Parapsychology

Bockris, John O'M. The New Paradigm. College Station, TX: D&M Enterprises, 2005. ISBN 0-9767444-0-6.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the triumphs of classical science were everywhere apparent: Newton's theories of mechanics and gravitation, Maxwell's electrodynamics, the atomic theory of chemistry, Darwin's evolution, Mendel's genetics, and the prospect of formalising all of mathematics from a small set of logical axioms. Certainly, there were a few little details awaiting explanation: the curious failure to detect ether drift in the Michelson-Morley experiment, the pesky anomalous precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury, the seeming contradiction between the equipartition of energy and the actual spectrum of black body radiation, the mysterious patterns in the spectral lines of elements, and the source of the Sun's energy, but these seemed matters the next generation of scientists could resolve by building on the firm foundation laid by the last. Few would have imagined that these curiosities would spark a thirty year revolution in physics which would show the former foundations of science to be valid only in the limits of slow velocities, weak fields, and macroscopic objects.

At the start of the twenty-first century, in the very centennial of Einstein's annus mirabilis, it is only natural to enquire how firm are the foundations of present-day science, and survey the “little details and anomalies” which might point toward scientific revolutions in this century. That is the ambitious goal of this book, whose author's long career in physical chemistry began in 1945 with a Ph.D. from Imperial College, London, and spanned more than forty years as a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Flinders University in Australia, and Texas A&M University, where he was Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environmental Chemistry, with more than 700 papers and twenty books to his credit. And it is at this goal that Professor Bockris utterly, unconditionally, and irredeemably fails. By the evidence of the present volume, the author, notwithstanding his distinguished credentials and long career, is a complete idiot.

That's not to say you won't learn some things by reading this book. For example, what do physicists Hendrik Lorentz, Werner Heisenberg, Hannes Alfvén, Albert A. Michelson, and Lord Rayleigh; chemist Amedeo Avogadro, astronomers Chandra Wickramasinghe, Benik Markarian, and Martin Rees; the Weyerhaeuser Company; the Doberman Pinscher dog breed; Renaissance artist Michelangelo; Cepheid variable stars; Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; the Menninger Foundation and the Cavendish Laboratory; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; religious figures Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop Berkeley, and Teilhard de Chardin; parapsychologists York Dobyns and Brenda Dunne; anomalist William R. Corliss; and Centreville Maryland, Manila in the Philippines, and the Galapagos Islands all have in common?

The “Shaking Pillars of the Paradigm” about which the author expresses sentiments ranging from doubt to disdain in chapter 3 include mathematics (where he considers irrational roots, non-commutative multiplication of quaternions, and the theory of limits among flaws indicative of the “break down” of mathematical foundations [p. 71]), Darwinian evolution, special relativity, what he refers to as “The So-Called General Theory of Relativity” with only the vaguest notion of its content—yet is certain is dead wrong, quantum theory (see p. 120 for a totally bungled explanation of Schrodinger's cat in which he seems to think the result depends upon a decision made by the cat), the big bang (which he deems “preposterus” on p. 138) and the Doppler interpretation of redshifts, and naturalistic theories of the origin of life. Chapter 4 begins with the claim that “There is no physical model which can tell us why [electrostatic] attraction and repulsion occur” (p. 163).

And what are those stubborn facts in which the author does believe, or at least argues merit the attention of science, pointing the way to a new foundation for science in this century? Well, that would be: UFOs and alien landings; Kirlian photography; homeopathy and Jacques Benveniste's “imprinting of water”; crop circles; Qi Gong masters remotely changing the half-life of radioactive substances; the Maharishi Effect and “Vedic Physics”; “cold fusion” and the transmutation of base metals into gold (on both of which the author published while at Texas A&M); telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition; apparitions, poltergeists, haunting, demonic possession, channelling, and appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary; out of body and near-death experiences; survival after death, communication through mediums including physical manifestations, and reincarnation; and psychokinesis, faith and “anomalous” healing (including the “psychic surgeons” of the Philippines), and astrology. The only apparent criterion for the author's endorsement of a phenomenon appears to be its rejection by mainstream science.

Now, many works of crank science can be quite funny, and entirely worth reading for their amusement value. Sadly, this book is so poorly written it cannot be enjoyed even on that level. In the introduction to this reading list I mention that I don't include books which I didn't finish, but that since I've been keeping the list I've never abandoned a book partway through. Well, my record remains intact, but this one sorely tempted me. The style, if you can call it that, is such that one finds it difficult to believe English is the author's mother tongue, no less that his doctorate is from a British university at a time when language skills were valued. The prose is often almost physically painful to read. Here is an example, from footnote 37 on page 117—but you can find similar examples on almost any page; I've chosen this one because it is, in addition, almost completely irrelevant to the text it annotates.

Here, it is relevant to describe a corridor meeting with a mature colleague - keen on Quantum Mechanical calculations, - who had not the friends to give him good grades in his grant applications and thus could not employ students to work with him. I commiserated on his situation, - a professor in a science department without grant money. How can you publish I blurted out, rather tactlessly. “Ah, but I have Lili” he said (I've changed his wife's name). I knew Lili, a pleasant European woman interested in obscure religions. She had a high school education but no university training. “But” … I began to expostulate. “It's ok, ok”, said my colleague. “Well, we buy the programs to calculate bond strengths, put it in the computer and I tell Lili the quantities and she writes down the answer the computer gives. Then, we write a paper.” The program referred to is one which solves the Schrödinger equation and provides energy values, e.g., for bond strength in chemical compounds.
Now sit back, close your eyes, and imagine five hundred pages of this; in spelling, grammar, accuracy, logic, and command of the subject matter it reads like a textbook-length Slashdot post. Several recurrent characteristics are manifest in this excerpt. The author repeatedly, though not consistently, capitalises Important Words within Sentences; he uses hyphens where em-dashes are intended, and seems to have invented his own punctuation sign: a comma followed by a hyphen, which is used interchangeably with commas and em-dashes. The punctuation gives the impression that somebody glanced at the manuscript and told the author, “There aren't enough commas in it”, whereupon he went through and added three or four thousand in completely random locations, however inane. There is an inordinate fondness for “e.g.”, “i.e.”, and “cf.”, and they are used in ways which make one suspect the author isn't completely clear on their meaning or the distinctions among them. And regarding the footnote quoted above, did I mention that the author's wife is named “Lily”, and hails from Austria?

Further evidence of the attention to detail and respect for the reader can be found in chapter 3 where most of the source citations in the last thirty pages are incorrect, and the blank cross-references scattered throughout the text. Not only is it obvious the book has not been fact checked, nor even proofread; it has never even been spelling checked—common words are misspelled all over. Bockris never manages the Slashdot hallmark of misspelling “the”, but on page 475 he misspells “to” as “ot”. Throughout you get the sense that what you're reading is not so much a considered scientific exposition and argument, but rather the raw unedited output of a keystroke capturing program running on the author's computer.

Some readers may take me to task for being too harsh in these remarks, noting that the book was self-published by the author at age 82. (How do I know it was self-published? Because my copy came with the order from Amazon to the publisher to ship it to their warehouse folded inside, and the publisher's address in this document is directly linked to the author.) Well, call me unkind, but permit me to observe that readers don't get a quality discount based on the author's age from the price of US$34.95, which is on the very high end for a five hundred page paperback, nor is there a disclaimer on the front or back cover that the author might not be firing on all cylinders. Certainly, an eminent retired professor ought to be able to call on former colleagues and/or students to review a manuscript which is certain to become an important part of his intellectual legacy, especially as it attempts to expound a new paradigm for science. Even the most cursory editing to remove needless and tedious repetition could knock 100 pages off this book (and eliminating the misinformation and nonsense could probably slim it down to about ten). The vast majority of citations are to secondary sources, many popular science or new age books.

Apart from these drawbacks, Bockris, like many cranks, seems compelled to personally attack Einstein, claiming his work was derivative, hinting at plagiarism, arguing that its significance is less than its reputation implies, and relating an unsourced story claiming Einstein was a poor husband and father (and even if he were, what does that have to do with the correctness and importance of his scientific contributions?). In chapter 2, he rants upon environmental and economic issues, calls for a universal dole (p. 34) for those who do not work (while on p. 436 he decries the effects of just such a dole on Australian youth), calls (p. 57) for censorship of music, compulsory population limitation, and government mandated instruction in philosophy and religion along with promotion of religious practice. Unlike many radical environmentalists of the fascist persuasion, he candidly observes (p. 58) that some of these measures “could not achieved under the present conditions of democracy”. So, while repeatedly inveighing against the corruption of government-funded science, he advocates what amounts to totalitarian government—by scientists.

December 2005 Permalink

Gardner, Martin. How Not to Test a Psychic. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989. ISBN 0-87975-512-1.

September 2003 Permalink

Jacobsen, Annie. Phenomena. New York: Little, Brown, 2017. ISBN 978-0-316-34936-9.
At the end of World War II, it was clear that science and technology would be central to competition among nations in the postwar era. The development of nuclear weapons, German deployment of the first operational ballistic missile, and the introduction of jet propelled aircraft pointed the way to a technology-driven arms race, and both the U.S. and the Soviet Union scrambled to lay hands on the secret super-weapon programs of the defeated Nazi regime. On the U.S. side, the Alsos Mission not only sought information on German nuclear and missile programs, but also came across even more bizarre projects, such as those undertaken by Berlin's Ahnenerbe Institute, founded in 1935 by SS leader Heinrich Himmler. Investigating the institute's headquarters in a Berlin suburb, Samuel Goudsmit, chief scientist of Alsos, found what he described as “Remnants of weird Teutonic symbols and rites … a corner with a pit of ashes in which I found the skull of an infant.” What was going on? Had the Nazis attempted to weaponise black magic? And, to the ever-practical military mind, did it work?

In the years after the war, the intelligence community and military services in both the U.S. and Soviet Union would become involved in the realm of the paranormal, funding research and operational programs based upon purported psychic powers for which mainstream science had no explanation. Both superpowers were not only seeking super powers for their spies and soldiers, but also looking over their shoulders afraid the other would steal a jump on them in exploiting these supposed powers of mind. “We can't risk a ‘woo-woo gap’ with the adversary!”

Set aside for a moment (as did most of the agencies funding this research) the question of just how these mental powers were supposed to work. If they did, in fact, exist and if they could be harnessed and reliably employed, they would confer a tremendous strategic advantage on their possessor. Consider: psychic spies could project their consciousness out of body and penetrate the most secure military installations; telepaths could read the minds of diplomats during negotiations or perhaps even plant thoughts and influence their judgement; telekinesis might be able to disrupt the guidance systems of intercontinental missiles or space launchers; and psychic assassins could undetectably kill by stopping the hearts of their victims remotely by projecting malign mental energy in their direction.

All of this may seem absurd on its face, but work on all of these phenomena and more was funded, between 1952 and 1995, by agencies of the U.S. government including the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, the CIA, NSA, DIA, and ARPA/DARPA, expending tens of millions of dollars. Between 1978 and 1995 the Defense Department maintained an operational psychic espionage program under various names, using “remote viewing” to provide information on intelligence targets for clients including the Secret Service, Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Coast Guard.

What is remote viewing? Experiments in parapsychology laboratories usually employ a protocol called “outbounder-beacon”, where a researcher travels to a location selected randomly from a set of targets and observes the locale while a subject in the laboratory, usually isolated from sensory input which might provide clues, attempts to describe, either in words or by a drawing, what the outbounder is observing. At the conclusion of the experiment, the subject's description is compared with pictures of the targets by an independent judge (unaware of which was the outbounder's destination), who selects the one which is the closest match to the subject's description. If each experiment picked the outbounder's destination from a set of five targets, you'd expect from chance alone that in an ensemble of experiments the remote viewer's perception would match the actual target around 20% of the time. Experiments conducted in the 1970s at the Stanford Research Institute (and subsequently the target of intense criticism by skeptics) claimed in excess of 65% accuracy by talented remote viewers.

While outbounder-beacon experiments were used to train and test candidate remote viewers, operational military remote viewing as conducted by the Stargate Project (and under assorted other code names over the years), was quite different. Usually the procedure involved “coordinate remote viewing”. The viewer would simply be handed a slip of paper containing the latitude and longitude of the target and then, relaxing and clearing his or her mind, would attempt to describe what was there. In other sessions, the viewer might be handed a sealed envelope containing a satellite reconnaissance photograph. The results were sometimes stunning. In 1979, a KH-9 spy satellite photographed a huge building which had been constructed at Severodvinsk Naval Base in the Soviet arctic. Analysts thought the Soviets might be building their first aircraft carrier inside the secret facility. Joe McMoneagle, an Army warrant office and Vietnam veteran who was assigned to the Stargate Project as its first remote viewer, was given the target in the form of an envelope with the satellite photo sealed inside. Concentrating on the target, he noted “There's some kind of a ship. Some kind of a vessel. I'm getting a very, very strong impression of props [propellers]”. Then, “I'm seeing fins…. They look like shark fins.” He continued, “I'm seeing what looks like part of a submarine in this building.” The entire transcript was forty-seven pages long.

McMoneagle's report was passed on to the National Security Council, which dismissed it because it didn't make any sense for the Soviets to build a huge submarine in a building located one hundred metres from the water. McMoneagle had described a canal between the building and the shore, but the satellite imagery showed no such structure. Then, four months later, in January 1980, another KH-9 pass showed a large submarine at a dock at Severodvinsk, along with a canal between the mystery building and the sea, which had been constructed in the interim. This was the prototype of the new Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine, which was a complete surprise to Western analysts, but not Joe McMoneagle. This is what was referred to as an “eight martini result”. When McMoneagle retired in 1984, he was awarded the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service in the field of human intelligence.

A decade later the U.S. Customs Service approached the remote viewing unit for assistance in tracking down a rogue agent accused of taking bribes from cocaine smugglers in Florida. He had been on the run for two years, and appeared on the FBI's Most Wanted List. He was believed to be in Florida or somewhere in the Caribbean. Self-taught remote viewer Angela Dellafiora concentrated on the case and immediately said, “He's in Lowell, Wyoming.” Wyoming? There was no reason for him to be in such a place. Further, there was no town named Lowell in the state. Agents looked through an atlas and found there was, however, a Lovell, Wyoming. Dellafiora said, “Well, that's probably it.” Several weeks later, she was asked to work the case again. Her notes include, “If you don't get him now you'll lose him. He's moving from Lowell.” She added that he was “at or near a campground that had a large boulder at its entrance”, and that she “sensed an old Indian burial ground is located nearby.”. After being spotted by a park ranger, the fugitive was apprehended at a campground next to an Indian burial ground, about fifty miles from Lovell, Wyoming, where he had been a few weeks before. Martinis all around.

A total of 417 operational sessions were run in 1989 and 1990 for the counter-narcotics mission; 52% were judged as producing results of intelligence value while 47% were of no value. Still, what was produced was considered of sufficient value that the customers kept coming back.

Most of this work and its products were classified, in part to protect the program from ridicule by journalists and politicians. Those running the projects were afraid of being accused of dabbling in the occult, so they endorsed an Army doctrine that remote viewing, like any other military occupational specialty, was a normal human facility which could be taught to anybody with a suitable training process, and a curriculum was developed to introduce new people to the program. This was despite abundant evidence that the ability to remote view, if it exists at all, is a rare trait some people acquire at birth, and cannot be taught to randomly selected individuals any more than they can be trained to become musical composers or chess grand masters.

Under a similar shroud of secrecy, paranormal research for military applications appears to have been pursued in the Soviet Union and China. From time to time information would leak out into the open literature, such as the Soviet experiments with Ninel Kulagina. In China, H. S. Tsien (Qian Xuesen), a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States who, after being stripped of his security clearance and moving to mainland China in 1955, led the Chinese nuclear weapons and missile programs, became a vocal and powerful advocate of research into the paranormal which, in accordance with Chinese Communist doctrine, was called “Extraordinary Human Body Functioning” (EHBF), and linked to the concept of qi, an energy field which is one of the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. It is likely this work continues today in China.

The U.S. remote viewing program came to an end in June 1995, when the CIA ordered the Defense Intelligence Agency to shut down the Stargate project. Many documents relating to the project have since been declassified but, oddly for a program which many claimed produced no useful results, others remain secret to this day. The paranormal continues to appeal to some in the military. In 2014, the Office of Naval Research launched a four year project funded with US$ 3.85 million to investigate premonitions, intuition, and hunches—what the press release called “Spidey sense”. In the 1950s, during a conversation between physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychiatrist Carl Jung about psychic phenomena, Jung remarked, “As is only to be expected, every conceivable kind of attempt has been made to explain away these results, which seem to border on the miraculous and frankly impossible. But all such attempts come to grief on the facts, and the facts refuse so far to be argued out of existence.” A quarter century later in 1975, a CIA report concluded “A large body of reliable experimental evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that extrasensory perception does exist as a real phenomenon.”

To those who have had psychic experiences, there is no doubt of the reality of the phenomena. But research into them or, even more shockingly, attempts to apply them to practical ends, runs squarely into a paradigm of modern science which puts theory ahead of observation and experiment. A 1986 report by the U.S. Army said that its research had “succeeded in documenting general anomalies worthy of scientific interest,“ but that “in the absence of a confirmed paranormal theory…paranormality could be rejected a priori.” When the remote viewing program was cancelled in 1995, a review of its work stated that “a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory…[but] the laboratory studies do not provide evidence regarding the sources or origins of the phenomenon.” In other words, experimental results can be discarded if there isn't a theory upon which to hang them, and there is no general theory of paranormal phenomena. Heck, they could have asked me.

One wonders where many currently mature fields of science would be today had this standard been applied during their formative phases: rejecting experimental results due to lack of a theory to explain them. High-temperature superconductivity was discovered in 1986 and won the Nobel Prize in 1987, and still today there is no theory that explains how it works. Perhaps it is only because it is so easily demonstrated with a desktop experiment that it, too, has not been relegated to the realm of “fringe science”.

This book provides a comprehensive history of the postwar involvement of the military and intelligence communities with the paranormal, focusing on the United States. The author takes a neutral stance: both believers and skeptics are given their say. One notes a consistent tension between scientists who reject the phenomena because “it can't possibly work” and intelligence officers who couldn't care less about how it works as long as it is providing them useful results.

The author has conducted interviews with many of the principals still alive, and documented the programs with original sources, many obtained by her under the Freedom of Information Act. Extensive end notes and source citations are included. I wish I could be more confident in the accuracy of the text, however. Chapter 7 relates astronaut Edgar Mitchell's Apollo 14 mission to the Moon, during which he conducted, on his own initiative, some unauthorised ESP experiments. But most of the chapter is about the mission itself, and it is riddled with errors, all of which could be corrected with no more research than consulting Wikipedia pages about the mission and the Apollo program. When you read something you know about and discover much of it is wrong, you have to guard against what Michael Crichton called the Gell-Mann amnesia effect: turning the page and assuming what you read there, about which you have no personal knowledge, is to be trusted. When dealing with spooky topics and programs conducted in secret, one should be doubly cautious. The copy editing is only of fair quality, and the Kindle edition has no index (the print edition does have an index).

Napoléon Bonaparte said, “There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind.” The decades of secret paranormal research were an attempt to apply this statement literally, and provide a fascinating look inside a secret world where nothing was dismissed as absurd if it might provide an edge over the adversary. Almost nobody knew about this work at the time. One wonders what is going on today.

May 2017 Permalink

Kelleher, Colm A. and George Knapp. Hunt for the Skinwalker. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 1-4165-0521-0.
Memo to file: if you're one of those high-strung people prone to be rattled by the occasional bulletproof wolf, flying refrigerator, disappearing/reappearing interdimensional gateway, lumbering giant humanoid, dog-incinerating luminous orb, teleporting bull, and bloodlessly eviscerated cow, don't buy a ranch, even if it's a terrific bargain, whose very mention makes American Indians in the neighbourhood go “woo-woo” and slowly back away from you. That's what Terry Sherman (“Tom Gorman” in this book) and family did in 1994, walking into, if you believe their story, a seething nexus of the paranormal so weird and intense that Chris Carter could have saved a fortune by turning the “X-Files” into a reality show about their life. The Shermans found that living with things which don't just go bump in the night but also slaughter their prize livestock and working dogs so disturbing they jumped at the opportunity to unload the place in 1996, when the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), a private foundation investigating the paranormal funded by real estate tycoon and inflatable space station entrepreneur Robert Bigelow offered to buy them out in order to establish a systematic on-site investigation of the phenomena. (The NIDS Web site does not appear to have been updated since late 2004; I don't know if the organisation is still in existence or active.)

This book, co-authored by the biochemist who headed the field team investigating the phenomena and the television news reporter who covered the story, describes events on the ranch both before and during the scientific investigation. As is usual in such accounts, all the really weird stuff happened before the scientists arrived on the scene with their cameras, night vision scopes, radiation meters, spectrometers, magnetometers (why is always magnetometers, anyway?) and set up shop in their “command and control centre” (a.k.a. trailer—summoning to mind the VW bus “mobile command post” in The Lone Gunmen). Afterward, there was only the rare nocturnal light, mind-controlling black-on-black flying object, and transdimensional tunnel sighting (is an orange pulsating luminous orb which disgorges fierce four hundred pound monsters a “jackal lantern”?), none, of course, captured on film or video, nor registered on any other instrument.

This observation and investigation serves as the launch pad for eighty pages of speculation about causes, natural and supernatural, including the military, shape-shifting Navajo witches, extraterrestrials, invaders from other dimensions, hallucination-inducing shamanism, bigfoot, and a muddled epilogue which illustrates why biochemists and television newsmen should seek the advice of a physicist before writing about speculative concepts in modern physics. The conclusion is, unsurprisingly: “inconclusive.”

Suppose, for a moment, that all of this stuff really did happen, more or less as described. (Granted, that is a pretty big hypothetical, but then the family who first experienced the weirdness never seems to have sought publicity or profit from their experiences, and this book is the first commercial exploitation of the events, coming more than ten years after they began.) What could possibly be going on? Allow me to humbly suggest that the tongue-in-cheek hypothesis advanced in my 1997 paper Flying Saucers Explained, combined with some kind of recurring “branestorm” opening and closing interdimensional gates in the vicinity, might explain many of the otherwise enigmatic, seemingly unrelated, and nonsensical phenomena reported in this and other paranormal “hot spots”.

February 2006 Permalink

Mack, John E. Abduction. New York: Ballantine Books, [1994] 1995. ISBN 0-345-39300-7.
I started this book, as I recall, sometime around 1998, having picked it up to get a taste for the “original material” after reading C.D.B. Bryan's excellent Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, describing an MIT conference on the alien abduction phenomenon. I made it most of the way through Abduction on the first attempt, but ran out of patience and steam about 100 pages from the finish line while reading the material “recovered” from “experiencer” Carlos, which is the literary equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld with a custard pudding. A mercifully brief excerpt with Mack's interpolations in parentheses goes as follows (p. 355).
Their bodies go from being the little white creatures they are to light. But when they become light, they first become like cores of light, like molten light. The appearance (of the core of light) is one of solidity. They change colors and a haze is projected around the (interior core which is centralized; surrounding this core in an immediate environment is a denser, tighter) haze (than its outer peripheries). The eyes are the last to go (as one perceives the process of the creatures disappearing into the light), and then they just kind of disappear or are absorbed into this. … We are or exist through our flesh, and they are or exist through whatever it is they are.
Got that? If not, there is much, much more along these lines in the extended babblings of this and a dozen other abductees, developed during the author's therapy sessions with them. Now, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (Mack was killed in a traffic accident in 2004), and having won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of T.E. Lawrence in addition to his career as a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and founder of the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital, his credentials incline one to hear him out, however odd the message may seem to be.

One's mind, however, eventually summons up Thomas Jefferson's (possibly apocryphal) remark upon hearing of two Yale professors who investigated a meteor fall in Connecticut and pronounced it genuine, “Gentlemen, I would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from heaven.” Well, nobody's accusing Professor Mack of lying, but the leap from the oh-wow, New Age accounts elicited by hypnotic regression and presented here, to the conclusion that they are the result of a genuine phenomenon of some kind, possibly contact with “another plane of reality” is an awfully big one, and simply wading through the source material proved more than I could stomach on my first attempt. So, the book went back on the unfinished shelf, where it continued to glare at me balefully until a few days ago when, looking for something to read, I exclaimed, “Hey, if I can make it through The Ghosts of Evolution, surely I can finish this one!” So I did, picking up from the bookmark I left where my first assault on the summit petered out.

In small enough doses, much of this material can be quite funny. This paperback edition includes two appendices added to address issues raised after the publication of the original hardcover. In the first of these (p. 390), Mack argues that the presence of a genuine phenomenon of some kind is strongly supported by “…the reports of the experiencers themselves. Although varied in some respects, these are so densely consistent as to defy conventional psychiatric explanations.” Then, a mere three pages later, we are informed:

The aliens themselves seem able to change or disguise their form, and, as noted, may appear initially to the abductees as various kinds of animals, or even as ordinary human beings, as in Peter's case. But their shape-shifting abilities extend to their vehicles and to the environments they present to the abductees, which include, in this sample, a string of motorcycles (Dave), a forest and conference room (Catherine), images of Jesus in white robes (Jerry), and a soaring cathedral-like structure with stained glass windows (Sheila). One young woman, not written about in this book, recalled at age seven seeing a fifteen-foot kangaroo in a park, which turned out to be a small spacecraft.
Now that's “densely consistent”! One is also struck by how insipidly banal are the messages the supposed aliens deliver, which usually amount to New Age cerebral suds like “All is one”, “Treat the Earth kindly”, and the rest of the stuff which appeals to those who are into these kinds of things in the first place. Occam's razor seems to glide much more smoothly over the supposition that we are dealing with seriously delusional people endowed with vivid imaginations than that these are “transformational” messages sent by superior beings to avert “planetary destruction” by “for-profit business corporations” (p. 365, Mack's words, not those of an abductee). Fifteen-foot kangaroo? Well, anyway, now this book can hop onto the dubious shelf in the basement and stop making me feel guilty! For a sceptical view of the abduction phenomenon, see Philip J. Klass's UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game.

June 2005 Permalink

MacKenzie, Andrew. Adventures in Time. London: Athlone Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-485-82001-0.
You are taking a pleasant walk when suddenly and without apparent reason an oppressive feeling of depression grips you. Everything seems unnaturally silent, and even the vegetation seems to have taken on different colours. You observe a house you've never noticed before when walking in the area and, a few minutes later, as you proceed, the depression lifts and everything seems as before. Later you mention what you've seen to a friend, who says she is absolutely certain nothing like the building you saw exists in the vicinity. Later, you retrace your path, and although you're sure you came the same way as before, you can find no trace of the house you so vividly remember having seen. Initially you just put it down as “just one of those things”, and not wishing to be deemed one of those people who “sees things”, make no mention of it. But still, it itches in the back of your mind, and one day, at the library, you look up historical records (which you've never consulted before) and discover that two hundred years ago on the site stood a house matching the one you saw, of which no trace remains today.

What's going on here? Well, nobody really has any idea, but experiences like that just described (loosely based upon the case described on pp. 35–38), although among the rarest of those phenomena we throw into the grab-bag called “paranormal”, have been reported sufficiently frequently to have been given a name: “retrocognition”. This small (143 page) book collects a number of accounts of apparent retrocognition from the obscure to the celebrated “adventure” of Misses Moberly and Jourdain at Versailles in 1901 (to which all of chapter 4 is devoted), and reports on detailed investigations of several cases, some of which were found to be simple misperception. All of these cases are based solely upon the reports of those who experienced them (in some cases with multiple observers confirming one another's perceptions) so, as with much of anecdotal psychical research, there is no way to rule out fraud, malice, mental illness, or false memories (the latter a concern because many of these reports concern events which occurred many years earlier). Still, the credentials, reputation, and social position of the people making these reports, and the straightforward and articulate way they describe what they experienced inclines one to take them seriously, at least as to what those making the reports perceived.

The author, at the time a Vice President of the Society for Psychical Research, considers several possible explanations, normal and paranormal, for these extraordinary experiences. He quotes a number of physicists on the enigma of time and causation in physics, but never really crosses the threshold from the usual domain of ESP, hauntings, and “psychic ether” (p. 126) to consider the even weirder possibility that these observers were accurately describing (within the well-known limits of eyewitness testimony) what they actually saw. My incompletely baked general theory of paranormal phenomena (GTPP) provides (once you accept its outlandish [to some] premises) a perfectly straightforward mechanism for retrocognition. Recall that in GTPP consciousness is thought of as a “browser” which perceives spacetime as unfolding through one path in the multiverse which embodies all possibilities. GTPP posits that consciousness has a very small (probably linked to Planck's constant in some way) ability to navigate along its path in spacetime: we call people who are good at this “lucky”. But let's look at the past half-space of what I call the “life cone”. The quantum potentialities of the future, branching in all their myriad ways, are frozen in the crystalline classical block universe as they are squeezed through the throat of the light cone—as Dyson said, the future is quantum mechanical; the past is classical. But this isn't “eternalism” in the sense that the future is forever fixed and that we have an illusion of free will; it's that the future contains all possibilities, and that we have a small ability to navigate into the future branch we wish to explore. Our past is, however, fixed once it's moved into our past light and life cones.

But who's to say that consciousness, this magnificent instrument of perception we use to browse spacetime events in our immediate vicinity and at the moment of the present of our life cone, cannot also, on rare occasions, triggered by who knows what, also browse events in our past, or even on other branches of the multiverse which our own individual past did not traverse? (The latter, perhaps, explaining vivid reports of observations which subsequent investigation conclusively determined never existed in the past—on our timeline. Friar Ockham would probably put this down to hallucination or, in the argot, “seein' things”, and I don't disagree with this interpretation; it's the historically confirmed cases that make you wonder.)

This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I got around to reading it from cover to cover. It is now out of print, and used copies are absurdly expensive; if you're interested in such matters, the present volume is interesting, but I cannot recommend it at the price at which it's currently selling unless you've experienced such a singular event yourself and seek validation that you're not the only one who “sees things” where your consciousness seems to browse the crystalline past or paths not taken by you in the multiverse.

July 2009 Permalink

Milton, Julie and Richard Wiseman. Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1997. ISBN 0-900458-74-7.

August 2003 Permalink

Radin, Dean. Entangled Minds. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2006. ISBN 1-4165-1677-8.
If you're looking to read just one book about parapsychology, written from the standpoint of a researcher who judges the accumulated evidence from laboratory investigations overwhelmingly persuasive, this is your book. (The closest runner-up, in my estimation, is the same author's The Conscious Universe from 1997.) The evidence for a broad variety of paranormal (or psi) phenomena is presented, much of it from laboratory studies from the 1990s and the present decade, including functional MRI imaging of the brain during psi experiments and the presentiment experiments of Radin and Dick Bierman. The history of parapsychology research is sketched in chapter 4, but the bulk of the text is devoted to recent, well-controlled laboratory work. Anecdotal psi phenomena are mentioned only in passing, and other paranormal mainstays such as UFOs, poltergeists, Bigfoot, and the like are not discussed at all.

For each topic, the author presents a meta-analysis of unimpeached published experimental results, controlling for quality of experimental design and estimating the maximum impact of the “file drawer effect”, calculating how many unpublished experiments with chance results would have to exist to reduce the probability of the reported results to the chance expectation. All of the effects reported are very small, but a meta-meta analysis across all the 1019 experiments studied yields odds against the results being due to chance of 1.3×10104 to 1.

Radin draws attention to the similarities between psi phenomena, where events separated in space and time appear to have a connection which can't be explained by known means of communication, and the entanglement of particles resulting in correlations measured at spacelike separated intervals in quantum mechanics, and speculates that there may be a kind of macroscopic form of entanglement in which the mind is able to perceive information in a shared consciousness field (for lack of a better term) as well as through the senses. The evidence for such a field from the Global Consciousness Project (to which I have contributed software and host two nodes) is presented in chapter 11. Forty pages of endnotes provide extensive source citations and technical details. On several occasions I thought the author was heading in the direction of the suggestion I make in my Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena, but he always veered away from it. Perhaps the full implications of the multiverse are weirder than those of psi!

There are a few goofs. On p. 215, a quote from Richard Feynman is dated from 1990, while Feynman died in 1988. Actually, the quote is from Feynman's 1985 book QED, which was reprinted in 1990. The discussion of the Quantum Zeno Effect on p. 259 states that “the act of rapidly observing a quantum system forces that system to remain in its wavelike, indeterminate state, rather than to collapse into a particular, determined state.” This is precisely backwards—rapidly repeated observations cause the system's state to repeatedly collapse, preventing its evolution. Consequently, this effect is also called the “quantum watched pot” effect, after the aphorism “a watched pot never boils”. On the other side of the balance, the discussion of Bell's theorem on pp. 227–231 is one of the clearest expositions for layman I have ever read.

I try to avoid the “Washington read”: picking up a book and immediately checking if my name appears in the index, but in the interest of candour since I am commending this book to your attention, I should note that it does here—I am mentioned on p. 195. If you'd like to experiment with this spooky stuff yourself, try Fourmilab's online RetroPsychoKinesis experiments, which celebrated their tenth anniversary on the Web in January of 2007 and to date have recorded 256,584 experiments performed by 24,862 volunteer subjects.

August 2007 Permalink

Ronson, Jon. The Men Who Stare at Goats. London: Picador, 2004. ISBN 0-330-37548-2.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. If you take everything at face value, you're asked to believe that U.S. Army Intelligence harbours a New Age pentacle in the Pentagon cabal bent on transforming Special Forces soldiers into “warrior monks” who can walk through walls, become invisible, and kill goats (and presumably the enemy, even if they are not goats) just by staring at them. These wannabe paranormal super-soldiers are responsible for the cruel and inhuman torture of prisoners in Iraq by playing the Barney the Purple Dinosaur song and all-girl Fleetwood Mac covers around the clock, and are implicated in the Waco massacre, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the Heaven's Gate suicides, and have “re-activated” Uri Geller in the War on Terror.

Now, stipulating that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron, this still seems altogether too zany to be entirely credible. Lack of imagination is another well-known military characteristic, and all of this seems to be so far outside the box that it's in another universe entirely, say one summoned up by a writer predisposed to anti-American conspiracy theories, endowed with an over-active imagination, who's spent way too much time watching X-Files reruns. Anyway, that's what one would like to believe, since it's rather disturbing to contemplate living in a world in which the last remaining superpower is so disconnected from reality that its Army believes it can field soldiers with…super powers. But, as much as I'd like to dismiss this story as fantasy, I cannot entirely do so. Here's my problem: one of the central figures in the narrative is a certain Colonel John Alexander. Now I happen to know from independent and direct personal contacts that Colonel Alexander is a real person, that he is substantially as described in the book, and is involved in things every bit as weird as those with which he is associated here. So maybe all the rest is made up, but the one data point I can confirm checks out. Maybe it's time to start equipping our evil mutant attack goat legions with Ray-Ban shades! For an earlier, better sourced look at the Pentagon's first foray into psychic spying, see Jim Schnabel's 1997 Remote Viewers.

A U.S edition is now available, but presently only in hardcover; a U.S. paperback edition is scheduled for April 2006.

September 2005 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. Mental Radio. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, [1930, 1962] 2001. ISBN 1-57174-235-2.
Upton Sinclair, self-described (p. 8) “Socialist ‘muckraker’” is best known for his novels such as The Jungle (which put a generation off eating sausage), Oil!, and The Moneychangers, and his social activism. His 1934 run for Governor of California was supported by young firebrand Robert A. Heinlein, whose 1938-1939 “lost first novel” For Us, The Living (February 2004) was in large part a polemic for Sinclair's “Social Credit” platform.

Here, however, the focus is on the human mind, in particular the remarkable experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance performed in the late 1920s with his wife, Mary Craig Sinclair. The experiments consisted of attempts to mentally transmit or perceive the content of previously drawn images. Some experiments were done with the “sender” and “receiver” separated by more than 40 kilometres, while others involved Sinclair drawing images in a one room with the door closed, while his wife attempted to receive them in a different room. Many of the results are simply astonishing, so much so that given the informal conditions of the testing, many sceptics (especially present-day CSICOPs who argue that any form of cheating or sensory information transfer, whether deliberate or subconscious, which cannot be definitively excluded must be assumed to have occurred), will immediately discard them as flawed. But the Sinclair experiments took place just as formal research in parapsychology was getting underway—J.B. Rhine's Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University was not founded until 1935—five years after the publication of Mental Radio, with the support of William McDougall, chairman of the Duke psychology department who, in 1930, himself performed experiments with Mary Craig Sinclair and wrote the introduction to the present volume.

This book is a reprint of the 1962 edition, which includes a retrospective foreword by Upton Sinclair, the analysis of the Sinclair experiments by Walter Franklin Prince published in the Bulletin of the Boston Society for Psychic Research in 1932, and a preface by Albert Einstein.

January 2005 Permalink

Vallee, Jacques. Forbidden Science. Vol. 2. San Francisco: Documatica Research, 2008. ISBN 978-0-615-24974-2.
This, the second volume of Jacques Vallee's journals, chronicles the years from 1970 through 1979. (I read the first volume, covering 1957–1969, before I began this list.) Early in the narrative (p. 153), Vallee becomes a U.S. citizen, but although surrendering his French passport, he never gives up his Gallic rationalism and scepticism, both of which serve him well in the increasingly weird Northern California scene in the Seventies. It was in those locust years that the seeds for the personal computing and Internet revolutions matured, and Vallee was at the nexus of this technological ferment, working on databases, Doug Englebart's Augmentation project, and later systems for conferencing and collaborative work across networks. By the end of the decade he, like many in Silicon Valley of the epoch, has become an entrepreneur, running a company based upon the conferencing technology he developed. (One amusing anecdote which indicates how far we've come since the 70s in mindset is when he pitches his conferencing system to General Electric who, at the time, had the largest commercial data network to support their timesharing service. They said they were afraid to implement anything which looked too much like a messaging system for fear of running afoul of the Post Office.)

If this were purely a personal narrative of the formative years of the Internet and personal computing, it would be a valuable book—I was there, then, and Vallee gets it absolutely right. A journal is, in many ways, better than a history because you experience the groping for solutions amidst confusion and ignorance which is the stuff of real life, not the narrative of an historian who knows how it all came out. But in addition to being a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and (later) venture capitalist, Vallee is also one of the preeminent researchers into the UFO and related paranormal phenomena (the character Claude Lacombe, played by François Truffaut in Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was based upon Vallee). As the 1970s progress, the author becomes increasingly convinced that the UFO phenomenon cannot be explained by extraterrestrials and spaceships, and that it is rooted in the same stratum of the human mind and the universe we inhabit which has given rise to folklore about little people and various occult and esoteric traditions. Later in the decade, he begins to suspect that at least some UFO activity is the work of deliberate manipulators bent on creating an irrational, anti-science worldview in the general populace, a hypothesis expounded in his 1979 book, Messengers of Deception, which remains controversial three decades after its publication.

The Bay Area in the Seventies was a kind of cosmic vortex of the weird, and along with Vallee we encounter many of the prominent figures of the time, including Uri Geller (who Vallee immediately dismisses as a charlatan), Doug Engelbart, J. Allen Hynek, Anton LaVey, Russell Targ, Hal Puthoff, Ingo Swann, Ira Einhorn, Tim Leary, Tom Bearden, Jack Sarfatti, Melvin Belli, and many more. Always on a relentlessly rational even keel, he observes with dismay as many of his colleagues disappear into drugs, cults, gullibility, pseudoscience, and fads as that dark decade takes its toll. In May 1979 he feels himself to be at “the end of an age that defied all conventions but failed miserably to set new standards” (p. 463). While this is certainly spot on in the social and cultural context in which he meant it, it is ironic that so many of the standards upon which the subsequent explosion of computer and networking technology are based were created in those years by engineers patiently toiling away in Silicon Valley amidst all the madness.

An introduction and retrospective at the end puts the work into perspective from the present day, and 25 pages of end notes expand upon items in the journals which may be obscure at this remove and provide source citations for events and works mentioned. You might wonder what possesses somebody to read more than five hundred pages of journal entries by somebody else which date from thirty to forty years ago. Well, I took the time, and I'm glad I did: it perfectly recreated the sense of the times and of the intellectual and technological challenges of the age. Trust me: if you're too young to remember the Seventies, it's far better to experience those years here than to have actually lived through them.

October 2009 Permalink