Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Remotely possible

Everyone has biases.  I beat that point unto death in my Critical Thinking classes; there is no such thing as a completely objective viewpoint.  We all have our implicit assumptions, preconceived notions, and unquestioned attitudes about how the world works -- or how it should work.  The best thing, and perhaps the only thing if you want to think as clearly as possible, is to be aware of those biases and to try not to let them lead you by the nose.

Still, it's hard, sometimes.  Witness my reaction to the article I just read, entitled "Remote Viewers Help Police Solve Murder."

I had hardly clicked on the link before I was already thinking, "Pfft.  Bunch o' malarkey."  That reaction only intensified as I read -- beginning with their definition of "remote viewing:"  "Remote viewing calls for people to look at random numbers and letters and then let their mind wander, during which they will be able to conjure mental images of people, events and places."  My thought was, "Oh, hey, I can do that!  I just call it 'daydreaming.'"

But, of course, that's not what the article meant.  The author goes on to tell the story of Robert Knight, a Las Vegas photographer, who alerted police to the disappearance of his friend, Stephen B. Williams, in 2006.  Knight was unhappy with the progress made by the police in the case, so he enlisted a teacher of remote viewing, Angela Thompson Smith, for help:
He knew Smith as a teacher of remote viewing, and she apparently knew her stuff. From the late 1980s through 1992, she worked with Princeton University’s Engineering Anomalies Research team. She then moved to Boulder City and became research coordinator for the Bigelow Foundation, which engaged in paranormal research for its founder, Robert T. Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America chain and founder of Bigelow Aerospace...  When Knight came to her in 2006, Smith and six remote viewers she had trained went to work. They included a retired airline captain from Henderson; a retired U.S. Air Force nurse from Dayton, Ohio; a civilian Air Force contractor from Texas; a civil engineer from Virginia; a photographer from Baltimore, Md.; and a university librarian from Provo, Utah. Each was given a coordinate — a random series of letters and numbers — on which to focus.

The viewers each did from one to three remote viewing sessions of about an hour each. They were seeking information unknown at the time, working blind with only the random numbers and letters provided by Smith to focus on. Smith began the work with an initial viewing of the missing man, a follow-up viewing of the suspect’s location, then a profile of the suspect. The other viewers helped seek possible accomplices and the location of the suspect after he fled.

The images they gleaned painted a picture of a body in water, perhaps in criss-crossed netting, near Catalina Island off the Southern California coast.
The punchline: that night in his hotel room, Knight saw a news broadcast in which the newscaster mentioned that an unidentified body had been pulled from the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island.  Knight "knew who it was," and called the morgue the next morning, saying he could identify the body.  Sure enough, it was Williams.  Then Knight said he had more:
Knight’s information went beyond the body identification. He told police about a man named Harvey Morrow, a supposed investment adviser, who had befriended Williams and was investing Williams’ money — a few million dollars — on his behalf.

Investigators looked into it and found that Morrow was stealing Williams’ money. By now, after Williams’ death, Morrow wasn’t to be found.

Knight told detectives that remote viewers believed Morrow had fled to the British Virgin Islands. One of the viewers even sketched a boat with Morrow on board.

Both observations turned out to be accurate.

Clark said Morrow appeared to have no clue he was a suspect. He left the Caribbean for a job as a used car salesman in Montana — for a boss who was a former cop. He Googled Morrow and discovered he was sought for questioning in the Williams homicide.

Morrow was arrested and convicted in November and is now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
The article ends with a quote from a scientist:
Physicist Hal Puthoff, one of the founders of the government’s Stargate remote viewing program, isn’t taken aback by skeptics.

“People seem to fall into two categories: those who have been intimately involved with the phenomenon and know it works, and those who haven’t and know it can’t,” he said.
Well.  He sure told us, didn't he?

Okay, here's my problem, and I will readily admit that my reaction to all this is based upon my biases that the world works a particular way.  First, I am strongly disinclined to believe in remote viewing, and also telepathy, telekinesis, psychometry, and a variety of other kinds of ESP and action-at-a-distance, because I see no possible mechanism by which they could work.  Despite the undoubtedly excellent credentials of Physicist Hal Puthoff, the mechanisms of energy storage and transfer, the behavior of fields, and so on, are exceedingly well understood by physicists, and if remote viewing et al. are real, they must involve some method of energy transfer that is not only outside of the realm of what we currently understand, but is undetectable by any of the instruments physicists use.  And it's not for want of trying; people have been for years trying to develop some kind of "psi-meter," if for no other reason to win James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, but without success.

Second, I just can think of too many other plausible explanations for what happened in the Williams case, without any appeal to woo-woo.  I won't go into details, because several of them cast Knight in a pretty unpleasant light, and I've no wish to do that as I have no proof of those, either; my point is not that any particular explanation is correct, but simply that there are a great many other possibilities in this situation that could adequately explain what we know without espousing the view that the remote viewers saved the day.

All of which, I realize, is because of my biases.  I know little about the case except what was presented in the article.  Because of my pre-existing condition -- that I tend to assume that the world operates by the known laws of science unless I'm shown convincing hard evidence otherwise -- I read the entirety of this article with, shall we say, a fairly jaundiced eye, and ended by saying, "Yeah, right.  Still not doing it for me."  It does raise the question of what it would take to convince me... and on that count, perhaps Hal Puthoff is right.  It would take my being "intimately involved in the phenomenon."  In other words, direct evidence.  And for that, I'm still waiting.


  1. Look into the Gansfield experiments. There has been new research done in the past ten years that suggest futher study of them is warranted.

  2. Me: Excuse me, sir. I was told you were a remote viewer and I'm very interested in the subject. Could I ask you a few questions?

    Woo-woo: Well sure! Always nice to meet someone interested in the field, go ahead.

    Me: Okay! Ahem... Have you ever sat down and started a remote viewing session only to see your neighbor taking a crap? Would you call him and tell him he needs to eat more fiber, if he did? If you couldn't afford cable, but wanted to watch Game of Thrones, would you remote view someone who was watching it? Could you keep it up for the whole episode? Does remote viewing come in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and HD? Can you remote view a Pterodactyl? I've always wanted to know what colors and markings they had. Could you price check all the grocery stores in the area for who has the best prices on milk? Could you remote view why my car always slips going into 3rd gear? Who's the Zodiac killer? Do you have to wave a crystal or dance the robot or poke a doll with pins to make the viewing work? Does it give you headaches or nosebleeds? Can you mind meld with people like Spock does? I've always had a knack for learning new things. Could you teach me how? .....Hey, wait! Come back! Was it something I said?

  3. Back in the Bad Old Days (who knows about now?), the U.S. Government (should be made up of responsible people . . .hmmmm) did remote viewing experiments. They took it up in response to the U.S.S.R.'s use of remote viewers. (Who? Godless atheistic commies, that's who). I remember a book with sketches and vague fuzzy photos. I remember it being put forward to me as a possibility, and my refusal to take it seriously, other than as a waste of my hard-paid taxpayer's money. I wonder of all that persisted, or faded into the shadows of embarrassment . . . or the shadows of secret weapons. Why isn't it used for finding missing persons, for instance, if it works?