Join Host Alex Tsakiris for a discussion with remote viewer and former U.S. Army psychic spy, retired Major Paul H. Smith. The hour long interview explores the science of remote viewing portrayed in the film, The Men Who Stare at Goats and role Major Smith played in the StarGate project.
Major (Retired) Paul H. Smith served for seven years in the government’s remote viewing psychic espionage program at Ft. Meade, MD. He is one of only a handful of government personnel to be personally trained in remote viewing by Ingo Swann at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). He has a MS from the Defense Intelligence College, and is currently completing his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Texas.
Paul Smith’s review of, Men Who Stare at Goats
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Announcer: On this episode of Skeptiko, remote viewer and retired psychic spy, Major Paul H. Smith.
“Ronson himself is on record that he only cared about the people, not about the phenomena, but that’s because as I think he said on your interview, that he didn’t actually believe in the phenomenon. And he said something about he hadn’t seen any evidence that convinced him, but I know I’m paraphrasing here. I’m not exactly sure how he said it, but he said that he hadn’t seen any evidence that convinced him. In fact, kind of just the opposite. Well the fact is, he never saw any of the evidence. He never looked into the evidence.
You know, he might have listened to some of the stories but he of course, is able to dismiss those because when we did tell him credible things – now he interviewed me at length at the Remote Viewing Conference and I tried to present some real bottom-line, fundamental — this is how it really was, these are the kind of things that we did – that kind of stuff. None of that shows up in the book. None of that shows up anywhere, which just to me, that’s irresponsible. “
Announcer: Stay with us for Skeptiko.
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko we’re going to return to The Men Who Stare at Goats. The reason we’re going to return to this is because after I published the last episode of Skeptiko, which was an interview with the book’s author, Jon Ronson, I received an interesting e-mail from Major Paul Smith, who is now retired from the United States Army but spent seven years in the Remote Viewing Program, part of this psychic warrior thing that’s portrayed in both the book and the movie, “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”
So, Paul stepped forward and had a number of interesting insights about what that program was really all about, and about how it was being portrayed, both in Jon Ronson’s book and in the movie. Now, for some of you, you might be wondering why even return to this topic, but I have to say I think it’s worthwhile because this whole subject really encapsulates everything that we really are interested in and talk about here on Skeptiko.
First, it relates to psi, it relates to skepticism, it relates to science, and it relates to how our culture deals with anyone who steps outside of the materialistic paradigm that we seem to be so stuck in. So I thought it would be interesting to return to this and hear from a real insider and kind of sort out the fact versus fiction of both the book and the movie.
Maybe that’s the first place to start in examining this whole thing, is to kind of separate out where the book and the documentary that Jon Ronson did, where that ends and where the movie begins. Because clearly the movie has added this story element to it that really doesn’t exist in the original book. But other than that, I have to tell you, if you really dig into this, you’d be surprised at how accurate the movie’s portrayal of these events really are.
I mean, there really was/is a First Earth Battalion that’s headed up by a very hippie-like Colonel who spent a lot of time in hot tubs in California and did mind-expanding drugs and did come up with a training manual that suggested that soldiers present lambs and play indigenous music to people that they’re visiting and that they have to re-think the Army in terms of being these loving beings. He not only prepared that manual but he presented it to the highest commanders inside the United States military.
So that’s a whole area that we’re not even going to get into, but I think that what’s interesting about this whole topic is how these fantastic, unbelievable things that really are true are twisted and turned and presented in a way that makes us very cynical of the ideas. It makes it impossible to accept and still be taken seriously and then more importantly, as we’re going to explore on this show, cherry-picks out elements that are true and weaves them into a story that really leads you in a totally different direction than the actual facts do.
And I’ll give you one small example of this and then we’ll hear the real details from Major Smith when we get into it. But that has to do with really Paul Smith’s background in terms of remote viewing. Now most of you who are familiar with the psi field — which I have to digress here and say if you watch the movie, this is another example, a perfect example of kind of Hollywood and modern culture and how we can get it right and get it wrong because they’re talking about psi in the movie.
And then you’ll see Kevin Spacey’s character talk about psi and then say, “Of course that stands for psychology.” Those of you who are familiar with this field know that psi doesn’t stand for psychology, it stands for the 23rd or so letter in the Greek alphabet, psi that means “mind and spirit” and has come to mean in the parapsychology community all this work into ESP and psychokinesis and they chose the term psi just to get away from all the baggage that goes with those terms.
So even something as really kind of minor but also fundamental as the term psi gets kind of misrepresented and misreported in the movie. There is some fact there and by the time you get it in the movie it’s kind of a total fantasy. But what we’re going to really talk about is the Remote Viewing Program, because again, both Ronson and the movie get it wrong in a number of respects. It’s a real program with real science behind it. It’s extremely significant because it’s highly suggestive that we as human beings do have these expanded capabilities in our consciousness that conventional science doesn’t account for. It’s very well established and it was actually very well researched by the military.
The movie, I think, does a real disservice to the hard science and the really smart, smart guys, particularly at Stanford Research Institute, that did real science in investigating whether or not these advanced capabilities, in particular remote viewing, could be applied to real world problems. But maybe that’s getting a little bit ahead of the story – or at least ahead of this interview that I have today, the guy who may have never stared down a goat, but really was a psychic warrior for the United States Army, retired Major Paul H. Smith.
So we’re joined today by Major Paul H. Smith, who retired from the United States Army in 1996 after serving 20 years. Seven of those years were spent with the government’s Remote Viewing Program at Fort Mead, Maryland, which we’re going to talk quite a bit about today. So you’ll find that Dr. Smith, a newly-minted Ph.D. we should mention, has direct knowledge of the program, particularly its remote viewing aspects.
He has a lot of great insights that we can bring to exploring this topic of The Men Who Stare at Goats, both from the perspective of the book that was originally written by Jon Ronson and then the documentary that he made, and finally the movie that has become quite popular lately. So with that, welcome to Skeptiko.
Dr. Paul Smith: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: I thought that we might start this dialogue today by jumping right into The Men Who Stare at Goats and going through a little fact or fiction game, if you will. I want to bring people up to speed who maybe are coming at this totally from the outside looking in and just maybe have seen the movie for the first time and are wondering, ‘Is any of this stuff really real?’ because as the movie tells us right at the beginning, this is real. This is all real. So I guess the first obvious question would be, was there really a military program that tried to apply psychic techniques for military purposes?
Dr. Paul Smith: Yes, there absolutely was one. There were actually a couple but the main one started in 1972 and lasted until 1995.
Alex Tsakiris: Why would the military be interested in doing this? What was the reason behind it?
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, the first reason was the Soviets were involved, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on it, and we had to find out if there really was a threat to these kinds of phenomena.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. That certainly would be a motivation, I guess. So the documentary and the movie, to a certain extent, tell us that this program started in the mid-80s with this Men Who Stare at Goats Program. Now, I just heard you say a minute ago that the program started in the 1970s. Which is fact, which is fiction?
Dr. Paul Smith: The program was long underway by the time the 1980s rolled around. It started in 1972 and the Goats thing was just sort of – it wasn’t even actually part of the program.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. And I guess that leads to maybe another question. Jon Ronson, the author of the original book that this movie’s based on, reports that he started this investigation in 2001, his investigation, when all this was very secret, very confidential material. Is that basically right? Was all this super-under-wraps, top secret kind of stuff in terms of what the government had done with remote viewing and some of this psychic work?
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, partially. It was well known. It had been declassified that the program existed. The people involved in it were out in the public. The archives were not yet available to the public in 2001. But a lot of the information already was.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, because I was under the impression that folks like Dr. Russell Targ and to a lesser extent, Ingo Swann and others had been quite public in the early 2000s about their involvement and were telling people what had gone on. Is that accurate?
Dr. Paul Smith: Yeah, well, they did talk a lot about that but at that point they weren’t quite sure how much they could reveal so there was a lot more that was not revealed at that point. Once the archives were released, everybody knew what could be talked about and then all bets were off at that point.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Well how about another fact or fiction, then? So the book’s author, Jon Ronson, he worked closely with all the players involved with the psychic warrior programs and interviewed them all and they all were on pretty good terms with him, as is portrayed. Is that basically correct? Fact or fiction?
Dr. Paul Smith: Fact and fiction. He interviewed many of the people involved in the program but only reported selectively on what some of them had said.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. You were nice enough to send me a review that you had written and I’ll provide a link to that on the Web site. It seemed like in some of your follow-up work, some of the main players involved don’t even recall being interviewed by Ronson. Is that correct?
Dr. Paul Smith: Yeah, it was quite interesting. He claimed yeah, I interviewed John Alexander and I interviewed General Stubblebine, and I interviewed Jim Shannon. And right after the book came out I was in contact with all of these folks and they said, “Who’s Jon Ronson? I never got interviewed by Jon Ronson.”
The guy that actually did the interviewing was a gentleman by the name of John Sergeant. It turns out Ronson was there, but he actually wasn’t the main interviewer. Sergeant did all of that work and so the folks were kind of puzzled. What’s going on here? Why is the guy who is the author of the book and claims to be the leading figure not being the leading figure? I don’t even know why that happened that way but the fact was they were quite surprised.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I guess that leads into I guess, some other points in terms of this fact or fiction game we’re playing here in terms of your review that you published. That has to do with how it seems like what we’ve done here is weave together several different stories regarding the military’s use of or initial exploration and then use of psychic techniques and psychic phenomena for military use. Can you maybe deconstruct that a little bit and talk about the different programs involved? And maybe how they’re portrayed in both the book and the documentary, and the film if you’ve seen it yet?
Dr. Paul Smith: Sure. This will be a bit of an involved response but if you bear with me I think I can disentangle it pretty well. The book conflates all kinds of different things, puts them all together, meshes them together, and comes up with what apparently seems to be a fairly seamless account of all of these things being related to everything else. That’s not an accurate portrayal.
Let’s start off with the Remote Viewing Program because it really forms the core of the book and actually the core of all of the stuff that went on. The Remote Viewing Program started when the CIA contracted with the then Stanford Research Institute, now it’s SRI or SR International, to explore parapsychology, what we came to know as remote viewing is kind of a clairvoyant sort of process. The military and the Air Force took it over in 1975 when the CIA had to back out of it because they were in trouble about some other things.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so let me just interject here and we’ll add that context that you had at the beginning, so the way I understood it, the CIA understood that the Soviets were heavily invested in this and had been achieving some success, or at least they thought on their part, and by the way, didn’t all this come out with the fall of the Soviet Union that we were able to validate that that is true and that they were heavily involved and probably still are today. But anyway…
Dr. Paul Smith: We actually had good evidence even back starting in the late 60s and into the 70s. Our intelligence system actually collected a lot of information about the Soviet program. We didn’t necessarily know exactly where they were going with it and what their success was, but we knew they were heavily involved back then.
The interesting thing about the fall of the Soviet Union is that we really still didn’t get a good handle on what they were doing because there was quite a bit of turmoil and chaos and stuff and all of that. We’re only now, I think, in the near future going to get that kind of information because one of the primary researchers, Ed May, is going to publish a lot of stuff on the Soviet program. So that’s interesting as kind of a side note there.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, great. Okay, I’m sorry to interrupt you then, so back to the story…
Dr. Paul Smith: That’s fine.
Alex Tsakiris: …this is an initial CIA investigation. They contact Russell Targ because as I recall, he had done some work that was really peripheral to this but it seemed to be related and he seemed to be a guy…
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, it was actually Hal Puthoff that they contacted first.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, right, right.
Dr. Paul Smith: Puthoff was a physicist at SRI. He’d actually been a Naval Intelligence officer with the National Security Agency and then the NSA sent him off to go to physics school at Stanford and he decided he didn’t want to work for the NSA anymore. So he just became a civilian. He did an experiment with a guy named Ingo Swann who really was the one that came up with whole idea of remote viewing. The experiment was successful. The CIA found out about it. They needed somebody that could research to see if there really was a threat in this that the Soviets were looking at and it was kind of a fortuitous synchronistic kind of getting together.
So the CIA contracted through SRI with Puthoff. Russell Targ came along in a few months. Ingo Swann stayed involved with it. A number of other folks – we won’t go into all those details but that’s what got off going, the CIA very much interested in it up until 1975. By then lots of other people were, as well. The Air Force got involved. Then in ’79 the Army got involved. And then eventually the Defense Intelligence Agency got involved. So we have this long trajectory starting in ’72 going all the way up through 1995. It had nothing to do with staring at goats. [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Okay, good, good. Okay so that’s a great timeline to really set the stage for this in a couple of respects. One, we really have a decade before Ronson really is talking about this experiment starting. There’s all this groundwork. And for those who really want to dig into it and read about those early accounts, the reason it took off in that decade and you could elaborate on this, I’m sure, to great lengths but maybe just add a comment to it is, they had some immediate, rather amazing results.
I’ve heard the stories of some of Ingo Swann’s initial remote viewing, although it wasn’t even called remote viewing back then, but some of his early attempts at this were just astounding. The CIA was just kind of blown away. So they immediately saw not only how mind-bending this was but the obvious and immediate potential military applications for it.
Dr. Paul Smith: That became pretty obvious fairly early, although I have to say actually it was known as remote viewing at that time. Ingo had actually coined the term in 1971 before any of this stuff happened. The SRI folks adopted it so it was called remote viewing, and in fact, yes, there were enough successes early on, some of them quite spectacular, that it really spurred all the different military agencies and such involved to think, ‘You know what? There’s something to this. We really ought to see what we can do as far as applying it in the intelligence world.’ Successes continued. Not everything was a success. Nothing is in the intelligence world. [Laughs] But there were enough successes that justified exploring it and using it whenever possible.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Maybe that’s a way for us to jump ahead a little bit and talk about your involvement at Ford Meade and some of the projects that you would work on and kind of the typical remote viewing session — of which I understand you participated in over a thousand – how something like that would work. And what would be the outcome of that from both a military perspective and just from a common, everyday person going, “Oh my God. How could that possibly be true? Is it really true?” perspective.
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, I got involved in 1983. I had no idea anything such as remote viewing even existed. I had no clue about it. They came looking for me. I’d happened to meet a couple of the criteria they were looking for in possible remote viewing candidates. And so I got recruited into the program in 1983. I was there until 1990 when I got deployed to Desert Storm with the 101st Airborne in a surprise move I wasn’t expecting. So for seven years there I was involved in a lot of remote viewing programs.
We did a wide variety of targets we were asked to address once we were trained. For example, Chinese nuclear tests, the Pakistani nuclear program. We worked on that before it became public knowledge. Soviet weapons development. Terrorist events. Terrorist cells and organizations. Hostage cases.
We got into even some Soviet space stuff. One of the viewers, although this happened before I got there, was able to pinpoint where a kidnapped U.S. General was in Italy.
And then we even did stuff on drugs. Counter narcotics type operations and things of that nature. So it was this span that ranged from counter-terrorism to technology to nuclear events to counter-narcotics. We did a wide, wide range of things.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so kind of contrary to the way it’s portrayed in the movie and the book, the military application for gathering intelligence of this kind is just obvious and clear-cut. I mean, they’re already out there spending millions of dollars trying to gather information. If this is another way to gather information, why not? So that’s one thing that troubles me a little bit, is the way the story gets spun in terms of this being way out there to look at new human potentials.
It’s somewhat accurate and it’s entertaining in the way that it’s portrayed, but from another standpoint it’s just gosh, plain obvious and – yeah, and then the real question becomes the ethicacy and clearly what you experienced is there was some times and circumstances under which it was highly effective and then it’s just a question of how to do it more effectively, how to channel it and how to use it. Anything to say about that whole mess?
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, let’s drop back to the movie here for a moment and talk about that conflation of things. There was actually an effort in the Army Intelligence Security Command and later in the general Army to explore these kind of leading-edge kinds of human technologies, if you will. You know, different kinds of human potentials movement, all the different aspects of that. That was also part of it and some of the folks who were involved in that, Jim Shannon was one of them who’s featured as Bill Django in the movie, and John Alexander who’s very heavily represented in the book but does not get represented much in the movie.
Those folks were out there really beating the bushes to see in the Human Potentials Movement if there were real technologies, real advances that could be used to help improve the Army. And they did find a few things. I mean, they found a lot of stuff that was just noise, obviously, but they did find a few things. The book and the movie get that but what the problem is, is they make that part of the Remote Viewing Program and those were independent things. There was, of course, some maybe cross-talk between some of the folks informally but they were kept definitely separate during the time the Army had the program.
Once the Army gave up the program in 1984, all that went away except for one element, the thing called “Project Delta.” Don’t confuse that with Delta Detachment at Fort Bragg. That’s a door-kicker operation, a bunch of Special Forces types who are used to handle emergency situations. But there was a Delta Program and I’m trying to remember – I think it might have actually been at the Army War College where that was headquartered, where they got together and they actually referred to themselves sometimes as kind of Jedis. Or refer to the program as the Jedi Program. The idea where they continue to assess some of these more fruitful human potentials things.
And so all that has gotten messed up and thrown all together in the book and in the movie, “Goats,” when in reality they were completely separate, sometimes tangentially separate kinds of things. So anyway.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. No, that’s interesting and I think we could dive into that whole thing and try to pull it apart and talk about whether Men Who Stare At Goats – I mean, again, this gets to the core of my whole problem with the way this subject is treated in the book originally and then in the movie. That’s that we seem to be fed this titillation of kind of quirky people and strange, bizarre folks that feed a pre-existing agenda that is really anti-military, but moreover is very, very heavily materialist. That says, hey, you know, anything that isn’t from our physical understanding of how the world works is bizarre, and anyone who ventures into it is bizarre.
It really seems to be that that was the agenda from the beginning and it’s rather coy in the way that it’s played out that we’re really trying to do some real inquiry here, but it makes me wonder at the end of the game. Especially after speaking with Jon Ronson as I did in the previous episode of Skeptiko, whether that wasn’t really the agenda all along. And whether there was really any investigation here. It really makes me suspect on that whole thing.
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, the book is really more tabloid journalism than straight-ahead journalism. It’s not investigated journalism in a classic sense. It’s getting some interesting facts, pulling out the juiciest parts, sewing them together in a completely different garment than they originally were, presenting them in a way that isn’t true to the way the whole thing was done. But it more exciting, titillating, sensational in a way that will sell more books.
In some respects I actually respect the movie better than I do the book because the movie actually gives a bit more positive spin to some of this stuff than the book does. The book kind of makes it look silly and foolish. The movie actually portrays some of the events as actually working. You know, some of the attempts at being psychic or using ESP as actually being successful. Which the book doesn’t do. [Laughs] So in that respect, I actually kind of like the movie better.
Alex Tsakiris: Uh-huh (yes). Well, I found that interesting as well in terms of just how in the interview that I did with Ronson on the last episode of Skeptiko, he seemed to be skimming over the most important facts which you just alluded to. That hey, this stuff worked at all. I mean, isn’t that what really would grab the average person and kind of shake them up to say that this guy stared at a goat and its heart really did stop. Moreover, these guys really were able to predict the future to a certain extent. Or were able to locate objects at a distance without being there. All these things really did happen. Isn’t that the story?
Dr. Paul Smith: Uh-huh (yes). I think it is. Ronson himself is on record that he only cared about the people, not about the phenomena, but that’s because as I think he said on your interview, that he didn’t actually believe in the phenomenon. And he said something about he hadn’t seen any evidence that convinced him, but I know I’m paraphrasing here. I’m not exactly sure how he said it, but he said that he hadn’t seen any evidence that convinced him. In fact, kind of just the opposite. Well the fact is, he never saw any of the evidence. He never looked into the evidence.
You know, he might have listened to some of the stories but he of course, is able to dismiss those because when we did tell him credible things – now he interviewed me at length at the Remote Viewing Conference and I tried to present some real bottom-line, fundamental — this is how it really was, these are the kind of things that we did – that kind of stuff. None of that shows up in the book. None of that shows up anywhere. So to me, I think he had a bias against anything that was supportive and he was looking more for the exciting vignettes and the exciting stories that shows the quirkiness of the people – to use that term — which just to me, that’s irresponsible.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I would have to agree. You know, it was interesting when we entered into this discussion, you and I. You sent me an abstract, a summary from the dissertation that you just completed at the University of Texas, which again, congratulations for completing that. That’s wonderful. But your dissertation summary was awesome and it really got to the core of what we were just kind of talking about. Maybe to answering that question of why the media seems to be so susceptible to this idea of portraying materialism – I think you call it physicalism – and why we’re just to hungry to eat that up as an explanation for phenomena that really make us uncomfortable at the core of what we really believe. So do you want to share a little bit about what your dissertation was about? And what you found?
Dr. Paul Smith: Yeah, physicalism, of course, for people who don’t know and it kind of the newer version of what’s called materialism is the idea that everything in the universe is physical or it is the consequence of physical facts. So in other words, there is nothing outside of the physical universe. There’s nothing that’s non-physical. There’s nothing that’s anything that can’t be held to or explained in physics.
Alex Tsakiris: So remote viewing would be outside of that realm, staring at goats would be outside of that realm. Telepathy and medium communication, near-death experience, all that stuff is outside of the physicalist paradigm.
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, the scientists and the skeptics would say no, it’s not. They would say that all of that stuff there are physical explanations for it. But nothing paranormal is going on. So for example, near-death experiences, the popular physicalist explanation is that okay, well nobody actually has a real experience. They have an experience but it’s all just the results of an oxygen-starved brain and it’s a hallucination. that would be the physical explanation of it. They have explanations for all of these other things, although fraud is often the thing that they fall back on when they can’t explain it any other way.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, the way we’ve often simplified it on this show is that it’s mind equals brain. I mean, that’s the physicalist paradigm…
Dr. Paul Smith: Yes.
Alex Tsakiris: …in that if you ever try and break that equation under any circumstances, any place, then you’ve kind of broken the fundamental idea of physicalism.
Dr. Paul Smith: Right. If you even so much as suggest that well, maybe there are nonphysical aspects of the universe, then a kind of panic effect goes into [Laughs] as far as mainstream science and as far as skeptics. The reason journalism gets in there is because journalism basically represents the mainstream thought, the mainstream paradigm. If you suggest that physicalism isn’t completely true then that disrupts the mainstream paradigm, and so journalism in general is as threatened as are mainstream scientists and the skeptics by someone suggesting that maybe we’re wrong about that.
Alex Tsakiris: I could hear another voice there. A skeptical voice that does have some merit, that says, “Gee, what do you mean? There’s more non-physicalist media out there than ever before. There’s all sorts of paranormal shows. There’s all sorts of shows about mediumship. There’s all this.” So it’s going to be interesting and it’s true, I mean, that’s true. We’re kind of going down these two parallels where…
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, you have to look at the distinction there. You’re exactly right. They’re panicked and in fact Carl Sagan, the theme of his book, The Demon-Haunted World, was that if we let any of this stuff in the door, if we admit that any kind of ESP phenomenon is true, then there’s going to be a floodgate of all these old superstitions that are going to come flooding back in. But if you look at the media that has the paranormal slant, it is the entertainment media, not the news-reporting and the validation media, right?
So if you look at the kind of paranormal stuff it’s either dramatized in a way, taken as science fiction, or there is still a little bit of a skeptical edge to it. Like maybe it’s not exactly the way it looks, you know? And it tends to be one or the other. So it’s compartmentalized. It compartmentalizes itself so that it becomes it could be imagination, well it is imaginary in the science fiction realm. And even the stuff that’s the History Channel doing stuff on UFOs, they don’t want to lump UFOs in, it’s a different category, but it’s kind of the idea. The ghost hunting stuff. You know, it’s presented in a way that you don’t necessarily have to believe it’s true. It certainly doesn’t threaten the underlying paradigm.
Alex Tsakiris: See, I don’t know that I totally agree with you there but I agree with the overall premise. I mean, I think as a perfect example how the media – and sometimes we talk about The Media like we talk about science…
Dr. Paul Smith: Yeah, but it’s not monolithic, there are…
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly. And it’s really just a tuning fork you know, with whatever we as the public are – whatever song we’re singing and they’re tuning into that and reflecting it back to us. I think that’s what’s coming through in the paranormal media that’s being generated is a lot of people are responding to it and a lot of people are responding to it being presented in a reality show format.
I think there’s many examples of that on the History Channel and on other networks where it really comes through and they’re really kind of playing it straight. Of course, as you mention, they do have to run that little disclaimer at the beginning saying, “We don’t know that we believe any of this.” But I think they present it pretty straight on.
Dr. Paul Smith: You have a point there. The fact is, of course, that the majority of the population still believes that there are so-called paranormal phenomena. They’re roughly 60 percent. I mean, it used to be like 80 percent. It’s down to 60 percent. But still the majority do. Those kind of media outlets of course, all of them do, but they’re focusing on eyeballs, people who buy products. So they’re going to present things that people want to watch, and certainly this interest in the paranormal’s going to come out there.
But if you look at the ones who are actually the portion of the media that’s always looked at to give the view on what’s real and what isn’t, you know, the broadcast news media and all of that stuff, there’s always that skeptical edge there. They never report anything without it being slanted towards – anything in the ESP realm – without it having be biased somewhat towards the skeptical direction.
Alex Tsakiris: And would you say that leads back again to the Carl Sagan quote that you gave, because I do. I think that’s at the core of this, is this kind of knee-jerk reaction really against religion is what it’s against. It’s this idea that if we give an inch on this then we’re going to be right back in the Dark Ages and we’re going to be burning witches and all the rest of this stuff. Which is really just a ridiculous way to approach things from a purely scientific or even critical thinking like the skeptical folks like to say. It just really doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
Dr. Paul Smith: Yeah, there’s fear. The irony here is that skeptics are fearful. [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Very fearful.
Dr. Paul Smith: They’re afraid what it means if their ivory tower gets undermined and collapses.
Alex Tsakiris: I think their position is really, really tenuous when you really look at it. They’re quick to kind of portray it and spin it in a different way but the reason it’s so tenuous is because the any and always and every words are in there, you know? And I think the average person on the street, if you said, “Do you think this stuff ever happens?” They go, “Well, yeah, I’m sure it’s probably happened sometime. I have an Aunt Mabel who was able to see the hurricane come before it happened in a dream, and I know it happened. Or she was able to predict someone who died.”
I mean, these stories are all our stories. They’re in everyone’s family. We know they’re true. We know that our understanding of human consciousness in this limited physicalist kind of view is just not right. It’s like we’re working in two worlds where we have to kind of sit there and go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, science. You know what you’re talking about.” And then you have to turn around and go, “But I know it doesn’t all work that way.”
Dr. Paul Smith: Uh-huh (yes). Well in fact, to go back to my dissertation, and that’s kind of the position I take, that ESP data doesn’t threaten physics as a discipline. If physics is a study of everything that’s physical, then the fact that there might be something non-physical doesn’t affect physics at all. What ESP data threatens is physicalism, which is the universal statement that everything is physical. Physics itself doesn’t say that everything is physical. Physics just says there are things that are physical and we study those. Physicalism says everything is physical.
It’s a metaphysical position which you really can’t prove. You can’t prove that everything is physical without examining everything that exists. And of course, we can’t do that. But you come along with ESP evidence which violates the principles that make physicalism true, it actually disproves physicalism and the physicalists, people like Richard Dawkins, people like Carl Sagan and all these folks plus lots of other folks, that is very threatening because it undermines their entire belief structure. Just like anybody who if you question their religion, they panic. These guys are questioning what they have as a religion and they panic.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about what you offer up as your evidence in your dissertation that physicalism is really kind of a dead end.
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, broadly said, it’s all the ESP evidence that’s available, but that’s too broad actually. I wanted to narrow it down to where I had really pretty solidly attested evidence that was easy to explain and that showed pretty clear evidence of a violation of physicalism. So I picked four of the research paradigms. There’s a bunch more but I focus on four. One is the presentiment experiments that Dean Raden did and others. They’ve been replicated, okay? Which show that people have a sense of disturbing things that may happen shortly into their future.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s go ahead – and I’ve talked about that several times on this show – but why don’t you go ahead and give a quick thumbnail sketch of how that experiment works, what they’ve found, and in particular, their replication of it?
Dr. Paul Smith: Okay. So what we already know is there’s an orienting response in human psychology where if there is a threatening event or very note-worthy, positive event or whatever, our system organizes itself to meet that. So the autonomic nervous system reacts in a certain way to get our heart rate going or blood pressure the right way, get ourselves attuned to react to this perception. Usually it’s a threat, okay?
The idea was that well, what if there’s a threat slightly in the future that the person isn’t aware of yet, but will become aware of. Is there a kind of reverse time kind of thing where the person has a precognitive notion that something is going to happen subconsciously and the autonomic nervous system reacts in advance to being presented with that threat?
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so let me just fill people in because this is actually an experiment that’s been done for a long time in psychology and that’s why Raden picked it up, right?
Dr. Paul Smith: Yeah, and that’s how they knew about the orienting effect. So what they did was, they set it up with a computer that would randomly show either a very disturbing image, say an autopsy scene, a crash scene, or even some erotic pornography, really is what it boiled down to, or a calm, non-disturbing kind of an image. The computer would pick which one that was, and then they’d have the person wired up for autonomic response. It’s usually skin conductives, the electrical potential of the skin changes if you are feeling threatened in some way.
So they wired that up and then they’d measure what was happening with your skin conductives from several seconds before the image was shown until several seconds after, the idea being that if you were getting these presentiment responses, precognitive impression, your skin conductives would change even before the disturbing image was shown. They in fact found that to occur. Raden did a number of experiments with results. Dick Berryman did a number.
Other folks played around with it. They even tried different stimulus, so for example, Ed May set it up so that you either heard a nice, quiet silencing or you heard a very startling and loud piece of very disturbing white noise. So they used sounds and they got the effect. So it’s been replicated a number of times. It is true that at least some people do have some kind of perception of a disturbing event before the event actually happens.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, and this has just a really small interesting tie-back into the Goats work that Jon Ronson did and that’s when I was watching the documentary and he hauled out Ray Hyman as his expert behind all of this. Ray Hyman did a while back a critique of Dean Raden’s presentiment work and it was just absurd. We actually called up Raden and Dr. Raden was nice enough to respond but the sloppiness with which Hyman had analyzed his work was just stunning. I mean, he just made obvious mistakes that were easily refuted by published work that had already been done. This from a guy who claims that he’s read more parapsychology research than anyone else.
I just think it goes to reinforce this notion that folks who are heavily invested in not believing this stuff are always going to find a reason not to. So please, continue. So this presentiment work that’s been replicated many times, many different ways, one with the skin sensors but also now they’ve advanced to the EEG and then they found the same phenomena there. So that’s one part of the research.
Dr. Paul Smith: Another one that I used was what’s called generally DMIWLS which is Distant Mental Interaction With Living Systems. One form of that is staring, where people have the impression they’re being stared at and they’ve set up a laboratory situation where a person is tested to see if they really do recognize it, again autonomically. They oftentimes use the skin conductives test to determine whether the person actually does subconsciously detect that they’re being stared at even though they consciously have no idea.
So you might have the starer in a distant room with a closed-circuit TV and then they watch the closed-circuit TV to stare at the person that’s being monitored. It’s on and off and on and off at different periods and then they track the response of the person being stared at. Those things produced some interesting results that are statistically significant that showed that they did. Then the rest of the DMIWLS have all kinds of different models. It would take too long to go into those but the idea was that it’s very clear that people can perceive when they are having attention turned on them, even though there is no possible physical way they could know that.
Alex Tsakiris: You know one of the things that I think is so interesting about that phenomena is that we all know that’s true. We all did it in the fifth grade, right? We’d stare at somebody until we got them to turn around. We always have this anomalistic psychology voice that comes in and says, “No, you’re just imagining it. You’re just imagining it.” But really, we all know that that’s true.
And moreover, we see it throughout cultures. Throughout all cultures across time people have reported this as a phenomena. The other thing, when I looked into that a little bit, I found that people who are in security actually incorporate that into the training and say, “Hey, if you’re tailing somebody don’t stare directly at them because they’re liable to know.” Now you probably know a lot more about that, but isn’t that true?
Dr. Paul Smith: Uh-huh (yes). Yeah, you do want to be careful because this kind of non-local knowing as the [inaudible 0:45:44.8] calls it and others is built into us. Of course, that’s what the physicalists reject but that’s what the evidence shows. Another one of the paradigms I used was remote viewing, which of course we’ve talked about extensively, and there’s a great deal of evidence for that. And then I used a version of remote viewing called associative remote viewing which involves not just knowing things at a distance the way remote viewing works but also has a precognitive element where you actually know things at a distance in the future. So that’s a double whammy there as far as physicalism is concerned.
Alex Tsakiris: Why don’t you take us through some of the most compelling, hard-science research that’s been done with remote viewing? So some of the stuff that’s really been published, really been scrutinized and done in the most careful way possible. And that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of other really, really good research out there that’s been collected, much as it was by the military and other folks. But when we’ve taken that into the lab, what have we found?
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, some of the earliest stuff was quite good. The paper that Puthoff and Targ published in the Journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, IEEE, a very respected science journal, they published in that was actually some very good stuff. Now it came under criticism by some of the skeptics but in the process of doing my dissertation, I was able to actually essentially eliminate the arguments skeptics had about those experiments.
I mean there were some methodological errors but I think I was able to show that they were pretty much irrelevant to the outcome. Skeptics, of course, have won the ground on that just because they came up with an objection and they’ll often do that. A skeptic will come up with an objection. They don’t actually show that the objection is true to the experiment but the mere fact that you lodge an objection to it is taken as evidence there’s something wrong with the experiment and therefore to some degree degrades or invalidates the results.
It’s a logical fallacy but it works very well psychologically and the skeptics have used that strategy very effectively over the years. I mean, that’s what Hyman did with the Gronsveld stuff that you were talking about earlier. Even though his analysis was pretty lame, the fact that he did it and the fact that he declared his results proved the Gronsveld stuff invalid was enough to cast it in a questionable light.
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly.
Dr. Paul Smith: Even though if you went back and examined it you’d find out it didn’t hold water. The criticism didn’t hold water. And that’s done a lot. The Puthoff-Targ stuff done at SRI, they did a number of repeat experiments and such and different versions and variations that were largely successful. Most of their stuff was highly statistically significant.
There were replications of that but done by Marilyn Schlitz and various people by Brenda Dunn and by Geoff Rowley and the group of folks did a replication. Arthur Hastings and some other folks did a replication. There were a bunch of replications done. The interesting thing they discovered is that the closer you stuck to the recipe, the more likely you were to have a successful replication. The farther away you got from it the more likely your replication was to fail.
But what the skeptics will do is they’ll look at – see, there was a number of replications done by Jack Sarfatti and Elizabeth Rauscher, a couple of other folks I’m right at the moment blanking on, there were like three or four failed replications. But if you looked at what they did, you discovered they had strayed away from the original formula. But the problem was that the skeptics seized on those as proof that the experiment didn’t work when in fact it was just proof that if you did it the wrong way, it didn’t work.
Anyway, so then interestingly, of course a lot of the remote viewing research was happening inside the classified domains. Most people didn’t know about it at the time but there was another paper published in 1979/1980 by Puthoff, May, and Targ and presented at a colloquium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So we’re talking about a legitimate venue for science research. These guys presented their very good work. But most of it’s going on behind the scenes in the military.
Alex Tsakiris: Now that’s something that you’ve really taken in a different direction. Why don’t you fill people in a little bit about what your work has been in the private sector? And I think it dovetails in with exactly the topic that you’ve been talking about in terms of how really to apply these techniques and what their possible application might be outside of a military setting.
Dr. Paul Smith: Sure. Of course, what happened was the military was researching this stuff “behind the green door” as we say. And so nobody really knew about what they were producing. When it got declassified in 1995 and eventually all the data came out, that made it legal for a number of us to get out and start talking about it. Of course that’s a mixed bag because some of my colleagues have been willing to embroider nearly as much as Jon Ronson was willing to. You know, many of them were down-to-earth and really presented it accurately but some of them wanted to sensationalize it and try and attract attention or whatever.
So we’ve heard a lot of wild stories about remote viewing. But once it was declassified and once I retired from the Army, I decided to get into the business of teaching people what your tax dollars had made it possible for me to learn. So I opened a business and in fact, if people are curious, it’s called Remote Viewing Instructional Services. My goal there – obviously it’s nice to get paid but my goal mainly – probably the more altruistic part of it is to actually get people into the community, into the remote viewing community with the actual capacities and with the right understandings about how it works so we continue to grow the community and help this survive in spite of the pressures by science and the skeptics.
Alex Tsakiris: After having been in it for a while, how do you feel about kind of a commercial application of remote viewing as opposed to a purely research-oriented approach? Because I think – here I guess is where I’m going with that.
I hear so many people, skeptical folks, and it’s such a ridiculous argument but as soon as there’s any commercial angle to it, then it’s like, “Aha! We’ve found the real motivation here. It’s all about money.” And I just think that’s so shamefully transparent as an explanation for things.
And I think also we have to put that inside of the larger framework that research is almost impossible to do in this area. It’s almost impossible to get funded other than through private funds. It’s almost impossible to find qualified people to do it because they haven’t already done it so the way our academic system works, unless you’re brought up through someone who’s already doing this research and take it over you don’t launch out into these other things. So maybe you want to speak a little bit about whether this really belongs in the private commercial sector versus the research sector.
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, first off yeah, the research has suffered because of the chilling effect the skeptics have had. They have basically converted the media to their perspective so anytime anybody reports on this, they get generally…
Alex Tsakiris: And I don’t even think they had to convert them. They’re just reflecting back to each other what they all want to believe, yeah.
Dr. Paul Smith: …made fun of. Right. Well, whatever the source is, that’s kind of what happens, but it has even more of an impact in academia and in science. Because few self-respecting scientists have the courage to buck the system to actually do research in this field. There are some that do, but that’s still problematic. And getting funding, you’re exactly right. It’s almost impossible from any kind of public or mainstream funding source. You don’t get grants to do remote viewing research from the National Science Foundation. So that’s been a big problem.
As a matter of fact, the sentiment in the remote viewing community is, the solution is going to have to be a practical application that actually makes people money. Then people will sit up and take notice. I think there’s some truth to that but I think you can’t give up on research, either, because there are innovative ways to do research that don’t involve having to get money from the National Science Foundation.
I have an article on the Web site of the International Remote Viewing Association called, “Guerilla Funding,” [Laughs] okay? It’s kind of like guerilla marketing but for getting funding. We were actually able to do a real research remote viewing experiment based on guerilla funding. You know, people contributing a few bucks here and there, a few hundred here and there, not huge philanthropists, but just everyday folks who just a little bit of discretionary funds that they wanted to see go to a good cause.
We used that to fund this research project that we’re still doing data on. You can actually see some of the results right now by going on the Web. The url is crvreg.org. You can go look at it if you want. Anyway, that’s a side thing. The commercial thing of course, is important as well because really, it almost doesn’t matter what scientists say if you can actually produce results that actually are concrete. And there are some cases of that and we’re slowly working that. One of those is the associative remote viewing paradigm I told you about which can be used in investing and has been used by some folks successfully.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that gets at the heart of my question. You know, the other thing I’d point out that I see happening in the research community – I was talking a couple months ago to Julie Beischel at the Windbridge Institute who was and is involved with medium communication research.
Dr. Paul Smith: Yeah, they did a presentation at the Parapsychology Association meetings in Seattle where I was this summer. That was my first exposure to them.
Alex Tsakiris: And I think the twist on that, that also kind of shows the way forward for some of this research is, one of the things they’ve found is that if you have a session with a medium who was well-trained and qualified, you have a significant reduction in grief much greater than you would going to see a therapist or taking drugs. And they can show that and they can replicate it over and over again. It kind of gets outside of the realm of what this stuff is and looks at it from a kind of practical, pragmatic perspective of whether it’s efficacious and I think that that’s really a trend in psychology as well in terms of looking at particular techniques that work for particular problems.
I think that also is a way forward for remote viewing is to maybe re-spin the implications of it and just say were we able – and that’s why I referenced in the past, and I don’t know if you want to comment on this, but some of the work that’s been done in archaeology and particularly with Stephan Schwartz and some other folks who’ve applied it and actually there’s been papers written and published – and I forget that guy’s name in Canada…
Dr. Paul Smith: George McMullen.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, with George McMullen in Canada where they’ve used it. So maybe these applications as they come out and with investing too, I could see it becoming part of something in the economics department and buried under intuition or something else. But it’s really in effect, these remote viewing protocols and techniques being applied that then can be recast in a different way.
Dr. Paul Smith: Uh-huh (yes). Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of interesting potentials for it. We just have to explore it and do it in a careful, rigorous way. I mean, you can make all kinds of claims about the paranormal effect but until you actually carefully control and then do your research, you don’t know what’s really true about it. So that’s what we need to do, but I think that ultimately we’ll be able to refine remote viewing to the point where we can do all kinds of things with it that make it useful and valuable.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Well, Paul, in the little bit of time we have left, do you want to bring people up to date on what’s going on in your world right now? I know you have ongoing training classes. What else is going on for you?
Dr. Paul Smith: Well, actually now that I’m wrapping up my doctoral program I’m looking to expand a lot. First of all, training, I’m going to get back on track with that. In fact, I have a class starting on 10 December. I’m going to expand also my live courses. Right now I teach pretty much just remote viewing related things so three levels of remote viewing, basic, intermediate, and advanced, plus an associative remote viewing course.
I have a product out there, it’s called, “The Dowsing DVD Set.” Technical dowsing is what it’s called and you can apply dowsing in a lot of areas of life. I won’t go into it in great detail, but if you’re curious about it folks can actually get a free copy of one part of the DVD. It’s a documentary. It actually features Hal Puthoff and some of these folks. Then again, just go to my Web site which rviewer.com and there’s a link at the top that allows you just to click on “free DVD” and it really is free. Shipping and handling is involved but there’s no strings other than that. That will tell you about dowsing, get you a good start anyway in that direction.
I’m going to probably have some live dowsing courses eventually. I’m looking at a sketching course for remote viewers. I’ve already got that one outlined out and I just have to put it together and schedule it.
And actually we are doing a remote viewing operation. Starting in the new year I’ve got a client that’s interested in using remote viewing operationally to try and gain some information which unfortunately that’s all I can tell you about it. [Laughs] You see, there’s really, really strong nondisclosures on that one. That promises to be a pretty major kind of an application for remote viewing and hopefully someday, once everything gets shaken out, we can probably tell you about it and show you some results. That’s in the future sometime.
So all of that is going. I’m going to get involved in e-learning and all that. And of course there’s always the non-profit International Remote Viewing Association which I’ve been affiliated with. We’ll have our conference. We already have the conference scheduled for June in Las Vegas and you can go to the IRVA.org Web site and get information on that.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s been really great speaking with you and I appreciate you jumping in here and responding to this fact or fiction little game we were playing with the “Goats” movie. You know, maybe in the end it will do some good in terms of bringing some attention to these technologies. I think a lot of folks will look at it in the same way that you did and say, “Gee, wow, what’s really going on here?” The fact that some of it is true maybe will spark some further interest and get past the cynicism that is portrayed, to really asked the deeper question of if this is a fundamental aspect of our human consciousness, what does that say about who we really are? I think that’s the deeper question.
Dr. Paul Smith: Absolutely. That’s great. And I think the movie will have some positive effects. We’ll see, though.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Thanks again, Paul.
Dr. Paul Smith: You bet. Thank you, I appreciate the chance.
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Paul Smith for joining us today on Skeptiko. If you’d like links to some of the information we mentioned in the show or links to any of our previous episodes and check out my previous interview with Jon Ronson and the other episodes of Skeptiko, well then visit our Web site. It’s at skeptiko.com.
As mentioned, you’ll find links to all our previous shows, a link to our forum where you can chat about this, and an e-mail link to me.
Well, that’s going to do it for today. Stay with us. Many more interesting interviews coming up in the near future. Take care and bye for now.