Starting with this issue, ZETETIC SCHOLAR becomes the official organ of the Center for Scientific Anomalies Research (see full announcement in this issue). The formation of the center is largely a response to many of the readers of ZS asking for us to institutionalize a network of experts to allow greater communication between active researchers.
ZS is pleased to bring you the first two reports of ongoing research of the Center in this issue. The first is from our large scale study of the use of alleged psychics by law enforcement agencies (the Psychic Sleuths Project), and the second is from an analysis of engineers' reports of UFO encounters (the Anomaly Project). Further reports will be issued from both these projects by the Center, and some of these will be published in future issues of ZS.
Involvement with the Psychic Sleuths Project and other involvements with what some have called applied parapsychology has made certain issues salient. Critics have decried the use of the term applied parapsychology on the grounds that you can not build up applications of a science until that science and its alleged variables have been established. You can not apply psi unless psi exists, and an applied pseudoscience would be worse than a plain pseudoscience since that would be like selling snake oil remedies. I think that most responsible parapsychologists would agree with such critics that an applied parapsychology would now be at least premature. Yet, there seems little doubt that the claims of those like dowsers, psychic detectives, psychic counselors, and psychic healers are frequently quite impressive (at least on the surface), and many people find these practices useful. In fact, such "applied" areas often generate a great deal more excitement in practical terms than do dull guessing experiments in laboratories.
I would suggest that we might wish to distinguish between Experimental as we distinguish between Experimental and Clinical Psychology, much as we distinguish Experimental and Clinical Parapsychology. The criteria for evaluating clinical efforts is far broader than the purely scientific criteria found in experimental methods. The criterion of effectiveness plays a major role in the evaluation of clinical methods. Thus, whether or not the theory is correct or not may be secondary to the pragmatic consideration of whether or not the patient/client is helped by the procedures. When dealing with clinical matters, an element of art as well as science is typically involved, and importance is often weighed not in scientific but in human terms. So, questions like "Was the patient condition improved?" or "Did you find the missing object?" become more significant than the validity of the theory behind the method used to get the positive result.
In normal psychology, we are usually concerned with what statisticians term a Type I error. This error would consist of mistakenly thinking that something special was going on when it was not. But there is also a Type II error. This consists of mistakenly thinking that nothing special is going on when actually something rare (a small signal amidst much noise) is happening. Since most psychologists are concerned not to think psi is operating when merely normal perceptual processes are producing the results, they usually concentrate (quite properly) on not making such a Type I error. But for many parapsychologists, the existence of psi is believed to be so important that they don't want to make the error of ignoring it if it really is present in the world. They, then, are particularly concerned about not making a Type II error. Concern with a Type II error is most common where extra-scientific factors make the existence of a rare variable important. In medical research, there is commonly interest in avoiding a Type II error because the outcome may be a matter of life and death, and we don't want to overlook something that may be hard to find but terribly important.
Other extra-scientific factors may make things important. For example, in the case of military interest in psi research, the existence of psi might have extremely important military-political consequences should an enemy be able to use it to break through national security defenses. Thus, even if the chances are small that psi really exists, it is quite rational to want to avoid a Type II error and investigate this area. It is simply too important to neglect. The same is true in cases where people have exhausted all normal remedies. If you desperately need water and the geologists tell you there is none on your land, or if the doctors tell you you are doomed, it is not irrational for you to pursue the use of a dowser or a form of alternative medicine on even the slim chance that something positive might come of it. If we recognize that the probability of success is very low but have no orthodox alternative, and if the costs in trying an unorthodox method are reasonable, I would suggest that it is only rational to give the unorthodox method a try if the need for success is great. But the degree of need and the concern with importance that determines our desire to avoid a Type II error is typically extra-scientific. It may be unscientific for law enforcement officers to try the use of an alleged psychic in solving a dead-end case, and it may be unscientific for the Pentagon to spend money on psi research (at least in terms of Type I considerations), but that does not make it irrational to do so. Quite the contrary. The old adage "any port in a storm" still makes sense. We must remember that even placebos work.
None of this is to say that we should not be cautious in our uses and evaluation of unorthodox methods. The world remains full of charlatans and frauds ready to con the unwary. And many claims of effectiveness may actually prove to be invalid. But we must discriminate purely scientific from the broader notion of rational pursuits. Thus, one can agree with the psychologists who consider the evidence for psi to be unconvincing but still support the use of public funds (at a moderate level) by the military to conduct research into psi and similar areas where even unlikely matters might have great potential consequences. It would be premature to routinely involve psychics in crime investigations, but it would also be premature to call those police who try them on long-shots irrational. The rational person who has been pronounced doomed by his doctors should not foreclose all unorthodox methods seeking to heal just because some would label such pursuits "magical" or without scientific credibility. In the meanwhile, we might learn much from looking at the evaluation procedures used in clinical psychology to measure effectiveness and apply these to clinical efforts in parapsychology. We may be surprised to find that fortune-tellers don't do that much worse than psychiatrists.