Uri Geller is back in the news, which will please him. His name stands out in the CIA’s mass online release of classified documents last week, relating to the testing of him by Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff at Stanford Research Institute in 1972-3, and I’m interested to see how the media is reacting.
In fact there's nothing particularly new here. The documents themselves were declassified some time ago – it’s just that they’ve been placed online where they can be seen without having to go to a library. As for the Geller ESP tests, they were described in Targ and Puthoff’s Mind-Reach (1977), and in any number of other books since. The significance is that we can now see the original drawings, which in a few cases show how exactly Geller was able to reproduce images that had been drawn by the experimenters at a distance. The Daily Mail shows several of these.
What struck me especially is that the headlines are all about Geller, and (on the assumption that he’s a faker) the remarkable – and allegedly hitherto unknown fact – that the hardboiled CIA itself was convinced he was genuinely psychic. The Stargate programme is mentioned here and there, but the impression given is that Geller was the original ‘psychic warrior’, as some of the reports describe him. This is quite wrong. The positive tests may have played some role in the initial assessment by the US military intelligence, and encouraged it to give serious funding. But the long-term remote viewing at SRI was carried out by people like Ingo Swann, Pat Price, Hella Hammid and Joe McMoneagle, some of whom are said on many occasions to have provided actionable intelligence. Their collective contribution is far more significant in this field than Geller’s and yet, not being world famous, they’re hardly ever mentioned.
The sense I’m left with is how extremely primitive the public understanding of these matters is. None of the articles I’ve seen so far seem to have any sense of context. Some are overtly hostile –a particularly dinosaurish piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times stated, among many other untruths, that the psychics ‘never provided US intelligence with a single useful piece of information’. If that’s the case, why did it spend so much money for so many years? There must have been some reason why the viewers’ ‘customers’ in the intelligence community kept coming back for more.
A lot of this prejudice and misinformation, I’m afraid, has to do with Geller himself. When he came on the scene in the late 1960s it doubtless helped popularise ESP research. But because he’s always seen himself first and foremost as a celebrity entertainer – aiming to fascinate and mystify – he’s regarded by many people as an especially talented conjurer with a twist, one who (unlike other conjurers) claims that what he does is real. So of course they’re puzzled to discover that supposedly tough military types were taken in.
I had some dealings with Geller a few years ago (a writing job for a friend of his, nothing to do with him or psychic stuff), and found him to be charming and empathetic. I think he takes the whole celebrity thing way too seriously, but OK, that’s how he makes his living. What’s so frustrating is the way his notoriety casts a shadow over psi research. Whenever I discuss it with people who know little or nothing about it – which is not often, being a somewhat unrewarding business – it’s always Geller they mention, and since he’s been so heavily targeted by the sceptic community, never in a good sense. People seem to think that those like myself who believe psi is real have been ‘taken in by Uri Geller’, as if he was the sole and single reason for taking it seriously.
The chapter in James Randi’s Flim-Flam! that purports to debunk Geller’s SRI tests is something that all sceptics know about, as will doubtless be confirmed later in the comments thread. I expect also we’ll hear a lot about the ‘peep-hole’ in the isolation booth that according to Randi could have enabled Geller to see the target drawings, had they also been placed in the line of sight. It may indeed be that the experimenters’ methods were less than completely secure, but I’ve always been sceptical that highly-intelligent physicists could not have spotted something so basic (yes, I know, scientists are supposed not to know about magic tricks, but there’s nothing especially magical about a peep-hole).
And why would there be a hole in an isolation booth? I can think of one reason, to carry audio cables, but that’s normally done at floor level. So it’s no surprise to learn from David Scott Rogo, who took the trouble to visit Stanford to check up on Randi’s claim, that that’s indeed where the hole is, which means Geller could only have benefited from it if he’d been tasked with divining the colour of the experimenters’ socks - if it hadn't also been covered by a metal plate.
Another ‘explanation ‘of the SRI results, aired in a 1974 New Scientist article is that Geller had implanted a miniature communication device in a tooth, that enabled him to get the details of the drawings from a confederate. But I don’t know how much we’ll hear about that, as it never really took off.
None of this is to defend Geller, who can look after himself, or the probity of his SRI tests, which could be proved to have been entirely faked without in the least affecting the results of the far greater and multi-faceted remote viewing projects that followed over decades. The Psi Encyclopedia has yet to include a piece on the Stargate project (although one is being written now). But at the weekend, by coincidence, I uploaded a general survey of remote viewing by Stephan Schwarz, one of its most dedicated pioneers. He gives details of projects carried out at his Mobius lab, which included some very striking archaeological finds by a team of viewers that at various time included Ingo Swann, Hella Hammid, and the novelist Michael Crichton.
The piece also includes the unequivocal statement by statistician Jessica Utts:
Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud.
Surely that’s the real story here – it’s just not one that’s likely to feature in the mainstream press.