Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A degree in unicornology

Dear recent high school graduates,

Are you wondering what your major should be in college?  Do you worry about finding the right subject, something that will interest you, excite you, and give you a lucrative job when you're done?

Would you like to study something that doesn't actually exist?

If you answered all of these questions "yes," then you should consider the University of Northampton (England), which just awarded a student a scholarship to study psychic phenomena.

The student, Calum Cooper, was awarded the scholarship in his final year of pursuing a BSci degree in psychology, in order to complete a project studying telepathy and clairvoyance.

And my thought was:  wow, how times have changed.  Back in my day, when you had a project to complete in a science class, one of the criteria for topic choice was that you had to be researching something that was real.  I doubt, for example, that in my zoology class, my professor would have let me get away with writing a paper on Courtship and Mating in the Silver-hoofed Unicorn (Monoceros argyropodus).  It would have been fun to try, although the zero grade would have been an inevitable downside. 

Maybe it's easier in psychology, though.  I recall a paper assigned in my Psych 101 class in which we were supposed to pick a work of fiction, and analyze it from the perspective of one of the schools of psychology we had studied.  Being (1) lazy, (2) a procrastinator, and (3) a smartass, I decided to analyze The Cat in the Hat from the perspective of Freud.  The Cat was, of course, the Id, the Fish the Superego, and the Little Boy the Ego -- the playing field on which the Id and the Superego duke it out.  The Mom represented the outside world and its expectations.

In a coup that should be inscribed into the Annals of Bullshitting, I got a 96.  I considered this a victory primarily because while the rest of the class was slogging its way through Catcher in the Rye and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, I had gotten away with reading Dr. Seuss.

But I digress.

Even considering my A in Psych 101, I guess that standards have relaxed some in the thirty years since I was in college.  And I do have to admit to some curiosity about how Mr. Cooper's final paper will look.  In my optimistic moments, I imagine that it will give details of his experimental protocols, controls, and procedures, and the rest will look like this:

Data:  Nothing relevant happened.

Analysis:  Since nothing relevant happened, we don't have anything to analyze.  Sorry.

Conclusion:  Nope.  Sorry.  Still nothing.

But as my Dr. Seuss story illustrates, to a really talented bullshitter, "nothing relevant" can be spun out into reams of deathless prose.  And just having been awarded a scholarship, you can bet that he doesn't want the words "nothing relevant" appearing anywhere in the final product (nor, I'm guessing, the words "statistically insignificant").  Because then the flow of funds dries up, and we don't want that to happen, now do we?  I'm guessing that if a degree in unicornology could bring in grant money, the universities would be trampling each other to see which one could get a program up and running first.

So, that's the news from the Halls of Academe.  Me, I'm going to wrap this up and get back to working on my research on Dominance Hierarchies and Territoriality in the Red-bearded Centaur (Anthropohippos rufibarbis).  Look for it to appear in Nature soon.


  1. This is hardly the first time. Susan Blackmore earned a graduate degree in parapsychology, as she documented in her book "The Adventures of A Parapsychologist" (currently published as "In Search Of The Light").

    My interest in parapsychology had previously been sparked by Martin Cadin's article "Fiction This Ain't" in the Summer 1988 issue of "New Destinies." In the article he made many strong claims of telekinesis, that he has been doing it, and that anyone could do it. I tried the experiment (just a small paper 'propellor' sitting on a pin, you're supposed to make it turn solely by mental effort) and never got it to work.

    In her book Blackmore, unlike her colleagues doing psychic research, and despite her own confidence in finding positive results, actually adhered as well as she could to scientific methods. She found no positive results in her own tests, and found serious flaws in others' experiments that had given positive results. For her efforts she got the label "psi negative" from her colleagues.

    Toward the end of the book she discovered a remarkable statistical correlation between people's beliefs about parapsychology and their knowledge of statistics. It should be easy enough to guess what that correlation is.

    Despite her lack of results, Blackmore continued for many years to study various psychic claims, perhaps approaching each one with the idea that "maybe this one will be different." At the end she wrote a fascinating and informative essay titled "Why I have given up:"

    (the original site at appears to be down at the moment)

    Ironically, reading Blackmore's book caused me to give up on the possibility of psychic phenomena many years before she did!

  2. It's nice that Blackmore is both careful enough to design experiments that can't be tricked, and honest enough to publish and eventually accept her negative results. It's a lot more than I can say for a lot of people in that field of study.

    I guess the relevant difference between psychic phenomena and unicornology is that there actually are a lot of people who believe in this stuff. Ignoring it just allows the ignorance to persist. Though I would think that rather than doing further studies with Zener cards and the like, it would be more productive to study what it is about people's brains that makes them think this way, and teach better critical thinking skills in school.

    Not to mention, we should have a completely objective licensing test for anyone who wants to hang out their shingle as a professional psychic.

  3. Thanks for sharing tips and pieces of advice to those who are still indecisive of what degree to take. This will surely help many students.

    online phd psychology

  4. Well, if you like studying something that doesn't exist, and actually want a job perspective afterwards, there's always the ... uhm ... -ology.

    (Wasn't that a nice one?)

  5. Your Ref: //Would you like to study something that doesn't actually exist?//

    Do you know the INNER meaning of this Spiritual term "God"?
    Are you a MASTER of "Spiritual Knowledge"??
    Do you know what is "Truth"???

  6. I like this website, its amazing! Please prove that unicorns are real and live on magical sparkly rainbows in ginormous bouncy castles!