Assessing Public Perspectives of Parapsychology through Facebook: A Discourse Analysis Utilizing Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement

Claire Murphy-Morgan, Lesley-Ann Smith

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Introduction: Parapsychology continues to be presented as a controversial academic field online. It is referred to as a pseudoscience on platforms such as Wikipedia, with the continued perception of parapsychology as being of challenge to scientific orthodoxy (Martin, 2021; Murphy-Morgan, McLuhan & Cooper, 2021; Weiler, 2020). This arguably makes the balanced presentation of parapsychological research and online sharing and broadcasts of related themes challenging, with implications for how the public gain access to up to date, accurate and impartial information about parapsychological research. The dissemination of misinformation via social media is of particular interest in assessing how members of the public participate in scientific discourse. Boyd (2010) investigated the role of ‘networked publics’ as communities that are shaped or reconfigured by technologies who themselves reconfigure the information available. This includes the means to consume, participate in, and generate information (Taddicken & Krämer, 2021). Social media encompasses a diverse and rapidly evolving platforms, comprising functionalities including blogs, sharing of photos, commentary, and direct messaging where audiences are no longer passive recipients but are themselves the active generators of content (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011; Taddicken & Krämer, 2021). How parapsychology is discussed on social media is seldom investigated. A recent assessment of public commentaries left on YouTube comment threads of two posted videos focusing on two scientists with opposing views of parapsychology revealed a high level of intolerance of opposing views held by others, reinforcing confirmation bias and polarisation and, in the continued perception held by many commenters, the view that parapsychology sits outside of mainstream science (Murphy-Morgan, Cooper & Smith, 2022). As a comparative platform, polarization on Facebook is widely examined (Bessi, et al, 2016; Del Vicario, 2016), but not in the context of examining what information, or misinformation, is being shared about parapsychology specifically. How individuals also construct their arguments in the discussion thread affordances of Facebook is also potentially of great interest. Facebook allows for longer and more in-depth posts than e.g., YouTube or Twitter. It also allows for discussion and debate. Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement (2008) comprises a pyramid model exploring how argument can be constructed from ‘name-calling’ as the lowest level of the pyramid to ‘refuting the central point’ as the most evolved method of disagreement at the top. Graham’s approach has begun to be explored in the context of interactions and commentary on social media (Pascoal, 2015). In the context of a recent analysis of YouTube commentaries (Murphy-Morgan, Cooper & Smith, 2022), a range of arguments were used to both refute and support parapsychology as a post-materialist science, from name calling to genuinely open questions as to the nature of issues being discussed (e.g., on thermodynamics). Further examination of publicly generated information about parapsychology would potentially give greater insight into public perceptions, or misconceptions, and allow for the consideration of key challenges and opportunities for presenting parapsychology more accurately and fairly in the online space.

Methods: This in progress study conducts a discourse analysis (Potter, 2003) of existing data from Facebook to assess public perceptions and knowledge levels of parapsychology. The study utilises Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement (2008) to assess how the online argument regarding parapsychology is constructed. An analysis of an existing Facebook dataset comprising conversation threads about parapsychology and psychical research that already exist online is examined. Discourse analysis is used to examine the first 250 posted comments in response to the question ‘is there any real evidence of psychic powers?’ Data is transcribed and analysed using the 7 stages of Discourse Analysis execution (Potter, 2003) with a systematic trawl through the data to build a collection of examples of comments and conversation. Grahams Hierarchy of Disagreement is then be used to categorise the types and levels of disagreements taking place.

Results: An initial analysis of the data indicates that polarization, confirmation bias and misinformation are prevalent within Facebook commentary examined. This is comparable to the previous literature assessing commentaries related to parapsychology on YouTube, and additional subjects that challenge scientific orthodoxy. Evidence of lower interactions from within Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement are also prevalent. Further analysis of the data is to be completed.

Discussion: The study considers the implications for how the public understand and discuss information about parapsychology, classification of disagreement, and implications for public discourse about scientific information.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAbstracts of Presented Papers
Subtitle of host publication2023 PA Convention 65th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association
EditorsJacob W. Glazier
PublisherParapsychological Association
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 3 Aug 2023
Event65th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association - Fanehallen, Oslo, Norway
Duration: 3 Aug 20236 Aug 2023
Conference number: 65


Conference65th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association

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