May 5, 2008
The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research
By Robert Schoch
Publisher: Tarcher (January 2008)
Pages: 432 - Price: $16.95
Interview by Amy Bruni
Ghostvillage.com author interview
As most Paranormal researchers know -- it's rare the scientific community takes notice of unexplainable phenomena. It's even more rare yet to hear of serious psi research or experimentation with such things as ESP, poltergeist activity, remote viewing, and telepathy. However, scientifically controlled studies of these phenomena have been going on for quite some time and it seems many have remained under the radar.
Dr. Robert Schoch is most known for his controversial work pertaining to the Great Sphinx of Giza, and his theory that the monument is much older than is traditionally thought. You may have seen him on the History or Discovery channel, discussing his belief that the erosion of the Great Sphinx was due mainly to the effects of water, not wind and sand. Earning his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University and publishing four books pertaining to his Pyramid and Sphinx studies, Dr. Schoch is a respected academic, but is no stranger to controversy. Therefore, it was no surprise when he turned his attention to parapsychology.
Along with Logan Yonavjak, (Rhine Institute, North Carolina), Dr Schoch compiled surveying reports, essays, research and arguments dating back to 1882, all of which pertain to the paranormal; and produced The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research. It's an incredibly in depth reference, guided with over 100 pages of author commentary.
Between one of his many international trips, we had the pleasure of catching up with Dr. Schoch to ask him about the book and whether there is legitimate evidence for the existence of the paranormal.
You are most well known for your work with the Great Sphinx of Giza and your theories on an older civilization that may have surrounded it. Why did you switch gears with this most recent work and delve into the study of Parapsychology?
Dr. Robert Schoch: From my point of view, it is not a matter of switching gears at all, but returning to a topic that has in many ways fascinated me for decades. However, parapsychology is not a topic that is held in high esteem by most conventional academics and, being trained as a classic academic (Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale University, 1983) and working in a traditional academic environment (I have been a full-time faculty member at Boston University since 1984) for many years, any interest I had in the paranormal and parapsychology took a back seat to other concerns. Indeed, parapsychology is held in such low repute by many academics (most of whom, I would point out, have no first-hand knowledge of the subject and are not aware of the serious research in parapsychology) that anyone showing an interest in the subject may find himself or herself ostracized and marginalized. As philosopher and parapsychologist Dr. Stephen E. Braude (professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) has written, "[I]t still amazes me that when I so much as raise the subject of parapsychology to my academic colleagues, I often find nothing but stiff body language, sarcasm, and (perhaps most surprising of all) sometimes even outrage [italics in the original]. Not exactly the way you'd expect truth-seekers to respond to serious and thoughtful empirical and philosophical investigation." (p. xvi of Braude's book The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations, The University of Chicago Press, 2007)
So, parapsychology and the paranormal is something I have actually studied and had an interest in since at least 1980, in part influenced by my late grandmother who was a Theosophist and open to non-conventional ideas, although I was never a "true believer" in the reality of such phenomena and always maintained a healthy skepticism of all reports of paranormal manifestations. Indeed, my initial interest in such phenomena was from an anthropological point of view, not necessarily judging whether alleged paranormal experiences are "real" or not, but simply being interested in why people seem to experience them, and what their meaning might be for the participants. As an undergraduate in college I earned a degree in anthropology (as well as a separate degree in geology), and studying one "primitive" or "traditional" culture after another, supposed instances of the paranormal kept cropping up. Of course, as rational scientists we were expected to dismiss any notions that such paranormal phenomena might be genuine, even as we studied the societal and cultural effects of the belief in such phenomena. We had to keep paranormal phenomena at arm's length.
Beginning in the 1990s I found myself applying my geological expertise to ancient monuments, initially working on the Great Sphinx and pyramids in Egypt, and since then expanding to other ancient stone monuments and megalithic structures around the globe (see my Web site www.robertschoch.com as well as my books Voices of the Rocks, Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, and Pyramid Quest). Issues I had not given much thought to for years started to haunt me once I became involved in studying not just the stones, but why past civilizations had erected the stones into magnificent edifices. The why behind the monuments, more often than not, apparently included religious beliefs and practices, initiation rites and rituals, which in many cases seemed to have an ostensible paranormal aspect, whether it was clairvoyance, divination, or manifestations of higher levels of consciousness. The temples and tombs of ancient Egypt, Mexico, and Peru seemed to cry out "paranormal." So, was it all a mixture of ancient myth, superstition, and downright fraud on the part of many a seer, priest, and priestess, or could there be something to it? Were the ancient structures used, at least in part, to alter consciousness, and possibly enhance paranormal psychical phenomena?
Logan Yonavjak, a former student of mine at Boston University, prodded me even further along these lines. Logan served as my field assistant during research trips to Egypt and Peru in 2003 and 2005, and through various conversations and questions she posed to me, she challenged me to look at the serious scientific literature addressing the paranormal. It was a result of our collaboration that gave rise the book The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research (compilation and commentary by Robert M. Schoch and Logan Yonavjak. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008.). Now that I have come out publicly and made it known that I am seriously interested in parapsychology and psychical studies, I plan to continue my research and writing in this area. I want to point out, however, that in no way am I abandoning my studies of the ancient monuments and civilizations; my studies in parapsychology reinforce my studies of ancient peoples and vice versa.
While compiling your anthology, what paranormal phenomena seems to have the best evidence to support it?
Most people who have seriously studied the subject conclude that telepathy (mind-to-mind interaction) is the best-supported class of paranormal phenomena. There is strong laboratory evidence for telepathy, such as classic card-calling experiments as well as many more sophisticated tests for phenomena such as clairvoyance and remote viewing. There is also a large and compelling body of evidence from spontaneous cases (non-laboratory experiments) supporting the reality of telepathy. For instance, crisis apparitions, veridical hallucinations, or "ghosts" are well known, as documented in the classic two-volume scientific monograph of rigorously authenticated events produced by the Society for Psychical Research titled Phantasms of the Living. The evidence for PK (psychokinesis; mind moving or influencing matter directly) is also strong, including micro-PK studies at an atomic level using random event generators and similar devices, such as the evidence developed by the PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research) labs over more than a quarter of a century, and the carefully studied incidents of macro-PK (affecting larger objects) associated with genuine spontaneous poltergeist cases. Another line of compelling evidence for the reality of paranormal phenomena is the study of presentiments or "pre-sponses," essentially a form of short-term precognition as measured by physiological parameters (heart rate, electrodermal activity, and so forth). Numerous replicated experiments have demonstrated the physiological responses of individuals to disturbing photographs, for instance, a second or two before they are actually viewed by the person. According to conventional science, this should not be possible.
As a natural scientist, I expect genuine phenomena (be they psychical and paranormal phenomena, or more conventional phenomena) to exhibit patterns and share elements in common, and this is just what has been found in spontaneous cases of the paranormal. Even when viewed cross-culturally, such commonalities persist.
Perhaps even more compelling for me is the work of various modern researchers that has demonstrated a weak but persistent correlation between low levels of geomagnetic activity on planet Earth and cases of apparent spontaneous telepathy (based on records going back to the latter half of the nineteenth century). This, in my opinion, is a very strong argument supporting the contention that there is something genuine to the concept of telepathy. It suggests that spontaneous telepathic phenomena are real and natural and, as is expected of natural phenomena, their manifestation is influenced by other natural parameters. Alternatively, are we to hypothesize that hundreds of hoaxers over nearly a century and a half have conspired to fake telepathic incidents in identical correlation with geomagnetic activity? This latter hypothesis strikes me as rather far-fetched, if not downright ludicrous. It has also been found that incidents of the paranormal correlate with Local Sidereal Time (which relates to the position of the horizon at any particular point on Earth relative to the center of our galaxy).
Note that a correlation between geomagnetic activity and spontaneous telepathy does not necessarily imply that the "telepathic signal" is magnetic or electrical in nature. The human brain is influenced by magnetic and electric fields, and whatever may be the carrier of the telepathic signal, the transmission, reception, and manifestation of the message by the brain could be hampered or enhanced by differences in the magnetic and electric fields that the brain is subjected to.
For many people a phenomenon is not "real" unless it can be duplicated in a laboratory setting under controlled conditions. Being a natural scientist and field geologist, I have never agreed with this contention. After all, can we create a genuine volcanic eruption in the laboratory or even on command in the field? Until about two centuries ago the scientific community routinely rejected the concept of rocks falling from the sky (meteorites). Still, attempting to induce, capture, observe, and experiment with apparent telepathy under controlled conditions is a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, however, to this day it is fraught with problems and though numerous experiments have tested positive for apparent telepathy, others have had negative results and replication is a persistent problem. The bottom line is that we really do not know exactly what parameters or variables make for good telepathic transfer (or the elicitation of other types of paranormal phenomena), much less how to control for them.
When did we start seriously studying the paranormal?
I date the beginning of modern serious studies of the paranormal with the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882. The SPR is still on going, and they have a continuous record of serious scientific research and publications in the field for the last century and a quarter. Members and associates of the organization have included world-renown scientists, philosophers, and other intellectuals, including Noble Prize winners. The SPR has done much to further studies of the paranormal, compiling impressive evidence that such phenomena can be real while also exposing numerous charlatans and weeding out cases of fraud. In America Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine founded modern studies in experimental parapsychology in the 1930s at Duke University; his work continues under the auspices of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina (the RRC is no longer associated with Duke). At Princeton University, from 1979 to 2007, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) labs carried out many important contributions to parapsychology, including the use of random event generators to study micro-PK. Today serious research in parapsychology continues to be pursued at various institutions, such as the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, and by a number of dedicated independent investigators.
Why do you believe such studies are overlooked today?
As I mentioned earlier (your first question), there is a real stigma associated with studying potential paranormal phenomena. To this day it is not generally accepted as a legitimate academic endeavor, and those who do insist on taking such studies seriously are often "punished" in the sense that they are marginalized at their institutions, they may be passed over for promotion, they are ridiculed, and so on. Here I do not want to sound like "sour grapes," but this is the reality that my colleagues in parapsychology and I recognize (remember the quotation I gave from Stephen Braude, above, when I responded to your first question).
Why this active hostility to paranormal studies? For one, charlatans and fraud plague the field, and this has been the case since before the formal beginning of serious scientific studies of the paranormal over a century ago. Fraud is an extremely serious problem, and one reason it is important to undertake large statistical analyses, both of lab results and of field studies of spontaneous cases of possible paranormal phenomena, searching for regularities and patterns, as one would expect among any natural phenomena. Also, one of the strengths of certain non-human studies sometimes applied in parapsychology (for instance, studies of pets responding telepathically to their owners) is that it is less likely that animals will cheat and lie. It should also be noted that many "powerful mediums" who appear to have genuine paranormal abilities also apparently have low moral values and will cheat and commit fraud, perhaps unconsciously, at times, especially when their genuine paranormal powers fail. This is a pattern that has been noted over and over by parapsychologists working with human subjects.
Even after sorting out fraud so that we are dealing only with genuine instances of the paranormal, there are major issues that remain unresolved concerning paranormal and psychical phenomena. We don't fully understand what conditions are best to elicit paranormal phenomena and thus these phenomena are not easily replicated on command (such as in a laboratory setting). There is often a very low signal to noise ratio when it comes to psychical phenomena; and there is no single physical theory to account for paranormal phenomena.
I would also point out that, for some people at least, there seems to be a deep-seated fear that there might be some reality to paranormal phenomena. If even the most "minor" paranormal phenomena might be genuine, for some people this would apparently upset their entire worldview. Indeed, there are such strong feelings against the paranormal that claiming to have had a paranormal experience can actually be used against the person making the claim to diagnose that person as having a mental illness. For example, the fourth edition of the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explicitly includes "belief in clairvoyance, telepathy, or 'six sense' " as one of the diagnostic criteria for Schizotypal Personality Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 645). Perhaps it is no wonder that many people are hesitant to discuss paranormal experiences.
Do you believe skepticism helps or hinders the paranormal field? Why?
Does skepticism help or hinder the paranormal field? Well, it depends on what you consider skepticism. I consider myself a "true skeptic;" that is, I attempt to study and critically evaluate data bearing on the paranormal with an open mind and independent of any preconceived notion that potential paranormal phenomena are necessarily either "real" or "nonsense." My brand of open-minded true skepticism is, in my opinion, healthy for the field. I believe that Skeptics, with a capital "S" -- those who are really quite narrow and closed-minded when it comes to paranormal phenomena -- do a great disservice to the field. But, indeed, their agenda is to debunk and destroy any ideas or notions that challenge the status quo, and thus parapsychology is a prime target of such Skeptics. The Skeptical zealots and debunkers make it their business to attack all things that smack of "New Age" and do not conform to their limited conception of what science is.
Based on critical study of the data, I have personally concluded that some paranormal phenomena are real, but there are many other cases where reputed paranormal phenomena can be explained in terms or normal phenomena that are mistaken for paranormal phenomena, or the supposed paranormal phenomena are simply due to fraud and deception. I am not alone in this position. Many intelligent people who have seriously looked at the data, including well-credentialed academics and scientists such as William James, etc., and even Nobel Prize winning scientists past and present, such as Charles Richet and Brian Josephson, have concluded that there is something to the paranormal.
Did you expect to find such compelling evidence to support the existence of the paranormal when you started this anthology? Did the evidence presented alter your personal belief system at all?
In all honesty, I have always been highly skeptical of any alleged paranormal phenomena. However, my concept of skepticism is not the same as dismissal, and in my studies of ancient and traditional cultures alleged paranormal phenomena kept making an appearance. Still, when I first began working on this anthology, I honestly doubted that much compelling evidence would be found to support the existence of genuine paranormal phenomena. Indeed, initially my conception was that the anthology would present "both sides of the coin" in equal amounts, namely evidence for and against the reality of paranormal phenomena, the pro- and the con-. However, in hindsight I was naïve, and the more I researched the paranormal, the more evidence I found to support it and all the "evidence" against it seemed to be simply skeptical dismissals without any real substance, or isolated cases of exposing fraud here and there. And the cases of fraud, more often than not, were exposed not by the debunkers but by serious parapsychologists. Exposing cases of fraud no more invalidates the entire field of parapsychology than exposing cases of bogus fossils (faked fossils, or fossils fraudulently placed in localities from which they did not originate) invalidates the entire field of paleontology. I should also point out that it has been calculated by independent observers that fraud is no more common in parapsychology than in most other scientific and academic disciplines. So, returning to the anthology that Logan and I compiled, it represents a sampling of the best work in parapsychology over the last century and a quarter, and yes, this work provides compelling evidence for the reality of paranormal phenomena.
People often ask me if I now "believe" in the paranormal. Let me just say very explicitly that after looking at the hard evidence, and sifting out the fraud and bunk, I have come to conclude that there definitely is something to such phenomena as telepathy and psychokinesis. Here I should point out that in The Parapsychology Revolution we discuss paranormal and psychical phenomena in a strict sense, including the concepts of ESP (extrasensory perception: telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) and psychokinesis (PK, or mind-over-matter, both on a micro- and macro- scale). Certain topics that are sometimes included in more general definitions of the paranormal and parapsychology, such as UFOs, aliens, Big Foot, and so forth, were not our concern in this book. Likewise, our primary focus did not include evidence bearing on survival beyond the grave (though we do briefly discuss evidence for reincarnation). The survival issue is highly controversial and the evidence typically used to support life after death is subject to many interpretations. We felt it was important to first establish what is possible in terms of paranormal phenomena while people are still alive. Perhaps the survival issue will be the subject of a future book on my part.
Has the evidence for the reality of paranormal phenomena altered my personal belief system? I would say the answer is both yes and no. Perhaps it has not so much fundamentally altered my personal belief system as supplemented and expanded it, broadening my understanding of the human experience and human potential. Humans are not as isolated from each other and from other life forms and the world at large as a traditional mechanistic, materialistic, rationalistic worldview suggests. What we think "privately" in our heads really does matter and our very thoughts can have consequences. Magic, not in the sense of conjuring or stage performances, but in the sense of genuine ritual or religion or occult practices may indeed "work" to some degree; healing, for instance, through non-conventional or psychic means is an example. Also, with perhaps a bit of extrapolation, the reality of paranormal phenomena suggests that mind or consciousness, or soul or spirit if you will, may exist independent of the material body, and thus paranormal events are often used to support various religious beliefs.
What was the most interesting case study you found while researching for this book?
I encountered many fascinating case studies while researching the book. However, one is of particular interest to me as I personally was part of it while I was working on the book. One Saturday a spider bit me. This particular spider had the appearance of a hairy little tarantula with large green "eyes" that I found very striking and beautiful. I was quite worried about the incident as my thumb hurt where I had been bitten, and I knew stories of people becoming extremely ill or even dying from spider bites. I did not know what kind of spider it was, and thus could not judge whether it was poisonous or not, so before letting it go (I do not believe in killing anything unnecessarily) I took photographs of the spider in order to later identify the species if need be. That night or early the next morning a friend of mine, thousands of miles away, dreamed or hallucinated (her description) of a tarantula-like spider, and also dreamed of a baby with "beautiful large green eyes." Furthermore, I appeared in her dreams that night and the next day she felt a need to tell me about the spider, and so sent me an email about her dream (she does not write to me that often, and does not normally relate her dreams to me). Upon receiving her email, I told her about the spider incident and sent her photos of the actual critter. To this day I am convinced that my spider bite and her dream were not just a simple case of chance coincidence, especially since more than a spider was involved. Green eyes, which had caught my attention, were in her dream, plus so was I, to the point she felt compelled to tell me.
What do you think it will take for the scientific community to take more notice of the field?
It is often suggested that the ultimate, definitive, easily and consistently replicated parapsychology experiment would turn the tide and convince the general scientific community of the reality of paranormal phenomena. However, until we fully understand the parameters involved in eliciting paranormal phenomena, such a convincing experiment may be a long way off. Another weak point of parapsychology is that there is no general agreement as to an explanation or comprehensive theory that would explain paranormal phenomena. Indeed, if we had such a theory, then attempting to develop experiments based on the theory's predictions might test the theory. Numerous theories have been proposed to explain paranormal phenomena, including quantum mechanical theories, electromagnetic theories, decision augmentation theories, and so forth. However, when it comes right down to it, there is no single or compelling theory of the paranormal -- but that does not mean the paranormal does not exist or should be rejected; we simply do not understand it fully and we still do not know the underlying mechanisms that make it work. In analogy, "continental drift" was recognized, but then falsely rejected, before the driving mechanism of plate tectonics was hypothesized. Everyone "knew" that continents could not move.