Parapsychology’s Journey to the Mainstream cover

Parapsychology’s Journey to the Mainstream

Here’s a little secret for you: Parapsychology, the scientific study of psychic ability, is a respectable science. They have been vetted by mainstream science, and it’s been that way for over 50 years. The journey from the backwater fringe to respectability wasn’t easy, but they were helped along the way by open-minded scientists who put away any prejudices they might have had and studied the evidence.

This is the story of how the Parapsychological Association (PA) became an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and how sober science overcame emotional prejudices.

A Scientific Organization is Born

Up until the 1950s, parapsychology existed as loose associations between various organizations and researchers. Lab studies have been going on since 1930 under J.B. Rhine, and they had a scientific journal. The Rhine Research Center had been around since 1935 and the Society for Psychical Research was even older, having been around since 1882, and the American Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1885.

Around the middle of the last century, scientists involved in this research realized that a modern, formal scientific organization was needed. One that mirrored the structure of other new science organizations and would meet the strict requirements of rigorous scientific inquiry.

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In 1957, parapsychologists, who had suffered from the perceived lack of respectability in the field, decided to take action to remedy that. They formed the Parapsychological Association, with members around the entire world. (This is no big deal today, but back then, having an international association was quite an accomplishment. Long distances posed considerable challenges to communicating. Telephone calls were very expensive and everyone relied on writing letters.)

Petitioning the AAAS

Creating this association meant that they could then petition for formal recognition from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (AAAS) It was hoped that formal recognition would aid scientists in pursuing psychic research at their universities and also help with getting funding grants.

To be considered for acceptance as an affiliate, the Parapsychological Association had to have been in existence for at least five years. So in 1963, the association president, Dr. Carroll Nash, submitted an application for admittance to the AAAS.

First Try: Nope

At the time, applications first went to a committee, which then reviewed them and decided whether an application would come up for a vote. The application was quickly rejected by that committee, and the general assembly never got a chance to vote.

In 1967, Douglas Dean ran for president of the Parapsychological Association on the grounds that he would try again. He won the presidency and promptly submitted a new application.

Second Try: Closer, but Nope

The ‘67 attempt made it through the committee but then had to be reviewed by the AAAS board of directors. However, some prominent scientists on the board considered it ridiculous that parapsychology should be considered at all, and this second attempt also failed. But this also brought a storm of protests which are a familiar part of the parapsychology landscape. When parapsychology is dismissed out of hand, it can produce a backlash from scientists who recognize the unfair treatment. (The last time this occurred was about ten years ago.)

The AAAS abolished the committee for affiliations in 1968 for “unrelated reasons”, which parapsychologists took as a bad sign of things to come. In fact, this had the effect of making the process better, not worse.

Third Try: Also Nope

In 1968, Dean, now the parapsychological association secretary, submitted yet another attempt at affiliation. Although they had the support of the AAAS president of the time, Dr. Walter Orr Roberts, the application didn’t even make it past the first hurdle. Internal politics, rather than science, was the probable cause.

In 1969, Dean had been elected secretary again and had misgivings about trying again. Part of it was the cost, time, and effort involved. It cost $150, ($1,213 adjusted for 2023 inflation), and the AAAS Committee required a prodigious 4 ½ pounds of documentation, which was very time-consuming. These were reprints of the best, most up-to-date parapsychology papers, copies of the PA constitution and by-laws, as well as any articles in encyclopedias.

At that time, of course, everything had to be typewritten, meaning that any mistakes not discovered during typing weren’t correctable. Not only that, copying in those days was a difficult affair. Copiers were large, primitive things that were expensive and not the sort of thing a small association would have.

Part of Dean’s misgivings was that the AAAS was considering altering its criteria for affiliation yet again, and Dean felt that not applying for a year might prevent unwelcome changes to the process. But it turned out that the changes being considered were to help parapsychology get past the gatekeepers and get their case to the floor for a full vote. Also, Dr. A. Spillhaus, AAAS President-elect, as well as chairmen of the first committee hurdle that the parapsychological association would have to clear, was on board as a supporter.

May the Fourth Be With You

So Dean got the paperwork together and tried for a fourth time. In addition to everything else, they had to submit 20 pages explaining why they wanted affiliation and that they had met several criteria. They showed that the membership was about two-thirds PhD’s, some from top-flight schools.

Dean, unfortunately, found a typing mistake. The Parapsychological Association had nine members in the AAAS, not four. Fortunately, this mistake was not considered serious, and the application proceeded. On December 26, the application cleared the first committee. At long last, the application would finally go to a full vote at the general meeting. The meeting, on the 30th of December 1969, was held at the Boston Statler-Hilton ballroom, which was huge.

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Dean related how it all played out:

‘Now the Parapsychological Association. Do I hear a motion? Silence. (Dean cringed, since he had tried to arrange a friend but could not – and perhaps it was as well. (The next ten seconds were interminable.) Then a soft voice spoke up and said ‘Yes.’ ‘Is there a second? Silence. ‘(Again Dean nearly died. Do we lose it because there is no second to the motion?)

But after five seconds someone said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Is there any discussion?’ Several members tried to get to the microphones. A man whose name Dean could not hear said: “In our agenda it states that ‘the aims of the PA are to advance parapsychology as a science, to disseminate knowledge of the field, and to integrate the findings with those of other branches of science.’ The so-called phenomena of parapsychology do not exist, and it is impossible to do scientific work in this area, so that we have a null science. I therefore will vote against this motion.”

A woman member said: “We are not familiar with what parapsychology is, and so we are not qualified to make a vote on this association.” (This was not quite correct, since Dr. McConnell had undertaken the huge task of mailing several items of literature describing parapsychology to all 530 delegates during the fall.)

Dr. Glass added: ‘The Committee on Council Affairs considered the PA’s work for a very long time. The Committee came to the conclusion that it is an association investigating controversial or non-existent phenomena; however it is open in membership to critics and agnostics; and they were satisfied that it uses scientific methods of inquiry; thus that its investigation can be regarded as scientific.

Further information has come to us that the number of AAAS fellows who are also members of the PA is not four as on the agenda but nine.” (Even the typing error was now working in our favor.) ‘Is there any further discussion?’

Up to this point, it had been nothing but critics speaking, but then a mostly gray-haired woman with blue eyes and large glasses stood up. Everyone immediately recognized her.

A Surprising Voice of Support

It was Margaret Meade, the anthropologist whose work with the nonliterate people of Oceania made her famous. Her textbooks were required reading in college classes; she would later become president of the AAAS and be posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom.

She spoke in defense of parapsychology:

“For the last ten years we have been arguing about what constitutes science and scientific method and what societies use it. We even changed the bylaws about it. The PA [Parapsychological Association] uses statistics and blinds, placebos, double blinds and other standard scientific devices. (Then in a ringing statement.) The whole history of scientific advance is full of scientists investigating phenomena that the establishment did not believe were there. I submit that we vote in favor of this Association’s work.”

Dr. Bentley Glass, the AAAS president, then spoke up:

The question of a vote is raised. Because of the controversial nature of this motion we should have a show of hands. Please raise your hands those Council members in favor of the motion?

Dr. Glass was referring to the normal parliamentary practice of calling out: “All those in favor?” and then the members in support would shout “Aye”. Then he would ask: “All those against?” and if anyone objected, they would shout “Nay.” On most votes, though, no one opposed, and things moved briskly along.

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Since he knew that accepting the Parapsychological Association was going to be contentious, he asked for a show of hands. And this was when the actual ratio of skeptics to everyone else was exposed. By counting the number of tables and the average number of people sitting at each table, they were able to establish that the count “against” was somewhere between 30 and 35 votes. The count “for” was somewhere between 160 and 180. The “mainstream skepticism” never materialized.

Motion Carries: The PA Is an Official Science Organization

Glass continued:

It seems that the motion is carried. If anyone desires a count of the hands, I will ask for the vote to be repeated. [Silence]. The motion is carried. Now to Item 8.

The motion passed, and the Parapsychological Association was officially admitted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can find it here: AAAS List of Affiliates.

Most scientists, it turns out, are not nearly as hostile to parapsychology as skeptics make them out to be. A 1981 survey by James McClenon of AAAS members showed that 69% of them considered parapsychology to be a legitimate science. 42% of them believed in the existence of psychic ability.

For the Parapsychological Association, this was huge: scientists could join the association without risking their careers, existing members would have less to worry about and funding would be easier to come by.

A Challenge to the Affiliation

Less than a decade later, the AAAS affiliation with the Parapsychological Association got its first real test when physicist John Wheeler called for its expulsion from the AAAS. This made the news. (Here and here.) And it was a big deal, effectively overshadowing everything else parapsychologists were doing.

Parapsychologists asked Wheeler for evidence to back up his claims, and he stated that he had proof of fraud and a witness. But that person denied this was true, and Wheeler was forced to retract his claim and issue an apology.

After that, AAAS changed its bylaws to make it much more difficult to expel an affiliate. This was about as clear an acknowledgment of the pathological nature of the attacks on parapsychology as one was likely to find.

Overall, the AAAS has expressed curiosity about psychic research over the years, far from being a hostile gatekeeper, the organization has demonstrated openness and a business-as-usual approach, which parapsychologist Annalisa Ventola documented in an article titled “There is no Gate: On the PA and the AAAS” for Mindfield, Volume 8, Issue 2. In it, she referenced a 1981 survey by James McClenon that showed 69% of AAAS members considered parapsychology to be a legitimate science, and 42% of respondents to the section on parapsychology believed in psychic ability.

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Progress, But More Work is Needed

The field of parapsychology still faces an uphill battle for respectability, but what’s interesting here is that the majority of negativity isn’t coming from mainstream scientists; they find it interesting and don’t automatically dismiss this field of research. The bulk of the skepticism, it seems, is coming from a very vocal minority.

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