Discussing parapsychology in the classroom

A few days ago I had the good fortune to chat (via Skype) with advanced undergraduate students at Brooklyn College. Our topic was “parapsychology.” The gifted and nimble instructor of Psych 3585 was LeAnne Flaherty, who was a student in that same class the last time I was invited (by my genius brother-in-law Frank Grasso).

It is such a good class and important topic to study and discuss.

The syllabus says, “Students in parapsychology will learn and practice the concepts and methods of critical thinking used in the science of psychology. Parapsychology is a branch of empirical psychology that has made controversial and not widely accepted claims about the nature of the human mind and human mental abilities. … Through the critical examination of the peer-reviewed parapsychology literature and lectures on the history and methods of parapsychology, students will develop the background knowledge and use skills psychological scientists and scholars use to judge the evidence for extraordinary scientific claims.”

This is a superb way to teach some of the most important things you need to learn at university: critical thinking, the scientific method, and intelligently and ethically communicating findings and argument across disciplines and cultures.

Way back when, I spent a lot of time on television and the radio as a “sympathetic skeptic” discussing things like “near-death experiences,” “angels,” “alien abductions,” and the like. This was part of my job in the publishing industry at the time, and for a while there it helped promote my first book, Not Necessarily the New Age. I don’t know whether anyone came away from my appearances persuaded of a new point of view; I doubt they did.

The settings were not designed for communication, really. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has written, “Television is not in the business of disputing beliefs. It is more likely to *entertain* them.” Skeptics are given some media attention for “balance” – but “a different strokes for different folks” philosophy prevails.

Brooklyn College knows how to do it right. Thank you to Leanne Flaherty for the invitation and to her students for being so involved and amazing.

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