Source: Flickr/Federica Testani
Psi phenomena, like telepathy and precognition, are controversial in academia. While a minority of academics (such as me) are open-minded about them, others believe that they are pseudo-scientific and that they can’t possibly exist because they contravene the laws of science.
However, the phenomena are much less controversial to the general public. Surveys show significant levels of belief in psi. A survey of 1200 Americans in 2003 found that over 60% believed in extrasensory perception.1
This high level of belief appears to stem largely from experience. In a 2018 survey, half of a sample of Americans reported they had an experience of feeling “as though you were in touch with someone when they were far away”. Slightly less than half reported an experience of knowing “something about the future that you had no normal way to know” (in other words, precognition). Just over 40% reported that they had received important information through their dreams.2
Interestingly, a 2022 survey of over 1000 Brazilian people found higher levels of such anomalous experiences, with 70% reporting they had a precognitive dream at least once.3 This may imply that such experiences are more likely to be reported in Brazil, perhaps due to a cultural climate of greater openness.
How can we account for the disconnect between the dismissal of psi phenomena by some scientists, and the openness of the general population? Is it that scientists are more educated and rational than other sections of the population, many of whom are gullible to superstition and irrational thinking?
I don’t think it’s as simple as this.
Evidence for Psi
You might be surprised to learn that the evidence for phenomena such as telepathy and precognition is strong. As I point out in my book, Spiritual Sciencethis evidence has remained significant and robust over a massive range of studies over decades.
In 2018, the American Psychologist published an article by Professor Etzel Cardeña which carefully and systemically reviewed the evidence for psi phenomena, examining over 750 discrete studies. Cardeña concluded that there was a very strong case for the existence of psi, writing that the evidence was “comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines.”4
For example, from 1974 to 2018, 117 experiments were reported using the “Ganzfeld” procedure, in which one participant attempts to “send” information about images to another distant person. An overall analysis of the results showed a “hit rate” many millions of times higher than chance. Factors such as selective reporting bias (the so-called “file drawer effect”) and variations in experimental quality could not account for the results. Moreover, independent researchers reported statistically identical results.5
So why do some scientists continue to believe that there is no evidence for psi? In my view, the explanation lies in an ideology that could be called “scientism.”
Scientism is an ideology that is often associated with science. It consists of a number of basic ideas, which are often stated as facts, even though they are just assumptions—eg, that the world is purely physical in nature, that human consciousness is a product of brain activity, that human beings are biological machines whose behavior is determined by genes, that anomalous phenomena such as near-death experiences and psi are unreal, and so on.
Adherents to science see themselves as defenders of reason. They see themselves as part of a historical “enlightenment project” whose aim is to overcome superstition and irrationality. In particular, they see themselves as opponents of religion.
It’s therefore ironic that science has become a quasi-religion in itself. In their desire to spread their ideology, adherents to scientism often behave like religious zealots, demonising unwelcome ideas and disregarding any evidence that doesn’t fit with their worldview. They apply their notion of rationality in an extremist way, dismissing any phenomena outside their belief system as “woo.” Scientifically evidential phenomena such as telepathy and precognition are placed in the same category as creationism and conspiracy theories.
One example was a response to Eztel Cardeña’s American Psychologist article (cited above) by the longstanding skeptics Arthur Reber and James Alcock. Aiming to rebut Cardeña’s claims of the strong evidence for psi, they decided that their best approach was not to actually engage with the evidence, but simply to insist that it couldn’t possibly be valid because psi itself was theoretically impossible. As they wrote, “Claims made by parapsychologists cannot be true … Hence, data that suggest that they can are necessarily flawed and result from weak methodology or improper data analyses.”6
A similar strategy was used by the psychologist Marija Branković in a recent paper in The European Journal of Psychology. After discussing a series of highly successful precognition studies by the researcher Daryl Bem, she dismisses them because three investigators were unable to replicate the findings.7 Branković neglects to mention that there have been 90 other replication attempts with a massively significant overall success rate, exceeding the standard of “decisive evidence” by a factor of 10 million.8
It’s worth considering for a moment whether psi really does contravene the laws of physics (or science), as many adherents to scientism suggest. For me, this is one of the most puzzling claims made by skeptics. Tellingly, the claim is often made by psychologists, whose knowledge of modern science may not be deep.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of some of the theories of modern physics—particularly quantum physics—is aware that reality is much stranger than it appears to common sense. There are many theories that suggest that our common-sense view of linear time may be false. There are many theories that suggest that our world is essentially “non-local,” including phenomena such as “entanglement” and “action at a distance.” I think it would be too much of a stretch to suggest that such theories explain precognition and telepathy, but they certainly allow for their possibility.
A lot of people assume that if you’re a scientist, then you must automatically subscribe to science. But in fact, science is the opposite of true science. The academics who dismiss psi on the grounds that it “can’t possibly be true” are behaving in the same way as the fundamentalist Christians who refuse to consider the evidence for evolution. Skeptics who refuse to engage with the evidence for telepathy or precognition are acting in the same way as the contemporaries of Galileo who refused to look through his telescope, unwilling to face the possibility that their beliefs may need to be revised.