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TCU Magazine "Academe"

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

You'd have to be psychic to know what Timothy Barth thinks about ESP, ghosts and the afterlife, because this psychology professor isn't talking.

But every summer when Barth convenes his parapsychology class, students always pose one question:

"Dr. Barth, do you really believe in this stuff?"

His response is always noncommittal. Maybe he believes. Maybe he doesn't. But that isn't important. What matters, he says, is that students make up their own minds.

That's the 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.

That's his objective each summer -- get young minds to develop critical thinking skills. Exploring the realm of the unexplained is just the fun stuff.

"Scientists 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 hogwash."

But that 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 phenomenon."

That 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.

Some unexplained 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.

The problem 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.

"They often 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.

Barth and his class attempt to link these phenomena with something normal.

One example is ghosts and hauntings. What are people experiencing when they claim to see specters?

"One possibility," Barth said, "is that certain environments are conducive to experiences that cause people to assign a specific memory or sensory perception." What's not known for sure is what makes them believe it.

Naturally, the topic is open for debate and students willingly participate. Barth anticipates that nearly 40 students will enroll in the course this summer.

Barth begins the class with a straightforward history of parapsychology and the Age of Spiritualism.

Introduced 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.

Rhine focused on unproven mental abilities, such as ESP and telepathy, and tested them rigorously under the scientific method.

Barth uses 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.

Students 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.

The course 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."

"I thought 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."

Under Barth, the students have left with their own minds made up -- or not at all.

"The majority 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."

Contact Barth at