Sunday, May 18, 2008

Crazy Rulers of the World - The Men Who Stare at Goats (1/3)

The Crazy Rulers of the World is the extraordinary, never before told story of what happened when chiefs of US intelligence, the army, and the government began believing in very strange things. Three years in the making, Jon Ronson's Crazy Rulers of the World explores the apparent madness at the heart of US military intelligence. With first-hand access to the leading players in the story, Jon Ronson examines the extraordinary - and plain bizarre - national secrets at the core of George W Bush's war on terror. Psy OpsThe three-part series begins with The Men Who Stare at Goats, which charts the history of a secret US Army unit founded in 1979 - the First Earth Battalion. The programme uncovers the startling truth about this unit's involvement with paranormal activities that defy all known accepted military practice, including mind reading, out of body experiences and 'thought-death' experiments carried out on goats at Fort Bragg. In programme two, Jon Ronson reveals how the New Age movement of the 1980s has influenced interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and in post-war Iraq. The final episode looks into the military's involvement with remote viewing and mind control experiments. EPISODES: The Men Who Stare At Goats Funny Torture Psychic Footsoldiers

It's interesting to note how easily history/scientific results can be rewritten. In a New Scientist story we linked to earlier in the week - "Fifty years of DARPA: Hits, misses and ones to watch" - the following was listed in the 'Failed Projects' section:

Telepathic spies: One of the agency's most infamous blunders was its 1970s psychic spy program, inspired by reports that the Soviets were researching the area. DARPA invested millions to see if telepaths and psychokinetics – who claim to move objects using thought alone – could carry out remote espionage. They couldn't.

Now firstly I have to say that I've never actually heard of the psi spy programs belonging to DARPA - the 1970s forerunners of Project Stargate were funded by the CIA, and then at the end of the decade taken over by the Air Force and Army. Kenneth Kress, who was intimately involved with the research during this period, had this to say about DARPA's involvement - or lack of - in the programs (in his article "Parapsychology in Intelligence"):

At one time, we felt we had the strong interest of some people at DARPA to discuss our data. The SRI contractors and I went to a briefing where we had a several-hour confrontation with an assemblage of hostile DARPA people who had been convened especially to debunk our results. After a long, inconclusive, emotional discussion, we left. Contacts with DARPA stopped for several years.

Secondly, rather than being an "infamous blunder" which failed in its attempt to prove 'psychic espionage' abilities, much of the data suggest more research is more than warranted. Statistics professor Jessica Utts, who reviewed some of the experiments, had this to say about remote viewing:

Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance...there is little benefit to continuing experiments designed to offer proof, since there is little more to be offered to anyone who does not accept the current collection of data.

Hard to tally that scientific overview with the article's conclusion isn't it? Vociferous psi skeptic Ray Hyman, a high-standing member of CSICOP, co-reviewed the data with Utts, and was forced by the positive results and robust experimental protocols to conclude: "I cannot provide suitable candidates for what flaws, if any, might be present. Just the same, it is impossible in principle to say that any particular experiment or experimental series is completely free from flaws." Prominent skeptic Richard Wiseman had to concur with Utts, though adding the usual caveat: "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do."

The false information in this New Scientist article is now free to propagate endlessly. Whether there is something to remote viewing and psi abilities is still a matter for debate. This article though is guilty of badly misrepresenting the topic.

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