Parapsychology is the study of the evidence involving phenomena where a person seems to affect or to gain information about something through a means not currently explainable within the framework of mainstream, conventional science. Proponents of the existence of these phenomena usually consider them to be a product of unexplained mental abilities.
The phenomena in question fall into two broad groups.
Extra-sensory perception (ESP) is also known as anomalous cognition, and includes telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairalience, clairgustance, clairsentience and precognition.
Anomalous operation includes psychokinesis (in the past referred to as telekinesis), out-of-body experiences, astral projection, near-death experiences, mediumship, and reincarnation.
The general term "psi phenomena" (or the somewhat older term, "psychic phenomena," which was said to be the "psi factor" in an experiment) covers all of these categories.
Status of the field
The standing of the field of parapsychology has always been controversial within the scientific community.
As its name indicates, parapsychology is sometimes considered a sub-branch of psychology, and this has arisen historically since it involved the study of apparently mental faculties. In its modern form, parapsychology is an interdisciplinary field, which has attracted physicists, engineers, and biologists, as well as psychologists and those from other sciences. (For an argument that parapsychological phenomena may not in fact be psychological, see Peter J. King's "Psychology without the 'para' (or the psychology)" (Think 3, 2003, pp 43 53).) Parapsychology often involves the use of new and untested technologies and methods such as; neurofeedback, NLP, and past life regression etc. As such, it may yet earn the right to be included as a modern and proper science.
Many people are not satisfied with the term, and have proposed alternatives, such as "psi research" (similar to the older term "psychical research"), but parapsychology is the term that has gained the greatest acceptance today.
How science views the field
Scientists treat all claims with scientific scepticism. After examining psi claims for over a century, there has been significant difficulty in merging the results of parapsychology studies with other fields of science. As a result, many in the scientific community feel that parapsychology is not a real science, that psi phenomena do not exist, and that parapsychology is a pseudoscience. Many scientists and sceptical observers of the field believe that some parapsychologists knowingly commit fraud; that some are incompetent; and that some are naïve and therefore easily deceived by fraudulent participants; or perhaps some combination of the above.
Parapsychologists disagree with this assessment. Many have been formally trained in science, and are familiar with the scientific method. Statistician Jessica Utts has shown in a number of papers that:
"Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted."
The precise percentage of scientists holding negative views about parapsychology is unclear, since surveys targeting this group are far less common than those targeting the general population. In his article Save Our Science: Paranormal Phenomena and Zetetics, skeptic Henri Broch complains:
"These data are based on an investigation on the belief in parasciences among Frenchmen (published in 1986). [...] Contrary to what might have been thought, the level of belief in the paranormal is directly proportional to the level of education, whatever the religious persuasion may be. Those with higher scientific degrees fare slightly better, although their level of belief is superior to [greater than] the average!"
Sociologist Andrew Greeley, studying surveys and polls since 1978, found not only that the percentage of Americans admitting to psychic experiences had increased over a decade, but that about two thirds of college professors accepted ESP, and more than 25% of "elite scientists" believed in ESP. Other polls have shown that many scientists hold such beliefs privately but do not share such opinions publicly for fear of ridicule.
The Parapsychological Association is an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). There are chairs, centers, or research units concerned with parapsychology in whole or in part at many universities around the world, as well as independent laboratories involved in parapsychology.
A few parapsychologists are skeptics, for example Chris French and his colleagues at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College in London, and Richard Wiseman and his colleagues at the Perrott-Warrick Research Unit in the Psychology Department of the University of Hertfordshire, both of which units are affiliates of the Parapsychological Association. These researchers do not approach the field with a belief in the paranormal, but are rather interested in the purely psychological aspects of those who report paranormal experiences, along with the study of the psychology of deception, hallucination, etc. These researchers also have provided their own guidelines and input to other parapsychologists for the design of experiments and how to properly test those who claim psychic abilities.