Chasing Geese

BoingBoing reports that Coventry university is now offering a degree-level course in Parapsychology. From the BBC News article:

The 15 post-graduate students starting the first course this autumn will look at the paranormal using several scientific methods.

For instance, some will investigate haunted houses, looking at statistics on which parts of buildings provide the most sightings.

Extra-sensory perception – where two people seem to communicate without using sound, vision, touch or smell – will also be looked at.

The skeptic side of my brain is suggesting that this is a big waste of time, but even accepting that…

Dr Lawrence said: “We’ve got to look at what people are experiencing.

“No one has bothered to look, so people’s view of the world has been divided into two components: the secular and humanist, and the religious.

That’s manifestly untrue. Of course people have bothered to look. There have been claims of ghosts and ESP since the scientific method was first suggested, and who wouldn’t want to properly investigate ghosts? It’s just that every single time anybody has looked, nothing has been found. Plenty of scientists have looked at both ghosts and ESP, and concluded that the existing evidence is flawed, and nothing supports the claims. The normal response is that mainstream science simply ignores the evidence, but given the sheer number of people convinced of the existence of both phenomena you might have expected a practitioner to seek fame and fortune by providing said evidence on the Internet, for example. Show that ESP exists and that’s a guaranteed nobel prize, an easy $1,000,000, plus nigh-on eternal fame. But nobody has. Of course this doesn’t mean that there’s definitely nothing there, but it does suggest it very strongly, and it’s very different from “no one has bothered to look”.

The psychology of parapsychology is far more interesting to me. To take just one tributary, the best so-called practictioners of ESP are actually experts, whether they know it or not, in cold reading, which often involves picking up on very subtle clues in body language and speech. It turns out that humans are actually very, very bad at hiding their true feelings, for good evolutionary reasons involving the eradication of ‘cheats’ who would fake emotion for their own personal gain. In fact, the Facial Action Coding System details the meanings of involuntary facial muscle reflexes, and trained users can invariably determine when people are lying. This is all wonderful to me. I’d be as happy as anybody if ESP was proven to be real, but with no reason to suspect it beyond hearsay I’m more than happy to follow the evidence.