We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More


By Jeffrey Kluger
Apr 1, 1996 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:38 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Is it just me, or does anyone else miss the old Soviet Union? As far as I’m concerned, if you were looking for a first-rate, grade A, good- time war, you just couldn’t beat the cold war.

There were a lot of things that made the cold war a special time in world history, but the most important was probably the historic figures involved. Americans, weary of the past decade’s global conflicts, chose as their leader in 1952 the reassuringly low-key Dwight Eisenhower. The former general was so wildly popular that Americans took to showing their support for him by sporting campaign buttons that read simply I LIKE IKE--a far less complicated sentiment than would be exhibited in the far more analytical 1990s (I THINK I LIKE IKE; I’M NOT SURE I’M READY TO MAKE A COMMITMENT TO IKE; I’M IN A CODEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP WITH IKE). The Soviet Union was equally passionate about its leaders, choosing as its premier the charismatic Nikita Khrushchev. A stirring political orator, Khrushchev was perhaps best known for removing his shoe and banging it on his desk at the United Nations, thus instantly easing world tensions by replacing the long- feared jackboot of fascism with the lace-up wing tip of communism.

Just as dramatic as the people of the era was the language of the era. It was during the cold war that America saw the emergence of McCarthyism, a bold political movement in which courageous government investigators fought to keep the country safe from Zero Mostel, Burl Ives, and Gypsy Rose Lee. It was during the cold war too that Vice President Richard Nixon faced off against Khrushchev in the now-legendary kitchen debate, besting the Soviet leader with the memorable declaration, I am not a cook! Most important, it was during the cold war that the nation first started to worry about its various--and ominous--gaps.

Unlike the Gaps of the 1990s, which concern themselves less with geopolitics and national security than with Stone Washed Denims® and Relaxed Fit Khakis®, the gaps of the 1950s were of a far more Serious Nature®. For the better part of a generation, concerned Americans listened to dark warnings of missile gaps, preparedness gaps, and troop gaps. Now, according to newly declassified documents, it seems the American intelligence community was also concerned with an entirely different kind of gap: a genuinely feared, utterly in earnest psychic gap. Over the last 20 years of the cold war, the United States, it was revealed last year, spent $20 million investigating extrasensory perception and other psychic phenomena in an effort to determine whether these forces of the paranormal world could somehow be put to use by espionage experts in the natural world.

In a deficit-conscious era in which government officials have contemplated balancing the federal budget with everything but Publisher’s Clearinghouse vouchers, the idea of spending good tax money to study psychic awareness certainly seems wasteful, but national security advisers at the time believed they had reasons. Over the years, self-professed clairvoyants had repeatedly been called on by private investigators and local police forces to help investigate all manner of crimes, from kidnappings to bank robberies. If the same extrasensory sleuthing could be used to locate, say, missile bases near Moscow or troop movements in China, the United States could gain a nifty advantage in the global intelligence game. Alas, two decades of federally sponsored soothsaying failed to turn up anything even remotely concrete; nevertheless the debate continues, with a handful of stubborn researchers defending the work, and a far larger population of mainstream scientists insisting that most things extrasensory are less matters of perception than deception.

It was in 1973 that the Central Intelligence Agency began looking into the business of psychic phenomena. From the start, there was some question whether this was a good idea. It was the CIA, after all, that just over a decade earlier had mounted the Bay of Pigs® invasion, a lightning- like operation in which teams of agency-trained operatives were dispatched to Cuba to assault the beaches on the south side of the island, splash about for a few minutes, and--assuming they were still alive--sail away. This, it was felt, would immediately induce Fidel Castro to lay down his arms and surrender to American authorities. Inexplicably, it didn’t. But the CIA’s reputation remained good, and the agency went on to explore the extrasensory.

The studies the CIA sponsored were conducted first at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California, and later at the nearby, privately owned Science Applications International Corporation. Even before the studies started, CIA scientists knew their work was cut out for them. Most laypeople have at one time or another tested themselves for extrasensory abilities, by guessing what card has been picked from a deck, say, or what number between one and ten another person has chosen. For the CIA, however, which was not likely to be confronted by a Third World despot dropping clues like I’m thinking of a brush war between Afghanistan and Zambia . . . the methods would have to be a little subtler.

The CIA studies were conducted in a number of ways, says Jessica Utts, a statistician at the University of California at Davis who participated in some of the experiments, but all the research had the same objective: to determine how well volunteers could perform in a sensory experiment in which something besides their usual senses was being studied.

Utts, it must be noted, is not just a statistician but also a parapsychology advocate. The term parapsychology, of course, comes from the Greek para, for close to, and psychology, for, um, psychology, which together mean Isn’t it time you got as close to a good psychologist as possible? But in spite of parapsychology’s questionable reputation, Utts insists that it is a real science, and the methods she and the other government researchers used in their psychic phenomena studies superficially appear to support that claim.

Generally, the CIA’s ESP work involved selecting either a videotape or a photograph of a person, place, or thing, isolating individual volunteers in another room, and asking them to try to determine what the image was. In some trials a second volunteer was told to look at the image, concentrate, and try to transmit it to the receiver; in others the receivers were on their own. In all instances, Utts says, we were trying to discover whether the subjects could determine the correct image with a frequency greater than that which could be attributed to chance.

This question of whether the results of an experiment are caused by the phenomenon being investigated or by simple mathematical randomness is critical and is determined by what is known as the study’s statistical significance. To calculate statistical significance, investigators factor together a number of variables, including size of sample group, number of trials per subject, number of possible correct answers per trial, the speed of sound in a semiviscous medium, and Eddie Murray’s batting average during the 1983 season (.306 with 111 RBIs, hitting from both sides of the plate), and come up with a single numerical answer. If it’s lower than .05--meaning there is a less than 5 percent likelihood that you would see the results if chance alone were responsible--the study is deemed statistically significant; if it’s greater than .05, it’s not.

For Utts and the other ESP investigators, the overall statistical significance of the CIA’s studies seemed impressive. Over the first 15 years of the 20-year study, she says, 154 separate experiments were conducted consisting of 26,000 trials. During those experiments, subjects correctly identified the target image frequently enough that the statistical significance figure was a mere .00000000000000000001--meaning that you would expect to see those results only once in 1020 tries if the outcome was due solely to chance. If you trust your observed results, the studies lead to the conclusion that psychic abilities exist.

But can you trust your observed results? For centuries, traveling hucksters have mystified audiences with displays of telepathic abilities that turned out to be nothing more than psychic snake oil. In the American West, visiting clairvoyants would regularly ride into town and put on public shows in which they appeared to read the thoughts of complete strangers in the audience. Ultimately, sharp-eyed townsfolk began to pick up subtle cues that the volunteers the supposed seer called on weren’t strangers at all--when they addressed him as Dad, for example. This generally led to a quick tarring and feathering, and soon most of the available positions for traveling hucksters went unfilled. In the 1990s the possibility of extrasensory chicanery is no less great than in the 1890s, and some researchers believe that’s just what was going on in the CIA work.

I find it amazing that anyone would suggest that these studies prove the existence of ESP, says psychologist Ray Hyman of the University of Oregon. Even if you assume that the findings represent a real statistical departure from chance, that’s a long way from saying you’ve got proof of psychic phenomena.

Hyman, one of the psychic studies’ most vocal detractors, sees a lot of problems with the government’s work, not the least of which is the people helping conduct it. On one level, I have no problem with Jessica Utts, he says. She’s a competent statistician, but she’s also a member of the Parapsychological Association. Parapsychologists, he points out, are in the business of establishing that ESP exists, and there’s no way such a prejudice won’t color their results.

Utts, not surprisingly, takes issue with this. The studies she analyzed, she insists, were conducted according to the most rigid of scientific methods: the trials were usually double-blind, with neither the experimenter nor the subject knowing what image had been selected; the subjects were unknown to the experimenters before the studies began; and when the experimenters chose volunteers, they sometimes went out of their way to select the least psychically inclined ones possible.

During one set of trials early in the study, Utts says, we were looking for Stanford employees who might want to serve as subjects, and we learned that one particularly skeptical man had been telling his colleagues what nonsense our work was. After testing, we decided he’d be perfect for our needs, and as it turned out he was. On one trial, he described seeing a target image that resembled a tree, but one that was almost entirely gray and mushroom-shaped at the top. The image we had selected for him was a videotape of a nuclear explosion.

Other trials struck Utts as equally convincing. In one experiment, the researchers dispatched a subject to drive around a site within 100 miles of the SRI building, while another subject, back at the lab, tried to determine where the car was. Almost immediately, the receiver began describing a landscape of rolling hills, with a propeller-like structure in the foreground used to produce energy. At that moment, it was later revealed, the volunteer transmitter had been passing the Rolling Hills Windmill Farm in northern California. In still another trial, the experimenters chose as their target image a top-secret underground intelligence facility in West Virginia. With little apparent trouble, two volunteers began describing the appearance and location of the complex, even identifying some of the code words used on the site.

Intriguing as such anecdotal results seemed to the CIA, mainstream researchers insist that they are proof of absolutely nothing. Sure, a volunteer successfully identified the Rolling Hills Windmill Farm, but in a state like California, where researchers have tried to produce cheap, sustainable energy from everything but pork chops, is that really such a leap? Sure, two other subjects identified the top secret West Virginia intelligence facility, but wasn’t this facility operated by the same agency that employed double agent Aldrich Ames for close to 20 years before top government auditors at last noticed that a Jaguar, a $640,000 home, and a summer dacha near Grozny were in fact not included in the agency’s retirement package? If that could slip through the agency’s cracks, couldn’t an address in West Virginia?

This research was conducted for 20 years, says Hyman, and the entire time it was considered classified. There is no surer way to call the credibility of your work into question than to conduct it in secret. Suppose there was some flaw in the researchers’ methods? Suppose information about the target images was somehow getting to the subjects? It’s the most basic of research protocols to provide access to your findings and allow other people to try to replicate your results.

Despite such criticism from the community of mainstream scientists, parapsychologists are unfazed and are already progressing to the next step in their work: determining not just which subjects in the studies are the genuine clairvoyant articles but how they came by their remarkable powers in the first place. For most storefront psychics, the origins of ESP have always been a mystery, the best explanations having something to do with wearing a floral sarong, having a name like Madame Rosa, and accepting most major credit cards. For the CIA studies, the parapsychologists are looking for something a bit more scientific, and Utts believes they may be on track.

Some researchers believe there is a detector of some kind in the brain that is able to perceive change--change in the visual field, change in the thought field--providing information about people or objects that are otherwise unseen, she says. Interestingly, we found that the greater the variety within a target image--the greater the number of colors or shapes, for example--the better the volunteers did, suggesting that change was indeed what they were responding to.

Of course, while psychics may be responding to changes in thought fields, the CIA must respond to changes in the political field. With Washington budget writers keeping an ever-closer eye on the nation’s bank account, the CIA recently approached Hyman, as well as Utts, and asked him to evaluate the parapsychology studies to help the agency decide whether to spend its limited funds elsewhere. When an agency with the ability to destabilize foreign regimes, fight clandestine wars, and assemble dossiers on domestic troublemakers asks for a performance review, most people would find it hard to be completely candid (Great study, guys. Honest. Can I freshen that drink for you?). Hyman, however, was not reluctant to tell the CIA what he thought.

Despite 20 years of work, he says, the parapsychologists were not able to offer a positive theory that explains why psychic phenomena exist. Rather, they came up with a negative one that simply accepts the studies’ statistical results and asks what, other than ESP, could account for them. That’s not proof, notes Hyman. That’s argument.

It was not, evidently, an argument that was good enough to persuade the CIA. Shortly after this evaluation, agency officials decided to stop funding the studies. After reflection, it’s hard to disagree with them. In a world in which the geopolitical stakes are so high, does the United States really want to be in the position of relying on the likes of Carnac the Magnificent to challenge the likes of Saddam Hussein? (He guessed my height, weight, and date of birth! I had to surrender Kuwait.) Could even the most sensitive mystic replace even the least sensitive satellite in pinpointing the location of enemy subs? (I’m getting a picture of water. . . . ) Would State Department negotiators who decided to play the China card have to remember to show it to the audience before placing it back in the deck? Until these questions are answered, the CIA might be well advised to steer clear of the paranormal--lest government intelligence start to seem more of a contradiction in terms than ever.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.