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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Reading List: Phenomena

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.

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