Remote Viewing (RV) refers to the attempt to gather information about a distant or unseen target using paranormal means or extra-sensory perception. Typically a remote viewer is expected to give information about an object that is hidden from physical view and separated at some distance. The term was introduced by parapsychologists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff in 1974.
Remote viewing was popularized in the 1990s, following the declassification of documents related to the Stargate Project, a 20 million dollar research program sponsored by the U.S. Federal Government to determine any potential military application of psychic phenomena. The program was terminated in 1995, citing a lack of documented evidence that the program had any value to the intelligence community.
One of the early experiments was lauded by proponents as having improved the methodology of remote viewing testing and as raising future experimental standards, but also criticized as leaking information to the participants by inadvertently leaving clues. Some later experiments had negative results when these clues were eliminated.
Remote viewing, like other forms of extra-sensory perception, is generally considered as pseudoscience due to the need to overcome fundamental ideas about causality, time, and other principles currently held by the scientific community, and the lack of a positive theory that explains the outcomes.
In 1972 Stanford Research Institute (SRI) laser physicist Hal Puthoff tested remote viewer Ingo Swann, and the experiment led to a visit from two employees of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. The result was a $50,000 CIA-sponsored project. (Schnabel 1997, Puthoff 1996, Kress 1977/1999, Smith 2005) As research continued, the SRI team published papers in Nature (Targ & Puthoff, 1974), in Proceedings of the IEEE (Puthoff & Targ, 1976), and in the proceedings of a symposium on consciousness for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Puthoff, et al, 1981).
The initial CIA-funded project was later renewed and expanded. A number of CIA officials including John McMahon, then the head of the Office of Technical Service and later the Agency's deputy director, became strong supporters of the program. By the mid 1970s, facing the post-Watergate revelations of its "skeletons," and after internal criticism of the program, the CIA dropped sponsorship of the SRI research effort.
Sponsorship was picked up by the Air Force, led by analyst Dale E. Graff of the Foreign Technology Division. In 1979, the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, which had been providing some taskings to the SRI investigators, was ordered to develop its own program by the Army's chief intelligence officer, Gen. Ed Thompson. CIA operations officers, working from McMahon's office and other offices, also continued to provide taskings to SRI's subjects. (Schnabel 1997, Smith 2005, Atwater 2001)
The program had three parts (Mumford, et al, 1995). First was the evaluation of psi research performed by the U.S.S.R. and China, which appears to have been better-funded and better-supported than the government research in the U.S. (Schnabel 1997)
In the second part of the program, SRI managed its own stable of "natural" psychics both for research purposes and to make them available for tasking by a variety of US intelligence agencies. The most famous results from these years were Pat Price's description of a big crane at a Soviet nuclear research facility (Kress 1977/199, Targ 1996), a description of a new class of Soviet strategic submarine by a team of three viewers including Joseph McMoneagle,(Smith 2005, McMoneagle 2002) and Rosemary Smith's location of a downed Soviet bomber in Africa (which former President Carter later referred to in speeches). By the early 1980s numerous offices throughout the intelligence community were providing taskings to SRI's psychics. (Schnabel 1997, Smith 2005)
The third branch of the program was a research project intended to find out if ESP – now called "remote viewing" – could be made accurate and reliable. The intelligence community offices that tasked the group seemed to believe that the phenomenon was real. But in the view of these taskers, a remote viewer could be "on" one day and "off" the next, a fact that made it hard for the technique to be officially accepted. Through SRI, individuals were studied for years in a search for physical (e.g., brain-wave) correlates that might reveal when they were "on- or off-target".
At SRI, Ingo Swann and Hal Puthoff also developed a remote-viewing training program meant to enable any individual with a suitable background to produce useful data. As part of this project, a number of military officers and civilians were trained and formed a military remote viewing unit, based at Fort Meade, Maryland. (Schnabel 1997, Smith 2005, McMoneagle 2002)
A struggle between unbelievers and believers in the sponsor organizations provided much of the program's actual drama. Each side seems to have been utterly convinced that the other's views were wrong. (Schnabel 1997, Smith 2005)
In the early 1990s the Military Intelligence Board, chaired by DIA chief Soyster, appointed an Army Colonel, William Johnson, to manage the remote viewing unit and evaluate its objective usefulness. According to an account by former SRI-trained remote-viewer, Paul Smith (2005), Johnson spent several months running the remote viewing unit against military and DEA targets, and ended up a believer, not only in remote viewing's validity as a phenomenon but in its usefulness as an intelligence tool.
After the Democrats lost control of the Senate in late 1994, funding declined and the program went into decline. The project was transferred out of DIA to the CIA in 1995, with the promise that it would be evaluated there, but most participants in the program believed that it would be terminated. (Schnabel 1997, Smith 2005, Mumford, et al 1995)
In 1995, the CIA hired the American Institutes for Research, a perennial intelligence-industry contractor, to perform a retrospective evaluation of the results generated by the remote-viewing program, the Stargate Project. Most of the program's results were not seen by the evaluators, with the report focusing on the most recent experiments, and only from government-sponsored research. One of the reviewers was Ray Hyman, a long-time critic of psi research, and another was Jessica Utts who, as a supporter of psi, was chosen to put forward the pro-psi argument. Utts maintained that there had been a statistically significant positive effect, with some subjects scoring 5%-15% above chance. Hyman argued that Utts' conclusion that ESP had been proven to exist, "is premature, to say the least." Hyman said the findings had yet to be replicated independently, and that more investigation would be necessary to "legitimately claim the existence of paranormal functioning." Based upon the study, which recommended a higher level of critical research and tighter controls, the CIA terminated the 20 million dollar project in 1995. Time magazine stated in 1995 three full-time psychics were still working on a $500,000-a-year budget out of Fort Meade, Maryland, which would soon be shut down.
According to the official AIR report there was insufficient evidence of the utility of the intelligence data produced. David Goslin, of the American Institute for Research said, "There's no documented evidence it had any value to the intelligence community."
Following Utts' emphasis on replication and Hyman's challenge on interlaboratory consistency in the American Institutes for Research report, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab conducted several hundred trials to see if they could replicate the SAIC and SRI experiments. They created an analytical judgment methodology to replace the human judging process that was criticized in past experiments. They felt the results of the experiments were consistent with the SRI experiments.
Marks has also suggested that the participants of remote viewing experiments are influenced by subjective validation, a process through which correspondences are perceived between stimuli that are in fact associated purely randomly. Details and transcripts of the SRI remote viewing experiments themselves were found to be edited and even unattainable.
Others have said that the information from remote viewing sessions can be vague and include a lot of erroneous data. A 1995 report for the American Institute for Research contains a section of anonymous reports describing how remote viewing was tentatively used in a number of operational situations. The three reports conclude that the data was too vague to be of any use, and in the report that offers the most positive results the writer notes that the viewers "had some knowledge of the target organizations and their operations but not the background of the particular tasking at hand."
According to James Randi, controlled tests by several other researchers, eliminating several sources of cuing and extraneous evidence present in the original tests, produced negative results. Students were also able to solve Puthoff and Targ's locations from the clues that had inadvertently been included in the transcripts.
Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) has said that he agrees remote viewing has been proven using the normal standards of science, but that the bar of evidence needs to be much higher for outlandish claims that will revolutionise the world, and thus he remains unconvinced:
Wiseman also pointed at several problems with one of the early experiments at SAIC, like information leakage. However, he indicated the importance of its process-oriented approach and of its refining of remote viewing methodology, which meant that researchers replicating their work could avoid these problems. Wiseman later insisted there were multiple opportunities for participants on that experiment to be influenced by inadverted cues and that these cues can influence the results when they appear.
Psychologist Ray Hyman says that, even if the results were reproduced under specified conditions, they would still not be a conclusive demonstration of the existence of physic functioning. He blames this on the reliance on a negative outcome -- the claims on ESP are based on the results of experiments not being explained by normal means. He says that the experiments lack a positive theory that guides as to what to control on them and what to ignore, and that "Parapsychologists have not come close to (having a positive theory) as yet". Ray Himan also says that the amount and quality of the experiments on RV are way too low to convince the scientific community to "abandon its fundamental ideas about causality, time, and other principles", due to its findings still not having been replicated successfully under careful scrutiny.
Science writer Martin Gardner, and others, describe the topic of remote viewing as pseudoscience. Gardner says that founding researcher Harold Puthoff was an active Scientologist prior to his work at Stanford University, and that this influenced his research at SRI. In 1970, the Church of Scientology published a notarized letter that had been written by Puthoff while he was conducting research on remote viewing at Stanford. The letter read, in part: "Although critics viewing the system [Scientology] from the outside may form the impression that Scientology is just another of many quasi-educational quasi-religious 'schemes,' it is in fact a highly sophistical and highly technological system more characteristic of modern corporate planning and applied technology." Among some of the ideas that Puthoff supported regarding remote viewing was the claim that two followers of Madame Blavatsky, founder of theosophy, were able to remote-view the inner structure of atoms.
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