Ian Tregillis: February 2013 Archives

In my previous post, I mentioned Drs. Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, who in the 1970s claimed to study, and establish the existence of, psychic phenomena. Ever since reading their account of that work at the Stanford Research Institute my fringe-science Spidey-sense has become attuned to references to Puthoff and Targ. And they show up quite frequently, in some of the most unexpected places. (Or perhaps not so surprising if, like me, you happen to enjoy reading poorly edited works of crackpot science. What can I say? It's a hobby.)

I do feel compelled to mention that both men do have bona fide science and engineering credentials, even though (in my personal opinion) it is difficult to reconcile those with the Uri Geller/Stargate debacle. Prior to his work at SRI, Puthoff had done work on tunable IR lasers. Targ has also worked on laser applications, and as recently as the 90s was publishing research on wind-shear detection using LIDAR.

But the first place I encountered any mention of Puthoff outside his remote viewing work was in Nick Cook's book The Hunt for Zero Point. Cook was a former aviation editor and military-affairs journalist for Jane's Defense Weekly. For that 2002 book he investigated claims that several major US and British aerospace firms had invested heavily in "gravity engine" (aka antigravity) technology during the 1950s. The trail leads to all manner of strangeness including, as is practically required, Operation Paperclip, Nazi flying discs, and Viktor Schauberger. (Google "Schauberger's Bell" if you're unfamiliar with that last fellow and feel the need to read up on some good old-fashioned Nazi UFO and/or Nazi time machine conspiracy theories.) While trying to investigate what is a very speculative field of physics, Cook realizes he needs an expert guide to help him evaluate the technical merits of the information he uncovers. A very reasonable decision.

But to whom does he turn? None other than Hal Puthoff. The connection comes about because for many years Puthoff has researched gravitation and "zero-point energy" at the Institute for Advanced Studies. (That is, the outfit he founded in Austin, TX-- not to be confused with the considerably more noteworthy Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ). ZPE is floated in Cook's book as one of the means by which antigravity technology might be powered. While ZPE might be a real phenomenon, it is so poorly understood at present that it has become fodder for no end of bizarre claims that, out in the fringes, tend to overlap with parapsychology. Which of course brings us back to Puthoff.

Though it does eventually (perhaps inevitably) go off the rails, Cook's investigation is nothing if not entertaining. At least he attempts to proceed carefully, and while I'm not necessarily swayed by the arguments, he does make his case in a clear and straightforward fashion. The same cannot be said for other writers who have pointed to Puthoff as a source of validation. In his book Reich of the Black Sun, Joseph Farrell points to some of Puthoff's later work to bolster his own more extravagant claims about Nazi secret weapon development during WWII. (That book begins with the claim that Germany and Japan both completed and successfully tested their own atomic bomb research prior to the Manhattan Project, though he doesn't appeal to Puthoff on that front. That's Farrell's measured and restrained starting point, before delving into the really weird stuff.) It should be noted that Farrell has also written a book purporting a relationship between Schauberger's Bell and the apocryphal Philadelphia Experiment, and another asserting that the Great Pyramid of Giza was actually an energy beam weapon. So, you know. Take that as you will.

Russell Targ also gets around. He even crept up on me when I watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, a documentary about the late and very troubled world chess champion. How? He married Fischer's sister, Joan. She passed away in the 90s, but as Bobby Fischer's brother-in-law, Targ is interviewed in the documentary. (I just about fell out of my chair when his name popped up on the screen.) I'm told that Targ's autobiography makes an interesting read. Apparently he was a regular member of Ayn Rand's salon, and attended some of the same meetings with Alan Greenspan.

So now you'll know the answer should anybody ever ask you what Uri Geller, Bobby Fischer, Ayn Rand, Viktor Schauberger, and Alan Greenspan have in common.

Hi there. *cough* How's it going?

So, you might notice that I'm not Charlie. Sorry about that. It's disappointing for me, too.

But as he mentioned the other day, some of our novels do share a subgenre. So our host has very generously offered me a chance to do some guest blogging here while he's programmed to within an inch of his life at Boskone. To start, I thought it would be fun (for me, anyway) to elaborate upon one of the things that came up during our recent conversation over on the Orbit blog.

We've both written novels about fictitious intelligence services contending with supernatural entities and paranormal threats. But, as Charlie suggests, it's difficult to believe that, given the opportunity, a real-world three-letter agency wouldn't leap at the chance to commune with ravenous extra-dimensional horrors. As far as I'm aware that has yet to happen. (I draw that conclusion based on the observation that the Earth still exists and we're not all dead. Yet.) But the spy world has flirted with the paranormal for a long time.

One such endeavor was an infamous foray into remote viewing known as Project Stargate. Stop me if you've heard this one.

Stargate and its various sub-projects ran for decades under government scrutiny and absorbed millions of taxpayer dollars along the way. It was born from research conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the early 1970s. The principal investigators in those early years were Drs. Harold (Hal) Puthoff and Russell Targ. (Both of whom are interesting characters, and about whom I'll try to say more later. For now I'll just mention that Puthoff is a veritable Where's Waldo of fringe science, no stranger to that slice of the Venn diagram where pseudoscience overlaps with conspiracy theories. If you're writing a nonfiction book about Nazi time machines or 1950s antigravity research and need to cite an expert physicist, Puthoff's your guy.) One of their primary research subjects was none other than self-proclaimed psychic, and notorious enemy of tableware, Uri Geller.

(Jon Ronson touches on the Uri Geller connection in his novel The Men Who Stare at Goats. That novel, and the movie based upon it, tells the story of The First Earth Battalion: another unfortunate foray by the military and intelligence world into the paranormal. First Earth and Stargate are siblings, I think, grown from some of the same seeds and peripherally sharing some of the same characters.)

In their novel Mindreach: Scientists Look at Psychic Abilities, Targ and Puthoff describe their psychic research and try to make the case for conclusive evidence of remote viewing, precognition, telekinesis, and similar phenomena. Their constant refrain throughout the book is to remind the reader that the authors are Real Scientists performing Actual Science in a Most Scientific Fashion. The implication being that their investigations have been rigorous, and that thus their conclusions are iron-clad.


One doesn't have to read Mindreach very closely to detect numerous deficiencies in the experimental arrangements. I mean, I'm a theorist, not an experimentalist, but it's pretty clear that none of the SRI research described in the book ever achieved a truly controlled environment. The holes are numerous and, at times, shocking. The methods advocated by the authors are prone to systematic errors and their methods for determining "hits" and "misses" are entirely qualitative... and thus eminently susceptible to human bias. If they had they been my graduate students I wouldn't have found the work suitable for a thesis. (But I'm a creep that way.)

That said, Mindreach is an entertaining if rather infuriating read.

Targ and Puthoff defended their work in the face of extensive criticism. Even after they were duped by professional skeptic and debunker James Randi. They even managed to get some of their work published in 1974 as a Letter to Nature, a premier scientific research journal. "Information Transmission Under Conditions of Sensory Shielding" went on to become one of the more controversial letters ever published by Nature. Many people at the time-- including Nature's editorial board, not to mention the referees who reviewed the report-- felt the methods described in the letter evidenced "vague" experimental oversight. In fact, the editors took the unprecedented step of prefacing the Targ & Puthoff letter with a page and a half long introduction wherein they justify the decision to publish the report! The so-called "SRI Report" had received a large amount of advance publicity prior to its publication, much of which wildly exaggerated the actual conclusions. So the editors felt compelled to publish the report and its "muted" claims in order to set the record straight regarding the "extravagant rumors" surrounding the work. All in all a very unusual situation. (The full text of the editorial introduction can be found in James Randi's book The Truth About Uri Geller.)

(But Targ and Puthoff published several more times; their paper "A perceptual channel for information transfer over kilometer distances: Historical perspective and recent research" appeared in Proceedings of the IEEE a couple years later.)

It was around this time that the SRI work (and a related program at SAIC, Science Applications International Corporation) attracted attention (and, apparently, funding) from the intelligence services. At least one of Targ and Puthoff's remote viewers -- Ingo Swann, who passed away just two weeks ago -- went on to become a central figure in the early years of Stargate. Puthoff also became a principal investigator for SCANATE, a CIA remote viewing program. Proponents claim that Stargate, SCANATE, and related efforts successfully predicted the launch date of a new Soviet submarine in 1980 and an attack on the US Navy frigate U.S.S. Stark in 1987. However, during this same period, various "remote viewers" on the government's paycheck also claimed to have had visions of cities on Mars, life on Jupiter, pre-cataclysm Atlantis, and various subterranean UFO bases scattered around the Earth. Taxpayer-funded efforts like these persisted through the mid-1990s.

Pursuant to an external review held at at the CIA's behest, the Stargate Project was (allegedly) terminated in 1995. Not surprisingly, the review concluded that these efforts never produced a single piece of actionable intelligence and that concrete success in the future was extremely unlikely. Better late than never, I suppose.

The fact that this work was funded for decades despite lacking a single shred of replicable supporting evidence speaks to Charlie's point. If the Powers That Be got their hands on this stuff -- that is, stuff that actually worked -- they'd certainly use it. Hell, they spent 20 years trying to use it even when it didn't work.



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