A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did the U.S. government fund psychic research?

January 7, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Some years ago I recall hearing that our federal government was spending money researching "Remote Viewing" for military or intelligence purposes. This work was being performed in Palo Alto, at the infamous SRI laboratories. Supposedly, this research went on for years and was being actively used by the NSA and CIA. What's the real story on this psychic stuff?

Kelly, you've hit upon one of the reasons many people consider "military intelligence" to be an oxymoron. It's true--your tax dollars (and mine) went to fund studies of psychic power. Needless to say, the cold war didn't end because some guy could bend a key.

This story was reported by a number of media outlets in 1995. I have articles from the Associated Press (11/29), Newsweek (12/11), Science News (12/9), and Nature (12/7), and saw other mentions on various TV news programs. Each contains essentially the same information. Also, columnist Jack Anderson dealt with the subject (none too skeptically, I might add) in several of his columns around that time.

Over a period of more than 20 years, the CIA and Pentagon spent approximately $20 million to study and employ numerous "psychics." They were supposed to help track down terrorists, find hostages, help anti-drug activities, etc. Experiments were conducted on precognition, clairvoyance, and remote viewing.

You are correct that the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was involved. Apparently, this project began with help from Russell Targ and Harold Putthoff, who had previously "tested" Uri Geller--that should tell you something right off the bat. Anyway, our tax dollars supported this nonsense while they came up with stories much like ones we are used to hearing from proponents of "psychics"--tales which could not easily be verified or falsified, and which underwent changes in the telling over time.

The CIA asked two reviewers to evaluate the studies. One was Ray Hyman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and a well-known skeptic. The other was Jessica Utts, a statistics professor at the University of California at Davis and an advocate of parapsychology. Indeed, the Nature article noted that Utts had participated in some of the studies--which in my mind raises the question of why she was selected to review those same studies.

As we would expect, Hyman and Utts disagreed on how the studies rated. While both agreed that the first "era of research was problematic," Utts said there was "a statistically robust effect," while Hyman noted that "there's no evidence these people have done anything helpful for the government."

So where does this leave us? Let's look more closely at the studies. Utts said the "psychics" were accurate about 15% of the time when they were helping the CIA.   Fifteeen percent?  Is this supposed to convince us to pay them to help the United States government?  Utts says she thinks "they would be effective if used in conjunction with other intelligence." My intelligence tells me that 15% accuracy isn't much help no matter what it's used in conjunction with--that's an 85% failure rate! So 85% of the time, spies would be wasting their time and resources on incorrect information. We're supposed to be happy with that? And that's presuming she's right about the 15%.

In one particular study on remote viewing, the "psychics" scored above the result expected from chance by getting the right answer approximately 33% of the time when there were four choices, which Science News characterized as "a moderate increase over chance." But the judgment of success was determined by the project's director, who rated the similarity of each response to the target display and to other randomly chosen pictures. Hyman argued that these studies offer no insight as to why the scoring is above chance--it's just assumed that it must be psychic ability. He also noted that the accuracy ratings should have been done by independent judges--not the project director--and that none of the studies have yet undergone peer review. In other words, there were severe methodological flaws in those studies that did seem to show a hint of something. Indeed, a former CIA technical director who monitored these programs said on Nightline that he wasn't aware of any significant results from the "psychics."

An interesting note in this regard is that "psychics" interviewed by CIA evaluators said the program worked well as long as it was run by those "who accepted the phenomenon." Sorry, guys, but objective scientific results shouldn't depend on who's running a study!

Both the (Springfield, IL) State Journal-Register and Newsweek reported anecdotal stories that were used in support of this program (it is interesting to note that neither scientific publication did--only the ones from the popular press). One of these stories is that a "psychic" predicted that an American official would be kidnapped on a certain day in 1981, and Gen. James Dozier was taken that night. As Hyman noted, though, "these are nice tall stories that can't be evaluated." As with all "psychic" reports of this type, there is too much missing information. What, specifically, was the prediction? When was it made? When was it recorded? Had this psychic made other such predictions that did not come to pass? There are simply too many unanswered questions. The stories told in the State Journal-Register mostly came from one of the "psychic spies" himself, but I would never suggest that a "psychic" would tell tall tales in order to promote himself.

Newsweek also reported that, as if the early years of the program weren't bad enough, it became even worse in the mid-1980's. A senior general would call subordinates together for spoon-bending sessions. One "psychic" wrote a long paper predicting a huge air attack on Washington during a Reagan State of the Union speech. The program offered several suggestions about capturing Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm, and all of them proved utterly useless. And one of the "remote viewers" left the army because he was convinced there was a Martian colony beneath the New Mexico desert.

Why does it seem so difficult to have an objective, scientific experiment to look at claims of psychic power? Why do we always hear anecdotal tales about the great successes of "psychics," which, all too often, turn out to be exaggerated, misleading, or even completely untrue? Again in this case, we saw the problems that so often raise their ugly heads with studies of psychic power--poor control, methodological flaws, and too much subjectivity.

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