Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Another study of “psychics”

The BBC tells us that the British Ministry of Defence is defending themselves for having done a study on psychic powers:

The Ministry of Defence has defended a decision to carry out tests to find out whether psychic powers could be used to detect hidden objects. The previously secret tests — conducted in 2002 — involved blind-folding volunteers and asking them about the contents of sealed brown envelopes. Most subjects consistently failed to establish what was in the envelopes.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I generally think it's a good thing to have more concrete evidence that this “psychic” stuff is hooey. But on the other hand, it bothers me that, with all the evidence we already have, we still have people who ought to know better giving this stuff the credibility of serious study. And there's also the question of whether a government agency should be spending more than $35,000 of public money on this garbage.

In the end, the agency “concluded there was ‘little value’ in using ‘remote viewing’ in the defence of the nation.” A good thing, there, though it doesn't go far enough. We have lots of experience that shows us that it's not only of “little value”, but that it actually wastes time, money, and personnel, delays real progress by sending investigators on wild goose chases, and gives people false hope. It's worse than of little value; it's worse than useless; it's destructive. It has no place in any real investigation.

Here's one thing that's interesting, but not terribly surprising, about the study:

During the tests, defence experts attempted to recruit 12 “known” psychics who had advertised their abilities on the internet. However, when they all refused to take part in the research, “novice” volunteers were drafted in.
This is more evidence that the “psychics” don't believe in their own “abilities”. One might think that they've deluded themselves into thinking that what they do has some basis in reality. Were that the case, they ought to be eager to show that to the Ministry of Defence, that they might be called on to use their abilities to help solve cases (and to make money for themselves). That they're not willing to participate shows that, in fact, they know it's all a sham, and they're afraid to have it exposed as such. They can now say, “Oh, the reason the study got poor results is that they didn't use ‘real’ psychics.”


In any case, I think I'm not bothered by their doing the study — and spending the money on it — now... provided that this now settles the question for the British government. Were they to conduct another study in a couple of years, or were they to hire a psychic next year to try to find a missing person or locate hidden evidence, well, that would bother me. We've proven over and over, time and time again, that this is just magical thinking with no real value. It's time to let it rest.


Dr. Momentum said...

Those are my thoughts, too, pretty much.

Although, if I heard my state were doing such a study, I guess I'd be upset at the waste. As you point out, we already have plenty of studies that fail to show anything. Unless there were some new hypothesis of psychic phenomenon, and not just "let's test out if people can see into envelopes with their minds" it's another waste.

I was really interested in psychic phenomenon when I was a kid. But what could be more boring than never having a new hypothesis to test?

Bo KIndstrand said...

Here is a thoughtful "must read" from Paul H. Smith, addressing Britain's Ministry of Defense remote viewing research :

They Think They Know

A few days ago when I first read the newspaper reports revealing that Britain’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) had researched psychic skills, I started scribbling down a table-thumping rant about how wrong-headed the research had been – not because it had been done at all (which I otherwise applaud) but because of how poorly-conceived it had been, at least according to the newspapers. Before I published my rant far and wide, someone fortunately pointed me to the actual 168-page declassified report, where I could read a more detailed account of what the MoD had actually done. I discovered that the news stories were embarrassingly oversimplified and incomplete, and that the research was not as ill-advised as reporters had claimed. It was still flawed, which I discuss below – but the whole affair amounts to the latest example of society’s self-perpetuating ignorance of the nature of “psychic phenomena” in general and remote viewing in particular.

Click here to read the 6 page article [pdf format - 1.3 M]

Skeptico said...

Those "real psychics" clearly hate freedom.

The Brits shouldn't feel too bad about this though. The US government spend $20 Million on a similar project (Project Stargate), that had the same results as this British study.