Chris Roe – 2017 Presidential Address: Withering Skepticism


Presidential Address to the 2017 PA Convention in Athens, Greece

Chris A. Roe

Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes

University of Northampton

Northampton, UK

In his influential article, ‘Rhetoric over substance: The impoverished state of skepticism’, Charles Honorton (1993) provided an astute and damning response to critiques of parapsychology produced by the principal counter-advocates of the day, James Alcock, Ray Hyman, and James Randi, for a special issue of the Italian Skeptics’ journal, Scienza & Paranormale. Rather than take issue with particular points these commentators had made, Honorton took a more holistic perspective that focused on the rhetorical strategies they had adopted, comparing them with previous objections to parapsychology so as to see how (or indeed if) those arguments had moved on to keep pace with developments in empirical work. This usefully allowed him to identify ways in which the skeptical position had shifted; for example, in no longer claiming that the results of the major lines of experimental psi research could be explained in terms of the null hypothesis. “This concession is important”, he noted (p. 191), “because it shifts the focus of the debate from the existence of effects to their interpretation” (emphasis in original). He also drew attention to the exceptional situation in parapsychology in which most counter-advocates were not empirical researchers engaged in psi research, so that their counter-explanations tended to be evaluated on the basis of plausibility rather than on the basis of evidence derived from direct empirical tests. According to Honorton, this produced a cycle of criticism in response to new claims that begins with statistical criticisms intended to demonstrate that the claimed effects are not really significant, methodological criticisms that are intended to account for observed effects in terms of procedural flaws, and finally speculative criticisms based on a priori and ad hominem arguments. Ironically, in showing how this cycle could be applied to both the ESP card guessing studies of the 1930s to 1950s and also to the ganzfeld studies of the 1970s and 1980s, Honorton was able to demonstrate a stagnation in parapsychological criticism akin to the ‘lack of cumulativeness’ that has been regarded by counter-advocates as a principal weakness in the case for parapsychology.

It is now 25 years since Charles Honorton’s untimely death, and in marking that anniversary it seems appropriate to review modern criticism of parapsychology to see to what extent his characterisation of skepticism still holds true. During this period, parapsychology has witnessed quite a dramatic transformation in its preferred methodologies and the particular expressions of psi they elicit, and has benefited from the availability of more standardised approaches to making sense of accumulated evidence, such that one might expect to see similar advances in the nature and focus of skepticism. In testing this expectation I shall draw on a number of sources, but will rely especially on Krippner and Friedman’s (2010) Debating psychic experience, Cardeña, Palmer and Marcusson-Clavertz’s (2015) Parapsychology: A handbook for the 21st Century, and the controversy surrounding Bem’s ‘Feeling the future’ publications.

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Published on December 10, 2018