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The term seems to have been invented by physicist Dr. Russell Targ and physicist/scientologist Dr. Harold Puthoff to describe their work with alleged psychics for the U.S. government in a project known as Star Gate.
If the remote viewer gets messages of a site from a person who is at the site looking around, then it would be telepathy. If the remote viewer gets messages of a site by "perceiving" the site psychically, then it would be clairvoyance. (If the viewer gets impressions of the site from the future, then it would be precognition. If he gets impressions from someone who viewed the site in the past, then it is retrocognition. If he gets messages from the akashic record or the 11th dimension, or directly from some god, then another explanation is needed.)
Tests of remote viewing often involve having one person go to a remote site, while another tries to get impressions of the site. There is no way to distinguish telepathy from clairvoyance in such tests. Some tests have the one being tested try to get impressions from giving him coordinates on a map, for example. But even in those tests if someone is at those coordinates there is no way to know whether any impressions were coming from that person or from the site itself or from other unknown sources, such as the Akashic record. Perhaps the viewer is picking up messages in the ether, perhaps there is a memory in the air of every impression that every person who has ever visited a place has left in some other dimension that occasionally is broken into during a remote viewing test. Perhaps a god is planting ideas directly in people's minds (occasionalism). Perhaps the remote viewer is just expressing his stream of consciousness, which goes no deeper than his own experience and confabulations. Who knows?
Remote viewing is a kind of psychic dowsing. Instead of a twig or other device, one uses psychic power alone to dowse the entire galaxy, if need be, for whatever one wants: oil, mountains on Jupiter, a lost child, a buried body, a hostage site thousands of miles away, a secret meeting inside the Pentagon or the Kremlin, etc.
Ingo Swann and Harold Sherman claim to have done remote viewing of Mercury and Jupiter. Targ and Puthoff reported that their remote viewing compared favorably to the findings of the Mariner 10 and Pioneer 10 research spacecraft. Isaac Asimov did a similar comparison and found that 46% of the observation claims of the astral travelers were wrong. Also, only one out of 65 claims made by the remote viewers was a fact that either was not obvious or not obtainable from reference books (Randi 1982).
Targ and Puthoff, whom Randi refers to as the Laurel and Hardy of psi research, were not put off by the fact that Swann claimed he saw a 30,000 ft. mountain range on Jupiter on his astral voyage when there is no such thing. It is hard to imagine why anyone would have faith in such claims. If I told you that I had been to your home town and had seen a 30,000 ft. high mountain there, and you knew there was no such mountain, would you think I had really visited your town even if I correctly pointed out that there is a river nearby and it sometimes floods? Swann, in a lovely ad hoc hypothesis, now claims that astral travel is so fast that he probably wasn't seeing Jupiter but another planet in another solar system! There really is a big mountain out there on some planet in some solar system in some galaxy.
The CIA and the U.S. Army thought enough of remote viewing to spend millions of taxpayers' dollars on "Stargate." The program involved using psychics for such operations as trying to locate Gaddafi of Libya (so our Air Force could drop bombs on him) and the locating of a missing airplane in Africa. The mass media, ever watchful of wasteful government programs, did not exhibit much skepticism regarding remote viewing. Typical is the reporting in the Sacramento area. TV news anchors Alan Frio and Beth Ruyak led their nightly Channel 10 program on November 28, 1995, with a story on "exciting new evidence" that remote viewing really works. The same story had appeared that morning in the Sacramento Bee in an Associated Press article about "Stargate" by Richard Cole. "A particularly talented viewer accurately drew windmills when the sender was at a windmill farm at Altamont Pass," Cole wrote. The "talented viewer" was Joe McMoneagle, a former army psychic spy and part of the Stargate project. Cole based his claim on the testimony of Dr. Jessica Utts, a statistics professor at the University of California, Davis, who was hired by the government to do an assessment of "psychic functioning" party because she was a known believer in the paranormal. (The other reviewer hired by the government, Ray Hyman, was selected in part because he was a known skeptic. Both were selected because they were familiar with research in the field.*) Channel 10 interviewed Dr. Utts, who confirmed that there is good reason to believe that Joe McMoneagle does indeed have psychic powers. Utts, a believer in psi, coauthored several papers with physicist Edwin May, who took over the remote viewing program of Star Gate from Puthoff in 1985. So, she was not a disinterested party.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said: "The CIA is reviewing available programs regarding parapsychological phenomena, mostly remote viewing, to determine their usefulness to the intelligence community" (Cole 1995). He also notes that the Star Gate program was found to be "unpromising" in the 1970s and was turned over to the Defense Department. At one time as many as sixteen psychics worked for the government and the Defense Intelligence Agency made them available to other government departments. One of the psychics, David Morehouse, was recruited when he took a bullet in the head in Jordan and started having visions and vivid nightmares. He's written a book about it (Psychic Warrior) and it is sure to be better received by true believers than Mansfield's disclaimer.
McMoneagle was just one of the alleged remote viewers studied by Targ and Puthoff at the Stanford Research Institute (later called SRI International and neither having any connection to Stanford University). Puthoff left SRI in 1985 and Targ left in 1982 (Marks 2000: 71). May joined SRI in 1975 and became the director of the program when Puthoff left. In 1990 the program moved to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a major defense contractor and a Fortune 500 company with some 38,000 employees worldwide (Marks: 73). Star Gate was stopped because the government determined that even if there is some truth to the remote viewing claims, it is too unreliable to be of any military value. One important research finding was that “neither practice nor training consistently improved remote-viewing ability” (Radin 1997: 102).
Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe says that the remote viewing program “finally wound down in 1994.” He doesn’t mention that the CIA shut it down because they were convinced that after 24 years of experiments it was clear that remote viewing was of no practical value to the intelligence community (Marks: 75). The CIA report noted that in the case of remote viewing there was a large amount of irrelevant, erroneous information that was provided and there was little agreement observed among the reports of the remote viewers (Marks: 77). Radin doesn’t mention that May objected to the CIA report because it didn’t make note of the fact that he had four independent replications of remote viewing. May didn’t publicize the fact, however, that there were also at least six reported instances of failed replication.
McMoneagle was in the army for 16 years, apparently serving some or most of that time as a psychic spy. He claims he helped locate the U.S. hostages taken by Iran during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Now a civilian psychic consultant, McMoneagle has turned his talents to more public feats, the kind that local TV news shows like to feature along with local university professors like Dr. Utts providing sound bites. On the TV 10 news show she held up a drawing allegedly done by McMoneagle and declared that it was done by remote viewing. Another scientific researcher had gone to the Altamont pass, known for its miles of funny-looking windmills on acres of rolling hills. McMoneagle tried to use his psychic powers to "see" what the researcher at Altamont was seeing and then draw what he was seeing. The sum total of the evidence for the value of psychic spying presented by the Sacramento news team consisted of one drawing and Dr. Utts's word that it looks like the Altamont pass. I will testify that in fact the drawing did have a resemblance to the Altamont pass. It also had a strong resemblance to ships on a stormy sea, to debris in a cloudy sky, to pigeon art, and to dozens of other things.
The process of evaluation by parapsychologists of a "hit" for remote viewing is similar to that used in the Maimonides dream telepathy experiments. If an occasional description seems apt to the target, that's a hit. If it isn't, exploit the ambiguity of the description or revert to allowing symbolic connections and that's a hit too. In other words, a hit's a hit and so is a miss. In fact, there is no precise, clear-cut definition of what will count as a hit before the test begins. Because of the leeway in interpretation that is allowed judges of hits and misses, there is no way to falsify the remote viewing hypothesis using such tests. Without a reliable method that could falsify a claim, one can let the imagination run wild and allow confirmation bias to count as scientific testing.
Utts and Dr. Ray Hyman, a psychologist at the University of Oregon and a skeptic, issued separate reports on the Star Gate studies. Utts concluded that "psychic functioning has been well established." Hyman disagreed. In his AP article, Cole wrote that Utts and Ray Hyman stated that "the research was faulty in some respects. The government often used only one 'judge' to determine how close the psychics had come to the right answer. That should have been duplicated by other judges."
In The Conscious Universe Radin praises the Star Gate program, but he doesn’t evaluate the studies. Rather he pulls out some selective examples of successes, i.e., reports or drawings that were judged to be very accurate. (Defenders of SRI's work like to cite a drawing of the Soviet military base Semipalatinsk by a CIA artist and compare it to a drawing of a gantry crane by Pat Price as evidence remote viewing works. For an example, see the defense of Stargate by alternative journalist Richard Milton. See also Radin 1997: 26.) What Radin doesn’t reveal is that one of the major flaws in all the later RV studies—done under the direction of May—which were better designed and controlled than the ones done by Targ and Puthoff, were fatally flawed because May, the director of the program, was the sole judge of the accuracy of the reports and he conducted the experiments in secret (which made peer review and replication impossible). David Marks tried for years to get May to let him look at his data, but May wouldn’t allow it (Marks 2000).
There were hundreds, maybe thousands of trials, where a remote viewer would draw something and give a verbal report of what he was seeing. It would be highly unusual if there weren’t some that would seem very accurate for the targets. Since it was never required for success that the drawing or report be exact, it is always possible that an ambiguous image will be seen as fitting a particular target especially if the judge knows what the target is! Furthermore, we have only May's word for it that the very detailed descriptions that were spot on, were as he says they were. He hasn't made his data public.
Radin notes that that all possible paths for sensory leakage can be controlled for in remote viewing experiments, but he doesn’t mention the actual method used by May to judge the results. Radin notes that “a judge who was blind to the true target looked at the viewer’s response (a sketch and a paragraph or two of verbal description) along with photographs or videos of five possible targets. Four of these targets were decoys and one was the real target” (Radin 1997: 100). In fact, this protocol was used by David Marks but he was unable to replicate either the experiments of Targ and Puthoff or those of May. An analysis of the Targ and Puthoff experiments was done by Marks and he found that they systematically violated the rule about blind judging. Marks found substantial evidence that Targ and Puthoff cued their judges by including dates and references to previous experiments in the transcripts, “enabling the judges to successfully match the transcripts against the list of target sites” (Marks 2000: 57). There were a number of other flaws in the Targ and Puthoff experiments detailed by Marks (2000: see chapter 3) and Randi (1982: see chapter 7), none of which are mentioned by Radin in his glowing account of the remote viewing experiments.
the present day, no one has come up with a persuasive
experimental design that can unambiguously distinguish between
telepathy and clairvoyance....Based on the experimental
evidence, it is by no means clear that pure telepathy exists per
se, nor is it certain that real-time clairvoyance exists." The
evidence "can all be accommodated by various forms of
Radin makes it sound like constructive criticisms led researchers to refine their techniques to prevent any cheating or inadvertent cuing, but nothing could be further from the truth. He is correct that May’s positive results of his analysis of all the remote viewing studies done at SRI can’t be explained by chance. But he’s wrong to claim that “design problems couldn’t completely explain away the results” (Radin 1997: 101). The SRI studies were fatally flawed and could not be replicated (Marks 2000). The SAIC studies (1989-1993) were likewise flawed, though Radin describes them as “rigorously controlled sets of experiments that had been supervised by a distinguished oversight committee of experts from a variety of scientific disciplines” (Radin 1997: 101). He makes no mention, however, of the fact that May alone judged all the cases and has not let skeptics see the data, even though it is all unclassified.
Radin’s account of the CIA-commissioned report is disturbingly incomplete. It’s true that Jessica Utts and Ray Hyman were the evaluators of the SAIC studies. Utts is a known believer in the paranormal, so she was not a disinterested party. Hyman is a known skeptic, so he’s not disinterested either. The CIA wanted a review done quickly and had to pick people knowledgeable of the studies and they wanted a believer and a skeptic for balance. The reviewers were to focus on two issues: 1. Is there scientific justification for the reality of remote viewing? 2. Is remote viewing of practical use for intelligence gathering? Utts claimed there was good statistical evidence to support the reality of remote viewing; Hyman disagreed, mainly because only one judge was used throughout the experiments and he was the principal investigator:
The fact that these experiments were conducted in the same laboratory, with the same basic protocol, using the same viewers across experiments, the same targets across experiments, and the same investigators aggravates, rather than alleviates, the problem of independent replication. If subtle, as-yet-undetected bias and flaws exist is the protocol, the very consistency of elements such as targets, viewers, investigators, and procedures across experiments enhances the possibility that these flaws will be compounded.
Making matters even worse is the use of the same judge across all experiments. The judging of viewer responses is a critical factor in free-response remote viewing experiments. Ed May, the principle investigator, as I understand it, has been the sole judge in all the free response experiments. May's rationale for this unusual procedure was that he is familiar with the response styles of the individual viewers. If a viewer, for example, talks about bridges, May--from his familiarity with this viewer--might realize that this viewer uses bridges to refer to any object that is on water. He could then interpret the response accordingly to make the appropriate match to a target. Whatever merit this rationale has, it results in a methodological feature that violates some key principles of scientific credibility. One might argue that the judge, for example, should be blind not only about the correct target but also about who the viewer is. More important, the scientific community at large will be reluctant to accept evidence that depends upon the ability of one specific individual. In this regard, the reliance on the same judge for all free-response experiments is like the experimenter effect. To the extent that the results depend upon a particular investigator the question of scientific objectivity arises. Scientific proof depends upon the ability to generate evidence that, in principle, any serious and competent investigator--regardless of his or her personality--can observe. (Hyman 1995)
The report concluded that remote viewing is of little value and the CIA terminated the program.
Radin is disingenuous when he says the “government review committee” came to six general conclusions. His reference is to Jessica Utt’s article “An assessment of the evidence for psychic functioning” published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. Utts did not represent the government. In any case, the first item she listed was that free-response remote viewing was more successful than forced-choice remote viewing. This hardly seems like a major discovery. 2. Some people performed better than others. 3. Only about 1% of those tested were very good at remote viewing (it’s a rare talent). 4. Training is worthless and remote viewing ability can’t be improved. 5. Feedback seems to enhance performance. 6. Shielding the target made no difference to the quality of remote viewing.
So, Utts, who is an active researcher in the field, reports that the evidence is in and it’s been replicated. We don’t need to look for proof any longer. Whereas Hyman, whom Radin calls “the devil’s advocate” for some reason, agreed that the effect sizes in the SAIC studies aren’t likely due to chance, file drawer effect, or inappropriate statistical testing or inferences. But he never agreed that the evidence is good and has been replicated, thereby establishing a scientific basis for the claims of remote viewing.
Radin mentions that Julie Milton did an analysis of 78 free-response psi experiments published between 1964 and 1993 and found that “the overall effect resulted in odds against chance of ten million to one” (Radin 1997: 106). He doesn’t mention that only two of the studies had proper safeguards for the crucial protocol of “avoiding giving cues to judges and keeping the experimenter blind to the identity of the target in telepathy and clairvoyance” (Marks 2000: 93). Nor does Radin mention that 26% of the studies failed to provide adequate safeguards regarding the person transcribing the subject’s descriptions being blind to the target’s identity and that this was associated with a significantly higher effect size than the studies that contained this safeguard (Marks 2000: 93-94). As David Marks notes: “statistical significance and real-world importance are not the same thing” (2000: 94).
A classic example of how remote viewing is tested was presented by the National Geographic Channel Naked Science program "Telepathy." Ed May tests Joe McMoneagle and unwittingly reveals that the core method of testing is essentially subjective validation. The method of testing has an air of scientific rigor to it, but when deconstructed one sees that the rigor is an illusion.
A researcher, Rachel Curran, photographs six locations in the San Francisco Bay area and gives the photos to "a lawyer" who puts them in two sets of six numbered envelopes and locks them in a file cabinet. The locations are: a yacht marina, a rock quarry, a giant redwood tree, the Stanford University football stadium, the Palo Alto airport, and the Dumbarton bridge. When the test is to begin, the lawyer opens the file cabinet and tells us nobody had access but him. He rolls a die to select one of the six envelopes. He hands a numbered envelope, unopened, to Rachel. He leaves her and she opens the envelope, sees the pictures she took of the Dumbarton Bridge, and drives to that location. She is to be a "beacon" for the remote viewer. McMoneagle and May meet in May's office. We are to believe that May has not looked at the pictures and doesn't know where the other researcher is when Joe McMoneagle is trying to use his powers of remote viewing to see what the beacon is seeing. Joe draws pictures and talks out loud while Ed sits across the table from him, occasionally shoving a picture of Rachel toward him. All McMoneagle supposedly knows about Rachel's whereabouts is that she is somewhere in the Bay area. Here are Joe's psychic impressions:
something dark about it
a feeling she had to park somewhere and had to go through a tunnel or something, a walkway of some kind, an overpass
there's an abutment way up over her head
we have a garden, it's a formal garden
formal gardens get passed
open area in the center
some kind of art work in the center
this art work is very bizarre, set in gravel, stone
One of these items is relevant: the abutment overhead. The rest have to be stretched quite a bit to fit the place: the viewing area for the Dumbarton bridge. Nevertheless, as Ed nears the location and is driven under an overpass, he declares: "Now I understand what I was getting. That's exactly what I was seeing." Rachel's looking out at the bay. There's no half arch, nothing dark about the place, she didn't have to park anywhere and go through any tunnels or walkways to get where she was (she drove right to the viewing area), there were no gardens or trees, no open area in the center, no art work, bizarre or otherwise. But for McMoneagle this was a bull's-eye!
His descriptions don't seem particularly apt for any of the six possible choices. He's clearly not describing a marina, a quarry, a redwood tree, or an airport. We might find an arch and an abutment at a football stadium. There might even be some trees outside the stadium and the university might have a formal garden somewhere. Any quad would count as an open area. There is bound to be art work on campus and some of it would probably seem bizarre to McMoneagle. I wonder, if he'd been taken to the football stadium, instead of the Dumbarton bridge, would he have said "Now I understand what I was getting. That's exactly what I was seeing"? We'll never know. We do know that Ed May took the pictures from the duplicate set of envelopes and guessed that the target was the Dumbarton bridge. What are we to make of that? Lucky guess? Cheating? He's psychic? He hasn't lost his touch and should tell us where Osama bin Laden is hiding? The beauty of this kind of test from the point of view of the true believer in psychic ability is that one can always claim that McMoneagle was getting psychic impressions from the photos of the football stadium on the Stanford campus, thereby validating his psychic ability! A clever person should be able to find some reason why these photos should overpower the impressions from the actual test site.
In any case, if McMoneagle has the powers he thinks he has, why isn't he in Iraq telling soldiers where the next roadside bomb is going to explode?
See also analytical and associative overlay, astral projection, ESP, magical thinking, near-death experience, out-of-body experience, Part 6 of my review of The Conscious Universe, and A Short History of Psi Research by Robert Todd Carroll
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books and articles
Blackmore, S. J. (1980). "The extent of selective reporting of ESP ganzfeld studies," European Journal of Parapsychology 3:3 , 213–220.
Cole, Richard. "U.S. didn't foresee faults in psychic spies program," Associated Press, Sacramento Bee, Nov. 29, 1995, A2.
Hyman, Ray. (1995). "Evaluation of Program on Anomalous Mental Phenomena," Journal of Scientific Exploration, Volume 10 Number 1.
Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.
Randi, James. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), especially chapter 13, "Put Up or Shut Up," where he gives accounts of tests done on several psychics who have tried to collect the $10,000 Randi used to offer to anyone who can demonstrate any psychic power. So far, no one has collected, even though the offer is now $1,000,000!
Ronson, Jon. (2009). The Men Who Stare at Goats. Simon and Schuster. (First published in 2004.)
Scott, Christopher. (1988). Remote viewing. Experientia, 44, 322–326.
Vistica, Gregory. "Psychics and Spooks, How spoon-benders fought the cold war," Newsweek, Dec. 11, 1995, p. 50.
Wiseman, Richard and Matthew Smith, "Can Animals Detect When Their Owners Are Returning Home?" British Journal of Psychology, 89:453, 1998.
Wiseman, Richard and Ciarán O’Keeffe. 2004. "Testing Alleged Mediumship: Methods and Results," by (paper presented to the Parapsychological Convention).
An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning by Professor Jessica Utts
Parapsychology in Intelligence: A Personal Review and Conclusions by Dr. Kenneth A. Kress
Consciousness and Anomalous Physical Phenomena - Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (pdf format, requires Adobe Acrobat)
First Twitter experiment probes belief in the paranormal (Over 7,000 people signed up and more than 1,000 participated. The results did not support remote viewing. The group went 0 for 4 in the test. The results suggest that those who believe in the paranormal are better at finding illusory correspondences between their thoughts and a target than those who don't believe.)
Twitter's psychic experiment (Quirkologist Richard Wiseman does another public experiment, this time to test remote viewing by Twits.)