[Paleopsych] Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: The Pentagon's psychic friends network

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The Pentagon's psychic friends network
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

     The Men Who Stare at Goats
     By Jon Ronson
     Picador, 2004
     278 pages; $24

     By Michael Shermer
     May/June 2005  pp. 60-61 (vol. 61, no. 03)

     Allison was an attractive Oregonian brunette in a new ageish way,
     before the new age bloomed in the 1980s. She wore all-natural fibers,
     flowers in her hair, and nothing on her feet. But what most intrigued
     me in our year of distance dating were Allison's spiritual gifts. I
     knew she could see through me metaphorically, but Allison also saw
     things that she said were not allegorical: body auras, energy chakras,
     spiritual entities, and light beings. One night she closed the door
     and turned off the lights in my bathroom and told me to stare into the
     mirror until my aura appeared. During a drive one evening she pointed
     out spiritual beings dotting the landscape. I tried to see the world
     as Allison did, but I couldn't. I was a skeptic, and she was a

     This was the age of paranormal proliferation. While a graduate student
     in experimental psychology, I saw on television the Israeli psychic
     Uri Geller bend cutlery and reproduce drawings using, so he said,
     psychic powers alone. Since a number of experimental psychologists had
     tested Geller and declared him genuine, I began to think that there
     might be something to it, even if I couldn't personally get with the
     paranormal program. But then one night I saw the magician James "The
     Amazing" Randi on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, replicating with magic
     everything Geller did. Randi bent spoons, duplicated drawings,
     levitated tables, and even performed a psychic surgery. When asked
     about Geller's ability to pass the tests of professional scientists,
     Randi explained that scientists are not trained to detect trickery and
     intentional deception, the very art of magic. Randi's right. I vividly
     recall a seminar that Allison and I attended in which a psychic healer
     shoved a 10-inch sail needle through his arm with no apparent pain and
     only a drop of blood. Years later, and to my chagrin, Randi performed
     the same feat with the simplest of magic.

     Randi confirmed my skeptical intuitions about all this paranormal
     piffle, but I always assumed that it was the province of the cultural
     fringes. Then, in 1995, the story broke that for the previous 25 years
     the U.S. Army had invested $20 million in a highly secret psychic spy
     program called Star Gate (also Grill Flame and Scanate), a Cold War
     project intended to close the "psi gap" (the psychic equivalent of the
     missile gap) between the United States and Soviet Union. The Soviets
     were training psychic spies, so we would too. The Men Who Stare at
     Goats, by British investigative journalist Jon Ronson, is the story of
     this program, how it started, the bizarre twists and turns it took,
     and how its legacy carries on today. (Ronson's previous book, Them:
     Adventures with Extremists, explored the paranoid world of
     cult-mongers and conspiracy theorists.)

     In a highly readable narrative style, Ronson takes readers on a
     Looking Glass-like tour of what U.S. Psychological Operations (PsyOps)
     forces were researching: invisibility, levitation, telekinesis,
     walking through walls, and even killing goats just by staring at them
     (the ultimate goal was killing enemy soldiers telepathically). In one
     project, psychic spies attempted to use "remote viewing" to identify
     the location of missile silos, submarines, POWs, and MIAs from a small
     room in a run-down Maryland building. If these skills could be honed
     and combined, perhaps military officials could zap remotely viewed
     enemy missiles in their silos, or so the thinking went.

     Initially, the Star Gate story received broad media attention
     (including a spot on ABC's Nightline) and made a few of the psychic
     spies, such as Ed Dames and Joe McMoneagle, minor celebrities. As
     regular guests on Art Bell's pro-paranormal radio talk show, the
     former spies spun tales that, had they not been documented elsewhere,
     would have seemed like the ramblings of paranoid cultists. (There is
     even a connection between Dames, Bell, and the Heaven's Gate cult mass
     suicide in 1997, in which 39 UFO devotees took a permanent "trip" to
     the mother ship they believed was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.)

     But Ronson has brought new depth to the account by carefully tracking
     down leads, revealing connections, and uncovering previously
     undisclosed stories. For example, Ronson convincingly connects some of
     the bizarre torture techniques used on prisoners at Cuba's Guantanamo
     Bay and at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison with similar techniques employed
     during the FBI siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. FBI
     agents blasted the Branch Davidians all night with such obnoxious
     sounds as screaming rabbits, crying seagulls, dentist drills, and
     Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking." The U.S. military
     employed the same technique on Iraqi prisoners of war, instead using
     the theme song from the PBS kids series Barney and Friends--a tune
     many parents concur does become torturous with repetition.

     One of Ronson's sources, none other than Geller (of bent-spoon fame),
     led him to Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III, who directed the psychic
     spy network from his office in Arlington, Virginia. Stubblebine
     thought that with enough practice he could learn to walk through
     walls, a belief encouraged by Lt. Col. Jim Channon, a Vietnam vet
     whose post-war experiences at such new age meccas as the Esalen
     Institute in Big Sur, California, led him to found the "first earth
     battalion" of "warrior monks" and "Jedi knights." These warriors,
     according to Channon, would transform the nature of war by entering
     hostile lands with "sparkly eyes," marching to the mantra of "Om," and
     presenting the enemy with "automatic hugs." Disillusioned by the ugly
     carnage of modern war, Channon envisioned a battalion armory of
     machines that would produce "discordant sounds" (Nancy and Barney?)
     and "psycho-electric" guns that would shoot "positive energy" at enemy

     Although Ronson expresses skepticism throughout his narrative, he
     avoids the ontological question of whether any of these claims have
     any basis in reality. That is, can anyone levitate, turn invisible,
     walk through walls, or remotely view a hidden object? Inquiring minds
     (scientists) want to know. The answer is an unequivocal no. Under
     controlled conditions, remote viewers have never succeeded in finding
     a hidden target with greater accuracy than random guessing. The
     occasional successes you hear about are due either to chance or to
     suspect experiment conditions, like when the person who subjectively
     assesses whether the remote viewer's narrative description seems to
     match the target already knows the target location and its
     characteristics. When both the experimenter and the remote viewer are
     blinded to the target, all psychic powers vanish.

     Herein lies an important lesson that I have learned in many years of
     paranormal investigations and that Ronson gleaned in researching his
     illuminating book: What people remember rarely corresponds to what
     actually happened. Case in point: A man named Guy Savelli told Ronson
     that he had seen soldiers kill goats by staring at them, and that he
     himself had also done so. But as the story unfolds we discover that
     Savelli is recalling, years later, what he remembers about a
     particular "experiment" with 30 numbered goats. Savelli randomly chose
     goat number 16 and gave it his best death stare. But he couldn't
     concentrate that day, so he quit the experiment, only to be told later
     that goat number 17 had died. End of story. No autopsy or explanation
     of the cause of death. No information about how much time had elapsed;
     the conditions, like temperature, of the room into which the 30 goats
     had been placed; how long they had been there, and so forth. Since
     Ronson was skeptical, Savelli triumphantly produced a videotape of
     another experiment where someone else supposedly stopped the heart of
     a goat. But the tape showed only a goat whose heart rate dropped from
     65 to 55 beats per minute.

     That was the extent of the empirical evidence of goat killing, and as
     someone who has spent decades in the same fruitless pursuit of phantom
     goats, I conclude that the evidence for the paranormal in general
     doesn't get much better than this. They shoot horses, don't they?

     Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine
     (www.skeptic.com), a columnist for Scientific American, and the author
     of several books, including Why People Believe Weird Things (1997) and
     Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown (2005).

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