American Association for the Advancement of PseudoScience

By Sean Carroll | February 14, 2008 5:41 pm

What’s wrong with this list?

Seems at first glance like a list of scientific professional organizations, or at least the subset of such a list beginning with the letter “P.” And indeed it is — it’s an excerpt from the list of Affiliates of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But take a look at that second entry — the Parapsychological Association? Is that what it sounds like? Indeed it is — “the international professional organization of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of ‘psi’’ (or ‘psychic’) experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition (“parapsychology”).”

The only problem is, parapsychology is not science. It’s pseudoscience. From a completely blank-slate perspective, one can certainly pose scientific questions about whether the human mind can tell the future or read minds or move objects around without touching them. The thing is, we know the answer: no. The possibilities have been investigated and found wanting; more straightforwardly, they would violate the known laws of physics. Alchemy was science once, but it’s not any more. Not all hypotheses are equally worthy of our respect and attention; sometimes we learn that a particular idea doesn’t work, and move on with our lives.

So what in the world is the Parapsychological Association doing as part of the AAAS? Benefiting from the implication of respectability, is the obvious answer. Note that “Affiliate of the AAAS” is displayed prominently on the PA homepage — an endorsement that, say, the Paleontological Society or the Phycological Society of America (not misspelled, I swear) didn’t deem worth of such prominent display.

Apparently the PA was founded by J.B. Rhine in 1957, and became affiliated with the AAAS in 1969 thanks to the advocacy of then-AAAS-president Margaret Mead. In 1979 John Wheeler campaigned to have it kicked out, but his effort failed.

The AAAS is a useful organization, and it’s a shame to see them associate their good name with pseudoscience. Their annual meeting begins to day in Boston, and it’s always a fun event, a great way to catch up with some of the major themes in all areas of science. None of those themes should involve reading people’s thoughts or bending spoons with one’s mind. I hope the AAAS can gently extract itself from this relationship.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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