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.
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
web site, 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
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,