An interview with Dr. Caroline Watt

OWNE welcomes and thanks Dr Caroline Watt

Dr Caroline Watt is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the university, which studies PSI phenomenon and other anomalous experiences from an academic perspective.

Dr Watt is one of the most well-known parapsychologists currently active in the field with many peer-reviewed papers, conference appearances, book chapters and media articles and appearances.

Dr Watt, as one of the relatively few academics openly researching and discussing paranormal and anomalous subjects I must ask, despite being a respected academic at a respected university do you still experience the “giggle factor” from colleagues or other academics when it comes to your work? Anyone ever whistled the X-Files theme tune as you’ve walked down the corridor!

Not that I’m aware of; and no. Maybe they do it when I am out of earshot 😉

It’s probably fair to say that there is a strong reluctance outside parapsychology to accept it as a “proper” science. What do you see as the main cause for this – Is it the lack of a theoretical framework for PSI phenomenon, or the seeming reticence of PSI proponents to reject its existence despite generally failing to reject the null hypothesis of their own studies?

I disagree with your basic premise. There are plenty of examples of parapsychology studies and meta-analyses of parapsychology studies being published in high quality mainstream journals. I think this represents recognition that it is a ‘proper’ science.

Again regarding PSI phenomenon, why the lack of clear and replicable evidence despite years of study – are the answers to the questions simply not there, or could it be researchers are asking the wrong questions?

I think there are two likely reasons: 1. psi – if it exists – is complicated; 2. there are very few researchers looking at the psi question. Sybo Schouten estimated that the amount of effort devoted to experimental parapsychology over the last 100 years is equivalent (in terms of ‘manpower’) to about 2 months of mainstream psychology effort.

Part of every ghost hunter’s toolkit is the ubiquitous EMF meter. While the connection between EMF and ghosts seems to be rooted in Persinger’s work, this research has been questioned at least in terms of replicability and suggestion.  The KPU students and staff, and in collaboration with others, have looked at EMF at allegedly haunted locations.  What are your thoughts regarding EMF and anomalous experiences in view of your research and other literature?

As you say, the literature does not seem to paint a clear picture on EMF and psi. However there may be some evidence for temporal lobe lability and paranormal *experiences*. Whether local or global EMF fluctuations could trigger such experiences is an interesting question.

Many haunting and poltergeist type experiences take place in people’s homes. Many amateur investigation groups seem far too ready to investigate private residences without considering fully the implications of this type of investigation.  Does the KPU investigate this type of case or do you have any policy or framework regarding them?

I’m afraid we don’t have the resources (time mainly) to do field work. Plus, as you imply, there are ethical dimensions that make such interventions potentially problematic. If we are contacted by an individual who is distressed by their anomalous experiences, with their permission we would refer them to a sympathetic but suitably qualified clinical psychologist.

IRegarding amateur investigation groups generally, do you think they can potentially make a worthwhile contribution and what would be your advice to maximize that contribution?

Worthwhile contribution to the published literature? Try to be familiar with the literature and consider how your efforts may add to it. Getting suitable methodological training (e.g. in experimental psychology) is probably also useful in terms of avoiding pitfalls.

You are also a member of the Differential and Health Psychology group at the University of Edinburgh.  Has your work with the group informed your parapsychological studies at all?

Not particularly. We are all expected to be affiliated with one of the main research groups in our department, but some of us fit better than others! I have however published some studies in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, so there is some overlap with my work! (Differential = individual differences)

Thank you again for your time Dr Watt, one final question. You run an online course entitled “An Introduction to Parapsychology”, which is open to anyone interested. How successful has this been and what were the aims or hopes in setting this course up?

Ah, thanks for the opportunity! The course has been doing very well – without particularly trying to promote it I have a healthy number of students each time I run it (max 40 per course). My aims were as a public communication vehicle – to enable anyone around the world to have access to high quality and – I hope – balanced information about parapsychology. The course includes contributions from skeptics as well as proponents, so I hope it presents more than one side of the story. Each time the course runs I have students from around the world, so I am really happy that it is achieving its aim of reaching out and providing reliable information about parapsychology.

Dr Caroline Watt

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