2001 PA Convention

The following report, written by Alex Sabell, was published originally in 2001 in Paranormal Review, 20 (October), pages 30-32. The Paranormal Review is the popular magazine published by the Society for Psychical Research. The article is reprinted here with the kind permission of the Review’s editor, Dr. Chris Roe.

A Review of the Parapsychological Association 44th Annual Convention
by Alex Sabell

New York, New York, so good they named it twice — and held a Parapsychology Convention there. The Metropolitan Hotel on Lexington Avenue, Manhattan was our base, courtesy of our host, the Parapsychology Foundation, which is situated nearby. The year 2001 sees the 50th birthday of the Parapsychology Foundation which was established by Eileen J. Garrett and Frances Payne Bolton. The aim was to assist in the scientific investigation of the paranormal and they have been centrally placed in parapsychology ever since. They have traditionally been an important source of funding for researchers and academics. Indeed, most of the leading figures in the field have reason to thank the Parapsychology Foundation for support at some point in their careers. They also have an impressive library and website and in addition many will remember the annual conferences held under their aegis, such as the Psi and Clinical Practice conference of 1989 held in London. Proceedings of all conferences in this important series are to be found in the SPR library. Many who attended the Parapsychological Association conference will have been impressed with the new sense of vigour and enthusiasm of members of the Parapsychology Foundation staff and it is surely possible that these events will be prominent flagships for work in parapsychology once again.

The conference hotel was rather expensive and up-market and those lucky enough to (share) a room had a glimpse of how the better-funded half of society takes its vacations — which turned out to be in a similar fashion to the rest of us but with a heavier wallet and far more room service.

The conference itself was divided into a series of themed sessions, and, as three days of talking played out, we moved gently from fieldwork and hauntings to ESP and laboratory experiments. Nancy Zingrone (PA President) and Carlos Alvarado (husband and past PA President) were our generous and genial hosts.

This year, research briefs were somewhat constricted by time, having to be described in just six minutes — not an easy task. First to attempt this were Chris Roe and Simon Sherwood. As the lights turned from red to green they turned the overhead projector on and floored the accelerator, taking us on a white-knuckle ride. Studies examining the role of the sender in the ganzfeld were detailed with blistering speed. In one, REGs have been employed alongside a human receiver to acquire a clearer assessment of whether the sender in a standard ganzfeld experiment is actually doing anything. Other work in progress was described in which the presence of a sender will be varied to see how strategy and “psi performance” is affected. The stopwatch ticked on and as they passed the chequered flag they found out to their delight that they had broken the world speed talking record only to be disqualified later after giving a positive t-test.

Jiri Wackermann too, had the unenviable job of trying to condense his highly technical EEG ganzfeld presentation into the allotted time, though (perhaps to make up) he spoke later and at greater length on the subject of computer-generated ESP card tests.

The invited talks were a highlight of the conference. Firstly, Lawrence LeShan spoke eloquently about his vision of a less strict scientific worldview, in which psi fits most comfortably. His exasperation with science and its constrictive effect on research in parapsychology will strike a chord with many in the SPR.

Along similar lines Charles Tart described how his passion for his own area of Transpersonal Psychology fuels his determination not to let parapsychology be strangled by the meaning-less, soul-crushing scientific worldview that he eschews.

We were also treated to a roundtable discussion on psi experiments with children. Jessica Utts re-opened (with reluctance) the debate on Spinelli’s amazing results with kids in the 1970s. She found further problems with his randomisation and statistics, but with the twist that these statistical quirks in his findings could have been due to response biases in the children rather than suggesting anything more sinister on his part. Bob Bourgeois from the Rhine Research Center described a fantastic “psychic” computer game for children to play and Erlendur Haraldsson spoke of the importance of cultural factors in cases where children seem to remember past lives that (more often than not) ended traumatically. The generally generous attitude towards children in psi experiments contrasted with Stanley Krippner’s feeings. He spoke with some zeal about his own experience that children are far from innocent and parapsychologists must not let their guard down by allowing lax protocols!

The presidential address was a trenchant and outspoken offering from Nancy Zingrone, who questioned the agenda that parapsychology is having set for it, looking at the ways in which members can pull together and be true to themselves in order that this controversial science can become accepted.

An invited address by the 1998 winners of the “Gertrude Schmeidler Student Award,” Wellington Zangari and Fátima Machado, overviewed the work currently being undertaken in Brazil. It is a time of optimism and opportunity at present there, with universities flourishing in an atmosphere of hitherto-unknown academic freedom. The speakers both hold “normal” posts at leading universities and yet are free to investigate hauntings and write on psi research. Incidentally, this year’s Schmeidler Award winner was Stefan Schmidt, who is based in Freiburg — home to the IGPP and hosts of last year’s PA conference — and whose work focuses on connectedness between experimental subjects in psi experiments.

The breadth and depth of parapsychology was reinforced by a later session involving the concept of subtle energy. Japanese researchers from the National Institute of Radiological Sciences gave a fascinating talk of how “Ki” energy is being studied in Japan, noting its similarity to PK effects reported around the globe. James McClennon had earlier expanded upon his theory that hypnotisability has played an important role in the emergence of primitive religions from shamanic tradition. John Palmer has led research which seems to confirm the strong relationship between clinical temporal lobe dysfunction and subjective paranormal experiences. This particular area is set to expand greatly as more mainstream researchers investigate psi experiences from this ostensibly sceptical angle, though any correlation between brain-state and experience can never “prove” that there is a causality from one to the other.

Richard Broughton and Bob Bourgeois are looking at the idea of selecting intuitive executives through a computer share-trading game, and Richard Wiseman shared the non-significant findings from his Mind Machine Project. Incidentally, there are plans to use a more “psi-conducive” presenter on screen in future, so this innovative format for a psi experiment will not be lost.

Dean Radin has re-examined the Sheldrake-Wiseman data from Jaytee, the dog who was claimed to know when its owner was coming home, and Radin claims to have found geo-magnetic correlations. Ed May said he has some worrying news for those conducting analyses in psychophysiological psi experiments. Parapsychologists should be paying more attention to the underlying statistical assumptions that need to be met in order to run a valid test. Some apparent effects may turn out to be artifacts.

Familiar faces rounded off proceedings. Matt Smith looked at factors that might make a psi-conducive experimenter and Pete Lamont delved into our notion of the East (more specifically in this case, India) as a mysterious place. He traced many of the enduring images and cultural attitudes back to the time of the British Empire and in particular to Victorian spiritualism.

And that was it for another year. The end of a fine conference and the spectre of inclement weather for those returning to the UK. Many took the opportunity of extending their visit to New York, and those who didn’t were either very frustrated to have to leave so early or thoroughly relieved. It’s that kind of place — you either love it or you hate it. I loved it.

The Foundation thanks Sabell for his engaging description of a convention that was for us a milestone in our history, and indeed thanks all the researchers and presenters not mentioned here whose contributions provided convention attendees with excellent and interesting fare, making it easier for the Foundation’s Dr. Alvarado, who was also the Program Chair, to provide convention go-ers with an excellent proceedings of presented papers.

For us, some of the rewards of organizing and managing the Convention included our 50th Anniversary Roundtable (some of the abstracts of which are printed elsewhere in this website), our 50th Anniversary Reception which allowed us to thank our Board of Trustees and various staff members and consultants as well as to debut some new programs, and the 50th Anniversary Special Perspectives Lecture which Charles T. Tart delivered on the evening after the Convention concluded. There were also some wonderful moments for the Coly Family who were delighted when the Parapsychological Association awarded Eileen Coly, the President of the Foundation, the Outstanding Career Award, honoring her 31 years at the helm of the Parapsychology Foundation.

And finally, the staff of the Metropolitan Hotel must be thanked for their able assistance in every capacity. The Foundation has had a lot of experience with hotels around the world, and the Metropolitan was by far the most efficient, enjoyable, and elegant venue we have had yet. Very New York!

For reports of other PA conventions written by PF affiliates and grantees click here and scroll down to the section called History and click on “Other Conferences in Parapsychology.”