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More on Wikimandering

Thanks to everyone who contributed comments on my post about Wikipedia. The case histories were especially interesting. Rather than add my own I thought I'd make a new post, by way of general reflection.

One line of thought - probably the dominant one - is that keeping the articles clean is too much of a struggle, given how determined is the sceptic opposition. Wikipedia is a lost cause; it will always reflect critical mainstream thinking. But that doesn't matter because there are plenty of other sources where interested people can go to find out about psi-research.

Another view - less popular, apparently, but persuasively argued - is that we should get stuck in and do something about it:

Wikipedia appeals to the entire cross section of humanity, from the elite to the Great Unwashed. The elites are going to believe what their fellow elites tell them to believe, but the average curious schoolkid may initially take what they see in a Wiki article at face value, and move on.

Getting a full picture of any paranormal related topic takes a heluva lot of digging. Pseudo-sceptics can be intimidating and convincing. Maybe I'm being pollyanna-ish here, but a civil, concerted campaign to counter-balance sceptic attempts at repressing the open discussion of spirituality is the right thing to do.

I have to say, this is my way of thinking too. I disagree with the expressions of disdain about Wikipedia - I think it's an extraordinary resource. And yes, I do use it all the time, mostly to get an instant take on people and situations in world affairs, stuff that would be impossible to get quickly from anywhere else. Of course I double check when required, but in the ten years or so that I've been using it I can't ever recall coming unstuck - which in my line of work could easily happen. And I'm always astonished by the effort and commitment that contributors put into it - and hugely grateful for it.

If that's my experience as a professional person, then I guess it will be others' as well. Its not an accident that Wikipedia comes up near the top of searches - it's because so many people find it useful. So I'm not convinced that someone who decides to consult Wikipedia on a psi-related topic - on a whim, perhaps, or having come across some article or controversy in a newspaper - will recognise the sceptical barracking for what it is. On the contrary, it will shape their view. And this is surely something we can't be indifferent about.

It's true there are a lot of other good sources (and thanks to the commenter who kindly included this blog). But I don't agree that such people will easily find their way there, or that they would necessarily make any sense of what they found. That's why something like Wikipedia is needed - for beginners as opposed to intermediate level and advanced.

If I'm right about this, there are two options (actually I'm sure there are more, but this is something to be going on with).

One is to take the battle to the sceptics on their own terms. It's not as though their pages are immune to hostile tweaking. It won't be pretty, and we'd have to accept that we will never actually win, but we could get enough of a leverage at least to improve the quality of the psi pages for the benefit of newcomers.

Another option might be to create an independent portal with entry-level, Wikipedia-type articles on psi topics. I've long thought that something like this would be a good idea. It would essentially duplicate the material that already exists, and perhaps expand it, but without the heckling. Critical opinions and studies should be referenced, of course, and ideally the full range of sceptic alternatives should be represented - just as they are in any decent parapsychological paper. But sceptics would not be able to interfere without actually hacking into the site.

Whether to do one or the other - or both, or neither - touches on a much larger issue, whether we want to be in the business of advocacy. My impression is, there's less appetite for that on our side than there is among our opponents. For sceptics, influencing opinion is what it's all about. Wikimandering is just the sort of thing that their organisations are there to do. It's a fundamentalist thing: evangelising comes naturally to them.

We're more about generating ideas, studies and experiments than in 'spreading the word'. We're receptive to people who come to us, but we don't go looking for people to convert, minds to change. We don't have an equivalent of CSICOP/CSI. And looking around, I can't see any research organisation wanting to get behind an initiative like this. But like the reader whose comment I quoted, I'm starting to think it's the right thing to do. If we don't stand up for what we believe in, then why would anyone else believe it?

To the commenter who kindly offered her services as an editor, but asked if this was all just talk, I'd answer - thanks, that's appreciated; and, quite possibly but not necessarily. A lot depends on whether there's someone out there who is able and willing to undertake this sort of project. I don't have the skills myself. It needs to be a very particular sort of person - someone who thoroughly understands websites and Wikipedia, who is determined and patient, can manage a team of editors, and in is it for the long haul. All as a labour of love. It certainly shouldn't be undertaken lightly, or it could do more harm than good. So let's not rush into anything.

But I can contribute, and act as a communications hub in the first instance. So as far as getting the ball rolling goes, if anyone wants to get in touch to kick around ideas, then please do.

Guerrilla Skeptics

I use Wikipedia a lot in my journalism work, and I must say I've always found it an excellent resource. I know it has to be treated with caution, but in practice I assume it will be more accurate than not. So mostly I take it on trust.

Recently I've been poking around on the site to see how psi topics are presented. My impression is that a novice would come away with a pretty jaundiced view. It's obvious that sceptics are busily re-editing articles in their favour, and a reader has kindly sent me a link that shows how they do this. It's a project called Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, run by Susan Gerbic, who recruits sceptics to give pages a makeover, both those that publicise their own side (ie debunkers, key sceptic figures, etc) and also the opposition's (celebrity psychics, paranormal claimants, etc).

This is a specialised activity and Gerbic's blog gives tips and techniques. Recently she's gone global, getting sceptics to edit foreign language pages. It's all about creating perceptions - or I suppose they would say 'correcting'. The use of the word 'guerrilla' underlines its essentially hostile nature, but of course in their view the battle against superstition is just that, a battle. So they'll use whatever weapons come to hand.

And Wikipedia presents a rather large opportunity. It's easy to deflate a positive perception and replace it with a negative one. We encounter it all the time in sceptic discourse. The use of a 'however' qualifier at the end of a paragraph is often all it takes: 'Believers say they have uncovered X effect, however more careful researchers . . .' Look at this paragraph on remote viewing from the entry for 'Parapsychology':

Several hundred such trials have been conducted by investigators over the past 25 years, including those by the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR) and by scientists at SRI International and Science Applications International Corporation.[59][60] Many of these were under contract by the U.S. government as part of the espionage program Stargate Project, which terminated in 1995 having failed, in the government's eyes, to document any practical intelligence value.[61] PEAR closed its doors at the end of February 2007. Its founder, Robert G. Jahn, said of it that, "For 28 years, we've done what we wanted to do, and there's no reason to stay and generate more of the same data."[62] However, physicist Robert L. Park said of PEAR, "It's been an embarrassment to science, and I think an embarrassment for Princeton".[62]

This is cleverly done. One can see how an essentially neutral description might have been mucked about with by suitable insertions, particularly the rhetorical declaration at the end.

Always the aim is to round off any claim with a counter-claim. So in the section in 'Parapsychology' on random number generators a claim about meta-analyses consistently showing a statistically significant effect is followed by this:

The most recent meta-analysis on psychokinesis was published in Psychological Bulletin, along with several critical commentaries.[63][64] It analyzed the results of 380 studies; the authors reported an overall positive effect size that was statistically significant but very small relative to the sample size and could be explained by publication bias.

In other words, where the original claim was a general comment about many studies, this is a detailed comment about a single study. But precisely because it is detailed, it gives the impression of being more authoritative.

An awful lot of the sceptic material is just hostile opinion and rhetoric- as Park's comment above. In at least some cases this should be challenged.

In a review of parapsychological reports Ray Hyman wrote "randomization is often inadequate, multiple statistical testing without adjustment for significance levels is prevalent, possibilities for sensory leakage are not uniformly prevented, errors in use of statistical tests are much too common, and documentation is typically inadequate".[92]

Yes, Ray Hyman did write that in his review, but that's the only uncontested statement here. Citing a reference does not magically convert his hostile opinions into facts. Trouble is, this will not be at all clear to the casual reader.

Or this:

According to the skeptic Robert Todd Carroll research in parapsychology has been characterized by "deception, fraud, and incompetence in setting up properly controlled experiments and evaluating statistical data."[91]

In what world could someone like Todd Carroll, a compiler of spectacularly biased and poorly informed encyclopedia entries, be considered a serious authority? If this sort of thing is allowed on Wikipedia then what's to stop me inserting remarks like, 'According to psi-advocate Robert McLuhan, this type of critical commentary is tendentious tosh by people who haven't a clue what they're talking about."

We can't really complain about hostile editing, as long it stays within the Wikipedia guidelines for editors, which Gerbic seems committed to doing. As she sees it, it's all about insisting on backing up claims with evidence, which is what sceptics are all about. In fact I've even seen it suggested that Wikipedia is by nature a sceptical endeavour, since it depends on evidence. Some seem to have taken heart when its founder Jimmy Wales came out against homeopathy, a subject that infuriates them more than almost anything else.

I'm not sure how worked up I can get about Wikipedia's view of homeopathy or about celebrity psychics, who can look after themselves. Still, it's a pity that this key source for learning and education is so compromised as far as serious parapsychology is concerned. There is of course plenty of information about parapsychology, but little that isn't gummed up with sceptic disdain. Even aside from that, it looks rather flat and lame. What's to stop editors giving quotes from credible people - scientists, psi-researchers, experients who are well-known in other fields - that give their own enthusiastic responses? Why are the dullards, ignoramuses and professional nay-sayers getting such a free run?

We need to make it clear that our evidence counts as evidence. At the very least, if sceptics insert a long section at the end of an entry that promotes their views exclusively, under the heading of 'Criticism' or some such, then it seems to me to be perfectly legitimate to add a following section headed 'Responses to criticism', in which the key points would be rebutted, at leisure and without constant heckling.

I did briefly consider making contributions of my own, but where does one start? This is clearly a job for a specialist. We need our own Gerbic to help create a co-ordinated effort. For all I know, some-such project is being planned, in which case I look forward to hearing about it, and good luck!

The danger of course is getting into a tiresome tit-for-tat, with teams of rival guerrillas coming out at night and trashing the opposition's most recent efforts. In that case the victor would be whoever runs out of steam first. Actually I don't think it need come to that, and Wikipedia surely has ways of dealing with it. We don't need the last word; all we need to do is to put the carping in perspective, and ideally encourage readers to check out the subject for themselves in other sources, where they aren't going to be distracted by noisy sceptics.

Psychic Detectives

I avoid supernatural dramas on television, as in my view the spooky-thriller stuff isn't what people actually experience. It's pumped up for rather crude entertainment purposes. But psychics are a common feature of modern life, and I'm interested to see how script writers portray them in a general context.

Recently I've been watching ITV's Broadchurch, about the murder of a child in a small seaside town. At one point a telephone engineer is called to do a repair in the police station, where he sees a photo of the dead boy on a desk. Cue spooky music, and next thing he's telling the police about his intuitions. He can't help it, he explains; these things just come to him, as messages, and he feels obliged to pass them on. The male detective - an anxious neurotic type - explodes: wherever there's a crime, he complains, 'you people crawl out of the woodwork'.

All that seems reasonably true to life, in terms both of the incident and the irritated response. The man's not a professional psychic; he doesn't know why he gets these things, he just does. In the next episode he approaches the mother, who at first runs away in terror, but then agrees to hear the message. This purports to come from her dead son, and simply states that she should stop searching for the killer, who is well known to her: the knowledge will just make things worse.

That's a lot more melodramatic, obviously. I don't know where the story's going with it, or how relevant the prediction will prove to be. It could turn out that the character is just pretending to be psychic, for some nefarious purpose - perhaps to throw the police off the scent, although there's nothing to indicate that so far. (The psychic also passes on a message to the angry detective about a previous case that was botched, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.) But it got me thinking about how complex the whole business of psychic detection actually is. Can the police sometimes benefit from these intuitions? Or are they more likely to be a nuisance?

It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that can easily be proved by experiment. Predictably a test carried out by Richard Wiseman came out negative. Three psychics, only one of whom was known for his detection skills, were asked to handle objects related to crimes that had been solved and to give their impressions; and to sort out various statements relating to the three crimes. They all thought they scored well, but in fact did no better than a control group of students.

Fair enough. But a test like this makes assumptions about how psi works, specifically that it's a mechanical entity that will work in particular ways: a psychic should be able to get information about a case that has been solved as easily as one that has not. For the test to yield immediately results, this is a necessary condition. But suppose psi doesn't work that way. Would a psychic necessarily get an intuition about something that will now serve no purpose?

There are actually two issues here that often get mixed up: on the one hand whether it's real, and on the other whether it's useful. It's the same with remote viewing. It seems fair to conclude that the Stargate remote viewers did sometimes make astoundingly accurate hits, and there's experimental evidence from other sources to back that up. But the process might well have been too unreliable to provide actionable intelligence, which is for the spooks to decide, not the psychics or parapsychologists.

In debunking accounts of psychic detection, the police are always said to deny using psychics. However these usually quote police departments (officials, spokesmen, etc). This surely makes sense: it's hard to imagine that any law enforcement body could officially acknowledge having recourse to supernatural agencies. Even if it was aware, or merely suspected that individual officers had unofficial links with a psychic, and was prepared to let them get on with it, in public it would be natural to deny any such thing. Almost by definition, sceptics can't recognise that sort of complexity.

There's quite a bit of detail in this article about the involvement of a psychic in the John Wayne Gacy serial killer case. The psychic stated early on that this was a gay sex killing, confirming police suspicions, but went on to say that the bodies of several young men were in the same area, which at that time they did not know, but which Gacy subsequently admitted. Predictably there's nothing about any psychic contribution in the quite extensive Wikipedia account of Gacy. This article sheds light on that. It states that the victim's family were told that detectives were in touch with a psychic, and did not object, as they wanted every avenue to be pursued. However the police department as a whole had serious reservations, and the contact with the psychic was kept quiet; instead the information was said to have been received via an anonymous tip-off.

Sceptics, of course, need psychic intuitions to be completely reliable and mechanical before they will believe it. They treat it as a sort of radar.

If psychics can really find missing people, why aren't they in Iraq, rescuing kidnapped hostages? Why haven't psychics caught serial killers before they kill again? Why do different psychics give contradictory information? Why do we need Amber Alerts to find kidnapped children? And where are Osama bin Laden, Natalee Holloway, Lisa Stebic, Madeleine McCann, and the thousands of other people whom searchers are desperate to find? On these questions, psychics are as silent as the missing persons they fail to find.

But it's possible that the police have the same problem with psychics as the military obviously had - there's so much noise that the true signal is hard to determine. High profile cases like that of Madeleine McCann bring forth so many conflicting statements by psychics, it's hard to know which is potentially reliable and worth following up. If the case is eventually solved, it's likely that one or two will claim success for what now looks retrospectively like a lucky hit.

A big difficulty for the police is knowing how much credence to put on a psychic lead. The psychic has to persuade them to follow up apparently nonsensical hunches. Or else he/she comes up with predictions that prove accurate but do not necessarily contribute to a resolution.

In The Reality of ESP, Russell Targ describes the 2001 search for 'Haley', the five-year-old who went missing in a densely forested region of Arkansas and was found only after an intense three-day search. The girl's grandmother told Targ that on the third day, with the child still missing, she went to a meeting being held nearby by dowsers. There she met Harold McCoy (who famously located the stolen harp for Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer). McCoy stated that the girl was 'being taken care of by a kind woman', and that she would be 'found by two men on horseback within the day'. (Targ subsequently confirmed this conversation with McCoy's widow.)

The child was found later that day by two local men who went searching on their own, on mules. So this does indeed seem like a blindingly accurate prediction. But it could not be said that the psychic solved the case, only that he saw its outcome. It's also likely that other psychics were all over the case making wrong assertions, and if McCoy's was included among them, the impact would have been greatly diluted.

The statement about the 'kind woman' is also puzzling. There was of course no such person, but Haley subsequently described in great detail a child of her own age who kept her company throughout her ordeal. The grandmother investigated, and learned that a child had been murdered and buried near that spot two decades earlier. Again, these details are potentially the kind of thing a psychic might 'see' - in his terms, who knows, the 'woman' might have been some kind of spirit protector - but add an extra layer of confusion.

I recently reviewed a book for a journal by Robert Cracknell, a British psychic who was feted in the media some thirty years ago as Britain's 'number one psychic detective'. One of his most dramatic cases involved the kidnapped teenage daughter of an Italian industrialist near Lake Como. The girl had been missing for some months when Cracknell was engaged by the father to help find her, and spent some time at the villa. By this time the police had scoured the area and were not overjoyed when Cracknell insisted on checking out a remote rural district they had already covered. He persevered, however, and did find an abandoned semi-derelict dwelling containing forensic clues that the girl might have been held there. On the other hand she was long gone, so this seems not to have helped much.

Cracknell subsequently found himself telling a British newspaper reporter over the phone that the girl would definitely be found 'next Friday'. This sparked a media frenzy, and when she was indeed returned to her family the following Friday everyone was happy. But again, nothing the psychic said actually led to her recovery. This appeared to be a general thing with Cracknell. He did the same with the Yorkshire Ripper, stating accurately that the serial killer lived in Bradford, Yorkshire, and later that his next murder would be the last, as he would soon afterwards be picked up during an unrelated police enquiry. So he can claim a kind of success, without actually having helped resolve the crime.

So it seems there's a legitimate role for psychic detection, as long as it's approached with caution. A lot of the public claims have to be discounted as biased, both by sceptics and professional psychics. But it's quite possible that some kind of psychic ability is used in all kinds of detection, to a degree that can only ever be guessed at. It could fit in seamlessly with people's professional work. For instance Cracknell appears to have found it useful in his day-job as a financial fraud buster for insurance firms, and set up in business for himself, but without promoting himself as a psychic, which would not necessarily have recommended him to his clients.

In real life psychic ability is not something that we can depend on, or should get too worked up about. But within limits we could quietly accept its uses, as many police detectives sensibly seem to do.

Rupert Sheldrake at TED

Rupert Sheldrake is in trouble with sceptics again, this time having given a provocative TEDx talk. It enrages some scientists to hear unfamiliar new ideas in a high-profile public forum. Sceptic bloggers including Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers got in touch with the TED organisers to try to get them to withdraw the video. That's under review; let's hope they do the sensible thing and take no notice. In the meantime they have set up a comments thread so that critics can vent.

The talk is quite short: Sheldrake just has time to run through the 'ten dogmas' he lists in his book The Science Delusion, and then expand on a couple of ideas. These are his theory of morphic resonance and, a more recent interest, his theory that the so-called constants of nature like gravity and the speed of light actually aren't constant at all, but fluctuate - which predictably has caused a stir.

Sheldrake says his investigation into records of measurements all over the world show that the speed of light dipped between 1928-1945 by 20 kilometres per second. A senior metrologist he talked to agreed, but insisted the speed couldn't actually have dropped because it was a constant, so they just 'fudged' it (Sheldrake's word, the metrologist preferred them term 'intellectual phase locking'.) The problem was 'solved' in 1972, the metrologist said, when they fixed it by definition - after which no disagreement was possible.

The same is also true of gravity: the frequent variations that Sheldrake finds in the records are just 'errors', according to metrologists. The results are all averaged out, apparently. Sheldrake says he has been trying to persuade them to publish the figures online. He thinks that one day magazines like Nature will publish them weekly, just like stockmarket tables.

This is funny, possibly true, and also deeply provoking to mainstream opinion. No one likes having the foundations of their worldview shaken. For scientists who accept all the dogmas it must seem intolerable to hear these sorts of things declared on a respected public forum. So naturally that was the sceptic's first thought: why is TED giving credence to this claptrap? Can we stop them doing it in future? It really bothers them when a maverick escapes from his cage and contaminates mainstream thinking.

Thankfully a lot of people think that's what TED is all about: to present challenging new ideas and innovative thinking. If it doesn't take risks and rile the establishment sometimes, what's it for? As Craig Weiler notes, it's encouraging that so many people in the comments thread defended Sheldrake's right to speak, and TED's right to give him a platform.

It's also striking how polite the thread is. It seems Sheldrake has plenty of respect, even from people who don't fully agree with his ideas, or understand them. If Coyne and Myers hoped he'd be put in his place they must be feeling rather disappointed.

Cuddly Humanism

Al-khalili Jim Al-Khalili is the new president of the British Humanist Association, having taken over in January from the journalist and social justice campaigner Polly Toynbee. He's the author of a rather good book on quantum mechanics, and is clearly a good communicator. His background is interesting: his mother is an English church-going Christian, his father an Iraqi (lapsed) Muslim.The post was apparently supposed to go to philosopher AC Grayling, but he had to step aside because of the furore surrounding his new elite university.

I'm not sure how much difference it will make, but Al-Khalili is a lot less intense than either Toynbee or Grayling; in fact he talks about being a more 'cuddly' sort of atheist. This is partly a matter of temperament, but also because, he thinks, atheists are doing so well they can afford to calm down a bit.

I would say that it's because we are winning the battle that we can afford not to be so strident, belligerent, antagonistic, confrontational. Because we're winning the battle that more and more people can see that humanism is an inclusive thing, it's not an exclusive club, or a group of happy-clappys, or a group for people that like to have weird and wonderful weddings or ceremonies. It's not a sect. Because that is changing we don't need to be on the attack against people with faith.

Al-Khalili espouses a conventional scientism: that science describes the way the universe really works, and it hasn't found God anywhere in it, so religion is false. (I always find that disappointing in people I like, but then what did I expect?) He feels strongly that scientists should do more than talk about science, they should also 'help defend our rational, secular society against the rising tide of irrationalism and ignorance'. However he also thinks it isn't necessary to go round rubbing people's faces in it.

[Religious people] are looking at the same reality, but they're interpreting it differently. They're ascribing a different meaning to it. And I've always said, if this gives them comfort, if this gives them a purpose in life, if this makes them better people, I have no issue with that. I don't want to say, 'Well, actually your world view is wrong - that's not how the world is, this is how the world is'.

We don't want to offend, or most of us don't, and I don't mind if someone wants to believe something different from me, I don't mind . . . I've talked with intelligent people of faith, I've been on platform with [Archbishop] Rowan Williams and with the Chief Rabbi, and these aren't fools. They're not the sort of people that are going to go, 'You're right! You know, I've never thought about it like that.' I think it's very naive of scientists who are atheists to think that somehow, just through the sheer force of logic, they're going to convince the world that they're right and that there should be no such thing as religion.

This last quote incidentally is from the current issue of the New Humanist, written by its editor Caspar Melville. In a way, Melville's response to Al-Khalili moderateness is just as interesting. Other humanists may see it as a failure of nerve, or even hypocrisy, but Melville doesn't; on the contrary, he welcomes the return of 'good manners and a sense of proportion'. In fact he thinks Al-Khalili's appointment marks the growing maturity of British humanism.

We may be terribly clever, and right, but it doesn't follow that people we don't agree with are stupid. They may not even be wrong. They are certainly entitled to believe what they like - surely actions and consequences should be the overriding concern of humanists, and finding ways to improve the one short life we all get.

Asked by Melville for his definition of humanism, Al-Khalili responds

It means, I think, that humankind's fate and future is in its own hands. The reason why we strive for a better world and to be good is not because some old scripture or mythology tells me that I'll be rewarded if I'm good and punished if I'm bad. But because being good defines me as a human. Anyone who wants to be good because they think they should be, not because their religion tells them to be, for me is a humanist.

Oh good. That would include me. In fact if I could describe myself as a humanist, without implying that I'm also an atheist, I probably would - it's the only label I'm completely comfortable with. Considered purely in moral terms, the boundary between humanism and spirituality is quite fuzzy. And when atheists talk like this I sometimes think their ideas could develop in different directions if their understanding of religion wasn't so narrowly defined in terms of scripture and myth.

It also leads me to believe that the scientistic view is at least sometimes held because it is so obviously much more true than the perceived alternatives offered by religions. No nuance is allowed, because it has to act as a kind of moral bulwark; if it should fail, we are reduced to a kind of slavery, under the thumb of gods and superstitions. That's particularly interesting in the case of scientists like Al-Khalili who have a close-up understanding of quantum mechanics, which in other quantum scientists has often encouraged a much less rigid view of reality.

Al-Khalili rejects the relatavistic view that science offers just another set of stories, that will one day be superceded; he thinks there is a stable reality out there, and that scientists are closing in on it. My position is not dissimilar from his, in that I believe that, to the extent that reality can be understood by humans at all, it reveals itself to humans through their observations and experiments. I just wish I could persuade him that my very different picture of the universe is not only empirically true, it's not as threatening as he thinks.

Russell Targ's The Reality of ESP

Russell Targ has been a key figure in parapsychology ever since his experiments with Hal Puthoff in the early 1970s. Their Mind-Reach was one of the first books I read about remote viewing, and influenced my thinking at a time when I was trying to make up my mind about psi. Targ recently published an autobiography, which I have yet to read, but here he is already with another book, this time a survey of ESP research.

Much of it is his, and familiar from other sources - particularly as regards remote viewing - but it's still a fascinating read. It's important to read what parapsychologists think about the subject, rather than just absorbing it from a distance. The personal impact counts as well, which I think is why he subtitles it 'A physicist's proof of psychic abilities.' Targ is by any standards an outstandingly successful researcher - in fact he's one of these people that seems to arouse suspicions among other parapsychologists who, he says, sometimes can't bring themselves to believe his results.

I hadn't fully grasped that Targ and Puthoff are the reason why the US military got interested in remote viewing. As laser physicists they were always being commissioned to come up with various kinds of exotic hardware, so they had the contacts. It seems rather unlikely that military and intelligence types would have actually initiated the Stargate program if they hadn't happened to have dealings with people who knew all about it, and whom they had confidence in. If Targ is to be believed, once they heard what remote viewing could do, they fairly jumped with excitement. Why waste time viewing churches and swimming pools in Palo Alto, they said, when they could be looking at Soviet sites of operational interest?

It seems this wasn't a completely new idea to them. At a CIA briefing Targ was surprised by how many people stood up to describe psychic intuitions that had come to them over the years, or to their psychic grandmothers. Some had stories of occurrences of ESP in the field that had saved their lives. (Targ doesn't elaborate, but I found a possible example elsewhere, a description of certain successful 'point men', soldiers who led patrols into hostile territory during the Vietnam war and had far fewer casualties from booby traps and ambushes than the average. Naturally they had a loyal following and boosted morale. So much so that the army subsequently carried out tests and could find no other explanation other than psychic intuition.)

The episodes Targ describes are already familiar, for instance Ingo Swann's and Pat Price's exploits, such as the latter's stunningly accurate rendering of a distant gantry crane of unusual size and structure. There's a lot about Hella Hammid, a Life photographer who they brought on board to act as a control, but who then became their most reliable viewer. In fact Targ's account is so emphatically upbeat, I was left wondering why sceptics find it so easy to sweep aside. A common complaint is the 'absence of an evidence base', but the evidence seems rather abundant.

We're in the area of subjective impressions, so we have to step carefully. Targ sticks pretty much to the triumphs and successes, which can mislead one into thinking that remote viewing is all signal and no noise. Various military and intelligence bodies saw the potential, asked for results and often got them. On the other hand these 'customers' may also have been given results that seemed unlikely but which later turned out to be true, by which time however they were of no practical value. In many other cases, doubtless, the results were incorrect, which jolted their confidence. Once one takes the noise into account, one can understand why there was a certain degree of ambivalence. In their accounts, the critics artfully raise the level of noise to the point where the existence of any actual signal becomes impossible to determine. The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between.

Much is made of the CIA's dismissive conclusion that the programme failed to achieve any intelligence potential, and for that reason it was terminated. The sly insinuation is that there were no useful matches. An alert questioner would ask why on earth these hard-headed agencies would spend $20 million over a period of 25 years investigating something that did not exist. Clearly they were getting results. There are lots of reasons why remote viewing is of uncertain value in a military context; why it would have been abandoned once the Cold War had ended; and why the constant scepticism and disbelief would have helped to shape an essentially political verdict.

One of the remote viewing team's CIA monitors, Kenneth Kress, subsequently wrote a review for an internal CIA newsletter, which is published as an appendix in Joe McMoneagle's The Stargate Chronicles (also my source for the description of 'point men' above). It gives useful insight into the politics of belief and disbelief that occur when these two very different worlds collide. He says the Agency took the initiative by sponsoring serious psi research, but 'circumstances, biases, and fear of ridicule' prevented it from completing a scientific investigation. It was buffeted with investigations concerning illegalities and improprieties of all sorts. There were deep concerns that certain research contracts would be attacked as ill founded. Kress also notes two types of reactions to psi: positive or negative, with little in between.

As an example, Kress describes sceptical opposition to the random number generators that were used as 'ESP teaching machines' for potential viewers in the military. They scored 29% in more than 2500 trials, when 25% is the chance mean. However sceptics argued, in the usual way, that the machines might actually not be random at all, and that the subjects learned the non-random patterns. They resisted further analysis, but Kress insisted, finding no evidence of non-randomness, and further tests produced 28%. The project officers again insisted there must be a flaw, but it was not worth finding. The scepticism infected others, and support waned. The point here is that sceptics did not merely raise objections, they also resisted checking to see whether the objections were valid.

Targ's book is not just about remote viewing. There are sections on presentiment, mental influence and healing; also a bit more background about the famous paper published in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, in which one of the peer reviewers stated that it ought not to be published, being 'the kind of thing I wouldn't believe in even if it was true'. There are some anecdotes, including a ghost story that happened to a colleague's mother, also a description of Targ's adventures making money on silver futures (there's a DVD that you can buy to train yourself in the technique, and I'd be interested to know if there are any other documented successes of this kind.)

There's also quite a lot about the metaphysical and spiritual implications, with reference to David Bohm's idea of the implicate order, and how Buddhist teachings merge with the quantum physical phenomenon of non-locality.

I believe that our psychic abilities offer us one way of experiencing this world of non-local mind or community of spirit. Remote viewing thus reveals to us a part of our spiritual reality, but it is only a tiny part of the total spiritual spectrum. So a short answer to the question, 'how is it that I can psychically describe a distant object', is that the object is not as distant as it appears. To me, the data suggest that all of space-time is available to your consciousness right where you are; you are always on the edge.

Targ is especially good on what psi feels like from the inside, and what makes for success or failure. He keeps stressing how important it is to get people who are enthusiastic and committed, and argues the reason he was more successful than the norm in parapsychology is that he took the trouble to identify highly gifted individuals instead of using psychology students.

Also, we were asking them to do a task that corresponded to the most readily manifested form of psychic functioning, as compared with card guessing. Finally, we had an excellent rapport with our viewers. They felt that they were part of our research team uncovering the secrets of the universe, rather than being treated as psychic rats running through a maze - as ESP subjects frequently feel when the experiments' clear attitude is, "How are we going to keep these crooks from cheating".

To sum up, this is a lively and readable account, and an ideal introduction to anyone who doesn't know much about parapsychology, but is interested to find out. (As a statement by a veteran researcher I'd recommend it along with Dean Radin's Entangled Minds.) It's not a particularly critical account, and as is often the case of books of this kind, scant attention is paid to the cavils of critics, which might be a bit of a drawback for some. But psi-researchers don't need always to be picking their words and watching their backs; it's good to hear about some of the passion as well.