'Psychic Spying' Research Produces Credible Evidence

Secret government experiments on "psychic spying" have produced the most credible evidence to date that humans have paranormal abilities, according to two academic experts who recently reviewed previously classified U.S. government research. The U.S. government research program has produced statistically significant results, the experts agree, but they disagree about how to interpret those results. "At this stage, using the standards applied to any other area of science, the case for psychic functioning has been scientifically proven," says Jessica Utts, a statistics professor at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in evaluating parapsychology research. "It would be wasteful of valuable resources to continue to look for proof. Resources should be directed to the pertinent question about how this ability works." Ray Hyman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene and a noted debunker of psychic phenomena, disagrees. "I admit that the latest findings should make Professor Utts and some parapsychologists optimistic," he says. "The case for psychic functioning seems better than it ever has been. Inexplicable statistical departures from chance, however, are a far cry from compelling evidence for anomalous cognition." Utts and Hyman evaluated a 20-year, $20 million basic research program funded by various U.S. intelligence agencies. They also reviewed published parapsychology research from other laboratories around the world. They conducted the review this fall as part of a "blue-ribbon panel" assembled by a private research firm, American Institutes for Research, in Washington, D.C. The firm was contracted by the CIA, which has been asked to evaluate the program -- code-named "Stargate" -- by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The main psychic ability tested in the research program is called "remote viewing," which describes a kind of extrasensory perception in which individuals can visualize hidden or distant images. In a typical experiment, a remote viewer is asked to visualize a place, location or object. One kind of experiment used a "sender," a person who traveled to a site within a 100-mile range of the laboratory. A particularly talented viewer accurately drew windmills when the sender was at the Altamont Pass windmill farm and a footbridge across a marsh when the sender went to a San Francisco Bay Area wildlife refuge. More often, remote-viewing experiments did not involve senders. A computer would randomly select National Geographic pictures for a viewer to draw. The target picture and four decoy pictures would be ranked by a judge unfamiliar with the computer pick; a better-than-chance score indicated paranormal ability. According to Utts' report, the government-sponsored research program in psychic functioning dates back to case-study demonstrations in the early 1970s at the Stanford Research Institute -- now called SRI International -- in Menlo Park, Calif. The program was initiated by the CIA in response to concerns about a "psychic gap" with the Soviets, a perception among some U.S. intelligence agencies that the Soviet Union was far ahead of the United States in researching the use of psychic powers in military and intelligence matters. Although the CIA soon abandoned the research, judging it "unpromising" for spying, intelligence agencies affiliated with the Defense Department continued project funding. In 1990, the program moved to Science Applications International Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif. The experiments were conducted explicitly to determine the quality and reliability of psychic functioning, rather than to prove or disprove its existence. While funding sources and certain applications were classified, some of the research results have been recently published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at scientific meetings. In 1987-88, Utts also participated in the research project at SRI while on leave from UC Davis, and she has co-authored scientific papers in the field with the present director of the Science Applications Cognitive Sciences Laboratory. In their review of the psychic experiments at SRI and SAIC, as well as of the contemporary research from other laboratories, Utts and Hyman separated the research of the past 20 years into two distinct eras. Both academics found serious methodological problems in the first era of research, including no controlled experiments and selectively chosen research results. By the late 1980s, Utts and Hyman agree, research protocols had greatly improved. But the reviewers vary in their interpretation of the later research. Utts found the results were consistent with the small- to medium-sized effect that psychic functioning seems to generate in other laboratories. Remote viewing has been conceptually replicated across a number of laboratories, she says, helping to refute the idea of fraud, sloppy protocols or some methodological problem. In contrast, Hyman asserts that one of the biggest drawbacks to the scientific credibility of the government-funded research into remote viewing was its covert nature. Only two peer-reviewed papers were published until 1989. "From the scientific standpoint, the program was hampered by its secrecy," he says, "which kept the program from benefiting from the checks and balances that come from doing research in a public forum." Both Utts and Hyman agree more research is needed into psychic functioning. Hyman thinks the research should be designed to offer unequivocal proof; Utts believes future experiments should focus not on whether the phenomenon exists, but how it works. "A number of other patterns have been found, suggestive of how to conduct more productive experiments and applied psychic functioning," Utts says. "Recent experiments suggest that if there is a psychic sense, then it works much like our other five senses, by detecting change. Given that physicists are currently grappling with an understanding of time, it may be that a psychic sense exists that scans the future for major change, much as our eyes scan the environment for visual change or our ears allow us to respond to sudden changes in sound." Hyman remains unconvinced. "Where parapsychologists see consistency, I see inconsistency," he says. "Although I cannot point to any obvious flaws in the experiments, the experimental program is too recent and insufficiently evaluated to be sure that flaws and biases have been eliminated."

Media Resources

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533, ahfell@ucdavis.edu