"Objective" studies of the paranormal?
July 16, 2014 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for well-written and researched "objective and scientific" studies of the paranormal. I am aware that those are loaded words, particularly around this topic, and I doubt there is a book that settles questions about paranormal activity and abilities once and for all, but essentially I would like to read books written by authors who don't have a pre-determined agenda in favour or against these types of phenomena being real.
posted by Grinder to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Spook by Mary Roach - it's more her discussion of studies than the actual studies/her experiences with the scientists who performed them - but it is a good resource for a lot of the mainstream studies and their criticisms.

She is a skeptic - but it is a decent read although a little fluffy. It may be a decent baseline to find the "main stream" studies that paranormal enthusiasts cite.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 8:50 AM on July 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am not sure if I have any recs at all, but I still wanted to ask a clarification question. What phenomena are you specifically interested in? Ghosts? Poltergeists? Aliens? Maybe somebody can steer you better if you have a particular area of interest.
posted by mermaidcafe at 8:51 AM on July 16, 2014

There's main two sorts of research into the paranormal:

The first is psychological studies done with people who claim to experience or create paranormal phenomenon: psychics, chi masters, telekenetics, whatever. These have been done -- double-blinds on people claiming to be psychics and so on -- and the results are predictable. The psychics aren't psychic. The spoonbenders aren't bending them with their minds. The chi masters are not channeling anything we can observe in any way.

Testing "free-floating" paranormal phenomena is much, much more difficult. How do you test something that has never really substantiated itself? You can spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on things like Electronic Voice Phenomena recorders and other hi-tech ghostbusting gear, but you're taking it on faith that it works the way it is intended to, and that the phenomena exists in a way that the machines can pick it up, which is ass-backwards and not science. Were there recurring, people-independent phenomena occurring in an measurable way, it would be measured.

Of course, this stuff gets hinkier too. There's academic research being done on things like past life memories, etc. etc. but very few (if any at all) is coming from the point of "does this exist or does not exist." Rather, it's mostly "let's observe what people are claiming to exist" and then you're right back at the start, doing psychological testing on an individual's claims and experiences rather than on paranormal phenomena that should exist in the same way natural phenomena exists. Interviewing a person about what their senses told them is happening when they saw a lighting bolt is not the same as figuring out what the lighting bolt is. The problem is that for a lot of these cases, there's no lighting bolt.
posted by griphus at 9:15 AM on July 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this is 100% kosher to post because this a relative, but it does answer your question.
My uncle is involved in studying the Ganzfeld experiment (used in ESP) from a psychological perspective. His bio page says he has one of the few professorships internationally that covers parapsychology. There are journal articles on his page, if you have access to libraries.
posted by randomination at 9:59 AM on July 16, 2014

Response by poster: mermaid cafe: I'm interested in the topic broadly but more so in the first category identified by griphus - people who claim paranormal abilities. Ghosts and UFOs are not as much of a priority.
posted by Grinder at 9:59 AM on July 16, 2014

The podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie is all about this.
posted by milk white peacock at 10:20 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

The work of Prof Richard Wiseman might interest you. He's a sceptic, but I believe approaches parapsychology research in the spirit of curiosity and enquiry, rather than having an axe to grind.

He does a lot of pop psychology stuff, but is also a 'proper' academic - the link above takes you to a list of his academic papers on this and other topics.
posted by penguin pie at 11:29 AM on July 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Rhine Research Center and its Journal of Parapsychology might be helpful: "For over 75 years, the Rhine Laboratories have been exploring unusual experiences and exceptional phenomena that are typically difficult to capture in a laboratory environment. Strict protocols and methodologies are the hallmark of research at the Rhine, and Rhine researchers continue to work with scientists from many disciplines to follow the evidence where it leads."
posted by kayram at 12:33 PM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens by Harvard professor John Mack.
posted by JumpW at 1:26 PM on July 16, 2014

Susan Blackmore changed views from belief to scepticism after conducting serious research into it. Her writing might be the kind of thing you want.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:48 PM on July 16, 2014

Admittedly from the skeptics side - you can, of course, form your own opinion about how "objective" they are:

Try some of the works of Martin Gardner, especially "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science", and books that collected his columns from the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

James Randi has conducted quite a few investigations of the paranormal, many accounts of which he published in "Flim-Flam!"

Milbourne Christopher was a magician and author possibly best known for his biography of Houdini, but he wrote several books covering his investigations into paranormal phenomena - I'm not sure any of them are still in print, but if you can find them, they're well-written and entertaining.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:15 PM on July 16, 2014

You might be interested in the work of Prof Chris French, who runs the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths University of London. His main area of research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences, and he teaches a course entitled Psychology, Parapsychology and Pseudoscience as part of the BSc (Hons) Psychology programme.

I've seen him give a couple of talks, and he's really engaging. Here's his Introduction to Anomalistic Psychology.

He also writes the occasional piece for the Guardian.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 6:53 PM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

essentially I would like to read books written by authors who don't have a pre-determined agenda in favour or against these types of phenomena being real.
I'm interested in ... people who claim paranormal abilities

Are you OK with the author giving each paranormal claimant who comes along the benefit of the doubt (not pre-determined -- you will be believed if you prove your abilities) but eventually determining, given that they never prove themselves, that the claims always turn out to be bullshit when carefully tested? Or is the author not allowed to use logic and testing to progress from undetermined to determined?

Because someone like Randi, for one very good example, is as objective as a person can be about this subject. He very carefully removes the subjective from his evaluations so that you're left with only an objective decision: either the ability was shown or it wasn't. He says, in effect, "OK, you say you can read minds. I'm willing to test your claim. Here's a test that has been carefully constructed to prevent you from cheating or using vague non-answers. If you can pass this test, you'll be famous forever, and I'll even throw in a million dollars just to make it more interesting to you. All you have to do is [do something easy that is compatible with the claimant's claims]." If his books end up with titles like "Flim-Flam!" it's not because he was unobjective, but because each case he openly and objectively tested turned out to be false.
posted by pracowity at 3:27 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rather than recommend specific books I'd suggest going through the book reviews on Magonia or in the Fortean Times if you can find it at a library. Both of those cover the topics you're interested in and do very insightful and trustworthy book reviews.
posted by coleboptera at 6:46 PM on July 17, 2014

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