Recently it seems that serious work in parapsychology is getting a bit more of a hearing in serious discourse. Daryl Bem has published a series of elegantly designed and conducted studies on precognitive response in the journal that is most widely read by academic psychologists. Dean Radin is presenting sound and provocative findings to conferences of theoretical physicists. Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist, shovels heaps of data upon the heads of his critics that show that people and animals can know about the world in ways we think they shouldn’t. Brian Josephson, the Nobel Prize winner in physics, uses all his wit and prestige to get parapsychological questions before serious scientific audiences. And there are others I could mention. It is delightful to see good examples of our better parapsychological work getting real exposure in academia and in the wider culture. It has been a long time coming.
These efforts are not timid or deferential. They are aggressively persistent. (I hope that my own First Sight model is in tune with them, and helps bridge the gap between the “paranormal” and normal cognitive science). The efforts of these people have prompted a reflection drawn from my own biography: Two life-changing things happened for me at the same time when I came to college. I first got really involved with parapsychology at the same time I plunged into the struggle over civil rights, at Duke in 1959 and 1960. On some days, I showed up at the Parapsychology Lab getting to know J. B. Rhine and Gaither Pratt and Wadih Saleh and John Freeman and the others, and getting involved with pieces of their work. Other days I sat in at lunch counters and picketed movie theaters with some other Dookies and kids from NC College (now NC Central University). In parapsychology I learned the weapons of good method, statistical analysis, ruthless self-criticism. In civil rights we were armed with non-violence and the oath to return hatred with mercy. (Are such self-discipline and meekness good for changing anything, and not mere exercises in masochism? Only if combined with a lot of pushiness in making the point).
The responses these activities evoked were not all that different. I was reviled and threatened politely in my psychology classes for being involved with Rhine, and reviled and threatened impolitely in the streets and police stations for being a “N-lover.” I sensed absolutely no connection between these things at the time, nor for many years. But lately I see one. Parapsychologists have been rendered invisible in academia for a long time. It is not only racism that makes the in-group dismiss and segregate a group of others. It can be anything that makes the group seem sinister. This makes everything way uphill for those dismissed, no matter the disclaimers.
Not too much later, it was delightful to see real changes in civil rights. Anyone could sit at lunch counters, and Colored theater balconies and water fountains and restrooms were put into the past. Schools would come (although now with private and charter schools we see how fragile such victories are). With parapsychology the struggle has slogged along more slowly. It has been more intellectualized, but no less implicitly savage. I saw Rhine battle his discrimination like a warrior for years — the smug repetition of criticisms already disproven, the mockery, the avoidance, the back-stabbing. And then he finally retreated into a marginal place, a private institute outside the formal academy, to para-land. I don’t blame him, it was preferable at the time to perishing. I’m sure he hoped for separate-but-equal.
But separate is never equal. Parapsychologists want to contribute to our common, normal understanding of human nature, and the only place this can really take place is in the context of normal scientific exchange and debate. One moral I took away from civil rights activism is that respect is never given, it’s only taken. I’m happy that the times may have moved along, and our work has matured, and that some of us (Daryl, Dean, Rupert, Brian, and many others) have the nerve to push hard at taking respect.