Brief Review of Phenomena: The Secret History of the U. S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis
Charles T. Tart
In the last part of March, 2017, colleagues on discussion lists for scientific studies of parapsychological phenomena began discussing the forthcoming publication of Annie Jacobsen’s new book, Phenomena: The Secret History of the U. S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Expectations were high, as the jacket of Phenomena bills it as “The definitive history of the military’s decades-long investigation into mental powers and phenomena.” Knowing a lot about this important area, since I spent a year as a consultant on the Stanford Research Institute’s (SRI’s) original program on remote viewing, as well as having done many independent studies of parapsychological phenomena and related areas like altered states of consciousness (ASCs) and transpersonal psychology, I was very interested. But, alas, my colleagues’ main comments were about important distortions of the history in the book.
Annie Jacobsen’s name rang a bell, and I recalled she did a pleasant interview with me a few years ago, although it was mainly about my work with ASCs, rather than parapsychology. She kindly sent me a copy of Phenomena, though apologizing for using so little of that material and only mentioning me twice in the Phenomena book.
So I’ve begun reading with great interest, but caution, and my comments here are specific to what I’ve read. Jacobsen’s an excellent writer. The text flows nicely and I easily get caught up in the story lines. But a “DEFINITIVE HISTORY” requires more than a smooth flow, it requires rigorous factuality. So I’ve concentrated here on her mentions of me and my work, and, I’m sad to say, have had to question the “definitive history” categorization. Perhaps there will be a second edition incorporating fact checking.
Her first mention of me, a small point, notes, largely in passing, my attendance at a conference on human energy fields where Andrija Puharich described some of his research, and notes “Also present at the conference were several of Puharich’s former colleagues from the Round Table Foundation, including Arthur Young and Charles T. Tart.” Puharich is a controversial figure in scientific parapsychological research, although I believe some of his early research was very important. Describing me as a “colleague” from Puharich’s Round Table Foundation research is a small departure from factuality that perhaps honors me t
oo much, I was just a college sophomore then. Under most circumstances, I would not bother to point this out, but it’s that “definitive” adjective pushing on me.
I worked for Puharich as a research assistant for the summer of 1957, between my sophomore year as an MIT student and transferring to Duke University as a junior. Duke was where J. B. Rhine’s laboratory was located, and I chose it because of my interests in parapsychology. On the other hand, I am the only parapsychologist I know of who independently carried out a high quality, double-blind scientific study of one of Puharich’s basic discoveries, confirming that the electrical condition of a Faraday cage could enhance ESP ability.
But the second mention is seriously distorted, creating wrong impressions of what happened. Jacobsen had a huge task trying to capture half a century of research, much of it classified, but I regret Phenomena’s publisher (Little Brown and Company) didn’t fact check the manuscript before publishing if they were going to use that word “definitive” to describe it. I’ve had better fact checking done by the National Enquirer on a story they did on my ESP research years ago. Jacobsen writes:
“As head of the Electro-Optic Threat Assessment section, Graff was also involved in an array of brainstorming ideas, designed to beat the MX missile basing system as part of an official Air Force vulnerability assessment team. He wondered whether remote viewers using ESP could determine which transport vehicles were carrying the real missiles and which were carrying dummy warheads. He contracted with Hal Puthoff to conduct a study. Using a computer-generated shell game, Puthoff’s colleague Charles Tart of the University of California, Davis collected data from a group of psychics tasked to try to beat the shell game. Random guesses would produce a correct guess 10% of the time. On the average, remote viewers trained in SRI protocols were correct 25% of the time. One “sensitive” individual in the group produced exceptional results, Graff learned. After 50 shell game trials times, she had guessed the location of a marble with an accuracy of 80%. Hal Puthoff’s report for Graff indicated that remote viewers could significantly increase the odds in determining the location of the real ICBMs. This report was sent to the Pentagon.”
Really dramatic, yes? And mostly real and very important, but… Very briefly described: what was going on?
The “computer-generated shell game” was not a project developed or carried out at SRI, though, nor was it done with the MX missile system in mind. It was continuing work, with encouraging success, on trying to get ESP to work in the laboratory more strongly and reliably. Details can be found in a a book length report (Tart, 1976).
The year I was consulting full time on remote viewing at SRI was when we were asked to see if the MX missile system could be defeated. The basic idea was that the Soviets had a certain number of (very expensive!) ICBMs (as we did), and if they launched a first strike, they could wipe out most of our missiles before we could launch, and then take over (what was left of) the world. Neither we nor the Soviets could afford to build several times as many missiles (and there was already enough nuclear weaponry to blow up the earth several times over in those insane times!), but we could afford to build (for many billions!) a lot of silos to hide missiles in and constantly shuttle them about in a hidden way. The Soviets would not know which silos were empty, and which had the missiles they wanted to destroy. We could retaliate devastatingly if they struck first, so (hopefully!) they wouldn’t.
But if you had some way of knowing better, not perfectly but better, where our missiles were, maybe a Soviet first strike would be worthwhile? That was the question SRI was tasked with: could ESP, remote viewing by the Soviets, improve their odds of winning with a first strike?
Physicist Hal Puthoff did the sophisticated mathematical analyses, using both results from SRI remote viewing studies up till that time AND the data from my ESP training studies at UC Davis. I don’t know the relative weights given these two kinds of data, but I think my data were particularly worrisome, as I’ll explain below.
Jacobsen writes that I “…collected data from a group of psychics,“ implying specially talented people, “psychics.” Maybe there weren’t too many good “psychics” around in the Soviet Union so there wasn’t too much danger?
But my data was from ordinary college students, roughly a couple of thousand to start with, who had no thoughts of being “psychics.” They were ordinary students at UC Davis who were selected by taking a very simple and quick card-guessing test at the end of one of their ordinary classes. The ones who scored high were invited to take half a dozen formal ESP tests in the laboratory with one of my several student apprentices. Those who continued to score high probably had some ESP ability to begin with, and they were then each able to take part in 20 formal tests, with immediate feedback. If you could end up with even half a dozen people quite talented at ESP, at a level practical enough to indicate, with far-from-perfect but better-than-chance accuracy, which silos had missiles in them, finding and training “psychics” to beat the MX system looked practical. Thus the Soviets could have enough information to risk a first strike.
Thankfully the whole MX shuttle system was cancelled, undoubtedly for many reasons, but I hope my and my apprentices’ findings helped make that happen.
OK, I’ve set the record straight on that part that I was intimately involved with, but it’s certainly alerted me to be cautious and skeptical about how “definitive” Phenomena is… Jacobsen is an excellent writer and story teller, she took on a huge task of describing all that happened, I hope a fact checked version will be published someday. As I indicated, I’ve just focused on parts of Phenomena where my work was mentioned. But if my colleagues comments are correct, the book has far worse distortions than this and is not a DEFINITIVE HISTORY.
Tart, Charles (1976). Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Can be found on Amazon.