Saturday, April 06, 2013

Remote Viewing is a Pseudo-Science

I see C4Chaos has another post up about TED/TEDx and its discouragement of certain forms of pseudo-science.  

I am generally not too fond of TED, because too much of what they put up - like that "Blink" stuff - I think is nonsense.  But as an applied scientist, I need to respond to C4Chaos's post, because I think its implication that there's something to "remote viewing" is pro-woo,  as is the anti-vaccination crowd.  In fact I was inspired to write this when I saw a story on RT News sneering about how much the Brits spent on a bird flu vaccine - and people didn't get sick! And drug companies made money! 

But I digress a bit.  I don't really follow these kind of woo things, but this one's a no-brainer, frankly.  Here's what Wikipedia says (emphasis added):

Remote viewing (RV) is the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target using subjective means, in particular,extra-sensory perception (ESP) or "sensing with mind". Unlike traditional psychic practices, remote viewers use physical models to organize their alleged extra-sensory perceptions and to stabilize the virtual umweltScientific studies have been conducted; some earlier, less sophisticated experiments produced positive results but they had invalidating flaws,[1] and none of the newer experiments had positive results when under properly controlled conditions.[2][3][4][5][6] The scientific community rejects remote viewing due to the absence of an evidence base, the lack of a theory which would explain remote viewing, and the lack of experimental techniques which can provide reliably positive results.[7] It is also considered a pseudoscience.[8]Typically a remote viewer is expected to give information about an object that is hidden from physical view and separated at some distance.[9][10] The term was coined in the 1970s by Russell Targ and Harold Puthoffparapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute, to distinguish it from clairvoyance.[2] [11]Remote viewing was popularized in the 1990s following the declassification of documents related to the Stargate Project, a $20 million research program sponsored by the US government to determine any potential military application of psychic phenomena. The program was terminated in 1995 after it failed to produce any useful intelligence information.[3][4]

Note that bit: there's no theory that explains remote viewing and hence no thing that can be tested as to whether it works or not.  That means it's not a science.

I did see "Men Who Stare at Goats," by the way so I guess I'm not completely ignorant of "remote viewing."  Anyway C4Chaos writes:

I understand the remote viewing protocol — it’s double-blind. The late Ingo Swann was instrumental in designing the protocol. Then it was taught to a few intelligence personnels in the military (one of them is remote viewer #001 Joe McMoneagle). I’ve always focused my attention to the original people who started it all because they did solid research on the phenomenon and they’re the ones who designed the original protocol. Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff had a deal with the CIA and the Defense Department that in return for funding they helped the military with intelligence work (e.g. locating people and cites of interests). Another condition was that Targ and Puthoff were given free rein by the military to publish their work in scientific journals. The classified project — Stargate Project —  lasted for more than two decades. I don’t know about you but I don’t think Targ/Puthoff/Swann could’ve hoax the Defense Department, CIA, FBI, and even NASA for a long time, especially when millions of money were involved. The Defense Department might be wasteful in their spending but I don’t think the people running it were that stupid to be fooled for two decades without them getting valuable results. 

Well, first of all,  just because the Defense Department spends money doesn't mean that it's spending money for a good reason, so thinking that because the DoD kept a program around for 20 years doesn't mean anything.  Really.  In fact, let me name some of the other programs the DoD kept over the years:

  • The military had a project for the better part of a decade  with multiple contractors to develop an air force voice communication system for conferencing.  It was started in the late 70s, and went at until at least 1986.  The system called for multiple antennas to be retrofitted onto tactical jets.  Tens of millions of dollars and years of R&D were spent to create a system to work.  The antenna subsystem was finally killed when one general said simply that he didn't want the antennas on his fighter jets.  And that was that.  There were actually really good reasons why the general didn't want antennas on his fighter jets, but nobody cared to discuss that with the engineers.  
  • The Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.
  • The original M16 rifle.  They could have just copied the AK47...but no...can't do that...
  • The most completely, totally obvious example is the our nuclear weapons program.  We've been able to kill humanity many times over, yet we still have more of these warheads than we ever need.  True the Russians still have nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction, yada yada yada, but we could reduce our stockpile by 1/2 and the same principles would apply.

Let me continue, quoting from C4Chaos's post again:

Here’s another comment left by Russell Targ on TED Conversations:

Remote viewing is an ability that many people can easily learn. It is a nonlocal ability, in that its accuracy and reliability are independent of distance. Dean of Engineering Robert Jahn has also published extensively on his experiments at Pronceton, (Proc. IEEE, Feb 1982). I am not claiming it is quantum anything. It appears to possibly make use of something like Minkowski’s (8 dimensional) complex space/time that he described to Einstein in the 1920s, and is now being re-examined by Roger Penrose. This is not necessarily The answer. But the answer will be some sort similar nonlocal space/time geometry. We taught remote viewing to 6 army intelligence officers in 1979. They then taught a dozen other officers, and created an operational army psychic corps at Ft. Meade, which lasted until the end of our program in 1995. You can see two examples of real remote viewing on my website, One with Hella Hammid is double blind, live on camera for a 1983 BBC film, “The Case of ESP.” available on Google.

Again, how would you falsify this?  How can we predict whether someone will learn this easily? 

I have one more point I'd make: if this sort of thing existed it would have made its way to Wall Street, in a big way, a reliable way,  wouldn't you think? And Targ didn't do that. He claimed in the video  in  C4Chaos's post that the reason he failed to consistently make money was that greed got in the way.  Really?  Couldn't he have gotten much smaller stakes and done the thing himself and given the money to charity? He could do that today with Forex markets.  And, all other things being equal,  calling something correctly when the thing in question has a  probability 0.5 means that making money 9 times in a row is as equally likely as any other of the 512 outcomes. Claude Shannon, on the other not only made money in the stock market, but his theories have been expanded and have been adopted on Wall Street.  They also make cell phones, DVD players, and defense communication systems work as well; sometimes the DoD does get stuff right.   The number of technologies that were DoD funded that went to the private sector is ...well,  I can't name them all, but it's probably harder to think of technologies that weren't  developed with DoD funding.

Now about this non-locality thing: it's not needed for Buddhists.  The interconnectedness of existence follows from the very structure of existence itself, and the interconnectedness exists quite nicely within the framework of conventional, good ol' boring physics.   And if Targ was a competent physicist  I'd have to say he's got to know that he's not being honest with his audience: quantum effects happen on the microscopic level. And we can demonstrate how they work and test them in laboratories and these tests yield consistent results.

I watched about 17 minutes of Targ.  That's all I could take.   I don't need to spend an hour of my life with this subject. 

I find it sad that there's folks in our blogosphere writing favorable things about stuff like this.  There are legitimate criticisms of TED and TEDx.  Not giving a forum to the likes of Targ is not one of them.


Targ claims he published his results on remote viewing in the Proceedings of the IEEE.    I remember that issue in fact.  I'll be back with more of that.

Further Update:

Well, I perused Targ's article; and the first thing that came to me was "Are these results reproducible?" And the answer to that question is, no, they are not.  Targ I think would be ethical if he at least acknowledged that his "Proceedings" article was not the only article published on parapsychology, and Jay Hyman's critical approach to parapsychology (Parapsychological Research: A Tutorial Review and Critical Appraisal, Proc. IEEE, Vol. 74. No. 6 June 1986)  really ought to be read by anyone who wants to know what the IEEE editors later thought about such woo.

Junk gets published now and then. Targ's original article should not have been published, in my opinion, but probably was because he did have publications related to his laser work.   Hey, the IEEE  published my stuff, so that just shows you how low they might go sometimes!


~C4Chaos said...

please. don't cite Wikipedia and or just rely on criticism from a noted skeptic.

do some due diligence studying the scientific and declassified literature on Remote Viewing before you lump it with pseudoscience and "woo."

here's a hint: FOIA documents. see my update on my blog.

oh, i'll make it easier for you. here's a quote. follow the links within the links. you're welcome!

"The research papers in this archived data are mindboggling. TED obviously has forgotten that all legitimate researchers begin with the existing literature. And it is important not to let cognitive bias prevent you from looking at research that doesn’t fit your belief system. That reminds me… I noticed the annotation for file 11841, a 23 page document, is “Quantum Physics and Parapsychology” Conference report 28 Oct 1974.” Have you read it?

12,000 documents remain unread by far too many people. Some of them have presumed to say the research does not even exist. Six months of my life were spent annotating the files and so I beg to differ. It does indeed exist. That TED and/or TEDx would prohibit one of the key researchers from speaking about the research is appalling."


Mumon K said...

All any of these guys has to do is, without the use of a computer, consistently beat the remote viewing equivalent of a computerized "Rock Paper Scissors" (

It's not a question of a belief system. That's not what science (or engineering) is; it's not a religion. It deals with the phenomena themselves, and uses the scientific method to evaluate hypotheses.

I understand people spent a lot of time in this area; it means they're not exactly disinterested observers though. As for me, I'm just a communication systems researcher. If for some reason there was some merit to this stuff, it would be good because it would change certain paradigms.

But the existence of 12000 or 12^15 documents does not make something true, and what we do know about the human brain makes this kind of thing less likely to be true. Most critically it is because human brains are wired to try to find patterns in things even when there are not (and it's WHY I keep mentioning "Rock Paper Scissors").

James said...

Where's the "like" button? Thanks, Mumon. Shoddy thinking is bad enough, but when it dresses itself up as science, it gets creepy...

Mumon K said...

Thanks!I really appreciate it.

Mumon K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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