In the 1800s, paranormal research saw significantly larger support from titans of science and culture, like Jung, Freud, and Doyle than it does today. What changed?
If you visit the slightly dated-looking official website for the Society for Psychical Research, you’re greeted by a quote intended to give sceptics pause for thought: “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” The quote on its own might not register if it weren’t for the figure it’s attributed to: Carl Jung.
“The Society of Psychical Research once counted titans of science and culture in its membership including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle and WB Yeats.”
Yes, that Carl Jung. In the early 1900s he was a proud member of the society, along with other titans of science and culture including William James, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, Lewis Carroll and Henry Sidgwick. The organisation was set up in 1882 to study paranormal phenomena “without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated”.
Nowadays, that heat of the debate has distinctly cooled, and the study of telepathy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has been left a much weaker field. Although it was never exactly mainstream, discourse on paranormal research rarely makes its way onto the scientific agenda. The number of universities providing courses in parapsychology barely breaks into double figures, and when they make the news, even that bastion of impartiality the BBC can’t resist giving the report a slightly wacky tone (just look at the captions).
Sigmund Freud (front row, left) and Carl Jung (front row, right) with contemporaries at Clark University in 1909. Both were early members of the Society for Psychical Research.
When did the subject cease to be taken seriously? Why is the study in decline? Is it because the big names have gone? Is there a lack of funding? Or, as many cynics would state, is it because we’re living in a more enlightened age where the only people who believe in paranormal activity are gullible cranks?
The last view is certainly one that many in the scientific community share. “Most mainstream scientists say, ‘why are you interested in all this? We all know it’s rubbish,’” says Christopher French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University. “Well I don’t think that’s a properly open-minded scientific attitude.”