Peter Ross: Something stranger than Ghostbusters in our neighbourhood

CONTRARY to what many people think, Dr Caroline Watt is no Ghostbuster. She will not come round to your haunted single-end and sook up a spook in a trap. She is a cool-headed academic, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University. The confusion comes because she is based in the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, which since 1985 has been the leading place in Britain for academic study of the paranormal.

The KPU is part of the psychology department, a warren of wood-panelled corridors. Watt, a slender, short-haired 46-year-old, has worked here since 1986 and has an office – "an eyrie" – on the top floor.

Her own views on what experts in the field call psi, a term encompassing psychic abilities such as mind-reading and causing objects to levitate, are open-minded but sceptical. She doesn't disbelieve in these things, but has seen no evidence to convince her they exist. Her interest lies more in exploring the psychology of the paranormal – what makes people think they are seeing spirits – and this is the subject of her forthcoming talk at the Edinburgh Science Festival, part of a day-long event on April 4 called Hauntings: The Science Of Ghosts.

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Later this year the KPU will begin a study concerning poltergeist activity. It is very common for people to contact Watt, sometimes in a state of some distress, to ask for help or explanations of what they perceive as paranormal experiences. "It happens all the time. I can show you a letter I got this morning." She opens a filing cabinet and pulls out some typed sheets of paper. "This is someone who wrote and sent me drawings reconstructing an experience they had when they saw this hovering orb outside their kitchen window."

People are often looking for validation, someone who will believe and encourage them in their beliefs. However, because of Watt's respect for rigorous experimental conditions, she is less credulous than most of the British public, 30% of whom claim to have actually seen an apparition. "But I try to be responsible in how I respond to people," she says. "In some cases you can tell they need clinical help. If someone says 'I'm hearing voices and I'm being persecuted' or 'The newsreader is controlling my thoughts' then that sounds like paranoia, a form of psychosis. We have a clinical psychologist on the team and I refer cases like that on to him. But you never know what's going to come next when the phone rings."

Not long after this, the phone rings. A high-pitched voice on the other end says: "I've had a really weird experience!"

This is Professor Richard Wiseman, calling as a wind-up. A KPU alumnus and organiser of the forthcoming science festival event, he's a media star, and even more sceptical than his partner Watt.

If anything, the KPU goes too far in its efforts to be seen as credible. They have a policy, for instance, of not testing the psychic abilities of anyone who rings up claiming to be psychic. Watt would rather test for such abilities within a large group of people who make no special claims. "People who want to be proven to be psychic have a vested interest, and that leaves you open to potential cheating. They may find a way around your experimental protocols."

That makes sense, certainly, but if I wanted to find a dog with fleas I'd start with the mutt that was scratching.

Parapsychologists must be careful, though, not to leave an open goal for those who would portray them as cranks. Critics within the psychological mainstream question parapsychology's legitimacy, much as doctors do with alternative medicine. In European universities, however, the subject has an increasing profile, and KPU staff are bullish in their defence of their field.

"Why should it be dismissed as pseudo-science?" asks Dr Peter Lamont, a former magician, now a KPU lecturer whose shelves are filled with binders marked "Tarot", "Mesmerism" and "Victorian Spiritualism". He also has a black labrador lying under his desk. "It's experimental, it's quantitative, it tests hypotheses. In what sense is that not scientific?"

He pauses. "Sorry," he says. "I think my dog has farted."

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As the unit that takes his name increases in respectability, the late writer Arthur Koestler's own reputation has become tarnished – it is claimed that he raped and beat women. In response, and in light of the fact that women's groups threatened to deface it, his bronze bust has been removed from public display and is now in the library.

I ask Watt whether she feels uncomfortable with it. "No," she replies. "I can separate his biography from the parapsychology. And he's paying my salary. Whether or not you like some of his views, we are benefiting academically from his bequest."

Koestler committed suicide in 1983, together with his third wife Cynthia, and they bequeathed their entire estate for the establishment of a chair in parapsychology at a British university. Apparently, his interest in the subject began when, circa 1915, a can of beans exploded inexplicably and knocked him senseless.

Very few establishments bid for his money. The potential damage to their credibility was too great a risk. But Edinburgh University was keen, so in 1985 the Koestler chair was filled by Professor Robert Morris, who held the position until his death in 2004. Since then, the KPU has shrunk in size and doesn't have the funding to take on the many students who want to do a PhD there. There is massive public interest in the subject area, fuelled in part by the popularity of Most Haunted and other television shows which purport to investigate the paranormal.

"Oh, I can't bear watching those," Watt shudders. "I got a phone call asking would I take part in this programme called I'm Famous And I'm Frightened. But I've only got so many hours in the day, and I'm not going to spend them sitting in a dark room waiting for ghosts."