Parapsychology: Science or Pseudoscience?
Welcome to psychology professor Tim Barth's
summer class on the unexplained where the truth is as strange as his syllabus.
By Rick Waters '95
to be psychic to know what Timothy Barth thinks about ESP, ghosts and
the afterlife, because this psychology professor isn't talking.
summer when Barth convenes his parapsychology class, students always pose
do you really believe in this stuff?"
is always noncommittal. Maybe he believes. Maybe he doesn't. But that
What matters, he says, is that students make up their own minds.
method to the madness in Parapsychology: Science or Pseudoscience?, Barth's
course on the supernatural, where the truth is as strange as his syllabus.
For the record,
Barth is a neuroscientist and chair of TCU's psychology department. Neither
a skeptic nor a believer, he says his focus is on how people come to adopt
unexplained phenomena into their belief systems.
objective each summer -- get young minds to develop critical thinking skills.
Exploring the realm of the unexplained is just the fun stuff.
have to walk a fine line between being open-minded and being critical
evaluators, and nowhere is it more difficult to walk that line than with
the paranormal," said Barth, who took over the course in 1998 from former
psychology chair Ray Remley, who started it in the mid-1980s.
"It is difficult
to keep an open mind when you see people claiming things that seem so
outlandish that you can't possibly accept them," Barth continued. "On
the other hand, do we just throw everything out and close our minds to
the possibility? It doesn't seem like scientific thinking to say it's
is the thinking of some rank-and-file scientists, and also many
magicians and illusionists who want to protect the trickery of their craft.
They have adopted as their mantra a quote from the late astronomer Carl
Sagan: "It takes an extraordinary amount of evidence to prove an extraordinary
amount of evidence simply doesn't exist, Barth admits, and the evidence
that is available is anecdotal and controversial, not easily explained
by traditional principles taught in chemistry, physics, biology or psychology.
phenomena have been proven in a laboratory or scientific tests but have
yielded inconsistent results. Critics question the methodology, and the
argument goes round and round.
Barth sees, and the class learns in a third of the course, is that much
of the skeptics' point of view is not coming from a scientific perspective.
are trying to embarrass believers or convince people how absurd it is.
It becomes clear that the nonbelievers are often as biased as the people
they're trying to discredit," Barth said.
his class attempt to link these phenomena with something normal.
is ghosts and hauntings. What are people experiencing when they claim
to see specters?
Barth said, "is that certain environments are conducive to experiences
that cause people to assign a specific memory or sensory perception."
not known for sure is what makes them believe it.
the topic is open for debate and students willingly participate. Barth
anticipates that nearly 40 students will enroll in the course this summer.
the class with a straightforward history of parapsychology and the Age
in the mid-1800s, the discipline mostly centered around the afterlife
and spirit communication. It wasn't until 1927, with the creation of the
Parapsychological Research Laboratory (later named the Rhine Institute
for its founder, Joseph Banks Rhine), that the study of the paranormal
gained a modicum of acceptance.
on unproven mental abilities, such as ESP and telepathy, and tested them
rigorously under the scientific method.
discussion of the scientific method to delve into data analysis and probability
theory. Next, he hits on clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis and
ESP, before finishing the course on poltergeists, the afterlife and near-death
experiences. Sorry, fans, but Ghostbusters, The X-Files
and Crossing Over aren't covered.
also keep a 30-day journal of dreams and psychic experiences and write
a paper based on a field trip to a medium or haunted place. For the faint
of heart, a conversation with a clergy member will do.
could have been called Intro to Critical Thinking. That's the title Remley
considered using when he started the class after he saw "evidence of a
lack of scientific inquiry."
the topic would be a good vehicle to introduce critical thinking operations,"
he said. "But I had to use a little subterfuge. If I had called it that,
no one would have shown up. As it turned out, students came away learning
more about science than the paranormal."
the students have left with their own minds made up -- or not at all.
have gone from nonbelief to some belief or they'll say, 'I don't know
now. I still need to figure it out,'" Barth said. "That's not a bad place
to be. It's very healthy."