This is a thank-you note. For almost two years I have enjoyed the gift of being president of the Parapsychological Association. I am already nostalgic. Our board has been wonderful, our Executive Director, Annalisa Ventola, has been both guide and assistant with grace and verve, and our membership brims with talents.
I’ve been given the chance to know our field much better than before. We are a varied lot! — many different professional backgrounds, different skills and proclivities, different languages, different continents. Yet we feel something like a family. This is a remarkable thing.
In my income-earning job as a psychotherapist, I work daily with families. Differentness is not unhealthy in families, but contempt for differences is. In healthy families there is mutual respect. Our PA family is on the healthy side.
What brings us together in spite of our differences? In a previous essay I said that one reason seems to be a desire for inclusion in mainstream science. Even if true, this is what we have come to, not where we started.
I see two main capacities that hold us up and hold us together. I see them in myself and I think I see them in all of us. I wonder if you will agree. These things are doubt and amazement. They are odd to say together, because they antagonize each other. If the PA were stable and institutional, like a big corporation or a cult, they would be cause for deep trouble. But the PA is a developing project with an uncertain future, each year different from the last. It is like riding a bicycle, it is our forward motion that gives us balance. Lean too heavily to either doubt or amazement, and we tumble to that side. If any of us fall we can be still and be one thing, cynical or credulous, and that will be restful. But our part of this project will be over.
Amazement is a state of wonder and astonishment at something out of the ordinary, something very surprising. It can be delightful, if disquieting. It leads to questions beyond questions. Doubt is a state of uncertainty and suspicion. It contains a tension that yearns for resolution, and can also be somewhat satisfying, with its freedom from embarrassing commitment.
I think I became a parapsychologist and joined this project late one night driving alone on the West Virginia Turnpike from Columbus, Ohio, where I was in graduate school, to Durham, North Carolina, where the woman lived who would become my wife (now for over 50 years). I had been involved with parapsychologists for several years, and done some of my own research that was interesting and statistically significant, but I didn’t know what to make of it all. I was pondering deeply that night and decided to make a serious commitment to exploring the construct of psi – ESP and PK – to hold that construct up in the light of my daily experience and my experimental results and keep doing that for some long-enough time and try to decide if it was a useful construct. Did it explain anything that couldn’t be explained without it? If it did, then how did the explanations add up? I had already seen many instances of what looked like psi, inside and outside of experiments, and been amazed. And I had seen countless days and hours in which nothing like psi seemed to be at hand, and doubted. I’ve kept that promise to myself, and held those ideas up against experience over and over, looking for doors they could open. Doubt and amazement have guided me.
I think we could all give many examples of doubt and amazement in our own experience. I will share a few from my experiments, my work as a psychologist, and life at large.
I learned the value of doubt in experiments from my first formal experiment. It was an ESP study, an undergraduate honor’s project carried out with the guidance of Gaither Pratt and Katherine Banham at Duke. I thought a lot about it and decided that when couples who are emotionally bonded feel closer to one another, they should be especially likely to experience ESP between them. I worked up a procedure (card guessing from different rooms), conscripted a batch of married and engaged couples willing to invest a few evenings each, and made up an adequate measure of “closeness.” I went through the months of hard work of collecting data and ground the numbers through a calculator and found – no relationship. My goodness! I knew this outcome was possible, but what a disappointment. I look back on this experience as the birth of my scientific superego. I began to be free of my own beliefs. I don’t mean to sound superior, but I think that most people do not have this sort of freedom, because I did not. They may believe, as I did, that if they really work hard at conceptually making the very best sense they can of something and read and discuss, what they come to is probably true. Without the ruthless disconfirmation granted by experimental method, this personal sense of certainty can feel indistinguishable from scientific truth. But it is not scientific truth. Thanks to our scientific ancestors for the methods that let us inch toward scientific truth.
An early experience of useful doubt in a clinical context came for me before I was a psychologist, during the same period as my closeness-in-couples experiment. I worked part time as a psychiatric attendant at Duke’s locked inpatient ward. At the same time, I often put in a few spare hours at the Parapsychology Lab doing chores assigned to me. One day I gave a standard little tour of the lab to a woman who was visiting from another state. I remember her seeming tense and grimly serious. Part of the tour for her involved a test of her ESP using Zener cards. She said she believed that she was psychic, but then proceeded to score at chance. I tactfully told her that while she might have some sort of ESP ability, we found no evidence for it that day, and she might want to reassess her beliefs in the light of that. After an afternoon of classes I forgot about this woman, and went to my night shift at the hospital. As I entered the open lounge area on the unit, I was surprised to see my ESP tourist. But now she was dressed in a hospital gown, her hair sticking out at all angles, eyes glazed and confused and only barely sedated, babbling in odd snatches of speech about her enemies – the very icon of a mad woman. I bent close and touched her shoulder, but she did not seem to recognize me, or hardly even know that I was there. I learned that after she had left our little tour and test, she had gone to downtown Durham, taken off too many clothes, and harangued people on the street about how Dr. Rhine at Duke had been controlling her life through radios in her skull, she needed him to stop, and he wouldn’t even talk to her! She was furious and confused and confusing, and the police bundled her off to the hospital. My subject had become my patient. Her urgent psychotic belief had no room for doubt.
Still staying with those early years (I am gripped with nostalgia), one day in Columbus I got a letter from J. B. Rhine telling me about a folk veterinarian named Willie Clark who lived in a town near me who was reputed to have amazing powers with animals. He was especially known to be able to stop bleeding in some apparently paranormal way. Rhine had been contacted by one of the man’s neighbors who thought he should be studied. The letter asked if I wanted to be their “man on the ground,” and investigate the matter. I jumped at the chance. I made some calls and an appointment, and went to meet Willie. I felt for all the world like some scientist from a 1950’s sci fi movie (think THEM!) going smugly to see the local folks to investigate some probably-erroneous mystery. Willie and his family treated me somewhat that way. I found a very earnest and humble man, dressed in a farmer’s overalls, who told me a series of amazing stories. His daughter and son-in-law and some neighbors were there too, to corroborate and add their own accounts. Willie’s craft dated from an earlier time when there were no trained veterinarians in that part of Ohio, and people skilled in folk beliefs and practices were turned to for help. By that present day there were plenty of veterinarians, and Willie specialized mostly in dehorning cows (which is a bloody business, and which he could deal with better than the pros could), in treating fistulas on horses with controlled bleeding (as doctors used to use leeches), and in stopping human bleeding when the need arose. I heard an astonishing series of stories. One man present told of a bad cut on his leg from a thresher that led to dangerous bleeding which Willie stopped with a touch. A woman told of a hemorrhage after childbirth which Willie stopped by running to her house and touching her forehead lightly with one finger. Another man spoke of chronic nosebleeds so bad that he could control them only by calling Willie who would stop them over the phone. Willie told of being in the hospital himself with pneumonia, and hearing a commotion across the hall. A man was being rushed in to a room surrounded with personnel. His nurse told Willie that the man had fallen down an elevator shaft and was hemorrhaging badly and no one thought he would live. Willie was too weak to get up so he “did his thing” sitting on the side of the bed, and the man’s bleeding utterly and permanently stopped! (He gave me the name of a doctor in Columbus who could verify the story. When I contacted him the next week, he did in fact, and expressed his own amazement at Willie). And there were dozens of animal stories. Some involved bleeding from accidents and some from bleeding Willie himself inflicted as part of his old-fashioned treatment.
Like a good skeptical scientist I wanted my own evidence. One of the neighbors present immediately volunteered one of his horses for a test. I made an appointment to come back in a couple of weeks. I rented a movie camera and asked a friend to find in a random number table, after an entry point defined by high weather numbers in the paper that morning, the first two-digit number between 00 and 31, put it in an envelope and give it to me. I didn’t look at the number or the weather report.
It was a snowy, cold day, and Willie, the neighbor, Willie’s daughter and the horse were all ready for me and a grad student classmate at the appointed time (I had not yet discovered IRB’s or the intricacies of liability). Willie proceeded to hold the horse very still with something called a lip-cinch while he placed a one-inch triangular cutting blade on a shank on top of the horse’s jugular vein (a horse has two, running down each side of the neck). Then he whacked it hard with a hammer, making a deep cut. Blood flowed in a little fountain from the vein. I stared at the gore pouring into the snow while counting down the seconds on a stop watch (19) as my friend handled the camera. At the selected time I asked Willie to stop the bleeding and he touched the cut lightly with his thumb and it was instantly dry. He invited me to step forward and hold the cut open with a spoon and look both ways. Dry. Then he took a straight pin, pulled the two sides of the wound together loosely and tied it with sewing thread. He told me if I came back in a couple of weeks it would be healed with no scar. I did, and it was.
Of course my one-trial study was of little scientific value. My selecting a time said nothing at all about how the bleeding stopped, only gave some evidence that Willie was not responding to some natural process and then claiming to be responsible for it.
I wrote the experience up and gave it to the wife of a classmate, who was a student in the Veterinary School at Ohio State. She gave it to her professor who specialized in equine disease and treatment who said I was a fool or a liar and asked me to come in so he could straighten me out. I did, and he was quite hostile. He insisted that I could not have seen what I described, because a horse so wounded could only be saved if it was in the hospital and given massive doses of medication to stop bleeding while the wound was surgically closed. I offered to show him the film and he refused. Not the last time I have seen such reluctance to scratch open uncertainty with evidence.
I could tell hundreds of stories of amazement from my clinical work with patients. Since it is known that I have an interest in these matters, people sometimes seek me out to talk through the odd experiences that trouble or puzzle them. And sometimes rather amazing things happen even when the patient is not especially concerned about the paranormal, and doesn’t know I am curious about it. One example will suffice. A woman in her 40’s had developed deep therapeutic work on some terrible experiences of abuse in her childhood. One such session left her quite dissociated and in a state like that of a dazed child. I lingered with her as long as I could but finally had to end the session. Later that afternoon I drove a few blocks to my gym and pulled around behind it to park. In this spot, my car was completely hidden from any nearby street, and the gym itself was rather hidden-away off of a service road. My patient had no knowledge of my going to any gym in any case. When I went back to my car to return to my office I found a scrap of paper in the seat with the words “I found you because I needed to,” scrawled in crayon in script like that of a child who could barely print. By her account later, she had been driven home by an older “part” (a dissociated part of herself who was old enough to drive), and once home had crawled up under a table (a re-enactment of a terrible memory). Then she began to feel very frightened and needed to find me. When she went to my office I was not there, and this older alter was able to “know” how to get to where I was. Is the skeptic in you wondering if this was somehow staged? I would wonder so myself, and did some, but this individual produced so many of these kinds of ESP experiences, often about things she had absolutely no way of knowing about, that my own skepticism came to be largely quieted. In her very first session, she had begun by saying that beginning therapy on January 24th might not be the best idea, since it was the worst day of the calendar for her. Many terrible things had happened to her on that day, including being jilted by the love of her life. The morning after seeing her I found a voice mail saying that she had a very bad feeling after the session that she had somehow offended me but couldn’t imagine how. In fact I had felt a slight amusement and irony that January 24th was also my birthday, but I don’t believe I betrayed that in any way. In those days before the internet, she really had no way of knowing when my birthday was. Such events seasoned her life frequently. I came to think of her as one of those people who simply seem to be rather “psychic” (For one thoughtful and useful approach to such things in a clinical context, see Belz & Fach, 2012).
I came to appreciate my own apparent psi in the context of treatment too. In one dramatic case, in fear and trembling I acted against all proper caution upon what seemed to be a dream premonition of a suicide danger. I did succeed in averting what would have been a certain suicide.
The final example of personal amazement I will share comes out of an experiment I carried out. It was rather complicated so I will gloss over many details. If you want to know more, see (Carpenter, 1991). It was the latest in a series of studies that had attempted to predict how people would score in forced-choice ESP (usually precognition) tests using some scales of mood-items that were derived from earlier data using multiple regression. The studies also developed and tested some procedures for improving accuracy of target-prediction using multiple guessing. Both of these things were going on at once in these studies. If the mood scales worked, the direction of psi performance was predicted significantly. Based upon the predictions, before the targets were scored, the calls were modified (sometimes reversed for example, if the mood scale predicted below-chance scoring) and then all calls were combined, yielding majority-votes for a single set of targets. If the scale predictions worked, the averaged calls should amplify the success rate. All the prior studies had been at least moderately successful in these dual aims of reliably predictive scales and successful amplification. The latest study combined these things again, but added the wrinkle of attempting to “send” a word (PEACE) in Morse-code that was yoked to the ESP targets (Plus = Dot, Circle = Dash). Forty-six University of North Carolina undergraduates agreed to take part in the study in which, from their point of view, they were to guess several columns of the randomly-placed targets + and O, and to do this on four different occasions while also checking off the items descriptive of their current state on a Mood Adjective Check List. They were not told of the multiple guessing, nor of the involvement of a verbal target. I did all of the scoring by hand, carefully double-checking which was time-consuming. As I calculated the majorities for each bit of the code, an eerie feeling grew. I knew based on earlier confirmatory work that I had good empirical reasons to think that it should turn out at least fairly well. But still! Tension grew as each majority-vote yielded the correct target, and each set of targets translated to the right letter. When the majority for the last bit fell out of the calculations correctly, and the word PEACE faced me on the page, I felt a kind of disorienting awe. I thought something like, “Oh, damn! This is really a way we can come to communicate!”
I think all of you reading this have similar stories that you can share. To some extent or other, you have also lived with the tension between doubt and amazement. You have been open to astonishing things, and tried to think of them critically and objectively. You have tried to not be fooled or fool yourself. Since people know you as a parapsychologist, they have brought their astonishing experiences to you, and sometimes shown them to you. Since you have paid attention, you have sometimes found them happening to you personally. You have found what seems to be evidence for them in your research. This has an effect on a person.
The results of living with the tension between doubt and amazement
I said this was a thank-you note. But it is not only for the fun of getting to be PA president. It is for being a parapsychologist with me, and letting me join with you. It is for sharing the tension, the discomfort, the danger and unpopularity – and the excitement – of living with openness to amazement while girdled with doubt. As evidence for the importance of the construct of psi accumulates in a person’s personal and research life, one has a growing sense that there really is more to the world than meets the eye. And more than our cultural consciousness accommodates. This feels something like a secret. It is a secret we would like to share, not one we want to hide to indulge a sense of specialness or power. But our doubting makes us tentative. We know that we do not know all that much, and we know that our predictive powers are still sketchy and episodic. We sense that more understanding is in the process of developing and we try to contribute to that. It is as if the world is about six months pregnant with an incipient understanding of psi, but it almost entirely a secret pregnancy. We don’t understand exactly what this greater understanding will look like, but we sense that we are heading in the right direction. Speaking for myself at least, it seems that we bear and share a secret sense of this imminence, based upon the astonishments that we have gathered and tested and accumulated. We try to carry it bravely and gracefully, neither falling into premature and grandiose claims, nor retreating into the glib and careless comfort of cynicism. We are scientists and scholars pursuing important questions, but society does not give us much support or understanding. For the most part, we have only each other to hold us up. I appreciate all of you for holding me up.
Belz, M, & Fach, W. (2012). Theoretical reflections on counseling and therapy for individuals reporting Exceptional Experiences. In E. B. W. H. Kramer, Perspectives of clinical parapsychology (pp. 168-189). Bunnik, Netherlands: Stichting Het Joh.
Carpenter, J. (1991). Prediction of forced-choice ESP performance: III. Three attempts to retrieve coded information using mood reports and a repeated-guessing technique. Journal of Parapsychology, 55, 227–280.
With permission, editor of Mindfield