarding parapsychology”.  If I am indeed retired, nobody has informed me.  From 2015-2020 I have published six books, two editions of an 800-page textbook on Health Psychology (Marks, Murray & Estacio, 2018, 2020), multiple peer-reviewed journal articles and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Health Psychology, which receives more than 1000 submissions per year. I can see that in the world inhabited by Mr Little, every living person must be categorised either ‘believer’ or ‘sceptic’.  I respectfully disagree. As a personal descriptor, the term ‘sceptic’ is at odds with my long-held conviction in the significance of subjective experience, including imagery, the hypnotic trance state, and altered states of consciousness more generally, as evidenced by the bibliography printed in PPEAE.  

Your somewhat myopic reviewer gets it grossly wrong when he describes the book as “a further shift in emphasis towards experimental parapsychology”.   On the contrary, the main point of my book is to show that the ‘emphasis towards experimental parapsychology’ may well be entirely misplaced.  My book proposes to investigate psi as an anomalistic experience that occurs most readily and prevalently outside of the experimental laboratory. As the Preface states: “The goal here is …to dig below the surface of anomalistic experience, to take a close look at the psychology of the paranormal, to put psi ‘under the microscope’. One should not be surprised if all is not as it seems and we can expect surprises aplenty here…I last visited this field 20 years ago. Now, with ‘new eyes’ and new evidence, one’s understanding could be significantly different compared to 20 years ago. Unlike previous visits, I am giving the psi hypothesis an initial probability of being a real, authentic and valid experience of 50%” (PPEAE, p. x).  In his review, among its many faults, Mr Little: i) did not attempt to engage with any of the new theoretical ideas presented in PPEAE, ii) ignores my discussion of five different theories of anomalous experience, iii) ignores my review of neuroscientific studies, iv) fails to accept the zetetic approach and so refers to my conclusions as ‘paradoxical’, v) confesses to not seeing why a new general psychological theory is included in the book at all.  There is not space in this letter to address all of these points, which would require an entire journal article.

In advocating the zetetic approach à la Marcello Truzzi (1987) – to whom PPEAE is dedicated –  PPEAE does not present the fixed point of view desired by readers such as  your reviewer. One’s point of view is not paradoxical either; it is conditional upon differing levels of supportive evidence: “With each new claim, one must read, reflect, question, reflect some more, and ultimately decide at one particular moment the degree of plausibility that any specific claim possesses.” A Bayesian ‘Belief Barometer’ indicates one’s degree of belief for any particular claim in light of one’s understanding of the evidence. The expected variation in one’s degree of belief for different claims is showing one’s sensitivity to evidence. When a person’s belief is habitually set at ‘0%’ or ‘100%’ for absolutely everything, that surely indicates intransigence and intolerance of ambiguity. In  PPEAE  I assert that: “In any science, all ideas are provisional, pending further investigation. Those who assert a fixed point of view before looking at the evidence break the ‘Golden Rule of Science’, which is to let conclusions follow the evidence” (p. xii).

The zetetic approach is an authentic and legitimate response in any scientific domain.  For example, consider the current scientific interest in Mars. One might give a .5 probability to the proposition that a human will visit Mars by 2030, a .01 probability to the proposition that the visitor will find water there, and a 10-100 probability that they will meet another being already inhabiting the planet. Naturally, different propositions about Mars have different probabilities. The same must surely be true for different propositions about psi as one kind of anomalous experience. I started my book with a ‘Personal Belief Barometer reading’ (PBBR) of 50% for ‘Lab ESP’. After reviewing the evidence, my PBBR for ‘Lab ESP’ had declined to 10-9.  However, my PBBRs for five other propositions ranged from 75-100%: ‘Coincidences as Paranormal’ (75%), ‘Trance Logic’ (100%), ‘OBE’ (,100%) ‘NDE’ (100%) and ‘Spontaneous ESP’ (75%). Entering into the spirit of the approach, on page 136 of PPEAE, Professor Adrian Parker states a PBBR of 60-90%.

The take-home messages from PPEAE can be stated as follows:

  1. PPEAE offers a new paradigm for the study of the paranormal reformulated as one major part of a new Science of Anomalous Experience.
  2.  Psi is a spontaneous process that cannot be summoned at will in a laboratory experiment.
  3. There is a spectrum of consciousness showing a multiplicity of states. The psi experience is one of those states.

I look forward to continuing discussions of psi theory with the Society for Psychical Research.

References

Little, C. (2020). Review of PSYCHOLOGY AND THE PARANORMAL by David F. Marks. London: Sage. 2020. 402 pp. £29.99. ISBN 9781526491053. JSPR vol xx, pp yy-zz.

Marks, D. F. (2020). Psychology and the Paranormal: Exploring Anomalous Experience. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Marks, D.F., Murray, M.  & Estacio, E.V. (2018, 5th ed.). Health Psychology. Theory, Research & Practice. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Marks, D.F., Murray, M.  & Estacio, E.V. (2020, 6th ed.). Health Psychology. Theory, Research & Practice. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Truzzi, M. (1987). On pseudo-skepticism. Zetetic Scholar, 12/13, 3-4.

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