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Annie Jacobsen’s ‘Phenomena’

A new book has just been published in on ‘psychic spying’. It’s by Annie Jacobsen, author of best-selling books about the secret doings of the US military based on declassified documents, including Operation Paperclip and The Pentagon’s Brain, for which she was a Pulitzer prize finalist. This one is titled Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. It contains a lot about the Star Gate remote viewing program, which is now likely to get a lot of new exposure.

Oddly, that’s a concern to some of the key people involved in it, who to judge by their reviews on Amazon are pretty disgusted with the book. They complain that it’s full of errors, ignores the science behind the program, and presents a ‘distorted and selective’ view of it – Russell Targ’s words, and he can claim to know what he’s talking about, since he and Hal Puthoff set the whole thing off with their early work with Pat Price. Jacobsen hardly mentions him, and instead gives the impression that the man behind it was Andrija Puharich, who had a lot to do with popularising Uri Geller, but nothing to do with remote viewing research. The driving force, arguably, was Edwin May, the nuclear physicist/parapsychologist who ran the scientific side of the program for ten years. Yet apparently he’s hardly mentioned either. Jacobsen also exaggerates the role of Uri Geller, and elevates other peripheral, largely unknown figures to central roles.

(Interestingly, Geller himself has also posted a short review, worrying that Jacobsen has exposed the depth of his ‘involvement with secret agencies’, when he would prefer to be remembered ‘as an entertainer and the originator of spoon bending’.)

More specifically, Ben Goertzel (futurist, AI expert) writes:

Having participated in discussions of the project with Ed May, Joe McMoneagle, Russell Targ and others who were directly involved with it over a long period of time, I can tell you that the story as Jacobsen tells it, is not the story as they tell it. So something is wrong here. This book is a well-crafted sensationalist half-truth, rather than any sort of definitive history. A shame, as the experiments done and results obtained in Star Gate are important stuff for everyone to understand and think about. (For one thing, the Star Gate project described here showed that psychic remote viewing can really work, if done with the right people. Wow. This is a dramatic sort of discovery, and a piece of history that very much deserves to be recounted accurately as well as artfully.)

Sonali Bhatt Marwaha, an associate of May’s in the research program, complains that Jacobsen

perpetuates the myth of psi research as a fringe “woo-woo” science, and does great disservice to the science of psi, and the serious psi researchers from a variety of academic disciplines, who have made substantial progress in understanding the phenomenon.
Obviously I haven’t read the book, and with my present schedule am unlikely to in the near future, although if it makes it to my local Waterstones I look forward to skimming it to see what the fuss is about. On the plus side, Jacobsen gets credit for drawing attention to the subject with her racy page-turning style. She knows she’s struck a rich seam by focusing on the secret doings of our masters, especially at a time when people are becoming profoundly sceptical about established authority. She’s also open-minded about psi’s existence. So arguably the book could do good in attracting a wide readership and encouraging people to investigate further.

(Guy Playfair was dismayed by the way two recent films about the Enfield poltergeist –a three-part series by Sky and a feature film – were presented as being based on his book about his and Maurice Grosse’s investigation, This House Is Haunted, since neither had much to do with the book at all. But they gave a big boost to sales of the book, which means a number of people are now well informed about the episode who weren’t before.)

I think the scientists worry that Phenomena might be a runaway bestseller, and establish forever the historical record about remote viewing, or at least the Star Gate program. In that case, the reading public will hold in its collective mind an erroneous view that’s impossible ever to correct. But surely such books get written all the time. Who now remembers Jim Schnabel’s twenty-year old Remote Viewers: The Secret History of America’s Psychic Spies? That didn’t set the historical record, and neither will this.

I believe the idea readers will actually be left with is that hard-headed US military agencies – or at least credible individuals within them – were (and remain) convinced that psi is a real thing. That contradicts the sceptical narrative that the project was terminated because it didn’t work, which arguably is the mainstream view right now.

But there is a larger issue here about how psi research is best presented to the public, and by whom. It’s amazing to me how many books do get written about the subject - book reviews seem to make up the larger part of its scholarly journals these days - attesting to a large and interested readership. But the books seldom get noticed in the mainstream media, or contribute to public conversations. For that to happen requires a particular alchemy, which arguably Jacobsen provides: a first rate writer who’s established her credentials – and an enthusiastic readership – and having tasted success is prepared to push the boundaries to a place that few mainstream writers dare to tread, in the expectation of cashing in on the public fascination with secrets and mysteries.

The downside is that she’s a journalist, and journalists need to understand the subject if they’re to do a good job. (Steve Volk’s Fringe-ology is an example of one that works – based on interviews more than library research, but nevertheless, clearly informed by background knowledge, as well as being beautifully written.) You can't succeed at that without being prepared to put in some serious time, which an ambitious writer in a hurry won’t do – by all accounts Jacobsen put Phenomena together in less than a year.

I can claim some insights here from writing Randi’s Prize. To start with, I thought I’d give myself six months to research and write a book. At the end of six months I realised I’d only scratched the surface, so I decided to extend it to two years. Even that wasn’t enough: I’d written a complete book, but in my heart of hearts didn’t feel sure I knew what I was talking about. Now in a state of some frustration I felt obliged to press on until I did.

By the end of three years I’d written a very different sort of book, one based on a more or less settled idea about psi phenomena that has stayed with me ever since. Then later, I completely rewrote it.

So now I can easily recognise a two-year book about psi matters, one that authoritatively describes issues that I suspect the author is personally clueless about. It never really seems to get to grip with the material. If it also contains errors it’s most likely a one-year book, at best. Getting names even slightly wrong – for instance ‘Frederick Myers’ – is to be expected in an article by a journalist tackling the subject for the first time. But in a book it’s a sign that the author hasn’t often seen the name in print – and therefore can’t have done much research.

Jacobsen apparently refers to JB Rhine as ‘James’, a tip-off to the well-informed that her background knowledge is shallow. But that’s not surprising, since by all accounts she spent less than a year researching and writing. You could say she's pulled off a tour de force, considering the amount of ground she covers and the skill she apparently shows in presenting her research. But she may not understand how being in such a rush leaves her vulnerable to individual views and agendas, and readers certainly won’t.

Those of who know something about the subject also know how challenging and complex it is, and how much detail there is to master. But that’s not generally known because of its outlaw status: the paranormal is considered marginal at best, or at worst tacky and trashy. Clever people stoop from a great height to consider it. No wonder they’re so complacent.

I’ll be interested to know what other people think about the book. Speaking for myself, I may end up with a different view once I’ve looked at it, and I’m sure I’ll groan at the inaccuracies. Even so, on balance I think the effect will be positive. I believe Edwin May is planning shortly to publish a book detailing the CIA’s recently declassified documents, and the interest raised by Phenomena will surely help to extend its readership.

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If you're in the Manchester area you might like to know about talks being given on Thursday April 13 by near-death researcher and author Penny Sartori, Kelly Walsh, a near-death experiencer and Steve Taylor, an author and lecturer in spirituality and psychology. See here for details.