Deviant Science

James McClenon. Deviant Science; The Case of Parapsychology. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

This is a very valuable study of the interactions of parapsychology and its critics, the processes by which parapsychology is labelled as deviant, and the methods by which parapsychologists cope with the situation.

McClenon adopts the following thesis: science has evolved a basic metaphysic about which sort of phenomena can exist, and the methods by which they can be studied - 'scientism'; various anomalistic phenomena fail to meet the required scientistic standard and are rejected; studies of them are not permitted to be published in scientific journals.

Scientists engage in a political and rhetorical process which labels these phenomena, and the beliefs surrounding them, as 'deviant', and stigmatises those scientists who continue to research in these areas. Those scientists can maintain a stable relationship with orthodox science by increasing their adherence to scientific rules and ideology. Parapsychology tends to adopt a position of being 'more scientific than the scientists', and itself creates barriers against dramatic spontaneous phenomena.

In Chapter 2, McClenon gives as examples of anomalous phenomena, meteorites, N-rays, continental drift, biological memory transfer and ball-lightning. He makes the important point that whether an anomalous light is treated as ball-lightning or a psychic light often depends entirely on the context. Ball-lightning studies maintain their scientific reputation by ignoring this. The biologicai memory transfer researchers did not help their case by calling their journal 'The Worm Runner' and including humorous articles.

In subsequent chapters McClenon discusses strategies by which parapsychologists seek to increase their scientific legitimacy, and the strategies of sceptics. He looks at the 'politics' of parapsychology, including the AAAS parapsychology controversy and attempts to have parapsychological articles published in scientific journals. There are the results of a questionnaire sent out to 'elite' scientists in the AAAS in 1981 - over 70% expressed sceptical viewpoints (twice as many as in other recent surveys).

In his conclusions, McClenon suggests that pending major changes in social ideology or scientific paradigms, parapsychology is likely to remain marginal. Psychical research, however, may become respectable by becoming a type of folklore study, and Hufford's study of the 'Hag' is held up as an example.

This study is very U.S.-oriented: the SPR in Britain has never wholly given itself over to scientific ideology. The classics, public-school, Oxbridge elite has always found 'antimaterialism' useful in its struggle against the industrial-technological bourgoise. However, there is no doubt that this is an excellent study, with many valuable insights, and should be read by all Magonia readers. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 12, December 1985


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