The Truth About Remote Viewing
The psychic technique of remote viewing is consistent with simple, well known magic tricks.
by Brian Dunning
May 11, 2007
Also available in Arabic
Today we're going to sit in a quiet room and draw sketchy pictures of — well, of anything, really — and claim psychic powers, for we're demonstrating the amazing psychic ability known as "remote viewing."
Remote viewing was made popular beginning in the 1970's, when some in the US intelligence community grew concerned that the Soviets had better psychics than we did. $20 million was appropriated to test the skills of a group of psychics called remote viewers. Supposedly, you could ask them a question about some place, and they'd use psychic abilities to draw you a picture of whatever's going on there, and it was hoped that this would lead to useful intelligence. Project Stargate, and a few others like it, was canceled by the 1990's, due to a lack of reliable results. Proponents of Project Stargate say that the US government's investment in the project proves that it had merit. Critics point out that the funding was stopped, and say that if merit had been found, funding would have at least been continued, if not dramatically increased. We can be reasonably assured that the project did not move underground with renewed funding, since the participants have all long since gone public with full disclosure of what happened. Since none of them have turned up mysteriously disappeared, we can safely assume that the government is not too concerned about this supposedly "classified" information.
Click here for the video of Joe McMoneagle
on Put to the Test
The most famous remote viewer to emerge from these projects is a man named Joseph McMoneagle. Today he offers his remote viewing services on a consulting basis, and in 1994 he went on the television show "Put to the Test" to show just what he could do. There is a clip from the show on the Skeptoid.com website, and if you want, stop your iPod now, go and watch it, form your own opinion, and then come back to hear my comments. What you'll find is that the show's unabashed endorsement of his abilities contributes largely to the perception of his success, but if you really listen to the statements he makes, and look at the drawings he produces, you'll find little similarity to what he was supposed to identify. They took him to Houston, Texas and sent a target person to one of four chosen locations. McMoneagle's task was to draw what she saw, thus determining where she was. They edited the 15 minute session down to just a couple of minutes for the show, so you've got to figure that they probably left in only the most significant hits and edited out all of the misses.
The four locations were a life size treehouse in a giant tree, a tall metal waterslide at an amusement park, a dock along the river, and the Water Wall, a huge cement fountain structure. Here is what McMoneagle said:
- There's a river or something riverlike nearby, with manmade improvements. Houston is a famous river town, so this was a pretty good bet. It applies equally well to the waterslide and to the dock.
- There are perpendicular lines. I challenge anyone to find any location anywhere without perpendicular lines.
- She's standing on an incline. She was not standing on an incline, and there were no apparent inclines at any of the four locations. Remember, they edited it down to just the most impressive two minutes.
- She's looking up at it. This would apply best to the treehouse, the waterslide, or the Water Wall. There was really nothing to look up at at the dock.
- There's a pedestrian bridge nearby. Sounds like a close match for the treehouse or the walkways on the waterslide.
- There is a lot of metallic noise. Probably the big metal waterslide structure is the best match for this.
- There's something big and tall nearby that's not a building. This applies equally well to all four locations.
- There's a platform with a black stripe. Not a clear match for any of the locations.
That's it - those were the only statements of Joe's that they broadcast. Strangely, at no point did they ask McMoneagle to identify the location; they did not even ask him to choose from the four possibilities. Instead, they simply took him to the actual destination where the target person was, which turned out to be the dock, and then set about finding matches to Joe's statements. Suddenly, nearly all of Joe's statements made perfect sense! Certainly there's a river nearby. There was a traffic bridge in the distance: traffic, pedestrians, near, far, no big difference. Metallic noise and something big: there was a ship at the dock, but if you ask me what kind of noise a ship makes, metallic is not the word I'd use. And that platform with a black stripe? Could be a ship.
I argue that the target person could have been at any one of the four locations, and Joe's psychic predictions would have seemed equally impressive. Joe made numerous sketches, but the only two that they showed were a sketch of a squiggly river (the river at the dock is between straight cement seawalls) and a vague triangular shape, which they interpreted as similar to a crane on a barge when seen from a certain angle.
Bottom line: The only thing I found impressive about McMoneagle's demonstration was their editing and narration job to make it look like the most amazing and miraculous psychic feat in history. Maybe he failed this time because he was not in complete control of the test conditions, as he was in Project Stargate. Maybe the rest of time, McMoneagle is able to display spectacular unambiguous results. McMoneagle claims a decent hit rate, but not perfect. If I were a professional remote viewer, I too would claim a less-than-perfect success rate: High enough to sound impressive; but low enough to allow for potential failures in cases where protocols were imposed that I couldn't control.
I'm not a magician myself — it's really sad to even watch me try to shuffle a deck of cards — but I do know how a lot of the tricks are done. And I can assure you (more importantly, any professional magician can assure you) that the abilities claimed by remote viewers are well within the magician's bag of parlor tricks. This doesn't prove that remote viewers are just putting us on with simple tricks, but their claims and their results are consistent with that. Which of these two possible explanations is most likely true: That remote viewers are using well-proven techniques demonstrated by professional and amateur magicians every day; or that they are accomplishing a feat of true paranormal abilities, which has never been demonstrated under controlled conditions, cannot be duplicated by anyone else, and has no proposed mechanism by which it might be possible?
Now I'll be the devil's advocate, and give the reply that most believers in remote viewing are probably thinking right now: That my characterization is untrue, and that these feats of knowing the unknowable are performed under controlled conditions, and that magicians cannot duplicate these feats. I'll answer that now, and while I do, keep one thing in mind: that the "controlled conditions" under which Joe McMoneagle performed at Stargate were, according to him, defined and set up by Joe McMoneagle himself — literally putting the fox in charge of the chickens.
In 1979, Washington University in Missouri received a $500,000 grant from James McDonnell, of McDonnell-Douglas, to investigate psychic abilities. Noted professional magician James Randi secretly recruited two teenagers, Steve Shaw and Mike Edwards, and gave them a basic training in stage magic and the art of deception. [Correction: I am informed by a participant that Randi did not train them; all the techniques they used were of their own invention.] To flatten the playing field, Randi also contacted the McDonnell researchers and suggested a set of protocols that would detect any such trickery as that with which he instructed his so-called Alpha Kids. He also suggested that they have an experienced magician present during their experiments to look for such techniques. Neither suggestion was followed. As a result, out of 300 applicants claiming to have psychic abilities, only Shaw and Edwards passed the preliminary examinations and were accepted into the program. For the next four years, Shaw and Edwards consistently amazed the researchers, and the parapsychology community at large, with their psychic abilities. Like McMoneagle, Shaw and Edwards were often allowed some amount of control over the conditions. Randi tried to confess the hoax by performing all the same tricks and explaining exactly how Shaw and Edwards were doing it, but the researchers didn't believe him. Randi finally laid it all out in Discover magazine, the research came to a stop, and there were widespread shockwaves throughout the parapsychology community.
After the conclusion of Project Alpha, Randi said:
If Project Alpha resulted in parapsychologists awakening to the fact that they are able to be deceived, either by subjects or themselves, as a result of their convictions and their lack of expertise in the arts of deception, then it has served its purpose.
The lack of expertise in the arts of deception. Unfortunately, nearly all of us outside the world of professional magic lack such expertise. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from Project Alpha is that magicians, even relative novices like Shaw and Edwards, can fool very serious researchers under controlled conditions, even when those scientists are serious about finding flaws in the methodology and looking for hoaxes, and even after having been briefed by Randi himself on what to look for. It is not hard to reach the corollary conclusion: That non-investigative, non-scientific, non-critical minds, like Joe McMoneagle's audiences and the people he worked with in the CIA, could also be duped by similar skills, and be firmly convinced of their reality. You want remote viewing? Steve Shaw, who now performs under the stage name Banachek, can read the ID numbers off a card in your pocket, and he can do it on stage every time, without any mistakes, without any outside assistance, no cameras, microphones, or other trickery involved.
When you see something that seems impossible, approach it skeptically. Before you accept that it's something outside of our world, first check to be certain that it's not already inside our world. The tricks used by remote viewers and the magicians who emulate them are definitely inside our natural, fascinating, amazing world.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Truth About Remote Viewing." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 May 2007. Web.
21 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4044>
References & Further Reading
Fairley, John, Welfare, Simon, Clarke Arthur C. Arthur C. Clarke's world of strange powers, Volume 1. New York: Putnam, 1984. 97.
Gardner, M. "Claiborne Pell: The Senator From Outer Space." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Apr. 1996, Volume 2, Number 2: 15.
Hyman, Ray. "Evaluation of the Program on Anomalous Mental Phenomena." The Journal of Parapsychology. 11 Sep. 1995, Volume 59: p.321-335.
McMoneagle, Joseph. Remote Viewing Secrets:A Handbook. Hampton Roads Publishing: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2000.
Randi, James. "The Project Alpha Experiment: Part 1. The First Two Years." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jul. 1983, Volume 7.3: 24-33.
Shaw, Steven. "Interview with Banachek." BadPsychics. Webfusion Ltd., 8 Sep. 2004. Web. 15 Apr. 2007. <http://www.badpsychics.co.uk/thefraudfiles/modules/sections/index.php?op=viewarticle&artid=2>
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