Monday, January 26, 2009

Utrecht II Parapsychology Conference Review

Are Parapsychologists Living or Are they Dead? A Review of the Utrecht II Conference
by Renaud Evrard

The first International Congress of Parapsychology in Utrecht, Netherlands, was in 1953. That conference helped to advance the field and to professionalize researchers. In October 2008, the Parapsychology Foundation organized a second Utrecht conference as a tribute to that conference and an assessment of the field. It was titled Utrecht II: Charting the Future of Parapsychology. As shown in the program, the topics approached covered many aspects of the field.

The Parapsychology Foundation has published an extensive review of Utrecht II. We can thank all the team for the great organization during the four day conference. Attending the conference was a great opportunity, especially for students like me who are quite newcomers in the field, to be able to allowed so much time for informal discussions with researchers who, for the most part, were just virtual names or inaccessible celebrities like the Nobel Prize winner Brian Josephson.

However, this conference was not perfect. Here are my impressions:

- There wasn’t enough time for peer-debates. There were five minute discussion periods at the end of each presentation, and after three presentations, a 30 minute discussion period with the three lecturers on the scene. By contrast, the Euro-PA Congress of October 2007 in Paris privileged discussion (2/3) over presentation (1/3). This format allowed everyone to develop their ideas, criticisms and responses (especially for non-native English speakers who need time to exceed their shyness!).
- There was a high heterogeneity between lecturers, maybe because of cultural differences. Methodological requirements, theories, stances in regard to the authenticity of psi phenomena, and personal involvements were not the same from one researcher to the other. Does parapsychology really have a community? It seems that the backgrounds of the presenters were very different. The gap was particularly noticeable between native and non-native English speakers. PF did, however, a marvellous work when putting all these researchers together, since 1953!
- Another problem is that some of the lectures were too introductory. A few of the lectures could have been made at least by ten people present at the conference.
- Most of the presentations were retrospective assessments, rarely asking ardent questions assessing the future of the discipline. This palette of assessments drew a fragmented field, each wanting to pull the cover in his or her direction. Is it because parapsychology seems to attract so creative personalities as even this small group of researchers can’t conform itself to a common orientation?
- Maybe as a consequence of previous points, I left the congress without any impression that pragmatic decisions were taken. That’s a big difference with Utrecht I, where researchers formed committees to bring more organization to the field making that earlier conference, as Carlos Alvarado remarked in his review, “a milestone in the 20th-century history of the field, helping to shape the 50 years that followed.”

Are parapsychologists living or are they dead? That’s the question I asked myself after the conference, even though I just have seen in real life some well-known personalities in the field. But this question rose from a specific definition of the parapsychologist as the scientist who challenges the issue of the authenticity of psi phenomena. This was not the case of all the researchers present at the conference. Some of the current major contributors in experimental parapsychology (Radin, Sheldrake, Bierman, Bem, and Parker) were not there, and their absence induced a strange atmosphere.

The challenge of proof-oriented research is difficult, because of the pressures that researchers face both inside and outside the field. Only a small group of scientists produce the majority of empirical data. They are psi-conducive experimenters with the time and money to ask the question, “Does psi exist?” The undecidability of the question maintains the interest of both the public and researchers. But for most parapsychologists, this question is not asserted directly. These researchers cautiously work on surroundings topics such as psychological variables.. Some scientists have no doubt about reality of psi, but at the conference their assertions made me feel some embarrassment, as if they had crossed the line of the current consensus. Is the parapsychologist dead when he or she stops asking if psi exists?

This problem increases in complexity when we take a sociological perspective. There is the issue of personal experiences and beliefs. Can a parapsychologist bracket aside his or her own life experiences while doing research? The necessity of personal distance is a strong requirement in the sciences, but it seemed to me stronger in Europe than in America. During the conference, it was my impression that many of the non-European researchers had a more “psi is proven” attitude, with more self-disclosure on their personal beliefs and experiences. While more academic opportunities in parapsychology emerge in Europe as American institutions close down, the original stance of a pragmatic pro-psi attitude appears to be breaking up. The living parapsychologist must enter in a dissociative state. Two types of research have emerged, as if two trends living side by side.

As Deborah Delanoy pointed it in her invited address, there are pros and cons of doing research in private institutes versus the university setting. Financing, broadcasting, recognition, constraints, and perpetuity vary completely from one institution to another. For somebody who wants to make a living while doing research in parapsychology, it is better to be known for something else than successful proof-oriented psi research. Robert Morris’s legacy at Koestler Parapsychology Unit is an academic success with 27 PhD students, with 18 working currently in universities, but at what price? Psi phenomena are still far from proved. Only surrounding approaches, like studies of altered states of consciousness, paranormal beliefs, anomalous experiences and historical studies assure these academic positions. I wonder if certain properties of the paranormal entail inevitably the dissolution of its subversive reach when it penetrates into strongly structured and conformist circles (such as universities) as suggested in George Hansen’s Trickster theory (Hansen, 2001).

But the differences between private and academic institutions do not completely describe the reality. The private Institute of Border Areas of Psychology and Mental Hygiene in Germany is probably the most active in private parapsychological research. Its stance is, however, both careful and brave. It asks differently the question of the authenticity of psi phenomena by basing itself on theoretical models (such as Generalized Quantum Theory), which goes at the same moment farther and less far than the common representations. This model, where the psi is not a physical signal, allows the construction of a new field where psi receives a positive operational definition.

An exchange at the Utrecht II was very revealing of this aspect: in his lecture, Professor Harald Walach of the University of Northampton went so far as to say that parapsychology was dead, but Mario Varvoglis, president of the private Institut Métapsychique International in France, stated that if this model (GQT) of psi showed itself exact, it would be the death of one parapsychology, one view of psi accompanying one specific discourse. And it would be for that reason that parapsychologists still have a spark of life in the middle of a hostile world.

Hansen, G. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Philadelphia: Xlibris.

After receiving some new information, a few things must be clarified about my criticisms:
- The Parapsychology Foundation was not alone in making the decisions about the organization of the Utrecht II conference, in particular about the timing of discussions. Longer time periods were proposed, but there were many talks on various topics, so some logistical choices were made.
- Many of the people who missed the conference had been invited, but many had life circumstances that prevented them attending. In fact, the Parapsychology Foundation sent more than 100 invitations!
- My impression was that some of the lectures were too introductory; but, actually, the guidelines were to review the basics in each area and then speculate on the future. Maybe this style of presentation didn't work well this time because the basics are quite large, and the future quite hard to imagine.
I hope that with this addendum, my criticisms have become less unfair and more what they tried to be: part of charting the future of parapsychology.

Renaud Evrard is a French psychologist, preparing a Ph.D in clinical and differential aspects of exceptional experiences at the University of Rouen. He is an active member of the Student Group of Institut Métapsychique International since 2004, and a student affiliate of the Parapsychological Association since 2007. He co-founded in 2007 the Service for Orientation and Help of People with Exceptional Experiences (SOS-PSEE) in Paris.


Etzel Cardena said...

Bon jour, one quick comment to Renaud's post. There is a group of us, including Mario Varvoglis, who are organizing a meeting to propose a 5 year plan for parapsychology, and this was mentioned in passing at Utrecht 2.
Etzel Cardena

Anonymous said...

real wonderful... i hope someday you will know the answer for your question... =]

R.E. said...

Dear Etzel,

thank you for you comment. I heard about a 5 year project at end of the conference, but I didn't know it was so concrete. So, I hope it will be "a millstone" for the field at least for the 5 next year ! ;-)