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One of the major goals of this website is to help people learn about scientific research in psychology and how it can help all of us to better understand why we do what we do in our everyday lives. This goal requires that we learn about some of the attitudes and assumptions indispensable to doing good research in the behavioral sciences. In this post, I will argue that two essential attitudes for scientific researchers are skepticism and empiricism. In fact, these attitudes form the foundation of the scientific approach to understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Evaluating Claims About Mind and Behavior

Angel Therapy works on the belief that everyone has guardian angels, and these angels perform God’s will of peace for us all. When we open ourselves to hear our angels’ messages, every aspect of our lives become more peaceful…. You can connect with your angels and guides. According to the therapy, everyone has at least 2 guardian angels, and a variety of spirit guides, souls who have agreed to work with you throughout your life. These angels and guides are loving entities, and are here to help you in every aspect of your life. They are believed to be the source of intuition and inspiration, and there to support you during times of need. (Quoted from The Body Guide website)

Three main claims are made in this passage. (1) We all have at least two guardian angels as well as countless other angels and spirit guides that we can “connect with.” (2) These supernatural beings want to help us in every aspect of our lives. (3) This help can be therapeutic: it can reduce or eliminate psychological problems and even provide “intuition and inspiration.”

But what is the evidence that these supernatural beings actually exist and that, if they do, that they want to help us? Susan Stevenson, a therapist, has claimed that the evidence is all around us, but that we need to pay close attention to see it:

My life seems to be teeming with angelic connections, and the momentum is building. Have you noticed this in your own life? Angelic reminders that they are with us- ‘whispers’ in our ear, ‘taps’ on the shoulder, brushes of air across your skin or changes in air pressure, ‘flutters’ from deep inside, glints of light and color- all these gentle hints to pay closer attention to their presence. Think back- have you been paying attention, listening, responding? (Carroll, 2012)

When one makes a claim, one is stating that something is a fact. In other words, a claim is a statement that is thought by at least one person to be true; but of course, it may turn out to be false. Claims often involve interpretations of experiences. For example, you may interpret a “brush of air” across your skin as an angel who has just passed by, or you may interpret it as a breeze that has wafted through the room from an open window. A glint of light may be the sign that an angel is nearby, or it may be the sign that sunlight just reflected off a passing car. In other words, two people may interpret the same experience in different ways. In deciding which interpretation is more likely to reflect reality, we need to evaluate the different interpretations. We do this by examining relevant evidence.

In your everyday life, you probably often have heard claims made about psychological problems and psychological therapies; and you probably think that you already know quite a bit about psychology. In order to get a sense of what you might know, please take the following brief quiz.

Which of the following claims are true?

  • dream images are known to have particular meanings that involve unconscious desires and conflicts
  • eating sugar causes children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to become even more hyperactive
  • a person who commits suicide must have been clinically depressed
  • a 40-year-old man who has sex with a 15-year-old girl would be diagnosed with pedophilia
  • there are more admissions to mental hospitals during full moons than at other times
  • unconscious memories of traumatic events can be remembered in detail with hypnosis
  • a person who exhibits two or more personalities is diagnosed with schizophrenia
  • low self-esteem is known to cause most self-destructive behaviors
  • most mental disorders can be cured by remembering and mentally reliving distressing past experiences

You may be surprised to learn that none of these claims is known to be true. In fact, all but a few are known to be false, and the remaining ones are controversial at best. In order to avoid basing important decisions on false claims, clinicians (professionals who study and treat psychological problems), or those who aspire to be clinicians (perhaps you), need to learn to think critically about claims made about psychological problems and their treatments. Of fundamental importance to this goal is the development of skeptical and empirical attitudes regarding claims.

Skepticism

In some religions, a shaman is said to be a mediator between the visible natural world and an invisible supernatural world. The shaman claims to be able to journey to the supernatural world in order to help heal the ill, foretell the future, and control natural events. Some mental-health workers use shamanic journeying to help those suffering from psychological problems. Sharon Van Raalte (1998) gave an example of her shamanic work with a client:

Through image and symbol, the shamanic journeys revealed levels of knowing that were often beyond what could be perceived or expressed by the clients or the psychiatrist. For example, Luke was dying from a brain tumor. An early journey suggested that I teach his wife, Suzanne, to work with him. Learning to journey to find her power animal proved to be helpful when it came time for her husband to die. At another point, I was journeying on a question for myself, when the focus abruptly changed. I found myself sitting with [Luke and Suzanne] in a boat that began moving to a farther shore. On the other side, Luke got out of the boat and went toward a group of people waiting to greet him. I had the sensation that the pain they had caused him in his life was washed away as they surrounded him with love. The classic shamanic experience (known as conducting the souls of the dead) had come unbidden. (p. 164)

In other words, Van Raalte claimed that she and Suzanne had accompanied Luke to the “other side” as he was dying, and then saw him being reunited with others who had died before him. An apparent confirmation of this interpretation came later:

Only after I had reported this journey to the psychiatrist did I learn what had literally happened. In his delirium as he was dying, Luke had called out the name of his dead sister, with whom he had had a painful relationship. Drawing from the experience of her single [shamanic] journey, Suzanne knew what he was seeing and urged him to run to his sister. (p. 164)

In these passages, Van Raalte is making a number of claims: (1) She is able to journey to a spirit world. (2) She saw Luke being reunited with his dead sister. (c) Shamanic journeying is an effective treatment for at least some psychological problems. When hearing claims such as these, scientific psychologists are trained to be skeptical–to doubt the claim unless it is supported by adequate evidence. These particular claims may be true, but we need to see good supporting evidence before we accept them. As an ideal, we should be skeptical of any claim that may have an important impact in our lives, even a claim that seems on its surface to be convincing. It probably is impossible to reach this ideal, but we should strive to develop our skepticism as much as we can in order to improve our decision-making and problem-solving abilities. And it should be incumbent upon people who work in mental-health fields, especially those offering therapeutic services, to develop their skepticism as fully as they can since their beliefs and actions have important consequences for those with psychological problems.

When confronted with a claim, a skeptical thinker needs to do two things. First, because a claim is based on a particular interpretation of an experience, a skeptical thinker always needs to consider other possible interpretations of that experience. For example, a shamanic therapist who claims to be journeying to a supernatural realm may actually be doing so. On the other hand, she may only be vividly imagining that she is doing so, or she may be experiencing hallucinations. By considering other interpretations, a skeptical thinker is less likely to automatically accept the claimant’s interpretation and more likely to examine carefully the various alternatives.

Second, a skeptical thinker needs to determine if there is any evidence that contradicts the claim. For example, Van Raalte stated that she saw Luke being greeted by a “group of people,” all of whom had caused him pain during his life. However, the psychiatrist with whom Van Raalte worked stated that, at the time of his death, Luke mentioned only his sister’s name and was urged to run to his sister. This evidence seems to contradict the claim made by Van Raalte that she had seen Luke with a group of people at the time of his death. Without further clarification and more evidence, it is difficult to know whether to accept or reject her claim.

Empiricism

Evidence consists of observations that allow us to evaluate whether a claim is likely to be true or false. Let’s consider a very simple claim that probably everyone believes is true: “The sun will rise tomorrow morning.” For me, this claim is based on the following evidence:

  • As far back as I can remember, I have seen the sun rise each and every morning of my life.
  • No mention has ever been made in any historical document that the sun has ever failed to rise. It seems likely that something as significant as the sun not rising would have been recorded and reported.
  • Scientists and other experts tell us that the sun rises each morning because the Earth rotates on its axis, and that it should continue to do so for billions of years.

From all this evidence, it seems reasonable to infer that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. If someone claimed that he knew that the sun was not going to rise tomorrow morning, you would immediately ask him why he believed this claim (this is equivalent to asking him for his evidence). If he stated that he dreamed that this would happen and that his dreams often come true, most of us would be skeptical: the supporting evidence (his dream) does not seem adequate to accept his claim.

What is the best kind of evidence for supporting a claim? Should we rely upon what an expert tells us? Should we accept a person’s intuition? Are the statements of a channeled spirit guide acceptable evidence for a claim? Regarding the nature of evidence, scientific psychologists are trained to be empirical–to make direct observations of events in the natural world that are relevant to evaluating the claim. Empiricists do not consider statements made by authorities, armchair speculations, dream interpretations, or messages supposedly obtained from supernatural beings, to be adequate evidence for a claim. Instead, empiricists must see for themselves whether a claim is likely to be true or false. For example, in testing the claim that shamanic journeying is an effective treatment for at least some psychological problems, an empiricist would want to measure directly the severity of clients’ symptoms both before and after being told what was discovered about them during a shamanic journey. If their symptoms improved relative to those of a second group of clients who were told things about themselves that were not discovered during a shamanic journey, then this would be evidence that shamanic journeying (for whatever reason) is an effective therapeutic technique.

You may contact me at drjeffryricker@gmail.com

References

Carroll, R. T. (2012). Angel Therapy. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved November 9, 2012, from http://skepdic.com/angeltherapy.html

The Body Guide. (2012). What is Angel Therapy? November 9, 2012, from http://www.thebodyguide.co.uk/AZTreatment.aspx?Tid=554

Van Raalte, S. (1998). Direct knowing. In W. Braud & R. Anderson (Eds.), Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences (pp. 163-166). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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